First Person

What Goes Around Comes Around

Francis Lewis High School can be a tough place. We’re the most overcrowded school in New York City, and kids have only four minutes to make it from one class to another. In the case of my students, they have to make it all the way to the back of the building, then out almost to the street to Trailer 5, my workplace. It’s a formidable trek, but as a teacher you have to defy logic, set a tone right away, and frighten kids into arriving on time all year.

Maria had come late the first three days, and the fourth morning I called her mom.  Mom said she and Maria had discussed it, and that Maria has always moved a tad slowly. Maria had tried, but just couldn’t make it. I told Mom Maria was a joy when she showed up, but that I couldn’t allow one kid to come late while everyone else came on time. Mom was very reasonable and understanding, and we ended the conversation hopeful of an acceptable solution. The fact that Maria came from room 306, all the way up there on the opposite side of the building made this a challenge. I didn’t want to read Maria the riot act again. For starters, she knew very little English, and likely didn’t much understand it.

I got off the phone, grabbed my bag, and moved straight to room 306, Maria’s science class. When the bell rang, I walked in to find Maria leisurely placing things in her bag.

“Come on, Maria!” I said, gesticulating with all the urgency I could muster. “We have to make it to the trailers before the bell rings!” She was appropriately shocked, and began to move accordingly.

We made a mad dash to the front stairwell, rushed down two flights of stairs, and crossed the strip without incident. By the time we got to the back door I was a little out of breath, but so was Maria. (Perhaps I wasn’t as out of shape as I’d thought.) We rushed to the trailer, where a dozen kids were milling about, waiting for me to unlock the door.   I did, and Maria was the first one in. So despite what Maria had told herself, her parents, and me, it can be done. In fact, we’d scientifically proven it.

But Maria’s usually punctual friend Sylvia was missing. And when she showed up eleven minutes late I was sorely disappointed. “Oh, Sylvia, Sylvia, Sylvia,” I began, launching into some horrendous soon-to-be improvised lecture. But Sylvia said something about the number 25 bus, and looked so genuinely miserable and contrite I began to feel as though her lateness were somehow my fault.

Then Maria said something. I don’t know what. But Maria and Sylvia speak Spanish, I can speak Spanish, and for some inexplicable reason I turned and blurted out, “¿Perdón?”

This was a huge error, as I’ve trained my class to never, ever speak anything but English in the classroom. My kids are near-beginners in English, and eliminating other options is the only way to drag English from them. How could I, an ostensible role model, break my own cardinal rule?

I’d been teaching them things like, “My name is Maria,” “I’m from Colombia,” and “This is a chair.” But after my unfortunate utterance they stunned me, rattling off all the things I’d repeatedly told them when they slipped into their native languages.

“Oh, Mr., how could you?” asked Hye Min.

“Unbelievable!” said Hao.

“After all my hard work, all my years of sacrifice…”

“What do I ask?  Just a little bit of English.  But NOOOOO!”

“Inconceivable!” proclaimed Maria.

“You almost broke my heart!” said Sylvia, pointing an accusing finger (but happy to have it pointing away from her).

I’m not entirely sure these are the things you want beginning English speakers to know.  But my kids are now experts.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.