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.

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.

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.