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.”

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”