collaboration continuation

Fariña's big bet on school improvement takes shape

Teachers collaborating at M.S. 88, one of the city's host schools, last year.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s new idea-sharing initiative for schools launched earlier this month with a lot of fanfare, but not many specifics.

The Learning Partners program, set to more than triple in size next year, puts schools in groups of three with one school in charge of opening its doors to share what’s working for its teachers and students. And as the 21 schools now participating in a pilot version have begun those visits, it’s growing clearer how Fariña’s signature program—a big bet on collaboration, rather than competition—will play out.

One thing that’s clear from a two-page memo sent to principals is that the program won’t cost the city much, though it will be a big time commitment for schools.

This spring, principals at the 21 pilot schools will be reimbursed up to $10,000 each for overtime and to pay substitutes filling in for staff who are on school visits. Next year, the reimbursement for the entire school year will be $15,000, which would cost the city a little more than $1.1 million if 75 schools sign up as planned.

And with schools facing a Friday deadline to apply to be involved next year, the city has cast a wide net to attract partner schools. To qualify, the school must have a principal with two to four years experience, or have any one of a list of “high-need” qualities: at least 70 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch or are black or Hispanic; or at least 20 percent of its population are students with disabilities, English Language Learners, or chronically absent, among other factors.

Fariña said she picked the initial group of host schools based on strengths like improving instruction for English Language Learners, fostering “student voice and independence,” and involving parents. M.S. 503 in Sunset Park, for instance, was picked for its use of “teacher teams,” while New Dorp High School was picked for its use of student data.

For the partner schools tasked with visiting host schools, the memo says that “approximately” four staff members will have to plan to spend about 10 hours per month working on the program.

Participating principals acknowledged the burden, but said it could be worth the extra work.

“Really, the learning was more of the incentive,” said Paul Didio, principal at P.S. 159 in Queens, which is participating as a partner school. “I’m only on the job for three years now,” he added.

The school-to-school approach to professional development will be a marked shift from the Department of Education’s approach under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who often brought in outside consultants and coaches. Speaking at the city’s teachers union conference this weekend, Fariña said she wouldn’t be eliminating consultants, but talked up the Learning Partners Program as a shift.

“The idea is that if we find schools that are willing to share with others the secret to their success, we can get better very quickly,” Fariña said.

While Fariña noted many of the schools leading her pilot were once struggling schools at risk of closing, it’s clear that the program won’t be an explicit intervention strategy for failing schools. One of the selection criteria for partner schools is that they are already doing well in a specific area, but want to go “from good to great.” (A department spokesperson said that would be determined through a holistic evaluation of the school’s goals.)

And though Fariña has made it clear she wants to scale the program up quickly, officials haven’t finalized how they will evaluate if it has been successful. Officials said that in June, schools will present to the department what they learned from visiting their host schools. Next year, the department will develop a more comprehensive evaluation for the program.

For now, New Dorp Principal Deirdre DeAngelis said that it would bring a dose of reality to professional development.

“We know our everyday obstacles,” said DeAngelis, whose school was picked to share its celebrated approach to analytical writing and small learning communities. “We’re not walking into some paid PD where someone’s talking philosophically in some general way.”

Fariña has staked the program on the idea that collaboration can be a key driver of school improvement, another break from Bloomberg-era policies. DeAngelis said the current school evaluation system, which measures schools against each other, created a culture of competition.

“It really created this atmosphere of, shut the doors and don’t share,” DeAngelis said. “I’m not going to tell you that when people were here I didn’t feel like, oh, I’m giving away all my secrets.”

Participating principals are also facing a less philosophical problem: how to fit the school visits into their schedules. Host schools were supposed to send teams on 10 school visits and host six visits of their own by the end of the year, but Didio said last week that he had only visited his host, P.S. 503, once so far.

Other principals in the 21-school pilot program said that they too haven’t been able to visit each other’s schools more than once in the three weeks since the launch. Given the state testing season and a 11-day spring break, it’s been difficult to find time to visit schools at the pace that the program will eventually require, they said.

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Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.