First Person

A Memorable Student, Lost and Found

My friends Barbara and Jane were with me that Sunday afternoon when I answered the call from 718-777-4300. “Just pick it up, see who it is,” said Barbara, over my protests that I’d already had about 10 missed calls from the same number that morning and didn’t want to deal with any telemarketers over the weekend. When I grudgingly answered, I heard, “Please hold,” and as the Rikers Island switchboard put through the call, a saga 10 years long began a new chapter.

It was my former student Tom calling, responding to my letter to him and my entreaty to his Legal Aid lawyer to have him get in touch with me and allow me to visit him in jail.  That phone call on Memorial Day weekend 2010 was the first time I had spoken to Tom since 2001, when he was in the fourth grade, I was a young teacher, and we were about to lose touch — he by bouncing around from PS 192, where I met him, to special education school to detention center to jail on Rikers Island, I by leaving the school where he had been in my third-grade class to look for a better environment in which to teach and, a few years later, by leaving the district altogether and starting Harlem Link Charter School with Margaret Ryan.

In the third grade, Tom touched me as few people have because it was clear that he had special gifts but without consistent and serious guidance he was headed for trouble. By the time he was eight, he had about every risk factor you could name: orphaned, neglected, disabled, hyperactive. With more agency identification numbers than birthdays, it’s no wonder he landed in the tracked “bottom class” that was assigned to me, the lowest ranked among six or seven sections of third-graders at my gargantuan elementary school. Though he never seemed to sit still or attend to his lessons, though he ran circles around the routines his novice teacher was trying to put in place, Tom was a sponge for knowledge and somehow, through sheer eagerness to learn and some uncanny survival skills, met the academic standards in reading and arithmetic that year.

In the nine years between his transfer to what I had heard was a “special education school downtown” (“He was scared” was all another teacher could tell me about the situation as he left) and the Memorial Day phone call, I used every tool I could find to search for him: phone calls to colleagues, new lists of special education schools, and Google and other resources on the Internet.

In about 2007 I found Tom registered at a detention center in the Bronx. Concerned but elated that he was seemingly back in the system where I could contact him, I called the school office there to ask about him. “No recollection of that one,” said the person responsible for registration there. “He’s probably already gone, if he was ever even here. We have 300 students in this facility, and they come and go all the time. You can’t expect me to know them all.”

In the nine years since I last saw him, Tom has made a series of poor choices.  At the apex of these choices he committed a felony: robbery in the first degree. As a consequence he spent his 16th through 18th birthdays in a variety of jail and prison facilities from Rikers to the Bronx to Goshen, upstate. In December 2009, three years after imprisonment for his crime, he was released on parole. Within three months, he was back in jail for violating parole.

While Tom alone is responsible for his behavior, I’ve seen the long arc of his life since 1999 and understand that the truth is a bit more complicated. As he told me over the phone, he has lacked adult guidance over the years. That’s as gross an understatement as I’ve ever heard.

Each year, through various public and private agencies, our educational and correctional systems have spent tens of thousands of public dollars on Tom’s education and rehabilitation. Talking with him on that phone call from jail, I learned that the pattern I first observed with him in 2001 — when well-meaning social workers, psychologists and teachers based both at his school and the Administration for Children’s Services disappeared from his life with the stroke of a pen and a transfer to a new setting — would continue as service providers flitted in and out of his life.

Coming of age behind bars, having no family support to speak of and lacking a consistent adult authority figure, Tom was simply unprepared for life on his own. To make matters worse, when his parole began Tom also learned what it means to be homeless. It came as no surprise to this observer to learn that soon after being released, he made a thoughtless and self-destructive decision to skip a parole hearing. The sad tale thus continued in March 2010, when Tom was picked up by the police on that infraction and wound up back in jail, the one place he didn’t want to go.

In the weeks between Tom’s re-arrest and his 19th birthday this summer, he has found himself trapped in a Kafkaesque process in which the correctional system is doing its best to provide him with some support for life on the outside. I have joined him in the middle of this journey and gained yet another paradigm-shifting education in the process. Tom has been through a series of hearings intended to release him to a nonprofit agency that would provide him with some combination of life skills training, temporary housing and substance abuse treatment and prevention. Each hearing has seen new obstacles arise and has ended in delay and continued imprisonment.

Taken on their own, each obstacle is logical, even beneficial. In one instance, an agency wasn’t aware of an earlier diagnosis, and requested a screening. Another time, after an animated display by a prosecutor, a judge decided Tom would be at risk of recidivism without an escort to his destination agency, something for which he is not eligible until age 19. With Tom’s maximum 45-day stay for violating parole now approaching 90 days, these hearings paint a picture of a bureaucracy that seems to refuse to coordinate information well enough both to serve justice and provide Tom with a chance to rehabilitate himself.

So for Tom, with yet another hearing scheduled in a few weeks, it’s more of the same: waiting in his cell and requesting “protective custody” as much as possible to avoid the violence of the other inmates. When I visited him, Tom showed me fresh handcuff marks on his wrists. “It’s not the guards, it’s the other inmates,” he said. Whatever Tom learned in third grade, it may have put him on the path to getting his GED before being released on parole — a glimmer of hope that he might recapture the promise I saw 10 years ago — but it did not provide the survival skills needed to stay out of jail or the social skills to deal with the target on his back that accompanies his status as one of the youngest inmates on Rikers Island.

When Margaret and I started designing our school, the word link kept coming up in our conversation, leading to the school’s name: Harlem Link. There were interdisciplinary links between subjects in the curriculum, links between home and school, collaborative links through co-teaching, links with institutional partners for field trips, and more. As the school prepares to graduate its first class of fifth-graders and send them out into the world, another link is taking center stage: the special relationship between teacher and student. I know our fifth-graders are prepared to navigate the challenges that come with adolescence and growing up as they move on to competitive middle schools. They have had a much more concerted, coherent and rigorous experience than Tom did when he began bouncing around the system. Perhaps equally important, we are laying the plans to keep track of, support and invite back to Harlem Link our alumni as they progress through middle school, high school and college.

Maybe there is nothing I could have done to help Tom along the way. I don’t know. But I do know that I don’t understand a world in which a child could be so short on support that Rikers seems an inevitable destination. I also don’t understand a world in which, despite all of the agencies, all the social workers in and out of Tom’s life, all the hearings, I was maybe the one person looking for him, and I couldn’t find him until it seemed far too late. In the research I’ve done in the last month, partly to prepare to set up an alumni program for Harlem Link and partly in response to my experience with Tom, I have learned that a federal privacy law prevented me from having access to Tom’s records after he left my classroom. As his former teacher, I was deemed a no longer “interested educational party.” That’s right: The system is set up so that when something momentous happens in a child’s life, good or bad, his or her former teachers are officially not part of the educational community that can celebrate or provide succor on that occasion.

There are schools, of course, that track their alumni well. There are schools that measure their success longitudinally by finding out where their students go to college and what type of lives they lead decades after graduation (something we intend to do). There is nothing in the law preventing a school from asking alumni to stay in touch. What bothers me is the tremendous expenditure of resources that comes with dedicating staff time and technology to this effort when the most basic of this information is easily available in the New York City Department of Education’s servers. As a small school, we will do what it takes to keep these strongest links alive. But because of our limited resources, I know we will struggle to do it.

I’m talking to my lawyer friends to understand the reasoning behind this law — or regulation, since this interpretation is not specifically spelled out in the law — but in the meantime I am determined that nothing momentous will happen in the educational careers of our alumni without their elementary school teachers knowing about it.

Someone asked me recently why I wanted to make a big deal of Harlem Link’s 90 percent teacher retention rate in the past two years. With the school year winding down and this big graduation approaching, it’s been a time of reflection and celebration for many fifth-grade families. The notion that we are a larger family as a school and the famous saying, “It takes a village to raise a child,” have come up repeatedly in different settings as families and students try to cope with the idea of moving on to the next school. To my questioner I say, the fact that our teachers are sticking around means, among other things, that Harlem Link will be better able to keep those teacher-alumni links intact.

I am back in Tom’s life now. I can’t see him every day for 180 days as I did 10 years ago, but I’m willing to bet that in those days I learned and today I still remember more about him and what he needs than the sum of all of the specialists and case workers who have appeared and disappeared in his life since. I wish I could have participated along the way, could have spoken to some of the people who had to learn his family history (or, in some cases, not even get that far) over and over again. And I’m determined that in 2020, none of our teachers will have to say the same about any of our proud graduates.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.