First Person

After One Space Shift, Our School Contemplates Another

At the Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters — the decade-old unscreened district secondary school in the poorest Congressional district in the country, where I have taught for the last six years — we do a good job with a tough hand. The work here is big and challenging, and the people are wonderful.

But every year, another policy-level challenge makes our already difficult work seem nearly impossible. First it was massive budget cuts, then centralized layoffs of school support staff, a special education overhaul, rotating teachers sent from the Absent Teacher Reserve (but not enough money to hire them!), and rising numbers of mid-year over-the-counter transfer students. Now, the challenge is a second year of space changes planned by the Department of Education.

Like many other public schools in the city, our school shares space with three others: a District 75 school for students with disabilities in grades K-8; a district middle school; and as of this year, a charter elementary school. After less than one year since the last space shift, the Department of Education has proposed two big changes: The district middle school, M.S. 203, will phase out over the next two years, and Bronx Success Academy 1, the charter school, will expanded to eighth grade over the next five years.

Though the individual teachers, students and staff from the other schools in our building have been respectful, generous neighbors, the system-level decisions about space and co-location have resulted in serious concerns for the Bronx Letters community. While the city’s planning documents say that our “enrollment will be unaffected” and that we will “be able to continue offering the current academic program,” our experience over the last seven months has shown us that is unlikely to be true.

We only have one chance to convince the Department of Education to recognize Bronx Letters in its space plans going forward: a public hearing – at 6 p.m. on Valentines’s Day! To prepare, our high school House Council student government representatives planned “community education” activities, with my help. Almost every advisory group in the school engaged in a facilitated discussion around the following three questions: 1) What do you appreciate most about Bronx Letters? 2) What are your concerns related to the proposed changes in our building? 3) What is something you’d like share about your experience at Letters that could affect decision-making about our shared space?

Together, they turned their answers into statements that could be presented at the public hearing. The statements, excerpts of which I am sharing here, reveal the profound effect that co-location and space allocation policies have on the learning and growing that happens in a school building. Even if the negative consequences of sharing space are unintended, they are deep and wide — and can truly change a school. I’ve seen it happen, and so have my students.

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Quin, 11th grade:

I am a Bronx Letters student and because I have a little sister in Bronx Success Academy, I can honestly say I understand that there are many sides of this issue. This is very hard for me and my family. We understand that Bronx Success wants to grow to eighth grade for a better future for their students, but we are both great schools and both want to remain that way! We want all the schools in the building to be treated fairly.

Since Bronx Success moved in, the number of students in the same classroom has increased. It is becoming harder for teachers to teach and harder for students to learn when the teacher can’t meet every child’s needs. Without the space we used to have, the classes will only get bigger and harder to manage.

Ashley, a junior:

Our school is now spread out through the building, breaking the community that the middle and high school here has worked very hard to create. … Bronx Academy of Letters has not been and is not the same place it was five years ago. Not only does this affect me now but this would affect my future. What I want to be and what I have always wanted to be is a dancer. I want to major in dance in college and make it my career choice for the rest of my life. As a junior I no longer have access to the dance room in my schedule. This has never been true in my six years of being at this school. Last year I was not given dance as a class but I was allowed to have access to it during lunch. This too is no longer true. During our lunch period, another school is having gym in the dance room! … What’s going to happen when I have college auditions and nowhere to rehearse for an audition that determines my future?

Tajonae, eighth grade:

This school year, the seventh and eighth grades moved to an area that has tiny classrooms and small hallways spaces and we are always bumping into each other, which causes conflicts that could have been avoided. Every time I am in a classroom, no one can walk around the classroom without bumping into something or someone…

Fatoumata, eighth grade:

Bronx Letters is supposed to be a family and now the middle school and the high school don’t interact that often. We want to be less spread out and have spaces that are connected to one another … Now, rooms are being used ALL the time. Students have a hard time finding teachers. One on one time with teachers is very difficult because there is literally nowhere private they can meet.

Ana, ninth grade:

We have so many opportunities to be successful in our future. One of them is office hours, which is like tutoring that all teachers have during lunchtime on Tuesday and Thursdays. You have no idea how helpful these are to me to improve my grades and my understanding of in my classes. Sometimes even now office hours is hard because there are too many teachers in each room and we can’t get any attention. But this school is already amazing by trying to help us. Please don’t take that away from us. The space we have is already small and crowded. We make the best of it but if things change too much, one of the things we might miss is office hours!

Kyesha, 11th grade:

One of the reasons why I decided to stay at Bronx Letters for high school is because I felt comfortable. By the time I got to the ninth grade, I already knew some of my high school teachers and, even better, some of the high school students, which made it easier to transition into my new high school experience. Now, being a junior, I look at the middle school students and have no clue who they are, which is breaking the school community that we once had. It is also frustrating to see that our seniors have to stay outside during ANY weather because there is no supervised classroom for them to be in to eat. I will be a senior next year and don’t know how well I am going to take having to eat my food outside in the snow. Also, during lunch time we have to wait in the hallway until the other school leaves, the cafeteria is cleaned up after them, and if the cafeteria staff is ready for us to come in, which takes about 15 minutes of our lunch time with nowhere to go.

Delquan, eighth grade:

I have been at the Bronx Academy of Letters for three years and have witnessed many changes between last school year and this one. We have been forced into the corners of this building and we don’t have enough space. When we are released from classes, we’re all on top of each other and if we had more space, we could avoid conflict. Our school is divided into different parts of the building and I don’t know the other students in our sixth grade or in high school so it’s harder to make friends outside my grade.

Destiny, eighth grade:

We also have to wait and wait to go into our Math class and you know why? Because we have teachers sharing EVERY classroom. The teachers have no time to set up their lesson plans. All of this space loss is hurting our learning environment.

Roxanna, eighth grade:

The hallways get cramped in between periods, and kids shove, push, etc. That leads to conflict and problems and we can’t ever get away from each other. Most of our classrooms don’t have windows or heating. One of my favorite classes is gym and I have to share the gym with four schools! It is very cramped and we are sometimes getting hit with basketballs. Some of our classes like Drama, Math and Health are in very small rooms because all the other rooms are being used. How are we supposed to focus in small, sweaty rooms??! Our grades have dropped because of this. We need a bigger, more comfortable environment to learn and study in.

The juniors of Bronx Academy of Letters Thomas House Advisory:

Last year, our advisor was saying that we were going to lose space because Bronx Success Academy was moving in. We felt like we had no say. We were scared, frustrated, and disappointed after we had written letters begging to keep our space and explaining all of the extra-curricular activities and opportunities we would risk losing. She left a few months later saying that she didn’t like the way that the school was going.

Now, here we are again. This year there is a new advisor asking us to do the same thing. We feel like our education is threatened and are afraid that when we, the class of 2014, return to visit after graduating, we won’t have a school to come back to. … Part of the reason why schools in this area aren’t offering a strong education to students is because of problems like this. We want our concerns and voices to be heard and to think of compromise so that our school can be successful and Bronx Success can offer the best education possible as well.

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.