First Person

This week's teaching & learning tidbits

iPads given to every student at Elizabeth charter

ELIZABETH, Colo. — In a time of shrinking budgets for education one small town school has found a way to give each student an iPad. Read more at 7News.

College bound students getting admission offers, rejections

Boulder High senior Rosa Baum earned a prestigious merit-based Boettcher scholarship that will give her a free ride if she enrolls at a Colorado college. Read more in the Daily Camera about this time that can be pretty anxiety-producing for students and parents alike.

Biggest school in Colorado says size does matter

GREENWOOD VILLAGE – Every day Adam Gardner walks across the Cherry Creek High School campus, he knows that he can meet a new face at anytime, and it might be someone he’s been classmates with for four years. Watch this 9News report.

Boulder Valley schools work to include special-needs students

Kohl Elementary first-grade teacher Racheal Edmonds was nervous when the parents of a girl with Down syndrome first approached her about fully including their daughter in her classroom. Read more in the Daily Camera.

Overland principal not blocking student paper over content, district says

A spokeswoman for the Cherry Creek School District said today that Overland High School principal Leon Lundie has not stopped publication of the school’s student newspaper over the content of a story. Read more in the Denver Post.

Hard work begins to remake D-49

Stacks of proposals on how to remake Falcon School District 49 await teachers, staff and parents when they return from their two-week spring break in April.

A flurry of community and staff meetings were held across the district in February and March as ideas were  collected and debated. Read more in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Colorado schools begin to write off cursive handwritingcursive letters

Twenty-three second-graders file into Virginia Edwards’ technology classroom at Grant Ranch School, take a seat at their iMacs, pull on headphones and launch a program whose graphics and audio prompts teach them crucial keyboarding skills. Read more in the Denver Post.

Denver celebrates National Library Week

First sponsored in 1958, National Library Week is a national observance sponsored by the American Library Association and libraries across the country each April 10-16. The Denver Public Library has an exciting line-up of activities for adults and kids of all ages, including “Thunder Loves to Read” where kids can meet the Denver Broncos mascot, get a free book, autographed picture.

In addition to these events, the library also offers free story times at 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday at various branches, and After School is Cool programs. Visit the Denver Public Library for more information.

93 percent on track to graduate at reopened high school

Nearly four years after Manual High School reopened, school officials are getting ready to graduate their first class of seniors from the reoganized school. Check out this 7News report.

Parents come out for DPS’s school turnaround plans

Parents and reform-minded activists gathered outside DPS headquarters Thursday to support school turnaround and to encourage administrators to continue making changes. Read more in the Denver Post.

Schools receive many state honors and kudos

The Colorado Department of Education announced that 153 schools in Colorado have been recognized with the “Governor’s Distinguished Improvement Awards” and 151 schools received the “John Irwin Schools of Excellence Awards.”

The Colorado Governor’s Distinguished Improvement Awards recognizes the top 8 percent of public schools that demonstrate the highest rates of student longitudinal growth, as measured by the Colorado Growth Model. A list of schools is available here.

The John Irwin Schools of Excellence Awards recognizes the top 8 percent of public schools that demonstrate the highest achievement on statewide assessments. See a list of 2009-2010 award-winning schools.

Colorado State Library announces summer reading grants

The Colorado State Library announced that 71 public library sites across the state will receive statewide summer reading program mini-grants. Each participating library site will receive $200 to put toward purchasing books related to the 2011 themes: “One World, Many Stories” (children) and “You Are Here” (teens).

The Summer Reading Program consists of weekly public library activities for children and teens during June and July and covers new books on the annual theme, crafts and ways to have fun at the library. Many children and teens set a goal such as reading a book a week or for 20 minutes each day. Young children participate by being read to by parents or siblings. Adults also join in and set their own goals for reading. In 2010, a total of 213,905 Colorado residents participated in summer reading programs in public libraries. Of these readers, 155,563 were children, 42,690 teens and 15,652 adults.

See a map of the mini-grant libraries. For more information on summer reading programs, visit the Colorado State Library.

Online school pilot program planned

A new online school pilot program is set to begin next school year in Trinidad. The online school is designed to help students make progress with their learning, while working by means of their computer at home. Read more in the Trinidad Times.

Mentors, teens connected through Colorado Youth at Risk

It took a trip into the mountains last year to permanently change the lives of James Dill and Salvadore Cortez. Cortez, then a 15-year-old freshman from Aurora Central High School, had signed up for the trip through Colorado Youth at Risk as a way to escape the pattern of bad grades and poor attendance. Dill, an adult who had signed up as a mentor through the same program, wanted to make a difference in the life of an at-risk teen. Read more in the Aurora Sentinel.

More schools consider retention key to achievement

Last year, Kailee Stites was not happy to hear that she would be held back in 5th grade at James Irwin Elementary School. “I was afraid I would miss my friends,” she says. Read more in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Denver fifth-grader wins state spelling bee

When 10-year-old Dhivya Senthil Murugan finally heard the word that she needed to spell to become Colorado’s spelling champion, one thing went through her mind. Read more in the Denver Post.

Dougco considers “voucher charter”

With interest flourishing in the Douglas County voucher pilot, school district officials are working to create the funding mechanism that will allow public dollars to flow through parents to private schools.

Robert Ross, the district’s attorney, said the creation of a district charter school for voucher students is the most likely of three possible options that have been considered, largely because of the flexibility of the state’s charter laws. Read more in Education News Colorado.

District 6 teacher investigated for possible CSAP improprieties

Greeley-Evans School District 6 officials are investigating allegations that a teacher cheated on the Colorado Student Assessment Program test.

Roger Fiedler, communications director for the district, said district officials received a report Friday of possible improprieties by a Chappelow K-8 Arts and Literacy Magnet School teacher. The report was made by students. Greeley students in grades three through 10 took the tests in math, reading, writing and science this past week. Read more in the Greeley Tribune.

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.