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In the News: Bill stripping state charter commission's power advances

Catalyst Chicago - Thu, 03/06/2014 - 10:44

The Illinois House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee on Wednesday passed chairperson Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia's proposals to let local school boards - or if not them, then the voters of a district - decide whether a charter school will be established and supported with their tax dollars, no matter what an appointed state commission decides. (Illinois School News Service)

Chapa LaVia's bill would prevent a decision by the Commission to overturn a charter application denial by a local school board from being implemented, unless district voters side with the state and approve the charter school.

SAVING CERAMICS: An online petition by a former student has been started to save Lane Tech High School's award-winning Ceramics Department.  Artists and educators at Lillstreet and ArtReach are also urging the administration CPS  to reinstate all ceramics classes at Lane Tech. "Please do not deprive future classes of Lane Tech students of the vital and full programming of the Ceramics Department," an open letter from the non-profit ArtReach at Lillstreet says. A Facebook page, Support Lane Tech's Ceramic Department, also has been started.

LSC DEADLINE: Chicago Public Schools is extending its Local School Council election candidate-filing deadline from Feb. 26 to March 14. (Hyde Park Herald)

STUDENTS SUE STATE: Teacher tenure laws are being challenged in California by a group of nine public-school students who are suing the state, claiming state laws mandating teacher seniority end up protecting incompetent teachers. (CBS News)

TEACHING CIVIL RIGHTS HISTORY: A report released Wednesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project shows that coverage of the civil rights movement in U.S. classrooms remains woefully inadequate—three years after a first-of-its-kind study found that more than half of the states fail at teaching the civil rights movement to students. Generally speaking, the report found that the farther from the South – and the smaller the African-American population – the less attention paid to the movement in schools. Read the report here.

Categories: Urban School News

Most schools still lack candidates for local school council elections

Catalyst Chicago - Wed, 03/05/2014 - 19:04

The deadline for local school council candidate nominations is next Friday, but so far less than a third of schools even have enough parent candidates to fill available seats on the governing boards.

In order to encourage parents and community members to run for the councils, CPS launched an interactive online map today that shows the number of candidates – and vacancies -- at each LSC in the district.

“We created this tool to provide those who are interested in running for their LSC an understanding of what schools are still in need of candidates,” said CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in a statement. “I encourage parents and community stakeholders that want to make a difference at the school level to submit their LSC nominating form.”

CPS extended the original Feb. 26 deadline for nominations until March 14 in order to get more parents and community members involved.

CPS data from March 4 shows a wide range of interest from parents and community members at schools across the city. The most contested parent race, according to the data, is Skinner North Elementary School, on the Near North Side, where 17 parents have filed to run for six available spots on the LSC.

Meanwhile, not a single parent has filed to run at 86 schools, including Harte Elementary and Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park, King College Prep in Bronzeville, Shields Middle School in Brighton Park and DeVry Advantage Academy High School in Avondale.

Checks and balances

Similarly, just over half of all schools don’t have enough candidates to fill available seats for community members. At 144 schools, not a single community member has submitted an application to run.

Swift Elementary School in Edgewater has garnered the most interest so far among community members, with seven nominations.

Elections at elementary schools will be held on April 7, while elections for high school LSCs will take place the following day.

Each LSC is made up of six parents, two community members, two teachers, one non-teacher staff member and the school principal. High schools also include one student representative. Elected LSC representatives will serve a two-year term that begins with the 2014-2015 school year.

The councils are responsible for approving schools’ budgets, developing and monitoring annual School Improvement Plans, and hiring principals.

Valencia Rias-Winstead, a consultant for LSCs and a long-time LSC representative herself, said the councils are an important system of checks and balances.

“What we’ve found is that whenever you have parents that are at the decision-making table that are knowledgeable about the complete and accurate status of their school, they can help make good decisions,” she said. “Nobody knows the school like the parents, the teachers and the community.”

Rias-Winstead said there has been a noticeable drop in contentious LSC elections since they were created more than 20 years ago.

“People sometimes have to get riled up” in order to consider running, she said. “It’s when you have a principal’s contract coming up or problems with leadership, or unpopular decisions about uniforms or discipline, that you have contested elections.”

Jamila Johnson, a deputy press secretary for CPS, said she expects an uptick in nominations as the deadline approaches. “A lot of people wait until the very last minute,” she said.

Johnson said CPS has been encouraging parents and community members to run for LSCs by working with clergy, elected officials and the media.

“We are seeing our numbers grow every single day,” she said. “Of course when you have more candidates you have more people with ideas. You want to have people who really care and want to get involved at the school level.”

If a school doesn’t attract enough candidates to fill vacancies, CPS will hold a supplemental election to fill the seats, Johnson said.

The school district expects to update the data used for the online, interactive map early next week.

For more information or to download a nomination form, visit, or call (773)-553-1400.

Categories: Urban School News

To forestall intervention, a struggling rural district overhauls its model

EdNewsColorado - Wed, 03/05/2014 - 17:45

In an unusual step for districts facing a looming state accountability deadline, one rural district is completely overhauling its schools in an attempt to stave off state intervention.

In an effort to reverse years of low performance, Lake County School District, a central Colorado district that serves a slightly higher rate of impoverished students than Denver, is in the first stages of moving entirely away from its traditional academic model in its elementary and middle schools.

The elementary and middle schools will be joining a national coalition of so-called “expeditionary learning” schools, which focus on high-level thinking and real-world ties to classroom learning. If that’s successful, district officials, with teacher approval, could bring the model to the high school in 2015-2016.

Lake County is among a number of struggling districts that the state has given a timeline to show dramatic improvement or face intervention. But, state officials and observers say, it is one of the first rural districts on that timeline to take a comprehensive, proactive approach to turnaround.

A new direction, and a host of challenges

Teachers at the district’s elementary and middle school say that the adoption of the expeditionary learning model is a much-needed shift in direction, but the road to get to that decision has been rocky.

Dan Leonhard, a third grade teacher at West Park Elementary, remembers that when he first joined the district three years ago, teachers used a patchwork of strategies and materials that failed to get students thinking at high levels.

“Everyone just worked their tails off trying everything they knew and throwing everything they could at these kids,” said Leonhard. “It changed across levels, across teachers the way it would be taught.”

After his first year, the school’s scores actually declined. So last year, the district’s new superintendent and Leonhard’s former principal Wendy Wyman made changing classroom instruction her priority, talking to teachers and trying to get at the root cause of the district’s low performance.

“We did a lot of walk-throughs of classrooms,” said Wyman. “One of the things we learned through that process is that we wanted more support for curriculum and instruction.” Wyman started by bringing in both state and privately-run teacher trainings and by sending teachers to other districts to see what was working — or not.

But she wanted to make sure that any major changes were tailored to the particulars of the community, which includes Leadville, a popular outdoors destination.

“[It was] about coming up with a process that really matches who we are in Lake County,” said Wyman.

She and school leaders started by making small adjustments, including hiring instructional coaches for the elementary schools and starting to adopt state exemplar curriculum.

But at first, the small changes just provoked more uncertainty for teachers. Teachers and the administration felt directionless as they tried one strategy after another.

“It was just ideas and ideas and ideas,” said Leonhard. “There was just kind of a cluster of things to do without a vision of where we’re going to be.”

Looking at the possibility

Many staff felt there were too many things that needed to be fixed to do it piecemeal; the district needed a wholesale, cohesive new direction. Several administrators, including Wyman’s replacement as principal at West Park, Stephanie Gallegos, had experience with expeditionary learning and raised it as a possibility.

Lake County’s turnaround “mountain” with paths up the mountain indicating the district’s focus areas for improvement. It was painted by a West Park Elementary art teacher.

Students at expeditionary learning schools spend six months to a year completing a comprehensive unit on a single subject, known as an “expedition,” that crosses academic fields and culminates in a trip to a relevant location or in a visit by experts to the classroom.

Gallegos said the model just seemed right for the district, because of Leadville’s mountainous location and the ability to pull in experts on real-world topics like mining and the ski industry.

Plus, “expeditionary learning has some of the best professional development I’ve ever had as a teacher,” said Gallegos. She made educating her teachers in the model a top priority, even personally covering their classes so they could visit other schools or participate in trainings.

The national organization that coordinates expeditionary learning schools requires that any school adopting its model get approval from its teachers. When it came time to get the teacher go-ahead, Gallegos and Wyman’s efforts paid off — teachers in the district’s elementary and middle schools voted unanimously to adopt the model.

“As soon as that was solidified, there was a huge sigh of relief,” said Leonhard.

Although the official rollout doesn’t start until next year, he and other teachers have already begun to use the curriculum and approach in their classroom. Leonhard tried out a mini-expedition last fall on the impacts of World War II on Leadville. Many teachers at West Park are already using the official math curriculum and they plan to work on the curriculum for English language learners next.

“Before, if you went to someone and said, ‘this is not working’, the response would be, ‘well then try something new,’” said Leonhard. Now, he said, a single approach gives teachers time to focus on improving their instruction.

“It keeps [students] thinking at a much higher level than we could get them to before,” he said.

The district is also partnering with the Odyssey School, a well-regarded expeditionary learning school in Denver, for teacher training and other supports.

Although that partnership is in the early stages, it may also spawn a solution to a perpetual rural dilemma: how to fill open teaching positions.

One potential idea leaders have floated would be for Odyssey to funnel qualified but unsuccessful candidates’ applications to Lake County.

“We have a wealth of amazing talent and rural districts need that too,” said Mary Seawell, who directs rural education initiatives for the Gates Family Foundation. The foundation (which is unrelated to the Microsoft founder)  is considering providing funds to support Lake’s adoption of expeditionary learning.

Big strides, not baby steps

The total overhaul approach that Wyman and her team have taken is atypical in rural districts.

State experts say that’s because of a misguided belief that when districts reach the end of the accountability timeline or “clock,” anything they’ve tried will go out the window.

“If we’re two years away from the end of clock, we don’t want to make big changes” is the thinking, said Peter Sherman, who heads the state’s turnaround vision.

At the end of five years, districts that haven’t improved may face state intervention, so officials may be wary of investing a lot of resources into programs that might be thrown out later at the behest of the state.

“All of that leads to a lot of disincentive to make bold moves,” said Sherman.

Wyman has welcomed staff from the Sherman’s department to observe and provide guidance for her and her team. It’s an unusual move that Sherman said may improve their case in front of the state board, who will ultimately decide what the state’s role will be.

“A district like Lake [could] say to the board we’ve worked with your staff and we’ve remained nimble,” said Sherman. “All of those things will make for a strong argument for the board to say we have some fine-tuning recommendations but let’s not pull the rug out from under them.”

While that’s not a guarantee — Sherman said results are still important — he hopes it will encourage districts to try big changes.

Major overhauls may also attract attention and help districts pull in the resources many rural leaders struggle to access. Wyman’s overhauls have gotten attention from Denver-based organization including the Odyssey School, the Gates Family Foundation and Get Smart Schools, which is a leadership training program.

“We really believe this is a great district to work in,” said Seawell. “They have a plan and need the resources to do it correctly.”

Her proposal, which she will put to the foundation’s board, includes an advisory board that would pull representatives from Get Smart, Odyssey and other expeditionary learning organizations to provide guidance for Lake’s reforms.

For Seawell, it could be a model for how Front Range foundations can support other rural turnarounds, which generally get minimal outside support.

“It’s not someone coming into save a rural district,” said Seawell. “It’s a symbiotic relationship.”

Success not guaranteed

Still, no one has seen the data yet to see if the shifts are working. Teachers and school leaders are optimistic that their efforts will make a difference but worry about whether they’ll get the chance to do things right and whether they’ll see results.

“The highest level of concern that the staff has is, if we do this, are we sticking to it?” said Leonhard. “Education is infamous for having a flavor of the month.”

As a way to ward off that possibility, Wyman has made efforts to involve the community in the turnaround effort, including reaching out to the Hispanic community from which the district draws the majority of its students. Wyman is studying districts like Roaring Fork that have some success with outreach and has spent time visiting with community groups in attempt to build goodwill.

“If we’re going to get off of turnaround and be the kind of schools we want to be, it’s important for the community to be right there with us,” said Wyman.

But after years of low performance, many are just watching to see if it works.

“There’s a lot of skepticism,” said Amy Morrison, a parent who has been involved with the district accountability committee. Many parents in Leadville send their kids to Eagle County schools or south to Buena Vista, and Morrison isn’t sure if they’ll come back to the district.

But if it does work, Morrison thinks other communities may follow in Lake County’s footsteps.

“If we can work together, if we can be positive, maybe we can become the model,” she said.

Gates Family Foundation is a Chalkbeat Colorado funder

Categories: Urban School News

In the News: Test boycott teachers remain in class

Catalyst Chicago - Wed, 03/05/2014 - 09:13

More than 20 teachers at Maria Saucedo Elementary Scholastic Academy in the Little Village neighborhood who refused to give the test were allowed to teach students who opted not to take the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. (Sun-Times)

EXAMS COMMENCE: Some Chicago Public Schools parents continued to complain Tuesday about how the district is administering the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, but officials reported no major disruptions at schools as the multi-day exam got underway. (Tribune)

STRIKE DATE SET: Ten days after authorizing a strike vote, teachers in north suburban Waukegan Public School District 60 announced Monday they plan to launch a strike on April 16 unless agreement can be reached on a new contract that includes salary increases. (FOX News)

SOCIAL MEDIA IMPACT: A parent’s protest on the website Humans of New York went viral, with 150,000 likes on a Facebook page, drawing attention to students without a much-needed foreign language teacher. (The New York Times)

EARLY DIGITAL DIVIDE: A new RAND Corporation report details the importance of early childhood education and the value of technology literacy — the ability to use computer-based devices, software, and networks— at an early age. Sponsored by the PNC Foundation, the report, “Using Early Childhood Education to Bridge the Digital Divide,” details how incorporating technology into early childhood education may help address the digital divide. (Press release)

HOLDING STUDENTS BACK: A new Duke University study documented a ripple effect of behavioral problems in middle schools where higher numbers of students repeated a grade. In North Carolina schools with high numbers of students who repeated a grade, there were more suspensions, substance abuse problems, fights and classroom disruptions. The findings have relevance as North Carolina implements a new law that requires 3rd graders to pass a reading exam or risk being held back. (Raleigh News and Observer)

Categories: Urban School News

Online task force turning to recommendations

EdNewsColorado - Tue, 03/04/2014 - 19:19

The seven-member task force that’s been discussing online education has identified four issues for possible legislative consideration this year and has 17 days to develop recommendations in those areas.

One key issue – accountability measures for online schools – apparently is off the table for this year. The K-12 Online Education Task Force’s statement of “potential issues and problem statements” says, “The current accountability system is an unrealistic and incomplete indicator of student and school performance.” But the group has concluded that issue isn’t ready for consideration by the 2014 legislature because “more study and conversation among stakeholders” is needed.

The group also decided that the issue of how to get districts and schools to coordinate drop-in centers for online students needs further review and isn’t ready for legislation.

The task force identified four areas that may be ready for legislative consideration:

  • Updating and expanding the definition of online education to account for the growing variety of part-time, full-time blended and other forms of virtual education.
  • Refocusing the Department of Education’s work on improving the quality of online authorizers. “A lack of oversight of multi-district authorizers enables some schools to switch to authorizers who may not have the capacity to support online schools,” the task force says.
  • Speeding the transfer of student data from school districts to online schools.
  • Improved counting of online enrollment and inflexible funding for online students.

See this document for the task force’s full problem statements.

Online education has been a controversial subject since 2006, when a state audit found low academic performance by online students and weak state oversight.

In subsequent years a variety of studies, Department of Education reports, an in-depth investigation by EdNews Colorado (now Chalkbeat Colorado) and low performance ratings for some online schools have continued to raise questions about virtual schools, particularly some multi-district and for-profit programs. Key issues include low student performance, student turnover and cost to the state.

(A new study released this week by the National Education Policy Center also found continued serious problems with full-time virtual schools.)

The task force has held three full meetings and two public comment sessions to develop the problem statements. It now has until March 21 to develop the recommendations and report to a quartet of legislators who organized the group and are considering online legislation this session.

See this Chalkbeat Colorado story for a list of task force members and links to past studies and reports on online schools in the state. The task force webpage is here.

Categories: Urban School News

New associate editor joins Catalyst

Catalyst Chicago - Tue, 03/04/2014 - 17:52

Catalyst Chicago welcomes Melissa Sanchez as our new associate editor.

Melissa recently relocated to Chicago from Florida, where she was a reporter for El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-language edition of the Miami Herald. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Yakima Herald-Republic in Washington State. She has written about politics, labor and immigration issues and has won a number of awards, including an Inter-American Press Association fellowship to report from Nicaragua. She succeeds Rebecca Harris, who recently resigned to pursue new career goals.

Melissa is a graduate of Michigan State University’s journalism program. At Catalyst, her beats will include teachers and labor issues, state education policy, bilingual education, elementary schools and early learning. She can be reached at

Categories: Urban School News

In the News: Parents take test boycott to state board

Catalyst Chicago - Tue, 03/04/2014 - 10:52

A group of parent-activists cried foul Monday, after the state board of education informed Chicago Public Schools that the district could face “disciplinary action” if it does not administer the annual state achievement test to all students this week. (Sun-Times)

CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE: Many Chicago Public Schools students found themselves Monday in the middle of a tug of war between parents and teachers calling for a boycott of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test and district officials who continue to stress the exam's importance.

FACULTY SUPPORT: More than 100 university educations professors nationwide have signed a letter of support for Chicago teachers' ISAT test boycott. (CTU)

HOLDING FIRM: And here's what the Reader's Ben Joravsky has to say about Mayor Rham Emanuel' position on the ISAT boytcott.

BACK ON THE COURT: The Curie Metropolitan High School boys varsity basketball team will be allowed to play in the state playoffs now that CPS has confirmed that nine team members have complied and are eligible to compete. (NBC Chicago)

BUILDING BRIDGES: In less than three years at the helm of the Broward County public schools, Superintendent Robert Runcie has ushered in a new era of collaboration and cooperation between the Florida district and what some say is one of the biggest threats to its financial viability: the charter school community. (Education Week)

PUSHING DIGITAL CURRICULUMS: Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York City public schools and the current chief executive of Amplify, the education unit of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, on Monday introduced a digital English language arts curriculum for middle school. (The New York Times)

Categories: Urban School News

Marathon hearing sets stage for more negotiations

EdNewsColorado - Tue, 03/04/2014 - 01:30

All the anxieties about the proposed Student Success Act, chewed over in countless informal meetings during the last several weeks, were laid out in exhaustive public detail Monday during a six-and-a-half-hour House Education Committee hearing.

Supporters of the bill had their say as well, but opponents of the measure – and those who want significant amendments – dominated the session, which featured some 60 witnesses.

The success act, House Bill 14-1292, is the 2014 session’s centerpiece education bill. It proposes to reduce the state’s $1 billion education funding shortfall by $100 million, gives districts $40 million to help pay for implementing recent reform laws, another $40 million in construction funding, $35 million to improve programs for English language learners, $20 million for early literacy programs, $15 million to pay for a new enrollment counting system and a new school budget transparency system and $13 million in additional funding for charter school facilities. (See this chart for more details.)

The bill is sponsored by three of the legislature’s most influential members on education policy, Reps. Millie Hamner and Carole Murray and Sen. Mike Johnston. Some of the bill’s provisions are reworked portions of Senate Bill 13-213, Johnston’s grand school finance overhaul that was shelved after voters defeated Amendment 66 last November. HB 14-1292’s elements also were carefully assembled to gain support from both Democrats and Republicans in the legislature.

The bill is backed by education reform interest groups long allied with Johnston, a Denver Democrat. But it has sparked widespread opposition among superintendents, many school boards and teachers groups. Feeling pressured by six years of new state education mandates and more than four years of budget cuts – and discouraged by voter rejection of $1 billion in new education revenue – districts are pushing back.

Their consistent but respectful plea as the afternoon turned to evening boiled down to two points – reduce by as much as possible the $1 billion school funding shortfall (known as the “negative factor”) created by the recession, and don’t impose new or expanded programs on districts, with state bureaucracy and regulation attached.

Monday’ hearing was a key event in the intensifying conversation, but it wasn’t a decision point. Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, had announced last week that the committee wouldn’t consider amendments nor vote on the bill Monday.

Do your homework

She told Chalkbeat Colorado that she hasn’t decided when the committee will next work on the bill, or if that session will take place before or after March 18, when state economists issue their quarterly revenue forecasts. Those forecasts will provide the numbers legislators need to finalize both school funding measures and the main state budget bill.

“We’re going to have to work together over the next few weeks to get this absolutely right,” Hamner said, “We will do our very best to respond to what we heard tonight … everyone recognizes that we need to move forward in a way that’s fiscally responsible. … We have a very tough job ahead of us.”

Murray, a Castle Rock Republican, said, “We would like to get all the comments possible from today’s hearing and then go from there.”

Hamner did make a point of noting that under HB 14-1292 and a companion measure, House Bill 14-1298, average per-pupil funding could increase by $403 next year, plus an additional $236 dollars for each English language learner.

Sponsors already have given some ground on the bill. Rough early versions of the measure didn’t proposed any reduction of the negative factor, for instance.

Much of Monday’s testimony focused on districts’ desire to cut into the negative factor. Holyoke Superintendent Bret Miles said, “We need the General Assembly to put the negative factor ahead of pet projects.”

Other superintendents criticized the bill’s proposals to convert to the average daily membership method of enrollment counting and to require districts to publicly report school-level spending, including salaries.

“Districts don’t have the capacity to support the extra mandates proposed in the bill,” said Eaton Superintendent Randy Miller.

Although a phalanx of rural superintendents provided much of the testimony, DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg, Liz Fagen of Douglas County and Cherry Creek’s Harry Bull also supported significant reductions in the negative factor.

Leaders of two high-poverty districts, Sheridan and Commerce City, were more complimentary about the bill, saying it would help their schools.

While it generally seemed clear where most witnesses stodd, Westminster Democratic Rep. Cherilyn Peniston, who was chairing the meeting, asked several people to clarify if they were for or against the bill.

Center Superintendent George Welsh spoke for many when he said, “I’m not against the bill; I’m for improving it.”

Unequivocal support for the bill came only from witnesses representing reform and business groups such as Colorado Succeeds, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children. But leaders of the South Metro Denver Chamber opposed the bill, calling it too bureaucratic.

Witnesses representing charter schools spoke in support of the bill’s increased funding for charter facilities costs.

HB 14-1292 has 35 House sponsors from both parties, although that support may change depending on the final form of the proposal. So far the bill has only one Senate sponsor – Johnston – and there’s much Capitol speculation about the bill’s prospects in that chamber.

House Education on Monday also took testimony on House Bill 14-1298 – only 13 witnesses and an hour of testimony. The bill is the routine annual school funding bill, but it does propose increasing the number of preschool and kindergarten slots for at-risk students by 5,000 and giving boards of cooperative education services an additional $2 million, primarily to help small districts implement new education laws.

Categories: Urban School News

DPS board kicks off Denver Plan town hall meetings

EdNewsColorado - Tue, 03/04/2014 - 00:12
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia Denver Public Schools parents Tandy Dilworth and Olisa Ajinaku and grandparent Johari Green discussed The Denver Plan at a town hall meeting Monday night. Green said the district needs to outline its strategies for the community.

Update: This article now includes the district’s official presentation at the town hall meeting. 

Northeast Denver parents were asked Monday evening to provide feedback on a set of belief statements and loosely defined goals the board of education believes should guide the district in the coming years.

But parents were ready to discuss specifics.

“We need the third piece, a strategy,” said Johari Green, grandmother of 18 Denver Public Schools students.

Board member Landri Taylor, who led the meeting of about two dozen parents at Smiley Middle School, said the strategy was coming, but first district officials and the city needs to agree on a foundation for The Denver Plan, DPS’s governing document.

“The Denver Plan is our roadmap — plain and simple,” Taylor said. “It needs to take us from Point A to Point B.”

Community feedback will make sure the district and its community of parents, teachers, and children agree on what “Point B” is, Taylor said.

The Denver Plan is being revised for the second time since it was first published in 2005. New standards and assessments, a need to embrace different learning methods, and clearer definitions of shared values are the reasons the board is revising the Plan now, Taylor said. 

Critics of the Plan have said the document’s strategies and goals are too cumbersome and arbitrary.

“I see the core beliefs,” said Sean McDermott, a Steadman Elementary School parent. “But I don’t know if they’re in harmony with what’s regularly practiced now.” 

Several parents were cautious about the word “choice” appearing in the district’s value statements and goals. DPS is too focused on giving parents options, but those options never seem to be in their neighborhood, they said.

“With school choice, we lose community,” McDermott said. “Where is the effort to improve neighborhood schools?”

Others were excited to hear the district felt it needed to embrace “the whole child” and not just their test scores. But they were quick to point out none of the proposed core beliefs or goals addressed that point.

DPS will hold five more town hall meetings with parents and community members through March. The board will have a draft document prepared for May and will host another round of meetings for feedback, Taylor said. A final version should be ready to be approved by June.

Denver Plan Town Hall Presentation


DenverPlanPresentationTownHallEnglish (PDF)

DenverPlanPresentationTownHallEnglish (Text)

Categories: Urban School News

Students criticize high-stakes testing, “racist” education system

EdNewsColorado - Mon, 03/03/2014 - 21:33

A group of parents, teachers and observers gathered on the steps of the Capitol Monday evening to hear students protest high stakes testing, as part of a “State of the Student” event organized by the Denver Student Union.

“Because of the tests, we have changed the structure of classrooms and what students are allowed to do,” said Michaela Ladenburger, one of the featured student speakers and a member of the Denver Student Union, which advocates for student voices in education.

Students from schools including Denver’s Manual High School and Jeffco Open School gave impromptu or planned speeches, which ranged from takedowns of personal accounts of testing struggles to accusations of corporate profiteering.

“I’m a horrible tester,” said Manual senior Anthony Scott. “I guessed all the questions [on the ACT reading section] because I didn’t have time to read.”

Scott told Chalkbeat he was worried about the direction the education system was taking for his young nephew.

“I’ve been through the school system,” Scott said. “I haven’t learned anything I could use in my life.”

Another student said he had “been victimized by the public education system” and that the stress of testing made him fake sick starting in elementary school.

Teaching life skills was a motif in the speeches, as was the role of race and privilege in public education.

“My black and brown peers are in a system that is racist and we call it schooling” said Alex Kacsh, who attends Jeffco Open School and gave the official “State of the Student” speech.

Kacsh also criticized the role politics played in reforming education, highlighting political battles around the Front Range, from Jeffco where “the superintendent was kicked out” to Dougco “where [voters] are seeing their funds go to the charter school down the road.”

Kacsh and others said testing restricted teachers and limited the ways students could demonstrate knowledge.

He urged legislators to listen to students when they think about changing the system.

“What I see with most legislators is when you say you want to do the best for us, we’re not invited to the table,” Kacsh said.

“We’re leading the country in the wrong way,” he said, receiving applause from the small group of listeners. “Standardized testing is simply dumbing down our kids.”

Following the speeches, a group of students delivered a petition to end statewide standardized testing to the governor’s office and the Colorado Department of Education.

Categories: Urban School News

Parents have no right to opt-out of tests, says state

Catalyst Chicago - Mon, 03/03/2014 - 18:56

On the day that many schools began administering the ISAT, state education officials told parents that they have no legal right to opt their children out of the mandatory test and that all students must be given the test and have the directions for taking it read to them.

“It is the law,” said Illinois State Board of Education spokesman Matt Vanover. “Parents cannot opt their children out.”

After a meeting with ISBE’s general counsel during which this message was delivered, Cassie Creswell of the anti-testing group More than a Score was incredulous. “How can they say there is no legal right to opt out?” she said, noting that in other states, such as New York State, large groups of parents had opted out of standardized tests. Though small numbers of parents have opted their children out of tests in past years, the movement to boycott the ISAT—including a boycott declared by the faculties of two high-achieving schools—has drawn more attention to a practice that has flown under the radar until recently. 

Creswell and 34 other parents filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union on Monday, asking ACLU attorneys to bring a case against ISBE for not allowing students to opt out of the exam. The parents say that their due process rights will be violated if the test is put in front of their children, despite their objection.  “As a parent, I have the right to guide the education of my son,” said Wendy Katten of Raise Your Hand. 

The parents said they will have to send their children to school with instructions about how to disobey their teachers. 

“I told my daughter to lay her head down and say ‘I refuse to waste my time on this,’” said Rosemary Vega.

Over the past weeks, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has sent out several letters urging parents to have their children take the ISAT, which is being phased out after this year, as well as the NWEA, another standardized test. Parents have focused their criticism on Byrd-Bennett, who they accuse of putting out misleading information about the consequences of not taking the tests.

One of the points Byrd-Bennett has made is that CPS risks a loss of federal funding if too few students take the test. On Monday, Creswell said that ISBE’s general counsel acknowledged to parents that there is no significant risk of losing money, though Creswell said he added that there was “not zero risk.”

Vanover would not confirm that the threat of losing federal funding was minuscule, but he wouldn’t say that any real risk existed either. “Anytime you break a law, there is a chance of repercussions,” he said.

Over the past few days, CPS has shifted some of the blame for its hard line stance to ISBE.

CPS officials said ISBE told them they must give out the tests to students, even those with opt-letters on file. CPS also noted that ISBE could revoke the certification of teachers who refuse to administer the test. Saucedo and Drummond teachers have said they will boycott the test.

Vanover said that there are other steps that could be taken short of revocation, but that ISBE would likely follow the lead of CPS.

Categories: Urban School News

For low-performing schools, a crucial roadmap

EdNewsColorado - Mon, 03/03/2014 - 17:48

For the faculty and staff of Aurora Public Schools’ Crawford Elementary School, there is no escaping the campus’ goals. Not even in the restroom.

Posted directly across from the toilet reserved for teachers and visitors is a single sheet of paper with the school’s three goals. Crawford’s educators are reminded every time nature calls: Teachers will plan standards-based lessons, they will collaborate across grades and content areas, and students will write every day.

“Well, our goals are not on the bedside table,” said Lacey Farmer, a fourth grade teacher. “But they are a part of everything we do. They’re constantly around us.”

In every classroom. In every hallway. In the forefront of every teacher’s mind.

The goals aim to lift student proficiency, especially in writing, and develop every teacher’s ability to understand and teach to the new Colorado Academic Standards. They were developed through the Unified Improvement Plan process, in which the school’s leadership team worked with teachers, parents and central administrators to identify areas of improvement and set clear goals to increase student learning.

Before 2009, school improvement plans, often referred to as UIPs, were a bureaucratic compliance mechanism. There were plans for accreditation purposes, grants, and other state requirements. Since then, the state has combined all of those forms into a single template and its purpose has evolved into the quietest tool of school reform.

Every school and district in Colorado must develop a UIP annually, but the roadmaps are meant to be living documents that school leaders, teachers, administrators and board members refer back to throughout the year.

“If it’s viewed as an annual event, then nothing will change,” Youngquist said.

The intent is to keep focus on those goals educators believe will dramatically increase student performance and let all else fall by the wayside, said John Youngquist, Aurora’s chief academic officer.

But if school leaders are brutally honest, understand their data, can articulate their desired goals and put together a plan to reach those goals, a big payoff should follow, he said.

New leader, new direction, brutal honesty

When Principal Jenny Passchier joined Crawford this school year, she knew one of her first tasks would be to visit the school’s UIP.

She wanted to honor established building goals, but knew a fresh set of eyes were needed. Hours of conversations and data sessions with her leadership team and teachers yielded a clear understanding of why Crawford was one of the district’s lowest performing elementary schools: teachers here didn’t know what proficient writing is.

That ‘brutally honest’ assessment is the type of inward looking reflection district and state officials are looking for in a school’s plan.

“It came from the teachers,” Passchier said. “They hadn’t had any professional development around writing to the new standards. They so desperately wanted that development to help the kids.”

Fourth grade teacher Clara Hernandez said the discussions were difficult but necessary.

“Other schools would be crushed,” she said. “But we don’t see it that way. We see this process as an opportunity to be a part of something.”

That this realization came from the teachers, not the school’s principal is important, said Lisa Medler, executive director of improvement planning for the Colorado Department of Education.

“It’s about having those really tough discussions,” Medler said. “When it’s an inclusive process, it really can help.”

To correct this “root cause,” or one of the chief reasons why Crawford students are not demonstrating proficiency on state exams, Crawford students are now writing every day and there are regular schoolwide writing prompts teachers assess together.

Understanding data, correcting along the way

Previous iterations of Crawford’s UIP had a similar collaborative process. But something that was missing, teachers said, was a data component.

“With previous leadership, we had a lot of intention around climate,” said Jenny Buster, Crawford’s assistant principal. “Did we have safe classrooms? Did we meet our student’s social and emotional needs? We have that in place now. And we’re shifting to academics.”

Teachers keep detailed charts of student progress. Every Wednesday teachers team up to discuss student trajectories and create lesson plans focused on the new standards.

“There’s always a reminder of exactly where we are,” said Liz Soltys, a first grade teacher.

Consistently monitoring data is a crucial step, the district’s academic officer Youngquist said.

“Our challenge is making sure we implement our strategies effectively,” he said.

While there are hard deadlines to submit a UIP to the state, Medler suggests schools and districts should be regularly updating their UIP with the most timely information.

“Don’t wait on CDE,” Medler said with a chuckle. “Keep going.”

Because Aurora is on the state’s accountability clock, the district has been receiving direct assistance from Medler’s office. This year the state is expanding its services to individual schools on the accountability clock, as well.

“When you’re at the point of being either a priority improvement or turnaround district,” Medler said, referencing the state’s two lowest accountability ratings, “there’s probably a lot in your system to work on. But we’re trying to help focus on the few things that will make an improvement.”

For teachers at Crawford Elementary School that focus is just one bathroom break away.

Categories: Urban School News

Kaiser hands out $1.4 million for healthy school efforts

EdNewsColorado - Mon, 03/03/2014 - 16:23

Twenty-one Colorado school districts recently won $1.4 million worth of grants from Kaiser Permanente Colorado to get kids—and in some cases staff—moving more.

The grants, which are part of Kaiser’s national “Thriving Schools” initiative, range from $5,000-$200,000 and represent the organization’s first direct-to-district grant program. Several of the grants will fund training to help teachers incorporate more physical activity into the school day or change the way physical education is delivered.

Grant winners

  • Jeffco Public Schools
  • Cherry Creek School District
  • Boulder Valley School District
  • St. Vrain Valley School District
  • Grand and East Grand school districts (applied jointly)
  • Adams County School District 50
  • Brighton School District
  • Englewood Schools
  • Summit School District
  • Weld County School District 6
  • Poudre School District
  • Cripple-Creek Victor School District
  • Fremont RE-1, RE-2 and RE-3 school districts (applied jointly)
  • Woodland Park School District
  • Academy School District 20
  • Falcon School District
  • Harrison School District
  • Colorado Springs District 11

About half of the grants target secondary students. For example, the Poudre School District will promote biking to school among high-schoolers, Weld County District 6 will create an after-school soccer program for middle school students and the Cripple Creek-Victor district will institute structured physical activity at lunch for seventh to 12th-graders.

Corina Lindley, senior manager of healthy communities and schools for Kaiser Permanente Colorado, said she is excited about the number of proposals focusing on middle and high school students, since movement initiatives tend to occur more at the elementary level.

Theresa Myers, director of communications in Weld County District 6, said the focus on middle school was intentional.

“That’s an age group that number one we want to keep engaged in school and we know that sports are in an important part of that.”

She also noted that soccer is a much-loved sport among the district’s middle-schoolers, 37 percent of whom are immigrants to the United States. While one of the district’s four middle schools operates an after-school program called “Soccer Without Borders,” the $100,000 Kaiser grant will expand the concept to the other schools, creating more teams and intra-district matches.

In addition to soccer, Weld 6 will also use the grant to create after-school running clubs at some elementary schools and provide stipends to various staff members to serve as school wellness coordinators.

The St. Vrain school district will use its $100,000 grant to expand Red Hawk Elementary School’s nationally recognized “All School Movement Program” to seven other district schools, including one middle school and one high school. Red Hawk students start the day with 20 minutes of physical activity such as jump-roping, trail running or brisk walking. In addition, teachers incorporate an additional 10-15 minutes of physical activity into their classroom schedules through the rest of the day.

The district kicked off the grant-funded movement expansion over the weekend with a training for 25 teachers who will serve as “champions” at their respective schools. An additional 50 teachers will be trained as movement champions next fall and winter. In addition to participating in the training, champions will meet in groups of five with a Red Hawk staff member each month to discuss issues and challenges arising from school movement efforts.

Red Hawk Principal Cyrus Weinberger said the teacher champions, who receive stipends as part of the project, will be expected to incorporate 30 minutes of physical activity into the day, separate from recess and P.E. The hope is that champions will spread the word to colleagues who are not part of the grant project and momentum will build for schoolwide adoption.

“The idea is that as those teachers with movement [in their classrooms] are experiencing good results that it’ll become more and more contagious,” said Weinberger.

Categories: Urban School News

A first year teacher in defense of veteran teachers

EdNewsColorado - Mon, 03/03/2014 - 15:30

As a first year teacher who got her teaching license through an alternative program (not TFA, although similar in some ways), I often feel like I walk through the hallways of my school marked with a scarlet letter.

In confrontational articles in countless media outlets, including this one, the media has marked “us” (new alternative teachers) as “different,” “reformers,” and “status quo changers,” who will embrace the innovations of the day, transform our schools, and “fix” education once and for all. But this is not at all the reality I see every day at my school.

There are a small handful of veteran teachers who are simply in it for the pension, the job security, or the benefits. But the vast majority of veteran teachers I know are here for the exact same reason I am: because they want to make a positive impact for students. They are also doing the same thing I am: the best job they can with whatever resources they are provided with or can beg for, borrow, or “steal.” And for the most part, the veteran teachers at my school are equally willing to embrace innovation and change as long as it helps them help students. What I am trying to say is we are in this together. We agree about far more than we disagree about. If we do not realize this soon, and start really working together as a unified force, the infighting will cause irreparable harm.

This message that “we” (call us what you will: Millennials, TFAers, New Majority, or just first year teachers) must rescue “them” (experienced, dedicated professionals) from the disaster that is public education is false, and it is harming education by creating divisions and distrust. I (and all my fellow new teachers) desperately need more experienced teachers to show us the ropes, call us out on our hubris, and just offer words of sympathy and advice. This is not some antiquated, dysfunctional aspect of public education; it is how all professions work. And many other professions manage to promote change and innovation without pitting new hires against old hands. We can too.

In the end, we are still doing the same things we have always been doing in education. We may have more data available to us, but we still have to decide whether it is valid and make complex, subjective decisions based on it. We may have more technology, but we still have to make sure we use that technology in ways that will benefit students and be fiscally responsible. We may be moving from a step-based salary to a merit-based salary system, but we still have to implement it in ways that are fair and ensure teachers have due process.

It is veteran teachers who will help the education system to make these decisions because they are the ones with the background and insight to predict and prevent the inevitable problems and challenges that always come with implementing changes. First year teachers do not have the necessary knowledge, and let’s face it, we’re barely keeping our heads above water most days anyway.  So, rather than preventing or delaying innovation, veteran teachers will be the ones to ensure innovations are implemented successfully.

I feel honored to be part of a team of dedicated, smart, passionate, capable teachers at Samuels, all of whom have been teaching longer than me. I hope that I will be able to contribute new ideas and insights to this team in the years to come. But I also hope that I will have the wisdom and humility to listen to my more experienced colleagues.

I know that if I fail to listen and learn from them, I may discover in ten years that I have just been reinventing the wheel this entire time and have failed to create anything new or innovative. And if the media continue fomenting divisions between new and veteran teachers, causing disagreements, distrust, and a lack of collaboration, we as a country may discover in ten years that we have all been reinventing the wheel. Meanwhile, an entire generation of students will have come and gone.

Categories: Urban School News

Don't put down teachers who choose charters

Catalyst Chicago - Mon, 03/03/2014 - 13:21

We need good teachers, and there isn’t a place for everyone in the district. If someone makes the decision to teach and does it well, they have earned applause no matter where they decide to work.Nobody wants a C-.

In particular, nobody wants a C- on the critical issue of keeping good teachers in the classroom. But that’s the grade Illinois got for “retaining effective teachers,” in the National Council on Teacher Quality’s 2013 State Policy Yearbook. Teacher retention is in fact a well-documented national crisis that negatively impacts students, especially those from low-income communities.  

Elevating the profession to keep the best teachers is a hot topic in education.  One low-cost, in fact free, way to do this is to change the way we talk about teachers and schools. This re-branding should start with an end to “shaming” the step-children of the education community: charter school teachers.

After seven years of working in a traditional district-run school, I made the decision to work at a charter this year. After being subject to the large-scale reduction-in-force at CPS last summer, I decided to try something new. The reaction from my friends and former colleagues was…well, mixed. Bad press and budget cuts have fueled the fire against any non-district-run institution.

Despite the metaphorical rotten fruit thrown daily in my direction, this was the right move for me. The environment is professional, my colleagues are dedicated, and the administration is inspiring. I realize as I’m writing this readers may respond with negativity and complaints, but here are the facts: We need good teachers, and there isn’t a place for everyone in the district. If someone makes the decision to teach and does it well, they have earned your applause no matter where they decide to work.

Here is my own list of “Frequently Asked Questions” about charters and my defense of those of us who choose to teach in one:

Q: According to The Charter Difference, a 2009 study by the University of Illinois at Chicago, charter schools have a “significant under-enrollment of special needs students [that] may be discriminatory and warrants further investigation.” Aren’t they just taking all the “good kids” to boost their scores?

A: Not in my experience. To offer more information on this, see Illinois Network of Charter Schools President Andrew Broy’s article “Setting the Facts Straight on Charter Schools” (published in the Chicago Sun Times on August 7th, 2013). Broy reminds us that charter schools are public and “free and open to anyone who wishes to enroll, no matter a student’s neighborhood, family income, previous education, ethnicity or family status.” Another 2009 study by the RAND Corporation found that charter schools generally are not drawing the best students away from local traditional public schools. The previous test scores for students who transferred into charters were near or below-average (except for white students), and the racial makeup of charters was similar to that of the traditional schools the students had previously attended.

Q: How can any teacher agree to work for “union busters?”

A: Actually, we do have a right to unionize—in Chicago, we have Chicago ACTS Local 4343. At my orientation, administration from our network even encouraged us to sign up and invited representatives to get us registered.

Q: Isn’t it true that there are cases of high-level corruption in some charter networks?

A: Yes. But isn’t that also true in most districts? Do teachers make those decisions? Why punish them?

Q: Aren’t charter networks big business in disguise?

A: Some are. And some are not-for-profits, or are funded partly by competitive grants programs. In Illinois, charters can only be awarded to a non-profit, although the non-profit may then contract with a for-profit to run the school. Plus, many charters were started by teachers.

Q: Why should state funding go to charters when the district schools are undergoing budget cuts?

A: Again, not a teacher decision. I’d like to stress that there is simply not sufficient funding for all of us to work in the district, so all we can do is make sure that somehow, somewhere, we are in front of students doing the best we can.

Q: Aren’t teachers treated badly in charter schools?

A: Some charter schools may treat teachers badly. Some district schools treat teachers badly. At my school, teachers are consulted on every matter from content of professional development to curriculum. Performance and tangible outcomes are rewarded with job security (as opposed to quality-blind layoffs in the district). It’s almost like we have a tiny, renegade district that values teacher voice! Yes, this may not be everyone’s experience, but I resent the prevailing generalizations.

Q: Don’t charters have underqualified teachers?

A: Frankly, it looks like few of us teachers, anywhere, are well-prepared when we begin. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality Teacher Prep Review, “less than 10% of all rated programs earned 3 stars or more.” This study included 1,200 programs across the country. Shall we agree to let each individual teacher’s data speak for itself, and hope that new evaluation systems will help to improve us all?

So, if I have to operate as an outcast in order to keep a job that I love, then let the judgmental comments commence! Excellent teachers, I applaud you, no matter where you work. You are a treasure, and we need you to stay in this field. Ignore the non-productive, hurtful, and prejudiced statements that will surely follow us throughout our careers. District colleagues and general public, I urge you to use a new lens to view all educators, one informed by research. Create a world in which every teacher is given a fair chance to show what they can do.

Susan Volbrecht is an eighth-year teacher on the South Side of Chicago. She is an alumni of the Chicago Teaching Fellows and the Teach Plus Policy Fellowship. She currently works as an academic interventionist at a charter school.

Categories: Urban School News

In the News: State's teachers union back Dillard

Catalyst Chicago - Mon, 03/03/2014 - 08:09

The Illinois Federation of Teachers endorsed Republican governor candidate Kirk Dillard on Sunday, giving the state senator from Hinsdale the backing of the state's two major — and politically active — teachers unions. (Tribune)

DANGER WARNING: Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis injected herself into a long-running neighborhood zoning fight on Thursday, alleging students at a public high school would face danger from a newly approved metal shredder in Pilsen. (Sun-Times)

SEASON FORFEITED: Chicago Curie Metropolitan High School’s basketball team, ranked among the best in the nation, has forfeited this year’s games because several players were academically ineligible to compete, public schools officials announced Friday. (Associated Press)

COLORBLIND NOTION ASIDE: Racial tensions are playing out in new ways on college campuses nationwide, like the University of Michigan, which has seen a sharp decline in black undergraduate enrollment. (The New York Times)

NOT JUST AN ELECTIVE ANYMORE: Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now have policies in place that allow computer science to count as a mathematics or science credit, rather than as an elective, in high schools—and that number is on the rise. Wisconsin, Alabama, and Maryland have adopted such policies since December, and Idaho has a legislative measure awaiting final action. (Education Week)

Categories: Urban School News



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