First Person

How collaboration can really work: A Bed-Stuy middle school principal explains

As the principal at M.S. 267, a middle school in a high-poverty neighborhood in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, I’ve always believed our wealth lies in the expertise and passion of our educators who work hard every single day in service of our students — our community’s biggest treasure.

But until recently, no matter how hard our team worked, we found it challenging to get students where they need to be. Two years ago, only 11 percent of our students were reading and writing at grade level.

So when Chancellor Carmen Fariña introduced the Learning Partners program to help schools learn from each other, I signed us up. We knew it was our responsibility to explore new strategies developed beyond our own school doors as well as to share our challenges and discoveries.

In our first year, we were paired with two other schools — a “host” school and another school that, like M.S. 267, had a lot of room to grow — to actively share and bring new practices into our schools. Now in our second year, we’re part of Learning Partners Plus, so we have six partners working with a host school.

Both years, our host has been the School for Global Leaders in Manhattan, which faces challenges with literacy just like us but is farther along in developing strategies to improve instruction. The school’s principal, Carry Chan, is a master principal in every sense of the word who runs a school where teachers work together and instruction is rigorous.

Working with Carry last year, we focused on improving our own instruction by making stronger connections between teaching and assessments. Practices that we took back from the School for Global Leaders include their use of data trackers and exit tickets to collect informal student data, plan instruction, and design interventions for students that need them.

We constantly grapple with questions like, how do we monitor how much students read and write? How do we get students to read more than just fiction, and increase their vocabulary? How can teachers ensure that every single lesson can meet the needs of all students?

Instead of just looking for answers on our own, we’ve explored possible answers together by visiting each other’s classrooms. Teachers in the host school willingly open up their classrooms for a period to showcase a particular practice, and then teachers from all of the schools dissect the lesson together.

Throughout the process, our schools created a deep bond. And along the way we have been lucky to have Maureen Wright, a facilitator from the Office of Interschool Collaborative Learning, guide us as we plan our learning activities and push us to get more specific about our schools’ needs.

This year, those needs shifted and the program shifted with us. We are now focused on how best to make literacy lessons appropriate for students of differing skill levels, and how to foster high-level questioning and discussion in each classroom. We have also benefited from seeing how other schools run their team meetings, and are thinking about their methods as we try to make our own meetings more efficient and effective.

Classroom practices have improved dramatically. We learned new ways to make sure student performance today informs tomorrow’s lessons. We learned how to use powerful data tools that allow us to know our students better and provide them with a more supportive environment, especially our students with disabilities and English language learners. And, we learned how to foster student leaders, who have already mastered content, who can teach other students.

Teachers aren’t the only ones learning. Carry taught me new ways to empower teachers by giving them opportunities like taking charge of professional learning, leading meetings, mentoring each other and running school visits. Our school is stronger — and our strength more likely to survive over time — the more our teachers rise as leaders.

All of our hard work translated into higher test scores for our students after one year in the Learning Partners program: Nearly twice as many students hit the state’s reading and writing proficiency bar last year. We think this year’s scores will be even higher.

But the biggest benefit goes far beyond test scores.

School walls can be confining, and the Learning Partners program is intentionally collapsing them all across the city. Being a principal or a teacher can feel very isolating, but as a result of our participation in Learning Partners, all of us are communicating with each other nonstop, by email, text, or phone.

We feel like we are part of one big school, and as we work together, share ideas and collaborate we know that it will be our students who benefit the most.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.