First Person

Week of 12/13/10: Teaching & learning tidbits

Oregon will allow use of spell check on state writing tests in 2011

The Oregonian newspaper reports on one state allowing spell check in schools.

Do you have to be good at spelling to be a good writer? Not necessarily, at least not in Oregon public schools. As middle and high school kids begin taking state writing tests next month, they’ll have a new tool at their fingertips: spell check. For the first time, Oregon is allowing students – those taking online and paper tests – to use a spell check button on a computer to check their work before submitting answers to the writing test prompts.

New award for Colorado’s top teachers

Stand for Children, an nonprofit education advocacy organization, with support from the Daniel’s Fund, has launched a new contest to acknowledge outstanding Colorado teachers. This contest, called Our Heroes, was inspired by the film “Waiting for Superman.” Stand for Children is asking people to nominate outstanding teachers to receive awards of $1,000 to use for classroom supplies or professional development. The panel of judges (including current and former teachers) will review nominations and select up to 10 winners, to be announced Jan. 17. Contest rules and the nomination can be found here.

Top Colorado districts, schools honored

Three outgoing state leaders recently thanked educators in Colorado’s highest-performing districts and in its high-poverty but high-growth schools, while warning of tough challenges ahead. Read the story and watch the video at Education News Colorado.

Are 9th graders smarter than everyone else?

9News reports on an odd phenomenon that even has educators flummoxed.

In every public high school across Colorado, there is a mystery that’s baffling state leaders. Students who are in 9th grade now have been scoring higher on the Colorado Student Assessment Program tests than their peers in other grades.

“It’s like an intellectual tsunami,” said Jo O’Brien, assistant commissioner of education in charge of assessment.

Aurora Public Schools’ niche pathways hailed by Ritter, biz leaders

The Aurora Sentinel reports on an innovative program Aurora Public Schools is embracing to engage students who have very clear interests.

Autumn Page-Tinsley and Dominic Wegner spent four days in July simulating rocket launches and mingling with a former NASA astronaut. But before the 13-year-old students from Columbia Middle School in Aurora could pack their bags for Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., they underwent a rigorous application process. The trip, sponsored by a grant from Northrop Grumman, was only one part of a specialized kind of instruction at the school, a new, “pathways” oriented approach that’s being implemented across the Aurora Public Schools district.

Douglas County school board votes to research voucher program

The Denver Post reports on the voucher flap that has people in well-heeled Dougco and beyond talking. The

School voucher meeting in Douglas County
Former Douglas County school board member Emily Hansen spoke against vouchers at a recent meeting.

Douglas County school board recently took another step toward a voucher program, with the board president saying he would like a pilot program for the 2011-12 school year. The unanimous vote came after an hour of public comments that were about equally split on whether the district should pursue such a program.

Study backs ‘value-added’ analysis of teacher effectiveness

The Los Angeles Times reports on one study showing that value-added assessments of teachers work. The story concludes that teachers’ effectiveness can be reliably estimated by gauging their students’ progress on standardized tests, according to the preliminary findings of a large-scale study released recently by leading education researchers.

Backlog could force good Colorado teachers out of classrooms

7NEWS explores a growing backlog at the Colorado Department of Education that has background checks and licensing for teachers in Colorado backed up by as much as eight months. The delays could force good teachers out of the classroom temporarily until their license is renewed. The backlog could also force districts to retain bad teachers until new teacher applications are processed.

Study: States must move faster to close achievement gaps

Education Week reports on a study that finds if states continue their current pace of progress in narrowing achievement gaps between students of different races, ethnic groups, and income levels, it could take decades for lagging student groups in some states to catch up to their better-performing peers.

At California school, parents force an overhaul

Ever wonder if parents can really make a difference? Here’s an example of the power parents can have when they get organized. Read this New York Times story.

COMPTON, Calif. — By Marlene Romero’s count, her son has had just one effective teacher in his five years at McKinley Elementary School here. Most of the time, she said, he has merely shuffled through classrooms, struggling in math without ever getting extra help.

Poll: Most want easier way to fire bad teachers

The Associated Press reports on a study it conducted with Stanford University researchers that found that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe it’s too difficult to get rid of bad teachers, while most also believe that teachers aren’t paid enough.

Race to the Top: States that lost school money face reform dilemmas

9News reports on how districts are moving forward on reform plans without the federal money they sought.

It’s like buying a fancy dress but having no date to the prom – dozens of states that crafted new education policies to compete for a share of the $3.4 billion “Race to the Top” school reform grant prizes were shut out. Now, as the 11 winning states and the District of Columbia set about spending their awards, the losing states (including Colorado) are left wondering what to do with ambitious reform plans they planned to fund with the money.

Bleak prospects for future K-12 support

Not that you need bad news this time of year, but education funding in Colorado is just one of those perpetually grinch-like topics. Read this Education News Colorado for the latest budget update.

Sixty-five Colorado teachers gain National Board Certification

Sixty-five Colorado teachers achieved National Board Certification in 2010, according to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. That gain represents a 13.5 percent increase in the total number of teachers holding National Board Certifications in just one year. Like board-certified medical doctors, National Board Certified Teachers have met high standards through intensive study, expert evaluation, self-assessment and peer review. Colorado ranks 25th among all states in the number of teachers achieving board certification this year and ranks 26th in the total number of teachers (545) who have earned National Board Certification.

The state’s top five school districts in terms of the cumulative total of teachers (based on where teachers currently work) are:

  • Denver Public Schools – 78
  • Boulder Valley School District – 77
  • Cherry Creek School District – 76
  • Douglas County School District – 49
  • Mesa Valley County School District 51 – 40

Broomfield High program lets students become the teachers

The Daily Camera writes about an innovative Broomfield program that turns the tables on teachers and students.

At first, when Savannah Peters, 17, saw the level of work involved in teaching, she didn’t think it was the career for her. But working with kids at Emerald Elementary School through the Teacher Cadet program showed her how important teachers are, particularly if a student doesn’t have a support system at home. She said she has found the experience extremely rewarding.

Denver embraces charter schools in hard-to-serve neighborhoods

Building on some of the key principles of its 2010 Denver Plan, the Denver Public Schools has created a groundbreaking District-Charter Compact built on the core value that excellent educational opportunities “must be available to all students in all parts of the city, and our students’ access to them must not be limited in any way by socioeconomics, language, citizenship status, or special needs of students.”

DPS recently hosted a national conference with the Gates Foundation and the leadership from eight other big-city school districts that have adopted similar compacts around Denver’s framework of equity of opportunity, access and responsibility, and accountability for all public schools, district-run and charter.

Read the story in Education News Colorado.

Special ed funding ignores need as well as numbers

Face the State analyzes what’s happened to special education funding in Colorado. It turns out the state’s approach to funding special education is flawed in more ways than one. Not only does the state formula risk shorting school districts whose special-ed enrollment is on the rise while rewarding those with declining numbers – but it also fails to recognize the severity of a district’s special-ed needs.

Study: Most students fail to meet common-standards bar

Education Week reports on a study showing that most students have far to go before they master the skills and knowledge outlined in the new common standards that have been adopted by all but seven states.

Demographics behind enrollment in Denver Public Schools

Education News Colorado has taken data from the October student count to populate a new database showing enrollment numbers, poverty and minority rates, and numbers of English language learners and students with special needs for all 169 schools and programs in Denver Public Schools. Click on the link to search.

Poll: Education backed, but not new school taxes

MSNBC reports on a recent poll showing that Americans don’t support new taxes for schools – despite their belief that the better the quality of education in this country, the stronger the U.S. economy will be.

Eighty-eight percent say a country’s education system has a major effect on its economic health. Nearly as many — 79 percent — say the U.S. economy would improve if all Americans had at least a two-year college degree, according to an Associated Press-Stanford University poll.

Pueblo principals say they are improving schools

The Pueblo Chieftain writes that progress is being made in turning around six low-performing schools.

“As we have begun the process, clearly we are getting on the ground and beginning to truly understand what’s working well and what are the needs and the challenges,” said Manny Rivera of Global Partnership Schools.

GPS is a New York-based consultant working with the district officials on developing and implementing school improvement plans for six schools that have deemed turnaround or transformation by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Parents fighting to save schools

The Coloradoan newspaper covers a story about parents fighting school closures in the Poudre School District.

Poudre School District administrators have asked five schools, Irish, Putnam, Lopez and Beattie elementary schools along with Lincoln Middle School, to develop plans for possible closure and consolidation. PSD is pursing the plan to address underutilization of its facilities. Eleven other schools have submitted innovation/ efficiency plans as part of the process.

New guidelines make teacher tenure less automatic in New York City

The New York Times reports on changes to the tenure system in one of the nation’s largest, most complicated school districts. In most schools across the country, tenure is not something to be gained, but something to be lost. Virtually every new teacher earns it, including in New York City, where all a principal has had to do to give a teacher guaranteed lifetime employment is to check a box on a computer program.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.