What one Denver turnaround school principal learned during his ‘Year Zero’

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Jesse Tang is the new principal at Denver's Schmitt Elementary.

Jesse Tang and his crew walked through the grass surrounding the playground last week at an affordable housing complex in southwest Denver. Dressed in blue slacks and a button-down shirt, his Denver Public Schools badge dangling near his hip, Tang helped plunk down several cardboard boxes on a blue picnic table as the kids began to gather.

Inside the boxes were hot dogs, sweet potato fries, juice boxes and little cups of mandarin oranges.

“Javi!” Tang called to a boy he knows from Schmitt Elementary, where he’s set to begin his first official year as principal in August. “Javier! Do you want a hot dog?”

He did. So did more than 15 other kids who converged on the picnic in bare feet, pajamas, shorts and neon T-shirts, some of the older ones leading younger ones and helping them squeeze ketchup and pierce the foil on their juice boxes.

For the past year, Tang has been preparing to take over as principal of Schmitt Elementary, a struggling school a couple blocks away where 95 percent of the 400 students are minorities and 97 percent qualify for federally subsidized lunches, an indicator of poverty. On state tests last year, just 12 percent met or exceeded expectations in reading and 8 percent did in math.

While an interim principal handled the day-to-day operations of the school, Tang got to know Schmitt, soliciting opinions about how to improve academic performance and crafting a plan.

It’s a strategy DPS calls Year Zero — and the district is hoping it makes the gargantuan task of school “turnaround” more doable, achievable and sustainable. This past year, DPS deployed the approach at three elementary schools: Schmitt, Goldrick and Harrington.

“We’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to digest the lessons we’ve learned from turnaround efforts so far,” Susana Cordova, DPS’s acting superintendent, told Chalkbeat shortly after Tang began his work at Schmitt in June 2015. “One of the things we saw that made the biggest difference was the quality of the plan that’s created, the ownership of that plan by a leader, and the ability of the community to have a voice in the process.”

We sat down with Tang — who grew up the son of immigrants in California, taught in Chicago, helped found a school in New York City and attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education — to ask him about his Year Zero experience.

Here are six questions and answers from our interview that provide insight into how Tang spent the past year and what he learned. They have been edited for clarity and length.

When you came in, what was your directive? What was your goal?

I think the goal of my first couple of months was to build relationships. And to learn as much about the community and the school as I possibly could.

And so initially, I was just present at the school, walking around, introducing myself, asking questions, listening, inviting people to come in and share more.

One of the first things you did was set up a school redesign committee of six family members and six staff members. You also held forums with the broader community. What did you learn about Schmitt in your Year Zero?

I’ve learned a lot about the community that we serve. … The neighborhood itself has gone through a lot of change. Informal relationships are very, very important. And so members know each other through many different ways, through years of history with each other. And that very much leads to our identity as a school being very community-based but also helps me think about the school beyond the walls of our building.

I’ve also learned that with increasing expectations around student achievement outcomes, we’ve got to invest in the support of our teachers and in their ongoing learning and development. … They’re going to be the secret to our success because they work with our students every single day.

The last thing I’ve learned about Schmitt is, because of the history that’s here, people’s biggest fears are that we were going to lose some of the things that made us special to begin with. … Year Zero helped me hold that tension of, change is necessary but you can be a part of it and you can help guide it and it’s not going to forget or throw out the special things about our school.

What are some of those things?

There are some community events, such as a fall festival, a fifth-grade trip to Mesa Verde. There are certain pictures in the hallway of former teachers who have passed on. Those things mean a lot to the generations of people who were here before. …

Digging beyond the surface of that event or that picture, I keep coming back to community. …

Many staff members have children who go to Schmitt or went to Schmitt themselves or grew up in this neighborhood. … To be honest, we talked about some of the drop in enrollment that came when we were announced as a turnaround school … We also have so many families who have made the decision to continue to come here because this place means something to them. And they’d rather be here and be a part of the change than leave and go somewhere else. …

That’s evident when you walk the hallways: people know each other, people care about each other, people look out for other people’s kids. … That is what I sensed when I came here and I had that kind of ‘diamond in the rough moment.’

There’s a sense of community here that if we can harness its power, if we can realize that potential, could be a huge resource to draw from in doing this work.

How much time did you spend at the school this past year?

It varied throughout the school year and increased as the year went on. At the beginning of the year, I spent about half my time on-site, engaging families, running redesign meetings, just building relationships. And then about half the time in the beginning part of the year, I was off-site doing turnaround professional development. …

Once January came and it was the spring semester, I spent much more than 50 percent of my time here. It was an opportunity for me just to continue to see how the school was running, to get an idea of what changes need to be made. We also then shifted into the recruitment and hiring season for this upcoming school year.

You also did dozens of home visits to get to know students and their families. Is there a story from one of those visits that has stuck with you?

Yeah, there are two.

We visited (one family) before last year’s school year began. This was a family for whom we might have traditionally negative ideas of how they engaged in school or how the children behaved.

And the fact that the first time I met the family, we just went to say, ‘The school year hasn’t even begun. We’re excited for you to come back. Tell me about you, tell me about your work, tell me about your life,’ immediately impacted the kind of relationship that I was able to build with them.

And so while that same parent has expressed frustration and perhaps guardedness with other staff in the building, every single time I see Mom or Dad, I always bring it back to that visit. ‘How’s So-and-So?’ Or ‘What are you doing in this job?’ And immediately, you see a visible change from interacting with others to interacting with me. And I don’t say that because there’s anything intrinsically in me that elicits that. It’s just the basis upon which I met them.

Another one was just the other day. We visited a family and it was an impromptu visit. We were just dropping off fliers to say, ‘We’re having a picnic next week!’ And they invited us in, served us some delicious bread from their home country of Eritrea. They served us tea, and it turned into 30 minutes of just talking about their family, how and when they came to the United States, looking at baby pictures, hearing about extended family, what the kids have been doing over the summer. I learned a lot about the refugee experience and who helped their family along the way, how they ended up in Denver, how they ended up in this neighborhood.

I knew the family for a whole year. But it wasn’t until last week when I was in the home, when there wasn’t an agenda, when I wasn’t checking my email, when I wasn’t running in and out of classrooms, (that I was able) to take the time to get to know the family that way.

Given what you learned in your Year Zero, what’s your plan for Year One?

Our turnaround plan has four main shifts.

The first one is a shift in our leadership structure. We talked about needing increased family engagement and teacher development and support. My belief was that the principal-and-an-assistant-principal model was just not enough leadership support. … So what we’ve done is shifted from that model to a principal and three deans, two who will support curriculum and instruction and one who’s going to support school culture. …

The second one is a language shift — so moving from the English Language Development model that we had to the multilingual model that we have now (in which English language learners will learn English and native English speakers will learn Spanish to promote bilingualism and celebrate students who speak more than one language). In so doing, we’re also opening up more collaboration time for our general education teachers. …

The third one has to do with time. We’re extending school day by about 15 minutes, which buys us more professional development and training time. …

Our fourth shift has to do with project-based learning. It’s the one that we’re starting off and ramping up in the next two or three years. So we’re just looking at project-based learning as an additional instructional model that helps us integrate across disciplines — so how reading and math impact science and social studies and writing throughout.

Who's leaving?

63 teachers are leaving Detroit’s main district. Here’s a list of their names and former schools.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Is your child’s favorite teacher saying goodbye to the Detroit Public Schools Community District?

Last week, Detroit’s main district released the names of 63 teachers and 55 building staff members who retired or resigned by the end of June. We have a list of their names and the schools where they worked.

Rather than leave classrooms during the school year, teachers typically choose to retire or switch school districts while students are on break. This is only the first wave of departures expected this summer — one reason schools in Detroit are racing to hire certified teachers by the fall.

But for Detroit families, the teachers on this list are more than a number. Scroll down to see if an educator who made a difference in your child’s life — or your own — is leaving the district.

Teacher and staff separations in June 2018. Source: Detroit Public Schools Community District

Gifted gap

To integrate specialized high schools, are gifted programs part of the problem or the solution?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry, the first citywide gifted and talented program to join the city's diversity efforts, learn how to read a number line in Nov. 2016.

As debate has erupted in recent weeks over Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to overhaul admissions to the city’s most prestigious specialized high schools, another set of New York City schools are coming under new scrutiny: those that offer gifted and talented programs.

Much like specialized high schools, most gifted and talented programs use only a single test to determine admissions, and black and Hispanic students are starkly underrepresented. The crucial difference is that New York City’s gifted programs begin sorting students when they are as young as 4 years old, paving a reliable path to the city’s most coveted middle and high schools.

Many parents and alumni have criticized the mayor’s plan, saying integration efforts should start much earlier with gifted and talented programs. Some are even calling for a new approach to determining who is gifted.

“This is common sense: How can we compare children who have every advantage to those who are born into the world with severe disadvantages?” a group of black specialized high school alumni recently wrote in an open letter to the chancellor. “The goal should be to make sure that children in every city neighborhood have the same access to the type of education that will prepare them for admission to specialized high schools.”

Many integration advocates similarly take issue with how the city identifies children for gifted and talented programs — but their proposed solution is dramatically different. Rather than an expansion of programs or overhaul of admissions standards, some say gifted programs should be eliminated in favor of classrooms that mix students with varying academic abilities.

“We have to question: What are the educational benefits of these programs? I don’t think there is one, other than to maintain a stratified system,” said Matt Gonzales, an integration advocate who is part of a citywide coalition calling for an end to gifted programs.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who has stepped headfirst into the integration debate since arriving in New York in April, seems willing to consider changes to the gifted and talented program. In a recent report, he pinpointed gifted and talented programs as one of the challenges to “advancing equity and inclusion” in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated.

“We’re working to raise the bar for all kids,” Carranza said in a statement to Chalkbeat. “We also have to think about access and barriers to entry, and that includes whether we’re creating unnecessary barriers by tracking students at the age of 4 or 5 years old based on a single test.”

Changing the program in any significant way is sure to create outrage mirroring the controversy that now surrounds specialized high schools. Gifted and talented offerings are often seen as a way to keep middle-class families in public schools, and past attempts to change tests or criteria have led to an outcry.

Any reforms to gifted and talented in the name of equity are also likely to stir complicated arguments around race and class, much like the specialized high school debate has. A disproportionate number of gifted and specialized high school students are Asian, many of whom come from low-income families. Citywide, 16 percent of students are Asian, but they comprise 40 percent of those in gifted programs.

“True inclusion, and true equality, means no one is denied,” said Assemblyman Ron Kim, whose district includes heavily Asian neighborhoods in Queens such as Flushing. “I hope the mayor and the public don’t make the mistake of [confusing] the racially balancing of a few schools with racial equality.”

Getting into gifted

Gifted and talented programs in New York date back to the 1920s, and have long been controversial. Some states have laws requiring schools to provide accelerated classrooms for quick learners. New York does not, but gifted and talented programs proliferated under previous Mayor Michael Bloomberg, partly in an attempt to provide access to more students.

Until about 10 years ago, every school district within the city system ran its own gifted and talented programs, each with its own entry criteria. That changed under Bloomberg, who established a common admission standard based on an exam. Officials hoped — despite warnings from some quarters — that holding every student to the same bar would actually promote diversity.

Instead, gifted programs started to disappear in districts where not enough students qualified to fill a classroom.

Today, about 16,000 students citywide attend one of more than 100 gifted programs. While about 70 percent of New York City students are black and Hispanic, those students make up less than a third of enrollment in gifted programs. Specialized high schools are even less representative: only about 10 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

Typically, gifted offerings are housed in separate classrooms within a school, in some cases dividing an otherwise diverse student body along racial and economic lines. Other schools exclusively serve children who have been identified as gifted.

Most children enter gifted programs when they start kindergarten, and admission hinges on the results of a two-part standardized exam. That means many children take the test when they are about four years old. (There is one notable exception: A handful of programs in the city’s neediest districts don’t use the exam, and don’t admit students until third grade.)

As with the specialized high schools, an industry of tutors and test prep have evolved around this admissions process, as parents have learned how to angle for a limited number of spots for their children.

Bright Kids in Manhattan, for example, works with hundreds of families who hope to enroll their children in gifted and talented schools or tracks. Danielle Kelly, director of education for the center, said parents who come to them are often unhappy with their neighborhood school options.

At Bright Kids, practice for the gifted test usually starts the summer during which a child turns 3 years old. The center takes a play-based approach and eases into teaching very young children what to expect come test time: How to sit still, focus for a long period, and listen to directions given by a stranger.

“Kids will come in, they’ll be a little more unsure or hesitant going into our first session, but that does not mean they’re not capable,” Kelly said. “Just that little extra bit of exposure in this type of environment can make a huge difference for kids.”

The gifted and talented test consists of two parts and is meant to gauge verbal and nonverbal skills. To determine how well students follow directions, a child might be given a set of multiple cues, like “point to the square between the circle and the triangle,” Kelly said. There are “very early math skills” that are also evaluated, she added, such as understanding when a value is greater than, less than, or equal to another.

“It’s really not anything they may have seen in school before,” Kelly said, referring to pre-school.

Just as some say about  specialized high schools, many gifted critics say that segregation within these programs can be traced back to the single entrance exam. Rather than selecting for intelligence or ability, the test effectively screens for families who have the time, resources, and know-how to prepare their children and navigate the admissions system, said Allison Roda, a professor of education at Molloy College who has studied New York City’s gifted programs extensively. Only 34 percent of students in gifted programs come from low-income families, compared with 74 percent citywide.

“We’re not identifying gifted students,” Roda said. “We’re identifying advantaged students, based on their parents’ education levels, their income levels, their access to information and what they’ve been exposed to with preschools and test prep.”

In fact, some private schools have scrapped their entrance exams, saying that extensive prepping had made them meaningless. Roda’s research suggests that some parents of color are similarly skeptical about test prep. In conversations with 50 public school parents, Roda found that black and Hispanic families saw test prep as “gaming” the system. Having to prepare for the exam meant your child wasn’t really gifted, they explained.

On the other hand, white families saw such efforts as a mark of good parenting. For them, getting into gifted programs paved the way to an elite education.

“They saw it was putting their child on a path — the right path — for the better middle schools, and high schools, and colleges,” Roda said.

The gifted pipeline 

Specialized high school alumni recognize this pipeline of feeder schools and have latched onto it to fight against de Blasio’s plan. Advocates such as members of the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative, a group of specialized high school graduates pushing for more student diversity, say that integration efforts should start as early as possible. That means taking a critical look at selective “screened” programs such as gifted and talented, they argue, which are in short supply in some of the city’s neediest neighborhoods.

“We believe that academic talent exists in every community in the city, and we want to see the [Department of Education] take responsibility for identifying and nurturing it,” members wrote in a recent open letter to the new chancellor.

Gifted programs feed into specialized schools in a few ways. Technically the city doesn’t have gifted programs in middle schools. But some elementary schools that serve exclusively gifted children run through the eighth grade — or even high school. This creates a de facto gifted middle school, since once enrolled, families can then choose to remain (and many do). Other middle schools enjoy a reputation for being akin to gifted and talented offerings because they have strict entrance criteria, sometimes requiring a top score on their own tests.

These middle schools, in turn, feed an outsized share of their students into the specialized high schools.

At the Anderson School in Manhattan, all but one eighth-grade student took the specialized high school entrance exam this year, and 76 percent of these test-takers were offered admission. At the 30th Avenue School in northwest Queens, more than 63 percent of eighth-graders received an acceptance offer. Both schools have Gifted and Talented programs in the lower grades that are among the most selective. Students from across the city can apply, but since demand is so high, typically only those who score in the top 1 percent on the standard gifted exam are admitted.

Knowing this, alumni groups representing the specialized high schools and some elected officials say the best way to integrate the city’s selective high schools is to focus on enrolling more black and Hispanic students in gifted and talented programs at an earlier stage.

“That’s where we begin the segregation, because we’re not giving those academically talented kids the opportunity to grow,” said Samuel Adewumi, an alum of Brooklyn Technical, a specialized high school where he now teaches. He also runs a test prep company that helps students of color get into the city’s specialized high schools.  

Along with a dramatic expansion, Adewumi and other alumni say the city needs to overhaul admissions. They say the city should consider going back to an approach that resembles the old model, where bright kids in every community are offered an advanced course of study — without having to compete against a citywide norm.

“Kids who are in accelerated programs will ultimately do better than kids who are not in accelerated programs,” Adewumi said.

The city has taken some steps in that direction, opening new gifted programs in districts that had gone years without. Those programs start in third grade, and admission is based on a combination of teacher recommendations and report card grades. In those classes, 85 percent of next year’s students will be black or Hispanic, according to the education department.

Other efforts, however, have focused on expanding access to the gifted and talented test. In some of the city’s poorest districts, which also enroll the most black and Hispanic students, the number of children taking the exam is miniscule.

In District 32, for example, only 75 students took the gifted test this year, even though 700 kindergarteners were enrolled there last year. From this tiny subset of students, only seven scored high enough to earn a spot in a gifted and talented program. The district spans Bushwick and the tip of Bedford-Stuyvesant and is about 95 percent black and Hispanic.

Many elected officials, including the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, and borough presidents Eric Adams and Ruben Diaz, have called on the education department to administer the gifted test to all pre-K students. It’s an expensive tactic, but it has shown promise elsewhere: When schools in Broward County, Florida, offered universal testing, the share of black and Hispanic students identified as gifted tripled.

An alternative: scrapping gifted

Faced with such dismal numbers year after year, some integration advocates have called on the city to end gifted and talented programs entirely. They point to research that shows mixing students by academic ability generally benefits all involved (though some studies on that issue are mixed.)

What is more clear in the research: Racial and economic integration can boost critical thinking, help raise more tolerant students, and produce academic gains for students most likely to be harmed by segregation.

Armed with such findings, some integration advocates have called on the city to explicitly focus on mixing students with different academic abilities, and not just based on race or income status. That was the kind of thinking that contributed to a recent integration plan for middle schools in District 3, which spans the Upper West Side and part of Harlem. Starting next year, the district’s schools will seek to enroll a mix of students based, in part, on their report card grades and student test scores. And in District 15, which includes Park Slope and Sunset Park in Brooklyn, community members have recommended eliminating selective screening entirely from the middle school admissions process.

Some say it’s time to take a similar approach to gifted programs.

“It always goes back to: We’re separating kids,” Roda said. “Is that what we want to do, especially when our schools are segregated?”

Clarification: This story has been edited to clarify that the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative has not lobbied to keep the specialized high school exam in place.