symbiosis

At newcomer school, teachers step back to help students learn

Blendi Brahimaj, Wilis Hernandez and Reyson Rosario working together

On a recent day at High School of Language and Innovation earth science teacher Katie Walraven did very little.

Walraven’s choice to take a back seat to her students was strategic: She was letting her students, who are almost all recent immigrants, do most of the teaching.

Her approach reflects one answer to a tricky question: How to teach high school students grade-appropriate content — while at the same time teaching them English. It’s a question that teachers at newcomer high schools such as High School of Language and Innovation or International High School in Prospect Heights, the subject of “The New Kids,” a new book by Brooke Hauser, confront daily.

For help addressing the tension, High School of Language and Innovation’s founding principal, Julie Nariman, turned to Learning Cultures, a curriculum designed by New York University education professor Cynthia McCallister. The basic philosophy of Learning Cultures – which is used in a dozen other city schools – is that students learn best through social situations. “The social interaction is what allows the writing to happen, the reading to happen, the learning to happen,” McCallister said.

While Learning Cultures is not specifically designed for ELL populations, Nariman says it is the perfect fit for them because it allows students to pool their knowledge of English and content to help each other. Nariman is well-versed in the needs of ELL students, having previously been assistant principal of English as a Second Language at Long Island City High School, and having taught English as a Second Language in Korea.

“This really spoke to me,” she said about Learning Cultures. “It’s a system of teaching students to work interdependently in the classroom and to use independent work time effectively. The content is still all there but in order to get to that content we are first working on social practices.” 

Walraven’s classroom – one of four that the brand-new school currently occupies in the basement of the Christopher Columbus Educational Complex – is filled with light dribbling in from high windows and with wafting smells of gravy and fries from the nearby cafeteria. During Thursday’s earth science class, Walraven’s students split into five groups to learn about earth-sun-moon cycles. Nariman and McCallister, who was visiting the school, sat in with some groups.

Pelham High School for Language and Innovation Principal Julie Nariman

In one group, leader Blendi Brahimaj, from Albania, tapped his pen on an open page in his earth science textbook, counted to three and led teammates Wilis Hernandez and Reyson Rosario, both from the Dominican Republic, in the synchronized reading of a passage about Daylight Savings Time.

Reading aloud together is a key component of Learning Cultures, which calls it Unison Reading and says studies have proven the strategy effective. In Unison Reading, a small group of students reads a passage of text aloud together, stopping each time one of them feels confused or lost. Because the process is dictated by students’ own self-declared needs, according to McCallister, it can be more powerful than a teacher dictating information to a group of students, all of whom are in different stages of their English acquisition and all of whom are confused about different things.

After a few fumbles to regulate their reading speed, Brahimaj stopped the group: “What does that mean? ‘Ahead’?”

Hernandez offered an answer, explaining, “‘Ahead’ is like first, like if you’re ahead of me, you’re first.”

It sounded a lot like “in front of” to the other boys so Hernandez kept at it, pounding his textbook with his hand and contorting his mouth while thinking of another explanation.

“Like if I don’t know something and you know it, you’re ahead of me,”  Hernandez said. Satisfied with his answer, Brahimaj counted to three and the boys continued: “…ahead of standard time… ”

With no teacher over their shoulder, the boys still managed to keep each other on task, raise their questions and concerns and help each other comprehend the text.

Pelham High School for Language and Innovation Students using technology to help bridge the communication gap

In another group, Nariman looked on as Eury Cerda, who was born in America, got frustrated with teammate Aida Sarr, a native French speaker who immigrated from Senegal this school year, when she didn’t immediately understand his instructions to open her textbook.

Nariman nudged the group towards finding a solution to these issues so that they were all on the same page. Ultimately she brought them a laptop so they could take advantage of Google Translate. Cerda agreed to type a passage of the textbook into Google Translate, share it with Sarr and then lead the group in reading the English version of the text. At first, the group members were reluctant to risk losing time to study for an upcoming quiz, but by the end of the lesson they were working together. After each segment, Cerda turned to Sarr, asked if she understood and then cued more reading. By the end of the period, not only did they make their way through the passage, but they agreed to be friends.

“I said sorry and she asked if I wanted to be friends and I said yes,” Cerda reported on his way out the door.

Nariman recognizes that typing an entire textbook into Google Translate isn’t a sustainable strategy, but it is exemplary of the types of shared problem solving techniques her students employ to ensure that they and their classmates are understanding the language and content of their reading.

While Nariman coached Cerda’s group, McCallister worked with Walraven and a pair of girls as the girls struggled through a diagram of the earth’s rotation and revolution. McCallister and Walraven did not give them any answers, rather they helped them ask each other questions and watched on as the girls articulated the answers for each other. They prompted the girls with statements like, “Ask her if she understands” and “Ask her to explain it to you.”

After McCallister and Taina Guerrier, from Haiti, spent several minutes swirling around the room, rotating and revolving around each other, Guerrier grasped the concept enough to explain it to her partner: “She is the earth, I am the sun. She is moving. I am not moving. That is the day. When she moves, that is the dark.”

Her partner understood, the student had successfully become the teacher. Guerrier was glowing.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.