First Person

Opinion: Please keep Life Skills open

Editor’s note: This article was submitted by Peter Droege, president of the Life Skills Charter High School board.

According to the Colorado Department of Education, approximately 13,000 students drop out of school each year in our state.

Life Skills Charter High School has proven remarkably effective in reclaiming these high-risk students and helping them graduate from high school. We are deeply concerned that the Office of School Reform and Innovation (OSRI) at Denver Public Schools recommended non-renewal of our school. The DPS board vote this Thursday will not only impact the lives of the hundreds of students we serve, it will send a powerful message about our community’s commitment to students who have dropped out of school.

There has been a great deal of misinformation around the performance of Life Skills Charter High School. A Nov. 4 article in the Denver Post gave the impression that we had only one student graduate last year, with 16 others listed as “completers.” In fact, 24 students received diplomas through our program last year. This confusion has been present at every level of the renewal process. I hope the following information will provide a more accurate description of this amazing program serving students who have dropped out of school.

Given the student population at Life Skills, it is a remarkable accomplishment that we exceed, meet, or make reasonable progress on 10 of the 12 goals in our contract. The primary area where we do not meet our goals is academic performance. This is not surprising given that our students come to us reading, on average, at the fifth-grade level. In addition, many of our students face tremendous social challenges: homelessness, addiction, being young moms and dads, mental illness, being on probation, etc.

We are honored to partner with DPS in providing an academically rigorous program with supportive services that truly serves the needs of our students. We provide each student with an individual assessment, a personal academic achievement plan and the individual support needed to succeed and graduate.

Classes are offered year-round and students attend one five-hour session per day, five days a week, with multiple daily class sessions offering maximum flexibility.

All of our caring and dedicated teachers are No Child Left Behind highly qualified and licensed in the subject area in which they teach. We have a full-time family advocate, or social worker, to assist our students, who often face tremendous challenges in life. We also have two full time vocational specialists to help our students discover their passion and purpose in life. Students must pass each class with a “B” in order to move on to the next level.

Our Response to Intervention (RTI) team does an amazing job connecting struggling students with academic programs designed to meet their needs. More often than not, this results in one-on-one instruction in the math or reading labs.

This year we established a partnership with the Better Business Bureau that offers paid internships to students to equip them to succeed in the workplace. We also launched a partnership with the Food Bank of the Rockies, since many of our students are at risk of hunger. We are actively engaged with countless other schools, community organizations and probation officers who see us as a key partner in helping their young people get a fresh start in life.

Every student is welcome at Life Skills, no minimum academic requirements, no interview process.  We would never think of excluding students out of a concern that their academic performance will drag down our test scores.

Do we have improvements to make? Yes. Has our performance over the past several years demonstrated that we are willing to continue to improve our school? Yes. We believe this warrants us getting our contract renewed for at least two years.

About half of our students have already tried — and failed — in two or three other DPS schools. The other half have been to four, five, six or even seven other schools before coming to Life Skills. It’s these students that have repeatedly fallen through the cracks that we care about at our school.

Where else will they get an 11:1 student to teacher ratio? Where else will they get the wraparound services that they need in order to even be able to address academic issues?

The OSRI office says that there are 1,000 seats waiting for our students, but  many of our students and parents have said that they do not view these schools as viable options, given that many of the students have already dropped out of the same schools.

There are many thousands of unserved students who have dropped out of school and are looking for a second chance at life. Now is not the time to eliminate this option. Please consider contacting the DPS board and asking them to vote in support of allowing Life Skills Charter High School to continue providing this model that has proven to be so effective in helping high-risk students.

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.