First Person

How I transformed my school with just five new hours a week

It’s a midweek afternoon and all 450 of the students at our Denver middle school are staying an hour later. They’re not in detention. The buses aren’t late. Instead, students are participating in a range of activities, from a rocket-building class to one-on-one tutoring in math, and they’re excited to be here.

I’m the principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, an urban public school in southwest Denver. We have a diverse set of student needs and a student population comprised of 85 percent on free and reduced lunch, 20 percent receiving special education services and 30 percent are English language learners.

Just a few years ago, Grant Beacon looked very different than it does today. Our enrollment numbers were declining, our students weren’t reaching required academic levels and our school was “on watch” by the Denver Public Schools district. In short, we were facing possible closure.

We have since turned our school around by implementing an innovation plan based on expanded learning opportunities — practices intended to expand and deepen learning opportunities for all students. After only a few years, we have successfully improved our status from “on watch” to “meets expectations.” We’ve seen our attendance rates rise by 2 percent, and suspensions are down by 110 percent. We’re also seeing substantive gains in proficiency and growth. We even have an enrollment wait list.

Changing our approach wasn’t easy, but it was well worth the impact we’re having on all of our students today and toward helping close a district-wide achievement gap.

Grant Beacon hopes to serve as a model for other schools interested in implementing similar innovative strategies and we’ve opened our doors to numerous leaders, educators and teachers to observe and experience our approach in action.

To help others around the country learn from our experience, I’ll share some of the key changes made at our school as well as lessons learned.

At the heart of our new approach is an extended school day that added five hours each week. We are using that time to offer enrichment programming, advanced classes, student leadership development and interventions. We also increased time in some of our core subjects.

Enrichment for all students was a big driver for extending our day. In a predominantly low-income school like Grant Beacon, students aren’t often exposed to enrichment activities like their more affluent peers. We know for a fact when kids are engaged in activities such as clubs, after-school programs, music, and sports, they’re more likely to succeed, do well in high school and go to college. Before, only 10 percent of our students were taking part in such activities. Now it’s 100 percent.

Our students are thrilled as they line up for enrichment classes like hip-hop dance, athletics, cooking, resume-building and leadership development — extracurricular activities that these students might not otherwise be exposed to. The experiences are giving our kids incentive to want to come to school. They’re focused, they’re finding new passions, and they don’t want to miss a minute of it.

As for the teachers, the extended day has allowed for additional collaborative planning and professional time thanks to more than 20 community partners who teach many of the enrichment programs. They’re also now able to devote more time to students who are struggling and can spend one-on one time providing real interventions that are having a noticeable impact.

Our extended day model is further supported by a new blended-learning approach that utilizes technology to create learning environments with more individual and small-group activities, and a system of online interim assessments that teachers can use to measure real-time feedback on a student’s progress.

While implementing these new approaches wasn’t easy, I believe several elements played a key role in our success:

The first is buy-in. It’s important that everyone buys into it 100 percent — teachers, students and parents. By developing our innovation plan together with the community, we were able to get everyone on board from the beginning.

Our students have also helped us craft a catalog of enrichment programming that they want. And, extended day and enrichment programming are now part of the hiring process. We look for teachers who want to work in an extended day environment and who have unique enrichment ideas to offer to students.

The second is structure. We put clear structures in place from the beginning. Teachers know exactly what their schedule is and so do students. Students understand they can choose from the enrichment classes, but they also understand they need to be doing well in school to have those options.

It’s also important to have someone who’s committed to the program. Our dean of students has been committed to making sure the systems are in place and to reaching out to and training quality community providers of the enrichment programming.

Finally, it’s critical to support the funding. This approach is really good for kids and it’s making an impact. We need to figure out how to sustain and provide funding to schools that have found great success.

The question most often asked about our new approach is ‘what are the costs?’ Of course, with teachers working more hours, students staying longer, and added programming, our expenses have indeed gone up. Luckily we have been able to fund the added costs over the past two years with special grant funds available through Denver Public Schools specifically for Expanded Learning Opportunities.

We recognize those funds won’t be around forever and it’s a top priority to determine how to make this new approach sustainable – not just for us, but for schools around the country interested in this model. That’s why we’re working with a local funder, Rose Community Foundation, to create a long-term plan for sustainability of the extended day model. The organization is a leader in expanded learning opportunities in our community and provided us with a grant to plan for the future. The grant will also support efforts to incorporate Colorado academic standards into our extended day curriculum, and integrate the enrichment programming into our academic departments.

We as a school and community are confident in our approach. As I look around, our students are beaming, parent support is huge and teachers are energized. Our scores tell an equally encouraging story – our 2014 numbers show high gains in all subject areas. Our approach is allowing us not only to provide enriching opportunities to our students but also close the opportunity gap for them, and we’re committed to ensuring this impactful programming continues for years to come.

This piece originally appeared at the Hechinger Report.

First Person

I’m on a Community Education Council in Manhattan. Mayor de Blasio, we need to move faster on school integration

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Mayor de Blasio,

As the mother of a fifth-grade student in a New York City public school and a member of the Community Education Council in Manhattan’s District 2, I thank you for acknowledging that our public school system does not provide equity and excellence for all of our students.

I’m writing to you understanding that the diversity plan the city released this month is a beginning, and that it will take time to integrate our schools. However, the black and Hispanic children of this city do not have decades to wait for us to make change.

I know this firsthand. For the past six years, I have been traveling out of my neighborhood to take my child to one of the city’s few remaining diverse elementary schools, located in Hell’s Kitchen. In looking at middle schools, my criteria for a school were that it matched my child’s academic interests and that it was diverse. Unfortunately, the only middle school that truly encompasses both is a long commute from our home. After commuting by subway for six years, my child wanted a school that was closer to home. I obliged.  

At my child’s middle school orientation, I saw what a segregated school looks like. The incoming class of sixth-graders includes few students of color and does not represent the diversity of our district. This middle school also lacks a diverse teaching staff and administrators. (Had I not sent my child to this school, I would only be fueling the problem, since my child was one of the few children of color admitted to the school.)

These predominately affluent and white schools are creating a new generation of students who will not know how to interact with others that come from different racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Integrated schools, on the other hand, will provide opportunities for them to learn and work with students, teachers and school leaders that reflect the diversity of our city and the world we live in.  

There are measures we can take that will have a stronger impact in integrating our schools than what is listed in the diversity plan. I am asking that you come to the table with students, school leadership and parents that are directly affected by school segregation and consider our ideas to create schools that are more equitable for all students.  

In the words of Valerie Castile, whose family received no justice in the death of their son Philando, “The system continues to fail black people.” While she was speaking of the criminal justice system, true reform of that system begins with educating our children — who will be our society’s future police officers, politicians, legislators and judges.

Mayor de Blasio, you have the power to spur change. The students and parents of our great city are asking for your leadership in integrating our schools.

Josephine Ishmon is a member of District 2’s Community Education Council. This is her personal opinion and does not reflect that of the CEC.

First Person

I dropped out of school in Denver at 13. Here’s how I ended up back in the classroom helping kids learn.

Students at Rocky Mountain Prep in SE Denver.

Every day when I greet the young children walking into the pre-kindergarten classroom at Rocky Mountain Prep, where I’m a teaching assistant, I wonder what my middle school teachers would think if they could see me now.

My story starts out like so many others, but it has a happy ending. Why? Because a caring teacher at the school saw in me, a young mother with three kids, someone she wanted to help reach her potential.

So here I am.

Back then, no one would have guessed I would end up here. It felt like no one at the Denver middle school I attended took education seriously. The teachers who didn’t bother to learn my name didn’t take me seriously. The kids who walked in and out class whenever they wanted sure didn’t.

Even though I wanted to get an education and improve my English, after a while I started doing what my friends did.

First I’d leave a class once in a while before it was over. Then I started cutting classes. Next I’d ditch full days. Then, in seventh grade, I stopped going completely. Yes, that’s right. I dropped out of school at 13.

I guess you could say my dropping out was no big surprise. In a lot of ways, the process started when I was little. In elementary school, I was one of the thousands of Denver kids who didn’t speak much English. But I could never find the help I needed and wanted at my school.

I just felt lost, like no one there cared about me.

It was worse when I started middle school. My mom didn’t want me to go to one closest to home because it had gang problems.

I walked 45 minutes to and from school every day. I always walked. There was no school bus and public transit would have taken even longer.

Rain or snow or hot sun, there I was, walking to school by myself. I had to wake up at 5:45 a.m. to get to school on time. My mom was already at work at that hour.

When I dropped out, my mom was upset. She always worked very hard at her job in a nursing home. She had three kids and worked from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. My dad wasn’t around.

She wasn’t going to put up with me hanging out and getting in trouble, so she sent me down to Mexico to live with my grandparents and maybe finish school there, in rural Chihuahua.

The school I went to in Mexico was much better for me. Reading, writing, math and Spanish classes were hard. But the teachers really cared. They checked in with me one-on-one every day. It was the first time I began to realize that there were adults outside my family who really cared about me. That made a big difference.

I had met a boy I liked in Mexico, and when I came back to Denver I was 16 and pregnant. My daughter Alisson was born in Denver. Eventually her father and I got married and we now have three children.

But at 16, I knew I needed to get a high school diploma if I wanted to get anywhere in the world. I attended an online high school for a while, and then a private religious school where I could take online courses. I was very proud when I graduated.

I never considered the possibility that I might go to college someday.

When Alisson turned four, I needed to find a school for her. We lived right across the street from an elementary school. But everyone told me it was not a great school. I knew how to look up information about test scores and every school I looked at near our home did not have the best scores, or at least anything close to my expectations.

I went to my mom crying. We felt stuck. I really wanted my daughter to receive a better education than I had. I wanted a high quality school that would provide the attention and support she would need. A school that would care for her education as much as I did.

Then in June, someone knocked on my door. It was a teacher from Rocky Mountain Prep charter school. They said they were opening that fall in Kepner Middle School, just a few blocks from our house. I invited her in and asked her questions for an hour. I liked what I heard.

I sent Alisson to the school and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. It’s nothing like any of the schools I attended. The teachers love the kids. Allison has learned so much.

At the end of her first year, I had a conference with her teacher, Laura. She said Alisson was an advanced student. I asked what I could do with her over the summer to make sure she stayed on top of her schoolwork.

That’s when Laura told me I should come work there because I was a natural teacher. I thought she was joking. I think my answer to her was, “Yeah, seriously.”

But she was serious. I didn’t think I had what it took. No college. No education, no experience. But she bugged me and bugged me until I said I’d apply. I did, and was hired as a teaching assistant.

I just finished my first year in the classroom. It went great. I love teaching. I love kids. I love that I get to be a part of what Rocky Mountain Prep is doing for my community in providing a strong foundation in education that I never received.

As a pre-K teaching assistant, I serve as a second educator in the classroom for our young scholars’ first experience at school. I share responsibility for helping to build their social skills and love of reading, writing, math, and science.

As a parent, I know firsthand how important those early years are for learning. I love that I also have a hand in helping so many little ones fall in love with coming to school and growing their brains.

My daughter is in first grade now. She is reading chapter books. And she’s always saying, “When I’m in college …” She has no doubt that’s what she’ll do when she finishes high school. As a mom, this makes me feel very proud.

Listening to those words coming from my own child has motivated me. I’m not always the most self-confident person, but thanks to Allison and our school, I know that’s my next step — going to college and making her as proud as she’s made me.