First Person

Christopher Columbus High School: A Context for Accountability

Christine Rowland is a teacher and professional developer at the UFT Teacher Center at Christopher Columbus High School. She has been at Columbus since 2002.

On Monday, a team from the Department of Education walked into Christopher Columbus High School to announce that it would be closed. It was a profoundly upsetting day for our entire community (on Pearl Harbor Day, as Columbus’s UFT chapter leader Donald March pointed out). I would like to take this opportunity to address the issues surrounding this decision and to appeal for a reversal.

Until several years ago, Columbus was a school that contained a diverse student body not only in terms of races, nationalities and language backgrounds, but also abilities. In 1998, 41-56% of the entering freshmen and sophomores were on grade level in reading and math at entry. By 2005, this number dropped to 5.9% of entering freshmen in reading and 14% in math.

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Cohorts are entry cohorts, e.g. Cohort 2005 4-year graduation would be in 2009

In concert with this drop in the skill level of entering freshmen, there was a steep rise in the percentage of special education freshmen from 6.8% to 23.6% of our graduation cohorts:

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Percentage of students in the graduation cohort with special education designation

Did the school accept students with very high needs previously? Absolutely. But this was not the sole mission of the school. Several years ago the Bronx High Schools Superintendent’s Office broke off our prestige programs designed to meet the needs of our most able students into separate schools: Collegiate Institute for Math and Science, Pelham Preparatory Academy and Astor Academy. High-performing students who had once come to Columbus instead went to these schools, as did many experienced and skilled educators. In addition, New World Academy opened nearby with Columbus educators as an ELL-only school. These schools see students who are far lower in need.

Columbus’s great good fortune was that, as the changes took place, Lisa Fuentes, a seasoned special educator, was made principal. She has worked tirelessly, extremely long hours and frequently seven days a week to help our students become successful.

Columbus initially reeled under the changes as classes became more challenging both academically and behaviorally. The school was initially badly overcrowded at 180% of capacity and on an end-to-end schedule (juniors and seniors 7 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and freshmen and sophomores 12:30-6 p.m.), and the school went on the dreaded Impact list of schools suffering from high levels of violence. As a community we fought for equity and worked hard to reorganize ourselves into smaller learning communities. The efforts paid off as our environment improved physically, culturally, and in terms of safety.

We also learned that the same old practices were not sufficient to meet the needs of our most vulnerable students. In response, we changed the way the  school was structured so that we could offer stronger instruction that is tailored to each student’s needs. We launched new programs in each of the last three years designed to meet the special needs of our most vulnerable students, including those under pressure to work, those who are pregnant or parenting, and those returning to school after being in jail. In addition, we launched separate advisory programs for male and  female students.

The DOE gave four reasons for phasing out Columbus.

First, the department stated that our graduation rate was 36.9% in 2007-8. This is not accurate. This was the four-year graduation rate after the DOE had placed 26 formerly ungraded special education students back into the cohort after the end of the school year as a result of changes in federal regulations regarding the consideration of special needs students. The DOE, recognizing the unfairness of the situation, in a July 2008 memo agreed not to penalize schools because of these students. After adjustments were made the 4-year graduation rate was 40.1%, and our weighted 4-year graduation rate (a progress report measure that takes into account how challenging the student population is) became 68.8%. But the issue is deeper for us because many of our students take five, six, or even seven years to graduate. Columbus’s most recent 7-year graduation rate (published under longitudinal reports on the DOE Web site) was 81.5%, compared to a city average of 72.2%.

Second, the DOE charges that first-year credit accumulation is low, with only 49.4% of first-year students accumulating 10+ credits in their first year. Removing first-year students who were sent to Columbus throughout the year improves this number to 54.1%. These students are frequently enrolled only for a brief period and are going through additional challenges in their lives that make high credit accumulation particularly challenging. The figure for our non-special education students with 10+ credits was actually 60.2%.

Third, the DOE asserts that demand for the school is low. This year 292 students elected to come to Columbus through the high school application process. We have accepted another 182 “over the counter” so far this year. Considering that fact that our overall enrollment is only 1,400 this would seem to indicate that there is plenty of demand for the school. We believe that we have an extensive array of offerings in the fine arts, music, culinary arts, and technology that, along with a wide range of extra-curricular opportunities, make Columbus attractive to students who are looking for more than reading, writing and arithmetic.

Fourth, and finally, we received a D on our 2008-2009 Progress Report, down from a C in 2006-7 and 2007-8. Last year we received 100% of our performance bonus for an improvement that amounted to approximately 17% after adjustments were made for changes in the metrics. This year we made a 13.8% gain in total over last year — improving again. The reason the grade went down was because the DOE changed the targets. Had we received exactly the same score as last year we could have received an F. Our Environment category actually showed a 31% gain — up in every single category and we STILL went down from a B to a C in that area. The reality is that there are many flaws with the progress reports (some of them have been outlined here and here). While we have the second lowest peer index (population challenge level) of any of the 372 high schools receiving a progress report, the peer index does not reflect the proportion of students with special needs who have been identified as requiring the most restrictive environment. A simple comparison of A and D schools on the progress reports show that D schools have four times the most restrictive environment students as A schools.

So how does all of this affect our current student body? Many of our students were deeply upset over the announcement. There was shock and pain, tears, hugs and anger.  They will fight nobly, I’m sure, to try to keep their beloved school  (see the SAVE COLUMBUS Facebook group with more than 900 members as of writing) for as long as there is hope. We will try hard to keep up their spirits and to help them try to refocus on achieving academic success, but Columbus is much more than a school to so many of them (please see our video on YouTube for an illustration). Teachers will see that they stand to be made ATRs and will make the gut wrenching choice to either stay and support the students they care for so deeply, putting their own future at risk, or will polish their resumes and try to find a small school placement as rapidly as possible. In this environment students will lose many of the teachers they love and trust and the environment will deteriorate. This will impact all schools in the building. We know that under such circumstances their opportunities will also suffer.

I’m also concerned about what will happen to the students who would otherwise attend Columbus. Small schools cannot accommodate many students with significant needs. These students are likely to wind up at other large schools in the area, such as Truman and Lehman, which will receive a massive influx of extremely needy students including late-entry immigrants with little or no English, and the most needy special education students. A report that came out last summer proved what is obvious: Other big schools suffer when a large school gets closed. It will take time for the new receiving schools to adjust their instructional practices and programs to meet the needs of the changing population. These schools will be the next targets for closure just the way we have taken those who would at one time have been placed in Evander or Stevenson.

It seems there is a political agenda driving where students are placed. OSEPO (Office of Strategic Enrollment, Planning and Operations) would, I’m sure, claim that they place students in the schools that can best meet individual student needs, but as long as the Office of Accountability engages in evaluative practices that effectively punish such schools, the fatal combination of the actions of the two offices of the Department of Education would seem to be showing a disregard for the well-being of children.

Right now our longer term outcomes are relatively good for our students, helping them along the path to graduation even when they take more than four years. Those students with severe special needs are helped as frequently as possible with work study programs that provide them with job skills, and frequently job placements on leaving the school. We ask that the DOE reconsider their decision and give the Christopher Columbus community the reprieve it deserves. Outcomes can be improved by creating a more equitable situation around school enrollment. We all need a holiday miracle.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.