Archive for students

Starting with school culture

There are days when my professional life and my board of education life seem pretty far apart, and often at the expense of my personal life. Then, there are days where my professional life, my personal life, and my board of education life all come together. This morning, I had the opportunity to visit one of my district’s elementary schools. This school was a formerly low-achieving neighborhood school that many families avoided. Under the dynamic leadership of a new principal, the school has a new culture that is intensely focused on student learning and building community, and the academic achievement continues to rise.

CT’s Governor Lamont joined a line of up Yale academics, funders, and community partners to highlight the work of Tracey Elementary (news story), while also pitching the release of a new report “From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope” from the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, generously supported by the Dalio Foundation.

In my professional world right now, I’m developing a training program on shifting school culture (based on this CST publication). Today, I saw example after example of practices that I preach about in professional trainings in action at Tracey Elementary school. I saw kids engaged in learning in small groups, positive interactions with staff, student tour guides speaking about the value of having lunch with their teachers, family-style round lunch tables, cross grade level reading buddies, student kudos for the school’s crossing guard, bright colorful student work lining the halls, chill out corners in every classroom, and most importantly, the school’s character work embedded in the philosophy of the building and classroom academics.

So, why is school culture so important? The culture represents the environment of the school. It reflects the customs, traditions, and the values of the community. A positive school culture makes teachers and students want to come to school each day to work and to learn. In contrast, a negative school culture results in disengagement, disciplinary issues, and high absentee rates, all of which impact student achievement.

While I’ve always wanted to see these things in a school site visit, I recognize the mind shift that I have since becoming a parent. Tracey Elementary school is my neighborhood school. This may be the school that my 2.5 year old will attend in the not so distant future. When I walked through the building today, I thought “How would my child do in this environment? Would this be the right fit for him? Do I have any hesitations about sending my child here?” When the time comes, we will have a hard decision to make (there’s also a dual language immersion elementary school that I would love to have my bilingual child in), but without a doubt, as long as Tracey remains on the current path it’s on, I would confidently send my child to our neighborhood school. If a school isn’t good enough for my child, it’s not good enough for any child.

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Thanks to my great 5th grader tour guides! Photo credit: Norwalk Public Schools 

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Discriminatory suspension data

During the 2011-12 school year, black/African American children accounted for 16% of the United States student population, yet accounted for 32% of students suspended and 42% of those expelled (according to DOE data). With a stagnant white-black achievement gap that has not budged since the 1960s, what’s the impact of these suspension rates on performance? Bottom line: Kids who aren’t in the classroom aren’t learning.

A study published in the journal Social Problems by University of Kentucky sociologist Edward Morris and Indiana University sociologist Brea Perry concludes that school suspensions account for roughly one-fifth of the white-black achievement gap. This study controlled for many of the factors that some argue contribute to this discipline gap – such as income, gender, and participation in special education – and found that black students were suspended at three times the rate as their white peers.

The answer is not to just simply stop suspending students; rather, future work should consider the contributing factors to discrepancies in black and white suspension rates and should help to identify ways to introduce revised disciplinary policies into school environments, while maintaining or improving the educational environment for all students. Some schools and districts have implemented restorative justice programs to offer an alternative to suspension – these programs focus on rehabilitation of the offenders through reconciliation with victims and the school community. Yet as Ilana Zafran, COO of Umoja Student Development Corporation notes, the biggest problem is patience – people want immediate results but changing a culture and restorative justice takes time. I also recently met with school staff in Ann Arbor Michigan where the principals come to classrooms to address behavior and discipline issues – as opposed to sending the students to the principal’s office. Given these research findings, it is imperative that we find alternatives to suspension and better monitor (and adjust) the equity of discipline referrals, as  key components to closing achievement gaps.

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A reminder of the potential

Today’s Chicago Tribune includes a story of a student who in most cases would be overlooked. He had the tenacity to commit to school, despite being homeless, but he was also provided a variety of opportunities that put him where he is today – a highly qualified applicant for some of the most prestigious universities in the country. Kudos to Lane for being determined, kudos to his mother for providing whatever support was needed, and kudos to Lane’s teachers and mentors (past and present) who saw through the statistics and circumstances.

This story is a stark reminder of the potential so many students have, but whose skills and dreams are not nurtured, encouraged, or refined. The power teachers have to “discover” kids like this is truly amazing and can change the course of a child’s (and a family’s) life.

From homeless shelter to elite science fair

By Bridget Doyle, Chicago Tribune reporterJanuary 25, 2013

In March, Lane Gunderman, a senior at the University of Chicago Lab High School, will fly to Washington to compete for one of the nation’s most prestigious high school science awards. The 18-year-old is one of 40 finalists — out of more than 1,700 applicants — for the Intel Science Talent Search.

Such an achievement may not seem unusual for a student at an elite private school. But Gunderman’s journey to reach this point has been anything but typical.

Six years ago, he and his family were homeless and living in a crowded North Side shelter. Schoolwork, he says, is what helped him get by.

“There wasn’t much to do at the shelter, and there was very little privacy,” he said Thursday. “I focused my attention on schoolwork — especially since lights had to be out at 8 p.m.”

Through his tenacity in the classroom, Gunderman, who now lives in an Uptown apartment with his mother and younger sister, has found a niche in the intellectual hive of Hyde Park.

“Lane was brought into a completely different part of the city and culture; he started out a little introverted and shy,” Lab School Assistant Principal Asra Ahmed said. “He’s an incredibly amazing kid that’s never asked for any special treatment — even when he should have. He rose to the challenge of this school and has done exceptionally well.”

Gunderman said his family has been “poor or extremely poor” for his whole life. They always managed to scrape by, but in 2006, Gunderman, his parents and two siblings lost their apartment in Rogers Park.

Over the next several months, they stayed with a relative in a pop-up trailer and moved around the Chicago area.

When his parents divorced that same year, the bottom fell out. One night, his father dropped the rest of the family at a North Side police station and drove away. Gunderman and the others slept on a bench in the police station, later moving to a temporary overnight shelter.

The family spent the next year or so in various homeless shelters on the North Side. Previously home-schooled by their mother, Gunderman and his siblings enrolled in public school for the first time.

At Burley Elementary School in Lakeview, Gunderman gained the attention of teachers for his dedication to schoolwork. He received high grades and did well on tests, leading teachers to suggest he apply to the U. of C. Lab High School.

Gunderman’s application to Lab and back story stood out, Ahmed said. He was accepted and offered a full scholarship from the Malone Foundation, a group that provides educational options for gifted children.

After a year of living in homeless shelters, Gunderman and his family managed to stay in various apartments. And after 31/2 years at Lab School, Gunderman is thriving both academically and socially.

He was accepted last year into the school’s Summer Link Science Research Program, which helps place science-focused students in real lab settings. Gunderman was able to work with Greg Engel, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago, in a lab where his Intel Science Talent Search project was born.

Last summer, Gunderman joined a working team of scientists and graduate students on a project that “explains how photosynthesis uses quantum physics,” Engel said.

After just a few weeks of working together, Engel said he realized Gunderman’s immense potential in the field.

“Lane jumped into a difficult project in a complex system. It was great fun watching him tackle big questions in the field,” Engel said. “He’s so driven and talented. I think he’s someone with potential to be a truly spectacular scientist.”

Over the summer, Gunderman created a computer simulation of his project, along with an in-depth analysis of the work. That was submitted to Intel in November, and this week he found out he was one of 40 finalists and could win up to $100,000.

“It’s the dream of a science teacher to see someone achieve what Lane has,” said Lab School biology teacher Sharon Housinger, who had encouraged Gunderman to apply to the Summer Link Program.

Gunderman has big plans for his future. He has applied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago and is also looking at schools like Harvard, Princeton and the California Institute of Technology.

The trip to Washington, though, will be his first time aboard an airplane. He admitted he’s a little nervous about that.

“It’ll be an adventure to my next adventure,” he said.

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Undroppable students beating the odds

A great new social media campaign featuring students who are beating the odds and finishing high school is called Undroppable. The campaign was highlighted in Time Magazine and you can watch the short clips of individual students on YouTube. We need to realize the depth of challenges these students fight against every single day – and remember that this is why their schools have to be good. Providing a high quality education and a positive environment for these students, who are so determined and who have triumphed against the odds, is the least we can do as a society.

This campaign also reminds us that providing good schools and sound learning environments is not a black/white/latino issue, nor is it a rural/urban issue. Students from all types of backgrounds are fighting to finish high school and build futures for themselves.

Check out the clips Octavio (Philly), Keeland (New Bedford, MA), Shawntrana (Chicago), Jacob (Joplin, MO).

About Undroppable:

UNDROPPABLE is a social media campaign and feature length documentary “in the making” to highlight inspiring students who are going through a lot, but somehow are able to muscle through and graduate no matter what. Most of the times you hear about a school on TV it’s because something bad happened in that community. UNDROPPABLE is here to show schools there are people in the media who want to shine a light on the BEST things that are happening at their schools. Students are graduating everywhere against great odds. These brave individuals are truly rock stars in their communities and they deserve a media platform to share their stories. UNDROPPABLE is here to change the conversation around the importance of supporting education at all costs. If we truly want to fix our world economy, we need to fix education first. Our schools are UNDROPPABLE, our students are UNDROPPABLE, and education is an issue that is UNDROPPABLE!

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Trusting a system that hasn’t always been trustworthy

I believe in school turnaround – the principle of drastically improving schools for students who’ve been disenfranchised and historically neglected by the education system, and that turning around a school is actually possible. That said, turning around schools is not easy, and most importantly, we have to trust that those making decisions that affect all of us are making those decisions for the right reasons.

Chicago is in the midst of a(nother) school turnaround/closure battle and while I disagree with many of the opponents claims, some of their points do make me wonder if and how turnaround has been used for political or personal gain. I want to trust that politicians are making decisions with children’s futures in mind, but sometimes it’s difficult to defend the policies when confronted with opposing data, claims and facts.

A common criticism that I see, read about, and hear in Chicago (and across the country) is that “turnarounds don’t work.” First, it’s important to remember that a large percentage of turnarounds in the business sector fail. Turning around a business (like turning around a school) is extremely difficult, and it requires all involved to change the status quo, to implement changes with fidelity, an infusion of resources, and most importantly in my opinion, a strong leader.

School turnaround is possible, but it also requires all of the above components. A turnaround effort will flounder if we only partially implement reforms (which I see all the time), if the entire community doesn’t support the efforts, if real (and lasting) changes aren’t embraced, if we don’t fully fund the reforms, and if there isn’t a strong leader to guide the entire effort at the school and district levels. Combining all of these factors (and more) in one effort is difficult to accomplish, so we should not expect every school turnaround to be successful.

A recent analysis by Chicago Public Radio/Catalyst Chicago  found that “Eighteen percent of the replacement schools (those schools located in buildings where either closure or turnaround has occurred) were rated “Level 1” by CPS this year, the highest performance level. Nearly 40 percent of replacement schools are Performance Level 3, the lowest rating CPS gives.” So, while 40% of the schools are still underperforming, that means that 60% are doing better, and in some cases they are doing significantly better. The data is also based on CPS’ performance ratings, which include a variety of indicators (including absolute/current status, trend and value-added student performance measures; as well as other indicators, such as attendance, AP enrollment & success, etc).To truly analyze school performance during a turnaround effort we should focus on the improvement (i.e. trend and value-added) data points. The fact that only 20% of students meet or exceed reading proficiency targets tells us nothing about how well that school is actually teaching students now. We must look at what students are learning, not what they do or don’t know.

Another common claim, and fact, is that “Turnarounds disproportionately impact poor and minority neighborhoods.” Part of the issue here is that turning around a school isn’t just about changing what happens within the walls of the school building, but it requires changes to the surrounding community. The Chicago Public Radio/Catalyst analysis also reported that Chicago’s turnarounds are concentrated in the West and South sides of the city, and are often located near former Chicago Housing Authority developments.

This should not be surprising. Due to a myriad of reasons over many years, including discriminatory and unfair practices and policies, these parts of the city received less funding, less support, fewer well-prepared teachers and principals. It is not surprising that these schools, and their surrounding communities, continue to struggle and require extreme changes to turn around years (if not decades) of unfair treatment. The students in these schools require additional supports to catch up to their same-age peers in other parts of the district, so equal funding or treatment is not sufficient. Providing an equivalent education to these students requires unequal (i.e. more) funding and different policies and practices.

Yes, a turnaround will change the community, could be disruptive, and cause temporary tension, but I struggle to understand why parents and communities continue to fight to keep their perpetually failing schools open. If a turnaround is done well (i.e. if administrators and politicians are truly closing or turning around schools because they are not educating students, if the plan is implemented with fidelity, and the incoming operator was chosen because they are the best fit for that community), then we have to believe that what will result from the changes will be better for our children. The historical mistrust is valid (and in many cases deserved), but one fact remains — these schools are not currently meeting the needs of the children or the community.

Do I agree with every decision CPS has made regarding turnaround and school closures? Of course not. But, the bottom line is that what we’re doing now in these schools isn’t working, so we have to try something different. What that “something” is may vary, but we must try anything and everything to improve the educational opportunities for these students. They deserve better.

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Reflections on my own public education

My mother recently asked for my opinion of the education I received in Vermont public schools. My elementary and middle school (K-8 in one building) focused on creative thinking, independent projects, student-directed learning, interdisciplinary lessons, and academic-level based classes for math and reading. My high school featured small learning communities for freshman, block scheduling, daily advisories, numerous AP and honors courses, and a required community-based senior project. All strategies that I now advocate for in my professional life.

While I think I received a great education, I now recognize that all of my classmates did not receive the same quality education. As a high school student, I didn’t realize how much tracking was used  until I took a non-tracked creative writing class my senior year. A few of us rarely attended class, as we did our homework (at home); the rest of the class used the class periods to do their homework. I wonder how many of those students had potential that should have been cultivated earlier on? What was the process for selecting students for tracking?

My K-8 school provided me with a number of useful life-long skills, including the ability to debate, the ability to lead, the desire to learn and to think outside of the box. But, the school was so focused on instilling a team structure (4 classrooms with one teacher from each content area) and self-directed learning that I never learned how to take a test. While I performed well on the state standardized tests, I dreaded the SATs, ACTs and the GREs.

I agree that the lifelong skills listed above are more important than learning how to fill in a bubble test, but until all states have aligned learning standards, colleges and universities will continue to use standardized tests (and rightly so) and students need to know how to take those tests. In the long-run, I am glad that I can determine and defend an opinion, but the memories of taking any standardized test still haunt me. Is it possible to find a better balance between both types of learning? And, for a student who received a slightly alternative public education – did standardize tests really predict my performance in college, graduate school, and beyond?

I should also note that despite the strong overall education I received (and some truly fabulous teachers), there were more than a handful of teachers who needed a great deal of help or who should not have been teaching. Even good strong school systems have weak teachers who need stronger professional development, coaching, content knowledge, and in some cases they should be removed from the classroom.

After this conversation with my mother, I wanted to know which Vermont schools receive School Improvement Grand funds. While some of the schools/districts were as I expected, I was shocked to learn that my K-8 is a Tier III SIG school. After further investigation, I discovered that while overall student performance is strong (75-80% proficiency), the performance of students with low Socio-Economic Status drops to 40-50% in both reading and math. The district “owns” the data and realizes that changes are necessary. But, their plan for the SIG funds lacks any real systemic or process changes. The district proposes additional training and coaches, yet does not address creating a better triage or early warning system for students (especially those with low-SES).

Even strong education systems have room to improve. This case also demonstrates why subgroup analysis is so important. On the surface, my old school may be doing well, but when you break down the subgroups, the school is not meeting the needs of a large percentage of the students. Student needs were not met at the elementary and middle school levels, so it’s not surprising that students entered high school with varying academic levels and were then tracked for the rest of their public school careers.

 

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When the arts really do matter

Students thrive with a well-rounded curriculum, yet art-related teachers and classes are often the first to go in a school with a tight budget or for students who require extra time in the core content areas. Talented teachers figure out how to include music, drama and art into the daily reading, science, or math curriculum, and it can make lessons much more engaging and meaningful.

As a recent report (via EdWeek) highlighted, many schools struggle to keep their art teachers on staff (and sometimes understandably so, as it is difficult to justify removing an English teacher), but I was recently reminded of how important the arts are to education, especially for students in a high poverty school. I caught the tail-end of the Oscar’s this weekend, and after watching PS22 from Staten Island, NY perform Somewhere Over the Rainbow, I had to learn more about the school and the kids.

More than 70% of PS22’s students qualify for full or partial lunch assistance and the school is middle-of-the-pack performance-wise for NYC elementary schools. (Read more about the recent history of the chorus in a NY Magazine article. Also, on a side note: I’d be interested to see how their student performance changed since the launch of the chorus.)

PS22 is not an arts magnet school, it’s not a charter school, it’s a traditional New York City public school that happens to employ a committed and talented music teacher, Mr. B (Gregg Breinberg).

Mr. B started posting videos of the chorus on You Tube and thanks to a few high-profile fans, including Perez Hilton, the school flew into the public eye. Since being “discovered” famous recording artists and university acapella groups frequently visit the school to meet and sing with the chorus and the students have performed at concerts and events across the country.

All of their songs are amazing and some are downright moving. See their version of I’ll Stand by You by The Pretenders or John Lennon’s Imagine (in combination with Ithacappella).

Giving the students a reason to come to school; to want to do excel at school; to attend college (and keep singing during college); to expose the students to new people, places and experiences; to create an environment where being part of a chorus is a privilege and judgement free; to support the students unconditionally; to create a culture of pride for the rest of the school; and most importantly, to allow students the opportunity to find passion combine to create a compelling argument for why arts are necessary in the schools and why we need more teachers who recognize, commit to, and cultivate young talent.

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