make or break

The data point that reshaped Chicago’s high schools

PHOTO: ACT YouTube video.
Tilden High School.

Until last year, when he became Chicago Public Schools’ chief equity officer, Maurice Swinney was a high school principal pulling out all the stops to keep ninth-graders from failing their classes.

At Tilden Career Community Academy, Swinney made it a priority to connect incoming students to the school community and to have a single person responsible for coordinating efforts to help ninth-graders. He was driven by “Freshmen On-Track,” a data point that Chicago researchers developed after realizing that how students fared in their first year of high school reliably predicted whether they would ultimately graduate — better than their race, gender, family background, and middle school grades and test scores combined.

A new book, “The Make-or-Break Year: Solving the Dropout Crisis One Ninth Grader at a Time,” chronicles the history of Freshmen On-Track, from its serendipitous origins at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, to its rollout as a citywide measure of success, to its unusually successful adoption by educators eager to help their students but weary of being told what to do. You can read an excerpt here.

Author Emily Krone Phillips first learned about the metric while working at the research consortium, where she was communications director at the time. (She now directs communications at the Spencer Foundation, which supports Chalkbeat.) She spent more than a year reporting from Tilden, a high school in Canaryville; John Hancock High School in Gage Park; and across the district to understand Freshmen On-Track’s influence in Chicago.

We asked Krone Phillips and Swinney about how the metric is used, their advice for educators looking to keep ninth-graders on track, and their memories of the transition to high school. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Freshmen On-Track is not a policy or a proposal or a set of steps. How would you describe it?

Krone Phillips: It was a movement that started with a research-based problem. Then you had leadership that was really focusing on it, and then you had practitioners who were empowered to start sort of working on this problem, and then you had networks of people who were able to share within schools and across schools how they did the work. That combination was so powerful.

Swinney: I think of Freshmen On-Track as an opportunity to look at how we support kids coming into high school. We recognized we were missing something, and Freshmen On-Track was a way to figure that out. What are the skills they need to be successful? That created an opportunity for us.

Mr. Swinney, what failed and what worked for you when implementing Freshmen On-Track as a principal at Tilden?

Swinney: What I was running into was that I wasn’t sure what was happening in the lives of all of my students. I knew that there was some sort of trauma. I knew kids were also bringing their best selves and wanted to be successful but they were also in the middle of this adolescent struggle: brain development is happening, their bodies are changing, some of them have complex family relationships. I knew there would be no gains in Freshmen On-Track if I didn’t respond to that first need — to ensure that they had a sense of belonging.

We had to create systems where we assigned each child to an adult in the building and say, “Hey, we are paying attention to different students and I take the personal and professional responsibility to support them along the way,” as opposed to, “Hey, let’s just give kids opportunities to make up or catch up on assignments.” We developed a strong behavioral health team we called the support team. Something is happening in the lives of our kids. We can’t just say they’ll get better soon, but we have to build it into the way we did school.

How does Chicago’s school choice model affect efforts to help freshmen?

Krone Phillips: One of the things that struck me when I was interviewing kids was the extent to which they had internalized that they were going to not a first-choice school compared with the other kids. They had this perception of Tilden as being a school of last resort, their peers as maybe not being smart, or themselves as not being smart. That added a whole other layer of complexity because when they got there even if the school had lots of things that were working they already had this perception that they were somehow lesser than other schools in the city, so convincing students that they could do hard academic work, that they belonged in school, just became that much harder.

Swinney: We really worked hard to unravel whatever those perceptions were. When I moved to Chicago in 2012 and I was wearing Tilden gear or telling people I was the principal of Tilden, there were so many facial expressions and ways of understanding the school that dated back to the 1990s. The students were internalizing someone else’s thoughts and ideas about them, and we had to work to say, “You are just as smart as anyone else,” and really push ourselves to maintain a strong ideology about the kids in front of us, because kids rise to the occasion when the adults believe in them.

Krone Phillips: At Tilden there was a community and students feeling like they had an adult or two adults they connected with and who made them feel like they were known and valued in that school.

If every school could do one thing tomorrow, what should that be?

Krone Phillips: I would say create strong relationships between teachers and students, between administrators and teachers. I just think after working on this book that relationships are just so paramount.

Swinney: Look at your data, see who your most vulnerable populations are, have conversations with that group or those particular groups, and work to build strong systems and care for what their needs are.

Who do you hope will read this book?

Krone Phillips: When I was shopping this around to different publishers, I had some people say that I was trying to appeal to too many different audiences because there is this perception that you are either writing for a lay audience or you are writing for a very inside-baseball educator audience. I was hoping that I could bridge those two audiences because I think there are a lot of people who have influence over what happens in schools, over the way our societies are set up, and aren’t necessarily educators. This work should not all rest on the shoulders of educators, so I am hopeful that it will appeal to anybody who cares about larger issues of equity.

Swinney: For so long, school systems have taken the brunt of responsibility for the children in our country and in our city. I hope that multiple agencies, advocacy groups, politicians, and others are reading this book to really fully understand the needs of who these young people are and practice strategies and investments into the lives of young people. You have to have a sense of responsibility and accountability for what happens to our children. It can’t just be on the school system’s radar, it has to have the social, political, historical, and educational context to really solve these complex issues.

What do you remember of yourself in ninth grade?

Swinney: I was a very mouthy ninth-grader. I was often in trouble, but my mouth also helped me to become a great poet and a great writer. I had great teachers that really helped me to develop my skills and talents, and that same kind of lens is what I use now. I talked to the teacher who I cursed out, Ms. Strickland, she’s in the book. I remember her saying: I don’t remember what got into you back then. I also remember me returning to school and having to sit next to her at her desk because I had a lot of work to make up. She spent the time with me to get back on track and that will always stick in my brain as the power of a ninth-grade teacher.

Krone Phillips: What I remember of myself in ninth grade and through a lot of high school but especially early on was searching for signs whether I was good enough everywhere. Interviewing 14-year-olds and watching their faces light up when they get compliments or be told they could do something, it really brought me back to this time when I was looking for that kind of positive reinforcement.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.