First Person

Editor's blog: A new way to do school

Hats off to the Colorado Legacy Foundation for beating back the acronyms and creating a compelling video to spark a debate about what constitutes quality learning – and teaching.

The foundation, which supports key initiatives of the Colorado Department of Education in the areas of teacher effectiveness, healthy schools and bullying, recently held its annual fundraising luncheon.

Expecting a dry lecture and lots of people rattling off depressing education statistics, I hunched over a very delicious chicken salad and hoped for the best. But then all 900 of us were diverted from our avocados and balsamic vinaigrette to a large-screen video. You couldn’t miss it. It was really loud.

In mid-bite, I was confronted with this question:

“Does your brain only work when your butt is in a chair?”

“Well, actually, no,” I thought to myself, chewing up the fresh greens. In fact, wouldn’t it be great if we found a way to ditch office chairs and cubicles forever in favor of exercise balls and jumping jacks or hourly dance-offs?

And then this question:

“Is there an on-off switch that tells your imagination to only have ideas between 9 a.m.  and 3:15 p.m.?”

Why, actually, no. I often work in the evening hours and may even come up with my best brainstorms while out on a walk or dancing in my NIA class. Shouldn’t students have the same opportunities?

It was such a thought-provoking (albeit perhaps too long) video I wanted to find out more about it. If we were sparked to action during a fundraising luncheon, where should we – parents, students, teachers, leaders – put our energy?

ELO isn’t just a 1970s rock band

So, I asked a few questions of Legacy’s communications coordinator Joe Miller, who informed me that the video was created to highlight the work of the state’s Expanded Learning Opportunities Initiative. Uh oh. Did I just put you to sleep? With an acronym like ELO, it certainly makes sense to do some rebranding lest we – of a certain generation – fall back on a certain 1970s rock band. Then again, the Electric Light Orchestra hit “Hold on Tight” begins with the words, “Hold on tight to your dreams.” Could work.

“We have high hopes for the video,” said Elaine Gantz Berman, a member of the state Board of Education and the Legacy Foundation board who served as chair of the ELO commission.

(Watch the video yourself at the top of this page, or click here).

“People who attended the luncheon were just enthralled with that,” Gantz Berman said. “We’re hoping it’s going to hit the big-time. We hope every superintendent sees it, every local school board sees it, every legislator sees it. It really does provide a very clear idea of what education should look like.”

The Expanded Learning Opportunities Commission met and hashed out ideas for more than a year. The goal was to redefine what education looks like within the next decade. The conversation started out focusing on after-school programs for at-risk students but quickly morphed into a much bigger, all-encompassing way of looking at education for all students, Miller said.

What the report says

As the September 2011 ELO Commission report, entitled Beyond Walls Clocks and Calendars makes clear:

“It is imperative that young people in this day and age acquire a high-quality education in order to succeed in civic and economic life, and to sustain and advance America’s economic and cultural legacies. And while the American education system has indeed adapted and improved over the past two centuries as American culture and citizenry have progressed, the high-tech and fast- paced world of today requires innovative and far-reaching approaches to ensure that all students have opportunities and tools to succeed and thrive.” Isn’t that the truth.

Desired student outcomes under ELO include:

  • Customized and relevant learning experiences resulting in more students attending and staying in school and receiving personalized support to meet their individual needs, leading to improved student outcomes.
  • Learning focused on higher level thinking skills, which address the shift in thinking patterns of digital students.
  • Student ownership and management of their learning progress and needs, resulting in students who are engaged and prepared to handle the challenges of life beyond high school.
  • Increased overall competitiveness of Colorado students, demonstrated by mastery of essential content and skills.
  • Increased connections between instruction in school and the world outside.
  • Guaranteed access for all students to the best teachers and content, through face-to-face and digital means, thereby providing quality choices to all students statewide.
  • Learning opportunities available 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, and seven days a week.

Does this sound like your son or daughter’s school?

Miller said the commission decided the best way to share the results of its work was through a slightly edgy video rather than another white paper, webinar or press release. (Thank you!) Miller said he’s gotten several requests to share it. People are encouraged to make comments on it, and a work plan is underway to put the feedback into action.

While the video doesn’t get into real-world examples, the report does.

Real life examples of innovative schools

In Aurora, for instance, the Vista Peak P-20 campus created a schedule to meet its needs rather than sticking to the district calendar.

The school schedule includes: 90 minutes of daily planning time for staff; freedom over all instructional minutes; advisories where students work on digital portfolios, developing and managing individual career and academic plans and building relationships and mentorships; and independent study where learning is socially constructed.

The ultimate goal of Vista Peak’s innovations are  to give all students customized learning opportunities, including internships, externships, college visits, credit acceleration, and credit recovery. It also offers various programs in health and wellness, creative arts and financial literacy, along with science symposiums, tutoring, intramural sports, field experiences, challenge-based learning, and language labs.

Another school on the forefront of  ELO is School of One in New York City. The full-time, in- school math program is housed at three New York City public middle schools. School of One serves 1,500 students, with 88 percent eligible for free and reduced lunch.

School of One offers a range of learning modalities, including large- and small-group instruction, small-group collaboration, one-on-one teaching, online instruction, live remote tutoring, virtual instruction and independent practice.

The school uses technology to match students with the teachers. Additionally, School of One has created a learning algorithm that collects up-to-date data about students and available materials and creates a unique schedule for every student, every day. In this way, students’ curriculum is both personalized and adaptive, ensuring they move ahead only once mastery has been demonstrated, according to Colorado’s ELO report.

And it seems to be working. Consider these statistics:

  • School of One students in the 2009 summer school pilot acquired new math skills seven times faster than peers with similar demographics and pre-test scores.
  • Students in the 2010 after-school pilot made significant gains on the norm-referenced test compared to students who did not participate, with gains being reported across achievement levels.
  • Students who participated in the in-school pilot made greater gains on the norm-referenced test than students who did not participate.

There are other promising local examples of ELO in action.

The Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) is another  example of a school operating beyond walls. Technology and partnerships are essential to the school’s mission. Students are engaged in science and technology internships during school and after school hours.

DSST achieved the second-highest longitudinal growth rate in student test scores statewide, and 100 percent of DSST graduates have been accepted into a four-year college.

In case you were wondering, ELO approaches aren’t just for secondary students.

Fort Logan Elementary School began  operating beyond clocks when it added 72 extended school and an additional 126 hours of instructional time in 2010-11. The school uses a “second shift” of educators, including literacy staff, teachers from other area schools and community partners. Based on preliminary plans, the school anticipates totaling nearly 300 extended days and an additional 540 hours over the next few years.

Now is your butt tired?

Hmmmm. My butt’s getting tired now. How ‘bout yours? Before you get up and move, what creative ideas do you have to improve the quality of teaching and learning in Colorado? Share your ideas, and I’ll make sure they get to the right people. And remember: Hold on tight to your dreams.

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.

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.