First Person

This week's teaching & learning tidbits

Five tips for identifying a good school

You have been checking the Web sites. Talking to friends. Maybe you have even been on a conga line of parents snaking through a classroom on an overcrowded school tour. This much you know: choosing the right school for your child is an important decision. Read more in the New York Times.

Two very different schools in one building: Does it work?

Denver Public Schools students, parents, teachers and administrators formed a lengthy parade before school board members Thursday night as efforts continued to sway opinion prior to decisive votes slated for next week.

Among the many proposals the board will decide Nov. 17 is a plan to find a home for a new KIPP charter elementary school, which could lead to a second school being located at an already-crowded middle school, which might mean hundreds of those students must be shifted elsewhere. Read more in Education News Colorado.

 

Colorado teacher evaluation rules approved

The State Board of Education approved regulations Wednesday that will govern evaluation of principals and teachers under the landmark 2010 law requiring annual reviews and that at least 50 percent of evaluations be based on student academic growth.

Senate Bill 10-191 sponsorsSenate Bill 10-191 sponsors (from left) Carole Murray, Christine Scanlan, Mike Johnston and Nancy Spence at Wednesday’s meeting. 

But the regulations will not have an immediate impact, given the law’s long implementation timeline, the fact that key parts of the rules remain to be filled in and that the document will be subject to special review by the 2012 legislature. Read more in Education News Colorado.

Goodbye, CSAPs, hello tests of the future

The State Board of Education got a peek Thursday at the brave new world of 21st-century, multi-state testing, a world that could well be coming to Colorado.

Members heard presentations from executives of the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment and Readiness for College and Careers or PARCC, two organizations that are developing multi-state achievement tests in language arts and math that are aligned to the Common Core Standards. Read more in Education News Colorado.

Target and Heart of America Foundation unveil new school library

Late last month, Lasley Elementary along with Target Corp., The Heart of America Foundation and Target volunteers, revealed the school’s newly renovated library. The unveiling celebration was the first time students and teachers saw the space since the renovation process began four weeks ago. The brand new library features 2,000 books, eco-friendly design elements, a complete technology upgrade including iPads, as well as new furniture, carpet and shelves. As part of the library unveiling event, each student and his or her siblings also received seven new books to keep for their home libraries.

Knowing that hunger greatly affects a child’s ability to learn and focus in the classroom, Target also incorporated a Target Meals for Minds school-based food pantry site as part of the school’s renovation process. The food pantry will allow Lasley Elementary students and their families to choose from a variety of staple foods and fresh produce to take home.

The renovated library is part of the national Target School Library Makeover program through which Target revitalizes local school libraries, with a focus on helping children read proficiently by the end of third grade. Lasley Elementary is one of 42 schools chosen by Target and The Heart of America Foundation to receive a complete library makeover this year.

By the end of 2011, Target will have transformed a total of 118 elementary school libraries through the Target School Library Makeover program, which represents an investment of more than $22 million.

Nixed taxes, state cuts put area districts in tight spot

Schools have cut budgets for several years, and the choices of what goes next are running out. The classroom might be the target. Read more in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Loveland house an ‘innovation lab’ for students

The 1910 Victorian house on Third Street in downtown Loveland looks like any other in the neighborhood, except for the sign on the door: “Be you, a quiet revolution.” Read more in this AP story.

Thousands more Denver teachers get new laptops

Thanks to savings from the voter-approved 2008 Bond Program, thousands of Denver Public Schools teachers are receiving new laptops as part of the DPS Teacher Laptop Project, which aims to provide teachers with the tools they need to better implement data-driven instruction and to incorporate technology-based instructional resources more effectively into their classrooms.

In addition to receiving laptops, teachers will also be trained to use Safari Montage, a state-of-the-art digital media streaming resource. DPS recently partnered with Safari Montage for both its streaming media content and digital media management tools. The Safari project will allow teachers to access digital instructional media resources from respected educational publishers, such as PBS and National Geographic. The project will also provide teachers with access to media resources, digital TV, and digital video recording.

During the first round of laptop training and distribution, over 2,000 teachers received new laptops. The second phase of the project is kicking off this week at Smith Renaissance School of the Arts with Superintendent Tom Boasberg, DCTA President Henry Roman and DPS Chief Operating Officer David Suppes handing out laptops and hearing from teachers how they will utilize the laptops as education tools in the classroom. Laptops act as a portable tool for teachers to access student data and curriculum and lesson planning resources.

Using 2008 Bond savings, DPS is able to cover 70 percent of the cost for a laptop for all district teachers. Schools will need to provide a 30 percent match. In all, an estimated 5,700 laptops are planned for purchase, providing all teachers with new laptops by the end of the three-year project.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.