every student

Here are 5 things to know about the ESSA plan New York is sending to Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School

Updated: New York’s top education policymakers approved a major plan Monday that could reshape the way the state evaluates schools, intervenes in those that are struggling, and several other key education policies.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires each state to craft a plan and submit it to the U.S. Education Department, which 16 states and the District of Columbia did earlier this year. New York’s Board of Regents voted on Monday to accept its plan, meaning it will now head to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ agency for final approval.

The state’s ESSA plan is hundreds of pages long and packed with technical jargon and formulas. But taken as a whole, it amounts to a roadmap for how the current Regents intend to steer state education policy in a new direction.

Here’s what you need to know about it:

1.) The plan stems from a sweeping new federal law

In 2015, President Barack Obama signed ESSA into law, replacing the controversial No Child Left Behind Act. ESSA, which is the country’s primary federal education law, sought to remedy problems that had plagued NCLB and made it unpopular with lawmakers from both parties and many educators.

NCLB was widely criticized for setting unrealistic expectations: By 2014, every state was expected to get 100 percent of students to pass its annual exams. If schools failed to make enough progress towards that goal, they could face a series of consequences including state takeover, conversion into a charter school or closure.

ESSA places more power in the hands of the states to identify and intervene in struggling schools. Yet, the law also kept important elements of NCLB intact. For instance, states are still required to administer English and math tests in grades three to eight. However, New York is planning to apply for a waiver that will allow it to experiment with new types of assessments, according to draft plans.

The state released a draft plan in May and a revised version in July, which officials sent to the governor. Monday’s approval is the last step before it reaches the U.S. Education Department.

2.) The plan centers on evaluating and improving schools

Under the previous law, schools were rated primarily based on students’ test scores and graduation rates, and the lowest-performing schools were subject to harsh penalties. ESSA gave New York a chance to rethink that approach.

Now, when officials rate schools they will look beyond academic outcomes (read: test scores) to also consider other measures of students’ success or struggles, such as how often they’re suspended or miss class or how prepared they are for life after high school. The plan also alters the formula for calculating the bottom 5 percent of schools.

The plan also changes what happens after a school is labeled as low performing. Rather than replacing their staffers or closing them, the state will first offer struggling schools more support — though it is unclear what exactly that support, which the plan calls “evidence-based interventions,” will look like. However, schools that receive low ratings for three years can still face state takeover under this plan.

Finally, the plan lays the groundwork for a new way to share its school ratings with the public. An online tool that the state calls a “dashboard” will display information not just about how well a given school is performing, but also about the context it’s operating in: For example, how much funding does it get and how diverse is its student body?  While that context won’t change how schools are rated, it’s meant to provide a fuller picture to the public and prod districts to fund schools equitably and reduce segregation.

3.) The plan is a roadmap of New York’s new education approach

The plan is more than just a technical document — it’s also a manifesto spelling out a philosophy of school change that contrasts sharply with New York’s past approach. When Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa revealed the state’s original draft ESSA plan, she called it a “vision plan.”

Rosa was elected to lead the Board of Regents just as they — along with state lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo — were beginning to amend a slate of controversial policies, including teacher evaluations, learning standards, and graduation requirements. For instance, they put a freeze on the use of certain test scores to rate teachers and made it easier for students with disabilities to graduate high school.

Beyond unwinding the previous chancellor’s policies, ESSA has given Rosa and the current Regents a chance to articulate their alternative vision. At the core of their philosophy is making sure that all schools have the resources they need to succeed.

Ian Rosenblum, executive director of EdTrust-NY, said the plan begins to translate that vision into policy and describe how it will set that policy in motion.

“That is not just symbolic,” he said.

4.) There’s disagreement about how much the plan changes and what it will mean for schools

Is this shift mainly rhetorical or will it make a major difference in classrooms across the state? Advocates have different answers to that question.

Some, like Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, which helped lead a movement to boycott state tests, think that the state’s ESSA plan does not mark a big enough departure from the previous law.

“I see the ESSA plan as an extension of No Child Left Behind,” Rudley said. “I do think they missed a huge opportunity.”

Others think the plan reflects an important policy shift that will trickle down to the classroom. For instance, lessening the weight of test scores in judging schools and teachers reduces the pressure on educators to only cover material that will appear on the exams, said Carl Korn, spokesman for the state teachers union.

“I don’t know that you can discount the more holistic, 30,000 foot view of [evaluating] what’s happening in a school, as opposed to [using] simply ELA and math scores,” Korn said.

The education consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners gave New York’s plan high marks for the amount of support it plans to give schools that are struggling, which would include a needs assessment and a team of on-site reviewers.

5.) Now the plan must make it past Betsy DeVos

The plan is now headed to the United States Department of Education by the end of September. The state will receive feedback on the plan and officials expect it will be officially approved in early 2018.

For states that have already submitted plans, USDE has provided some pushback but has generally approved them.

How I Lead

This Memphis principal says supporting teachers and parents helped pull her school out of the bottom 10 percent

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Yolanda Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years, and was previously the academic dean.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Principal Yolanda Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

It takes a lot of walking to manage two schools. Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years and was previously the academic dean. She temporarily took over Frayser Achievement Elementary when the schools had to share space this year because of maintenance issues at Georgian Hill’s original building.

“I am constantly on the move,” Dandridge said. “How else can you keep up with elementary students?”

Both schools are part of the Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools but has struggled to accomplish the task.

This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent. In 2016, before Dandridge took charge, Georgian Hills was in the worst 2 percent of schools.

Dandridge was honored by the achievement district for her work.

“She is a real standout among our principals of someone who understands what it takes to turn things around,” said interim achievement district leader Kathleen Airhart.

Dandridge talked to Chalkbeat about how she gets to know her students, her efforts to motivate teachers, and why school buildings are important.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

I tell my teachers to always stay focused on the “why” behind their careers. For me, my “why” was the fact that my little brother got all the way through elementary school without learning to read. He wasn’t able to read until the fifth grade. He came from a family of educators, and he still slipped through the cracks. If that could happen to him, it could happen to so many kids.

I started teaching in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and I taught in that state for more than a decade. I came to Memphis as a teacher, I was asked later to consider taking on the principal role at Georgian Hills. I said, “You want me to do what?” Now, I’m grateful for all those years in the classroom and as an academic dean to prepare me for this role.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

Any chance to get into the classroom, I will. If a substitute teacher doesn’t come, which does happen sometimes, I will teach the students in that classroom for a day. I love getting to know students by helping out in the classroom.

I am also constantly walking the hallways of both schools. That’s how I start the morning — I greet students and their parents by name when they walk into the school. I walk students to their classrooms. I’m constantly monitoring the hallways.

When a new student registers for classes, the first thing the office staff knows to do is call me down so I can meet them.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

I really prefer to always consider the experiences that a child may have had prior to entering our building.  When you approach discipline with a keen awareness of the types of situations a child might have or experience, it really makes you a better educator.  And you understand that the best thing for us to do is to ensure that students know and understand that we have their best interests in mind. When children connect with you and other teachers in this way, discipline is less challenging.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m very proud of what we’ve done at Georgian Hills and now at Frayser to really focus on our teachers.

Every Wednesday after school, we’ll have a period of professional development. I try to be attentive to what my teachers tell me they want to learn more about. There is a lot of coordination on lesson plans in particular. Teachers work together on their lesson planning, and I also will personally give feedback on a teahers’ lesson plans. My biggest, driving question is “What do my teachers need most?” They don’t need to be spending hours everyday lesson planning when they can collaborate. We can help there.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

Evaluating teachers has always provided me with the opportunity to hear and see the creativity and passion that our teachers bring to the classroom.  My thought on evaluations is to take the anxiety out of it and ensure that teachers are comfortable and understand that the overall process is about improving their skills and enhancing the tools in their toolbox.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent of schools in Tennessee.

When I was early in my teaching career in Mississippi, I had a student with a single mom. Her mom was an amazing support system for me and my classroom. She was always wanting to volunteer at the school. But she struggled to provide basic needs for her daughter — she was struggling to get a job. But she was trying so hard. There’s a stigma of parents, especially in low-income communities, not participating or caring about their child’s education. This mom was giving her all, and it changed my view of parental support. The school needed to find ways to also support her.

And so as a principal, I’m always thinking about how I can support my parents and invite them into the school. So that they feel welcome and wanted, and also so they are encouraged in their own role in their child’s education. We hold math and science nights, where parents learn how to do math games or science experiments at home with their kids. We provide them with materials and knowledge so that they can provide enrichment in their own home.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

We, like many schools in Memphis, don’t have the facilities we need for our students. Georgian Hills had to vacate our school building due to an issue with the roof. That created a hard environment for this school year — moving to a new building where we share space, and then me taking on that school as its school leader when the principal left. Honestly, I thought this year could break me as a school leader. But it didn’t, and it didn’t break our school either. We had a culture in place where our teachers felt supported among the chaos of the start of the year. After a year of repairs, we’re planning on moving back to our original building this fall.

But the issue here is that we don’t have the school buildings we need. Schools should be palaces in a community.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

You have to mobilize people’s efforts to “win.” The first secret to this is to love your people. They are here for a purpose and you have to help them understand the higher purpose that they are here to serve.  You have to have the right people in place, be responsible for developing them, and have the courage to let them go when student’s needs aren’t being met. Finally, transparency rules.


Aurora school board to consider one-year charter contract for school with conflict of interest

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

Aurora’s school board is set to decide Tuesday whether to renew the charter of a well-rated school that long has served children with special needs — but that also has become caught up in questions over conflicts of interest and opaque finances.

Aurora district administrators, concerned about operations of Vanguard Classical School, are recommending just a one-year charter extension rather than the usual five-year contract.

District staff members told the school board earlier this year that they were unsure about the school’s relationship with Ability Connection Colorado, the nonprofit that started the school and provides services through a $350,000 agreement. Not only does that contract lack specifics, but also the nonprofit’s CEO, Judy Ham, serves as the president of the charter school’s board and has signed agreements between the two organizations on behalf of Vanguard.

“You can see the clear conflict of interest concern that arose for us,” Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the school board in February.

The charter school board president disputes the findings of the conflicts of interest, but said the school is going to comply with all of the contract’s conditions anyway.

Vanguard, which first opened in 2007, was created to serve students with special needs in an inclusive model, meaning, as much as possible those students are blended into regular classrooms. Currently, the charter operates two campuses. One, near Lowry, enrolls about 500 K-8 students, and the second, a K-12 campus on the east side of the city, enrolls about 745 students. More than half of the students at each campus qualify for free or reduced price lunches, a measure of poverty.

In reviewing Vanguard, the district found it has a higher percentage of students who perform well on some state tests than the district does. The school also has a good rating from annual state reviews.

But the unclear relationship between the school and its founding nonprofit have raised doubts.

Although the relationship and service agreements the school has with the nonprofit aren’t new, Aurora’s concerns came up during an interview step that was added to the charter renewal process this year. Last time Vanguard went through a review from the district, five years ago, the district’s office of autonomous schools that now oversees charter schools did not exist. Staff describe previous reviews as compliance checklists.

Ham told district reviewers in that new step during the review process, that she never recused herself from board votes involving her employer.

But Ham now says that she misspoke, and meant that she has never recused herself officially because she just doesn’t vote on matters involving Ability Connection Colorado.

“It felt like (it was) a loaded question” Ham said. “But I don’t recuse myself because I don’t ever vote. It’s almost like a foregone conclusion.”

Browne also told the board he was concerned with the lack of detail about the $350,000 service agreement.

“Considering the amount that that contract was for, we were very concerned about the lack of detail regarding those services,” Browne said. He also pointed to school staff’s “lack of clarity with regard to what they were paying for and what they were receiving.”

Ham said the charter school has rewritten and added more detail to the agreements about what Ability Connection Colorado does for the school, which she said includes payroll services, human resources, building management, and risk assessments for students. The school’s west campus also shares a building with the nonprofit.

“We are on-call 24-7,” Ham said. “We wanted to provide everything so that the school could focus on being able to do the most important thing which is educating the children, knowing that inclusive education is hard to do.”

But what the functions of the nonprofit are aren’t clear, according to Aurora administrators.

“The school should not be wondering what services they are or are not receiving from the company,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, Aurora’s charter school coordinator.

Administrators recommend a renewed contract include stipulations such as governance training for the school’s board, meant to address conflicts of interest.

Ben Lindquist, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said that there are laws that could apply to give charter school authorizers like Aurora authority over conflict-of-interest issues.

“It should be within the purview of an authorizer to inquire into conflicts of interest if it perceives they are there,” Lindquist said. “But there’s not just one way to remedy that.”

Among the contract’s conditions, the district will also ask that Vanguard’s board be more transparent about recording board votes on significant decisions. Initially, district staff also said they considered asking Vanguard to remove the current board and replace all members, but officials said they ran into some problems with what they were allowed to ask the school to do.

“There’s a very interesting place we are in where we are the authorizer — we don’t run the school and we want to maintain that delineation,” Browne said. “However if we feel like there is something that could be a potential challenge for the school, we feel like it’s our duty to do what we can to suggest or recommend those changes.”