rookie of the year

First-year principal wins $25,000 to scale up collaborative teaching

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
James Madison High School Principal Jodie Cohen wins the 2014 Teaching Matters Elizabeth Rohatyn prize.

It didn’t take long for Jodie Cohen to distinguish herself when she became principal of James Madison High School last year.

After just one year in charge, Cohen bested over 150 principals to win the 2014 Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize, an award that recognizes school leaders who jump-start successful initiatives at their schools. The prize includes a $25,000 check, sponsored by education nonprofit Teaching Matters, to be used to continue and expand their initiative.

Despite her rookie status, Cohen already knew the 3,100-student school well. She graduated from the Marine Park high school in 1989 and spent 21 years working there as a teacher and assistant principal.

But that in some ways made the job more intimidating, Cohen said on Thursday at an award ceremony with other finalists and their staffs. As the school’s new boss, she had to observe and evaluate one senior teacher who had taught her when she was a student.

“Here I am, grading them on 22 components,” said Cohen, referring to the skills that principals had to rate teachers on this year. “So, it was interesting.”

But extra classroom visits, required by the new evaluation system, is actually what helped Cohen identify the best instructional practices, she said. She used those teachers to create “model classrooms” and began urging others to visit.

“It’s not that the other teachers aren’t succeeding, but more often than not, you don’t know what’s going on in the room next door to you,” Cohen said.

Madison High School’s collaborative model fits what the Department of Education is trying to do with 72 schools through its Learning Partners Program, which encourages schools to visit one another to learn what’s working elsewhere. Cohen said she planned to apply, but didn’t think she was ready this year.

“That was a lot of commitment on our part,” she said. “We would have to allow people to visit. We do want to do that next year, but we really just wanted to ease in a little bit more.”

At Madison, one example was special education teacher Connie Hickey, who saw problems with how students with disabilities were being served in general education classrooms. Special education teachers shared the class with subject-area teachers, but the co-teaching model was disjointed and their work was isolating. 

“It tended to be, well, I’ll teach one day, you teach the next,” Hickey said. “It wasn’t working.”

Hickey and a social studies teacher worked well together at integrating special education students into their classroom. So Cohen made their classroom into a model for others to visit.

Still, it was up to Cohen to actually get teachers to visit, and she quickly realized her advocacy alone wasn’t going to work in a building with 130 teachers. To build excitement around the practice, she promoted the visits in a weekly newsletter and created a calendar to schedule visiting times.

Cohen said she plans to spend some of the $25,000 prize money to pay staff who have to put in extra hours as part of the program. Larry Melamed, an English teacher, public relations pro and grant writer for the school, is going to manage next year’s schedule for the entire school.

Cohen hired Melamed for another reason this year: to improve what Cohen referred to as the school’s “weird reputation,” caused by a small number of teachers whose scandalous behavior was gleefully chronicled by the city’s tabloids.

“That’s not what Madison High School’s all about,” she said.

Cohen’s transition was probably a lot smoother than it is for many first-year principals. She was popular among teachers as an assistant principal, so they welcomed her promotion. Also, the majority of students come from surrounding neighborhoods and few come from socioeconomically disadvantaged homes. And most of the staff are seasoned educators who stay at Madison for much of their careers, so the staff had most of the ingredients needed to quickly adopt Cohen’s vision.

“All the teachers want to learn, want to do better at what they do and all they needed was a principal who fosters that learning,” said Hickey.

The Rohatyn prize is in its fourth year and named after the founder of Teaching Matters. Past winners include Salvador Fernandez, of I.S. 52 in Inwood, Rose Kerr, of Staten Island School of Civic Leadership, and Jeanne Rotunda, of West Side Collaborative.

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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.