Building Better Schools

How convincing teachers they could be ‘great’ helped transform this Indianapolis school

PHOTO: John Leyba/The Denver Post

A Speedway elementary school that was once known as the worst school in the its district was honored today for academic performance by the Indiana Department of Education.

Allison Elementary School was one of two schools recognized as Indiana’s 2016 National Title I Distinguished Schools — an honor that principal Jay Bedwell attributes to a positive school culture.

“It took me three years to change the culture in the building so that these teachers actually understood that they were capable of being great teachers,” said Bedwell who came to the school more than a decade ago when it was known as the worst of Speedway’s four elementary schools. Students would transfer to other schools, it was failing academically and the police were regularly called about discipline issues, he said.

The school faces challenges: More than 71 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for meal assistance and more than one in five students are learning English.

But during Bedwell’s time as principal, the school got a new influx of funding from the federal government, and he has used most of that money for tools to track student progress and to hire an instructional coach and three instructional assistants who work with small groups of kids to get them up to speed.

That work is paying off: Despite its challenges, the school is thriving, and it exceeds the state and district average passing rate on the ISTEP. Assistant Superintendent Patti Bock said that the high test scores are particularly impressive because both students who are behind and those who are excelling show strong improvement.

“I know that those teachers work really hard,” Bock said. “It doesn’t matter what day you walk through that school. You are going to see loving, caring people and kids excited that they can do the work.”

In some ways, Allison is a small town school in the midst of a big city, said Bock.

Speedway is such a geographically compact district that instead of taking buses, students walk or drive the short distance to school. There are regular family nights at the school, and younger students know who their teachers will be in later grades.

In addition to Allison, Gavit Middle and High School in Hammond was also honored by the state today for its work closing the achievement gap.

“I am honored to recognize two exceptional schools today for their commitment to providing high-quality support and instruction to Hoosier students,” said Glenda Ritz, Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.  “I applaud the hard work of the dedicated educators, students and families of Allison Elementary and Gavit Middle/High School on this distinguished achievement.”

An education U-turn

Carmen Fariña wants to help New York City teachers get better at teaching. But some of her own reforms are getting in the way

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
The math team at P.S. 294 in the Bronx discuss a recent lesson during the 80 minutes of professional development time carved out by the city's most recent contract with the teachers union.

It was a Monday afternoon and school was out at P.S. 294. But there was plenty of learning happening inside the blue-and-yellow building in the Bronx.

Teams of teachers were gathered in classrooms on almost every floor. One group discussed a recent math lesson on how to identify patterns; another analyzed which questions had stumped students during recent statewide tests. A third was thinking about new ways to encourage discussion in the classroom.

In each huddle, they were learning a valuable lesson from each other: how to become better teachers.

What’s happening at P.S. 294 is what Carmen Fariña envisioned when she became chancellor of the country’s largest school system. Among the veteran educator’s most deeply held beliefs is that school improvement starts in the classroom — by helping teachers get better at teaching.

“To me, everything that happens in the classroom is the most crucial thing in the building,” Fariña told Chalkbeat.

Many of Fariña’s reforms reflect that vision, including the city’s contract with the teachers union, which carves out time for professional development each week. But another set of changes Fariña made — overhauling the education department bureaucracy — has sometimes worked at cross purposes, taking power away from those who know schools best.

Strapped superintendents and staffers sidelined in support centers now oversee much of the training teachers encounter. Fariña herself acknowledges it has sometimes been a struggle to meet the diverse needs of schools under the new system.

One Bronx principal said he sees that struggle firsthand.

“What some people call ‘supporting instruction with professional development,’ other people would call ‘bloated bureaucracy,’” the principal told Chalkbeat. “I have no interest in their professional development, and they don’t know my school.”

***

Like much of what has happened at the education department under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the chancellor’s emphasis on teaching the teachers marks a radical shift from the preceding administration.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein wanted great teachers in every classroom, too. But their position was that it was easier to hire top talent than cultivate it. Instead of pouring resources into teacher improvement, they set about measuring teachers to weed out those who were ineffective.

“Joel didn’t believe in professional development at all,” said Eric Nadelstern, who served as deputy chancellor for school support and instruction under Klein. “His question was, ‘Is it easier to change the teacher — or to change the teacher?’” Klein himself did not agree to be interviewed for this story.

When Fariña took the helm, educators took heart that one of them was in charge again. With 50 years of experience in New York City classrooms, she was the first chancellor in more than a decade who didn’t need a waiver, which the state requires when a school leader does not have the experience set by law for the job.

“When de Blasio named Fariña chancellor, it was a message,” said Norm Fruchter, a researcher at New York University who previously served as a de Blasio appointee to the Panel for Educational Policy. “The pendulum was going to shift back towards valuing instruction.”

In one of her first moves as chancellor, Fariña helped hammer out a contract with the United Federation of Teachers, the union that had clashed for years with Bloomberg and Klein. Among its most significant changes: giving teachers 80 minutes after school every Monday to work on improving their craft. The contract also created new leadership positions that gave extra pay to skilled teachers who agreed to take on coaching roles in their schools.

Taken together, those moves helped create a structure for helping teachers improve within their own schools.

“The thing with the most value in schools is time,” said Phil Weinberg, deputy chancellor of the department’s Division of Teaching and Learning. “The biggest thing that we’ve done is to honor the fact that learning has to happen by creating time.”

***

In the education world, there is much debate around whether professional learning really works. Plenty of research suggests that typical models do not. Educators have their own disparaging vocabulary to describe those models: drop-and-go, spray-and-pray, even drive-by professional development. The idea is that one-off lectures and workshops are rarely effective in changing teacher practice, let alone improving how much students are learning.

However, recent research suggests there are ways to get it right. A review of 35 different studies, released in June by the Learning Policy Institute, found common themes in professional learning programs that actually improve student performance. Those programs provide coaching, are collaborative and typically happen on the job — much like what’s happening at P.S. 294.

P.S. 294 The Walton Avenue School serves students who are traditionally among the city’s lowest-performing — those who are homeless, learning English, or have disabilities. Yet it outperforms the city average on standardized tests.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Daniel Russo (center) working with the math team at P.S. 294

The school has taken on Algebra for All, a de Blasio initiative that helps schools change the way they teach math. P.S. 294 also has teacher leaders paid to share their knowledge with teams of their colleagues. Those teams then work together in the 80 minutes each week reserved for professional development. All of that comes together under a principal, Daniel Russo, who makes sure teachers get the feedback they need to improve their practice.

“We come back every couple of months and say, ‘How are we doing on this? What fell by the wayside and what are ways that we can do better?’” Russo said. “Everyone is going to contribute to, and benefit from, the greater knowledge that there is in the room.”

For all its ambitions, the 80 minutes don’t always work as planned. In about a dozen interviews with teachers and principals, many school staff said they appreciate that the Monday sessions have provided time and space to think about their practice. But others said that time can feel wasted or forced.

“Everyone is very busy at our school, and that’s just another meeting that has to take place to plan more meetings,” a Bronx high school teacher told Chalkbeat. (The teacher, like many educators interviewed for this story, agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity.)

“A lot of times we’re not really sure what we’re going to do on a given day,” the teacher said. ”It’s not very focused throughout the year.”

***

Why, then, are some schools making good use of the new training time and at others, teachers feel like it’s being frittered away?

One factor: changes to the way principals are supervised and how schools get support.

Under Bloomberg and Klein, principals who needed help turned to dozens of “networks” scattered throughout the city. Principals opted into networks based on their schools’ needs, regardless of where the school or network were located in the city. The network providers were expected to solve problems for schools, or principals could vote with their feet and join different networks.

"That’s the system-wide idea of support now: taking people away from kids."David Baiz, former principal of Global Technology Preparatory

As chancellor, Fariña took a different approach. She promptly rebuilt the department’s Division of Teaching and Learning, which had been dissolved after she left the DOE in 2007. Once again, there was an office at the Department of Education’s central headquarters dedicated to actively helping schools decide what and how to teach.

She also empowered superintendents, calling them the “instructional leaders” of their districts, and upped the years of experience required to land the job. They evaluate principals but are also responsible for making sure schools get the support they need.

In the place of networks, Fariña opened “field support centers,” which serve hundreds of schools but don’t hold supervisory power. Unlike networks, most centers only work with schools located in the same borough. Superintendents and support centers are expected to work together to help schools improve teaching.

Crucially, that doesn’t always happen. The result can work against the 80 minutes, by distancing decision-making about professional development from schools — and complicating it, too.

Our principal is “held with her hands behind her back,” said Corey Taylor, a music teacher at P.S. 33 in the Bronx. “She has to do what she’s being told by her higher-ups.”

Now, principals are expected to ask their superintendents for help, who then turn to field support centers. Some principals and support centers do work directly together, though Weinberg said that’s not the preferred system.

“The ideal thing is that you’re in constant conversation with your superintendent,” he said. “It would be hard for each borough field support center to hear 145 different requests every day, from each of their schools.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Teachers at a training for Computer Science for All, a citywide initiative

Relationships between superintendents and support centers don’t always run smoothly, and both are tasked with overseeing many schools. Superintendents have staffs of around six people, yet may be responsible for dozens of schools. Support centers work with up to 323 schools, with an average caseload just below 200.

With superintendents acting as a filter between schools and support centers, many principals report a divide between what they’re offered and what they want to learn.

“There’s a disconnect between the reality of what’s going on in classrooms, and the offerings,” one Manhattan principal told Chalkbeat. “It usually comes down to: Teachers need to learn, very specifically, techniques, tips, philosophies that affect their own practice.”

When they work well, support centers might send staff to a school to provide targeted help requested by its principal. But, faced with heavy caseloads, the centers often respond to schools’ needs by creating borough-wide professional development sessions that can vary in quality. In the city’s most recent survey of principals, only 73 percent said they were satisfied with the support they get from the centers.

One Manhattan teacher said she went to sessions offered by the support center last year and was disappointed with what she found. The presenters led a lesson on “guided reading,” a technique that includes introducing vocabulary and breaking students into groups, but they seemed fuzzy on how to execute the practice in the classroom.

“Teachers were actually correcting them,” the teacher said. “They’re removed and they forget what it’s like to be a teacher.”

***

Despite Fariña’s emphasis on classroom-based learning, many of the support centers’ professional development sessions are happening outside schools, while class is in session. At three separate support centers, almost all the trainings for teachers offered during the month of May were held during school hours.

"We’ve set aside the time. We’ve set up the space. Can we just manage it?"Michael Mulgrew, president of the teachers union

That wouldn’t have happened under Bloomberg, according to Nadelstern, the former Klein deputy. He said his policy was that teachers and principals should not be pulled away from schools while students are in the building.

“That’s the system-wide idea of support now: taking people away from kids,” said David Baiz, the former principal of Global Technology Preparatory in East Harlem. “That’s not really the best way that adults learn: to sit in a meeting away from the context of their work environment and then try to come back and incorporate it.”

In addition to out-of-office professional development, superintendents host monthly meetings, pulling principals out of their schools for the entire day. In some cases, they include meals paid for by vendors who present professional development sessions based on educational products they’re selling.

“There’s just this feeling among almost every principal that I know,” a Bronx principal told Chalkbeat. “Like meeting after meeting after meeting and requirement after requirement are being added, and really drowning out the time needed for real collaboration.”

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Fariña admitted that professional development run by outside vendors is “not that effective.” She also acknowledged there have been growing pains as the superintendents and field support centers try to meet the needs of all the schools they serve.

“It’s been more of a struggle in some places where there was a more diverse need,” she said.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools chancellor Carmen Fariña looks over a card from students in her office.

To address that, Fariña said the centers have been working on “modules” based on different areas of need. A module may highlight effective strategies for teaching students who are learning English, for instance, and come with a series of professional development courses that can be run over a period of multiple weeks.

“Each principal can adapt it as they see fit,” Fariña said.

***

Weinberg said it is easy, in a system as large as New York City, to point to “random” weak points.

“What our real goal is, is continuous improvement,” he said. “I think that we make mistakes, oftentimes, by looking at one anecdotal example as a way of disproving a larger movement.”

Michael Mulgrew, president of the teachers union, said the department needs to pay closer attention to how schools are using the resources that are now available. While the the 80 minutes of professional development time is a game-changer, he said, it can also vary in usefulness depending on school culture, principal leadership and how well superintendents and the field support centers can provide help.

“We’ve set aside the time. We’ve set up the space. Can we just manage it?” Mulgrew said. “The fact that the chancellor made this a priority when she came in is the reason why you see the school system moving forward. My fear is, have we reached a plateau?”

It may be tricky, however, to balance the kind of oversight that Mulgrew envisions with the personalization that teachers and principals say is necessary for effective professional development. But the city is evaluating its own work to make sure it’s hitting the mark for teachers and schools.

“Teaching is really fascinating and difficult work,” Weinberg said. “We need to approach this hard job with the humility that says we have the ability to learn more — and we want to learn more.”

Chalkbeat reporters Monica Disare and Alex Zimmerman contributed to this report.

tailoring transformation

How a Memphis school that missed the turnaround tide plans to catch up under Hopson’s budget

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey shows kindergarteners how to blow bubbles during a graduation celebration at Hawkins Mill Elementary School in the Frayser community of Memphis.

Located in one of the most concentrated neighborhoods of school turnaround work in America, Hawkins Mill Elementary School is in many ways a throwback to Memphis public education before the city became a battleground for school improvement efforts.

It’s one of the few schools in the city’s Frayser community that hasn’t undergone a major intervention plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter and Innovation Zone schools that surround it.

But that’s about to change.

As part of his initiative to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson picked Hawkins Mill to join more than a dozen other Memphis schools that will receive new resources under next year’s budget for Shelby County Schools. (You can see the full list here.)

Dubbed “critical focus schools,” the schools were chosen for reasons that range from poor test scores to low enrollment to aging buildings — all criteria that district leaders have used in recent years to close more than 20 schools.

But about $5.9 million in new investments soon will be spread across the schools based on transformation plans developed this spring with school administrators, teachers and parents in partnership with district leaders.

Principal Antonio Harvey says the process has inspired a climate of hope at Hawkins Mill, which has been among the state’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools since 2012.

“We’re getting the message out there that we’re invested in this community, we’re not giving up on this community, we support you,” said Harvey, who just completed his fourth year at the elementary school.

For years, the school’s leaders have tried to turn around academics in a zip code where about half the households live on less than $25,000 per year. But there’s never been a significant influx of resources, making progress negligible.

As part of Hopson’s budget, Hawkins Mill will receive an extra $300,000, mostly for staff hires that include a science teacher, teacher assistants, an instructional facilitator and an interventionist. The school also will require more team projects in classrooms; add a STEM specialty for science, technology, engineering and math; and host a dance academy under Watoto Memphis, an Afro-centric performing arts program.

“We were able to sit down and put a lot of energy into the plan because the thinking process was already there,” Harvey said of the new strategy.

Most of the needs had been identified in previous years but were a pipe dream without additional investments, according to Janet Rutherford, the school’s professional learning coach.

“Now we can make this happen,” she said.

 

Teams for other critical focus schools also have been developing transformation plans, each tailored to meet their individual needs and challenges.

Some are borrowing components from Shelby County Schools’ flagship turnaround program called the iZone. Those include an hour tacked onto the school day, retention bonuses for top teachers, and more teacher coaches.

Like other schools in the newest initiative, Hawkins Mill will have to meet benchmarks within three years if it wants to avoid closure. Those benchmarks are still being identified, but school leaders at Hawkins Mill are already figuring out how to address other challenges with enrollment, attendance and behavior. The plan includes home visits for chronically absent students and launching Hawks Buck Store, a weekly incentive program in which students can win prizes for good behavior.

Note: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16.

Community leaders are welcoming the investments in a school that was eyed for takeover in 2015 by Tennessee’s Achievement School District. At the time, Hawkins Mill was being considered for operation by the ASD’s direct-run Achievement Schools, which includes five Frayser schools already in turnaround mode.

Charlie Caswell, a longtime community leader and pastor at Union Grove Baptist Church, said he hopes Shelby County Schools will use the Achievement Schools’ community engagement model as it implements the transformation plans.

“Our hope is that it will be a game-changer for schools to have the autonomy based on what they know their needs are in the community,” he said.