(Not) back to square one

Community input, teacher voice drive overhaul at a struggling elementary school

PHOTO: Kate Schimel
Parents pick up students at Ashley Elementary School in northeast Denver.

When district officials threatened to replace the entire staff of Ashley Elementary, Donna Simms went with other parents to the school board to protest.

“The way they came in and said, ‘this is what’s happening and this is what’s going on'” angered parents, said Simms.

But unlike some situations in which the district moved ahead on its plans without community consensus, in this case the district backed down. They replaced the principal but agreed to work with the current staff and teachers to come up with a plan for the school’s principal.

That decision, Simms said, helped save the school, which has over 95 percent of students below the poverty line and has struggled with low performance for years.

“Had we not spoken up, I think a lot of the families that have been with the school for years and years would have left,” said Simms. “We agreed as a community to stay for this year to see what’s happening and see if what they said was going to happen really did happen.”

The result is a plan that would give the school what is known as a innovation status, meaning it is freed from a number of district mandates. The plan, which observers say is unusual in the amount of community input that shaped it, includes cutting class sizes, incorporating technology and adding time for non-core subjects.

It received the go-ahead from the state board Tuesday morning and has garnered praise even from critics of Denver’s innovation schools process.

The full plan, clocking in at over 160 pages, is available here.

Innovation schools

Denver’s innovation schools have proved to be controversial, with critics saying that the plans schools submit often lack rigor or specificity and often fail to produce results. But Ashley’s plan has garnered praise even from those critics.

“Their’s was the only proposal that seem to have buy-in and be substantive in some way,” said Van Schoales, who heads education advocacy group A+ Denver. “A lot of these proposals are superficial. You can tell they’re going through the motions, that they haven’t had conversations with their staff about how they want the school to get better.”

A recent report produced by A+ Denver, CU-Denver and local unions showed that innovation schools produce mixed results, often failing to outperform similar traditional schools and falling below state averages.

Schoales says that’s because of the relative lack of scrutiny in the innovation schools process.

“Almost everyone gets innovation status,” said Van Schoales. In fact, a 2013 lawsuit alleged that Denver’s school board inappropriately approved innovation plans for two new schools, which were not allowed for under the 2008 innovation schools law.

Innovation schools should be required to submit a comprehensive vision for their school, says Schoales.

“If the proposal was a disaster, then [the school’s] probably going to be a disaster,” he said.

How to have a conversation

District officials, school leaders and community members agree that the decision to have the school community lead the transformation is part of the reason for how strong Ashley’s plan is.

“That was a brilliant idea,” said Jennifer Keel, Ashley’s parent liaison who has been with the school for 30 years. “We were able to take our strengths from the past and bridge them into our goals and our aspirations for the future.”

It’s an example of a successful outreach strategy in a district that in other cases has been accused of alienating parents, teachers and community members.

At Ashley, parents and teachers were initially suspicious of the process, believing the district would go ahead with predetermined plans. But the principal’s openness to their ideas brought them around.

“I was one of those that was very, very, very hesitant,” said Simms. She participated in the principal selection process and in the subsequent school design.

For one, the candidate the district selected, current principal Zachary Rahn, raised red flags for Simms.

“We had a feeling that because he came through the DPS system and the DPS training, we were going to get cut under the table,” said Simms. Rahn arrived in the district as a Teach for America teacher and went through a district principal training program last year.

Instead, she said, “he’s been receptive to the input of the staff and the community. He has been upholding what he said he would do and what we wanted to see in the building.”

Innovation status as an afterthought

Paradoxically, the strength of the plan may come from the fact that it was an afterthought, rather than the end goal of the process.

Starting at the end of last spring, the district convened a committee including Rahn, the school’s teachers and a group of parents to begin discussions about what the school should look like.

“The question that we opened it with was, ‘what does your dream school look like?'” said Rahn. “Innovation was never a thought until after.”

Instead, becoming an innovation school was a tool for doing what the community wanted.

“If this is what we want to do, [innovation] is the way to do it,” said Rahn.

The committee also had plenty of time to complete their work, a component district officials say was crucial to having a successful process.

“They started last winter and didn’t finish until September and October,” said Joe Amundsen, a senior manager of innovation schools for the district. He worked with the committee on the school’s design. “Our hope that is schools do go through the similar process of starting in the spring and working over the summer and putting together the plan in the fall.”

He said two other schools going through a similar process, Isabella Bird Community School and the Oakland elementary campus, are on a similar timeline.

Let’s try that again

For many schools, improving means replacing the entire staff and starting at zero. That’s what happened last time Ashley faced an overhaul, in the 1990s.

Keel, who was at the school at the time, said that the staff was called to an emergency meeting and told they would have to reapply. At the time, she thought it was hard on the school but the intense conversations of the past year have made her wonder if that approach was simpler.

“Going through it twice makes me see how important it is to start all over,” said Keel.

With Ashley’s less drastic approach, both Keel and Rahn say they expect the outcome will be the same, with large-scale turnover of the teaching staff. But the timeline will be more gradual, giving people time adjust to the new way of doing things.

“Change is hard for adults,” Rahn said.

The slower process means many teachers have decided for themselves that the school’s new direction won’t work for them, rather than being fired or pushed out.

“There’s a chunk of people who voted for the plan who think it’s right for the school but for themselves it wasn’t right,” said Rahn.

Rahn says the key was to balance making big picture changes with easing community fears.

“Turnaround fails because change is incremental” said Rahn, a message he drove home for teachers starting at the first committee meeting. On the other hand, he understands why school closings and mass firings can be hard on school communities.

For him, it’s still an open question of whether this approach will work.

“Will we get the same results without getting blown up?” said Rahn, but he’s hopeful. “We’re bound to prove the stats wrong.”

Overhaul Efforts

The entire staffs at two troubled New York City high schools must reapply for their jobs

Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke in 2015 with Automotive High School Principal Caterina Lafergola, who later left the school. Automotive is one of eight schools where teachers have had to reapply for their jobs in recent years.Now, teachers at two more schools will have to do the same. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

In a bid to jumpstart stalled turnaround efforts, the entire staffs at two troubled high schools will have to reapply for their jobs — an aggressive intervention that in the past has resulted in major staff shake-ups.

The teachers, guidance counselors, social workers and paraprofessionals at Flushing High School in Queens and DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx will have to re-interview for their positions beginning next spring, education department officials said Thursday, the same day that staffers learned of the plan. Meanwhile, Flushing Principal Tyee Chin, who has clashed bitterly with teachers there, has been ousted; his replacement will take over Friday, officials said. (DeWitt Clinton’s principal will stay on.)

Both schools are part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature “Renewal” program for low-performing schools, but have struggled to hit their improvement targets. They are also under state pressure to make significant gains or face consequences, leading to speculation that the rehiring is meant partly to buy the city more time before the state intervenes. (Last year, Flushing was the only school out of two-dozen on a state list of low-achieving city schools not to meet its turnaround goals.)

“Having a strong leader and the right team of teachers is essential to a successful school,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement, “and this re-staffing process is the necessary next step in the work to turnaround these schools.”

The staffing change stems from an agreement between the de Blasio administration and the city teachers union, who have agreed to the same process for eight other schools since 2014. Among the six schools that went through the process last year, nearly half of the staff members left — either because they were not rehired or they chose not to reapply.

As part of the deal, hiring decisions will be made by committees at each school comprised of the principals and an equal number of union and city appointees. Unlike when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to overhaul bottom-ranked schools by replacing their principals and at least half of their teachers, these committees can choose to hire as many or as few of the current teachers as they choose.

In the past, the city has placed teachers who were not retained through the rehiring process in other schools — a move that drew criticism for overriding principals’ authority to choose their own staffs. City officials would not provide details about the arrangement for Flushing or Clinton other than to say that the education department would help teachers who left the schools find new placements.

The education department “will work with each teacher to ensure they have a year-long position at a school next year,” spokesman Michael Aciman said in an email.

Both high schools have already endured a destabilizing amount of turnover: Since 2013, more than half the teachers at both schools have left, according to the teachers union. And Flushing’s incoming principal, Ignazio Accardi, an official in the department’s Renewal office, is the sixth in six years.

The school’s outgoing principal, Tyee Chin, had a brief and troubled tenure.

Last year — his first on the job — he wrote a letter to his staff describing a toxic environment that he called “the Hunger Games for principals,” where he said some teachers keep up a “war cry” for a new leader. Meanwhile, the teachers union lodged a discrimination complaint against Chin with a state board, alleging that he threatened to press “racism and harassment” charges against the school’s union representative simply for carrying out her duties, said United Federation of Teachers Vice President of High Schools Janella Hinds.

“Principal Chin came in with an attitude that wasn’t collaborative or supportive,” Hinds said. “We’re dealing with a school community that has had a long list of principals who were not collaborative.”

Chin’s departure comes after DeWitt Clinton’s previous principal, Santiago Taveras, who also sparred with teachers, was removed last year after city investigators found he had changed student grades. He was replaced by Pierre Orbe, who will remain in his position.

The education department will host recruitment events during the spring and summer to bring in teacher applicants, who will be screened by the schools’ staffing committees, officials said.

However, it may be difficult to find seasoned teachers willing to take on such tough assignments.

When the teachers at Brooklyn’s long-struggling Automotive High School were forced to reapply for their jobs in 2015, the majority left. Many of their replacements were rookies, said then-principal Caterina Lafergola.

“Many of the schools that are going through the rehiring have a stigma attached to them,” she said last year. “It’s very hard to recruit strong candidates.”

Not long after, Lafergola left the school, too.

Future of Schools

For Indianapolis principals hoping to improve, one program says practice makes perfect

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A kindergarten student reaches for crayons during a lesson at Global Prep Academy.

Mariama Carson has spent 20 years as an educator, first as a teacher and now as principal of Global Prep Academy. But in all that time, she never found training that prepared her as well as what she learned over two weeks last summer.

Carson, along with 23 other Indianapolis school leaders, was chosen to be a fellow in a principal training program through the Relay Graduate School of Education. Almost immediately, she noticed a big difference from previous coaching she’d had: They practiced everything.

How do you teach kids the right way to walk in the hallway? They practiced it. How do you let a teacher know she’s struggling? They practiced it. What are the precise words to use in an evaluation? More practice.

“The commitment to practice is what has been so different,” Carson said. “Whatever we learn in Relay … it’s not just something someone has told you about. You’ve practiced it. You’ve lived it.”

Relay, a six-year-old New York-based organization, was founded by a cadre of leaders from high-performing charter school networks. Practice, role-playing and applied learning are at the center of their work with educators, which for five years has included a year-long principal fellowship.

In the 2016-17 school year, Relay trained about 400 school leaders in the United States. Fellows from Indianapolis were chosen and sponsored by The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit. Joe White, who directs The Mind Trust’s school support initiatives, said he was happy with the response during the last round of applications. The next cohort, whose members will be announced this month, will be larger and contain more Indianapolis Public School educators, as well as charter school principals, he said.

The Mind Trust wants to make the training “available to as many new operators as possible to continue expanding this work across the city,” White said. “We think that this is the way that we create sustainable schools that will provide high-quality results and outcomes for kids for a very long time.”

Two principals in the midst of the program told Chalkbeat that the fellowship is already changing the culture and efficiency of their schools. The principals spent the fellowship’s two-week summer training session in Denver learning how to best collect and analyze student data, give feedback to teachers and create a school building that runs smoothly.

“The practice and critical feedback we got was unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” said Mariama Carson, a principal at Global Prep Academy, which is housed in the IPS Riverside 44 building. “Usually as a principal, you don’t get that kind of feedback.”

But Relay, which also has teacher training programs, has its share of critics. Kenneth Zeichner, a researcher and professor at the University of Washington, analyzed non-university-affiliated teacher training programs, including Relay’s. Although he hasn’t looked into the principal program specifically, he said he is troubled that the teacher training curriculum emphasizes using test scores to gauge results at the expense of a more well-rounded assessment of students, who many times are coming from families living in poverty.

He also worries Relay as a whole is too focused on fast growth, rather than on proving its methods work. There have been no independent studies done on whether Relay produces better teachers than other alternative or university programs, Zeichner said, although one is underway.

“My concern about Relay is not that they exist,” Zeichner said. “If you’re going to measure the quality of a teacher education program — of any program — the independent vetting, or review, of claims about evidence (is) a baseline minimum condition.”

Chalkbeat spoke with Carson and Bakari Posey, principal at IPS School 43. The two just completed their second of several training sessions, which will continue through the rest of the school year.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What made you want to be part of the fellowship?

Carson: The job of a principal is so lonely. To have the opportunity to work with high-quality, hard-working principals across the country is always inviting.

Posey: I wanted to make sure that I was able to appropriately and efficiently and effectively develop the people on our team. That’s what really drew me in. It’s shaped my thinking and sharpened my lens as a leader and what I’m looking for in classrooms.

What have you learned so far that you’re implementing in your school?

Carson: It’s been transformative in how our building is run just on the cultural side. Relay has really helped us understand that especially with adult learners, you have to start with the “why.” And then we model, and the teachers (in my school) play the position as students. We go into full acting mode, and then the teachers execute that practice. For two weeks before the kids even showed up, that’s what our teachers were doing. Normally, I’d hand my teachers a packet of procedures and expectations, but we never practiced.

Posey: We’ve started to implement already … around coaching teachers — how we give that feedback and give teachers bite-sized action steps to work on instead of making a list of 12 things to do at once. If you do one thing better every single day, then you get better overall. Something else that’s big for me is student work exemplars — actually having an example of excellence for student work that the teacher creates and uses to guide feedback. Overall it’s just kind of helped to organize my thinking as a school leader and really kind of give you a little bit of a road map towards student growth and overall school success. It’s the best professional development I’ve ever been a part of.

How have teachers back in your schools responded to the changes you have introduced, including suggestions on improving instruction, evaluations, etc.?

Carson: Teachers have been responding well, and they’re getting used to this culture, a culture of practice. Even in our feedback sessions where we’re coaching teachers, it’s “OK, execute the lesson — I’ll be the student, you be the teacher.”

Posey: They’ve been receptive. It’s not coming from a place of “gotcha” or I’m trying to make you look really bad. It’s really coming from a place of really getting better for our students to really give them the best, which is what they deserve.