First Person

Why has my school won two National Blue Ribbon awards? It’s really quite simple.

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Soaring Eagles Elementary in Colorado Springs

Early this fall, I found out that Soaring Eagles Elementary School, where I’m the principal, won its second National Blue Ribbon award.

It was an incredible day. I got to appear in newspapers and on TV explaining how proud I was of our powerhouse staff. Together, we’ve won a string of state and national awards for academic excellence while working with a comparatively large share of students living below the poverty line in Colorado Springs.

That’s led to a lot of questions about the secrets to our success. Colleagues, here they are: just researched best practices.

Over the years, we’ve zeroed in on the common threads that educational research show help make successful schools. We’ve also read thinkers like Dennis Sparks, Peter Senge, Michael Fullan and Robert Marzano. We boiled it all down to student engagement, a great curriculum and high-quality teachers. No miracles.

We responded by committing to improving those things. Our staff literally built curriculum maps and calendars. Teachers became the experts on our “scope and sequence” — essentially, our roadmap for our students’ learning — and they worked to understand more deeply what they were teaching and why. They adjusted their assessments and learned to set specific objectives for each lesson.

As a school, we put special focus on our most struggling learners. Title I funds help us hire paraeducators who work with students as they work on literacy skills, and those students get an average of two hours a day of small group instruction.

As an administration, we’ve also refined our own strategy for helping teachers improve. Every probationary teacher receives 16 spot observations and two formal observations to support their growth. We decided that my most important job was to be an instructional leader, and we prioritized my spending time in classrooms.

I bet some of you are shaking your heads and thinking, we’ve done all of that, too. I challenge you to go on a quest. Don’t ask yourself if those ideas are present — ask to what degree they are implemented. Part of why I spend so much time in classrooms is to make sure the best practices we’ve decided on remain front and center.

By now, I’m confident in our strategy. It was only reinforced when I swallowed my pride and looked deeper at a school that was doing even better than we were.

As administrators, our jobs are so all-consuming that we don’t often seek out outside exemplars. Too often, we insist that we are too busy and believe that we already have the knowledge we need. When we fall short, that means we sometimes say crazy things like “Our kids can’t …”, and “Our community doesn’t …”, and “If I only had …”.

I’ve operated that way myself. When state test scores are published, I always check to see which schools outperformed ours. One of my colleague’s schools showed consistent growth and greater success. It was also clear that the school was overcoming some of the same obstacles that other Title I schools face.

At first I did the natural thing: I assumed that there must be some underhandedness, or that the school’s higher test scores were a fluke. But their teachers continue to outperform mine, and I eventually asked my colleague if I could visit.

After several visits it was clear to see how and why their students were succeeding. They had focused instruction, planned objectives, and consistent execution. All of their students were visually tracked on a data board which guided discussions around what each student needed.

They were focused on doing the basics really well. Seeing “great” in action, and being open-minded, helped us improve.

But there is no need to chase the latest programs to do it. Supporting your staff, helping them improve, and really implementing the practices that have been shown to work will get the job done.

Kelli O’Neil has worked in education for 31 years, and worked for Harrison School District #2 for the past 21. Soaring Eagles Elementary received the National Blue Ribbon Award in 2009 and 2016 and the Title I Distinguished School award in 2011. Soaring Eagles serves as a host site for turnaround schools in Colorado.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.