Opposite Directions

Charter network moves from hand-crafted to more centralized curriculum

STRIVE Prep Excel, in foreground, and North High School, in background.

As Denver Public Schools makes plans to allow schools to choose their own curriculum and materials, at least one Denver charter school network is moving in the opposite direction.

STRIVE Preparatory Schools, a charter network with nine schools in Denver, has traditionally relied on teachers to create their own resources for everything from the scope and sequences that define the year’s coursework to individual lessons. Some teachers might not have drawn from traditional textbooks or resources at all.

But as the network has grown from one school in 2006 to the current nine, and as its schools have started to implement the Common Core State Standards, STRIVE is creating a set of “Core Curricular Resources” for all of its teachers.

The idea behind the old approach of using hand-crafted curriculum is that teachers should have as much autonomy in their classrooms as possible, said Joshua Smith, the network’s chief schools officer. “We provide them with exemplars, best practices, existing or purchased curricula they can start with,” he said. “But by and large, we rely on teachers to build their own curricula.”

That’s not uncommon in the charter world. The other large network of charter schools in Denver, DSST, also relies on teachers to create units and lessons, which are then often shared among teachers.

But it’s a different approach than some districts, including DPS, have traditionally taken: Adopting a set of textbooks and, increasingly, online materials, and outlining the scope and sequence of the year’s lessons for many courses in most schools.

Smith said as STRIVE has grown, however, the network has decided it makes sense to provide teachers with more standardized templates and resources.

“We feel like we’re very much centralizing and saying, here’s our approach to close reading, here’s our vision for how this works,” Smith said.

STRIVE is not unique, according to Alex Medler, the Vice President of Policy and Analysis for the National Association Charter School Authorizers. He said that more charter schools are part of networks and more of those networks are setting defined curricula than in years past.

At STRIVE, there are a few reasons for the timing of the shift. The network saw a drop in test scores at schools last year. Smith said more consistency and structures are part of an effort to address that drop.

It’s also part of an effort to make teachers’ workloads sustainable and to improve quality control.

“It seemed silly to have everyone creating things from scratch,” Smith said. “We want to have a common vision of what should be happening in the classroom.”

Smith said creating Common Core-aligned lessons is more challenging than what teachers have had to do in the past.

“There’s a level of critical thinking, a level of rigor, and a level of being able to dive deep into complex text that’s harder and more time-consuming,” Smith said.

STRIVE’s teachers are currently provided with materials from EngageNY and College Preparatory Math, both of which are advertised as aligned with the Common Core. DPS plans to use EngageNY for literacy in some grades starting next year.

At a meeting on Monday where DPS board members decided that schools should have the ability to choose their own curriculum, board members suggested that schools might even contract with a group like STRIVE, which has had several years of strong academic results, to use their curriculum.

But Smith said the switch to a more established curriculum is still a “work in progress” STRIVE has been moving toward over the course of a few years.

Smith said that the network’s plan is to have teacher leaders who are paid a stipend outline units, weekly schedules, and even sample lessons for others who teach their same course, starting in 2015-16. He said teachers would still have the ultimate control over their planning.

Smith said that regardless of the resources, “teachers have to be bought into what they’re teaching, and curriculum is just a bunch of words on paper if there’s not a deep understanding of what the choices are and why it’s designed the way it was.”

“Anyone can print a lesson or a unit off the internet. But you can’t print it, read it, and expect it to lead to student learning,” he said.

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.