words of wonder

At academically-challenged schools in Jeffco, a push for stronger vocabulary skills

EDGEWATER — Along with standard worksheets with equations to solve, Ali Goecks’s math students this fall will be given a list of terms like “integer” and “product” to master.

Her students at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, most of whom are Latino and come from low-income homes, will be required to use those sophisticated terms to explain their work in class discussions and homework. Lesser synonyms like “number” and “answer” won’t work.

At a cluster of academically lower-performing schools getting renewed attention in Jefferson County, teachers are expanding efforts to boost the academic vocabulary of their students.

The goal: to improve their chances to perform well on new standardized tests that emphasize critical thinking and prepare them for tougher courses to come.

“By focusing on the language behind math and the meaning of these words, students can focus on the purpose of math,” Goecks said. “They can understand the ‘why.’ It’s not just memorization. It’s something more.”

The challenge of incorporating higher-level language skills is a new test for a historically middle-class suburban school district adapting to a changing student population.

The predominantly Latino and low-income students who attend the schools just west of the Denver city limits, are likely to begin their educations knowing fewer words than their more affluent and white peers in the school district. The fear is that without consistent learning and reinforcement from teachers, the vocabulary gap will only widen by graduation.

“In general, students in this area don’t come from language-rich environments,” said Robin Techmanski, a Jeffco Public Schools achievement director who oversees schools in Edgewater, home to three of the four schools.

Why ‘academic language’ is important

Too often students with limited vocabulary underperform on classroom assignments and critical standardized tests, said Moker Klaus-Quinlan, a senior director of education at the Public Education and Business Coalition, a Denver-based teacher training nonprofit.

“They won’t realize what they’re being asked to do,” Klaus-Quinlan said. “So what it looks like they can do on an assessment is not actually reflective of their ability.”

The results can provide teachers, principals and state officials with inaccurate information that can compromise the entire system. Students may be placed in the wrong classrooms or may act out, frustrated with communication barriers.

“When anxiety goes up, the learning goes down,” said John Ramo, CEO of the Colorado-based Digital Directions International, a software firm that has created math curriculum for English language learners.

On the other hand, Ramo said, if students get a handle on more complex language, not only will it be an ego boost, they’ll be able to use that knowledge regardless of what class they’re in.

“Having the ability to understand a concept improves self-efficacy as well,” Ramo said. “This language will help transfer learning skills to other domains.”

More than one classroom

Providing students with an elevated vocabulary is one of several efforts to boost student learning at the cluster of four Jefferson County schools. Teachers from the schools, which have bounced on and off the state’s accountability watch list for poor academic performance, met last week to network and brainstorm teaching strategies for the year.

Ideas included covering walls with a wide range of higher-level words to daily vocabulary lessons in every subject.

“It can’t just be in one classroom,” one teacher said during the meeting.

That won’t be the case, district officials said.

A committee of parents, teachers, and administrators from all four schools will meet to develop one set of goals for the area.

Teams of teachers will use student testing data to refine strategies throughout the year.

Teachers will spend more time monitoring other teachers with proven track records of boosting student achievement.

And teachers will also receive more training days than their district peers.

“We can do this better if we do it together,” said Goecks, the math teacher. “It’s a little less daunting when you know you have a community to support you in this.”

Assumptions and turnover

On paper, 43 percent of students who attend a school in Edgewater are learning English as a second language. But the number of students who need more help in developing their vocabulary is probably much greater, which teachers must be aware of, said Klaus-Quinlan.

“We want to be conscious of the language we expect students to use and teach that explicitly,” Klaus-Quinlan.

She said it’s appropriate for teachers to use common language with students at first to establish understanding. But then they never move students forward with more sophisticated terms.

“That’s robbing the students of the ability to have academic conversations,” she said.

Higher teacher turnover at the four Jeffco schools is another obstacle to the effort. Crucial training, like the week’s worth in August, must be replicated each year.

“We need to explicitly identify the mindset and key characteristics of teachers who want to be here,” said Karen Quanbeck, a Jeffco achievement director who oversees the schools in Edgewater.

Update: This article has been updated to clarify the name of the Public Education and Business Coalition. 

Big money

Chunk of $55 million AbbVie gift will go toward more counselors in schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of Communities in Schools
Counselors in Schools site coordinator Artesha Williams and student Nasje Adams at the King Academy of Social Justice in Chicago

Sixteen more Chicago schools will add full-time counselors charged with reducing dropouts and helping students with critical mental health issues, thanks to a chunk of a $55 million donation gift from a North Chicago pharmaceutical giant.

The AbbVie donation, announced Friday, will be split among three nonprofit groups with a Chicago presence, though not all the money will be spent here. Communities in Schools will receive $30 million for its national efforts to broker relationships between community organizations and schools; the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which focuses on dropout prevention and college persistence, will receive $15 million; and City Year, which places AmeriCorps tutors and mentors in schools, will receive $10 million.

Communities in Schools, which received the largest gift, will spend $6 million of its $30 million on its Chicago chapter, while the City Year money will be split among Chicago and a project in San Jose, California.

Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools Chicago, said the $6 million is “transformational” and will be spent on a program that assigns full-time, master’s-level counselors to public schools on the South and West sides.

The AbbVie gift will grow a program that currently places full-time counselors in 15 Chicago schools, adding five schools this year and another 11 next fall.

“In each school, they case manage the 50 highest-need students who are at risk of falling behind and dropping out,” said Mentzinger. “They really work with students is to help resolve conflict, regulate emotions, and provide exposure opportunities, from support and mentoring to counseling.”  

The counselor piece helps fill a dire need within Chicago’s schools: mental health and trauma services. Students, educators, parents, and union leaders regularly lament that the district does not staff enough counselors and mental health practitioners, and that recent efforts have been too focused on college and career-readiness — including helping students draft a post-secondary plan. Starting with the Class of 2020, seniors must produce such a plan to graduate, a controversial idea championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In July, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that the district would hire some 250 new social workers and special education case managers for schools.

Mentzinger said the value of sending in counselors who are employed by an outside agency, and not by the district, is that they have fewer administrative duties and so can cast a “wider net” among master’s degree candidates who might have non-traditional degrees such as art therapy or dance. “The level of need of our kids — we need to have more layers, more layers of work.”

A recent Steinmetz High School graduate, Emily Jade Aguilar, told Chalkbeat on Election Day that she was knocking on doors to get out the vote. Aguilar, who identifies as a trans woman, said the biggest issue driving her activism was mental health for students. “We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, whose school had four counselors for 1,200 students last year.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students — fewer than in many other large cities. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students. In schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

In addition to providing counselors, Communities in Schools brokers relationships between nonprofit organizations and 160 schools to provide art and enrichment, mental health services, health care and college and career readiness programming.

snow fallout

From stalled buses to canceled programs, New York City schools are bearing brunt of snow storm

PHOTO: Guillermo Murcia / Getty Images
A school bus on Dekalb avenue in Fort Greene Brooklyn during a snow storm.

Parents, students, and teachers are dealing with the fallout of Thursday’s snowstorm, which stranded yellow buses for hours, created brutal commutes, and forced teachers to stay late for parent conferences.

Just before 9 a.m. Friday, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced all after-school programs would be cancelled, sending families scrambling to make arrangements. And perhaps anticipating yet another wave of yellow-bus related problems, all field trips involving buses were also cancelled.

Some parents and educators took to social media to vent about the city’s response.

Emergency responders were dispatched to free five children with special needs who had been trapped on a school bus for 10 hours, according to City Councilman Ben Kallos. Traveling from Manhattan to the Bronx, students didn’t make it home until “well after midnight,” Kallos said in a statement. The councilman has sponsored legislation to require GPS tracking on yellow buses after the school year began with horror stories about long, circuitous routes. Many riders are children with special needs who travel to programs outside their neighborhoods.

The education department did not immediately respond to questions about the timing of their decision to cancel after-school programs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would conduct a”full operational review of what happened,” referring to the city’s response to the storm. “We have to figure out how to make adjustments when we have only a few hours but this was—I hate to use this hackneyed phrase—but this was kind of a perfect storm: late information, right up on rush hour, and then a particularly fast, heavy kind of snow.”

The politics of snow-related closures are challenging, forcing city leaders to balance concerns about safety with the needs of working families, who may struggle to make arrangements for emergency childcare.

Snow-day related cancellations have bedeviled previous chancellors; in one famous incident, former Chancellor Carmen Fariña and de Blasio kept schools open despite a forecast of 10 inches of snow. The next day, Fariña proclaimed it was “a beautiful day.”

Still, the de Blasio administration is much more likely to cancel school in response to snow than his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.

Christina Veiga contributed.