leadership prep

In quest for better leaders, charter sector program looks inward

Niomi Plotkin, center, talks to John Harrison and other charter school leaders during the ELF orientation.

For the city’s charter sector, the task of building better leaders begins with self-reflection.

The project of understanding what makes a good leader — particularly for charter schools, which have some of the highest principal turnover rates — is what consumes the 20-odd educators who gathered at the New York City Charter School Center this week to kick off the sixth year of its leadership training program.

When they return to their schools later this month, the educators will face diverse challenges. One pair comes from a school that has nearly doubled in size faster than expected due to make up a budget shortfall. Another is from a rare standalone school serving kindergarten through 12th graders, which will be preparing its first cohort of students to graduate and apply to college next year.

But on a recent morning, all of the participants were focused on the same question as Heidi Brooks, a professor from the Yale University School of Management, talked them through a platitude-heavy presentation about identifying leadership qualities.

“How would you describe yourself as a leader? How do you describe a great leader?” Brooks asked the group, then began taking down their answers until ink filled a sheet of poster paper.

“Positive,” “self-aware,” and “systems-aware” topped the list of traits.

Finding talented school leaders, and convincing them to stay at a school year after year, has been an ongoing challenge for city charter schools — and a problem that James Merriman, the charter center’s head, lamented at a recent state education reform commission meeting. The center is trying to chip away at this problem for a handful of independent charter schools that need well-trained, effective administrators at the helm as they grow to their full size, but don’t have the same recruiting resources as the large charter networks.

This year, the center has invited seven schools, including the New York Center for Autism Charter School in East Harlem and VOICE Charter School in Long Island City, to send one or two school leaders and teachers through its year-long leadership training program, called the Emerging Leaders Fellowship, with the goal of preparing the participants to become administrators at their schools.

ELF is designed for people who are already working in schools and want to stay there, said its director, Niomi Plotkin. She said those people are already familiar with their school’s cultural norms and can be more committed to its mission.

“It’s a different kind of sweat equity, because you’re already invested,” Plotkin said. “We find that makes for better leaders.”

Past fellows have gone on to create an online summer school and a data analysis system for tracking performance at their individual schools, and about 80 percent of fellows have become principals or administrators.

But the first lessons built into the program had little to do with school management. Instead, they focused on fostering conversations between participants and their mentors (most of whom are also their school supervisors) about leadership styles and the importance of self-reflection.

Plotkin said these questions will lay the groundwork for participants to consider what it means to be a leader as they move into more intensive lessons on how to foster strong school culture, recruit a top-notch staff, and manage student conflicts.

Liz Springer, the middle school director for Hunts Point’s Hyde Leadership Charter School, said she joined ELF program out of a desire to puzzle through those subjects within a network of other charter school administrators, which Hyde lacked. She applied to join the second cohort of the program in 2008, after she and colleagues realized they could use more help at the school, which has been expanding to span all grades. Since then, a half-dozen more Hyde teachers have completed the program, and Springer has returned to mentor more teachers in the program this summer.

“The job of being a principal is hard. We get a lot of awesome, type A, overachieving people in the charter sector, but even with that you can’t do it by yourself,” Springer said. “With autonomy comes responsibility. We have the chance to be completely innovative, but there’s a lot to think about.”

The list of a school leader’s concerns is long, she said, ranging from school culture and finance and budgeting to accountability and community engagement. ELF will cover each of these subjects in Wednesday evening sessions over the next several months. In between, the teachers have reams of photocopied lessons to read about character-building, effective team-coaching and conflict resolution.

Most of the educators who joined in the weeklong orientation said they wanted to grow professionally without leaving their schools.

John Harrison, the director of English and language arts programming at Inwood Academy for Leadership Charter School, said his principal encouraged him to join the program to gain skills he would need to run a high school once Inwood Academy expands beyond its middle school. But first he wants to learn how to define the role of school leader so it isn’t overwhelming.

“I think for me the primary issue for the high turnover rate of charter school leaders and burnout comes from the fact that roles are more loosely defined in our schools because they’re so new,” Harrison said. “We have a lot of freedom, but it’s kind of a blessing and a curse. You sign on to a particular role and you don’t always know what you’re expected to do.”

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.