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.”

men of color

New York state charges forward with its ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ initiative

When young men of color enter high school, they often do so with the deck stacked against them. That’s what a panel of young men from Ithaca and Albany told a room of education policy officials and lawmakers on Friday.

“There’s a mold for us that they want us to fit in,” one student said.

“No one realizes how much potential, not only white students have, but every student has,” another added.

New York state’s top education leaders convened in Albany Friday to tackle the problem posed by these young men: How can the state raise educational achievement for boys and young men of color?

Only about 68 percent of black and Hispanic students graduate on time, while 88 percent of their white counterparts do, according to state graduation rates released last week. Male students fare worse than female students, with a 76 percent graduation rate compared to 83 percent for female students.

The conference is part of the state’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, modeled on President Barack Obama’s national program geared toward boosting opportunities for young men of color. Policymakers spearheading New York’s initiative scored a big victory last year, securing $20 million from the legislature and officially becoming the first state to accept Obama’s challenge.

Though the political winds in Washington have changed since then, Friday’s conference sent a clear message that, if the state’s top education officials have anything to do with it, this strand of Obama’s legacy will live on in New York.

Attendees included State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and assorted lawmakers and superintendents.

“For me, this is the end of the beginning,” said Stanley Hansen, the State Education Department assistant commissioner who runs the program. “We will start today: Staff will be contacting your schools and communities, and we will be out there in force.”

So far, the state has split the $20 million into grants that encourage the recruitment of a diverse pool of high-quality teachers, along with family and community engagement, and programs focused on college and career success. The department is pushing for another $20 million in this year’s budget.

But Regent Lester Young, who is leading the effort on New York’s education policymaking board, reminded the crowd that it will take more than funding to radically change outcomes for young men of color.

“This is not about $20 million because this problem, this challenge, is not going to be solved with $20 million,” Young said. “This will be solved when we decide to change the narrative.”

turnaround time

This Harlem school has one of the highest dropout rates in New York City. Meet the principal working to turn it around.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Geralda Valcin, principal at Harlem's Coalition School for Social Change

Just two months after becoming principal, Geralda Valcin’s plan to reduce her school’s dropout rate landed her in a parking lot at Rikers Island.

One of her students at the Coalition School for Social Change had been incarcerated, so she made the trip — with a care package of clean t-shirts and socks in tow — to convince the jail’s staff to enroll him in a U.S. history class, one of the only courses he needed to earn a diploma.

“The principal at Rikers was like, ‘You really came up here to do this?’” Valcin recalls. “It fell on deaf ears.”

The jail wouldn’t let her visit the student or place him in the class Valcin requested, but that was only part of the reason for the trip. “He totally appreciated us for it,” she said. After his release about six months later, the senior returned to school and is on track to graduate this year.

Valcin chalks this up as a success story, but acknowledges she has many other students who need that type of support. At her Harlem school, more than a quarter of the ninth-graders who started in 2012 dropped out at some point during their high school careers, meaning they left without enrolling in another school. Only a handful of other traditional high schools in New York City had higher dropout rates, according to new statistics.

Valcin, who became principal last March after more than five years as assistant principal at Bronx High School for Law and Community Service, says she’s ready for the challenge.

She has spent much of the past year reinforcing systems to identify students early who are at risk of dropping out, and working with her school’s nonprofit partner to intervene. And the stakes are high: Coalition is one of 86 schools in the city’s “Renewal” program for low-performers, which offers schools extra social services and academic support, but which must show signs of progress in return.

Though her previous school wasn’t in the program, it also struggled with low graduation rates. It was “pretty much in the same predicament,” she said. That school boosted graduation rates by almost 20 points during her tenure, eventually besting the current citywide average of 72 percent.

Though graduation rates at her new school have started to climb, Valcin isn’t sanguine about the work ahead of her. For one thing, her students — roughly 92 percent of whom are black or Hispanic — often arrive far behind grade-level. Three-quarters come from poor families; 35 percent have disabilities.

Valcin isn’t willing to speculate about why Coalition’s dropout rate is higher than other schools with similarly high-need populations, and is careful not to assign blame. “The numbers spoke for themselves,” she said. “Coalition hasn’t graduated 50 percent of its students in six years or more. A lot of the work probably wasn’t happening.”

Soon after arriving, she launched a “Saturday academy” to help students stay on track and prepare for the state’s exit exams, and began carefully watching students who had attendance or disciplinary problems early on. “If that pattern begins, you’re almost doomed,” Valcin said.

That’s why, before students start classes in the fall, school staff review their middle school records and conduct home visits, so they can talk about previous problems before they crop up again.

“From the beginning of the year, we have highlighted a cohort of kids that without significant additional support wouldn’t cross the finish line,” said Derek Anello, a program director at Partnership with Children, the school’s nonprofit community partner. “We’re starting with ninth-graders before they’re even in the building.”

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Coalition School for Social Change

The school zooms in on students who don’t earn passing grades during the first few months of school, and offers extra academic help. (Valcin keeps a color-coded spreadsheet on her desk that tracks student progress toward graduation.)

If a student is showing up late — or not at all — they’ll likely get a knock on their door, sometimes from Valcin herself, or from a staff member at Partnership with Children. And if they’re routinely showing up late to class due to an extra-long commute, school officials might help the family find a school that’s closer to home.

City officials are expecting those efforts to produce significant results this year. Under the benchmarks assigned to the school through the Renewal program, its graduation rate should increase to 63 percent this school year, up from 46 percent. The education department considers graduation rates in decisions about whether to close or merge schools in the program.

Partnership with Children’s Anello is optimistic about meeting that goal partly because of Valcin’s embrace of his community organization. “Not every principal allows the [nonprofit partner] to be their right hand,” he added. “That’s not consistent across Renewal schools.”

But the school faces strong headwinds that make it hard to attract students who are more likely to graduate, including intense academic segregation. Among last year’s ninth-graders, for instance, fewer than five students had passed either their eighth-grade math or reading tests.

The school’s inclusion in the Renewal program, historically low graduation rate, and sagging enrollment have also signaled to prospective families that the school doesn’t have a strong track record.

In fact, Valcin has been reluctant to aggressively market the school. “I don’t want to go on the street and say, ‘Hey send your kids to this school’ given the condition we’re in currently.”

But she’s banking on this year’s graduation rate changing that calculation.

“The day after graduation, I’ll be on the corners passing out fliers,” she said.