Without ‘grit’ or ‘no excuses,’ how one charter high school is preparing to send high-needs students to college

Navigating a career path used to be like riding a steamship — a slow and steady trip to a certain future, said Erin Mote, a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter High School. Today, it more closely resembles whitewater kayaking, she said, full of rocks and choppy waters.

Yet, Mote and her husband, co-founder and executive director Eric Tucker, have a plan to help their students learn to paddle the waves. They have decided to open a charter high school in 2017, as a planned extension of their current Brooklyn middle school.

With their vision newly approved by the Board of Regents in June, Mote and Tucker join a growing number of charter school leaders who are branching out into serving older students. (The vast majority of charter schools are still elementary or middle schools.)

Their approach is ambitious. While some charter schools have come under fire for serving too few high needs students, Brooklyn Laboratory plans to recruit an equal or greater percentage of low-income students, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners than the district in which it is located. The founders also plan to use a weighted lottery to select for those students if necessary. Despite serving high-needs students, their goal is for every student to aim for selective four-year colleges.

To make that happen, Mote and Tucker say, they have to ensure that students have the structure and rigor they need to excel, while also fostering the independence the students will need for life after high school.

They won’t sugarcoat the difficulty of passing an Advanced Placement exam, but they reject the common charter school label “no excuses” to explain their culture of high expectations. They also hesitate to use the word “grit,” a trait often invoked to explain what students need to be successful, and instead prefer the term “persistence.”

Here’s how Mote and Tucker are thinking through these and other issues as they venture into high school education. (The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

You say that every student should aim for selective four-year colleges. Why say “selective” colleges, and why have every student aim for a four-year college?

Tucker: The reality is that the types of jobs that would allow you to take care of your family and to compose a meaningful adult life increasingly have requirements that look very similar to the [qualities] a Caltech or a University of Michigan cares about. We’re not making a four-year-college-for-all argument, we’re making the argument that durable, public institutions need to be committed to serving all students and need to set their sights high.

Mote: When we think about what today’s work world looks like, when our grandparents started out it was like a steamship. You sort of got on the steamship, set the direction, and you just went. And at the end of that journey, you likely walked away with a pension and you had been working at the same job for 50 years. Then there’s our parents, where it was more like a sailboat. You still got where you wanted to go and there was still a sort of manageable pathway there. I think more and more for our scholars today, it’s like being whitewater kayakers. The world is changing so quickly and the currents are rushing past you, and there’s big waves or rocks in your way. We really think about how do we, in our students, engender not just the academic skills but the ability to navigate that complexity?

What if you have a student who’s not ready for a selective four-year college?

Mote: We want to pitch our school so that our scholars have the option of a four-year selective university. Let’s take Malia Obama, who has decided to take a gap year. She goes to Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., one of the best schools in the country. Sidwell holds this bar of a four-year selective university, and it’s not that they’re saying to her, ‘It’s a bad decision to take that gap year.’ She has every option in the world and I think that’s what we want to narrate for our students, that they have every option in the world.

Maybe that means that they get into [New York University], but that they decide to take a year and take coding classes at [the technology training center] General Assembly. But they have the option to walk into NYU, and that door isn’t closed as a factor of where they were born, what zip code they live in, or what high school they went to.

What makes you so committed to serving high-needs students?

Mote: When [Eric] was in middle school, he dropped out of middle school. When he got to Brown, he was diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and attention deficit disorder. Traditional schools didn’t understand his condition as a learner. It’s a very personal thing when it comes to serving complex students.

Erin Mote and Eric Tucker are preparing to open a charter high school in Brooklyn.

As space becomes more and more precious in downtown Brooklyn, the need to have high-quality, non-selective seats at the high school level is really important. Brooklyn Tech’s a great school and we love having them as a neighbor, but I think we’re all really aware of the challenges that selective seats can provide. Brooklyn Tech seats are never going to be open only to students that live in this neighborhood.

How do you plan to do both serve high-needs students and prepare them all for college?

Mote: If you look at what we’ve been able to do at our middle school, we’ve been able to do that and close the achievement gap. It’s a huge undertaking, but I think we have the team, the staff, that’s dedicated to moving the needle for these kids and we have the track record to do it. I’m confident — can you tell?

You hesitate to use the word “grit” to describe a quality you want to teach your students. What are you teaching instead?

Mote: I hesitate to use that word because I think that so many of our scholars already have grit. We’re not teaching them grit, we’re teaching them persistence. I think those are different things. Grittiness comes from being able to survive and to keep going. Persistence is a different set of skills; it’s continuing to do the same things over and over again until you master it.

You are advocating a warm yet demanding learning environment. What does that mean and how does it differ from “no excuses”?

Tucker: I’d say our approach is positive discipline and youth development, and that entails clarity, consistency and transparency, so our scholars and families know what to expect. But, particularly in high school, you need to have a deliberate release towards independence. You need to, by 11th and 12th grade, be closely simulating the types of independence, student ownership and responsibility that set young people up to thrive in what’s generally a pretty unstructured time in college.

We are firm believers in high expectations, and in no-nonsense nurturing, and in authentic relationships. Pretending that [Advanced Placement] exams are less challenging than they are doesn’t do anybody any good. Pretending that we can take the foot off the accelerator on how high our expectations are for attendance, or for homework completion, or for participating in class, doesn’t set students up for future success.

What do you think are some of the biggest challenges of opening a high school as opposed to a middle school?

Tucker: When you think about a great high school experience, you think about a student competing on a debate team, or a robotics team, or in a Google science fair context, while having a great course of study. Those things exist in our society for some students at selective high schools or in affluent suburban high schools. The commitment that our city needs to make is that every student deserves access to a high school education that genuinely prepares them for the best colleges. It means that they need to understand what it means to work at a law firm, or at the U.N., or at a tech startup, or at a university research lab.

Mote: For many of our students, they would be the first member of their family to go to college. [We will be] helping our scholars both navigate that guidance and advisory process, but also working with our families so that they understand, appreciate and support the young people.

When Eric and I had originally designed the budget and the charter, we had said, ‘Oh we’ll do guidance at 11th grade.’ After talking with our families, our scholars, our communities, it became really clear that we need to think about guidance right now, like in the eighth grade.

Eric and I live in this community. We see our kids at Target. We’re deeply committed to the diversity of our community being represented in our students’ population and knowing that really, truly means embracing our mission, our values and our vision, around serving every student. And that often means serving their family, too.


Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”

technical difficulties

This personalized learning program was supposed to boost math scores. It didn’t, new study finds

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

A program that Bill Gates once called “the future of math” didn’t improve state test scores at schools that adopted it, according to a new study.

The research examines Teach to One, a “personalized learning” program used in schools across 11 states and which has drawn support from a number of major funders, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. (Gates and CZI are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

At five schools in Elizabeth, New Jersey, students who used Teach to One didn’t improve any faster than similar students who didn’t use the program, even after three years. The results underscore the limited evidence for claims that such technology programs can dramatically improve student learning, even as they have become magnets for philanthropic dollars.

“The original aspirations, that Teach to One programs were going to have huge positive effects on math scores — we can rule that out with these studies,” said Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia professor who studied an earlier iteration of the program.

Teach to One says its approach is designed to help students steadily learn math skills, regardless of how unprepared or advanced they are. Students spend time on a computer as well as with a teacher and working in small groups. Students receive individualized schedules each day based on their progress, and a computer program adapts the curriculum to students’ strengths and weaknesses in the form of a “playlist.”

New Classrooms, the organization behind Teach To One, suggests that the Elizabeth results aren’t the full story.

It points to a separate analysis released this week that looks at a broader group of schools — 14, from several districts — that used the program. That study shows Teach to One students making above-average gains on a test known as the MAP, which is taken on a computer with questions changing as students answer correctly or incorrectly.

New Classrooms co-founder Joel Rose suggested in a statement that those computer-adaptive tests capture something that state tests can miss: students’ progress.

“What seems to be emerging is a real tension in math between approaches focused on long-term academic growth and state accountability systems,” he said.

Rockoff said there might be something to New Classroom’s argument that the study using adaptive test is better able to showcase students’ gains. “If [students] are at a grade four level but they’re in grade six, teaching them grade four material is going to hurt them on the state test,” he said.

But the author of the second study, Jesse Margolis, and a number of other researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat note that it cannot show whether Teach to One caused any of the students’ gains, though — a major limitation.

“While this study cannot establish causality, it is encouraging,” Margolis wrote. (The New Jersey study is better able to establish cause and effect, but it also has limitations and does not rely on random assignment.)

The New Jersey study isn’t the first to show that Teach to One didn’t improve test scores: so did Rockoff’s 2015 report on three New York City middle schools that looked at both state and MAP tests.

One possible explanation is that Teach to One is helpful to students in some places but not others. Margolis said his study examined the same five Elizabeth schools as the Columbia study and also found minimal gains there, but that schools elsewhere seemed to see larger improvements.

Researcher John Pane of RAND, a leader in studying personalized learning, says the results are important to understanding a field with limited research to date.

“Because we have so little evidence on personalized learning,” he said, “every data point can be helpful for us to start triangulating and piecing together what works and what doesn’t work.”