Future of Schools

In a first, Englewood hires Generation Schools to overhaul district

When students at Englewood School District arrive at school next year, they won’t just find new classrooms and unfamiliar teachers. They may also be facing a totally new academic model.

Students in Englewood Schools will see big changes next year. District photo.
Students in Englewood Schools. District photo.

The school district, located directly south of Denver, has signed a year-long partnership with the non-profit Generation Schools, a non-profit whose model includes extended learning time, increased teacher collaboration and smaller class sizes. The deal is a first for Generation Schools, which has only worked at the school level.

“It really sets a new precedent for what’s possible,” said Wendy Piersee, CEO of Generation Schools. “I think the size of the Englewood district mirrors the typical size of districts across the country. It really hits that model for hundreds of districts across the country.”

Generation’s approach, nicknamed the “Rubik’s cube” model, aims to create longer days and longer schools years for schools while still working within the school’s available resources, including existing financial capabilities and teacher contracts.

Generation’s partnership with Englewood schools is a first for Colorado, said Janet Lopez of the Rose Foundation, to whom Englewood has applied for grants to help fund the project.

“The unique element is an entire district that’s trying to work entirely within the constraints of Colorado’s school finance restrictions,” said Lopez, a program officer for the foundation.

Generation’s typical approach to previous projects has included a massive overhaul of teacher and staff scheduling as well as budgeting to compensate for those changes. The details of how Englewood will manage those changes without increasing its budget remain undecided.

Englewood and Generation Schools, who signed the deal just over two weeks ago, are still unsure what exactly the new model will look like, but they hope to go beyond the academic calendar. The district and Generation’s management group are considering a new approach to student attraction and retention as well as an overhaul of the district’s college and career preparation.

Urban district in the suburbs

Despite Englewood’s distance from Denver’s urban core, it struggles with many of the same issues urban districts do. Roughly 65 percent of Englewood’s 2981 students receive free and reduced lunch and about 15 percent of students make use of English language learning services.

“They are becoming an urban district that sits on the fringe,” said Piersee.

Englewood, which was designated as a turnaround district by the state in 2010, which has already implemented a slew of changes, including a more collaborative learning model for students and including iPads in classroom instruction. The district was re-designated as a priority improvement district in 2011, but has failed to increase its ranking since then. The district’s superintendent hopes the changes the partnership with Generation Schools will bring will accelerate their improvement and increase scores.

“You can have all the best instructional strategies and technology and if you have kids coming in halfway, it takes time to catch up,” said Brian Ewert, the district’s superintendent. “It takes more time and resources to get these kids to the same place as some of their affluent peers, who have far more opportunities. We have to do something significantly different.”

Engelwood’s growth scores have improved but the majority of its students still do not meet achievement expectations on state assessments. Ewert believes the district has already made some important changes but that they aren’t sufficient to the needs of the students.

“We have seen some small successes and we’re proud of that, but we’re really clear within the system that we aren’t moving quickly enough,” said Ewert.

New campus, new rules

Despite the challenges the district and Generation Schools face, change will have to come at a fairly rapid pace. In addition to the constraints of the district’s improvement plan, a bond and mill levy passed last year funded the construction of a brand-new campus for the district’s high school and two middle schools. The district plans to time the academic overhaul with the move to the new campus, which will open in winter 2014.

This presents a unique challenge for Generation Schools.

“This is the first time I know of where there’s a facilities deadline,” said Piersee.

The new building features a far more open floor plan than the old campuses as well as improved STEM facilities and space for the school’s popular new career preparation effort, a culinary training program. The district hopes these aspects will be incorporated in the new model.

“What we’re trying to do is create our climate and culture and what we want the new building to feel like,” said Mandy Braun, principal at Englewood Middle School.

Ewert agrees, saying the two pieces, building and instruction, have to compliment each other.

“The practice supports the building and the building supports the practice,” Ewert said.

A different model of change

Generation School’s partnership with the district comes on the heels of extensive talks between district leadership and a group known as “Team Phoenix.”

Team Phoenix, which is made up of principals, teachers and staff from the district’s middle and high schools, has met twice a week for over a year and a half to discuss possible changes to the district’s model. Last year, they created a list of about 80 things they wanted to see changed in the district.

“A lot of the things we were wanting were things that Generation Schools practices,” said Braun, who is also a member of Team Phoenix. Braun and her team members support the partnership with Generation Schools, as did the district’s board of education.

Ewert says the involvement of school and community members is key to his plan.

“There are two kinds of approach — and this is totally my opinion — to what people call reform,” said Ewert. “You can have boards of education and superintendents come and make a change and say ‘we are going change in a year.’ That really collapses the community of parents and teachers and students.”

Despite the apparent transformations of the past few years, Ewert believes he has taken as restrained and considered approach as possible with lots of community involvement.

“And what we’re trying to do is really thoughtful change,” said Ewert. “If you take people along a bit slower, it’s still painful but people stay involved.”

Ewert’s slow and steady approach is informed by the district’s tumultuous history prior to Ewert’s arrival in 2010.

“There were ten superintendents in ten years,” said Karen Brofft, the district’s assistant superintendent, who was hired at the same time as Ewert.

Englewood’s decision to partner with Generation has not yet been presented to the district and the community, although it’s no secret. Teachers and staff have begun to discuss its implications.

“It will be a huge adjustment for people,” said Lindsay Taylor, a drama teacher at Englewood Middle School and a member of Team Phoenix. But she says, “the parents that we’ve talk to, they’re kind of getting used to big adjustments in the classroom.”

The district and Generation Schools will start holding talks with faculty and staff in the next couple weeks to discuss the decision and any changes those stakeholders want to see. Conversations with parents and community members will start soon as well.

As far as the community response, Ewert is optimistic.

“I’ve been pretty aggressive in our timeline,” said Ewert. “So far the system’s been pretty tolerant.”

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.