Remediation remedy

Memphis high schools change schedules to make catch-up classes the norm

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitehaven High School is the anchor school for the Empowerment Zone, the first initiative to expand the lessons learned in the iZone.

Instead of adding time for extra academic help to the end or beginning of the school day, or taking students out of one class to catch up in another, Shelby County Schools is using a new remediation approach at its high schools.

Based on a successful pilot program last year, Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez has moved ahead full throttle this school year to build remediation time into the existing school day so that every student gets needed support.

Over the summer, district principals picked a class schedule that works best for their school after all high schools explored various strategies last year. The idea was to provide time for extra academic help for struggling students or extra preparation for ACT, advanced placement or standardized state tests.

Whitehaven High School piloted adding an “eighth-period” to its block schedule, splitting off students into remedial or enrichment classes depending on their needs. The change provided remediation time for students during the last hour and a half of the day a couple of times per week.

A few other high schools tried a shorter remediation period during a seven-class day schedule.

This year, about 90 percent of the district’s high schools are using the “eighth-period” model such as the one piloted by Whitehaven.

“That eighth-period has been a real jewel for us,” said Whitehaven principal Vincent Hunter.

Last year, one of the biggest impacts was on Whitehaven’s students in ninth grade, considered a pivotal year in the transition to high school. The percentage of students who moved on to 10th grade was almost 96 percent, compared to about 91 percent the previous year. And the student body’s average ACT score went up about a point in writing, reading and science.

Other Shelby County high schools saw even more success. Craigmont, Westwood and Douglass watched students performing in the bottom 5 percent move 10 to 15 percentage points higher, Ramirez said.

District leaders introduced the repurposed class time after observing there wasn’t enough time during the regular school day for struggling students to catch up without hurting their academics elsewhere. Before, a student who was pulled from class to work on other skills fell behind elsewhere.

“Yes, they got support, but they didn’t get access to the grade-level work,” Ramirez said.

Daily intervention and remediation are foundational to Shelby County Schools’ heralded Innovation Zone, tasked with turning around Memphis schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools. All iZone schools have an extra hour tacked on the day, but it’s the program’s most expensive component. For non-iZone schools, the next best remediation approach is to rearrange, not elongate, the school day, according to Hunter.

Vincent Hunter, principal of Whitehaven High School
PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Vincent Hunter, principal of Whitehaven High School

Teachers have responded positively to having dedicated class time for remediation and test prep.

“They felt like (students) were better prepared because they had more time to prepare the kids. … It makes a huge difference for time management,” Hunter said.

Beyond remediation, students who need help with test prep have benefited.

Clementhia Poole prepares students to take the ACT exam and uses discussion and writing about topics that naturally interest her students to bolster their essay writing skills. “It keeps them writing,” Poole said.

Students and parents initially weren’t thrilled with the new schedule because it was new, Hunter said, but that changed during the pilot year.

“Eighth period is more relaxed,” said recent Whitehaven graduate Joshua Gooch of his class schedule last year.

But not less rigorous, according to teachers. For test prep, content on topics of interest leads to better discussion and allows students to hone their presentation skills.

“It provides us with the opportunity to focus on the thought process and how we should write,” said Darriell Smith, who graduated in May with honors.


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.”