First Person

This week's safe schools snippets

Rules to stop pupil and teacher from getting too social online

Faced with scandals and complaints involving teachers who misuse social media, school districts across the country are imposing strict new guidelines that ban private conversations between teachers and their students on cellphones and online platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Read more in the New York Times.

Boulder school among two recognized for Safe Routes to School top honor

Each year, the National Center for Safe Routes to School has the privilege of recognizing one Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program in the country for outstanding achievement in promoting safe walking and bicycling to school. This year – a first in the history of the James L. Oberstar Safe Routes to School Award – two schools will receive this national honor: Heatherwood Elementary School in Boulder, Colo., and Omro Middle School in Omro, Wis.

bicycles“Both schools developed comprehensive Safe Routes to School programs to change the commuting culture of students in very different ways,” said Lauren Marchetti, director of the National Center for Safe Routes to School. “Both of this year’s Award recipients are being recognized for developing and implementing successful programs unique to their individual school’s needs. This creativity led to increased walking and bicycling to school at Heatherwood, and a new mindset among Omro students and the community that incorporates active transportation as a way of life.”

At Heatherwood Elementary School, a 2008 parent survey revealed that few students were walking or cycling to school because a rural highway bisects the school’s attendance area. Heatherwood received $235,000 for infrastructure improvements to a crosswalk that spans the highway and $9,000 for education and encouragement activities by Colorado Department of Transportation. This funding, paired with tremendous support for the program from parents and faculty, brought about great change at the school. In just three years, Heatherwood Elementary School’s SRTS efforts and activities resulted in an increase from 12 percent to more than 43 percent of the school’s students regularly walking and bicycling to school.

What stood out most for SRTS Coordinator Amy Thompson was the inclusion of the school’s autistic children in the district-wide Bike to School Day, an effort funded by $1,000 mini-grant from the National Center.

“We took a huge risk trying something that had never been done before, and it turned out beautifully,” said Thompson. “We had lots of parents with tears in their eyes and children who had never been on a bike before not wanting to get off of the tandems.”

The National Center for Safe Routes to School opens a call for applications each year, usually in the fall, and evaluates applications with assistance of an expert panel representing organizations that promote safe walking and bicycling. For more information, visit www.saferoutesinfo.org/data-central/success-stories/safe-routes-to-school-award.

Bullied girl’s suicide has ongoing impact

Parents pursuing justice for the suicide death of their 15-year-old daughter in Massachusetts settled with the school district for $225,000, newly released court documents say. The documents were unsealed after a Slate reporter pursued the matter in court.

The report marks an end to legal proceedings in the case of Phoebe Prince, who hanged herself after months of persistent bullying by other students. Prince’s case captured headlines not only in the United States but dominated front pages in Ireland, which was her home until Fall 2009. Like other high profile bullying cases across the country, Phoebe’s death has an ongoing impact on school policies and anti-bully laws. Read more in this MSNBC report.

School problems linked to Neenan Co. will likely boost state’s scrutiny

Companies that want to do business through a state grant program dedicated to making school buildings safer likely will face greater scrutiny because of construction problems linked to one contractor.

State Treasurer Walker Stapleton told The Denver Post he will press for more thorough reviews of companies taking part in the Building Excellent Schools Today program — which provides money to mostly rural districts to replace and fix dilapidated schools — as questions continue to mount about the Neenan Co. Read more in the Denver Post.

Youth concussion rules among new Colorado laws in 2012

DENVER — Young athletes in Colorado schools are getting protections from concussions with new guidelines for coaches and an agricultural tax break is going away as a handful of new laws take effect Jan. 1.

The rules addressing youth concussions require coaches to bench players as young as 11 when it’s believed they’ve suffered a head injury, and players will need medical clearance before returning to the field. The new guidelines also require coaches in public and private schools to take free annual online training to recognize concussion symptoms. Read more in the Daily Camera. 

First Person

I’m an Oklahoma educator who had become complacent about funding cuts. Our students will be different.

Teacher Laurel Payne, student Aurora Thomas and teacher Elisha Gallegos work on an art project at the state capitol on April 9, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

I’ve spent the last 40 years watching the state I love divest in its future. The cuts to education budgets just kept coming. Oklahoma City Public Schools, where I spent the last 10 years working with teachers, had to cut over $30 million in the 2016-17 academic year alone.

Over time, students, teachers, and parents, at times including myself, became complacent. We all did what we could. For me, that meant working with the students and teachers in the most disenfranchised areas of my city.

In the past 18 months, that has also meant working at Generation Citizen, a nonprofit promoting civics education across Oklahoma. We help students deploy “action civics.” Over the course of a semester, students debate what they would change if they were in charge of their school, city, or state, and select one issue to address as a class, which may involve lobbying elected officials or building a coalition.

Their progress has been incredible. But when teachers across the state decided to walk out of their schools and head to the State Capitol to demand additional funding for education, action civics came to life in a huge way. And in addition to galvanizing our teachers, I watched this moment in Oklahoma transform young people.

My takeaway? Over the long term, this walkout will hopefully lead to more funding for our schools. But it will definitely lead to a more engaged youth population in Oklahoma.

These past two weeks have sparked a fire that will not let up anytime soon. With actual schools closed, the Oklahoma State Capitol became a laboratory rich with civic experimentation. Students from Edmond Memorial High School wanted elected officials to personally witness what students and teachers continue to accomplish, and when the walkout started, the students started a “Classroom at the Capitol.” Over 40 students held AP English Literature on the Capitol lawn. Their message: the state might not invest in their classrooms, but classes would go on.

In the first few days of the walkout, the legislature refused to take action. Many wondered if their voices were being heard. That’s when Gabrielle Davis, a senior at Edmond Memorial, worked to rally students to the Capitol for a massive demonstration.

“I want the legislators to put faces to the decisions they’re making,” Gabrielle said.

By Wednesday, the “Classroom at the Capitol” had grown to over 2,000 students. The students were taking effective action: speaking knowledgeably on the funding crisis, with a passion and idealism that only young people can possess.

As students’ numbers grew, so did their confidence. By Wednesday afternoon, I watched as the state Capitol buzzed with students not only protesting, but getting into the nitty-gritty of political change by learning the names and faces of their elected officials.

By Thursday and Friday, students and teachers were no longer operating independently. The collaboration which makes classroom learning most effective was happening in the halls of the Capitol. When students identified the representative holding up a revenue bill, they walked through the line to find students from his home district to lead the charge.

Last Monday, with the walkout still ongoing, the students I saw were armed with talking points and legislative office numbers. After another student rally, they ran off to the offices of their elected officials.

Two students, Bella and Sophie, accompanied by Bella’s mom, made their way to the fourth floor. The girls stood outside the door, took a deep breath, and knocked. State Senator Stephanie Bice was in a meeting. They stepped out to decide their next move and decided to write personal notes to their state senators. With letters written, edited, and delivered, Bella and Sophie were beaming.

“That feels so good,” Sophie said.

A week of direct civic action had turned protesters into savvy advocates.

Until this walkout, most of the participating students had never met their elected officials. But that’s quickly changing. Students have worked collaboratively to demystify the legislative process, understand the policy goals articulated by organizing groups, and advocate for revenue measures that would support a more equitable education system.

Jayke, a student from Choctaw, reflected on this reality. “These last few days at the Capitol I have learned more about life and how to stand up for what I believe.”

That’s no small thing. Over those 14 days, I listened to students use their voices to express their experiences. Many also spoke on behalf of students who were not there. They spoke for the 60 percent of Oklahoma public school students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. They rallied for the students at each of their schools who do not have enough food to eat.

Through this conflict, our students are learning the importance, and the mechanics, of political participation. Our young people are becoming powerful in a way that will outlast this funding crisis. It’s everything a civics educator could hope for.

Amy Curran is the Oklahoma site director for Generation Citizen, an education nonprofit.

First Person

Let’s solve the right problems for Detroit’s students with disabilities — not recycle old ones

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

As Superintendent Nikolai Vitti approaches his first anniversary of leading the struggling Detroit Public Schools Community District, I commend him for his energy and vision. In particular, I applaud his focus on developing a robust curriculum and hiring great teachers, the foundations of any great school district.

However, his recently announced plans to create new specialized programs for students with disabilities are disconcerting to me, given decades of research demonstrating the benefits of inclusion.

Specifically, Vitti has discussed the possibility of creating specialized programs for students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments. The motivation is twofold: to meet students’ needs and to offer distinct programs that will attract parents who have fled Detroit in search of higher quality schools.

I’ve spent 25 years both studying and actively trying to improve schools for students with disabilities, and I can understand why Vitti’s proposal may have appeal. (I’m now the head of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.) But while the specialized programs might fill a critical need immediately, I have seen the downside of creating such segregated programming.

Once the programs are created, parents will seek them out for appearing to be the better than weak programs in inclusive settings. This will reinforce the belief that segregation is the only way to serve students with learning differences well.

This is a problematic mindset that we must continually try to shift. One need only to examine decades of special education case law, or the outcomes of districts designed solely for students with disabilities — such as District 75 in New York City or the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support — to see that such segregated settings can become one-way paths to limited access to a robust curriculum, peers without disabilities, or high standards, even when those districts are created with the best of intentions.

While a small proportion of students with the most significant support needs — typically 2-3 percent of students identified for special education — can benefit from more segregated and restrictive settings, the vast majority of students with disabilities can thrive in inclusive settings.

Vitti is clearly committed to ensuring that students with disabilities have access to essential supports and services, especially students with dyslexia. He has spoken passionately about his own experiences growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia as well as watching two of his four children struggle with dyslexia. And Vitti and his wife started a school for students with dyslexia in Jacksonville, Florida.

However, I would urge him to reconsider his approach in favor of exploring strategies to integrate robust supports and services into existing schools. By integrating, rather than separating, Vitti can ensure that all students have access to the general education curriculum and to teachers with demonstrated subject knowledge.

Furthermore, integrated programs ensure that students with disabilities have access to their typically developing peers and, conversely, that these peers have access to special education teachers’ expertise.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing such inclusive programs in action around the country. For example, at San Diego’s Thrive Public Schools, there is no discernible distinction between students receiving special education services and students who are not. When I visited earlier this year, I saw how special education teachers work alongside general education teachers and share responsibilities for all students, not just those with disabilities.

At Mott Haven Academy in New York, teachers and school leaders preemptively deter behavioral issues and incorporate opportunities for intentional reflection. Students learn in a restorative environment that is safe, stable, structured, and understanding — particularly benefiting students with disabilities.

I’ve also seen programs designed to serve students with learning disabilities benefit many students. Why would we restrict these instructional practices to schools specifically designed only for students with dyslexia, for example?

I’m convinced that separating students based on their learning needs stands to do harm to both groups and reinforce pernicious stereotypes that students with disabilities need to be separated from their peers — a practice that does not prepare any students well to exist in a society that ideally embraces, rather than shuns, differences.

If Vitti cannot create the least restrictive settings for these students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments in the desired timeline, I encourage him to consider an explicitly short-term solution — say, one to three years — with a specific phase-out deadline. This will enable students to receive critical supports and services while Vitti strives to ensure that students with disabilities are able to access high-quality programs in more inclusive settings.

In the long term, Vitti should strive to weave educating the full range of students with learning differences into the DNA of Detroit’s schools.

It is refreshing to hear an urban superintendent explicitly prioritizing the educational needs of students with disabilities. Vitti’s concerns should energize efforts to address the limited capacity, resources, and training for the benefit of all students. That would be truly innovative, and Detroit has the potential to emerge as a leader — an effort for which Vitti could be very proud.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.