course correction

How one ‘Renewal’ school is trying to reach high-needs students by making classes harder

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Peter Seidman meets with Campos Secondary School teacher Blythe Smith

Jason Rosenbaum knew his high school had a problem: Students often arrived years behind in reading and the school struggled to get them to graduation. He tried tweaking the curriculum, but not much changed.

So when New York City’s education department required Juan Morel Campos Secondary School to adopt a new curriculum last year as part of its high-profile “Renewal” turnaround program, Rosenbaum jumped at the chance to quickly change things up.

“Looking back, I was standing at the edge of this cliff and I’m glad someone pushed me,” he said. “Maybe I was moving too gently for what our kids needed.”

Like the other 93 low-performing schools in the city’s program, Campos Secondary School is getting access to health care services, after-school activities, and other help as the city tries to turn it into a hub of social services. But at many schools, equally significant — but less visible — changes are happening behind classroom doors, as educators try new techniques for reaching struggling students.

At Campos, a key part of that change is the new high school English curriculum. It asks students to dig into more complicated texts, performing “close readings” that sometimes take weeks. And it has the whole high school English department starting with the same game plan, even though most teachers have been used to a lot of autonomy.

“English teachers, traditionally — we haven’t had curriculum,” said Peter Seidman, a consultant the school hired to help teachers adapt to the new EngageNY coursework. “They taught the texts that they were familiar with and in the style that they had been taught growing up. And so it becomes very difficult to ensure rigor and ensure consistent high expectations.”

Over the past school year, Seidman has dropped into classrooms to offer feedback, help develop lesson plans, and troubleshoot problems. He says he wants to be a sounding board for teachers, not a critic.

“The teacher needs to understand that you’re on their side and that you’re not an evaluator,” explained Seidman, who works for Public Consulting Group, the education firm that designed the new curriculum.

Education department officials noted that many schools in the turnaround program are using their extra resources to hire coaches to improve instruction, and help teachers adapt to Common Core standards.

The stakes are high for the Williamsburg, Brooklyn school, which is spending $30,000 on the extra support. Just 48 percent of students graduated on time in 2015.

And though teachers and school leaders say the new curriculum is starting to take hold, the process has required winning over some skeptics.

Pat Sirulnick, a 12-year veteran of the school, had her doubts. Many of the school’s students are two to four years behind in reading, one-third have disabilities, and a quarter are English language learners – and she worried they would disengage.

“Our students don’t have the best retention and interest level,” Sirulnick said. “These were challenging texts – I was concerned that they would get bored and really antsy.”

On a recent Monday, though, Sirulnick sat down with Seidman to review two writing samples from a student who is both an English language learner and has a disability. They noticed that the student’s comparison of the Atlanta Compromise and W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Souls of Black Folk” was more sophisticated than a writing exercise from eight months earlier.

Sirulnick said it’s hard to know how much to attribute those gains to the new curriculum, but after using it for just a few months, she has been surprised that students haven’t given up on the more painstaking approach.

“I don’t know why they weren’t bored, but they weren’t,” she said of the close reading.

Peter Seidman discusses student work with Pat Sirulnick
PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Peter Seidman discusses student work with Pat Sirulnick

Seidman has worked with teachers to adapt the work for the school’s highest-needs students. Students may read a graphic novel version of a text like “Romeo and Juliet,” for example, and look at smaller sections of the original where appropriate. Another student, who is in danger of dropping out, was recently allowed to explore a research topic that didn’t relate to the text that his class was reading in an effort to keep him engaged.

That flexibility, and the school’s slow adoption of the changes over the course of the school year, has made it easier to get faculty members on board, Rosenbaum said.

“Any change is hard because it means letting something go, and teachers understandably become wed to things that they believe truly help our students,” he said. “I was surprised at how quickly they recognized the value.”

By the numbers

Early reports indicate New York opt-out rates are decreasing statewide, a possible sign of eased tension

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Early opt-out estimates started rolling in Wednesday, the day after students sat for their first round of New York state standardized tests this year.

The number of families refusing to take the controversial tests seems to have decreased slightly in Rochester, the Hudson Valley, Buffalo and Albany. In Long Island, typically an opt-out hotbed, the rates thus far seem similar to last year. It’s still too soon to tell in New York City, but the number of families refusing to take tests has been traditionally been much lower in the city than in the rest of the state.

These are only preliminary numbers, based mostly on reports from school districts. Both High Achievement New York and New York State Allies for Public Education are tracking these reports closely and providing early tallies. The state will release an official tally this summer and would not provide any information at this time. But if it is true that opt-out rates are declining, it could be a sign that tension is slowly seeping out of what has been a charged statewide education debate.

“I think slowly and steadily, the situation is calming,” said Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that promotes testing. “The changes that the state made are good changes and have helped calm the water.”

On the other side, Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, said the numbers still look strong, the decreases are “very minor” and there is still a lot of information to be collected.

“The reality is, whether the numbers go up or down, there’s still a major problem with the testing in our state,” Rudley said.

Over the past few years, the number of families opting their children out of tests statewide has been on an upward trajectory, as teachers and parents protested what they saw as an inappropriate emphasis on testing. (There are currently three testing sessions each for English and math administered to students in public school grades 3-8.)

Backlash to the tests heightened in response to the state’s decision to adopt the Common Core learning standards and to tie those test results to teacher evaluations. The opt-out rate climbed to one in five students in 2015.

Partly in response to the movement, the state began to revise learning standards and removed grades 3-8 math and English tests from teacher evaluations tied to consequences. The Board of Regents selected a new leader, Betty Rosa, endorsed by opt-out supporters. Last year, the tests themselves were shortened slightly and students were given unlimited time to complete them. But, officials were unable to quell the tension. Roughly the same number of students sat out of the tests last year as the year before.

It’s difficult to estimate whether the opt-out rate has increased or decreased in New York City yet, said Kemala Karmen, a New York City representative for NYSAPE. She said that, anecdotally, in schools she has been in contact with, opt-out rates have either remained constant or decreased. Yet she has also heard of opt-outs in schools that had not reported them in the past. Karmen is also critical of the state’s changes to testing, which she thinks do not do nearly enough to assuage parents’ concerns.

New York City has traditionally had much lower opt-out rates than the rest of the state. While statewide 21 percent of families opted out last year, less than three percent did in the city. In part that’s because the movement hasn’t taken hold with as strongly with black and Hispanic families, who make up the majority of the city’s student body. Still, the movement’s political ramifications are being felt statewide.

iZone lite

How Memphis is taking lessons from its Innovation Zone to other struggling schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Sharon Griffin, now chief of schools for Shelby County Schools, confers with Laquita Tate, principal of Ford Road Elementary, part of the Innovation Zone during a 2016 visit.

One of the few qualms that Memphians have with Shelby County’s heralded school turnaround initiative is that more schools aren’t in it.

The district’s Innovation Zone has garnered national attention for its test score gains, but it’s expensive. Each iZone school requires an extra $600,000 annually to pay for interventions such as an extra hour in the school day, teacher signing and retention bonuses, and additional specialists for literacy, math and behavior.

But instead of just replicating the whole iZone model, the district is trying a few components on some of its other struggling schools.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitehaven High School is the anchor school for the Empowerment Zone, the first initiative to employ lessons learned from the iZone.

Last year, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson launched the Empowerment Zone, a scaled-down version of the iZone for five Whitehaven-area schools in danger of slipping to the lowest rankings in the state. The iZone’s most expensive part — one hour added to the school day — was excluded, but the district kept teacher pay incentives and principal freedoms. And teachers across the five schools meet regularly to share what’s working in their classrooms.

This year, district leaders are seeking to inject iZone lessons in 11 struggling schools that Hopson would rather transform than close. His team has been meeting with the principals of those “critical focus schools” to come up with customized plans to propel them out of the state’s list of lowest-performing schools.

As part of that effort, Hopson’s budget plan calls for providing $5.9 million in supports, including $600,000 for retention bonuses for top-ranked teachers at those schools. Spread across the 11 schools, that investment would shake out to about $100,000 less per school than what the iZone spends.

“We’re trying to provide targeted academic support based on the individual school needs. And that can include a lot of our learnings from the iZone as well as a host of other suggestions,” Hopson told school board members last month.

The iZone launched in 2012 and now has 21 schools in some of Memphis’ most impoverished neighborhoods. The initiative was thrust into the national spotlight after a 2015 Vanderbilt University study found the turnaround effort had outpaced test gains of similarly poor-performing Memphis schools in a state-run turnaround district.

Overseeing the iZone has been Sharon Griffin, the former principal who has become Hopson’s chief catalyst and ambassador on school improvements happening in Tennessee’s largest district. In January, he promoted Griffin from chief of the iZone to chief of schools for the entire district.

Griffin has long touted good leadership as the key to the iZone’s successes. The turnaround model relies on placing top principals in struggling schools and giving them the autonomy to recruit effective teachers to put in front of students. Academic supports and daily collaboration across iZone schools are also important tenets.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Shelby County Schools has branded its Innovation Zone to showcase one of its most successful initiatives.

In her new role, Griffin is trying to equip principals across the school system to carry out the district’s academic strategies and spread the iZone culture of leadership and collaboration districtwide.

The latest “critical focus” initiative represents the most significant investment so far to magnify the iZone model. It also shows the level of confidence that Hopson has in Griffin, her team, and their strategies.

“We recognize that if we truly want to turn around our schools, it can’t be just one teacher at a time. It has to be one team at a time,” Griffin said Monday. “And we know if we hire the most effective leader, they hire the most effective teachers, and we’re building a team and a cadre of greatness. … Human capital is going to be our secret weapon.”

As for which iZone components will be culled this spring for each of the 11 critical-focus areas schools, that’s under review. In keeping with the iZone model, those schools are being assessed to create a “school profile” that will determine the course for interventions. Among the possibilities: Adding staff, lengthening the school day, and ramping up after-school programs.

“We’re looking at all our schools and making sure that we’re not duplicating our resources. Then we’re taking additional resources and aligning them to one mission,” Griffin said. “ … We want to give our schools an opportunity to put their own spin on an aligned curriculum and professional development.”