School leaders go back to school

The school is called High Stakes High. Its motto? Proficiency or death. Teachers act as spies, and weak students are eliminated, Hunger Games-style.

D-21 Assistant Principal Renard Simmons presents his vision for his school, which serves credit recovery students.

No, it’s not the latest young adult novel craze. Instead, the story of a school that takes accountability a bit too seriously was part of a short video exercise for current and aspiring school leaders aimed at opening them up to creativity and teamwork and at exploring the importance of structure when thinking about transforming a school.

The video was created as part of a weeklong intensive training run by Get Smart Schools for 16 fellows whom the organization plans to support for the next two years as they develop their own visions for education and learn how to effectively manage and run a school.

The fellows, who came to the seminar from Denver, Aurora, Sheridan, Douglas County and Salida, have an average of six years of teaching experience and an average of five years of school leadership. Sixty percent of the participants are women; 26 percent are minorities.

The fellowship aims to shift principals’ leadership and management outlook from traditional problem-solving strategies toward more structural thinking.

“In the past, school leaders addressed problems and challenges by fixing the problem and restoring order,” a description of this week’s training read. “They used data and logic and created long-term, strategic planning processes based on traditional decision-making approaches.

Get Smart doesn’t believe this strategy has worked.

“As our world has become more complex, patterns change and situations don’t fit into neat boxes. This requires a different approach that relies on specific patterns of thinking and a deep understanding of systems and structures.”

“We are approaching ideas as if you are a CEO,” trainer Andrew Bisaha said.  “We want to help them create a picture [of a school] anyone can buy into.”

Fellowship details

In the first year of the fellowship, leaders are immersed in learning and application through a series of modules that include interactive coursework, simulations, case studies, reflection, independent reading and research and workplace application.  This learning is then applied in the workplace with support and feedback from executive coaches. The final project for the year is a comprehensive organizational analysis of a school and the development of a strategic plan that is implemented in the second year.

In the second year, fellows refine the skills learned in year one and apply those skills in the context of new school development or school turnaround strategy. Cohort meetings are focused on deeper analysis and more sophisticated case studies. Executive coaching targets the personal talents and strengths that have been identified for the individual leader and the coach supports the fellow to develop those talents into leadership strengths.

The video exercise was intended to get them to think about the need for a beginning, middle and end — a structure to go from vision to reality in a school. To make the exercise more realistic, workshop leaders had the fellows work a conch shell and large chunk of cheese into their films — meant to represent the challenge of meeting state or federal mandates.

Sample school vision

After the principals had fun with videos, they then used poster paper to write out a vision statement for improving a school or creating a new one.

Angelique Sanchez-Hutman, an administrative assistant at D-21, a credit recovery school in Denver, said it’s her goal to become an assistant principal then a principal one day.

“I enjoyed the idea of looking at the current reality and your vision and then building steps to get there…and seeing the gap,” she said of this week’s workshop.

Her goal is to create a dual language school for middle and high school students in Denver.

Dave Fromson, teacher and activities director at Sheridan High School, found the workshop compelling because it examined the difference between problem solving and truly creating a better school structure.

“Problem solving is temporary and bound to experience the same level of ultimate failure as you have of success vs. truly creating a new and better structure,” Fromson said. “You can change things for the good permanently.”

Fromson’s goal is to transform the school he’s in.

“I want to transform it into something in which our students are empowered to be part of creating their own postsecondary plans,” he said. “A lot of our students just don’t realize what is out there. They don’t realize what is out there is also for them.”

A school with kids who are behind

Renard Simmons, assistant principal at D-21, said he has many bright students in his school, but they’re at a third and fourth grade level academically. He wondered how people could accurately gauge their progress  — not just based on test scores. To him, it’s a major coup if a student learns to be respectful after being in a pattern of cussing in the hallway.

“I look at the student in June – that is not the same student I saw at the beginning of the year,” he said. “That kid may still be behind, but they’re not going down the hallways, saying [expletives].”

He said he’s also got gang members and there have been fewer fights this year, only a recent fight involving girls.

Simmons said he is interested in emphasizing a school that builds character, uses project-based learning and creates a sense of community. Character is the big thing for him. He tells his students that life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to what happens to you.

Get Smart trainer Jane Shirley said it would be key for this student population to be trained with the skills they need to handle project-based learning.

“Those students come in with a gap,” she said.

Fellow Garrett Rosa is a director of the Vista PEAK P-20 campus in Aurora.

Rosa said Shirley “helped us early on structural thinking.”

“I loved that [Get Smart] had more of a business mindset in how to operate a school,” Rosa said. “They look at it very intentionally.”

It was those interactions with Get Smart that led Rosa to become a fellow.

“The hard part of school of innovation is I am not connected to innovative leaders in Aurora Public Schools,” he said. “Having like-minded, creative, dynamic people around who don’t have blinders up to what’s possible inspired me.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.