Roll call!

Why it’s hard to get students to come to class — and what one Memphis school is doing about it

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Eighth-grader LaTonja Boyce now gets driven by a family member to Riverview School, a K-8 school in south Memphis, but that's not always been the case.

LaTonja Boyce knows the challenges of getting to school when the odds are stacked against you. An eighth-grader at Riverview School in Memphis, she’s moved a lot — from home to home and family member to family member — without the structure, resources and guidance needed to get to school every day and on time.

“Going to school isn’t always like the cool thing to do or what you see other kids on your street doing,” says LaTonja, 13, who now lives with a grandmother while her siblings are in foster care. “But I’ve had teachers make me want to come. I know they will check on me if I’m not there … and they explain why (education) is important for your future.”

LaTonja’s story isn’t unique. High rates of mobility and poverty are among hurdles that stand in the way of getting to school in Memphis, where chronic absenteeism is a major challenge.

Last school year, 29,000 students in Shelby County Schools missed 18 or more school days. And it’s worse for Tennessee students living in poor neighborhoods. Those considered economically disadvantaged are three times more likely to be chronically absent, according to a state report released this year.

For students who defy the odds, encouragement from a teacher or mentor is a common theme.

Sixth-grader Miranda Moore began attending Riverview when her school, Lincoln Elementary, was closed by the district in 2015. It was hard coming to class when she felt behind the other students, but encouragement and attention from teachers made a huge difference.

“Whenever I feel like I’m not getting something, I like it when teachers break us up into groups and have us help each other put what the teacher is saying into our own words,” Miranda says. “When students feel like they can’t catch up because they’re new or they’ve missed a lot or whatever, some just stop trying.”

This month, to highlight the importance of school attendance, Shelby County Schools launched an attendance campaign in partnership with the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team to incentivize students to show up. The focus is on 10 schools that had 10 percent of last year’s most-absent students.

Riverview wasn’t among schools targeted by this year’s campaign, partly because the K-8 school in south Memphis has made strides in recent years to curb attendance woes. Principal Latasha Harris credits a revamped school culture and increased communication with parents, many of whom live in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Last year, before the first school bell even sounded, Riverview employees called parents’ phones and knocked on relatives’ doors to make sure students started the school year strong. It worked, with most students registered by the first day of school.

Riverview educators made a similar push this year, and took it a step further by throwing a “block party” in early August to get families on the school campus and get students registered.

Despite making strides with middle schoolers, Riverview has struggled with elementary attendance, prompting Harris to enlist the help of Communities in Schools, a nonprofit partner in a national dropout prevention program.

“We have a site director (from Communities in Schools) here every day, and one of her sole priorities is attendance,” Harris said. “Having someone to meet with parents and understand why they might be struggling to get their kids to school, that’s huge. It’s been extremely helpful.”

In meetings with parents, Riverview leaders learned about the need for a uniform closet, which the school established at the front office so students can access clothing if they don’t have a clean uniform.

"When students feel like they can’t catch up because they’re new or they’ve missed a lot or whatever, some just stop trying."Miranda Moore, student

“We found that students were missing school because they didn’t have the right thing to wear, or their uniform was dirty, and they were getting called out on it in class,” Harris said. “So now we have this closet with everything you can think of — from shirts to underwear.”

Relationships go a long way in connecting students to school life, so Harris coaches her teachers to nurture a caring environment.

Jerreca Saulsberry, a third-grade math and science teacher, agrees. She says the No. 1 reason that students struggle to come to school consistently is an unstable home environment.

“I grew up in this area and had a similar childhood to many of the kids in my classroom,” Saulsberry said. “For me, teachers in school were always my safe haven. That made me want to show up. I wanted to come back to teach to create same environment.”

How I Teach

It’s not just about getting the right answer: How a fifth-grade teacher pushes her students in math class

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Teacher Nicole Lent breaks down the different strategies students in her fifth-grade class used to solve a math problem.

At P.S. 294 in the Bronx, math is often a matter of debate.

In Nicole Lent’s fifth-grade class, groups of students take turns explaining how they solved the math problem of the day, respectfully disagreeing or enthusiastically lending support to their classmates’ arguments.

Lent floats around the room, asking probing questions but stopping short of revealing the right answer — opting to let students figure it out together instead.

“I always thought you had to teach the easiest way to just get an answer, and that is not the case,” she said. “I wasn’t giving them the opportunity to think critically about the problem and explore it in different ways.”

Lent is one of a team of teachers at P.S. 294, The Walton Avenue School, who focus only on math instruction. The city Department of Education has encouraged elementary schools across the city to take the same approach, called “departmentalization,” as part of its Algebra for All initiative. By placing the most capable teachers in charge of math instruction in fifth grade, the city hopes all students will be able to pass algebra by their first year of high school.

P.S. 294 has embraced the shift, starting departmentalized math instruction even earlier — in third grade. That’s in addition to its discussion-based approach. Lent has had a role of ushering both changes into the classroom.

She began using math debates and discussions after visiting another school that used the same model, and feeling struck by what she saw.

“I just remember going to those classrooms and thinking it was the coolest thing to see kids having a discussion,” about math. “I was just like, ‘How do I get my kids to do that?’”

The answer came through professional training offered by the city, along with picking and choosing the teaching resources that worked best for her needs. Soon, Lent’s new method spread throughout the school.

Now, half her time is spent in the classroom, and the rest of her day is spent working with her fellow math teachers as an instructional coach. She visits classrooms and regularly welcomes teachers into her own, all in an effort to provide constructive feedback, troubleshoot lessons and perfect new teaching strategies.

“It’s a different type of rewarding experience than working with children, but you see the same kind of growth,” she said. “We’re always working together to drive our instruction.”

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I never saw myself at a desk job where every day was the same. The great thing about teaching is that every day is different and truly rewarding, as you get to see your students grow and show progress over an extended period of time.

What does your classroom look like?

The students are the focal point of the room. You won’t find a teacher’s desk in my room. Around the perimeter are bookshelves containing student supplies … and “anchor charts” for students to reference … One example of an anchor chart would be to have the steps to adding fractions with unlike denominators, with the example of each step written out.

Students are permitted to get up at any time to access the supplies they need without asking for permission. We have set the expectation that they are in charge of their own learning and can self-assess when they need a resource to help them persevere through math tasks.

You had to learn a whole new way to teach math. What was the hardest thing about making that shift?

The hardest thing for me when making the shift from a teacher-led classroom to an approach that’s based on student inquiry and discussion was a shift in teacher mindset so as not to associate student conversation with off-task behavior.

What advice would you give to school leaders or teachers who might be considering departmentalizing math instruction?

I would advise them to start small and pilot departmentalizing on one grade first to see if it’s something they want to invest in doing at additional grade levels. We did this at P.S. 294, when I taught fourth grade last year, and it was very successful. We were able to work out any challenges and adjust what was necessary because we started small. At P.S. 294, we are now departmentalized on grades 3-5 for both [English Language Arts] and math. Teachers now receive the support they need and are focused on the content area they teach and have become true experts in their practices.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _____________.

I couldn’t teach without my computer because technology now plays a crucial role in education. Without my computer I wouldn’t be able to play instructional videos for my visual learners or have students come up to the Promethean board (an electronic whiteboard) and manipulate math content, which plays a pivotal role in assisting them in understanding math content.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

One of my favorite lessons to teach this year was on division of fractions. I always thought we had to teach it using the strategy I learned as a child known as “keep, change, flip.” That’s a strategy used to solve an expression such as 1/4 divided by 3. You would keep the fraction, change the sign from division to multiplication, and flip the whole number from 3 to a fraction of 1/3. The quotient is 1/12.

I didn’t know exactly why this strategy works, I just knew it did.

After attending one of the Algebra for All professional developments last summer, I learned from a colleague at another school how to use visual models: We draw three “wholes” and divide each whole into fourths. The quotient is one piece out of the twelve total pieces you have from all three models (wholes you drew). We ask the students to think about the question: “How many fourths fit in three?” When it came time for me to teach them to my students this year, I knew exactly how to show them to divide fractions by whole numbers and by fractions in a purposeful and meaningful way.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

After a quick check for understanding that takes place after my mini-lesson, students who don’t understand my lesson meet in a small group with me on the carpet, while the rest of the students engage in differentiated math tasks on their level independently at their seats. During this time, I reteach students using a different method than the first time. This includes the use of manipulatives, instructional videos, and whiteboard work. Once I re-teach the concept using a different strategy, I conduct another quick check to see if they mastered the concept, and if so, they then go off independently to try some math tasks on their own.

How do you see your role as an instructional coach? What do you think is the most effective way to help other teachers improve their practice?

My role as an instructional coach is to build capacity across the school in the area of math instruction. Ultimately this means pushing practices down: taking the rigor and instructional approaches used at the 3-5 level and adjusting them to be used at the K-2 level according to the students’ individual needs.

The most effective way to help other teachers improve their practice is to hold debrief sessions following classroom visits, co-teaching sessions, or modeling lessons in their classroom, and providing actionable feedback that they can implement immediately.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

Oftentimes, it takes some time to realize a student is lost and you don’t know exactly where they began to get lost. To avoid guessing and confusing them some more by repeating the last thing I said, I will restart and go step by step from the beginning while having that student assist me. Engaging the student along with the teacher has been the best strategy because you know they are listening and following along, because they are personally and directly involved with the teacher.

Your school has a common planning period. Has that helped change the way you teach?

Common planning periods bring teachers together to learn from one another and collaborate on projects.

During a recent common planning session, we had a consultant from Silicon Valley come and teach us about the difference between re-teaching vs. re-engagement lessons. Re-teaching lessons teach content again to a group of students who didn’t master it the first time. Re-engagement lessons allow students to work with a task to build mathematical ideas.

He showed us the data surrounding re-teaching vs. re-engagement lessons, which indicated that re-engagement lessons are what build students’ critical thinking skills. I realized that instead of having re-teach lessons built into my math block each day, that it would be much more beneficial to my students to participate in re-engagement tasks more often, as research had shown that that’s what truly pushes their levels.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

A few years back, one of my students who had always been a Level 4 student [top-scoring on state, city and school assessments] started to act out in negative ways, not complete her homework, and be disruptive during lessons. After several warnings, I decided to call home to speak to the parent to notify the parent as to what was going on. As it turned out, this student’s father had recently moved out of state as the parents were getting divorced. Her mother said she was not taking it well and was acting the same way at home.

I asked the student to stay with me during her recess and spoke to her about what was going on at home. After some time, she finally opened up to me and let me know about her parent’s divorce.

We shared our own personal stories, and I was able to connect with my student on a much deeper level, and let her know that I am here for her any times she needs an ear to listen. From that day on, the student confided in me as she needed to and improved her effort and behavior in the classroom.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

A colleague told me that, “As educators, we learn best from our students.” I thought that had been the silliest thing as I had considered myself the head of the classroom who was supposed to know everything. As I began to dive deeper into my career, I couldn’t agree with her more.

My students have taught me that teaching is not black and white. There is no perfect science to it. Everything we do as educators is based off of what our students know and do, resulting in continuous reflections on our own practices. What needs to be modified? What needs to be revisited the following day? What shouldn’t be done anymore? What can I do further to push or help my students? What worked and what didn’t work? [These] are things we reflect about regularly. My students are the reason my toolbox of promising practices is so strong.

To read more stories in the How I Teach series, click here. 

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.