First Person

Week of Nov. 1: Teaching & learning tidbits

Tech grants available to schools

The Qwest Foundation and Public Education & Business Coalition (PEBC), a sponsor of EdNews Parent, announce the fifth year of the Qwest Teachers & Technology Grant Program.

The Qwest Teachers & Technology Grant Program is a unique opportunity for educators to find innovative ways to bring technology into the classroom and better prepare students to succeed in academics.

PEBC logo Qwest is providing $150,000 in grants for the 2011-2012 school year to be awarded to individual teachers in Colorado schools and charter schools to help fund innovative technology projects so that Colorado teachers can improve education in the classroom. By the end of this year’s program, more than $700,000 will have been granted and more than 27,000 students across Colorado will have been impacted.

The grants will be awarded to teachers through a competitive process that will be administered by Public Education & Business Coalition. Educators or parents who want to help them can obtain the application through Qwest. The grant application deadline is Jan. 10, 2011.

Expanded Learning Opportunities Commission tour continues

It may not have the allure of a rock concert, but the newly-formed Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELO) Commission wants you to participate and is coming to a town near you. Next stops are in Limon, Loveland and Sheridan.

The tour will continue the following week with a stop in Pueblo. Meeting locations and times are below.

The commission, launched by Commissioner of Education Dwight D. Jones, is working to expand the vision for the entire learning experience in ways that transcend the traditional school day and traditional classroom models. The goal is to create a vision for student learning that incorporates a blend of traditional and online learning, expands the school day and standard yearly calendar and re-thinks the traditional school experience.

Citizens and community members who plan to attend the meetings in person are asked to RSVP to Vanessa Roman at at the Colorado Department of Education. Those who cannot attend the meetings may provide feedback via an online survey. Written comments may also be sent to Vanessa Roman.

Meeting locations and times:

  • Limon 4-6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 8, East Central BOCES office, 820 Second St.
  • Loveland 4-6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 10, The Ranch, 
5280 Arena Circle, Suite 100
  • Sheridan 4:30-6:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 11, Sheridan School District high school, 3201 West Oxford Ave.
  • Pueblo 4-6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 15, the Cottonwood Room at the Occhiato University Center on the CSU-Pueblo campus, 2200 Bonforte Blvd.

Douglas County schools consider vouchers

The Denver Post chronicles a voucher discussion brewing in Dougco.

“The Douglas County School District is examining starting a voucher program to give students state money to attend private or religious schools.

The school board this summer hired a Colorado Springs lawyer to develop a plan for a voucher system that would give parents 75 percent of state per-pupil funds to attend “nonpublic schools,” which could include religious schools.

No other Colorado school district has a voucher program.

A 2003 state law created a voucher pilot program for poor students but was ruled unconstitutional by the Colorado Supreme Court the next year. That 4-3 ruling said the voucher program unconstitutionally stripped school boards of their local control authority.

Douglas County’s Option Certificate Program “fulfills the local control principle” of the Colorado Constitution, according to a draft policy developed for a School Choice Task Force, a community group developing school-choice options.

Push for math, science education stumbles

The Kansas City Star reports on efforts to boost the teaching of math and science nationwide.

“Five years ago, alarms sounded over America’s rapidly falling stature in STEM education.

That’s science, technology, engineering and math — the keys to our nation’s prosperity. But U.S. schools weren’t keeping up in the fast-changing fields.

Governors dispatched task forces. New programs were launched. Foundations poured in funding. And schools started to make gains.

Now, however, signs are emerging that the momentum of the mid-2000s is slipping away, even as students’ needs continue to grow.”

Parting words from Michelle Rhee

Michelle RheeLightning rod ex-DC Superintendent Michelle Rhee and outgoing Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty share their thoughts in the Wall Street Journal about efforts to reform DC’s schools. Rhee played a starring role in the much talked about documentary film on the state of public education in the United States, Waiting for Superman.

It begins: “Our time in office and in charge of the school system of Washington, D.C., is quickly drawing to an end. Monday is Michelle’s last day as schools chancellor, and Mayor Fenty failed to win the Democratic primary last month. A new mayor will be elected next week.

During our nearly four years in office we pressed forward an aggressive educational reform agenda. We were determined to turn around D.C.’s public schools and to put children above the political fray, no matter what the ramifications might be for ourselves or other public officials. As both of us embark on the next stages of our careers, we believe it is important to explain what we did in Washington, to share the lessons of our experience, and to offer some thoughts on what the rest of the country might learn from our successes and our mistakes.”

Colorado’s Board of Ed considers adding social studies to statewide tests

The state board this week heard a request from social studies teachers and community members who urged the board to include social studies in the new state assessment system.

“Until social studies is recognized as an academic subject on equal footing with reading, writing, mathematics and science, our state and nation will continue to struggle to produce students who possess the knowledge, skills and civic values necessary to participate in our state and our nation’s democracy and in an increasingly interdependent world,” said a resolution submitted by the board of directors of the Colorado Historical Society. “The domestic and international issues facing us are so complex and pressing that, to preserve democracy as we know it, citizens must have some depth of historical, political and cultural understanding.”

A companion memo to the state board was signed by 18 groups including Junior Achievement, the Colorado Council for Social Studies, the Center for Teaching International Relations and the School of Business, Metropolitan State College of Denver.

Several members of the state board, including Elaine Gantz Berman and Marcia Neal, encouraged further consideration of the idea.

At its Dec. 6 meeting, the board is scheduled to approve the “attributes” it desires in the new assessment system.  A new state assessment system is being developed in wake of the ongoing implementation of new academic standards.

Boasberg happy with DPS progress but concerned about reading

The Denver Post reports on the superintendent’s state-of-the-schools address.

“Things are getting better, but Denver Public Schools has a long way to go before declaring reform efforts a success, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said Thursday.

Boasberg, who has been superintendent for nearly two years, presented mostly a rosy picture of the district in his speech to the A-Plus Denver group of community members that advises the district.

Enrollment is increasing, more students are taking college-level courses, graduation rates are rising, and student growth on assessments outpaces the state.

But there are other, more sobering, details.

The DPS graduation rate is still below the state average — below 60 percent; the achievement gap between minorities and their white or Asian peers is cavernous and stagnant; and only half of third-graders are reading at grade level — an indicator of future academic success.”

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.