Future of Schools

CFI School 27, Herron High School cited as models to follow

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Freshmen physics students in Rachelle Klinger's class at Herron High School experiment with forces on pieces of paper.

School 27 is a Center for Inquiry magnet school, part of a well-regarded Indianapolis Public Schools network of three schools that adapt the inquiry method of teaching science — asking students to consider a problem and experiment to try to solve it — to all subjects.

Herron High School, is a charter school that follows a “classical” education method, which aims to base learning on critical thinking skills.

The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based education reform group, today bused about 15 community leaders and others to visit both as part of an effort to promote unique Indianapolis schools that its leaders think are working.

“We need to engage the community about what’s happening in the public education system more,” said David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust. “We think we need to have a more constructive dialogue, and one way is to actually see what is happening in our best schools.”

Creating two unconventional schools

When Jamilyn Bertsch first became principal of School 27 five years ago, she remembers it as one of the lowest-performing schools in IPS. The school struggled to maintain discipline and fewer students enrolled every year. Bertsch came from School 2, an A-rated school that piloted the Center For Inquiry curriculum when it relaunched with the new design in 2000. CFI is a district-created school model credited with raising test scores at School 84 and School 2.

Bertsch’s job was to make School 27 a high-scoring CFI school, too. But it hasn’t been easy or a fast turnaround.

The biggest challenge has been building a team of teachers who believed in the CFI approach.

“CFI works because we all share the same philosophies and beliefs about how kids learn and what kinds of teachers and educators we want to be,” Bertsch said.  “So you feel that passion and that belief and that shared vision.”

The 273 students who go to School 27 face some tough obstacles. About 60 percent come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and 23 percent receive special education services, the highest percentage in the district.

So far, the test scores have been mixed. On ISTEP, just more than half of students passed both reading and math last year at 52.7 percent, the same percentage as when CFI debuted there in 2011. That’s slightly above district average, but far below the state average of 74.7 percent. But students are making gains. The state rated School 27 a C last year, up from a D the year before.

While School 27 remains a work in progress, Herron High School is an established test score success story.

Herron was just one of 14 charter schools rated an “A” grade in 2013 of more than 50 that were rated. It is also one of  four charter schools to earn an “A” for the past four years. The school also had a graduation rate of more than 94 percent for 114 seniors in 2013.

But the school, located just few minutes away from School 27 on Indianapolis’ north side, has some advantages. Of almost 700 students attended the high school last year, only about 40 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunches — a low number compared to most IPS high schools.

The school’s classical liberal arts curriculum might be part of the reason why it attracts somewhat more affluent families. The building once housed an art college and still retain the airy openness of art studios. Principal Janet McNeal has led the school since it opened in 2006, and watched it grow from just 98 students the first year.

“We had a chance to build a school around a classical model where ideas transcend throughout the ages,” she said. “And we have a chance to get school right.”

Can the models be replicated?

For reform groups like The Mind Trust, which are pushing for the city to embrace and grow its high-scoring schools, the question is: can schools that succeed be copied elsewhere?

That was Harris’ question for Bertsch.

But in her view, the advantage of applying CFI curriculum to new schools isn’t the only key to good results. Even schools that follow traditional methods can score like magnet schools. When it happens, often those schools have not just good curriculum, but strong support within the school and outside of it.

“Teachers need time to plan, teachers need time to work together,” Bertsch said. “And it would be wonderful if we could find a way in our country … to be able to say to teachers, ‘You’re professionals, and we want to give you more resources and time to do this really important work.’”

For charter schools, money is sometimes a barrier to serving more students.

As a charter school, McNeal said Herron’s biggest worry is funding. Charter schools receive less state aid per student than traditional public schools, missing out on extra funds for buildings and busing, for instance. Herron spends about $75,000 per year on public bus passes just to get its students to school, and some of them take as many as three buses each morning.

To overcome their barriers, Herron and CFI schools both depend on good leadership, supportive families and a staff that believes in their approach. Each also has a strong neighborhood connection.

For example, Herron partners with the nearby Harrison Center for the Arts to use its gym for sports and physical education. More than 20 city organizations have Herron students completing internships. In return, having a high-rated school nearby helps the neighborhood feel more stable and attract families.

“We have a give-and-take relationship, and we love that,” McNeal said. “We love what we have been able to do for our neighborhood, but for us to be a quality school, we need our neighborhood to pitch in, and they do.”

First Person

Mayor de Blasio’s schools-chief search is shrouded in secrecy — but it doesn’t have to be

PHOTO: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office

When Bill de Blasio was running for mayor, he promised to let the public weigh in on his picks for New York City’s schools chief before appointing them.

“We need a chancellor who is presented to the public, not just forced down our throat,” he said on the campaign trail in 2012.

But he changed his tune after being elected, and has decided to keep the chancellor search private. On Tuesday, parents and advocates will hold a rally to demand that de Blasio give them a say in his current search to replace retiring schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

If the mayor did open the search to the public, what might it look like?

One option is what seems to be occurring by default: names thrown about largely in the dark, handicapped based on race, gender, and reputation. This messy debate creates more heat than light and advantages those with inside information over ordinary citizens. Hardly the public process advocates have in mind.

But there are other ways. Public superintendent searches are routine for most school districts run by elected school boards. While state law gives New York City’s mayor the authority to single-handedly appoint the chancellor, de Blasio could voluntarily borrow from districts with more open processes.

In those districts, community consensus is usually reached on a job description with desired qualifications. The post is widely advertised, often by a specialized superintendent search firm that conducts an initial review of confidential applications. A list of qualified candidates is presented to the Board of Education, which further culls the still-private list to arrive at three to five finalists.

After the candidates are given a chance to inform their current employers, they are publicly announced and interviews scheduled. In the ensuing weeks, the public and press explore finalists’ records. Members of the screening committee may even visit their home districts. Candidate interviews are often televised or streamed online. The position is then offered after a period of post-interview public comment and board deliberation.

The process can be bumpy, but it gets done. Public confidence is established through participation and a full vetting of the candidates. And because the process is common in most places, the finalists expect this type of scrutiny — they can even use it as an opportunity to renegotiate their contracts by threatening to leave for greener pastures.

So how could de Blasio adapt some of those practices for New York?

One idea is to appoint an independent panel that could submit a list of finalists for the mayor to choose from. The panel could consist of students, parents, educators, and community members, or perhaps each of the five borough presidents.

Another idea is to let the city council weigh in on the candidates. The mayor could nominate his pick for chancellor, who would then face the council’s education committee for questioning before the full council votes on the appointment — just as happens with the president’s cabinet nominations.

It is not too late to institute any of these proposals for a public search.

A thoughtful, transparent process would be a win-win for the mayor, enhancing his progressive credentials while allowing him to remain in the driver’s seat. A public search would also be a win for the city and the next chancellor, who would arrive with more of a popular mandate than if she or he was vetted and hired behind closed doors.

We only have to look back a few years, to the lamentable appointment of Cathie Black, to understand how a unilateral appointment can quickly go off the rails. A public process makes sense, and the moment is now.

David C. Bloomfield is professor of education leadership, law, and policy at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center.

Opening doors

What other schools can learn from two Colorado Schools of Opportunity

PHOTO: John Leyba/The Denver Post
South High students Lionel Kulembwa, Eliana Goldberg, Zahra Abdulameer and Shambel Zeru pose for a portrait.

Two Colorado high schools are among eight in the nation recognized as Schools of Opportunity by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.

Schools of Opportunity are institutions that go above and beyond to help all their students succeed. Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center and a professor at CU’s School of Education, said the program is designed to counter the “Best High Schools in America” rankings from U.S. News & World Report and similar lists.

“At the top of these rankings, year after year, we see two types of schools: schools in high-income communities and choice schools that enroll high-scoring students,”  he said. “The best way to have high test scores is to have high-scoring students, but these schools don’t necessarily employ exemplars of best practices.”

Socioeconomic factors outside of school continue to play a strong role in how well students do in school. Schools of Opportunity use methods and strategies that should close some of that gap, even if it doesn’t show up in test scores, Welner said.

“A lot of things that schools do won’t show up in test scores right away, but they’ll show up in other things, like more students showing up to school, and in life beyond school, what the student takes with him or her,” Welner said.

Denver’s South High School received a gold rating, with reviewers making note of heritage classes in Arabic and Spanish that help students achieve literacy in their first language as well as English. The school also received praise for a peer-mentoring program that has significantly increased the number of students of color taking Advanced Placement and college-level courses.

“The first thing you have to start with is your mindset,” South Principal Jen Hanson said. “It’s very important that people in the building see diversity as an asset.”

Hanson said teachers and administrators focus on the assets students already have, rather than what they lack, and build from there.

Aurora’s William C. Hinkley High School received a silver designation. A restorative justice program there has transformed the school culture, according to students interviewed by the committee that made the awards. It’s part of an overall “culture of care” that includes teacher training that focuses on collaboration and building relationships.

Principal Matthew Willis said all these efforts go toward “helping students access a better life.” Disciplinary referrals are way down, and graduation rates are way up at a school that serves a lot of students from low-income families. The school has one of the highest rates of concurrent enrollment – high school students taking college courses – in the state.

Welner said he hopes other schools serving students from low-income families, students of color, and students who are learning English will read through the applications and find ideas that can work at their school. He’s also used these ideas to help the Office of Civil Rights come up with remedies when schools are found to violate their students’ civil rights.

South High School

Student body: 1,605
Students of Color: 67 percent
English Language Learners: 42.9 percent
Free and Reduced Lunch: 58.7 percent

Almost 70 percent of South students are students of color, but in the 2015-16 school year, just 73 students of color enrolled in AP classes. Hanson said administrators knew something must be wrong. A student group called “Rising Rebels” was enlisted to recruit their peers to sign up for AP and college-level classes. Teachers also reached out to students and their parents to encourage them to sign up. This school year, 423 students of color are signed up for AP courses, and the school has a tutoring program to make sure those who need extra help get it.

“If you grow up with a parent in your ear saying you’re going to college and you’re going to take that class, that’s great, but if you don’t have that parent, it’s our obligation to provide that,” Hanson said.

Denver Public Schools as a whole is pushing to get more students into advanced classes, with some success, but students of color are still underrepresented.

South has a large refugee population representing students from more than 50 countries, many of whom have had their schooling interrupted. South is a designated Newcomer Center, and soon all of its teachers will be certified to teach English Language Learners.

Hanson said sending the right message from the top is important, as is teacher training, but administrators also need to look closely at the structures and systems at their schools, at discipline and schedules. Do these structures support equity or do they give an advantage to some students while discouraging others?

Hinkley High School

Student body: 2,184
Students of color: 91.9 percent
English Language Learners: 29.7 percent
Free and Reduced Lunch: 75.2 percent

Willis said the restorative justice program is just one component of a larger “culture of care,” but it’s the oldest and perhaps foundational piece.

“Many referrals can be boiled down to relational problems between two individuals that can be solved with facilitation,” he said.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Kennon Baldwin, a Hinkley High School senior, works on an online course during night school.

The school also arranges schedules so that teachers who work in the same subject area can meet and share ideas. A first-year teacher can share recent research, while a veteran teacher might know the signs that a student needs help. Topics for teacher training are chosen with student needs in mind, Willis said. Right now, many Hinkley teachers are giving up a planning period to work on ideas to better serve students with disabilities.

When students stay in class and when teachers work hard to understand their students, a lot can happen, Willis said. It’s taken years to get here, and Willis said any school leaders who want to make big changes also need patience.

“There isn’t a magic pill or silver bullet,” he said. “When we talk about the culture of care, cultural transformation takes time. Each year, this philosophy coalesces more. We work together as a staff to see how we can take that next step. We’re never completely satisfied, and I think that’s why you see this continual progress toward improving our school.”

“There are many ways to improve a school, but sticking with one approach long enough to actually see the fruits of our labor is really important,” he added.

You can see the full list of winners and read more about them here

Nominations are being accepted for the next round, and organizers said they’d particularly like to see more nominations from rural schools.