edu-tourism

City schools tour aims to spur democratic education elsewhere

iSchool students taking part in a Model United Nations class that the IDEA tour visited

Ammerah Saidi, a program coordinator with Detroit Future Schools, meandered in and out of classrooms in the iSchool one morning last week. She had her pick of classes to observe – classes such as “Sixteen,” a course designed around the question of what it means to be 16 in New York City, and Cartography, where students creatively mapped their hearts and fictional worlds.

Saidi was one of nearly 30 educators, advocates, and consultants from across the country and world taking part in a two-day, three-borough tour of schools and programs that promote democratic education.

“To hear about student-centeredness is one thing, but to feel it is something different,” Saidi said later in the day. “I love being reminded that it should be about the students at all times.”

That getting up close and personal with democratic modes of schooling is likely to inspire educators to change their practice is the theory behind the Institute for Democratic Education in America‘s “Innovation Tours” of city schools. Inspired by an Israeli organization, IDEA promotes the vision that students and communities should be democratically invested in their schools. To get educators to sign on, the group exposes them to democratic models of schooling in action. The goal of each Innovation Tour, which IDEA co-founders Dana Bennis and Jonah Canner lead, is for participants to walk away with ideas about how to broaden participation in their own communities — and then to implement those ideas, with IDEA’s help.

“We’re not just creating a certain school and modeling it and building it out around the country,” said Bennis, now IDEA’s director of research and programs. “This is about communities coming together and asking: What are our goals for education? What do we want to achieve?”

During last week’s tour, the group’s third since its founding in 2010, participants visited the iSchool, a centerpiece of the Department of Education’s Innovation Zone, and Urban Academy, the alternative high school on the Upper East Side whose students demonstrate proficiency through presentations and projects instead of Regents exams. They heard the principal of Brooklyn’s P.S. 28 describe her vision for a school that helps everyone in the community, not just the students who are enrolled. And they saw how The Point, a community group in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, works with new schools, develops green spaces, and provides outlets for creativity.

Administrators at the two high schools emphasized  the ways they grant students and teachers the freedom to shape the curriculum and program. At both schools, teachers design courses they want to teach and students select most of the classes they take, and classes include students from all grades whose learning is dictated by their interests. Even space is distributed democratically among faculty and students, with large common rooms where teachers and students work side by side.

At the iSchool, administrators said, the goal of democratic learning is to let students take control of their academic success. In many rooms, the teachers disappeared behind the students, who took center stage as they passionately debated the dangers of nuclear testing in India and Pakistan in a Model United Nations short course and as they designed their own symphonies on laptops in a short, intensive course called “Inside the Music.”

In contrast, Urban Academy founding director Ann Cook said democratic learning at her school is meant to engage students around social and political issues that affect them. Urban Academy’s hallways contained sculptures, murals, and photographs, but also news clippings about the school’s battle for a waiver from requiring Regents exams and a big banner across the entrance that declared “Hunter College Hands Off! Save Julia Richman Schools! Save Our Community!”

“What we’re looking for is to have obnoxious citizens come out of our school,” she said.

If the mornings showed the IDEA tour group what education looks like “with liberty,” the afternoons showed what it looks like with “justice for all.”

P.S. 28 kindergartners sharing their observations about leaves

At P.S. 28, principal Sadie Silver described her efforts to turn half of the school building into community space that includes a meeting room and space for nonprofit groups to offer a nursing program, support for foster care families, job training, and other services. How the implementation of wraparound services will trickle down from big ideas to classroom practice remains to be seen, she said. During a whirlwind tour of the school (bubbly student leaders counted to sixty in each classroom before tapping visitorson the arm, whispering “we have to go,” and skipping off to the next room) the IDEA group saw uniform-clad elementary-schoolers engaging in fairly traditional lessons about editing for capitalization, counting to five, and making observations about leaves.

“It’s not just about how to teach your kid reading, but about how to find an apartment in this economy, about how to find a job.” Silver said. “We couldn’t do what we wanted to do within the school without targeting the environment as a whole.”

Innovation Tour members getting a guided walk through Hunts Point

Tour members saw a different vision of whole-community improvement efforts at The Point, the last stop on the Innovation Tour. On Friday afternoon, the group’s airy brick and windowed building in Hunts Point was busy with students entering a Shakespeare program and community members working on their incubating business ventures. After a presentation about the area’s poverty, Point staff led a walking tour through the community, pointing out places of progress: new schools, green spaces, a cleaned-up waterfront.

The Point prides itself on giving community members the tools to improve their environment and their lives.

“It’s about power,” said Sharon De La Cruz, director of The Point’s A.C.T.I.O.N. program. “Not in a greedy or nasty way, but as in empowerment.”

As the tour concluded, participants reflected on what they liked about what they saw — the couches in Urban Academy’s hallways, the vision at P.S. 28 — and how they would take the lessons they learned back to their home communities.

“I didn’t imagine that there were so many people working on education and trying to improve their community and the youth,” Omar Soto, a social worker and coordinator for Nuestra Escuela, an alternative school in Puerto Rico, said through a translator. “I learned that there is tons of work to be done.”

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led to changes in school improvement strategies. Leaders also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede