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

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.