First Person

Symposium strives to erase hate from schools

EdNews Parent attended part of a civic identity and safe schools symposium last week sponsored by the Matthew Shepard Foundation and an organization called Facing History and Ourselves. Here are some highlights from the event, held at Johnson & Wales University:

One Colorado fights bullying of LGBT students

Erin Yourtz, safe schools coordinator for One Colorado, a group advocating equal rights for people regardless of sexual orientation, talked about the anti-bullying legislation now being discussed in Denver. Yourtz said legislation to stop bullying is key, but that the first version will likely not fly because it is packed with too many mandates and no money for districts to implement it.

Acording to One Colorado, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth face special challenges growing up and coming out. A 2009 National School Climate Survey conducted by GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, found that nearly nine of 10 LGBT students were victims of harassment within the last school year. More than four in 10 LGBT students reported being physically harassed because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation.

Students who stand up to hate – often straight-identified allies – are also victims of harassment, as they can be perceived as LGBT. According to GLSEN, three in 10 LGBT students reported missing a class – or even a whole day of school – because they felt unsafe. Students who were frequently harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity reported grade point averages that were nearly half a grade lower than students who were less frequently harassed. LGBT youth are more likely to turn to substances, face depression, run away from home – and even commit suicide. (Read this EdNews Parent story).

Yourtz said to be effective, an anti-bullying bill needs to have very specific language. For instance, it needs to spell out that it’s wrong to say “that’s gay” or call someone a faggot.

She said parents and advocates should track the legislation (see video above), push their school to conduct annual climate surveys and be persistent about sharing the findings and addressing problem areas. She also said parents should demand that school board members and the superintendent “model inclusive and welcoming behavior thoughout the district.”

Yourtz said school officials and politicians are often reluctant to highlight LGBT issues because they can spark controversy. She said the focus needs to continue to shift toward bullying prevention vs. response. She said the societal effects of bullying are bad for everyone, including the bullies. She noted that schoolyard bullies are more likely to end up in jail than students who don’t bully.

Betty DeGeneres, more than a famous comedian’s mother

Betty DeGeneres, who shares the same dry wit as her daughter Ellen, became an activist and advocate for LGBT people after her famous daughter came out of the closet and watched her career nose dive. (It’s since Betty DeGeneresbeen resurrected). DeGeneres said she had known about her daughter’s sexual orientation for years, but played the same game as her daughter and hid it from the public. Ellen “came out” when she was 20 on a family trip to Mississippi. Mother and daughter were walking on the beach when Ellen began to cry, and said, “I’m gay.”

“I can definitely say I was not prepared for this. I had all these thoughts running through my head. I hugged her, and wondered how this “girl next door” daughter of mine was suddenly going to be the object of bigotry and discrimination.” She admitted that a sillier thought popped into her head: that her daughter and her chosen partner’s photos would not be in the local newspaper if they became engaged.

DeGeneres recalled meeting President Bill Clinton and how she embraced his comment that all of America loses when any American is denied or forced out of a job due to his or her sexual orientation.

DeGeneres said she equates some of the rhetoric around gays today to puritanism or the Salem witch hunts. One educator in the audience said it’s common for staff and teachers in Colorado schools to be encouraged to keep their sexual orientation private. DeGeneres encouraged them to get the support they need and make sure their civil rights are being protected.

For parents dealing with a child coming out of the closet, she recommended  Family Acceptance and PFLAG.

Rachel’s Challenge

Most of you from Colorado already know the name Rachel Scott. She was the first casualty in the 1999Rachel Scott massacre at Columbine High School. She was shot in the chest as she ate lunch outside on a beautiful spring day with a friend. Since then, her family and their supporters created an organization to share Rachel’s remarkably mature code of ethics with the world. She often wrote in her journal about the importance of simple acts of kindness and how far they can spread.

Program presenter Sarah Branion shared some of Rachel’s writings, illuminating the teen’s belief that “compassion is the greatest form of love humans have to offer.” For parents and kids alike, Rachel’s challenge is one to embrace. Here are key pieces of it:

  • Eliminate the prejudice we all have toward people who are different. Rachel’s brother Craig was next to two friends in the library on that fateful day. Both were killed. One, Isaiah Shoels, was tormented in his final moments because of his race. Branion encouraged members of the audience to give people three chances before passing judgment. Look people in the eyes, and look for the best in them.
  • Dare to dream. Write down your dreams and goals. Keep a journal by your bed. Write a little bit every day and remember what makes you tick and gives meaning to your life.
  • Choose positive influences. Rachel made it her mission to reach out to people who might be struggling – new kids at school, students with special needs, kids who were being bullied. They will always remember her for reaching out when no one else would.

Since the founding of Rachel’s Challenge, the organization reports that it has given presentations at thousands of primary and secondary schools, along with much bigger events, in 50 states and six countries reaching 11 million people.

The Rachel’s Challenge website reports that the educational program has averted seven school shootings or acts of violence and stopped hundreds of suicides. Of course, it is impossible to verify these claims, but it’s hard to argue with the message.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.