The Other 60 Percent

Academy 360 aims to change the conversation

It was 7:45 a.m. on a cloudy Monday morning. About 100 children hopped up and down on the cracked asphalt outside their school, pretending to dribble basketballs, toss baseballs and jump rope.

Students at Academy 360 participate in morning movement.

Following the lead of Health and Wellness Coordinator Becky McLean, the children shouted, “I am smart! I am kind! I am a scholar!”

This is how each day starts at Academy 360, a new health and wellness charter school in the Montbello neighborhood in Far Northeast Denver. The 15-minute morning movement session is one small part of the school’s ambitious plan to bolster academics by promoting students’ physical, mental and emotional well-being.

Students, about 95 percent of whom come from low-income families, also get free breakfast and lunch in their classrooms and 45 minutes of physical education and 15 minutes of “guided” recess every day. Sugary drinks and flavored milks are not permitted, and unhealthy snacks like potato chips will likely prompt a note home with suggestions for healthier alternatives. Woven throughout the school day are formal and informal lessons on social-emotional skills such as compassion, tenacity and responsibility.

There is plenty more in the works. Although the school is currently located in leased church space, the long-term plan calls for a facility with a school-based health clinic. There are also plans for parent programs such as weekly exercise classes and talks on topics such as buying healthy food on a budget. Finally, the school, which currently serves kindergartners through second-grade, plans to add a grade on each end every year until it eventually offers preschool through fifth grade with additional programming for younger children as well as prenatal programs for parents.

Ultimately, school leaders and board members hope Academy 360 will help change the conversation around education, showing that healthy students and families are cornerstones of academic success, not optional add-ons.

“If we do this well, it does have the opportunity to be a new model of what education can look like,” said board member Dan Schaller, director of outreach and operations at the Denver Preschool Program.

In the classroom

The school’s focus on character education is obvious in the classrooms, with teachers discussing such attributes as graciousness or responsibility during lessons and walls and whiteboard adorned with aspirations such as, “I can be a model of tenacity.” Sally Sorte, the school’s founder and executive director, explained that these social-emotional themes are embedded deeply in expeditionary learning model used at the school and that teachers try to break it down into a discrete set of skills for students.

When two kindergartners had a tiff in Teacher Abbie Mood’s classroom, Sean Udell, the school’s special education and Response to Intervention coordinator, sat with the boy and girl at the “peace table” near the door and coached them through the conflict using a restorative justice approach.

A poster in a second grade classroom illustrates some of Academy 360’s values.

“It sounds like you both were hurt,” he said to the pair. “Instead of hitting her back, what could you have said to her?” he asked the boy.

Across the hall, second-grade teacher Dorothy Shapland, who is also the school’s director of curriculum and instruction, read the book “Children Make Terrible Pets” to her students. In between making the children giggle with her animated story-telling, she helped the children identify the characters’ feelings, and used the story to illustrate the meaning of compassion.

“She’s showing compassion,” Shapland said of the main character Lucy, a bear who adopts a little boy and then allows him to go home to his family. “She thinks about how someone else is feeling and then she acts on that feeling.”

A neighborhood in need of help

Across Scranton Street from Academy 360 is Amesse Elementary, a traditional public school that serves as a reminder to its new neighbor of the challenges that lay ahead. Like Academy 360, it serves a large majority of low-income and students of color. In the last few years, it has also gradually slipped to the lowest “red” ranking in the district’s five-tier performance framework.

“Sadly, they are one of Montbello’s many failing schools,” said McLean.

That’s in large part why Academy 360 serves Montbello as well neighboring Green Valley Ranch. Its leaders not only wanted to give parents a new school choice, but one cut from different cloth than the typical offerings.

“The mission was very attractive to parents,” said Board President Leslie Bayliff.

Funders found it appealing as well. Several have contributed financially to Academy 360, providing start-up grants or money for specific projects or staff members. They include the Colorado Health Foundation, the Gates Family Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Colorado League of Charter Schools and the Colorado Department of Education.

While Academy 360 may enjoy a brief honeymoon as it puts down roots this year and perhaps next, everybody wants to know if it can outshine nearby district schools.

Kindergarteners at Academy 360 have cereal, milk, apple slices and sunflower seed butter for breakfast in their classroom.

 

Sorte is quick to say, “Number one, we’re a rigorous academic school.”

The charter’s expeditionary learning model emphasizes interdisciplinary project-based learning designed to tap kids’ interests. The school supplements its math and literacy curriculum with programs such as Singapore Math and the “Lucy Calkin” workshop approach to teaching writing. Finally, at 8.5 hours, the school day is longer than most.

While Academy 360 tapped various sources for its curriculum and programming, Namaste Charter School, a health and wellness school in Chicago, may figure in most prominently. Sorte believes the nine-year-old school provides solid evidence that Academy 360’s model can work.

“They’ve done a good job in showing how health and wellness can lead to greater academic outcomes.”

Last year, Namaste earned the middle ranking, “good standing” on Chicago Public Schools’ three-level performance rating system. In 2012, 87 percent of its students met or exceeded standards on state tests, beating the district average by more than 10 percentage points. Of Namaste’s 482 students last year, 85 percent were low-income and 26 percent were “Limited English Learners.”

The journey

Academy 360 was just a concept two years ago when Sorte, who was 25 at the time, applied for a fellowship to design a health and wellness charter school. The fellowship was funded by the Colorado Health Foundation and offered through Get Smart Schools, a Denver non-profit dedicated to expanding the number of charter schools and other autonomous schools.

Sally Sorte, Academy 360’s founder and executive director, talks with students after morning movement.

Sorte, who taught high school in Hawaii through Teach For America and worked at Google before coming to Denver, describes the school-planning process as “long and grueling.”

Tasks included recruiting board members, filling out the lengthy charter application, passing out brochures at grocery stores and knocking on doors to meet prospective families. In addition to doing a month-long residency at Namaste Charter School, she visited the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City and The Odyssey School, an expeditionary learning charter school in Denver.

Sorte said at times she felt her age and gender prompted some push-back from the Denver Public Schools board, but she considered it “an opportunity to show it’s not just about the individual, it’s about the team they create.”

Part of that team is her 11-member staff, which went on an overnight camping retreat over the summer. All appear energetic and committed to the mission of educating students’ minds, bodies and characters. Take Udell, who used to teach special education at STRIVE Prep’s Highland Campus. He ran into Sorte, whom he’d met once previously, at a social gathering last June. She updated him on Academy 360’s progress.

We talked for about three hours and at the end of that conversation I was totally inspired by the vision and so impressed by how much was in line and how much she had reached out to the community… I didn’t want to miss out being a part of it so I sent her my resume from the bar,” he said with a laugh.

Mclean, who worked for the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition in 2011, is similarly passionate about her role as the school’s point person for health and wellness. In such, she not only collects health data from families and plans parent wellness activities, she has one-on-one conversations with students about how they feel when they eat too many sugary treats or with parents concerned about children exercising outside in cold weather.

While McLean has many plans to promote and publicize wellness efforts at Academy 360, one of her most ambitious is to have Michelle Obama visit the school. McLean envisions the First Lady eating at the salad bar with students and taking part in a school movement session.

“I think I’m just going to have to pitch the White House a bunch of times, prove that what we’re doing is working,” she said.

survey says

More bullying reported at New York City schools, study shows

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

More New York City students say there is bullying in their schools, a report released Monday showed. The findings also revealed that many schools reporting the greatest number of violent incidents on campus have no social workers on staff.

The report was commissioned by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer also released an audit of how school safety matters are recorded, and concluded that the education department should provide more oversight and streamline incident reporting rules.

“The audit found clear breakdowns in communication in the reporting and tracking of incidents and actions taken,” according to a press release from Stringer’s office.

The education department disputed some of the comptroller’s findings, and in a written statement, spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote: “We have detailed protocols in place to ensure allegations of bullying are immediately reported, investigated and addressed, and are investing in both anti-bullying initiatives and mental health supports.”

But the pair of reports raises scrutiny of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school discipline reforms, which favor  “restorative” practices that emphasize mediation over punishment, and make it harder to suspend students.

Advocates of the de Blasio reforms say the shift is necessary because black and Hispanic students are more likely to be arrested or disciplined at school. Research has shown such disciplinary action can lead to higher dropout rates. Critics of the reforms, meanwhile, say the changes have created more chaotic schools.

The findings are also likely to add to a chorus of parents and elected officials who say more emotional supports are needed for the city’s most vulnerable students. Students who experience a mental health crisis during the school day may be handcuffed and shuttled to hospitals. The city’s latest budget, which was approved last week, includes an additional $2 million to hire social workers and guidance counselors in schools that currently don’t have any.

Here are some highlights from the reports.

More students report there is bullying in their schools — but the data comes with a catch.

Last year, the education department’s annual survey showed that 82 percent of students said their peers “harass, bully, or intimidate others in school.” That’s up year over year, and up significantly from 65 percent of students in 2012, which was the lowest rate recorded since at least 2010. (De Blasio’s discipline reforms started to take effect around 2015.)

A note about these numbers: Prior to 2017, the survey asked whether students harass, bully or intimidate other students none, some, most, or all of the time. The most recent survey responses were slightly different: none of the time, rarely, some of the time, or most of the time — a change that may have artificially inflated the bullying numbers.

That’s enough to render the survey data unreliable said Max Eden, a researcher who has studied school climate for the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute — a critic of the mayor’s discipline reforms. Still, taken with other findings, it’s reasonable to think that bullying is on the rise at city schools, he said.

Among the other evidence: A first-of-its-kind report, released this month under a new city law, that showed substantiated bullying incidents are on track to increase this year.

Schools that log the most violent incidents often lack mental health supports.

Guidance counselors and social workers are key when it comes to creating safe schools because they can help address the root cause of violent or troublesome behavior, advocates who want more mental health supports say.

But many of the city’s neediest schools go without that help.

Of the schools reporting the most violent incidents on campus, 36 percent lack a full-time social worker, the comptroller found. On campuses where there are social workers, caseloads are a staggering 700 to one. That far exceeds the recommended ratio from the National Association of Social Workers of 250 general education students per social worker — and it’s higher than the citywide average of 612 students per social worker, according to the comptroller.

The comptroller’ compares that to the ratio of New York Police Department school safety agents who are placed in schools: There is one safety agent per 228 students, according to the report.

“Our city is failing to meet the social and emotional needs of our students,” Councilman Mark Treyger, of Brooklyn, who has pushed the city to report more up-to-date bullying data and to hire more school counselors, said in an emailed statement.

Schools may be underreporting violent incidents, something the education department disputes.

In a separate audit, the comptroller compared logs kept by school safety agents to incident reports filed by school leaders. In 21 percent of cases, incidents that were noted by safety agents were not reflected in the school reports.

The school data, in turn, are used to report incidents to the state for its Violent and Disruptive Incident Report, or VADIR. The discrepancy could raise questions about the already-controversial reporting system. (VADIR has been criticized for classifying schoolyard incidents as serious offenses, and the state has tweaked its definitions in response to those kinds of concerns.)

This finding also comes with some caveats. The comptroller looked at only 10 schools — a tiny sample of the city’s portfolio of about 1,800. And the education department took issue with the methodology.

In its response to the audit, education department officials said that the police data doesn’t align with the state’s reporting categories, and that the information may not be comparable because of student privacy concerns and recordkeeping issues on campuses where multiple schools share a building.  

Student Voices

What would these students tell newly trained teachers? ‘Be woke’

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Freedom Prep student Destiny Dangerfield talks alongside Asiah Hayes, Detario Yancey, and Evan Walsh at a panel discussion for TFA Memphis trainees.

Respect for others, being resourceful, and confronting biases are among the lessons four high-school-age students wanted to convey during a panel discussion for future Teach for America participants.

Teach for America Memphis trains recent college graduates and places them in local classrooms for two years, with the goal of developing leaders who will commit to educational equity. Earlier this month, TFA Memphis kicked off its Summer Institute, welcoming 153 new trainees. Created in 2006, the group now has over 400 alumni working in local schools. 

High-schoolers Asiah Irby, Evan Walsh, Destiny Dangerfield, and Detario Yancey shared their personal stories with about 200 corps members, directors, and alumni last week. When these students enrolled in Freedom Preparatory Academy and KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools, it marked a turning point for them. Both schools are charters that hire many program grads.

“We wanted kids that embody so much of what we hope for for all of our students,” said Athena Palmer, executive director of TFA Memphis. “What were the key moments along the way” in their educations?

Based on interviews and the panel discussion, here’s what the students thought first-time teachers should know:

Tell us you won’t tolerate bullying. And mean it.

Destiny Dangerfield wants to be a federal prosecutor, or a civil rights attorney, or perhaps a performer one day. These are lofty goals for any student, but they once seemed unreachable for Dangerfield. Her father, a musician, packed his bags before she started middle school.

“That took a really huge toll on me because that was when I was starting to be introduced to a whole lot more boys,” she said. “Having him walk out on me did a number on my self-worth and self-image and I saw myself as little to nothing.”

School for Dangerfield was supposed to be a safe haven. But that wasn’t always the case. Sometimes, she said, an act as simple as momentarily stepping out of the classroom could affect a student’s safety.

“In reality, that two minutes could be the difference between a child getting in a fight or being talked about or ganged up on,” she said. “Be articulate that you won’t tolerate bullying of any kind. And show them that that’s not an empty threat and that you mean business.”

A safe community of friends and classmates helped Dangerfield get through school. Now, she wants her circle to learn to use their voices to make change, even though she feels people like her are misunderstood and often neglected.

“I want to see more investments within our city.…” she said. “I feel like Memphis has so much to offer … no one has the chance to see our potential.”

The classroom is where teachers can start to grow that potential. But one of her teachers didn’t, and that sticks with her today.

“I don’t want to be talked to like I’m 2 years old when I’m 17,” she said. “I will respect you no matter what, but I want to feel respected in the process.”

Open up. Everyone is nervous on the first day, including us.

In ninth grade, Evan Walsh listened while a faculty member told his parents, “He’s not up to the academic rigor of this school.” The meeting lasted five minutes, and he left unenrolled.

“When a student is in an environment where they feel like the people around them couldn’t care less about their education or what they do in life or what happens to them, you get the unfortunate situation that a lot of students are in right now,” he said, referring to two of his former classmates who lost their lives to violence in the city.

For Walsh, who spent his life moving from place to place, first times were frequent. Creating a bond with students in awkward moments can create lasting relationships, he said.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Corps members talk to and hug participants Evan Walsh and Detario Yancey after the discussion.

“Don’t be scared,” he said. “We’re all human. We can all be scared. Understand like, we’re just as nervous as you are, especially on the first day.”

With the help of a former assistant principal who had a son in the school, Walsh found his way to KIPP, where his GPA shot from a 2.5 to a 3.6. In May, Walsh graduated summa cum laude, and he was the first from his school to apply for early decision and be accepted into the college of his dreams: Franklin and Marshall in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Still, he thinks of his two classmates and their dreams deferred.

“I’m a strong believer in thinking that violence and poverty is a cycle, and the way to break through some of it is with education,” he said. “I was lucky enough to have family and people around me that recognized the value of education.”

Expect only the most out of us – we’re smarter than you think.

In the rocky years that followed first grade, Asiah Irby found herself caught in a custody battle. Because her mother took care of her, she now wants to return the favor.

“‘That kind of shaped me into the person I am today,” she said. “Even when I’m at my lowest, I still push myself to do my best and be better. I just want what’s best for me and my family.”

When Irby thinks of excellence, she thinks of a poster that was on her English teacher’s wall: “I won’t insult your intelligence by giving you easy work.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Incoming corps members clap for students during panel discussion.

“Coming into a classroom seeing stuff like that just made me know that he cared and that being in his class, I was safe to just learn and try and fail and succeed,” she said.

But she hasn’t always been so lucky. Irby’s worst experience was when she switched teachers in the middle of the year, leaving her with an F grade in the class. Her new teacher didn’t have high expectations for her.

“He was white and kind of privileged, and he would make comments in class that were kind of racist and sexist,” she said. “I want to be something in life, and I don’t want anybody to tell me that I can’t be anything.”

Irby is now a rising senior at Freedom Preparatory Academy, where she raised her ACT score from a 23 to a 27 in one year, enough to get into highly ranked schools such as Syracuse and the University of Texas. And Irby won’t settle for anything less. Success for Irby means leaving a path that students like her younger sister can follow.

“I want to do what I can to make sure that she does better than I do,” Irby said. “My dream for Memphis is for kids that look like me to get experiences that kids who don’t look like me get.”

Teaching is about developing your ‘mommy instinct.’

At home, Detario Yancey’s parents gave him a stable life. But at his failing elementary school, resources were scant, and Yancey’s grades suffered.

“I felt like I was behind,” he said. “I felt like I had a lot of potential locked up in a door, but somebody had to unlock it.”

Yancey enrolled at KIPP in the fifth grade, eating his lunch during tutoring as he worked to recover his grades. Being a teacher in a school this rigorous requires a kind of finesse and quick wit – almost like a “mommy instinct,” he said.

“You want to make your children feel as safe as possible,” he said. “They may not have that love at home. They may not be feeling that love from their peers. Find a creative way to make them feel loved and safe.”

Now, the recent graduate prides himself on representing his class as president and valedictorian.

“I want to see underprivileged kids like me surpass expectations,” he said. “The system is in place for us to fail. I want to see us live to beat those systems down.”

In the weeks ahead, TFA’s incoming corps members will teach summer school at Memphis Business Academy before receiving their assignments for the new school year.

Yancey left them with one last bit of advice: “Be creative, be intuitive, be socially intelligent – and be woke.”