model schools

In Chicago and New York, a look into the digital classroom

Designer John Murphy uses the SMALLab at ChicagoQuest school.

What does a digital classroom look like? Some schools roll smartboards and carts of computers into each classroom. At others, students plug into iPads at every desk to play interactive learning games.

The Institute of Play envisions a different picture: A dark, empty classroom with the window shades pulled shut, where a life-size computer game board is projected onto the linoleum floor, and students act as both the players and joysticks to accomplish problem-solving tasks.

There are only a handful classroom “labs” like this in the country that serve as a testing ground for “embedded learning environment” games, and a New York City middle school houses one of them.

The Institute of Play is a non-profit research group that studies the relationship between game-playing, learning and engagement. It is also one arm of the team behind the NYC Quest to Learn School, which opened in 2009 in Manhattan.

I will be visiting the school later this month to see how these classroom innovations are changing the way students learn now that the school is well into its third year. But last week I stopped at the school’s recently opened sister school, ChicagoQuest, while in Chicago for a Hechinger Institute conference about reporting on digital learning.

At ChicagoQuest, which is as a charter school and receives funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, each of its 234 sixth- and seventh-graders have an iPad. They use it to take notes, search the internet, and play games themed around concepts such as fractions and geography.

Though they are only a few weeks into the school year, students at the new school said they have very positive first impressions of the iPad-based lesson plans. One said she prefers taking notes on the iPad over traditional pen-and-paper methods because, “Even though it’s not as fast, we can do a lot more with it,” by changing up the formatting of the text and linking certain notes or phrases to each other.

Though students can be more prone to distraction when the internet (and, in this case, the popular portrait-taking program PhotoBooth) are readily available, Patrick Hoover, the curriculum specialist, said teaches have a simple but district disciplinary policy has kept goofing-off at bay: use the iPad improperly once, and it is taken away for the rest of the class period. 

Then there is the “SMALLab.” It’s a classroom, but dark and bare except for a row of chairs, a white board and a computer in the far corner. At ChicagoQuest’s lab, two game designers employed by the school build lesson plans around the human game board, projected from the computer screen onto the floor, and supervise students who come into the room to play—or learn, which mean the same thing according to the school’s stated mission.

New York City Quest to Learn has a similar lab. In Chicago, students do not use the lab as part of a regular class, but each one will visit the room a few times per month in small groups, according to John Murphy, one of the designers.

Murphy demonstrated for journalists at the conference how students can push digital objects around the room using a hand-held tool to perform problem-solving tasks—For example, by re-directing a laser on the game board toward a target to show they can manipulate angles.

Though the lab is an investment for the school, Murphy said students don’t need to use it on a daily basis. “We have to use this very purposefully,” he said, “To make sure students are getting something from this the wouldn’t in a classroom normally.”

Katie Salen, a game designer and the executive director of the Institute of Play, said the theory behind the schools is to bring school lessons in-line with the demands of today’s digital world, in which children are used to self-directed information searching, and near-instant feedback.

“Kids are going to grow up and have tons of experience solving complex problems,” she said. “We believe kids should be producers, not just consumers.”

Salen acknowledged that some question whether the boutique model would work in many places, especially where students are poor or have special needs. But she said the New York City and Chicago schools show that diverse students bodies can benefit from the model. In New York, 40 percent of the school’s 220 students are eligible for free lunch, and the ethnic make-up of the student body is evenly split between white, black and Latino.

Of the New York school, which the city runs, she said, “We wanted to start this in the harshest of conditions to show that this model works.”

Quest to Learn received a B on the city’s annual progress report this year.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”