Former school principal turned leadership consultant Rona Wilensky argues that as long as schools remain bastions of stress students won’t learn.
I first began my career in education reform in 1984 and in all these years I have never seen more pressure on adults and children in schools.
Race to the Top, state level legislation tying teacher and administrator evaluations to student test scores and mandates that teachers master complex new pedagogies to implement the Common Core – not to mention years of budget cuts – have raised the stakes and necessarily, the fears and anxieties of adults working in schools. And in an enterprise as deeply inter-personal as teaching, the stress these initiatives create in school staff is directly transmitted to students. For as every parent or teacher knows, young people are brilliant detectors of the emotional temperature of the adults they depend on.
At the same time, the non-school pressures on children, especially poor children of color, intensified with the recession and slow economic recovery. Unemployed parents, housing disruptions, physical and mental health crises, crime and poverty continue unabated, burdening children with worry about their day-to-day survival.
In short, schools transmit and receive high levels of stress on a daily basis.
Coincidentally, embedded in most of the new policy initiatives is an implicit theory of change – that intense expectations on adults and children in schools will lead to unprecedented new levels of learning in the craft of teaching and the education of children. Unfortunately, this model of change flies in the face of strong evidence that stress and deep learning are, in fact, negatively correlated.
Research has shown that under some forms of pressure we can get very good at tightly focused attention as well as memorizing information or displaying what we have memorized. However, narrow focus and memorization – while useful – are no longer our priority goals for teachers or students.
The research that is more relevant to the current situation shows that chronic states of stress usually compromise the body, the emotions and the mind in ways that interfere with the very kind of learning we say we want: high-level, creative, inter-disciplinary and collaborative problem-solving.
Stress has been implicated in weakened immune systems, which lead not only to more frequent short-term illnesses but also to the onset of chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cardiovascular disorders in both adults and children. As all of us know too well, illness in any form drains energy, motivation and the capacity to be physically present – all of which are essential to mastering complex learning tasks.
Chronic stress is also associated with anxiety, depression and disordered sleep – further interfering with learning. And it can heighten emotional reactivity, which compromises healthy relationships, effective communication and good decision-making – key elements in the 21st century skill set.
Stress exerts its negative effects on learning by compromising the workings of the pre-frontal cortex, the very site of the executive functions crucial to the development of other traits we say we want: creativity, cognitive flexibility, self-control and discipline.
In short, there is a high likelihood that the stress we have created for educators and the stresses we ignore in our students’ lives will undermine our best efforts to raise the bar and close the achievement gap.Combatting stress in schools
What can be done? It is unlikely that educational or economic policies will change in the short run, although I certainly encourage and applaud efforts that tackle them head on. In the meantime, we need a strategy to prevent what cannot immediately be changed from derailing our best intentions. What I’m about to offer may seem like small potatoes, but it has a strong track record in the worlds of physical and mental health and is an emerging intervention in myriad other sectors, such as the military, business and the other professions. I encourage schools to both acknowledge the almost unbearable intensity of the situation we are in and intentionally support the use of stress-reducing strategies, including mindfulness practices.
Conventional stress reduction looks like a laundry list of New Year’s resolutions – eat better, sleep more and exercise daily – all important and useful antidotes to the toxicity that stress creates. More and more, however, stress reduction prescriptions include a recommendation to begin and sustain a regular mindfulness practice, which affects an even deeper level of change. Dubbed the “mindfulness revolution” by Congressman Tim Ryan of Youngstown, Ohio, in his book The Mindful Nation, advocates, including myself, recommend formal practices in which we learn to train our capacity to be fully present in the moment and notice when our minds have wandered, to cultivate kindness toward ourselves and others and to develop new ways of relating to habitual thoughts and emotions.
Early research has shown that regular mindfulness practice has transformative effects on our ability to cope with intense challenges in our lives: it leads to better regulation of anxiety, depression and emotional volatility; replaces reactivity with responsiveness by helping to create a space between stimuli and action in which we can more thoughtfully weigh our choices; and supports commitments to engage in more self-care and finding a balance between “doing” and “being” in our lives.
Across the nation, including Colorado, evidence-based programs in mindfulness are being offered to educators and students as an important strategy for increased well being in difficult times. When adults are calmer and more present, students feel seen and cared for, laying the social and emotional foundation for the hard work of high-level learning. When students learn to regulate their own stress, they develop a sense of efficacy that empowers them to take greater responsibility for their own lives and learning.
If you’d like more information about mindfulness in general, visit www.mindful.org, the home base for the mindfulness revolution. For a comprehensive view of mindfulness programming and research in education visit www.garrisoninstitute.org and click on the link to the Initiative on Contemplative Teaching and Learning. It may just change your life for good.About the author
Rona Wilensky was principal and founder of New Vista High School in Boulder from 1992-2009. Previously, she worked as an education policy analyst for the governor of Colorado, the Education Commission of the States, and various education reform initiatives in Colorado. In 2009-2010, Wilensky was a fellow at the Spencer Foundation in Chicago.
A Bronx principal is facing discipline after investigators substantiated allegations that he played fast and loose with school funds.
The Special Commissioner of Investigation looked into allegations, first filed in 2011, that William Rodriguez, the founding principal of Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music, billed the city for time he did not work. Investigators substantiated at least some of the allegations and delivered a report to Chancellor Dennis Walcott last month.
Asked about the report on Friday at Grand Central Terminal, where Celia Cruz students were performing to celebrate the station’s centennial, Rodriguez said he had not been found guilty of any wrongdoing. “Nothing has been substantiated,” he said.
But Department of Education officials were already deciding how to act on SCI’s findings.
“We are in the process of determining discipline,” Connie Pankratz, a department spokeswoman, said on Friday. A spokeswoman for the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators confirmed that Rodriguez met with the union’s grievance department on Monday, a standard step whenever a school employee is facing sanctions, which could range from a fine to termination.
Teachers, staff, and students at the school say that whatever misconduct investigators found would be merely a symptom of deeper leadership problems. They say Rodriguez, an accomplished musician himself, poured school resources into Celia Cruz’s award-winning music program while leaving students without adequate preparation for college.
“Please don’t let the many accolades our students receive in music fool you,” one person at the school wrote in 2011 to State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who monitors the state’s finances and investigates fraud. “The principal is out of touch with the needs of the students and staff. I’m begging you to please look into this matter.”
Among the allegations that investigators looked into was that Rodriguez forged time sheets to be paid for portions of the school day when he was not working and for work he did not actually do outside of school hours.
Copies of Rodriguez’s overtime timesheets from the 2010-2011 school year, which GothamSchools obtained, show that at a time when schools across the city were slashing their budgets, Rodriguez filed for overtime pay for attending student performances, high school fairs, and after-school music classes — expenditures that multiple other principals told GothamSchools are usually the first to be cut.
At a rate of roughly $44 per hour, Rodriguez took home more than $5,000 for the time, on top of his $150,000 annual salary.
The timesheets also show that Rodriguez did not punch in and out using a time clock on regular school days or have handwritten records approved by his supervisor, an option allowed when work is done off-site. Instead, he handwrote his timesheets and had the school’s business manager sign off on them. In their complaints to the city and state, staff members said they thought Rodriguez did not actually work most of the hours.
They also said Rodriguez asked a school employee to help out with his personal business during school hours. And they said Rodriguez’s side gigs, a weekly piano performance at Willie’s Steakhouse and a teaching gig at nearby Lehman College that a city spokeswoman said had been approved by the department’s ethics officer, sometimes distracted him from Celia Cruz.
On the evening of March 17, 2011, for example, Celia Cruz held parent-teacher conferences while Rodriguez was scheduled to teach a music history class at Lehman. “I brought a parent and another teacher to his office, and it was locked and it was dark,” one staff member said. “And that parent was angry.”
All of the teachers and staff members interviewed requested to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. But they said that while they were concerned about the possibility that Rodriguez was appropriating some of the school’s funding, they were more worried about other issues at the school that are not grounds for a city investigation.
Teachers, staff, and students said Rodriguez favors the school’s arts programs, which by all accounts are outstanding, but gives short shrift to academics, particularly math and science.
Students who enroll find a robust arts program with more than a dozen different ensembles, including an award-winning choir and a Latin music band that performed last year before Mayor Bloomberg’s State of the City address. More than 70 percent of the students who entered in 2008 graduated last year with a special arts designation on their diplomas, according to Department of Education data.
But just 18.9 percent of the students were college-ready, compared to 30 percent citywide. At the Brooklyn High School of the Arts, which also has an arts focus and enrolls very similar students, the college-readiness rate was 25.6 percent. Celia Cruz’s data took the biggest hit in math, where students’ average Regents exam score in Geometry and Algebra II was well below the 65 required for graduation.
On last year’s department survey, 73 percent of Celia Cruz teachers said they disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, “The principal places the learning needs of children above other interests.” Ninety percent said they disagreed with the statement, “The principal at my school participates in instructional planning with teachers.”
Sources at Celia Cruz said an external grant is the only way the school can pay for Regents exam and SAT preparation classes and after-school tutoring. At the same time, the school budget funds a summer music camp, which enrolls middle school students in hopes that they’ll apply to Celia Cruz.
The summer program is open to “anyone and everyone” and is funded through overtime payments and grants, according to Assistant Principal Jerrod Mabry. “We find the money to make it happen because it’s so important for our outreach,” he said in 2011.
And while school funds support students’ travel to state music competitions, academic teachers rarely get help paying for field trips, teachers and staff members said. A history class’s planned trip to Washington, D.C., was canceled in 2011 because Rodriguez was unable to provide bus fare after students raised funds for their hotel rooms and activities, they said.
Two years ago, when she found that the school was cutting its part-time college advisor, whom staff members said worked for free in the application-heavy month of December, Janel Strachan, a 2012 graduate, said she grew so concerned about the school’s direction that she sent an impassioned plea for help to Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.
“Not many of us would like to continue music after high school, and [we] are very concerned with our academics,” she wrote in the 2011 letter.
Until this year, the 438-student school had five music teachers and just three math teachers, where schools of this size have four math teachers. Strachan said her junior-year trigonometry class contained students who had passed the previous math course and also students who had not. The teacher essentially taught two classes at once, but all students got the same credits, she said.
“The admissions offices at the colleges I apply to are going to expect me to know trigonometry,” she said at the time. “But when I take the placement exam, I will fail.”
Now a first-year student at the University at Albany, Strachan said her fears have come to pass. In her first semester, she earned A’s in her music classes but D’s and C’s in science classes. She squeaked by in a basic statistics class by taking it pass/fail.
“New information was introduced to me and a lot of other people knew it already,” she said. “It made me feel pretty bad.”
This year, the school increased the number of math teachers to four and decreased the number of music teachers, also to four. But the most challenging math class at the school remains Algebra II/Trigonometry, according to department officials.
Teachers and staff members say students could be doing better if Rodriguez adjusted his priorities, or if a new principal brought a more even-handed approach to the school.
“We have an amazing music team — they’re so talented,” a staff member said. “Even if he cut a position or some resources, we’re still going to get a fine music program.”
Additional reporting contributed by Sarah Darville and Emma Sokoloff-Rubin
Jamie Marrufo, a senior at Greeley West High School, noticed right away that the vending machine in the student commons looked a little different when she got back from winter break.
“I was like, ‘Where are the Snickers?’”
They were gone.
So were the rest of the candy bars as well as the fried potato and corn chips. In their place were baked chips, honey wheat pretzels, Chex Mix, beef jerky, granola bars, and pouches of trail mix, peanuts, almonds and sunflower seeds. The change was part of a district-wide vending machine makeover intended to offer snacks lower in fat, sugar and calories.
Although Marrufo, who buys snacks from the machine about twice a week, loves Snickers bars, she likes the new vending machine choices too.
“It’s healthy food,” she said. “I think it’s good.”
Her friend Aimee Veenendaal, a junior who doesn’t like candy, also approved of the changes.
“I actually like it because that’s basically what I eat…the healthier stuff.”
Weld County School District 6 launched the new snack vending program in early January with the help of a $157,329 grant from the Colorado Health Foundation. The grant paid for the district’s 16 food vending machines, a vending truck, the salary of a district vending employee for one year and marketing materials to promote the new program.
Jenna Schiffelbein, the district’s wellness specialist, said the impetus for the switch was feedback from a district-wide wellness assessment in 2011-12. With the exception of some nut products, the new vending snacks, which are accessible to students only at the district’s four high schools, all adhere to the district’s standards on fat and sugar content. In addition, each snack is coded with a red, yellow or green sticker indicating that, nutritionally speaking, it is “good,” “better,” or “best.”
The district has not changed the contents of its beverage vending machines as part of the new program, though Schiffelbein said that may come later. Currently, beverage machines in all Colorado districts are regulated by the state’s Healthy Beverages Policy standards, which prohibit soda from being sold to students.
Do your homework
Weld District 6 is part of a growing group of Colorado districts that have slimmed down their vending machine snacks in recent years. While there is no hard data on the number of districts that have launched healthy vending programs, school nutrition leaders agree that more and more districts are heading in this direction.
Denver Public Schools and Jeffco Public Schools launched healthy vending programs several years ago, Boulder Valley joined the club last year, and Adams 12 is currently in the process of making the switch.
Jane Brand, director of the Colorado Department of Education’s Office of School Nutrition, said a variety of factors have driven the change, including the USDA’s updated nutrition standards for school meals, which took effect last fall, and its new, long-awaited “Smart Snacks in Schools” proposal, which came out Feb. 1.
Greater awareness about health and wellness in schools and high-profile initiatives such as Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign have also contributed to the push for healthier vending snacks, she said.
Naomi Steenson, director of Nutrition Services and Before and After School Enrichment in Adams 12, said, “It’s the right thing to do for the kids.”The Jeffco experience
In Jeffco Public Schools, the largest district in the state, the vending program was revamped with healthier food in 2007-08 after a state audit found the district in violation of the federally-mandated “Competitive Foods” rule barring vending items from being sold when school meals are served. Linda Stoll, executive director of Food and Nutrition Services, said the district’s vending machines were supposed to be on timers that would disable them at the appropriate times, but because they lacked the technology the machines were always on.
As a result of the violation, the district launched a new vending bid process, specifying nutrition guidelines from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, an organization focused on reducing childhood obesity. The guidelines use a common rule called the “35-10-35” standard, which stipulates that no more than 35 percent of a snack’s total calories can be from fat, no more than 10 percent can be from saturated and trans fat, and no more than 35 percent of a snack’s weight can be from sugar. Boulder Valley also uses these guidelines while Weld 6 uses a slightly stricter “30-10-35” standard.
In addition to a version of the 35-10-35 standard, some districts opt for additional parameters. For example, Boulder Valley also bans vending fare with non-nutritive sweeteners, hydrogenated or trans fat, artificial dyes, additives or preservatives. Jeffco prohibits high fructose corn syrup.
Not all snacks that met the letter of Jeffco’s standards were approved by Stoll. She vetoed MoonPies because she believed they were unhealthy though somehow they met the guidelines.
Stoll said she hopes the changes, which affected students in 17 high schools, have encouraged students to make healthier food choices.
“I’m sure kids miss Flamin’ Hot Cheetos but I haven’t heard a lot of complaints,” she said.Impact on sales
While many food service directors expect some decline in sales after switching to healthier vending fare, it’s hard to quantify since individual schools often manage the day-to-day details of vending machines.
At Fairview High School in Boulder, sales have dropped about 44 percent since new healthier vending snacks were introduced last winter. Still, school treasurer Ronda Pendergrass said the decrease may have nothing to do with a lack of interest in healthier choices. Instead, she believes it’s because the old machines weren’t properly programmed to be disabled during the school’s lunch periods until a few months into the 2011-12 school year. Thus, they racked up more sales than they should have.
Vending proceeds at Fairview benefit the athletics program, paying for sports equipment, signing parties for college-bound student athletes and some scholarships, said Pendergrass.
In Weld District 6, Nutrition Services Director Jeremy West said with the new vending selection in place, “Sales may dip a little bit. We do not have candy bars in there. We do not have gummy worms in there.”
Ultimately, West’s goal is for the new vending program is to break even, fully supporting itself after the grant funding is gone. Under the new program, 15 percent of vending sales will return to the schools that house the machines and 85 percent will go to the nutrition services department.
Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services for Boulder Valley School District (and an expert on EdNews Parent), said she’s not concerned about whether sales have dropped since the district switched to healthier vending items last winter.
The United States Department of Agriculture unveiled proposed new rules on Friday that would ban many sweet, fatty snacks and sugary beverages from school vending machines, snack bars and a la carte lunch lines. The “Smart Snacks in School” proposal features nutrition standards for “competitive foods,” which are food items offered in schools outside the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs. The creation of such standards was required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The proposed standards, which are based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, won’t take effect until 2014.
Tens of thousands of young people get arrested each year in Chicago, and a lot of those arrests happen on the grounds of Chicago Public Schools, according to WBEZ. In 2011, there were about 4,600 arrests on public school grounds, or about a fifth of the 25,000 arrests of kids 17 and under that year in Chicago.
Records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show that the way several UNO charter schools were built has provided a financial boon to people close to UNO's leaders. More than one-fifth of the taxpayer money spent on the Soccer Academy Elementary project, for example, went to four contractors owned by family members of UNO’s political allies and a top executive of the group.
A proposal to start classes a week earlier for the 2013-14 academic year in Elgin Area School District U-46 drew criticism Monday night at the school board meeting. (Daily Herald)
IN THE NATION
Since a group of Seattle high school teachers decided to boycott administration of a computerized exam in December, their protest has been embraced by opponents of high-stakes testing as a call to nationwide action. (Education Week)
A new study from the Dallas-based George W. Bush Institute finds most states have little or no information about how their principals are prepared, licensed, supported, and evaluated. (Education Week)
Each weekday morning, we search websites of various media, comb through RSS feeds and peruse Google alerts to bring you a roundup of the day’s top education headlines, in Colorado and across the country, by 8 a.m. If you’d like to suggest a story we’ve missed or a source we should add to the list, please email us at email@example.com.
Charter schools want to piggyback on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to expand pre-kindergarten across the state. But in order to benefit from Cuomo’s $25 million in pre-K grants, the schools first must win the right to offer pre-K classes.
Pushing for that right is at the top of charter school supporters’ agenda today as they convene in Albany as part of the charter sector’s annual advocacy day. The parents will meet in the Albany Convention Center with more than a dozen legislators, then spend the rest of the day visiting their district representatives.
They’re not the only ones lobbying lawmakers over pre-K this week. On Monday, police chiefs, principals, and education groups from around the state declared their support for Cuomo’s pre-K grants, which represent a fraction of the $385 million that the state spends annually on pre-kindergarten.
The charter sector’s lobbying efforts are not so straightforward, because the state’s 1998 law authorizing the schools grants them the right to serve students in kindergarten to 12th grade only. Legislators would have to change to the law — last revised in 2010 amid heavy controversy — to allow pre-kindergarten in charter schools.
“It’s our job to talk to lawmakers and say to them, ‘Hey, does it really makes sense to a have a program where some really good schools don’t have the ability to do full-day pre-K?’” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter Center.
Merriman said the sector also wants legislators to revive a bill that would allow charter schools to share resources in order to serve special education students and English language learners. In past years, charter school parents and advocates have lobbied for a variety of legislative initiatives: more schools, more funding, and, last year, more of a voice on the city’s local parent councils.
Sources say that advocates should dig in for a tough battle with the Assembly, which includes many Democratic lawmakers who have aligned closely with state and city teachers union on charter schools, which rarely employ unionized staff.
“The union would kill it,” said the source, who said broad legislative support for charter school pre-kindergarten would be unlikely during the session this year.
Carl Korn, a spokesman for New York State United Teachers, said the state union has not decided if it would support allowing charter schools to operate pre-K programs.
But United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said he didn’t think charter schools were ready to serve earlier grades.
“The charter school sector needs to deal with some of its more immediate concerns like high student attrition and their low number of special education and ELL children,” Mulgrew said.
It’s not the first time charter schools have sought to wade into early education. Harlem Children’s Zone, which operates two charter schools, had to set up a community-based organization with a separate board of trustees to receive state funds to operate its full-day pre-K programs. And Success Academy Charter Schools dabbled in a “developmental kindergarten” program that admitted 4-year-olds before they graduated to kindergarten. Spokeswoman Jenny Sedlis said that program ended after a year.
This year’s charter sector agenda is largely fueled by the recommendationS made by Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission earlier this year. In its “consensus” report, the commission avoided many of the state’s thorniest issues, and instead focused on less controversial initiatives.
All members of the commission embraced the pre-K recommendations. In its report, the commission highlighted research that shows that the earlier students enter a quality early education program, the better they will do in and out of school later on in life.
Some members wanted the report to more explicitly recommend Cuomo to seek legislation to allow charter schools to have a crack at his grants. Sara Mead, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, said she thinks the state needs more high-quality providers in order for expanded pre-K to succeed. Charter schools, she said, should be at least an option.
“The issue is not that charter schools should be entitled,” Mead said. “It just doesn’t make any sense to preclUde the charters from offering pre-K when some of them want to do it and have a good history of serving kindergartners.”
Even if charter schools win the right to operate pre-K programs, they still might not be eligible for Cuomo’s funding. That’s because districts without approved teacher evaluation plans aren’t eligible for Cuomo’s grants. New York City remains without an evaluation plan and, even if it eventually adopts one, it would not apply to charter schools.
In New York City, 58,000 students were enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs in 2012, according to the City Council. Most of them attended school for just a half-day, but a growing number, 15,590, attended full-day. About 7,500 pre-kindergarten-aged students weren’t enrolled in any program at all.
Several states already have laws that allow charter schools to operate pre-K programs, according to the report. California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Florida, Texas, Georgia, and Washington, D.C., allow charter schools to operate pre-kindergarten programs. Barbara Morgan, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Education, said New Jersey also allows charters to operate pre-K programs.
In New York, Merriman said, there is still considerable opposition to charter schools in the legislature, and he conceded that the sector’s lobbying had only a slim chance of success.
“I think, unfortunately, there are still lawmakers who just think that nothing positive should be done for the charter sector,” he said.
Educator and mom Kathleen Luttenegger preps a parent for tough conversations with her son’s teacher about an abundance of daily worksheets and concerns about the education he’s getting.Q. My son’s first-grade teacher uses lots of math and literacy worksheets in her class. Sometimes 5 to 10 come home each day. The weekly homework packet is also made up of worksheets. With parent-teacher conferences coming up, what’s the best way to bring up the fact that I think she relies too heavily on worksheets and my son finds this kind of work boring?
A. First, let me say that children – especially young boys – need active and engaging learning environments. Sometimes worksheets are unavoidable and are necessary to provide practice in mastering skills. But, 10 worksheets a day is overkill.Why worksheets?
There are so many factors that may be contributing to this teacher’s overuse of worksheets. I think it is important to understand some of the factors that may influence how you respond to this problem. With schools focusing primarily on student test scores, many teachers are under enormous pressure – even first and second grade teachers – to get students prepared for TCAP testing. Unfortunately, this often means worksheets.
Some schools have adopted strict guidelines requiring teachers to use specific curriculum in specific ways. Teachers in these schools may have very little say in how many and what kinds of worksheets they are required to use with their students. In these schools, every first-grader would likely have the same homework every night.
Another contributing factor may be increased class sizes. With school budgets stagnant or even decreased over the past several years, class sizes have risen in many Colorado schools. A teacher with 30 kids in the class may resort to using worksheets with students – other kinds of approaches may be more difficult with larger numbers of students.Is this a school issue or a teacher issue?
If your son attends a school that has a great deal of pressure to raise test scores or that has been impacted by larger class sizes, the worksheet problem may be school-wide. Have you spoken to other parents? Is this a problem that they see as well? Is this a problem at all grade levels? If so, the best chances for change include getting involved with the school and expressing your concerns to the administration. My guess is that one parent complaining about too many worksheets will not impact school-wide change. However, if there are many parents expressing this same concern, you might be able to influence school policies in some ways.
If this is a school-wide problem, you may want to consider if this school is the right match for your son. Not every school is a good fit for every child. You still have time to look around and see if there is another school in your area that provides a more active and engaging environment for all students. For example, many districts now have STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) magnet schools. These types of schools often provide more hands-on types of activities that may suit the learning style and interests of your child. There may be charter schools in your area that are better suited to your son (e.g., expeditionary learning, Montessori, etc.). Even a different neighborhood elementary school in your area may provide a learning environment better suited to your son’s learning style.
Choosing to change schools is not easy. However, if it seems like this is a school-wide issue, it is not likely to change quickly. You and your son may both be happier in a different setting.How should I approach the teacher?
It can be very challenging to address concerns with a teacher. Since you mentioned parent-teacher conferences, this is a good time to prepare your thoughts and be ready to discuss your concerns in a positive, proactive manner.
I would begin the conference by letting the teacher know that you are excited to hear about how your son is doing in school. Also let the teacher know that you have a few specific questions that you would like to ask, so to please leave a few minutes of time for these questions at the end. Be sure your body language and tone of voice show engagement and interest. You don’t want to put his teacher on the defensive.
Listen to what the teacher has to say about your son. Is he doing well in school? Is he making progress? Does she talk about him getting into trouble (mischief) at school?
After you have listened closely to the teacher, I would suggest sharing some positives about how your son learns best. Have there been any examples of activities this year (or even in the past) that have really engaged him in his learning? If so, share these with the teacher. Some examples might be:
After you have shared some examples of how he learns best, you can ask: “I am wondering what other opportunities my son will have to engage in more of these types of activities?” This will allow his teacher to highlight any similar kinds of activities planned for the upcoming weeks. If the teacher said that your son sometimes gets into trouble at school, you can use this opportunity to say that you notice he tends to be more on-task when he is really engaged in his learning. It is not uncommon for kids to make trouble when they aren’t really engaged at school.
Another approach you might take is to talk about homework. You can ask if there are there other ways he can show mastery of learning. For example, if he is working on basic math facts, could he practice them through computer/iPad games? You could say: “I’ve noticed that my son has a worksheet each night practicing math facts. He seems to learn math facts more quickly using interactive games. Could we do 15 minutes of math games in place of the math facts worksheet?”When is it time to talk with the principal?
I hope that your son’s teacher is open and willing to discuss your concerns. Some teachers will respond positively to this type of conversation and some won’t. I would suggest that if you try working with the teacher and nothing changes, you may want to set up a time to meet with the principal. Let the principal know your concerns, again focusing on the needs of your child. And, I would really focus on making sure that your child is placed in an active and engaging classroom for second grade that better meets his needs. By focusing on your child and his future needs, you will maintain a positive working relationship with the school, which is important if you expect to be there long-term.
The Denver school board managed to whittle down its list of 25 applicants for Nate Easley’s empty seat to nine names, one of whom will become the seventh member and a critical vote on the board.
Here’s the list:
This seat is important because of the pervasive split on the board over the school reform agenda driven by Superintendent Tom Boasberg.
With Easley stepping down to take over the helm of the Denver Scholarship Foundation, the board is evenly split on such key issues as charter schools, school choice, programs for English language learners and school co-location.
It’s also clear that whoever gets the seat will have a leg up when the seat comes up for election in November.
On Monday, each board member anonymously selected his or her first, second and third choice. The top choices were awarded five points, second choice three points and third choice one point.More meetings to come
The nine candidates will be interviewed by the board from 1 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday. Each candidate will have 40 minutes to respond to the same set of six questions they will have received in an advance, one question from each board member. In addition, board members will each be allowed to ask one “free-for-all” question of each candidate.
Candidates will have three minutes to respond to questions. They will also be allowed a few minutes for introductions and closing statements.
Board member Andrea Merida made it clear that she wants to hear from each candidate about cultural competency and race and class, for instance.
A community forum will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 20, most likely at Smiley Middle School, followed by another board meeting Feb. 27 aimed at narrowing the list to one. At that time the board may employ its anonymous numerical ranking system.
Sam, the only one of the nine who attended Monday’s meeting, said the process seemed “fair.”
“It sounds like the right kind of process,” said Sam, who taught in DPS for 41 years and was involved a recall campaign against Easley.
The discussion meandered for a while Monday before the board figured out a strategy for voting on the candidates and the whittling-down process. Board member Arturo Jimenez, as he has before, said he would not participate until he was more clear about what board President Mary Seawell would do if the board is unable to reach consensus.
Under state law, if a school board cannot reach consensus and fill an empty board seat within 60 days of a resignation the board president has the prerogative to appoint someone.
Jimenez agreed to participate after Seawell agreed, in the event of an impasse, to name a winner from the pool of nine candidates.Kaplan suggests eliminating Stapleton residents from mix
Board member Jeannie Kaplan tossed out the idea of narrowing the big list by eliminating anyone who lived in the Stapleton neighborhood, saying those residents already have enough representation. That idea did not sit well with other board members, such as Anne Rowe, who said rather that eliminating people based on zip code, the board should focus on people they want to know more about.
“I want to focus on reaching consensus in a positive way,” Rowe said. “Taking out a whole area of the Northeast area doesn’t even make sense to me. It is quite unfair to those” people.
Board member Happy Haynes echoed those sentiments.
“Our job is to select someone,” Haynes said. “I’m very opposed to de-selecting anybody. Where somebody is living doesn’t represent how well someone represents an area.”
At the end of the day, Haynes said she didn’t want to greet the new board member by saying, “Welcome to the board. You’re the least objectionable person.”
A bill intended to reduce the use of juvenile detention for habitually truant students passed its first test in the House Education Committee Monday, but parts of the measure remain under construction.
And on a party line vote the committee killed a broadly worded “academic freedom” bill that was promoted by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which advocates for the intelligent-design theory of human evolution.
Also at the Capitol Monday, a bill to protect the confidentiality of teacher evaluations was introduced, and a mid-year budget boost for state colleges and universities passed the Senate.Truancy bill slimmed down Daily roundup
House Education voted 8-5 to pass an amended version of House Bill 13-1021, which now goes to the House Appropriations Committee.
The original version of the bill would have required school boards to adopt truancy reduction policies and set detailed requirements for those policies and for district record keeping on truancy.
At the request of sponsor Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, House Education stripped most of those requirements from the bill. Various school district lobbyists had concerns that the original bill was too much of a top-down state mandate and would cost money that school districts don’t have.
As amended, the bill focuses on truant students who end up in juvenile detention centers because they’ve disobeyed court orders to go to school.
The bill says court proceedings should be “a last-resort approach” and sets up several intervention requirements for districts to meet before they could go to court. The bill also would set a five-day limit for the amount of time a truant student could be held in juvenile detention for a single violation of a court order to return to school.
“We really want to limit the number of kids who are truant going into detention,” said witness Meg Williams, an official of the state Division of Criminal Justice who has worked with Fields on the bill.
Fields and witnesses said a little less than 500 students a year are detained for truancy violations, and that in at least one case a youth was held for more than 100 days.
“We understand it’s a tool for the court, but we want to put a limit on it,” said Regina Huerter of Denver’s crime prevention and control commission, who also testified in support of the bill.
The other part of the bill would specify what kind of education students would get while being held in detention. That’s the section that’s still under construction, and Fields is negotiating with interest groups to come up with language that’s agreeable.
“It’s a very complicated issue,” Fields told her fellow committee members, noting that she’s been working on the issue since last summer. (See this EdNews story about Fields’ initial concept for the bill.)No go for “academic freedom” bill
The outcome never was in doubt, but House Education spent nearly 90 minutes politely taking testimony on House Bill 13-1089, which proposed to create “academic freedom” laws that would encourage and allow teachers and university professors to discuss alternative views about such scientific issues as evolution, climate change and human cloning – and to protect them from retaliation is they did so.
Critics of the bill saw it as a stalking horse to allow teaching of creationism and climate change denial in schools and colleges.
The bill was sponsored by freshman Rep. Steve Harvey, R-Severance, whose website describes him as “a Christian committed to the timeless and eternal principles that honor the God who created us equal and make for a good life and thriving communities.” Humphrey also is the sponsor of a bill that would ban all abortions.
Katie Navin, a representative of the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education, opposed the bill and said it “could potentially weaken science education.”
Responding to her testimony, committee member Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, referred to “what I believe to be the myth of climate change and global warming.”
Witness Scott Horak, who said he represented a group call Christian Outdoorsmen, supported the bill and said, “I just want to let you know that evolution is not a science and can’t be proven by a scientific process.”
Witness Joshua Youngkin, who identified himself as a lawyer with the Discovery Institute of Seattle, said the bill originated with his group, which supports the intelligent design theory of human origins.
The committee’s seven Democrats voted to kill the bill; all six Republicans supported it. Ranking minority member Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, said she entered the committee room prepared to vote “no” but voted “yes” after hearing the testimony.Bill would keep teacher evaluations confidential
Among new bills introduced in the last few days is House Bill 13-1220, which would require that educator evaluation information must remain confidential. The release of evaluation data has been controversial in other states, including California. The bill was developed from concerns raised by the state Quality Teachers Commission and is sponsored by freshman Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton.
A bill introduced last Friday, House Bill 13-1211, would change the state’s program for providing language training to students with limited English proficiency so that funding would be provided for students for seven years, rather than the current two.For the record
Other education-related bills advanced Monday at the Statehouse, including:
One bill that didn’t survive Monday was Senate Bill 13-055, a Republican-backed measure that would have changed the basis for calculating the actuarial soundness of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association. The bill would have had the effect of downgrading the soundness of the pension system, which covers all Colorado teachers and many other public employees. The Senate State Affairs Committee killed the bill.
How much voting power does a New Yorker really wield? How can statistics presented by the media manipulate readers? How do you raise sweatshop wages without sacrificing profit?
These are a few of the questions that math teachers in New York City are asking their students as they try to bring complex and abstract concepts to life. To answer them, students must supplement the equations and formulas found in textbooks by grappling with real-world applications.
The lessons cover a mathematical practice known as modeling that has been around for decades but is now getting a closer look in schools around the city as teachers try to align their math lessons to Common Core standards that require real-world applicability.
Using modeling to present lessons is one of two instructional focuses that the Department of Education has laid out this year for math teachers.
“It’s the practice of solving real-world problems,” said Brooklyn Technical High School’s Patrick Honner, a teacher at Brooklyn Technical High School who in December won a $10,000 award for an innovative math lesson he developed.
In the prize-winning lesson, Honner had students design hats out of paper materials. At the beginning of the unit, Honner’s students measured the dimensions of one half of a sphere, then had to create hats that contained the exact same area. At the end of class, the students presented their hats in a fashion show.
Honner was one of several teachers who showed off their modeling lessons to colleagues late last year in 10-minute TED talk–style presentations at the headquarters of Math for America, an organization that offers fellowships to math teachers. The group is preparing to open the fellowships up to science teachers as well and has even caught the attention of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who wants to replicate its stipend model to reward top-performing teachers.
While the city is encouraging math teachers to tackle modeling, in some ways the practice is at odds with the way that the city and state assess students. In a presentation called “g=4, and Other Lies the Test Told Me,” Honner showed slides of test questions that showed what he said were flawed approaches to solving math problems.
Elisabeth Jaffe of Baruch College Campus High School turned to an unusual source for a two-and-a-half-week algebra unit: newspapers.
“I felt like our students are not aware enough of current events,” said Jaffe, one of 97 teachers from around the country to win the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2012. “You’ll ask them, ‘Who’s the vice president?’ and they won’t know, which is sad and depressing.”
Jaffe said she asked herself, “How can I relate it back to math in a really clear way?”
Jaffe created a website and assigned her students to read articles in the New York Times, focusing on the economics stories that packed many numbers into the stories. Then they had to compare them with the raw data to determine if the stories fairly represented the statistics. On the website, students wrote their critiques.
In another presentation, Amy Hogan, from Brooklyn Tech, and Ellie Terry, from High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology, shared a unit they had recently wrapped up in time for the 2012 presidential election. The students studied the country’s electoral college and examined and mapped on a graph how many votes each state received compared with its total population. They found that California, Texas, and New York had many electoral votes but had less power per voter compared to the voters who contribute to Wyoming’s four electoral votes.
“There was a lot of Nate Silver adoration,” said Hogan, referring to the statistician whose model accurately predicted the election results.
While many of the teachers taught in selective high schools, Mohammed Aminyar, a teacher at East Side Community High School, which has more students eligible free and reduced lunch, said modeling worked in his classroom as well. He said his students responded to data that addressed social issues and inequities. His class has looked at the housing market in post-Katrina New Orleans, Iraq War casualties, and prices of MTA subway cards.
One project assigned students to look at the earning sheets of a fictitious shoe company that used sweatshop labor in South America and asked them to come up with a way to raise the workers’ wages without giving up too much profit.
“When it comes to justice, the students are really kind of, like, up in arms about what’s fair and what’s not fair,” said Aminyar.
While students across the city hunkered over bubble sheets and short answer questions during last month’s Regents exam period, seniors at East Side Community High School were deep in conversation.
In one corner of Ben Wides’s American Foreign Policy classroom, two students huddled with a university professor talking about the role of altruism in foreign policy. Three desks over, another group discussed the role of public opinion in policy decisions, and across the room, a student told a student teacher why he found the Mexican-American War so interesting.
The conversations were part of “roundtable” discussions that are a crucial early step in East Side’s assessment program. As a member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, the school exempts students from most of the exams the state requires for high school graduation. The students instead demonstrate competency by completing extensive research projects and presenting their findings to teachers and outside evaluators.
Wides’s students will write and defend original historical research papers at the end of the year in a process that he likened to a graduate thesis defense. Last month’s roundtables gave students an opportunity to practice discussing class material and defending their interpretations, he said, and they also gave him one more way to gauge mid–year what material still hadn’t sunk in.
“The idea is really being able to use information, to dig deep into text and things that you’ve learned, and then being able to use that information to make arguments, to back them up, and to be part of an adult, mature dialogue,” Wides said.
Currently, just 24 city high schools belong to the performance standards consortium, out of more than 500 in total. But performance assessments seem poised to arrive at more schools soon, particularly as pushback against standardized testing mounts and the new Common Core standards require that students be able to stake out positions and support them with evidence.
The city could also use performance assessments in addition to other exams to satisfy the “local assessments” portion of required teacher evaluations. Some policymakers, including City Council Speaker and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, are pushing for more schools to adopt non-test-based assessment systems.
East Side Principal Mark Federman said he thinks meeting the standards set by Regents exams do not ensure that students will succeed in college and beyond.
“Throughout the semester, [East Side Students] know they’re going to talk in public, they’re going to be accountable to strangers,” he said. Students who start at East Side in sixth grade have presented their work to outsiders more than 50 times by graduation.
In Wides’s classroom, students discussed foreign policy with a CUNY professor, two East Side teachers, three student teachers, a consultant on peer mediation, a graduate student, a paraprofessional, and a teacher from another school whose classes were suspended for Regents week.
Speaking with a classmate and the professor, one student argued that altruism is a nice idea, but it is unrealistic to expect governments to make foreign policy decisions based on anything but their own best interests. Even decisions that look altruistic might not be, she said: The government decides whether to enter a war “based on what they think is best, but they cover it up with a story that would be acceptable to the public.”
The other student pushed back, arguing that altruism should play a role in shaping foreign policy. Wides asked for a hypothetical example of what an altruistic foreign policy decision would look like. “If the U.S. had entered World War II earlier, because so many people were suffering, then that would have been an example of altruism,” the student suggested.
Not every conversation reflected the same level of engagement. In a talk about public opinion on foreign policy, one student struggled to explain the relationship between the two.
“He wasn’t right there saying, what the public thinks matters because they elect the leadership in a democracy. He got there, but he got there through a lot of prompting,” Wides said. “That was a little painful for me, but that was also good feedback. It was valuable for me to hear that a relatively strong student wasn’t making that connection as facilely as I would have liked.”
He said he would revisit the topic in the second semester but would not count the challenge against the student. Unlike regular classwork and end-of-year historical research papers, roundtables are not meant to test students’ knowledge of specific facts.
“This does not substitute to me as an assessment,” he said. “What students are assessed on in the class is the work that’s in their portfolio…I’m not using the roundtable to figure out what kids know.”
Wides said the roundtables also keep teachers on their toes, because in addition to observing his students, “guests are in here observing me.” Teachers acting as guests in each other’s roundtables offer feedback and take notes on what they might do in their own classrooms. They also see how their colleagues are grading student work, preventing teachers from adopting wildly disparate grading scales.
In preparation for the roundtables, each student wrote a cover letter, which guests read alongside student portfolios just before engaging in conversation. In the cover letters, students made historical arguments and drew connections using examples from class material. They also offered personal reflections on their experiences in the class, which became part of their conversations.
“You wrote a lot of criticism, a lot of self criticism, which I thought was really wonderful to be that candid about saying, well, I wasn’t really organized,” Matthew Guilden, a former East Side dean who now consults on discipline and peer mediation with the school, told a student. “How are you going to fix that? Because you’re going to go to college next year.”
East Side senior Gabriella Castillo said after the class that roundtables push her to organize her thoughts and review what she learned during the whole first semester.
“I think if it’s a test, I’ll probably just make flash cards, memorize a few dates, and then it’s over,” she said. “But when you really get to discuss something, discuss all these topics that you’ve learned about and researched and stuff, this knowledge is going to come with you forever. Even right now, I’m still thinking about some questions that they asked me.”
Wides said the roundtable help him explain to students why they are learning certain topics.
“In a lot of schools, the answer is you’re learning this because it’s going to be on the Regents,” he said. He described a “Countdown to the Test” poster displayed prominently at Norman Thomas High School, where East Side was relocated for several months this year due to structural issues with the building.
“Here, I can say, you need to learn this because someone’s going to ask you about that at the roundtable,” he said. “But what that really means is that some adult is going to come in and take an interest in your ability to answer a real question, take a moral stand, or have a really thoughtful idea about cause and effect in history.”
Elementary schools in West Chicago are closed Monday as District 33 teachers begin to strike, the district announced, after a union representing the district's teachers had rejected the district's latest contract offer late Sunday night. (Tribune)
Jennifer Cheatham, chief instruction officer for CPS who helped create a uniform academic calendar and extend the school day, is a finalist for the superintendent job in Madison, Wis. (Tribune)
SHOE TAX: A newly introduced bill, sponsored by Rep. Will Davis (D-Hazel Crest), would impose a 25-cent tax on the purchase of athletic shoes to fund supporting Illinois YouthBuild — a non-profit with 16 programs in the state that provide job training for disadvantaged youth. (Sun-Times)
IN THE NATION
RINGLEADER INDICTED: Federal prosecutors have indicted Clarence Mumford, a Memphis teacher, assistant principal and guidance counselor, on being the mastermind behind a teacher certification test cheating ring. (The New York Times)
COMMON CORE BACKLASH: Opponents of the Common Core State Standards are ramping up pressure to get states to scale back—or even scrap—the effort, even as implementation moves ahead. (Education Week)
CHARTER CAUTION: Following a study released last week by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University that suggests that the standards used by the charter authorizers to judge school performance are terribly weak, The New York Times says states that are in a hurry to expand charter schools should proceed carefully.
POST-NEWTOWN SECURITY: Emporia, Kan., is arming guards in middle and high schools, the first step in a broader update of school security measures. (USAToday)
RESIDENCIES FOR TEACHERS: The Denver Teacher Residency is using a program that trains new teachers by using a model based on medical residencies and recruiting from the corporate world. The program offers monthly stipends, tuition reimbursement, and priority status for a teaching job. (The Denver Post)
Each weekday morning, we search websites of various media, comb through RSS feeds and peruse Google alerts to bring you a roundup of the day’s top education headlines, in Colorado and across the country, by 8 a.m. If you’d like to suggest a story we’ve missed or a source we should add to the list, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inspired by a recent article in the New York Times, Alexander Ooms says it’s time to examine the real reasons for disparities within Denver’s gifted and talented program.
There was a terrific article a few weeks back in the New York Times about the demographic imbalance in the gifted and talented programs within the public school system in New York City. The school system serves primarily students of color. The gifted and talented programs serve a disproportionate percentage of white students. The only classrooms in many schools that have a majority of white students are those that host gifted and talented programs.
The piece included a brief and helpful summary of programs:
The idea of gifted education has drifted in and out of vogue in American schools. It was elevated in the 1950s when educators and lawmakers pushed gifted programs in math and science amid fears about communism’s rise. It waned in the 1960s but re-emerged with a White House task force on giftedness and the signing of several federal bills in the 1970s that recognized gifted children’s needs.
Urban districts were seen as using the programs to help prevent white flight from the schools, in essence offering a system within the system that was white-majority and focused on achievement.
“There have been claims that gifted education resegregates the public schools,” James H. Borland, a professor of education at Teachers College, said in the article.
Reading the article, I wondered if Denver looks any different. It’s not too hard to get a quick read on the data – the Colorado Department of Education lists four categories of gifted and talented: language arts, math, both language and math and other (these categories are exclusive). For simplicity, I combined all four into a single category of gifted and talented, and ran the numbers for Denver.
First some quick context. The National Association for Gifted Children estimates that about 6 percent of the total population is academically gifted. Now note first that the 6 percent estimate is for a national population, which is significantly different than an urban school district like DPS, where roughly 72 percent of students qualify for free and reduced meals – a basic indication of poverty.Gifted and talented data in Denver
So what did the DPS gifted population look like in 2012 (data from CDE’s Data Lab)? Out of a total population of 43,638 kids in grades 3-10:
This is somewhat rough data, and clearly there is a lot more that should be done in a complete analysis. It would be interesting to look at the kids classified as highly gifted and talented compared to simply “regular” gifted and talented – but frankly I think the division into high and low gifted and talented populations is itself compelling evidence of a system that segregates kids from the general population for reasons beyond sheer intellectual promise.
It’s my guess that these numbers are directionally correct, and moreover that aggregating the data across the district probably lessens an even sharper discrepancy at many specific schools. I’ve written before about the segregation in selective admissions schools, but I think the disparity within gifted and talented programs is far more pronounced.
With nearly one in five of all DPS students somehow classified as gifted and talented it seems pretty obvious that other criteria are at play. Unfortunately it probably also means that the roughly 6 percent of kids who are truly gifted and talented – the true focus of gifted and talented programs – are probably not being served as well as they should be.
But the gifted and talented system is imbalanced. Currently, just short of half of students who don’t qualify for free and reduced price lunch meet some gifted and talented classification. And almost unbelievably, there is a higher percentage of low-income white kids (21 percent) who are labeled gifted and talented than the percentage of non low-income black kids (15 percent), so there is more going on here than just a correlation between poverty and gifted and talented admissions.Gifted programs serving white middle class families
The Times story notes that the evidence seems to suggest that many gifted and talented programs, whatever their intentions, are now both geared toward and predominantly serving white middle-class families, and that this is an institutional and deeply-rooted issue within the public school system in many cities. It’s easy to read this claim about other places, but this story seems as much a part of the Denver landscape as anywhere else.
Many people may ascribe all sorts of malicious tendencies here – it’s not clear to me that this is true. But I do believe that, particularly over time, most benefits accrue to people who have resources to advocate for them, and these tend to reinforce themselves. This trend can become far worse in a large centralized system that is hard to change.
But whatever the origin or rationale, these numbers tell me that there needs to be a far deeper discussion about the purpose and process for gifted and talented programs in Denver. That dialogue will make lots of people uncomfortable – but hopefully less so than a hard look at the mirror in the data above, which is deeply unsettling.
Author notes: *At this level of specificity, there are some gifted and talented categories where the number of students is less than 16, and thus not recorded in CDE data, so the percentages may be slightly underrepresented. These categories are: black free and reduced price lunch, white free and reduced price lunch and black students who don’t qualify for free and reduced price lunch. And, I use math N (number of subjects in the sample) count data. There are occasional differences between the N counts for math, reading and writing, but these are unlikely to make any changes in the percentages.About the author
Alexander Ooms, senior fellow at the Donnell-Kay Foundation and author of the blog Ooms With A View, serves on the boards of STRIVE Prep, Colorado Charter Schools Institute, Charter Schools Development Corp. and the Colorado chapter of Stand for Children. He lives in central Denver with his wife, three children and a big furry dog.
The sign taped on the door says “No Boys Allowed.” Inside the room, donuts and small, white Styrofoam cups of orange juice and water sit on a desk.
Several young women slowly walk in with a look of consternation on their faces. “It is critical down there,” says one.
“That is crazy,” says another.
Teacher Magen Kilcoyne, whose curly, sandy-colored hair is pulled back and who is dressed in black cargo pants and a black “Bowen Class of 2012” T-shirt, shakes her head as she plops down copies of author Nathan McCall’s book “Makes Me Wanna Holler” on everyone’s desk.
“The boys were at it again,” she says, with a quick roll of the eyes.
Earlier, during lunch, a massive food fight in the cafeteria turned into a brawl. Police were called in, and some students were carted off in two paddy wagons. Principal Jennifer Kirmes says it was Bowen’s worst day so far this year in terms of school climate.
Jasmine Bennett, one of the girls in Mrs. K’s girls-only book club, says she stood against the wall, terrified, as students climbed up on tables and jumped off onto other students’ heads.
Though a fight is disturbing any day, it is especially disappointing that it happened on a Wednesday, a day that Kirmes is trying to make special. On that day, students take a break from their regular classes and pick from special classes that include options like robotics, journalism, chorus, recycling and the book club run by Kilcoyne.
The new initiative gives students at Bowen at least some exposure to the kind of electives that more elite schools routinely offer. Wednesday is also a day during which students can make up credits or attend group therapy to help them cope with problems such as managing anger or trauma.
“Intervention and extension,” says Kirmes, describing the initiative. Though it’s new, students have responded, coming to school more regularly not only on Wednesdays but Thursdays as well.
Without the initiative, Bowen’s course offerings are bare-bones. Every class is one that will count toward graduation requirements.
Within Chicago Public Schools, high school course offerings vary drastically—from paltry, as at Bowen, to robust, as at Walter Payton on the Near North Side. The type and size of the school and the skill level of incoming students are factors that drive the disparity. Bowen is a neighborhood high school with just 522 students, most of them with lower-level skills.
The most drastic dissimilarities are between high schools in impoverished neighborhoods with dwindling populations and selective enrollment high schools in more middle-class communities.
Payton, a selective enrollment school, has a 27-page, full-color catalog of course offerings. In it, students can read descriptions of courses ranging from 20th Century Global Conflicts to Advanced Jazz Band to a physics class focused on electricity and magnetism.
Payton also offers an all- honors curriculum for freshmen and sophomores; in junior and senior year, students can move into Advanced Placement classes.
“The complexity of the texts is pretty significant,” says Principal Ted Devine. “They are college-level.”
Meanwhile, at Bowen, the course offerings are summed up on one page. Other than the special Wednesday classes, the electives are sparse, mostly reserved for seniors and straightforward, like creative writing.
Kirmes says the staff is “toying” with the idea of an honors program, but some teachers do not believe in tracking students. Until two years ago, Bowen was split into small schools, some offering honors tracks.
Most of Bowen’s incoming freshmen score a 12 (out of a possible 25) on the Explore, the standardized test that is the precursor to the ACT. The score puts Bowen among the bottom 10 in the district on this measure, with only eight other high schools posting worse scores.
“There are very few exceptions,” Kirmes says. “There will be maybe one 16.”
Bowen does offer several Advanced Placement classes, but teachers lament that students are not prepared for them.
During her regular history classes, Kilcoyne covers the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson and the fallacy of separate but equal schooling. She points out that so much of what she teaches is still relevant today.
Kilcoyne once brought a group of young women from Bowen to Payton for a tour. Not only did students seem to be learning entirely different, more rigorous content, but the school environment was the polar opposite of Bowen’s.
Payton was built in 2000 and has state-of-the-art equipment, while Bowen was built in 1910 and needs $38 million in repairs. Bowen’s disrepair is obvious, with broken ceiling tiles, old peeling paint and classrooms that are either too warm or too cold.
For the first time, Kilcoyne says, the young women realized how different one school can be from another. They were stunned.
“The conditions here are subpar,” Kilcoyne says. “This wouldn’t fly at Jones or Payton. It breaks my heart. It makes me want to cry.”
At smaller neighborhood schools like Bowen, programmers have an increasingly hard time offering a variety of classes. If students need remedial coursework, such as a double period of reading or math, it often fills the time they would otherwise spend on art, music or other electives. Many students don’t start working on their required language and art classes until junior year—too late for them to dive into these subjects if they discover a propensity for them.
CPS does not keep or review high school course catalogs on a centralized basis. But Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS officials have seemingly realized how inconsistent course offerings are and how neighborhood schools fall short. A push is on to level the playing field.
They designated five schools as STEM Early College schools, giving students an opportunity to go to accelerated math and science classes and eventually take community college classes. Also, Emanuel announced that he was expanding IB offerings. Five schools will become “wall-to-wall” IB schools, while five more will add separate IB programs.
The ultimate goal of the IB program is for students to earn a full-fledged IB diploma. CPS does not currently track how many students in existing IB programs earn the diplomas, according to a response from a Freedom of Information request.
Jasmine Bennett did not expect to attend Bowen. She planned to go to a private Catholic school. Then, her mother lost her job and couldn’t afford it. But like many students at even the worst schools, Jasmine tries hard and has carved out a niche for herself.
This school year, she started an initiative with her friends to encourage students to say five positive things to five teachers. The only rule is that the compliments must be truthful. “So you can’t tell them they look nice, if they don’t,” Jasmine says. “They react with a huge smile.”
Jasmine says she started the project because she imagines it is difficult to work at Bowen.
Now a junior, Jasmine has gotten serious about her studies. She spends about an hour every day doing homework, usually staying after school because once at home, she forgets what work she needs to do.
She and her two friends are clearly treated specially in the school. One Friday, two days after the big food fight, they bypass the cafeteria and instead head to the counselors’ offices to see if they can share the counselors’ stash of food.
No one has anything for them this day, so the young women are forced to go to the cafeteria. Because of the food fight, no hot food is being served. Instead, they get trays with apples, milk and packaged graham cracker-and-peanut butter sandwiches.
After the quick lunch, the girls escape the noisy cafeteria to go to the college coach’s office, where they hang out until their next class. Jasmine talks about college trips she made. Only seniors are supposed to be college ambassadors, but she is an honorary one.
Jasmine says she doesn’t think that she is missing anything academically by attending Bowen. Her teachers know better.
Thinking of one bright young man, Kilcoyne says she worries that he is not being challenged because of the lack of experience writing essays. Instead of a lot of writing, Kilcoyne focuses on discussions in her classes. “Everyone can express their opinion,” she explains.
Tonda Tyre, who teaches Bowen’s AP literature and language classes, also says she is constantly modifying her lessons to make them doable for students, even though AP wants teachers to stick to standard curricula.
By the time students take her AP classes, few are working at an advanced level. This school year, she says, teachers got together for the first time to talk about tackling the problem by aligning content from one grade to the next.
Kirmes told Tyre she could weed out some of the students who signed up for AP, but she didn’t want to do it. She asked the students if anyone wanted to leave and avoid the harder work. “None of them wanted to go,” Tyre says.
Still, not all of the students have stepped up to the challenge. Tyre says she constantly weighs expectations against reality. She models how assignments should be done and makes a big deal out of it whenever a student does something right.
One day, she asks students to turn in their vocabulary notebook, where they are expected to list new words they have come across and the definitions. Not one student takes a notebook out. After a quiz, several students start going through dictionaries, feverishly writing down words they don’t know.
Seeing this, Tyre sighs. She gives them until Monday to turn in the notebooks.
Every year, a high-stakes gamble begins.
Parents across Chicago take their children to be tested for selective elementary schools and programs, the first step in a potentially make-or-break scenario. The district has 16 schools and programs for gifted students starting as kindergarteners—plus 10 more for older elementary students—and these schools and programs send large numbers of students on to the district’s gems: the selective high schools that invariably score at the top of the heap on state achievement tests and offer students a broad array of rigorous courses, engaging electives and enriching after-school activities.
Although the outcome is high-stakes, the scenario is not really much of a gamble. The odds are overwhelmingly in favor of children from higher-income families, who are disproportionately more likely to take the test and secure admission to gifted programs, according to an analysis in this issue of Catalyst In Depth. The trend is most apparent at the elementary level, the analysis found: Children who live in the highest-income census tracts are four times more likely to take the test for elementary gifted programs than children from the lowest-income tracts.
The analysis provides clear evidence of the opportunity gap: Lower-income children, most of them black and brown, are more likely to be shut out of the chance to attend elementary schools that offer rich curricula and would give them the best shot at gaining admission to top high schools. Students of color end up playing catch-up in a game that’s rigged against them from the start and favors students whose parents have more knowledge and financial means to give their children advantages at the starting gate.
The definition of what constitutes “giftedness” is not clear-cut, but science is clear on one point: Innate intelligence or talent is not determined by race or family income. A child living in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood is just as likely to have advanced intellectual capacity, or strong artistic or musical talent, as a child of the Gold Coast or Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Too often in education, higher-income students benefit from the Lake Wobegon effect: They all end up above average, no matter where they start out.
In contrast, lower-income children are likely to fall further behind even when they start out ahead. A 2010 report, “The Achievement Trap,” analyzed data from three national longitudinal studies and found high-achieving, low-income 1st-graders were more likely to fall behind academically compared to high-achieving children from wealthier backgrounds.
Stuck in schools with meager resources and classrooms with lackluster teaching, the low-income students quickly became bored, their potential going untapped.
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Sometimes, small-scale efforts can change the equation.
Under former CEO Ron Huberman, the district was freed from a long-standing federal consent decree on desegregation. For years, the decree had maintained diversity at its most elite high schools by capping the percentage of seats awarded to white students. Once the decree was lifted, though, Huberman feared the schools would become too homogeneous and pioneered an initiative that gave 100 seats to promising students from the district’s lowest-achieving, virtually all-black elementary schools.
CPS has quietly continued Huberman’s initiative. Not every student to be offered a spot has accepted it. Not every student who accepted a spot has stayed on. Among the first group of students, now juniors, 20 percent transferred out to other schools.
The young people who persevered, despite being woefully underprepared academically, told Catalyst Chicago that their experience has been life-changing.
One young man, who chafed at the strict discipline of his elementary school, appreciates the more relaxed, creative atmosphere at Whitney Young. “I am not a bad kid,” he says. “I just don’t appreciate restrictions.”
Another young man, initially “freaked out” by the low grades he received on his first progress report, reached out to teachers for help and gave up his spot on the basketball team to devote more time to his studies. “I just thought to myself, if I try hard, I can do it,” he says.
Small-scale initiatives cannot be expected to erase broader inequities. The district is trying to level the playing field for students who end up in neighborhood high schools—offering more Advanced Placement classes, International Baccalaureate curricula and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs. The large-scale success of these plans is still a question mark, however.
What’s not in doubt is that students—including young black men, who are too often stigmatized and stereotyped as loud, unruly and unintelligent—are eager to excel and looking for a challenge.
A chance for a good education shouldn’t be a high-stakes gamble.