breaking the mold

Goodbye parent-teacher conferences, hello poetry workshops: How New York City is redefining parent engagement

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
West Prep Academy teacher Annery Quezada (left) plays a math-themed game with parent Yenny Carrasco (right) at a recent APTT meeting.

On a recent Tuesday evening, two sixth-grade teachers at Manhattan’s West Prep Academy offered up a poem by Langston Hughes and described how to begin unpacking its meaning.

The teachers glanced around the purple-tiled classroom to make sure everyone had their pens and pencils out to mark up copies of “Dreams” with notes.

It was exactly the kind of lesson the teachers might have offered on an average school day. But this time, instead of a room full of middle-schoolers, they had a different audience: their students’ parents.

“We do these in class all the time,” Annery Quezada, a sixth-grade special education teacher told roughly a dozen parents, referring to the process of analyzing a poem. “You want them to explain how they know what the main idea is.”

What was happening in that classroom is an experiment in supplanting the traditional parent-teacher conference with a model that is just beginning to take hold in New York City. Known as Academic Parent Teacher Teams, an idea developed by a company called WestEd, the approach focuses on teaching groups of parents to engage their children academically, and encourages them to talk about how their students are performing as a group — not just individually.

In traditional parent-teacher conferences, “I could see a parent for about a minute and a half, and it really focused on the negative and became a finger-pointing kind of thing,” explains Daniel Wolf, a former teacher who works under the city’s Middle School Quality Initiative, which has helped implement APTT. The model “is not about what a child got wrong on a unit test, but what can we do as a community to move students forward.”

Roughly 500 schools in 22 states have used a version of the model, according to WestEd. Eighteen New York City schools are currently piloting it.

The investment in parent-teacher conferences jibes with school Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s push to set aside more time for after-school engagement, with a focus on parent-teacher meetings.

“Often what we hear from families is, ‘I want to help my child at home but I really don’t know how to do that,’” said Megan Hester, an organizer at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform who works closely with schools and is familiar with the APTT model. “It incorporates a lot of the stuff that’s talked about with parent engagement, but actually puts intention and structure around it.”

At West Prep Academy — a middle school that serves an outsized share of low-income students compared with its Upper West Side district — the experiment with APTT began this school year.

Parents were invited to three separate 75-minute sessions evenly spaced throughout the school year, typically led by one or more of their student’s teachers. They are given a chance to get to know each other, learn specific methods for talking with their children about schoolwork, and review their children’s progress on math and reading tests together.

Between sessions, parents are expected to bring the strategies developed at the APTT meetings home: Something as simple as asking probing questions about what a child is reading, or playing a game that requires using math concepts like factors and products.

West Prep Principal Carland Washington said his hopes for APTT don’t center entirely around student achievement. He’s also banking on more parents connecting with the school.

“In a school with low-performing students, and students who come in from low-income situations, we don’t get a lot of parent participation,” Washington said, pointing out that many students have parents who work multiple jobs or have been incarcerated.

At one of his school’s most recent APTT meetings, the desire to build community was on full display. Over sandwiches and chips served up on paper plates, parents settled into the desks typically occupied by their children and were prompted to swap stories about how their kids spend their downtime and their academic strengths and weaknesses.

Hannah Yeats, a teacher at West Prep who co-facilitated the APTT session, shuttled around the room, occasionally encouraging some of the more timid parents to speak up or exchange phone numbers.

In the past, “parents had each other’s numbers — and that’s kind of faded,” Yeats said. “We need to create community. There aren’t structures in place to encourage that support system to be built.”

These forums don’t entirely replace more traditional one-on-one parent-teacher meetings, which still occur at West Prep and other schools participating in the program. At APTT events, parents do get a chance to review their own child’s progress, only it’s in the company of a dozen or so peers. On a bar graph projected at the front of the room, parents at West Prep were shown math and reading scores for the entire class, with each child identifiable only to his or her own parents with ID numbers distributed at the beginning of the evening.

The graphs showed how much progress the class had made since the previous APTT meeting, and how much growth was expected by the end of the school year. Showing student scores together is designed to emphasize the collective role parents can play in boosting an entire class’s skills.

Parent Lawrence Kenniebrew said he appreciated the chance to check in on his daughter’s progress, which showed strength in reading but room for improvement in math.

“After seeing what her scores are, I know I absolutely have to look at how to improve [math] because that’s going to become much more critical down the line.”

Kenniebrew, who works in counterterrorism for the MTA, said he likes the new format. One tip he picked up at the last meeting was to push his daughter a little bit more when he asked her about what she’s reading.

“I would say, ‘Alissa, what do you mean by that?’” he said, referring to one of the strategies presented earlier in the year. “It helped me to help her.”

For teachers, the APTT model can be hard to pull off. At West Prep, some staffers spent hours discussing which skills they wanted to teach parents, conversations that were ultimately boiled down to 15-minute PowerPoint presentations. It can also be difficult to find enough time to allow parents to socialize, explain the key math and reading concepts, and help parents practice strategies for engaging their kids, all in one session.

“In an hour and fifteen minutes, I don’t know if it’s possible to do everything we’re trying to do,” said Yeats, the teacher who led the math game, and who is generally supportive of the approach.

The city is still figuring out how to successfully implement the program, according to the education department’s Wolf, part of the reason the program has started small. He anticipates six more city schools will take on APTT next fall. “We do know that it’s a heavy lift,” he said.

Washington, the school’s principal, said he’s happy with the way the program is playing out. It can be difficult, he said, to get parents to show up, and the school has leaned heavily on the marching band to draw them in. “When the students are on stage, they will come,” he said.

Since the school launched APTT this year, however, Washington has seen an uptick in parent volunteers to chaperone events, involvement in the school’s parent association, and even some signs of academic growth.

“Just because parents don’t come to school [to talk about academics] doesn’t mean they don’t want to support their children,” he said. “This gives them a way to check in.”

reasons vs. excuses

Westminster schools loses on appeal seeking higher performance rating

A student at Westminster’s Hodgkins Elementary in 2013.

The state’s quality rating for Westminster Public Schools will not change after an appeal to the Colorado Board of Education Monday.

The board unanimously voted to deny the appeal after minimal discussion mostly criticizing the district for blaming poor performance on minority and disadvantaged students.

“The ‘why’ students are not performing at grade level is an excuse, but what it should do is give us a roadmap to remedy that failure,” said board member Steve Durham. “It’s our job to identify poor performance and further find remedies regardless of the reasons.”

Pam Swanson, Westminster’s superintendent and school board members said the state board members’ comments were ridiculous.

“We have very high expectations,” Swanson said. “Every teacher listening to that comment was disgusted because we know that we have high expectations. We know all of our kids can get there it just takes them longer.”

The district has argued that their annual performance evaluation was not legal because it discriminated against the district’s population of large numbers of English learners, mobile students and those who qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

They also contend the state isn’t making allowances to account for Westminster’s so-called “competency-based” learning model, which does away with grade levels and moves students instead based on when they’ve learned certain education standards. The district believes that by placing students into traditional grade levels based on their age for testing means they aren’t measuring what students are learning.

State education department officials disputed the district’s appeal stating in part that the district has the flexibility to determine student grade levels for testing purposes.

The decision means Westminster now must go through with an accountability hearing where the state board will be required to vote on action to turnaround the district. Proposed plans for that hearing on May 4 have already been prepared.

The meeting was packed by Westminster employees. A crowd of educators from the Westminster district were watching the meeting from outside the boardroom.

Looking for options

State board raised questions over plan for Pueblo schools and management partners

Charlotte Macaluso, right, speaks with Pueblo City Schools spokesman Dalton Sprouse on July 22, 2016. (Pueblo Chieftain file photo)

The Colorado Board of Education on Monday asked Pueblo City Schools and state officials to submit slightly different plans for three struggling schools by mid-June.

While the district already planned to partner with two outside companies to improve student performance at the three schools, the board directed state officials to give the outside companies more of a management role in the next version of the plan.

While the board approved improvement plans for several other schools and districts this month, its request for changes to the plan for Pueblo schools was unusual. It also means that in June the board will have two plans to choose from for a final order.

Board members on Monday asked district officials about the work the district has done in the past few years trying to improve performance with an innovation zone — or a group of schools granted similar waivers from some laws and policies — about leadership changes in the schools and at the district level and about whether there have been any successful “bright spots” in recent years.

Board members also questioned district officials on the role of the external companies, Achievement Network and Relay Graduate School of Education.

Charlotte Macaluso, Pueblo City Schools superintendent said the management companies would not govern the schools.

“They would serve as a partner to identify needs,” Macaluso said.

But board members weren’t sold on a partnership of equals, and directed state officials to create a governance plan outlining how the companies would work with the schools. They also expressed frustration at the lack of a formal vetting process for the companies that would work with the schools. The same issue came up at hearings for Greeley schools earlier in the day.

The three schools include Heroes Academy, a K-8, Risley International, a middle school, and Bessemer Elementary, where barely 9 percent of third-graders passed the state’s English test last spring.

The initial state and district proposals call for the three schools to work with two external companies. For Heroes and Risley, the recommendations also suggest allowing the schools to waive some district and state rules.

Risley got innovation status in 2012, giving it such flexibility. So far, the status has not improved the school’s performance. For Heroes the autonomies would be new.

A year ago, Pueblo City Schools was expected to pose the biggest test of the state’s school accountability system. A dozen of the city’s schools were on the state’s watch list for chronic poor performance on state standardized tests. However, most of the city’s schools came off that list last year.