First Person

Week of 1/24/11: Teaching & learning tidbits

Cursive handwriting not taught at some schools

At the beginning of the current school year, Pam Bates learned that her daughter, Kaylin, would not learn how to read or write in cursive. This is the first year Stober Elementary, in Jefferson County, has not taught the flowing penmanship. Watch the 7 News report. The debate over the demise of cursive in Colorado public schools first heated up on EdNews Parent. Share your thoughts.

Special education resource fair Saturday

Aurora Public Schools will host a resource fair for people with disabilities and their parents, caregivers and educators beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Professional Learning & Conference Center, 15771 East 1st Ave. in Aurora. The event features workshops for teachers and caretakers, a special education student art show, door prizes and a raffle fundraiser. Topics include:

  • How children learn and why they struggle
  • Reducing unwanted behaviors through structure and routine
  • Understanding special education: Key things that parents need to know (Taught in Spanish with English interpretation available).

D-49 paying ‘hundreds of thousands’ to trim its ranks

The Falcon School District 49 board said in an “open letter” Thursday it was paying “several hundred thousand dollars” to end obligations to employees whose positions were being eliminated, but declined to give details. Read more in the Colorado Springs Gazette. This comes at the same time Falcon district officials want to see higher test scores and graduates well prepared for college and the workplace. That’s why the growing school district on Colorado Springs’ eastern edge is moving to  become an “innovation district,” which would allow it to seek exemption from some state and local rules to try new things. Read this Gazette story.

‘Obsessed’ teacher uses space to enthuse students

Fifth-grade teacher Jami Seabolt on Thursday showed her Space Club at Skyway Park Elementary School how to make paper space shuttles. Seabolt also is flying high because she recently learned that she is one of 38 teachers nationwide – including 12 from the Pikes Peak region – named to the Colorado Springs-based Space Foundation’s prestigious teacher liaison program. Read more in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Colorado students outperform peers in science

Students in fourth grade and eighth grade took science tests administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress and Colorado students scored better than most of the country. Watch this 9News report.

Boulder Valley plans preschool additions

More preschool spots for low-income students soon will be available at Boulder Valley elementary schools, but adding spots at Boulder schools is proving tricky because of space issues. Read more in the Daily Camera.

CU-Boulder answering Obama’s call for more math, science teachers

In his life sciences class Wednesday, teacher William Leary devised a mock disease, and middle-school students worked to diagnose it and imagined ways to prevent an epidemic. The exercise at Boulder’s Casey Middle School fit into the unit that Leary is teaching on epidemiology. Read more in the Daily Camera.

Adams 12 Five Star Schools board to discuss “21st century learning”

The Board of Education is hosting a community meeting to discuss 21st century learning and provide input regarding values and priorities for developing successful students and graduates in the district. The event will be held from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 2, at Thornton High School, 9351 Washington St., Thornton. For more information contact Frances Mullins at 720-972-4007.

Beattie Elementary spared by one vote

The Poudre School District Board of Education voted no Tuesday night on a motion to close Beattie Elementary School in Fort Collins after a drawn out fight by parents and community members to save the school. Watch the 9News report.

Improving the odds of turnaround success

As efforts to turn around some of Colorado’s lowest-performing schools intensify, a report issued this week urges state leaders to focus on three key areas to better the chances of success. Read more in Education News Colorado.

President Obama cites Denver school

President Obama highlighted a Denver school, Bruce Randolph 6-12, as an example of  “what’s possible fromBarack Obama with thumbs up our children when reform isn’t just a top-down mandate” in his State of the Union address on Tuesday. Randolph was on the brink of state closure in 2004-05 when Kristin Waters, then the principal of one of Denver’s highest-performing middle schools, and her teacher Chrisanne LaHue created a reform plan. Read more in Education News Colorado.

Aurora schools chief goes door-to-door for truants

Schools chief John Barry joined staff members going door-to-door on Tuesday to reach students who are chronically truant. The school district says the aim is to invite those students back to school. Watch this 9News report.

Colorado House to mull tax credits for private, home-school parents

If a Centennial lawmaker has his way, some parents who send their children to private school or home-school them could benefit from tax credits beginning next year in a plan opponents say is simply school vouchers by another name. Read more in the Greeley Tribune.

Boulder Valley schools boost dropout-prevention efforts

Johnny Fernandez hated seeing teens, year after year, give up on school and slip away to an uncertain future. “I feel responsible for every single kid,” said the assistant principal at Lafayette’s Centaurus High School. “You get tired of seeing kids disengage.” Read more in the Daily Camera.

Jeffco board balks at school-closure plan

The Jefferson County school board has announced  that it has decided to delay action on a five-year plan that would close several elementary schools. The plan, first proposed to the school board Jan. 6, would phase out as many as 10 elementary schools and replace or consolidate several others. Read more in the Denver Post.

Teachers catch up on technology

Crystal Courts is one of 200 people giving up their Saturday to improve their Monday through Friday. She’s attending the Jefferson County School District’s first ever Tech Share Fair. “I think kids have access to so much more. There’s so much information out there,” Courts, a third grade teacher, said. “So, I was kind of hoping to get a better idea how I could use it with my kids.” The Tech Share Fair is designed to help Courts and her colleagues learn more about cloud computing, new programs and internet applications to find the smartest ways to use their Smart Boards. Watch the report on 9News.

Students’ ingenuity changes lives

Here’s a scenario that may sound like a school teacher’s dream; a group of students are given an assignment that captivates them so much, they choose to come to school an hour before the bell rings to work on it, for four months. Lynette Havens doesn’t need to pinch herself because this is no dream, it is reality. Lynette is a teacher at Bollman Technical Education Center in Thornton. This school is part of Adams 12 Five Star School District. As part of a pre-engineering class, students are taking part in a national project which requires them to create a device for someone with a disability. Watch this 9News report.

State’s smallest district ponders future

The Agate School District boasts a top-notch facility. A $1.8 million capital construction grant from the state in 2003 paid for a sparkling new cafeteria and kitchen in the district’s one school. The gym has been updated, and spacious new locker rooms were added. There’s even a new fitness room housing state-of-the-art equipment. Read more in Education News Colorado.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.