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.”

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new chapter

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.

transfer talk

This seemingly small change could make it easier for guidance counselors to send students to transfer schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A guidance counselor at Bronx Academy of Letters

New York City is planning to make it easier to refer students to alternative high schools — part of a broader effort to remove obstacles for students seeking admission to them.

The change will affect the city’s 52 transfer schools, which are designed to catch up students who have dropped out, are over-age or behind in credits. Guidance counselors at traditional high schools will be able to electronically recommend up to three transfer school options for students they believe would be better served in different settings.

That change might seem minor, but it is at the center of a wider debate playing out behind the scenes between the city’s education department — which has indicated that transfer schools are being too picky about who they admit — and transfer schools themselves, some of which worry the new policy could lead to an influx of students who have been pushed out of their high schools.

“There’s a significant fear from transfer schools that these will essentially be over-the-counter placements,” said one Manhattan transfer school principal, referring to a process through which the city directly assigns students who arrive after the admissions process is over, often mid-year. “It doesn’t necessarily make for a better fit for a student.”

Unlike most high schools in New York City, transfer schools admit students outside the centrally managed choice process. Instead, they set their own entrance criteria, often requiring that students interview, and meet minimum credit or age requirements. The schools themselves largely determine which students they admit, and accept them at various points during the year.

Some transfer school principals say this intake process is essential to maintaining each school’s culture, which depends on enrolling students who genuinely want to give school another try after dropping out or falling behind elsewhere.

But city officials have quietly scaled back the type of sorting transfer schools can do, banning them from testing students before they’re admitted, for example, or looking at attendance or suspension records. The transfer school superintendent also now has the power to directly place students if they are rejected from three transfer schools.

Given those changes, some transfer school principals are wary of the latest policy, which will allow guidance counselors at traditional schools to electronically “refer” students for up to three specific transfer schools, and requires transfer schools to track their interactions with those students.

The city says the new system will make it easier to find the right match between schools and students. It will “make the transfer high school admissions process easier and more transparent for students and families, while also ensuring better tracking and accountability,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement.

He noted the city is still working on implementation and the change won’t will happen before spring 2018. (The education department currently doesn’t have a way to track how many students are being recommended to transfer schools versus how many are actually accepted.)

Mantell could not say whether guidance counselors would need a student’s consent before electronically referring the student to a transfer school, and could not point to any specific policies on when it is appropriate for guidance counselors to refer students — though he noted there would be additional training for them.

Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School, a transfer school, says he appreciates the change. He worries about students who have fallen behind being told they “don’t qualify” for a transfer school, he said. “That’s why we exist.”

But other principals say it will make it easier for traditional schools to dump students because they are difficult to serve, regardless of whether they are good candidates for a transfer.

“There’s a greater risk of pushouts,” the Manhattan transfer school principal said.

Transfer school principals also worry about the consequences of accepting students who might be less likely to graduate than their current students — a potential effect of the new policy. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires high schools to graduate 67 percent of their students; those that don’t will be targeted for improvement.

Some transfer schools have called that an unfair standard since, by design, they take students who have fallen behind. The state has said transfer schools will not automatically face consequences, such as closure, if they fail to meet that benchmark, but it remains to be seen whether that entirely solves the problem.

One transfer school principal said the city’s desire to better monitor the admissions process makes sense, but won’t prevent schools from gaming the system — and is being implemented without adequate input from principals.

“Our voices haven’t been heard in this process,” the principal said, “and there are a lot of reasons to distrust.”