Model Lesson

Bronx principal marshals colleagues around arts enrichment

Sixth-graders at M.S. 223 drew Andy Warhol-inspired portraits during summer arts enrichment program

Angel Angel, 13, missed playing in seven baseball games last month so he could mentor students at his middle school, M.S. 223.

But Angel, a rising eighth-grader who is also an avid guitar-player, welcomed the opportunity to forgo his usual summer activities to help 96 incoming sixth-graders at the South Bronx middle school study reading, math and music for three weeks.

The summer enrichment program, which just finished its first year, is the brainchild of M.S. 223’s principal, Ramon Gonzalez, who has gained a reputation as a leader in public school management since he opened the school in 2003.

Gonzalez has touted initiatives to increase literacy and parental involvement to school community members throughout District 7, which is largely poor and low-performing. Now he is trying to turn District 7’s attention toward arts education, at a time when many schools are facing cuts to their art and music teaching positions. He is asking a handful of local principals to help him write a large grant to fund after school and summer school arts education at multiple schools in future years.

Gonzalez said he wanted to create a free summer program for his students that would address the learning-loss that some students, particularly those from low-income families, experience between June and September. He hoped offering afternoon classes in painting, printmaking, and orchestral music — in addition to trips to Broadway shows and the Museum of Modern Art —  would bring the students back each day, even though the classes were not mandatory.

Rather than try to carve $85,000 out of MS 223’s tight budget, he leveraged his connections — augmented after this spring’s appearance in the New York Times Magazine — to win funding.

Still, selling the split schedule to donors was difficult. Some pointed to a lack of research showing that arts integration would fuel academic improvements. Others didn’t see how Gonzalez’s program would fit into their funding priorities: One foundation that focuses on the arts didn’t want to help support the camp’s academic component, Gonzalez said, while another group wanted to fund academic instruction but not arts programming.

So Gonzalez approached this summer’s pilot program with a hypothesis: If you offer students quality arts education during the summer, then they will be more likely practice reading and math outside of the school year.

Gonzalez wants other principals to help him prove the point, so he is recruiting them to join him in offering arts integration programs outside the school day.

“His focus on trying to use the arts to raise reading scores is really good,” said Mary Padilla, principal of P.S. 5, who visited M.S. 223 last week for a tour of the summer program. “We need to do things differently than other districts because of all the high needs our students have. We have parents who are standing on unemployment lines, on food stamp lines. They don’t have the time to take kids to museums.”

Gonzalez plans to pitch the program to eight other principals this Friday and approach donors with his expansion plans in September. Most of the principals hail from Bronx and Harlem public schools which are outside of M.S. 223’s support network within the Department of Education, Gonzalez said, so collaborations like this one are his only opportunity to interact with them.

“You need a good body of people to effect change,” he said. “It’s the activist in me. We need to create the model to drive instruction, because this is not being done by outsiders.”

At the culmination of the camp last week, roughly 75 percent of the sixth-grade class—many of whom picked up instruments for the first time this July—performed Duke Ellington’s C Jam Blues and other jazz numbers to a half-full auditorium of parents and teachers.

Padilla, who sent four graduating fifth-grade students from her elementary school to M.S. 223 this year, left the school impressed by what she heard.

“You had over 100 kids participating in his summer arts program in a heat wave, on a Friday, at one o’clock in the afternoon,” she said. “This is August, when kids want to take a break and put their feet up, and these kids were in work mode.”

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

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

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede