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Weekend reads: To improve schools, New Hampshire puts students in charge

EdNewsColorado - Fri, 10/24/2014 - 17:45
  • American schools are trying to prepare their students for an uncertain future. The solution to that problem, one writer argues, is to teach the skills of discovery. (Wired)
  • As more and more schools adopt project-based learning, a teacher predicts the future of the teaching technique. (Edutopia)
  • The news business may or may not be in a death spiral, but online coverage of education (at outlets like Chalkbeat!) is having a big moment. (Education Next)
  • A guide to split-second decision-making in the classroom from a New York charter school principal. (Achievement First)
  • A history of Charles B.J. Snyder, the man who used architecture to bring open play areas and sunlight to thousands of New York City schoolchildren. (Narratively)
  • Can teaching media literacy be used to both engage students and boost test scores? One New York City program says yes. (The Lamp)
  • After cutting many counselor and other social service positions, Philadelphia’s school district is training teachers and other staff to be more able to help with students’ mental and behavioral health issues. (The Notebook)
  • When a New Hampshire school found itself struggling with low test scores, it made the bold decision to put kids in charge of the classroom. (Atlantic)
  • A pilot program in the Granite State could prove to be the compromise between high-stakes accountability and teacher autonomy — and it has Arne Duncan’s attention. (EdWeek)
  • As the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, there is an ongoing debate about the role of the Recovery School District in New Orleans. (Hechinger Report)
  • Teachers may choose a better starting salary than a more generous pension. (EdWeek)
Categories: Urban School News

Jeffco’s chief messenger to exit next month

EdNewsColorado - Fri, 10/24/2014 - 16:44

For the second time this school year, a top-ranking Jeffco Public Schools official is leaving the district.

Chief Communications Officer Lynn Setzer’s last day will be Nov. 5. Then, she’ll join the Mapleton Public Schools in Adams County for a similar role.

“I’ve had eight great years in Jeffco but this is a wonderful opportunity,” Setzer said in an email to Chalkbeat. “I will miss the many friends and colleagues I’ve come to know and cherish, but I won’t be going very far.  I wish only the very best for Jeffco’s talented staff and students.”

As Jeffco’s chief communications officer, Setzer oversaw both internal and external communication on behalf of the school district.

Prior to joining Jeffco, Setzer was a public relations specialist for Porter Adventist Hospital and a reporter and anchor for Denver’s ABC affiliate, KMGH.

News of Setzer’s exit comes after Jeffco’s Chief Financial Officer Lorie Gillis left earlier this month.

Critics of the suburban county’s school board are likely to latch on to Setzer’s departure and consider it more evidence of theory that the board’s majority, who were elected almost one year ago, is taking the district down a dangerous path.

In fact, a new website has been created to track the stories of employees and families who are leaving the district.

According to the agenda-driven website, nearly 600 Jeffco employees submitted their resignation or retirement in September. Most of those employees were teachers. The website complied its information based on regular human relations department reports provided to the school board. But it’s unclear whether the employees’ departures were immediate or whether the board’s conservative majority had anything to do with their decisions.

Categories: Urban School News

CPS reverses course, says Dyett to reopen in 2016 as neighborhood high school

Catalyst Chicago - Fri, 10/24/2014 - 14:27

CPS officials made the surprise announcement Friday that they want proposals for a new, open enrollment neighborhood high school to be located at Dyett High, the Washington Park school that is in the last year of being phased out.

Jitu Brown of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, who has been leading community activists, parents and students in an intense fight to keep Dyett open, declared it a victory. But with many questions still outstanding about the school’s program--and in particular, whether a private operator will be chosen to run the school--Brown said it’s not a complete victory and emphasized that the win didn’t come easily.

“None of this would have happened without the diligence of the community,” he says. “This is not an example of a responsive elected official or government.”

Over the past four years, numerous rallies and sit-ins were held and several people were arrested as they battled to keep Dyett a neighborhood school and to save it from the chopping block as dozens of other schools in black communities were closed. Brown and the coalition’s main concern was that Dyett’s closure would leave the surrounding neighborhood without its own high school and students would be assigned to Phillips, which is about two miles away.

CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in a press release that she looks forward to working with the community. CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said the Dyett request-for-proposals to run the school will be separate from a request for new charter schools, which also will be issued in December. He said the Dyett site will not be open to charter operators, but contract schools will be considered. (Contract schools operate under much the same rules as charters.)

The new Dyett won’t be opened until the 2016-2017 school year, which means the site will sit vacant for a year.

Dyett’s potential closure became the focus of a federal civil rights complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education by activists in Chicago and in other cities where school closings hit African-American communities. Students accused CPS of using tactics to drive students out and alleged that keeping resources from their school violated their rights.

A plan for teaching global leadership

Brown questioned why the district is even putting out an RFP and said the community does not want a private operator running the school.

“We want this to be a CPS school and we want them to use our tax dollars to run it,” he says. “Just like they do in Lake View, we want a CPS neighborhood school with high expectations.”

Also, Brown says he sees no reason that the high school can’t be open next school year. The Coalition to Revitalize Dyett has already been having regular meetings and will have a second retreat on Saturday.

The coalition has a plan already developed to turn Dyett into a school focused on “global leadership and green technology.” The plan was developed over a two-year period by various groups, including the Chicago Teachers Union, Teachers for Social Justice and the well-regarded Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

The coalition got more than 2,000 signatures in support of the plan and it has the backing of the Kenwood and Bronzeville Community Action Councils, as well as DuSable Museum and the Metropolitan Tenants Organization.

Activists have also complained about conditions at Dyett as it is being phased out and students fanned out to other schools; this year, only 13 students enrolled in the school. For example, activists complained about students having to use the back door for entrance and as the numbers decreased, an increasing number of classes were taught online.

Earlier this year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel met with activists and students and agreed to let the students enter through the front door, have a gym teacher and host a prom.

Categories: Urban School News

Heated debate about last year's school closings

Catalyst Chicago - Fri, 10/24/2014 - 13:30

Catalyst publisher Linda Lenz moderated a heated panel discussion on Thursday about the impacts of last year's massive school closings. The event was organized by City Club of Chicago and took place at Maggiano's Banquets in downtown Chicago.Panelists included CPS Board of Education members Carlos Azcoitia and Andrea Zopp; Chicago Teachers Union researcher Carol Caref; community activist and writer Valerie Leonard; and CPS chief operating officer Tom Tyrell, who oversaw the district's transition team during the closings.

The event was live-tweeted by several reporters and community activists. Check out a Storified version of the tweets below.

[View the story "School closings in Chicago" on Storify]

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Jeffco schools tells Republican candidates to drop district logo in ads

EdNewsColorado - Fri, 10/24/2014 - 09:31

Hold up, wait a minute

The governing boards for Denver Public Schools and the STRIVE charter network have agreed to delay three news schools by a year. That means sweeping changes at the city's lowest performing middle school are on hold. ( Chalkbeat Colorado, Denver Post )

Stop right there, thank you very much

Lawyers for Jeffco Public Schools told Republican candidate for state Senate not to use the school district's logo in any more campaign ads. Meanwhile, some parents are incensed about the damage, as they see it, done. ( ABC 7 )

dollars and sense

Election Day is still a few weeks away, but two key Democratic lawmakers reached out to school superintendents this week, inviting them to work together on school finance issues. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

"Testing madness"

Students, parents, and teachers gathered in Colorado Springs for a discussion with the state's standards and testing task force. One parent told the committee he doesn't know what any of the tests scores actually mean. ( Gazette )

With the news of Chicago Public Schools asking for a delay in Common Core aligned tests, Politico asks: Is a decade's old system of testing-accountability nearly over? ( Politico )

Going to court

The Douglas County School District is being sued because officials at some schools have endorsed and fundraised for two evangelical groups, according to the lawsuit. ( Huffington Post )

Election 2014

Most voters surveyed in a new poll oppose Amendment 68, the slots-for-schools ballot measure, but strongly support Proposition 104, which would require school district/union contract negotiations to be held in public. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Human Resources

Englewood Schools' Brian Ewert has been named Colorado superintendent of the year. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Sweating, studying

Jeffco teachers are trying to infuse more physical activity before classes with hopes of raising student heart rates and studying prowess. ( 9News )

Eagle Crest Elementary students are sharpening their "ninja" skills in their physical education class. ( Longmont Times-Call )

Categories: Urban School News

Denver, STRIVE charter network put expansion plans on hold

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 21:20

Parents, students, and advocates in the city’s poor and heavily Latino southwest corner will have to wait at least one more year before they see the kinds of changes they’ve asked for at Denver’s lowest performing middle school, the Denver Public Schools Board of Education decided Thursday.

The plan was for a new STRIVE Prep charter school and a new district-run program to begin with a batch of sixth graders next fall. But because of a recent dip in achievement scores at the charter’s current schools, STRIVE officials have asked for a pause on their expansion plans.

In total, three STRIVE schools, including the one at Kepner Middle School, have been put on hold until 2016.

In addition, the district is also delaying the development of its own new program at Kepner, school officials confirmed.

“There is disappointment,” said Mateos Alvarez, an organizer for Stand For Children. “Parents felt like the process was finally moving. To get this announcement about the delay — it has made parents very disappointed.”

Stand is part of a coalition pushing DPS to comprehensively improve schools in what they say is the often neglected southwest Denver.

STRIVE chief executive Chris Gibbons said he and his board weighed the concerns of vocal parents in both Denver’s southwest and far northeast corners where the proposed schools were suppose to open. But ultimately, they decided to postpone what they hope will be successful schools rather than ensure failures on time.

“We really believe our commitment — first and foremost — is to high quality schools,” Gibbons said in an interview. “Right now, for us, the best way to do that is to slow down just enough to make sustained improvements.”

Several observers were shocked earlier this year when STRIVE schools across the city saw dramatic dips across the board in the state’s standardized assessments. So were STRIVE officials. Part of the reason for the dip, Gibbons said in August, was due to the network’s expansion.

As part of the network’s recalibration, Gibbon’s said, STRIVE is upping its teacher training on the state’s new standards, rolling out a new school evaluation tool for leaders to use as they monitor progress, and changing the way they hire.

“We’re very, very optimistic, on what we’re doing,” Gibbon’s said.

And they’re already seeing a bounce in their benchmark tests, Gibbons said. But that doesn’t mean the charter is ready for more schools.

“This is the latest a decision could be made for things to go to well,” Gibbons said.  “[If we see a comeback in scores], that tells me it’s because of the pause and that we made the right decision.”

Earlier this year, parents and community representatives worked with district officials to determine what programs should be available at Kepner. DPS officials ultimately decided on STRIVE in part, they said at the time, because of its past successes, especially with students learning English as a second language.

At the same time, no district-run program, which is needed to serve Kepner’s large student population, emerged through the district’s process to identify new schools. That meant the DPS officials needed to create one on their own. And that meant a loss of time to plan and identify a school leader, said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, Denver’s Chief Academic Officer.

While Whitehead-Bust acknowledged the district could move ahead with its own plans for Kepner without STRIVE, she said officials believe more time to plan and identify a school leader to lead the school would be beneficial.

“It was not an easy decision,” Whitehead-Bust said. “We recognize the immediate need.”

The district currently plans to replicate one of its successful schools, Grant Beacon, at Kepner. Grant Beacon, an innovation school in southeast Denver, uses blends classroom and online learning, emphasizes student leadership, and offers electives led by community organizations.

In the meantime, Whitehead-Bust said, the district plans to move ahead with a new southwest Denver middle school that will be run by the education nonprofit City Year and identify additional supports for the students at Kepner. Principal Elza Gujardo is expected to stay on despite the additional year.

“There’s more to our school improvement strategies than just opening new schools,” Whitehead-Bust said.

Since March, parents  from southwest Denver by the dozens have told the school board the district needs to improve options for families along the Federal Boulevard corridor.

The setback at Kepner “is only one piece of the broader spectrum,” said Stand’s Alvarez.

School board member Rosemary Rodriguez agrees. That’s why she’s hosting a community forum Oct. 29 at Lincoln High School.

Rodriguez hopes to gain a better understanding of what kinds of schools the parents she represents want in southwest Denver and relay that back to DPS.

“I feel like the district is respective and eager to help,” she said.

Categories: Urban School News

Lawmakers hold out olive branch for 2015 finance debate

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 21:17

Nobody knows yet who’ll be in control of the 2015 Colorado legislature, but two key Democratic lawmakers are already reaching out to school superintendents, inviting them to work together on school finance issues.

The letter sent to district leaders Tuesday can be seen as a gesture to avoid some of the acrimony and bruising lobbying that marked the school finance debate during the 2014 session. (See the full letter at the bottom of this story.)

“We are asking you to work together with the legislature for both short and long term strategies to fund education,” wrote Rep. Millie Hamner of Dillon and Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood. They are the chairs of the House and Senate education committees.

“It is imperative that we work together,” the letter said.

“I don’t know that we expected it, but we saw it as an opportunity,” said Boulder Superintendent Bruce Messinger, who’s been a leader in the superintendents’ funding push. As it happened, the influential Denver Area Superintendents’ Council met Thursday, and the letter was discussed.

“We took it as a hopeful sign that they are both sincere and interested,” Messinger said.

A Western Slope superintendent, Jason Glass of Eagle County, agreed, saying, “I think superintendents appreciate this proactive effort … to work with Colorado’s school leaders.”

Hamner and Kerr both are up for re-election in the Nov. 4 election. Hamner faces an opponent she’s beaten before and is considered likely to return to the Capitol. Kerr is in a close, contentious and high-spending race. Republicans are pushing hard to win a Senate majority, so even if Kerr wins, he’ll lose his chairmanship if the GOP takes control.

School boards and district superintendents aggressively took the initiative during the 2014 session, pushing very hard to reduce the “negative factor,” the $1 billion shortfall in K-12 spending caused by the legislature’s narrow interpretation of school funding requirements.

Some lawmakers were caught off-balance by the lobbying push, and both Gov. John Hickenlooper and Democratic House Speaker Mark Ferrandino initially opposed any cut.

Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood / File photo

Hamner and Kerr at times were caught in the middle of the fight, which finally ended with a $110 million cut in the negative factor as well as funding of some education initiatives that Hickenlooper wanted. Hamner mentioned more than once last spring how stressful the experience was. (Refresh your memory about the battle with this Chalkbeat Colorado story from last March, and get the details of how it all turned out in this article.)

In an email response to questions about this week’s letter, Hamner praised the superintendents’ involvement last winter but said she wants to do things differently next year.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon / File photo

“While I fully support their decision to get more involved and to fight for funding, I believe the process can and should work better if we work together,” she wrote.

The Hamner-Kerr letter said, “With the goal of making this collaboration as effective as possible, we will be inviting you to a series of meetings we plan on hosting to discuss these matters further.”

Hamner told Chalkbeat, “I’m not certain at this time how this collaborative approach will look, but I believe that a representative group of superintendents and CFOs [chief financial officers] who are willing to work with us in studying the opportunities and challenges within our state budget could play an important role in shaping improvements to school funding in this next session.”

Unknows loom over finance issue

There are some key uncertainties that could affect 2015 school finance debates and attempts to further trim the negative factor.

The most immediate is the election. Defeat of Hickenlooper by GOP candidate Bob Beauprez and Republican takeover of one or both legislative houses could dramatically change the playing field. (Most observers expect Democrats to retain House control, however.)

A new financial factor – the possibility that state will have to pay tax refunds under the terms of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights – could make it harder for lawmakers to increase school funding significantly. (Get details in this story.)

And a recent lawsuit, filed by a group of parents and districts, challenges the constitutionality of the negative factor and is pending in Denver District Court (details on that here).

“We understand there’s a lot in play right now,” Messigner said, adding that school finance remains the top priority for superintendents.

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Categories: Urban School News

Englewood leader named superintendent of year

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 13:46

Superintendent Brian Ewert of the Englewood Schools has been named Colorado superintendent of the year and will represent Colorado in the national superintendent of the year program.

Ewert came to Englewood in 2010 following a period when the district had eight superintendents in 10 years. He instituted a common instructional model, worked to improve community relations, lengthen the school day and expand student access to technology, among other reforms.

The district has seen some of the highest growth in student performance in the metro area, and its accreditation rating has increased two levels in the last four years, according to a news release from the Colorado Association of School Executives.

The 2,835-student district currently is rated as an “improvement” district, the middle level in the state’s five-step system of rating districts. District enrollment is 47.6 percent minority, and 59.5 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

Ewert was selected by a committee consisting mostly of education leaders who received this award in previous years.

Learn more about Ewert and Englewood in this CASE news release.

Categories: Urban School News

Poll has good news for casino opponents, open meetings backers

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 12:57

Most voters surveyed in a new poll oppose Amendment 68, the slots-for-schools ballot measure, but strongly support Proposition 104, which would require school district/union contract negotiations to be held in the public.

The survey was done by Suffolk University and USA Today.

Results from the survey found 22.8 percent support A68, 67.2 percent oppose and 10 percent were undecided.

On Proposition 104, 63.8 percent support, 21.6 percent opposed and 14.2 percent are undecided.

Both sides of the A68 debate (basically opposing casino interests) have advertised heavily on Colorado TV stations and websites, but the Proposition 104 campaigns have been under the radar.

The latest poll results are in line with an earlier Suffolk/USA Today poll and with what political insiders have reported about private polling.

The university surveyed 500 Colorado adults who said they were very likely to vote or had already voted, and the poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 18-21. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.4 percent.

The survey also gauged voter opinion on several other Colorado races. See the news release, detailed results and the crosstabs for more information.

And for full background on the two measures and other election contests of interest to education, see Chalkbeat Colorado’s Education Voter’s Guide.

Categories: Urban School News

Take 5: Hancock change OK'd, closed school sold, lead paint problems

Catalyst Chicago - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 09:57

CPS board members approved on Wednesday the selling of 125 S. Clark and the first of 50-some schools shuttered during the 2013 mass school closings.The district’s headquarters was sold for about $28 million to Blue Star Properties, which plans to keep it offices and retail, according to a Chicago Sun-Times report. Central office workers will be spread out, some at 42 W. Madison and others in two closed schools, one in Humboldt Park and the other in Bridgeport.

Also, the shuttered Peabody Elementary on the Northwest Side will be sold for $3.5 million. Some of the space will be used as a community center, while the rest will become residential. CPS has found uses for about 10 of the other 52 emptied buildings. Chief Administrative Officer Tom Tyrrell said that despite having 41 empty buildings on the books, the district will still save $43 million in annual cost savings promised at the time of school closings. CPS has never provided an itemized list of how the district will save so much money.

2. Done deal... Board members gave the go-ahead to designate Hancock High School as the city’s 11th selective enrollment high school. Just a month ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel surprised community members and announced the plan. However, there was never any doubt that it would be approved, given that students were already being allowed to apply for the school.

Like several of the selective schools, Hancock will have a program for academically gifted students and a pre-engineering/pre-law program that will also have a competitive admissions process. Hancock teacher and blogger Ray Salazar told board members that it is unfair for students on the Southwest Side to get an old, renovated school building while students on the North and Northwest Side get a shiny new facility. School Board President David Vitale said he has been out to visit Hancock and it is “perfectly adequate.”

3. Lead paint allegations… Parents and activists from Gale Elementary school in Rogers Park say they are relieved that CPS is removing lead paint from the school and repainting it, but they are frustrated that the district knew for at least five years about the problem and didn’t fix it, according to DNAinfo. In 2009, a consultant found damaged lead paint in the boys' and girls' bathrooms, according to documents obtained by The Chicago Light Brigade through a Freedom of Information Act request (The Illinois Attorney Genera'sl Office had to force CPS to comply with the FOIA). Then, in September 2013, the same consultant found lead paint in the classrooms.

Lead paint can severely affect mental and physical development. It is especially dangerous when it is chipped. Because of its sweet taste, children have been known to eat lead paint chips or dust. District standards call on it to assume that all buildings constructed in 1978 or earlier have lead-based paint, and that it needs to be removed or repaired in areas occupied by students and staff.

CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey told DNAinfo that staff is “continuously monitors buildings for any unsafe conditions, which includes preventing any buildings with lead-based paints from posing a health threat."

But in 2012, when the district was trying to convince the public that it needed to close schools, officials admitted that a lot of old buildings were going without needed repairs. In a presentation to the Space Utilization Commission, CPS reported that the average age of buildings was 74 years and that the district had $6.5 billion in unfunded capital needs, not counting anything to relieve overcrowding.

4. Arts fund-raising... Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, and Board President David Vitale announced Tuesday “Be Creative: The Campaign for Creative Schools.” So far, members of the business, cultural, and philanthropic communities have raised $11 million, they announced.

The Arts Education Plan was initiated in 2012, with the goal of every student in CPS receiving “ongoing high quality arts education both in and out of the classroom.” Over the last two years, CPS has placed arts liaisons in close to 600 schools, broadened high school graduation requirements in art to include dance and theatre, and labeled the arts as a core subject, which requires two hours of dedicated instruction per week. CPS also used $11.5 million in tax-increment financing money to hire 84 arts teachers this year. 

“The arts are a key part to your education and your development,” said Emanuel, who shared that he did ballet in high school. “It’s a collaborative process, and those skills are going to be essential for the rest of your life, whether you choose to pursue a career in art or not.”

5. Profiting from shoddy schools … In a provocative article, the Chicago Reader questions Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner’s commitment to a “high-quality education for all” by examining his investments in for-profit education companies that have been accused of fraud.

Rauner’s former private equity firm set up one such company, ForeFront Education, back in 1999 to offer college degrees and training for jobs including medical assistants, paralegals, and office administrators. According to the story, a ForeFront school with campuses in the Loop falsely billed itself as "institutionally accredited" and later had to admit its graduates weren't qualified to take state exams to become certified nursing assistants. After students sued for fraud, the company settled in 2013 for about $1.2 million.

The Reader goes on to point out that Rauner is also a stockholder in another company sued for “widespread fraud while collecting $11 billion in federal student aid between 2003 and 2011,” this time by the federal government, the state of Illinois, and 10 other states. That case remains under litigation.

The Reader article comes out just two weeks before a tight gubernatorial race. Polls show Rauner neck and neck with Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat.

 

 



Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Dougco board members fret about AP U.S. history

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 09:46

State Board races

A political committee affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform has spent nearly $126,866 in two State Board of Education races where teachers unions also are supporting Democrats. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

The national scene

Unions and reform groups are making common political cause in several states, and unions even are donating to Republicans. ( EdWeek/Politics K-12 )

Here we go again?

Two Douglas County School Board members have expressed public concern about the new Advanced Placement U.S. History course that sparked a firestorm in Jefferson County. Jim Geddes and Judi Reynolds said their interest is not about promoting or quashing a particular viewpoint, but giving students a balanced perspective on the past. ( Douglas County News-Press )

Teacher charged

A former teacher is facing misdemeanor charges in connection with a science classroom explosion at a Denver charter school that injured four students, one critically. ( 9News, KDVR, Denver Post )

Slots for schools

Backers of Amendment 68, the proposed casino expansion amendment, are cutting back on TV advertising to devote money to a get-out-the-vote effort. ( Denver Post )

Runaways to Syria

Cherry Creek Schools officials say friends alerted the principal at Overland High School about alarming tweets from three girls who tried to go to Syria. Additionally, the school had already called the parents when the trio did not show up for classes last Friday. ( KDVR )

Politics and education

Gun politics and the Jeffco schools controversy are hot issues in two Jeffco state Senate races involving key members of the Senate Education Committee. ( Denver Post )

Categories: Urban School News

CPS says it wants delay for new test, but was already denied in July

Catalyst Chicago - Wed, 10/22/2014 - 18:30

CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett made a big point at the board meeting today to say that she is asking the Illinois State Board of Education and the federal government to let the district delay the PARCC, the state’s new standardized test aligned with the more rigorous Common Core Standards.

But Byrd-Bennett did not include some critical information: She asked ISBE for the delay in a letter in June and, in July, ISBE sent back a letter denying her request. What’s more, the Department of Education does not decide which tests districts should use, so it is unclear what Byrd-Bennett would request from them. She told the board she wanted “concurrence from the federal government by Thanksgiving.”

Federal officials referred questions to the state department.

Even before it came to light that Byrd-Bennett’s request had already been denied, Robert Schaeffer from the National Center on Fair and Open Testing said he was skeptical of the move. “It is convenient because she probably expects Springfield to say no and then it will be an excuse,” Schaeffer said. “Testing has become part of the political process and this is a tactic to slow the criticism.”

The request to exclude CPS, while other school districts in the state will be forced to use the PARCC, was applauded by board members and, during the public commentary section, by a group of parents who were there to complain about the PARCC. The parent advocacy group, Raise Your Hand, started an online petition last week to urge ISBE to ask the Department of Education for a waiver and it already has more than 1200 signatures.

Byrd-Bennett said she was told by ISBE that they will not request such waiver. But asking ISBE to provide an exception for one school district from a state mandated test was highly unusually.

Byrd-Bennett pointed out a lot of state laws and policies are applied differently to CPS than other school districts. “We are the largest school district in the state and our administering the PARCC is more complicated because of the scale, we need to be cautious,” said Byrd-Bennett in explaining the argument she has made to state officials.

Byrd-Bennett suggested in her letter that ISBE use the NWEA for the state’s accountability system.

In a presser held during the board meeting (a first during her administration) Byrd-Bennett provided reporters with a long list of reasons she didn’t want to fully implement the PARCC this year. But in her letter to ISBE she says she is concerned mostly about scheduling.

On top of the PARCC, CPS plans to continue giving all elementary school students the NWEA and, all high school students, the ACT. Byrd-Bennett is continuing these other assessments because the district needs growth measures for teacher and principal evaluations, as well as school ratings.  

“The testing demands on students and the burdens on teachers and principals with the addition of the PARCC will be overwhelming,” she writes in her letter to ISBE.

Bryd-Bennett also told reporters that she had not received information back from the “pilot program” the district participated in this past Spring. She said the district should evaluate the results before full implementation.

But in her letter to ISBE, Byrd-Bennett says the pilot yielded “generally positive results from students, teachers and administrators.” But she adds that “our schools are simply not ready for full-scale implementation.”

In his response to Byrd-Bennett’s letter, State Superintendent Christopher Koch pointed out that “most of the time devoted to testing is a local decision.” He also argues that the state can’t allow CPS to use one test, while forcing all other school districts to use another test. “The state also has an obligation to implement an equitable system of accountability for all the student in Illinois.”

Education Department Secretary Arne Duncan has said he thinks the PARCC, as well as the other Common Core aligned assessment supported by his administration, will be an improvement over the old multiple choice tests. Some of the questions on the PARCC are multiple choice, but others require students to fill in the blank or highlight text.

Critics of the PARCC say the format and some of the sections are confusing. Also, many of the questions seem subjective. Of the 23 states originally signed up to administer the PARCC, only 9 are currently planning on having students take it this year,

Categories: Urban School News

Reformers, unions spending big on Democratic State Board candidates

EdNewsColorado - Wed, 10/22/2014 - 17:48

A political committee affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform has spent nearly $126,866 in two State Board of Education races, and the group’s state director indicates more such spending is planned.

That amount is more than five times the combined $22,560 spent as of Oct. 8 by Democratic candidates Henry Roman and Jane Goff from their own campaign treasuries.

Roman, running in the 3rd District and Goff, the 7th District incumbent, also have received smaller but still substantial direct contributions from committees affiliated with the Colorado Education Association.

Jen Walmer, Colorado director of DFER and the registered agent for Raising Colorado, an independent expenditure committee affiliated with DFER, said the contributions are motivated by concern about the increasing politicization of education boards by Republicans, such as has happened in Jefferson County.

“We have seen the importance of board of education races,” she said.

Walmer said the spending has “less to do” with any effort to help Democrats gain a majority on the seven-member board, which currently has a 4-3 Republican majority.

Do your homework

Kerrie Dallman, president of CEA, said the union’s interest is less with the political composition of the board than it is with candidates whose views match CEA priorities.

Other education sources tell Chalkbeat Colorado they believe the financial support is partly motivated by worry that continued Republican SBE control after the election could lead to GOP efforts to pull Colorado out of the Common Core State Standards and the PARCC tests and possibly to replace education commissioner Robert Hammond.

“It’s because of Common Core and assessments,” said one source. “The board has made a lot of noise about getting out of PARCC.”

The spending indicates a level of intensity seldom seen in State Board races, which typically are low-profile affairs.

Here’s a look at the details of this year’s spending and the politics behind it.

The money

The Raising Colorado independent expenditure committee on Sept. 25 spent $70,500 in support of Roman. On Oct. 7 the committee spent $56,366 in support of Goff.

Walmer said the Roman spending was for radio ads and the Goff spending for direct mail. The media pieces were produced by out-of-state firms.

Roman’s own committee has raised $17,374 and spent $6,370. Goff has raised $31,010 and spent $16,190.

Some 52 percent of Roman’s contributions have come from teachers unions, while Goff has received 29 percent of her funding from such sources.

The Public Education Committee, a small donor group affiliated with CEA, has given $4,500 each to Roman and Goff. The Pueblo Education Association small donor committee also has given $4,500 to Roman, and the Jefferson County Education Association small donor committee has given the same amount to Goff.

Small donor committees, which are funded by member donations or dues deductions, can give a maximum of $4,500 to a candidate each election cycle. There’s no limit on spending by independent expenditure committees, but they can’t coordinate their spending with candidate campaign committees.

Republican board candidates have lagged behind in campaign fundraising. Marcia Neal, the 3rd District incumbent, has raised $12,895 and spent $10,881. (Neal had a primary opponent and spent $4,006 in that election.) Laura Boggs, GOP candidate in the 7th, has raised $4,312 and spent $1,220.

Raising Colorado has made two other interesting spending moves.

The committee made expenditures of $9,700 each against Republican state Senate candidates Laura Woods and Tony Sanchez. The two are challenging, respectively, Democratic Sens. Rachel Zenzinger and Andy Kerr of Jefferson County. Both Democrats have received direct contributions from unions and from DFER-related committees.

Asked how much additional spending Raising Colorado plans, Walmer said there will be more in board and legislative races but doesn’t yet know how much. That next reporting deadline for candidates and committees is Oct. 27, eight days before the election.

All the dollar figures listed above were from Oct. 14 reports, which covered activity through Oct. 8.

3rd District race Marcia Neal

Neal has represented the sprawling district, which covers most of western Colorado and stretches east to Pueblo, for the last six years. She’s a retired teacher and former Mesa 51 school board member.

The last three SBE members from the District have been Republicans, including Neal. Republicans are 35 percent of the district’s registered voters, compared to 34 percent unaffiliated or minor party and 29 percent Democrats.

But Neal won her first election in 2008 by only about 3,000 votes out of 300,000 cast. In 2002 Republican Pam Suckla won by about 3,000 votes out of some 205,000 cast.

And Neal’s hometown newspaper, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, has endorsed Roman, an education consultant and former superintendent of the Pueblo 60 district. (The Sentinel endorsed Neal six years ago.) The district’s other two largest papers, the Pueblo Chieftain and the Durango Herald, also have endorsed Roman.

Neal said she’s “disappointed” with the Raising Colorado spending and was “very surprised” at the Sentinel endorsement.

Walmer said her group is supporting Roman partly because it believes Neal has become more partisan. “It’s not the same Marcia Neal who ran in 2008,” she said. She also said Raising Colorado felt Roman needed help reaching voters in such a large district.

Henry Roman

Neal has the same complaint, pointed in the opposite direction. “I haven’t run up against this kind of partisanship before.”

“In general I’m not discouraged, but I’m concerned that this negative advertising is out there,” she said. Neal won the June primary against a more conservative Republican opponent who also outspent her.

Roman said he was happy the Raising Colorado radio ad he heard and the mailer he saw praised him but that did feel a little ambivalent about something over which “I have no say.”

He added, “We were going to do some radio ads, but we don’t feel now we need to duplicate that effort.”

He said the ads and mailer criticize Neal for her stand on the controversial AP U.S. history course.

Roman also said he hopes the Sentinel’s endorsement will persuade some Grand Valley Republican voters to consider him. “It’s certainly not going to hurt me.”

7th District race Jane Goff

Although 7th District Democratic Congressman Ed Perlmutter is expected to win easy re-election, parts of the district, especially Jefferson County, are ground zero in tough partisan battles over legislative seats and other offices.

Jeffco, of course, also has been roiled by controversies over actions by the school board’s new conservative majority. (Walmer weighed in on those in a Sept. 25 posting on DFER’s website, call the board majority “these extremists.” Read the full post here.)

Based on voter registration, the district is 37.5 percent unaffiliated and other, 33.7 percent Democratic and 27.5 percent Republican. (A substantial part of Adams County also is in the district.)

Goff, a former teacher, administrator and union officer, is considered to be leading in her bid for reelection.

Laura Boggs

Walmer acknowledged Goff’s funding edge but said Raising Colorado got involved in helping her “partly because it’s noisy” in the district with all the other races and the schools controversy.

Boggs, a conservative former Jeffco board member, said, “Coloradans are getting used to groups from New York and D.C. trying to influence our elections. Clearly there is a fight for control of public education, and voters in CD 7 have a chance to vote for the local control, student-focused voice I will bring to the State Board or for a continuation of the over-testing, one-size-fits-all education system which is not focused on our students.”

Asked about the Raising Colorado effort, Goff said, “I had not idea about that going on. … Wow. That’s quite a bit of money.”

As the whether the outside spending will help her campaign, Goff said, “I’m ambivalent.”

DFER & CEA

To some people the idea of CEA-DFER political cooperation may seem odd, given the organizations’ policy differences on issues like teacher evaluation.

Walmer and Dallman acknowledge the differences but don’t see cooperation as strange.

The CEA itself gave $5,000 directly to Raising Colorado on Oct. 3. The bulk of Raising Colorado’s funding has come from another DFER-related committee, Education Reform Now Advocacy.

“I don’t think it’s unusual to be aligned in some areas with the CEA,” said Walmer.

Dallman said that both groups feel the same way about Roman and Goff as the candidates with the best interests of public education at heart.

Walmer is a former top aide to both DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg and former Democratic Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll. CEA is traditionally a significant contributor to Democratic candidates at all levels.

State Board background

The board takes scores of votes every year, most of them on regulatory and oversight issues, and most of those votes are 7-0.

But there is a clear ideological divide on the board over major issues like PARCC testing, Common Core and the proper state and federal role in schools.

A conservative Republican bloc – chair Paul Lundeen of the 5th District, Pam Mazanec (4th) and Debra Scheffel (6th) are critical of Common Core, supportive of more district autonomy and critical of “reform” in general. Democrats Elaine Gantz Berman (1st) Angelika Schroeder (2nd) and Goff have different views.

Neal has been something of bridge between the two groups, depending on the issue.

Lundeen has tried to steer board attention to some more-contentious issues in recent months, but so far that’s mostly ended up in discussions, not votes.

See these Chalkbeat stories for background on the board and some hot-button issues:

Two other seats on the seven-member board will have new occupants after the Nov. 4 election.

Valentina Flores

In District 1 Democrat Valentina Flores is running unopposed. She won an upset victory in the June 24 primary over reform-backed candidate Taggart Hanson. Two independent expenditure committees connected to Stand for Children and DFER spent a total of $107,078 supporting Hansen.

Lundeen is running unopposed for a seat in the state House. His successor on the board will be appointed by a Republican Party vacancy committee.

So Roman and Goff victories would give Democrats a 4-3 board majority.

Categories: Urban School News

Enrollment data reveal trends for neighborhood schools, charter schools

Catalyst Chicago - Wed, 10/22/2014 - 13:09

As the district released this year’s official school-by-school enrollment numbers, officials pointed out that the steep 3,800 drop in the student population wasn’t the most dramatic in recent years:  Four times during the past decade enrollment has fallen more sharply, by 5,000-plus students.

Still, it’s the first time in years that Chicago Public Schools have had fewer than 400,000--just 396,683 students, according to the 20th day enrollment data that CPS released late Tuesday. Though it’s been nearly four weeks since the tally was taken, officials didn’t say why it took so long to release the numbers.

A Catalyst Chicago analysis of the data reveal some important enrollment trends:

IB, STEM impact

Neighborhood high schools continued to take a hit on enrollment. However, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s initiative to launch new International Baccalaureate and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs in these schools seems to be having a mixed effect: All but one of the five new “wall-to-wall” IB schools saw an uptick in enrollment. Clemente, which had been losing students for at least the last five years, saw 32 more students enroll this year, even as district officials were projecting a decline. But overall, most of the high schools that have small IB programs within a larger comprehensive school experienced a drop in enrollment.

On the elementary level, a lot of the schools in which the district launched IB and STEM programs were designated to take in students from schools closed in 2013. In addition to extra teaching positions for the new programs, these so-called “welcoming schools” received iPads and had major renovations to their buildings. Yet welcoming schools experienced an average of 6 percent decline in enrollment.

Alternatives up, some charters down

Alternative schools for at-risk students or dropouts saw the biggest increase in students, with 9,137 students now attending these schools—a 20 percent increase since last year. CPS has said it plans to open more alternative schools, a number of them for-profit.

About 2,500 more students now attend charter schools, a five percent increase since last year. But about 30 percent of charter schools saw a decline in enrollment. Charter schools, like district-run schools, have to contend with the opening of new schools and community population drops.

Cecilia Benitez, director of recruitment and retention at ACE Tech Charter in Washington Park, says the school has had trouble meeting its goal of enrolling 500 students since the opening of Back of the Yards High School, one of the new wall-to-wall IB high schools; and UNO Charter High -- Soccer Academy.

“We are seeing a drop in Latinos,” she says. For the past two years, ACE has been about 18 students short of 500. But this year, the school fell to about 448 students.

As a recruiter, Benitez goes to every high school fair to try to beef up enrollment. One of the big selling points for the school is that it can offer students a chance to earn a certificate in building trades, which can help them land jobs.

Even this late in the school year, ACE Tech will accept transfer students (who need to bring in their progress report and discipline report. Prospective students also have to have a meeting with the principal, who decides if they can attend. 

Chicago Collegiate Charter, a fourth- through sixth-grade school that opened last year in Roseland, is also still taking applications for fourth-grade and is letting families join the waiting list for fifth- and sixth-grade.  Roseland’s traditional schools also have plenty of space for more students and the community ranks on the top 5 for enrollment decline.

Sarah Elizabeth Ippel , founder and director of the Academy for Global Citizenship, notes that her charter school might be unusual because it always fills its spots. In fact, it usually gets about 14 times the number of applications for the spots available.

Ippel points to unique characteristics that are selling points for the school: It has an elementary IB program and dual language curriculum, an 8-hour school day--and serves 100 percent organic food.

But filling the seats also has to do with the fact that the surrounding Garfield Ridge neighborhood has many overcrowded schools. “We intentially went into an area that needed additional public school seats,” Ippel says. “I imagine it would be hard to be in an area where there [already] is sufficient capacity.”

Categories: Urban School News

Comings and Goings: New Advisory Board members, Naselli, Lynn

Catalyst Chicago - Wed, 10/22/2014 - 13:01

Catalyst welcomes the Class of 2017 to its editorial advisory board: Jana Fleming, Herr Research Center, Erikson Institute; Madelyn James, Voices for Illinois Children; Ignacio Lopez, National Louis University; Bronwyn McDaniel, Consortium on Chicago School Research; Tara Shelton, South Loop School; Anand Sukumaran, Peterson Elementary; Ilana Walden, UMOJA Student Development Corp.; Greg White, LEARN Charter Schools; Teresa White, Free Spirt Media. Carmen Rodriguez, a parent member of the Von Steuben LSC is the new board chair; Alan Mather, principal of Lindblom Math & Science Academy, is vice chair.Julianar Naselli has been named principal of Daniel Hale Williams Prep School of Medicine. Ms. Naselli was formerly assistant principal of George Westinghouse College Prep. W. Terrell Burgess has been named to replace Ms. Naselli as assistant principal.

Les Lynn has left the Chicago Debate League and started Argument-Centered Education, an organization that focuses on providing professional development, implementation coaching, and adapted curriculum materials for teachers, schools, and networks in order to bring argument-centered instruction into the regular classroom.

Be a part of Comings & Goings. Send items to Catalyst Community Editor Vicki Jones: vjones@catalyst-chicago.org

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Coalition of advocates criticizes Denver’s school rating system

EdNewsColorado - Wed, 10/22/2014 - 09:58

churn churn churn

Nearly a quarter of Denver's schools have seen three or more principals in five years, and those schools are often ones where experts say steady leadership is needed most. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

listen up

Teachers at about 20 Colorado schools are using podcasts to let students listen to lessons as they get exercise around school grounds. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

close read

A coalition of education advocates criticized Denver's School Performance Framework, its way of evaluating schools, for giving a false impression of progress in schools where proficiency is persistently low and achievement gaps remain gaping. ( Chalkbeat Colorado, Denver Post )

Election 2014

Developers and construction companies are throwing their financial weight behind a number of school bond issues on the ballot. ( Gazette )

Advocates on both sides of a proposal to allow racetrack gambling are paying prominent Colorado Springs citizens for their backing. ( Gazette )

eat your veggies

A Boulder-based healthy school lunch foundation is partnering with a local business to provide grants to increase produce in lunchrooms around the country. ( Daily Camera )

closer to home

The St. Vrain Valley School District says its new locally-managed high speed internet service is faster and cheaper than the previous outsourced service. ( Times-Call )

safety patrol

Hundreds of educators and police officers will spend two days talking about how to make Colorado's schools safer. ( KDVR )

Categories: Urban School News

Coalition: DPS sending parents wrong message on quality schools

EdNewsColorado - Wed, 10/22/2014 - 00:34
A quality school should truly live up to high expectations; that is, they should be places where most students are on grade level and are becoming prepared for postsecondary options. However, our blue and green schools are missing this mark. In setting the bar too low for schools, the current rating system gives parents the wrong message, indicating that schools are high quality when, in fact, most students have little chance of meeting the state’s standards.
– Coalition of Denver education advocacy organizations in a letter to Denver Public Schools

Those are the feelings a broad coalition expressed in a letter sent to the Denver Public Schools Board of Education Tuesday.

The two-page letter takes aim at how DPS evaluates its schools. Known as the School Performance Framework, or SPF, Denver uses a variety of data to determine which schools are making the grade and which aren’t. Schools are rated from red, probation, to blue, distinguished.

As part of its new strategic plan, Denver hopes to have 80 percent of its schools rates as blue or green by 2020. Currently, about 60 percent of schools meet that threshold.

But, the coalition said, the way DPS is determining those ratings is flawed. Among the coalition’s concerns is how DPS officials over-value data that shows much students learn year-to-year rather than how proficient they are.

“Growth gives the public a false impression that things are moving in the right direction,” said Kristi Butkovich, executive director of the Denver Alliance for Public Schools, in an interview. “Things are not moving in the right direction. The district has been stagnant.”

The coalition also highlights how not all high-performing schools are equal, nor are they closing a stubborn achievement gap between their white students and their students of color.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg has long defended the district’s use of student growth as a major factor in determining a quality school.

“This is a very important issue for our school community and we look forward to having a series of robust community conversations about it,” Boasberg said in a statement.

Last spring the district’s school board heard a presentation on the possible changes to the SPF. It’s unclear what the district’s next steps are, but the coalition, in the letter, said they want the conversation to start by November’s end.

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Categories: Urban School News

The revolving schoolhouse door: Principal turnover in Denver, investigated

EdNewsColorado - Tue, 10/21/2014 - 17:23

When Exaviah Watson was a freshman in high school, her principal was focused on college prep. She took ACT classes and went on college tours and was getting excited about heading to college herself.

But that was four years and three principals ago. When that principal left, after just two years, the college focus “just stopped,” she said.

Exaviah left the school the year after, departing for a different school nearby that has been plagued by similar turnover issues.

Her experience with principal turnover — and the resulting upheaval in her education — is not exceptional in Denver.

A Chalkbeat analysis of state records reveals that although Denver’s overall principal turnover rate has fallen by almost half, turnover has not slowed at nearly a quarter of Denver schools, where three or more principals have come and gone since 2008. That churn is concentrated in schools where the district has pushed its most intense improvement efforts, schools that researchers say are most in need of high quality and steady leadership.

For example, the high-profile improvement efforts that kicked off five years ago in Denver’s far northeast corner have been accompanied by a nearly constant changeover in school leadership. Seven of the eight schools in whose turnaround Denver invested significant resources have seen at least three leaders since the district’s efforts kicked off in 2010.

The fact that those schools are disproportionately attended by underserved students has riled community members, who say their students need a consistent school more than most.

Where do Denver schools see disproportionate principal churn?

At least 34 of Denver’s 185 schools have had three or more principals since 2008. These schools are highlighted with a gold ring on the map below and clustered in the district’s highest need areas. In the Northeast board district, seven of the eight schools targeted for intense improvement and given additional support are among those with high turnover.

The schools on the map are sized by the number of principals they’ve had in the last five years and colored by the percent of students who receive free or reduced lunch. So, larger circles represent schools with higher turnover, and darker circles represent schools with more students receiving subsidized lunch, which is a measurement that districts use for low-income students. But incomplete data from the district means that this map can’t tell the whole story. Hover over the dots below to learn more about each school and comment on this data set to share your story and help us create a more accurate picture of principal churn in the district.

Denver is not alone in its struggle to hold on to school leaders. Nationally, the average tenure for urban principals is shorter than five years.

But interviews with dozens of national figures, local educators, and district administrators suggest that Denver’s difficulties stretch along every step of the leadership process. Principals are thrust into struggling schools with little training, given support that feels more like being watched, and held to expectations that some describe as impossibly high. As schools lose principals to burnout or officials move them out, rocky transitions disrupt students’ classrooms and leave communities feeling isolated from their schools.

District officials acknowledge the challenge. “The notion that great systems can exist without great principals is ridiculous,” said Denver schools leader Tom Boasberg.

Disrupted schools, disrupted classrooms, disrupted students

Rilla Ervin has seen three principals take over her daughter’s school in four years. And though she understands the rationale behind replacing a principal who isn’t driving improvement in a school, she’s also learned to be wary of the handoff from one principal to another.

“Change can always be good,” said Ervin, whose daughter attends Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello, in the Far Northeast. “It’s the way change happens. When new principals come in, instead of helping them, [the district] says do it your way. Blow it up.”

Transitions have not always gone smoothly at DCIS at Montbello. Ervin’s daughter Octavia, who is entering her senior year, said she and other students were buffeted by rapid changes as the school changed hands.

“It messes kids up,” said Octavia Ervin. For example, in the transition from the school’s founding principal to its new leader, the school’s grading system changed. Teachers struggled with the new system and many students ended up with failing grades or say they failed to get the help they needed. Octavia, previously a straight A student, struggled to make the grade in her classes and her mother became frustrated at a lack of information about Octavia’s progress.

That sort of disruption is not unusual as new principals institute systems they feel work best. And the impacts of those changes can be traced straight to students’ scores, for better or for worse.

Estimates of what percent of student test scores can be traced to a principal’s leadership are still fuzzy but likely hover somewhere in the low to mid teens. That effect is less than a classroom teacher. But, said Jason Grissom, who has studied the impact of principals at Vanderbilt University, principals affect many more kids.

And they do much to set the tone of a school and ensure it’s a safe environment for students and teachers to learn and work.

“They’re really the linchpin,” said Christine Campbell, who has studied principal practices in districts around the country.

District officials in Denver and around the country recognize the importance of principals and have used the urgent need for strong leadership as the justification for replacing principals after just a year or two, often ushering in big changes to the school.

“The thinking in education seem to be, when you have a leadership change, ‘Out with the old, in with the new,’” said Jane Shirley, who coaches and trains principals in Denver.

But paradoxically, the churn itself could also be interfering with a school’s ability to improve, with constant changes preventing consistent growth.

“Studies suggest student achievement dips following a transition period,” said Grissom. “It recovers after two to three years. But that’s real impact on those kids that are in the school at that time.”

There’s evidence in Denver’s own schools that Grissom’s predictions may be playing out.

For example, after a lackluster first year under new principal Beth Yates, Columbine Elementary School’s students grew by one of the fastest rates in the district on state tests in Yates’ second year. But by the time those scores were reported, the district had already replaced Yates, bringing in the school’s fourth principal in five years.

The change left Melissa Skrbic-Huss, whose son attends the school, with a familiar feeling.

“The inconsistency they have provided to Columbine has made me unhopeful that Denver Public Schools understands what a kid needs,” said Skrbic-Huss. “It made me feel that Columbine is a school where they are trying different techniques to see what works.”

Skrbic-Huss said she worries Denver is willing to experiment at Columbine because almost all students there are poor.

“A lot of times our students come from families where the only consistency is the school,” she said.

So many vacancies, so few principals who are prepared

As a first-year assistant principal at Oakland Elementary, Candice Reese was surprised when a district administrator urged her to accept Denver’s offer that she run her own building.

“I didn’t think I was ready,” Reese said. “Why they put new administrators in [low-performing] buildings, that’s very odd to me.”

The pathway that Reese found odd is actually well worn in Denver. The district must fill between 20 and 30 principal positions (out of 162) each year. And the district must sometimes scramble to find enough candidates with the experience and qualifications to head up schools, especially those that struggle the most.

“There’s no one on the bench,” said Jane Shirley, who coaches and trains principals through an outside program, Catapult (formerly Get Smart Schools).

But the district’s problem, Shirley said, isn’t that it doesn’t have enough people with the capacity to lead schools.

“It’s not that we don’t have the talent,” she said. But many who could or would want to don’t have the necessary training or qualifications.

In the past, educators often rose slowly through the ranks at their schools, taking on more responsibility over the course of decades. But the way people think about the work has changed — and so has Denver, with rapid changes to the district disrupting many of its traditional patterns.

“Gone are the days of someone being in a building for 25 years,” said Shirley.

Without enough trained and qualified candidates, the district is sometimes left playing a game of musical chairs, pulling qualified candidates from schools that are thriving to take over at others that are foundering — leaving a leadership void at the schools they vacated.

For example, when the district removed Columbine Elementary School’s principal from her post last year, they pulled in Jason Krause from Smith Renaissance School, where he was in the midst of working to pull up that school’s performance.

A student leaves Columbine Elementary School (left) and the school’s new leader Jason Krause meets parents (right)

The district also relies on veterans to take over struggling schools on a short-term basis to hold the course until a permanent leader can be found, as happened at Manual High School and several schools in the Far Northeast. And the district must still sometimes resort to pulling up an assistant principal like Reese who doesn’t feel ready to take the reins.

The district doesn’t always do a good job of matching schools and principals, said Kim Knous-Dolan, who works for the Donnell-Kay Foundation, a local education research and advocacy organization.

“They could probably get a lot more sophisticated and nuanced around hiring the right kind of leaders for the right kind of schools,” she said. She suggested the district could write and publish profiles for the different kinds of leaders it needs, from someone to run a school for at risk students to a leader of an autonomous innovation school.

District administrators say they have tried to be more thoughtful at making sure the right leader ends up at a school. But they often have a short timeline to find a candidates and do not consistently use tools like observing interactions with staff and community members to determine if a potential principal will be a match.

When it came time to find a new principal at DCIS at Montbello when the school’s founding principal left, parents say they only met a single candidate and did not participate substantially in the hiring process.

The result, Rilla Ervin says, was conflict between the school community and the school’s leader. Octavia Ervin and other students, used to a personable leadership style from founding principal Trent Sharpe, were offended that new leader Suzanne Morey didn’t spend time in the halls or getting to know students.

“She didn’t know your name unless you were in trouble,” said Octavia Ervin. The Ervins described discovering after running into Morey in the school that Morey was unaware Octavia was a student. Octavia Ervin’s younger sister struggled with the lack of guidance. She attended DCIS for middle school but after the disruptions of last year, she moved to another school.

And Morey left at the end of last year for a different principal job she says is a better fit, continuing the pattern of churn at the school.

While district officials would not discuss individual cases, principal and administrator descriptions of the general process of transitioning between leaders suggest that inconsistency is common across the district, with more involved conversations with the staff and community at one school and unilateral decisions at another.

And once the cycle of turnover begins, it can be hard to stop. High quality candidates may be driven away from schools who have a long track record of chewing up and spitting out leaders.

“What’s the inducement to do the job when there’s a line of people who haven’t succeeded?” said Barbara O’Brien, a Denver Public Schools board member who also works at Catapult, a principal coaching and training program.

Denver has tried to end the game of musical chairs, building up a base of qualified leaders to take over schools. Like some other cities, it has established its own internal training program, placing principals-in-training in Denver schools as assistant principals while working on getting an alternate principal license.

“We’re able to ensure our candidates are getting the right kind of training and preparation,” said Shannon Hagerman, who runs the training program.

But the city program lasts only a year, a duration that the city’s charter sector recently determined was too short to mint principals ready for the challenges of leading high-need schools. DSST, a high-performing charter network in the city, recently upped its training program from one year to two.

“We do think it takes that amount of time to really prepare our leaders,” said Bill Kurtz, the network’s CEO.

And the program isn’t yet producing enough principals to meet the need. “If you need principals right away, you need lots of strategies,” said Knous-Dolan.

Meanwhile, principals like Reese find themselves stuck in an impossibly hard situation. Reese ended up taking the job but was removed two years later as the district overhauled her new school. She took another principal job in Denver but eventually left the district for Brighton. Now, her old school is on its second principal in three years.

Pressure to make unrealistic gains, with little help

More and more, principals are expected to implement new standards, run new testing systems and improve student scores, all while still addressing the basic needs of keeping a building clean, safe, and orderly.

“The principal is responsible for so much,” said Billy Husher, Jr, a union representative at Denver Classroom Teachers Association.

But the consequences for not successfully navigating the district’s systems are heavy. Principals around the district reported being told they had a two year timeline to dramatically raise students’ test scores — or potentially lose their job.

That timeline appears to have come into play in the decision to replace Yates at Columbine. In a letter home to parents, Yates’ supervisor Erin McMahon told parents that the school had made “modest improvements,” but that “this work must be deepened and accelerated.”

Another principal cited instructions from his supervisors to jump a tier on school rankings within two years, or else.

Current district administrators say no hard and fast timeline for school improvement exists. Still, just one of the schools in the Far Northeast’s turnaround network has had fewer than three principals in five years.

“I wonder if we pull the trigger a little too quickly,” said Shirley.

While there can be good reasons to pull a principal out of a school, districts like Denver often fail to take into account the magnitude of the negative impacts that can result.

“Principal change has a big enough negative impact that districts should think seriously about the costs,” said Grissom. “They’re not thinking about the costs side of it.”

The decision to pull principals after just two years is also part of a misconception about what it takes for a school to make progress and an underestimation of all the elements that must be in line, many observers said.

“They think it’s a magic trick, to bring kids up two or three years to grade level,” said Mary Sam, a former Denver Public Schools teacher who is now a vocal opponent of the district’s reform strategy.

To begin to make a dent in student test scores, principals must do everything from having a healthy school environment to getting the right academic supports in place

“To really change a culture, it takes five to seven years,”  said Mel Riddile, the associate director of high school service at the National Association of Secondary School Principals and a former principal himself. “To implement initiatives, it takes two to five years.”

For long-struggling schools, it may be a question of building systems from scratch. Riddile and others estimated that it could take upwards of three years to see a substantial change in test scores. In the meantime, he said, district officials should pay attention to other indicators, including teacher satisfaction and turnover.

In their desperate bid to raise scores faster than some would say is reasonable, district officials also saddle principals of low-performing schools with often competing support systems that leave the school leaders feeling pulled in too many directions.

Most principals juggle the demands of multiple branches of the district bureaucracy. That’s especially true at the district’s turnaround schools, like DCIS at Montbello. Started in 2011 as part of a turnaround program for the entire Far Northeast region, the combined middle school and high school were among the eight schools originally selected to participate in a district experiment in how to run struggling schools. All eight were placed in the Denver Summit School Network, which was supposed to support schools as they implemented a series of district initiatives from longer school days and years to intensive math tutoring.

But the principal of the school was also expected to participate in a multitude of other initiatives, from the network of other DCIS schools to a so-called “data group” for discussing student results. All told, Dan Lutz, the founder of the DCIS network, estimates that a school leader at DCIS at Montbello had to answer to the concerns of as many as five separate organizations.

“It was a mindbender to step into and make sense of,” said Lutz.

Even the district’s systems that are intended to support principals appear to sometimes turn against them. One structure in particular — instructional superintendents — drew harsh critiques. The city’s schools are divided into eleven networks, overseen by teams led by instructional superintendents who are supposed to conduct frequent school visits, provide coaching and help principals coordinate the myriad systems that keep a school up and running.

But even local school board members have questioned how well exactly that structure is supporting school leaders.

“The instructional superintendent should be an advocate for the school,” said O’Brien.  “I have a healthy dose of skepticism with how well that layer of the district is working.”

Reese, who helmed a number of struggling schools, described a relationship that was more about catching mistakes than figuring out how to address them.

“In DPS, a lot of the time I felt like it was very punitive,” said Reese. “There’s a fear when district administrators are coming in. Schools that are red [the lowest tier on the district’s ranking system] and schools that are orange [the second lowest tier], there’s an uncomfortable feeling and a feeling like they’re there to get you.”

When the intended support is replaced with accountability, the result, Reese said, can be a sense of steering a sinking ship.

“When you’re doing all that you can, you just feel you’re drowning more and more and there aren’t life preservers being thrown your way,” said Reese.

Other principals who spoke to Chalkbeat described more helpful interactions with their supervisors.

Still, the result is often a job that no one wants and no one wants to keep.

“It is a job that is going to burn people out,” said Sonja Semion, the executive director of Stand For Children Colorado, the local branch of a national education advocacy organization. “You have to rely on finding this superhero.”’

Efforts to end churn proceed, but haltingly

District leaders say that they are beginning to take steps to understand Denver’s principal churn in order to figure out what to fix.

“It is concerning,” said Susana Cordova, the district’s chief schools officer. She now oversees school operations and support, the product of a recent shift in how the district manages schools. “It is one of the places we are trying to dig into the root causes.”

The issue may be getting a higher profile within the district, since school board members made leadership one of five key strategies called out in the Denver Plan 2020, which sets out the district’s targets for the next six years.

As a result, Cordova and her staff have spent the fall trying to sort out what is pushing leaders to leave and what schools need from their leaders. The result is at least the beginning of a look at what’s working and what’s not in the district’s efforts to hire and support school leaders.

For example, some in the district say structures intended to get principals the help they need are beginning to work.

“I didn’t have coaching when I was a principal,” said Hagerman, who used to be the principal at Montclair Elementary. She now heads the district’s teacher and principal training programs. “The vast majority of principals now have coaches.”

But, Cordova said, the district is still a long way from figuring out how to meet principals’ different needs for support.

“I think we’ve had a lot of effort in differentiation for leaders but I don’t know that we’ve gotten it right,” she said.

And some initiatives, including the training pipeline, could take time to reach their potential.

“It’s going to take a few years before the district’s developmental programs are lining people up with the right fit,” said John Youngquist, Hagerman’s predecessor. He moved to Aurora Public Schools last fall.

The district has also kicked off initiatives intended to lighten principals’ loads, from training teachers to take on more responsibilities to dividing up a single principal position into several.

The goal, Cordova said, is narrowing principals’ sphere of focus to instruction and school climate and “then pushing everything out the principal’s way to be able to do that.”

At DCIS at Montbello, the single principal position for the 6-12th grade school has now been split in two: one leader for the middle school and one for the high school. And the school’s former leader, Suzanne Morey, is now splitting the principal role at a nearby school with another veteran principal. One oversees instruction, the other operations.

“The role of the principal is changing,” said O’Brien. “The idea of a knight in shining armor just doesn’t work anymore.”

There are signs on the ground, beginning last spring, that schools may be having more luck finding and keeping principals.

At DCIS at Montbello, whose last principal stayed only a year, parents and district administrators say that the transition to a new pair of principals has been largely smooth for the school.

“This year, we were very apprehensive,” said Eurzila Lowe, whose daughter attends the school. In spite of that, she said parents and students “have all committed to supporting this new principal.”

The founder of the local network of international schools to which DCIS belongs said that this transition, which is the second since the school opened in 2011, has been the smoothest to date.

“It was the best ever,” said Lutz. “The district has learned a lot about school leaders.”

But the success of those efforts remain patchy and inconsistent across the district, a fact that district leaders acknowledge.

“Human beings are complicated,” said Boasberg, the district’s superintendent. “Sometimes the reason it works in school A and not in school B is the people doing it.”

And there are some signs that turnover will continue at some long-time hotspots. At George Washington High School, where a series of high-profile fights over the school’s exclusive IB program have soured relations between the district and parents, yet another principal left after just two years in the chair. District officials announced that they are launching a search for a new leader at Manual High School, to oversee the school’s next overhaul and Valverde’s leader has already promised to leave at the end of the year, over her school’s performance on state tests.

Students embrace at Manual High School (left). Above right, the front of Denver’s George Washington High School, and, below right, a community meeting at Valverde Elementary School.

The problem, according to at least one observer, is that the district’s disjointed efforts haven’t materialized into a comprehensive strategy.

“They’re doing something,” said Knous-Dolan, a local education researcher and advocate. “It’s just not a full blown and thoughtful solution.”

Until district officials acknowledge the scale of the problem, she said, nothing is going to change for good.

“If they made it a priority, it could change,” she said. “Someone just has to have the will to do it.”

Reporting contributed by Monique Collins.

Categories: Urban School News

Fresh air, exercise and a dose of learning

EdNewsColorado - Tue, 10/21/2014 - 15:32

There wasn’t a whisper of conversation among Kari Burkett’s fifth-graders as they walked a mile around the grounds of Aurora’s Kenton Elementary School on a recent sunny morning. Just the sound of footfalls and the caw of birds flying overhead.

The students, all equipped with small black listening devices and earphones, were absorbed in a recording about trickster characters like Br’er Rabbit. The walk-and-listen routine happens once or twice a week in Burkett’s classroom.

Laura Fenn, executive director of The Walking Classroom Institute, came up with the idea when she was a fifth-grade teacher. At first, she bought a class set of MP3 players using grant funds and recorded her own lessons or downloaded Internet content.

It’s part of The Walking Classroom, a four-year-old program based in Chapel Hill, NC, that allows students to get exercise while they listen to standards-aligned podcasts on language arts, history and science. In an era when many teachers feel overwhelmed by the push for better test scores and health advocates regularly sound the alarm on childhood obesity, The Walking Classroom attempts to address both problems.

All told, more than 30 fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms in 20 Colorado schools, from the Denver area up to Loveland, participate in the program. Many of the schools have large populations of low-income students or English-language learners.

Normally, a classroom set of Walking Classroom materials, including listening devices called WalkKits, costs $3,000, but sponsors like Kaiser Permanente Colorado allow many schools to participate for free. Burkett said the audio lesson, which correlate particularly well with her writing lessons, give students new ways to learn and reinforce academic content.

“I have a variety of learners, a variety of different language-learners…it’s an opportunity to do something different instead of just listening to me,” she said. “[They’re] able to connect a little bit more to what we’re learning in class.”

Program co-founder Laura Fenn, who visited Kenton and other participating Colorado schools last week, emphasized the link between exercise and attention.

The Walking Classroom

  • Launched: 2011
  • Used in: 46 states, including in more than 30 Colorado classrooms in 20 schools
  • Not to be used during: Physical education class or recess
  • 2014-15 Kaiser Permanente Colorado sponsorship: $95,000 for 21 classroom sets
  • More information: thewalkingclassroom.org

“We hear over and over again that the kids come back [from Walking Classroom sessions] and they’re more focused, they’re more productive and they’ve gotten some exercise,” she said.

The positive effect of exercise on the brain is something Carla Witt, a Kaiser Permanente doctor who also visited Kenton last week, said is clearly visible in magnetoencephalagrams, or pictures of the brain.

“When you have someone who’s been sitting…they’re recruiting just a fraction of their brain,” she said. “When you have them walk like this and now you take a picture of their brain…they’re recruiting substantially more.”

Jonathan Rodriguez shows off his WalkKit before heading outside. The devices come pre-loaded with 85-90 podcasts that are aligned to fourth- and fifth-grade Common Core standards.

In their own way, students also seem to notice a difference.

Ten-year-old Katherine Sanchez said she likes The Walking Classroom “because I get to exercise and when I come to learn I get the questions that the teacher asks right.”

Burkett and another teacher at Kenton adopted The Walking Classroom last year after the school got two classroom sets of the WalkKits through a Kaiser sponsorship. At first, she wasn’t sure how the program would work.

“There’s so many assessments and we have a pretty rigorous schedule.”

Nevertheless, she set aside 15-20 minutes for The Walking Classroom every Friday, and sometimes other days of the week. She assigned a leader and a caboose and students soon got used to strolling around the playground while listening to lessons on everything from similes to famous poems.

“If we don’t get to do it every week they get pretty disappointed,” said Burkett.

Categories: Urban School News

Documentary series tackles school reform issues

Catalyst Chicago - Tue, 10/21/2014 - 11:32

The first in a series of short documentary films on education issues in Chicago will premiere on WTTW Chicago Tonight and also at a public forum at the Chicago History Museum at 7 p.m. on Oct. 28, which will be live-streamed on CAN-TV27 and at schoolprojectfilm.com.

The forum panel will include Victor M. Montañez, who was policy co-director at Designs for Change, the leading research and advocacy organization behind the creation of local school councils; William A. Sampson, professor of public policy at DePaul University and former president of Chicago United; Penny Bender Sebring, co-founder of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, and Angela Rudolph, an education consultant and former program officer at The Joyce Foundation. Veteran broadcast and print journalist Carol Marin will moderate.

Entitled “The School Project,” the six-part film series is the work of a unique collaboration of five of Chicago’s top documentary production companies: Free Spirit Media, Kartemquin Films, Kindling Group, Media Process Group and Siskel/Jacobs Productions.

“After the decision to close 50 public schools in Chicago, we knew we had to look at the issue of public education, but we couldn’t cover it alone, said Jon Siskel of Siskel/Jacobs Productions. “We decided to ask other top companies to collaborate with us on the project.”

The first film, “Worst In The Nation?” centers on the contention by former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett in 1987 that Chicago had the worst schools in the country.

Catalyst Chicago is one of several outreach partners that are keeping their audiences up to date. The others are WTTW/Channel 11, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago History Museum and Ebony.com.

The School Project series will look at the recent mass school closings in Chicago, the expansion of charter schools, the controversy surrounding standardized testing, school discipline policies and the history of reforms and educational models.

An interactive website, www.schoolprojectfilm.com, will allow visitors to watch the documentaries online and obtain data trends, demographics and, where available, stories on individual schools.

Stay tuned for updates not only about The School Project but also about a year-long community engagement campaign  Catalyst Chicago is planning to mark its 25th anniversary in 2015.

Categories: Urban School News

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