First Person

This week's teaching & learning tidbits

Dropout prevention summit to be held Friday

The Colorado Department of Education’s Office of Dropout Prevention and Student Engagement and ScholarCentric will co-sponsor a Dropout Prevention and Student Engagement Summit on Friday, Feb. 18, 2011. The summit will bring together more than 200 Colorado school district education leaders to discuss strategies to keep students in school and on-track toward graduation. The summit will be held from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at Adams 12 Five Star Schools, 1500 E. 128th Ave., in Thornton. For a complete agenda or for more details about the summit, contact Peter Fritz, 303-866-6601 or [email protected]

Denver mayoral candidates on education

They’re not eager to take over Denver Public Schools and they give mixed marks to recent DPS reforms, such as the turnaround plan in Far Northeast Denver. But with one eloquent exception, they raise a thumbs-up to Senate Bill 191, the educator effectiveness law that will link student achievement to teacher and principal evaluations. Watch the video at Education News Colorado.

K-12 would take $332 million hit

State support of school districts would drop $332 million compared to current levels under a 2011-12 budget proposal announced by Gov. John Hickenlooper Tuesday afternoon. Funding of state colleges and universities would drop to only $519 million, compared to the $555 million originally requested for next year. Read more in Education News Colorado.

Teachers, school leaders from all over U.S. meet in Denver

A first-of-its-kind summit among teachers and their bosses — school board members and administrators — kicks off in Denver Tuesday. The Obama administration calls it a watershed moment in collaboration for school improvement. Read this KDVR report.

1-year-old high school’s senior class

It is a state-of-the-art learning facility. When Mead High School opened a year ago, brand new classrooms and athletic facilities greeted students. Because they opened with only a freshman and sophomore class, and this year added juniors, they are a school without a senior class. But in the hallways of this new school, you do see the faces of seniors. Watch this 9News report.

Bond savings fund new laptops for thousands of Denver teachers

Thanks to savings from the voter-approved 2008 Bond Program, thousands of Denver Public Schools teachers will receive new laptops as part of the DPS Teacher Laptop Project, which aims to provide teachers with the tools they need to better implement data driven instruction and to more effectively incorporate technology-based instructional resources into their classrooms.

Cherry Creek looking for right balance to teach special needs students

Special education teachers in the Cherry Creek School District have to create a constant balance between independent learning and individual attention for students, district staff said Monday. Read more in the Aurora Sentinel.

Researchers fault L.A. Times methods in analysis of California teachers

University of Colorado researchers reported Monday that there were potential weaknesses in methods the Los Angeles Times used last year to rate elementary school teachers for a series that stoked national debate in a key arena of education reform. Read more in the Washington Post.

“Race to Nowhere” parent meeting rescheduled for Feb. 28

A networking event open to the public will be held at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 28, at Fairview High School, 1515 Greenbriar Blvd. in Boulder, withRace to Nowhere poster further discussion from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.  The event is sponsored by the Parent Engagement Network in Boulder Valley schools. The movie will not be shown. Participants will engage in an interactive format designed to allow each person to be heard. Adults and youth are invited. Register on-line.

Increasingly, male teachers found at head of elementary class

Each weekday, students filing into Denver’s Ashley Elementary School come face to face with a relatively rare educational experience. Read more in the Denver Post.

HB 11-1055 would give charter schools access to district facilities

A bill in the Colorado House would give charter schools the right to request access to unused facilities from their schools districts.  The districts would not be required to give the the facility to the charter school, but would have 30 days to come up with a response to the request. Read more in the Examiner.

Aurora Public Schools considers cuts for projected $25 million shortfall

Aurora Public Schools is considering furlough days, pay cuts and larger class sizes to help offset a projected budget shortfall of at least $25 million for the 2011-12 school year. Read more in the Denver Post.

Teacher tenure bill fails in Wyo. Senate

The first of several bills aimed to increase education accountability in Wyoming died in the Senate. Senate File 52, known as the “Teacher tenure” bill, failed to pass the Senate 12-18, during its third reading. Read more in the Casper Star-Tribune.

Denver preschool program scores well in evaluation

Assessments measuring the effectiveness of the Denver Preschool Program, which provides tuition credits to families and grants to qualifying preschools, show a majority of kids leaving ready for kindergarten. Read more in the Denver Post.

Does a district need a superintendent?

A school district east of Colorado Springs is poised to test the reaches of the state’s Innovation Schools Act, which allows waivers from state laws and collective bargaining agreements. School board members in the Falcon 49 School District are buying out the contracts of their top four district administrators – including the superintendent, a job that would be eliminated – as they scrap a traditional governance structure for something completely different. Read more in Education News Colorado.

Cherry Creek schools yield high return on instruction investment

The Cherry Creek School District is among the highest ranked in Colorado for effective use of funds for academic achievement, according to a study. Read more in the Denver Post.

Paying more for bottles could bring green to Colorado’s schools

That water bottle or bottle of beer you drink every day may soon cost you five more cents. But you could get the nickel back if you recycled the bottles. Check out this 9News report.

Boulder Valley makes small gains in minority teachers

The Boulder Valley School District is seeing small gains in the percentage of teachers of color after several years of concerted effort, but it still isn’t close to matching its student demographics. Read more in the Daily Camera.

At-risk high school students get glimpse of college

Not too long ago, Greg McCoy went to school at Montbello High School with no thoughts about the future. He says a lot kids are like that.

“I was definitely one of those students where I was just like, ‘Well, I’m in high school. I’m going to have fun. I’m just going to hang with friends,'” McCoy said. Watch this 9News report.

Rhee faces renewed scrutiny over depiction of student progress when she taught

Former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, known for her crusade to use standardized test scores to help evaluate teachers, is facing renewed scrutiny over her depiction of progress that her students made years ago when she was a schoolteacher. Read more in the Washington Post.

Colorado Legacy Foundation to recognize Dougco schools

Douglas County School District’s Alternative Licensure Program is the recipient of the Excellence in Educator Preparation Award. Read more in the Highlands Ranch Herald.

Colorado district evolves school bus advertising to offset operation costs

Colorado school districts have been allowed to pursue external school bus advertising campaigns as potential revenue streams to fight budget cuts since the early 1990s. A system 45 miles north of Denver tried it once before with disappointing results but is giving the program another shot. Read more in School Transportation News.

Superintendent: Waiver best for small district

A tiny Eastern Plains school district is seeking a waiver from one education reform law by invoking the terms of a different reform statute. The 109-student Kit Carson district wants to be declared an innovation district, allowed under a 2008 law, and as part of that move basically wants to be exempted from the 2010 educator effectiveness law. Read more in Education News Colorado.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.