moving forward

George Washington High prepares for more open IB

The recommendations call for George Washington High to get $6.7 million for upgrades or renovations.

After three decades of housing two distinct programs and a year filled with concerns and compromise, George Washington High School, one of Denver’s comprehensive high schools, is preparing for its first school year as “One George.”

Starting in 2015-16, the school will house a redesigned academic program aimed at expanding access to the school’s International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, which over the years has been notably more academically successful — and notably less racially and socio-economically diverse — than the rest of the school.

The “One George” plan also aims to improve the quality and sequencing of the school’s Advanced Placement and standard classes.

Starting this fall, incoming freshmen will decide whether to enroll in the two-year IB Diploma Program in the spring before 11th grade. Until now, prospective students have applied for the school-designed pre-IB program as incoming freshmen, and only those who successfully passed pre-IB have been allowed to enter the Diploma Program.

“There was a sense that starting the cohort in 9th grade seemed to close the program for some kids. It felt like they were already behind, had already lost out,” said Melanie Bryant, who will direct the IB program at the school next year. “This gives them opportunities along the way.”

Whether the changes will genuinely alter the composition and quality of IB program or the academic performance of students throughout the school remains to be seen.

The school will have three “Patriot Pathways:” IB, Advanced Placement, and college preparatory programming. In freshman year, students interested in all three pathways will be able to take a mix of classes that are designated as pre-IB, honors, and standard.

The new flexibility in 9th and 10th grade programs is aimed at broadening the path to IB. But students vying for the IB diploma are still being strongly encouraged to take pre-IB and honors classes.

The IB program itself remains exclusively a diploma program, which means students must enroll in an entire suite of IB courses junior and senior years and can’t earn certificates for individual IB classes. Many high schools across the country allow students to pursue individual IB course certificates.

Compromise seemed unlikely

That a compromise that genuinely altered the selective programs would be reached at all seemed unlikely less than a year ago. When district officials and the school’s then-principal Micheal Johnson announced plans to open up access to IB last spring, alumni, parents, and community members were furious. They said DPS wasn’t listening to community concerns.

But after a series of meetings and planning sessions throughout the summer, fall and winter, passions have cooled, and the school is moving forward with plans for a redesigned program with cautious optimism.

“Obviously it was rocky. And I wish it hadn’t been,” said DPS board member Mike Johnson. “But, while we haven’t docked the ship yet, we’ve kept it from sinking.”

The “docking” has been accompanied by some significant changes in personnel. Former IB Director Suzanne Geimer, who opposed a series of district attempts to open up the IB program over the years, is retiring after more than 30 years. A number of teachers have left the school. Bryant, a former IB teacher and district peer observer, is currently acting as co-director and will take the reins this summer.

Jose Martinez, brought in as an interim principal for the 2014-15 school year after Johnson was removed, will remain in his post next year. Many parents, students, and staff credit Martinez with bringing much-needed stability to the school after a rocky introduction of the plans for change.

Parents’ fears have not been entirely ameliorated. “I remain troubled by a certain view coming from the DPS administration that does not acknowledge the success of the IB program,” said GW alumnus and parent Steve Weil. Weil said he is concerned that the district is not committed to its selective programs, which he said are necessary to meet the needs of some students.

But, Weil said, “after everyone calmed down, I think we realized there was a cultural divide that needed to be addressed at GW. The other fact was, you have the IB program, which is excellent and doing well. Why not try to expand it? I think it’s a brilliant compromise.”

Over the course of the fall and winter, task forces of staff and community organized by school and district leadership developed proposals for school culture, implementing the DPS’s teacher leadership program, the three pathways, and student-centered learning.

How it will work

A committee that consisted mostly of teachers developed a plan to address the main logistical challenge: How students can move through 9th and 10th grade classes in different ways to be prepared for IB, Advanced Placement, or college preparatory programming. [Read the One George Action Plan released in January to see pathways and requirements.]

Next year’s freshmen will start school in August with a new orientation program, during which they’ll consider which of the three pathways they’re interested in following. The school is also starting an advisory program that will connect students with a teacher with whom they will regularly consult about their academic and personal goals.

Students will still have to qualify academically to enroll in the IB program as juniors by having on-grade-level standardized test scores and above-average grades.

But for the first time, students can technically take a mix of classes before then and still be considered for IB. Non-GW students will also be considered for admission at the end of their 10th grade year.

A document outlining the changes at the school says that “our intention is to look holistically at each student’s preparation for success.” But, it says, “we will not enroll students in Honors/PB [Pre-IB] courses who, in considering the totality of the qualifications above, are unprepared to be successful.”

Teacher Michelle Rosen, who teaches both pre-IB and standard classes, said teachers had been concerned about the changes when they were first proposed. “It was hard to take it all in, and no one wants those programs to be lost.”

But Rosen said she is optimistic about the bridging effect of the changes. “Students in all my classes are phenomenal, and I want them to talk to each other.”

Leveling the playing field

Principal Martinez said by creating chances for students who might not previously have opted into or qualified for the full pre-IB program to take some Pre-IB classes in 9th and 10th grades, “it creates that ability for someone to experience what it’s like to be in what’s typically been a program that’s not for me.”

“We’re looking for ways to level the playing field for our students,” he said. “A person’s ability to move about a community has an impact, poverty has an impact, race has an impact.” George Washington’s IB program was noted in a report for this fall for its success in sending low-income students to college.

Martinez said the school is also investing in professional development for all its teachers and is focusing on making sure that students who are not in IB are also getting a quality education. “It’s clear we need to improve the quality of instruction.”

The school is requesting funds to train its teachers in AP and IB. It also plans to standardize syllabi and curriculum in its AP and college preparatory classes to make sure that they’re solid and consistent.

Martinez said bolstering the quality of those programs will also allow students who decide IB is not their path to feel confident in their academic future.

Martinez said he has also been focused on building a school culture that includes all students this year, by creating events where all students interact.

“In this school for probably over a decade, we haven’t really attended to school culture,” Martinez said. “We weren’t talking about ethnicity, race, class, about what we do in a comprehensive high school with a diverse population to make everyone feel welcome.”

The One George Action Plan includes recommendations to have events that recognize student and staff accomplishments and “break down barriers” between students.

This year’s school choice application in Denver reflected the upcoming changes: While the application previously differentiated between IB and non-IB, this year students could only select George Washington.

Some parents and school staff feared the application would lead some people to believe that the IB program no longer exists.

But numbers from this year’s round of school choice don’t show a dramatic decline. In 2014-15, 316 students were accepted into the regular program and 151 to the IB program. In 2015-16, 455 students applied for the school’s freshmen class.

It remains to be seen just how many students enroll in each of the three pathways. The school reached out to students individually to gauge whether they were interested in IB in order to help plan for the fall.

Martinez said it is important that students be able to choose their desired program and that all of the school’s classes be of high quality. “This schedule is built as a choice of studies. We don’t track students and say you’re relegated to this pathway. We say, what would you like to study?”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.