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Event unites charter, district teachers under instructional focus

A few months ago, teachers from KIPP charter schools approached the network’s co-founder Dave Levin to say that they were restless with the training they were getting. Despite weekly observations and extensive support, the teachers wanted to talk to educators from outside the KIPP organization to find out what they considered best practices for classroom teaching.

Levin took that idea and developed it into the “What’s Works in Urban Schools,” a conference that took place Saturday at New York University. The purpose of the event, Levin said, was to forge better working relationships between district and charter school teachers.

“Too often the broader structural debate has nothing to do with the great things that are happening in classrooms across New York City,” Levin said. “Whether you teach in a charter school or a district school, good teachers have the same goals.”

On Saturday, hundreds of teachers braved inclement weather, an early morning wake-up, and a $35 entry fee to attend the event, which was sponsored by KIPP, Google, TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project), Teaching Matters, and Scholastic.

Education experts led more than 30 instructional workshops for the teachers over the span of the day. They included sessions about the Common Core standards (hosted by their architect, David Coleman), positive psychology and positive education, and high quality, project-based student work.

In the session on project-based work, Ron Berger presented dozens of professional-quality projects that students from low-income neighborhoods had produced — home energy audits, environmental field guides, advocacy campaigns and glossy science magazines. As he passed them around, Berger, a program director at the Expeditionary Learning organization who is a carpenter on the side, stressed that building and completing projects — in this case, academically rigorous ones — was a crucial catalyst to make students want to learn and achieve.

“Scholars don’t keep copies of their tests after they’ve graduated from college,” Berger said, but they do hold on to projects we looked at.

Organizers of the event said that more than 500 New York City teachers attended (I counted fewer in the morning assembly) and said the ratio of public school teachers to charter school teachers was about 3:2. A handful of independent and private school teachers also attended.

But the day wasn’t about discussing the differences that divide school communities in New York City, Levin said. Co-location battles, teacher evaluations, and the growing presence of charter schools were not the point of any of the sessions.

“Today is about great teaching. It’s about what works in classroom,” Levin said. “It’s not about policy. It’s not about politics.”

But the event was filled with teachers who were passionate about their profession — they sacrificed a weekend day and paid out of their own pockets to attend — so conversations occasionally drifted toward some of the hot-button issues that are currently dominating headlines.

In between sessions, a teacher from Banana Kelly High School, a school that the city is trying to close, said that he disagreed with Mayor Bloomberg’s education policies.

“They can’t just keep doing this to these big high schools,” the teacher said, “because who knows where the kids will end up?”

And at least on session resembled a policy hearing. Teachers attending a workshop on special education reform in the city, hosted by a Department of Education official, Laura Rodriguez, raised questions about the city’s push to include students with disabilities in mainstream classrooms. And one teacher accused charter schools of not meeting the needs of special education students.

“As a public school teacher, I’m really offended by the fact that charter schools aren’t held to the same standards as my school is,” the teacher said.

In fact, state law requires charter schools to enroll numbers of students with disabilities at a rate comparable to that of the local district. Sixteen percent of students in district schools require special education services, compared to 12.7 percent in charter schools, according to city statistics.

Whether solidarity endures between the teachers remains to be seen. Levin said he hoped it would develop into a “working community” with an annual conference.

“What this becomes ultimately will be up to the teachers who are here,” he said.

Other efforts are also underway to bridge the divide between district and charter schools. A Gates Foundation-funded “collaboration compact” launched last year.

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