innovation application

City's Race to the Top-District bid centered on iZone expansion

Students at Brooklyn's Olympus Academy, a transfer high school, use online learning to move ahead at their own pace. The city is asking the U.S. Department of Education for funds to support additional efforts to "personalize education."

Pitting itself against school districts across the country, the city has asked the U.S. Department of Education for $40 million to expand and augment its existing education technology programs.

The city’s biggest commitment in its application for Race to the Top-District, which city education officials filed last week, is to add as many as 100 schools to its three-year-old “Innovation Zone.” The application also promises to build innovative schools from the ground up and train teachers on how to use technology to improve instruction.

Race to the Top-District is the latest effort by the Obama administration to entice state and local education officials to adopt its preferred policies. In the first Race to the Top grant competition, in 2010, New York State netted $700 million to overhaul teacher evaluations, add more charter schools, bulk up teacher preparation programs, and develop a statewide data system. Last year, the state fell short in its bid to win Race to the Top funds earmarked just for early childhood education. The current round — the first open to individual districts — is focused on “personalized education.”

City Department of Education officials say the Innovation Zone, which this year contains nearly 250 schools, makes the department uniquely positioned to turn federal funds into higher student achievement.

“It’s something that we’ve been doing for three years,” said David Weiner, the Department of Education deputy chancellor in charge of innovation. “We really believe that that puts us in a great place to capitalize on what we’ve learned.”

The U.S. Department of Education announced today that it received 371 applications for the competition, representing more than a thousand districts because many worked together.

The city filed its application Nov. 6, one day before an extended deadline for districts affected by Hurricane Sandy. When the hurricane hit Oct. 29, a day before the original deadline, the application was nearly complete, according to city and union officials. It just needed a handful of signatures, including one from UFT President Michael Mulgrew, whose office and home borough were both hit hard by the storm.

UFT Secretary Michael Mendel said the union worked with the city to refine the application over time. But he said Mulgrew’s sign-off should not be interpreted as an endorsement of the city’s Innovation Zone, which some have criticized as overly expensive and unproven. Instead, Mendel said, the union wanted to facilitate efforts to boost student achievement, even if its not clear whether the efforts will ultimately pay off.

“I really do believe that we should we be experimenting with different things,” Mendel said. “If they don’t work, shut it down. If they do work, then expand them.”

The State Education Department has declined to award New York City some grants carved out of its coffers from the first Race to the Top competition because the city and UFT have not yet agreed to adopt evaluations for teachers that weigh student performance. But to be eligible for Race to the Top-District, the city and union had to promise only to implement new teacher evaluations by the 2014-2015 school year.

The application asks for $40 million over four years, the maximum available to a district of New York City’s size, to build on the programs the city already has in place. If it wins, the city would have to do at least one brand-new thing, too: Evaluate its superintendent according to public feedback and student achievement.

Right now, about 50 schools participate in an initiative the department calls iZone 360, in which schools redesign their schedule, curriculum, assessments, and staffing arrangements to capitalize on new technologies and approaches to delivering instruction. The Race to the Top funding would allow that number to rise by as many as 100, depending on schools’ interest and capacity, Weiner said, with the largest uptick coming in the first year of the grant. The Innovation Zone’s website currently says its programs will expand to 400 schools by 2014.

The department would also provide additional training for teachers in those schools about how to use new technologies effectively. Teachers might get specific training, Weiner cited as an example, in how to “flip” their classroom, a trend in which direct instruction takes place via technology at home while class time is devoted to group work, getting questions answered, and other activities that require in-person interaction. Extra support would also go to schools that have online courses or that use “blended learning” classes that mix online and offline instruction.

And the funding would also support the creation of as many of a dozen schools built from the ground up on the principle of personalized learning, Weiner said. Until now, the department has encouraged existing schools to tweak their approach or adopt new programs, but it has never created a school with personalization as a goal, he said.

Districts were permitted to work together, but Weiner said the city had declined invitations to join multiple consortiums, preferring instead to focus on its ongoing initiatives. But he said education officials from several other districts, including Denver, Chicago, and Houston — had visited the city to inform their own Race to the Top-District applications.

If New York City wins, the Department of Education will have to do at least one new thing: evaluate superintendents based on feedback from educators and the public and on student outcomes, such as test scores. Currently, public sentiment and student achievement do not play a role in whether the chancellor or the department’s dozens of district-level superintendents retain their positions. (The U.S. Department of Education dropped a proposal to require similar evaluations for local school boards.)

Federal education officials are supposed to name the winning districts — it says there are likely to be about 25 winners — before the end of the year.

race in the classroom

‘Do you see me?’ Success Academy theater teacher gives fourth-graders a voice on police violence

Success Academy student Gregory Hannah, one of the performers

In the days and weeks after last July’s police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, teachers across New York grappled with how to talk about race and police violence. But for Sentell Harper, a theater teacher at Success Academy Bronx 2, those conversations had started long before.

CNN recently interviewed Harper about a spoken-word piece he created for his fourth-grade students to perform about what it means to be black and male in America. Harper, who just finished his fourth year teaching at Success, said that after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, he wanted to check in with his students.

“I got my group of boys together, and I said, ‘Today, we’re going to talk about race,'” Harper told CNN. “And they had so much to say. They started telling me stories about their fathers and their brothers, and about dealing with racism — things that I never knew that these young boys went through.”

Inspired by their stories, he created a performance called “Alternative Names for Black Boys,” drawing on poems by Danez Smith, Tupac Shakur and Langston Hughes.

Wearing gray hoodies in honor of Trayvon Martin, who was killed while wearing one, the boys take turns naming black men and boys who have been killed: Freddie, Michael, Philando, Tamir. The list goes on.

Despite the sensitive nature of the subject matter, Harper says honesty is essential for him as a teacher. “Our kids are aware of race and want to talk about it,” he wrote in a post on Success Academy’s website. “As a black male myself, I knew I wanted to foster conversation between my students and within the school community.”

Click below to watch the performance.

Half-priced homes

Detroit teachers and school employees are about to get a major perk: Discount houses

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is announcing an educator discount that will allow employees of all Detroit schools to buy houses from the Land Bank at 50 percent off.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is getting ready this morning to announce a major effort to lure teachers and other school employees to the city of Detroit: Offering them half-priced homes.

According to a press release that’s expected to be released at an event this morning, the mayor plans to announce that all Detroit school employees — whether they work for district, charter or parochial schools — will now get a 50 percent discount on houses auctioned through the Detroit Land Bank Authority.

That discount is already available to city employees, retirees and their families. Now it will be available to full-time employees of schools located in the city.

“Teachers and educators are vital to the city’s future,” Duggan is quoted as saying in the release. “It’s critical to give our school employees, from teachers to custodial staff, the opportunity to live in the communities they teach in.”

If the effort can convince teachers to live in the city rather than surrounding suburbs, it could help a stabilize the population decline that has led to blight and neighborhood deterioration in many parts of the city.

For city schools, the discounts give administrators another perk to offer prospective employees. District and charter schools in Detroit face severe teacher shortages that have created large class sizes and put many children in classrooms without fully qualified teachers.

Detroit’s new schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, has said he’s determined to make sure the hundreds of teacher vacancies that affected city schools last year are addressed by the start of classes in September.

In the press release, he’s quoted praising the discount program. “There is an opportunity and need to provide innovative solutions to recruit and retain teachers to work with our children in Detroit.”

The Detroit Land Bank Authority Educator Discount Program will be announced at an event scheduled for 10:45 this morning in front of a Land Bank house in Detroit’s Russell Woods neighborhood.

The Land Bank currently auctions three homes per day through its website, with bidding starting at $1,000.