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

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.

guest perspective

I’m an education reformer, and Betsy DeVos is going to kill our coalition. Here’s a game plan.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / jeweledlion

At her Senate confirmation hearing this week, Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. education secretary Betsy DeVos failed to answer basic questions about civil rights, measuring student growth, and children with disabilities.

Her answers also validated what left-leaning education reformers have suspected for months: DeVos embraces school choice as an education panacea, while grasping little else about federal education policy. That philosophy will likely lead her to prioritize some of the least promising, and most divisive, components of the education reform agenda.

When that happens, she and Donald Trump will kill the bipartisan education reform coalition.

Having participated in that coalition for 15 years, as a nonprofit president and member of President Obama’s 2008 education policy committee, I will be disappointed, though not surprised, to see it dissolve.

The coalition was surprisingly durable. By the early 1990s it was attracting centrists frustrated with their political parties and enthusiastic about results. At the time, the right blamed weak school performance on things like “family values” and resisted sweeping changes on the basis of respecting local control. The left blamed poverty and was similarly resistant to change, based on an allergy to holding schools accountable for their results. For most of the years since I entered the workforce, the reform coalition was an ideal home for a technocratic public school graduate who realized that the system had worked for him, but not for kids with less privilege.

DeVos, however, is no technocrat. The glue of the reform coalition has been an orientation toward results and accountability. DeVos has shown that her real commitment is to an ideological position, dominated by a faith in markets and the economic theories of conservative economists like Milton Friedman.

The nomination of DeVos signals that our country’s Republican leadership will abandon the technocratic agenda in favor of an ideological one. DeVos’s own history indicates that her department of education will prioritize federal funding for private religious schools, a laissez-faire approach to school accountability, and a hands-off approach to the enforcement of federal civil rights laws. Those priorities would shrink the federal government’s role in safeguarding equity and increase the flow of federal dollars to unaccountable private entities. I don’t think low-income families should take that deal, and frankly, neither should tax-averse conservatives.

In the meantime, DeVos’s nomination should be a wake-up call to the left-leaners of the reform coalition. We’re about to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis, where pushing away from DeVos’s education policy agenda could mean getting subsumed by the traditionalist agenda of our own party. That agenda still hews to the positions of management interests and labor leaders, and not closely enough to the needs of vulnerable families.

To avoid that trap, left-leaning reformers like me need to build a legitimate reform agenda of our own — one that can both improve students’ lives and garner motivated, popular support in the coming years. I think that agenda must consider four things:

First, we must put the perspectives of the families and children of our most vulnerable communities at the center of our work. If we can’t explain to a mother why a policy will make her child’s life better, it’s not a good enough policy. To the extent that families view other issues as critical – like healthcare, poverty, civil rights, and jobs – we should be allies in those fights.

Second, we need to hold the line on accountability, academic standards, and making teaching one of the most valued professions in the country. Year after year, research finds that these three factors are the foundational elements of successful education systems. While standards and accountability have been central to reform since the 1990s, both are now under assault. The third leg of this stool also is a political nightmare, since reformers and traditionalists disagree about how to elevate teaching. That doesn’t mean we can give up.

All of that means that the third thing progressives need to do is spend more time talking to teachers. Teachers, and their unions, have been some of the most outspoken critics of reform. Some of that pushback has been political. Much of it, though, is a genuine response to feeling like the teaching profession has become unmoored from joy and creativity. Great teaching cannot flourish while our country’s teachers are miserable. That’s bad for children, and we need to help fix it.

Finally, reformers on the left must continue to support ideas that get results, even when other progressives push back. For example, huge segments of the left despise charter schools, but there are amazing charter schools that get stunning results under adverse circumstances. Those results are worth defending.

Whatever happens to the reform coalition, the Trump-DeVos regime will cause a significant realignment in education politics. If the coalition does survive, it’s likely to limp along in a diminished form.

The realignment will offer challenges and opportunities to everyone with a stake in improving public schools for all children. If reformers on the left want to be key voices in these debates, we’ll have to focus less on accommodating DeVos’s views and more on building power for our own coalition. Students will need it.

Justin C. Cohen is a writer who focuses on the intersection of education and social justice. Before that, he was president of Mass Insight Education and a senior adviser to the chancellor of the DC Public Schools.