Building Better Schools

In a first, Englewood hires Generation Schools to overhaul district

When students at Englewood School District arrive at school next year, they won’t just find new classrooms and unfamiliar teachers. They may also be facing a totally new academic model.

Students in Englewood Schools will see big changes next year. District photo.
Students in Englewood Schools. District photo.

The school district, located directly south of Denver, has signed a year-long partnership with the non-profit Generation Schools, a non-profit whose model includes extended learning time, increased teacher collaboration and smaller class sizes. The deal is a first for Generation Schools, which has only worked at the school level.

“It really sets a new precedent for what’s possible,” said Wendy Piersee, CEO of Generation Schools. “I think the size of the Englewood district mirrors the typical size of districts across the country. It really hits that model for hundreds of districts across the country.”

Generation’s approach, nicknamed the “Rubik’s cube” model, aims to create longer days and longer schools years for schools while still working within the school’s available resources, including existing financial capabilities and teacher contracts.

Generation’s partnership with Englewood schools is a first for Colorado, said Janet Lopez of the Rose Foundation, to whom Englewood has applied for grants to help fund the project.

“The unique element is an entire district that’s trying to work entirely within the constraints of Colorado’s school finance restrictions,” said Lopez, a program officer for the foundation.

Generation’s typical approach to previous projects has included a massive overhaul of teacher and staff scheduling as well as budgeting to compensate for those changes. The details of how Englewood will manage those changes without increasing its budget remain undecided.

Englewood and Generation Schools, who signed the deal just over two weeks ago, are still unsure what exactly the new model will look like, but they hope to go beyond the academic calendar. The district and Generation’s management group are considering a new approach to student attraction and retention as well as an overhaul of the district’s college and career preparation.

Urban district in the suburbs

Despite Englewood’s distance from Denver’s urban core, it struggles with many of the same issues urban districts do. Roughly 65 percent of Englewood’s 2981 students receive free and reduced lunch and about 15 percent of students make use of English language learning services.

“They are becoming an urban district that sits on the fringe,” said Piersee.

Englewood, which was designated as a turnaround district by the state in 2010, which has already implemented a slew of changes, including a more collaborative learning model for students and including iPads in classroom instruction. The district was re-designated as a priority improvement district in 2011, but has failed to increase its ranking since then. The district’s superintendent hopes the changes the partnership with Generation Schools will bring will accelerate their improvement and increase scores.

“You can have all the best instructional strategies and technology and if you have kids coming in halfway, it takes time to catch up,” said Brian Ewert, the district’s superintendent. “It takes more time and resources to get these kids to the same place as some of their affluent peers, who have far more opportunities. We have to do something significantly different.”

Engelwood’s growth scores have improved but the majority of its students still do not meet achievement expectations on state assessments. Ewert believes the district has already made some important changes but that they aren’t sufficient to the needs of the students.

“We have seen some small successes and we’re proud of that, but we’re really clear within the system that we aren’t moving quickly enough,” said Ewert.

New campus, new rules

Despite the challenges the district and Generation Schools face, change will have to come at a fairly rapid pace. In addition to the constraints of the district’s improvement plan, a bond and mill levy passed last year funded the construction of a brand-new campus for the district’s high school and two middle schools. The district plans to time the academic overhaul with the move to the new campus, which will open in winter 2014.

This presents a unique challenge for Generation Schools.

“This is the first time I know of where there’s a facilities deadline,” said Piersee.

The new building features a far more open floor plan than the old campuses as well as improved STEM facilities and space for the school’s popular new career preparation effort, a culinary training program. The district hopes these aspects will be incorporated in the new model.

“What we’re trying to do is create our climate and culture and what we want the new building to feel like,” said Mandy Braun, principal at Englewood Middle School.

Ewert agrees, saying the two pieces, building and instruction, have to compliment each other.

“The practice supports the building and the building supports the practice,” Ewert said.

A different model of change

Generation School’s partnership with the district comes on the heels of extensive talks between district leadership and a group known as “Team Phoenix.”

Team Phoenix, which is made up of principals, teachers and staff from the district’s middle and high schools, has met twice a week for over a year and a half to discuss possible changes to the district’s model. Last year, they created a list of about 80 things they wanted to see changed in the district.

“A lot of the things we were wanting were things that Generation Schools practices,” said Braun, who is also a member of Team Phoenix. Braun and her team members support the partnership with Generation Schools, as did the district’s board of education.

Ewert says the involvement of school and community members is key to his plan.

“There are two kinds of approach — and this is totally my opinion — to what people call reform,” said Ewert. “You can have boards of education and superintendents come and make a change and say ‘we are going change in a year.’ That really collapses the community of parents and teachers and students.”

Despite the apparent transformations of the past few years, Ewert believes he has taken as restrained and considered approach as possible with lots of community involvement.

“And what we’re trying to do is really thoughtful change,” said Ewert. “If you take people along a bit slower, it’s still painful but people stay involved.”

Ewert’s slow and steady approach is informed by the district’s tumultuous history prior to Ewert’s arrival in 2010.

“There were ten superintendents in ten years,” said Karen Brofft, the district’s assistant superintendent, who was hired at the same time as Ewert.

Englewood’s decision to partner with Generation has not yet been presented to the district and the community, although it’s no secret. Teachers and staff have begun to discuss its implications.

“It will be a huge adjustment for people,” said Lindsay Taylor, a drama teacher at Englewood Middle School and a member of Team Phoenix. But she says, “the parents that we’ve talk to, they’re kind of getting used to big adjustments in the classroom.”

The district and Generation Schools will start holding talks with faculty and staff in the next couple weeks to discuss the decision and any changes those stakeholders want to see. Conversations with parents and community members will start soon as well.

As far as the community response, Ewert is optimistic.

“I’ve been pretty aggressive in our timeline,” said Ewert. “So far the system’s been pretty tolerant.”

mayoral control

Cuomo calls lawmakers back to Albany for a special session on mayoral control

PHOTO: Governor Andrew Cuomo Flickr

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced today he is calling a special legislative session on Wednesday at 1 p.m. for lawmakers to finally reach a deal on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s control of city schools.

The legislative session for New York’s Senate and Assembly ended late last Wednesday without a deal on mayoral control. The provision expires June 30 at midnight, giving lawmakers a tight deadline to settle their differences and come to an agreement.

Last week, lawmakers could not find common ground, as Senate Republicans pushed for concessions to the charter school sector — considered a “non-starter” for Assembly leader Carl Heastie.

According to Cuomo’s proclamation, the special session will convene solely for the purpose of considering legislation that extends “mayoral control of the city school district of the city of New York for an additional year” and “such other subjects as I may recommend.” It is unclear what other subjects Cuomo might bring up during the session, or if the one-year extension might be discussed in tandem with other provisions previously raised during the mayoral control discussion, such as lifting the city’s charter school cap or extending local taxes due to expire soon.

If a mayoral control extension fails to pass by the June 30 deadline, the city will then need to resurrect its Board of Education, composed of five members selected by each of the borough presidents and two by the mayor. The board would be responsible for selecting a new chancellor or reinstating Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

feedback

Tennessee’s ESSA plan gets solid marks in independent review

PHOTO: Amanda Lucidon/The White House
President Barack Obama signs the Every Student Succeeds Act in December 2015, surrounded by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and other champions and supporters of the new law.

Tennessee’s proposed plan for school accountability rates strong on measuring academic progress, but weak on counting all kids, according to an independent review released Tuesday by two education groups.

For the most part, the state landed in the upper middle of an analysis spearheaded by Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success.

Their panel of reviewers looked into components of state plans  ranging from academic standards to supporting schools under the new federal education law.

“Tennessee has submitted a very solid plan for which they should be proud,” said Jim Cowen, executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success. “Their ideas for ensuring academic progress and supporting schools are exemplary. We hope that other states will look for ways to incorporate these best practices.”

The groups brought together education experts with a range of political viewpoints and backgrounds to analyze 17 state plans submitted this spring to the U.S. Department of Education in response to the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Calling Tennessee’s plan “robust, transparent and comprehensive,” the review praised its “clear vision for reform” and its design of “district and school accountability systems that rely on high-quality indicators.”

The state received the highest rating possible for its proposal for tracking academic progress.

“Tennessee’s plan clearly values both growth and proficiency,” the review says. “Every school, even high-achieving ones, have growth and proficiency targets, and even the growth measure tracks student progress toward grade-level standards.”

The state’s lowest rating — a 2 out of a possible 5 — was for how Tennessee plans to identify and rate schools in need of targeted support for certain groups of students. Reviewers questioned whether the state’s system might mask the performance of some by proposing to combine the scores of black, Hispanic and Native American students into one subgroup.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Tennessee is committed to supporting all students, especially those in historically underserved groups.

“When we say ‘all means all,’ that means much more than just accountability for subgroup performance,” McQueen said in a statement on the eve of the review’s release.

“The state’s accountability framework is designed to hold as many schools accountable for subgroup performance as possible while maintaining statistical reliability and validity, and it provides safeguards to ensure student information is protected,” she said. “In schools where there are a smaller number of students from a specific racial or ethnic category, we are combining them into one group. In doing so, we are actually able to hold schools accountable for more students — more than 43,000 black, Hispanic, and Native American students would be excluded from subgroup accountability if we did not use the combined subgroup.”

Congress passed ESSA in 2015 as a bipartisan law co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a former U.S. secretary of education. Signed by President Barack Obama, the law ended the No Child Left Behind era and redirected education policy back to the states.

States have since been working on their accountability plans, and Tennessee was among the first to submit a proposal. The state is now awaiting approval by the U.S. Department of Education, which would make it eligible for receiving federal funds.

For a breakdown of analysis on state plans including Tennessee’s, visit Check State Plans, an interactive website that spotlights the best elements of ESSA plans and those that fall short.