First Person

How We Cross The Charter-District Divide

Over the course of the mayoral race, if you listened to the candidates discuss public education, one of the most pressing issues facing our education system today is whether schools should be able to share space, or co-locate, in public school buildings.

There are fundamental and meaningful differences between district-run schools and charter schools, which can include curricular choices, autonomy and level of union involvement. But the political fights focusing on the differences draw attention away from another important conversation that needs to be taking place, about what we have in common.

The goal of providing the best education possible is a shared goal, and teachers in both kinds of schools tend to check politics at the door and focus on educating students. The debate over real estate does little to recognize what’s happening in schools every day: the very difficult challenges educators confront and the hard work they’re doing to improve education for all students, no matter what kind of school they attend.

Last year we joined NYC Collaborates, an initiative designed to bring district and charter school educators together to identify what is working well in our respective schools and discuss if and how we could scale these best practices quickly and effectively from classroom to classroom, creating a higher number of quality seats. The group organizes regular school tours where educators visit highly successful schools and see how they approach challenges such as curriculum structure, classroom design and management, teacher training, and structuring of the school day. From our point of view, what works in one classroom can succeed in another — regardless of what kind of school those classrooms are in.

Some of us school leaders also attend meetings of a Collaboration Council where we discuss our various perspectives, dispel myths and misinformation, and identify policy improvements that would benefit all types of public schools. The Collaboration Council is a group of about 20 educators who represent all types of schools, including large district schools, small high schools, charter schools, specialized schools, charter management organizations, and networks.

The council offers a chance to unite leaders who may not know each other otherwise; it’s an opportunity to pool resources and tips, create solutions, and share best practices. Sometimes, we tackle difficult policy questions, too.

For instance, charter schools are prohibited by law from enrolling students mid-school year unless they come off a wait list, while district schools are usually required to take any student who shows up at their doors. This “over the counter” enrollment, as it’s called, creates a division between districts and charters. On one hand, it lets charters off the hook on a challenge district schools face, but it also creates a challenge that for an arbitrary reason, district schools must face alone: accommodating students who come into a new school midyear. Would changing the policy level the playing field? It’s among the many questions we want to explore.

We already know from experience that when schools work together, children benefit.

At Explore Exceed, a charter school in Crown Heights, for instance, we share space with two district schools. We regularly host each other for instructional walk-throughs to see how each approaches similar curriculum challenges. The schools have co-sponsored building-wide events including a food drive to create a sense of community among students and staff. And we’ve even begun sharing costs to make “home improvements” like buying a new flag and two-way radios for our building’s nurses.

But there are other ways to collaborate. Exceed’s third graders were doing a unit on Mexico and putting together “all about Mexico” books. The third grade teachers noticed that P.S. 705’s bulletin board featured work from their first graders who were also learning about Mexico. They invited the first-grade classes at P.S. 705 to visit their third-grade classes so students could share with each other what they had learned. During this visit, students from both schools shared with each other the pamphlets about Mexico they each had made and talked about what they learned.

It was a mutually beneficial experience both academically and developmentally for both schools. The P.S. 705 first graders got to present their work to older students and learn from the older students, which was motivating for them. The third graders got to present their work and act as role models for the younger students.

School of the Future, a district school, has implemented a program called ZAP, Zeroes Aren’t Permitted, inspired by a similar program we observed at a particularly inspiring school visit and observation session at North Star Charter School in Newark. If students do not complete their homework or complete it insufficiently, they have to make it up that day at lunch or after school. This gives educators the time and space to have immediate, one-on-one conversations with students about choices that are getting in the way of better work habits. It also encourages students to work through challenging assignments rather than avoiding them.

School of the Future worked directly with fellow educators at North Star and learned from them how they structured their successful program. In order to fit directly with the needs and culture of our school, we made slight adjustments to North Star’s approach, including framing it as an opportunity to develop better coping skills when faced with difficult work and tracking ZAP numbers at team meetings. Since then, ZAP has become a mainstay of our culture. This is just one of many reasons why school visits and classroom observation are so important — we learn from one another and are able to expand practices that work across schools and school types to create stronger classrooms.

As with any story, there is always more to it, and that is certainly the case when it comes to district and charter schools in New York City. Still, the current debate about what “types” of schools we should operate and where they should be housed needs to be joined by the all-important question of how charter and district schools can work together to help all schools get better. For anyone hoping to lead the city and its 1,700 public schools, stimulating more ways to collaborate would be a good place to start answering.

First Person

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

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.