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Walcott's middle school plan puts new spin on old approaches

In his first major policy speech, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott called for major changes to the ctiy's worst middle schools.

To shake middle schools from mediocrity, the city is turning to school reform strategies it considers tried and true.

In the next two years, the Department of Education will close low-performing middle schools, open brand-new ones, add more charter schools, and push more teachers and principals through in-house leadership programs, Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced today in a 30-minute policy speech, the first of his six-month tenure.

For 10 schools, the city will ask for $30 million in federal funds to try a new reform strategy set out by the federal government, “turnaround,” in which at least half of staff members are replaced, Walcott said.

The efforts — which the city plans to pay for with a mixture of state and federal funds — are meant to boost middle school scores that are low and, in the case of reading, actually falling.

“People have tried and struggled with the complicated nature of middle schools for decades,” he said. “But the plan I’ve laid out is bolder and more focused than anything we’ve tried here in New York City before.”

Experts and advocates who helped engineer the last major effort to overhaul middle schools, a City Council task force that produced recommendations but short-lived changes at the DOE in 2007, disputed Walcott’s characterization. They said Walcott’s announcement reflects a change in style but not substance.

“Much of what he said is not new,” said Carol Boyd, a parent leader with the Coalition for Educational Justice, which has long urged more attention for middle schools. “There is a definite party line, except Joel [Klein] wasn’t able to deliver it with the same believability that Chancellor Walcott does,” she said. Boyd sat on the task force.

“There’s nothing new [or] interesting about this plan,” said Pedro Noguera, the New York University professor who chaired the council’s task force and has spoken out against school closures. “It sounds like more of what they’ve been doing, shutting down failing schools.”

In fact, a centerpiece of Walcott’s plan is the creation of 50 new middle schools over the next two years, roughly half of which will be charter schools. And Walcott said he would ask the City Council to redirect funds it has allocated since 2008 to 51 low-performing middle schools to help other schools that have “shown promise but need continued support to succeed.”

But he said schools that don’t make strides would be shuttered. “We will hold our middle school to the same tough standards we hold our high schools,” Walcott said. “If a school is failing its students, we will take action and phase it out.”

Walcott could have a tough time selling his plan to Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who convened the task force to improve middle schools in 2007. Her office reacted to the news with surprise and skepticism.

“We were disappointed that more of the reforms outlined by the Council’s Middle School Task Force were not incorporated into the Chancellor’s speech,” said Justin Goodman, a spokesman for Quinn, particularly its recommendations to extend learning time and training for current middle school principals and teachers.

Ernest Logan, president of the principal’s union, said Walcott’s initiatives could “breathe life” back into the campaign that Quinn started, which he said was “nearly abandoned.

To operate the new schools, Walcott said the city will need to push more aspiring principals toward middle schools, which typically struggle to find qualified leadership more so than elementary and high schools, as well as create a “new class” of Teaching Fellows to work in middle schools.

Among other school improvement policies, Walcott noted two targeting poor literacy scores: plans to expand the Innovation Zone program to a group of middle schools using Race to the Top funding, and plans to purchase more non-fiction books aligned with the Common Core standards using $15 million from the State.

Walcott said he took inspiration from the reform efforts underway at several high-performing district and charter middle schools, which he has spent the past month visiting.

One school Walcott visited last week was Democracy Prep Harlem, a charter school co-located in the P.S. 92 building, where Principal Emanuel George said the chancellor toured classrooms and asked questions about what how the middle school trains its teaching staff and structures its school day.

“He walked into our World Percussion class, and poked into a reading classroom for 5 to 10 minutes. He said his focus was on meeting the leaders that drive schools,” George said.

George said Walcott left him with the impression that there would be more conversations, and opportunities to share best practices with other principals, to come. There is no formal principal advisory group on middle school improvement set up, according to Josh Thomases, the DOE’s deputy chief academic officer, who participated in some of Walcott’s conversations with principals last week.

But he said Walcott will be looking to principals for further guidance. “I imagine [the meetings] will continue with some regularity,” he said. “We may rotate principals. There are a lot of middle schools doing things right.”

Boyd said large-scale middle school improvements are necessary, but she did not think the widespread opening and closing of schools would be sufficient.

“Sometimes the culture of the previous school is so insidious in the neighborhood that even when you phase it out you still have the same host of problems because you are dealing with the same cohort of children and you haven’t addressed the underlying need,” she said.

new use

Committee picks Denver Language School to use building vacated by shuttered elementary

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Teacher Yu-Hsin Lien helps her third-grade students with classwork at the Denver Language School.

A charter middle school that immerses students in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese would occupy the northeast Denver building of an elementary school shuttered for low performance if the school board follows a committee recommendation made public Friday.

Denver Language School serves more than 700 students from across the city in kindergarten through eighth grade, although the recommendation is only for the upper grades. The school was one of seven that applied to use the building previously occupied by Gilpin Montessori elementary school in the Five Points neighborhood.

With real estate for schools scarce in Denver, the recommendation represents a win for the Denver Language School and a nod to some of the district’s priorities, including rewarding highly rated schools and collaborating with charters.

A committee of community members and Denver Public Schools employees tasked with reviewing potential occupants is recommending placing the charter’s fourth through eighth grades there next year while the school’s current building in east Denver is being renovated. After that, the recommendation is for the fifth through eighth grades to be housed at Gilpin.

In a letter to the community (read it below), the committee cited Denver Language School’s “high academic performance” and “track record of strong enrollment” among the reasons they chose it. The school has for the past two years been rated “green,” the district’s second-highest rating.

Because of the language immersion model, few new students enroll after kindergarten, which means the middle school wouldn’t draw many students away from neighborhood schools, the letter says, a concern voiced by some community members.

Denver Language School would pay the district to use the building. In a gentrifying city where real estate prices have been steadily increasing and the number of school buildings is limited, securing an affordable location is one of the biggest hurdles charters face.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg received the recommendation earlier this week. He is expected on Dec. 18 to make his recommendation to the school board, which is set to vote Dec. 21.

The school board voted last year to close Gilpin Montessori despite community opposition. This year, the building housed several programs serving students with special needs while the district decided on a long term occupant. The district’s criteria for that occupant were that it be a currently operating or previously approved secondary school with 600 students or fewer.

Denver Language School opened in 2010. Last year, it served about 300 students in grades five through eight. The letter says the school expects to enroll 365 students in those grades in future years, which means it would not fill the entire 600-student-capacity Gilpin building.

“In the future, we will revisit options for using the rest of the building,” the letter says.

The committee also noted the diversity of Denver Language School’s students as a positive. Last year, about 48 percent of students were children of color and 19 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty. Both percentages are below district averages.

The committee included four community members and five Denver Public Schools employees. They met privately five times over the course of two and a half weeks to come up with their recommendation. The district also hosted several forums to gather community feedback.

The committee members were:

  • Evelyn Barnes, parent of two students and aide to city council president Albus Brooks
  • John Hayden, president of the Curtis Park Neighbors neighborhood association
  • Katherine Murphy, parent of a former Gilpin student and a Curtis Park resident
  • Maggie Miller, member of the city’s Slot Home Task Force and a Five Points resident
  • Joe Amundsen, DPS’s associate director of school design and intensive support
  • Liz Mendez, DPS’s director of operations support services
  • Maya Lagana, DPS’s senior director of portfolio management
  • Sara Baris, DPS’s senior manager of planning and analysis
  • Shontel Lewis, DPS’s manager of public affairs

The other schools that applied included one district-run alternative high school, Compassion Road Academy, and five other charter schools: The Boys School, Colorado High School Charter GES, Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, 5280 High School and The CUBE. The last two schools have been approved by the district but are not yet open.

Read a letter the district sent to the Gilpin community below.

Indiana graduation pathways

Parents and educators worry about how new graduation rules will affect students with disabilities

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

In the wake of a wildly unpopular decision to change Indiana’s high school graduation rules, state officials must grapple with how to actually implement the plan — and students with disabilities could face more challenges following those rules than their peers.

Called graduation pathways, the goal was to ensure students are ready for life after high school, but the recommendations are complex. The system seems to overlap with existing Indiana diploma requirements and also requires additional criteria such as exams, completing advanced courses, or gaining credit for internships.

But there are no guidelines around, for example, what kinds of internships or community service programs would count for graduation, what kinds of supports and accommodations would be in place for students with disabilities or how the pathways would function alongside a student’s needs for special services and therapies.

The potential for these challenges was not lost on the dozens of parents and educators who tried to convince state officials last week to rethink the plan. Most of the people who commented publicly and many who sent emails to the state education department mentioned concerns about students with special needs being able to meet the new demands.

Stacey Brewer, a principal in Yorktown, talked about her own child, a 6-year-old with autism, when she addressed the Indiana State Board of Education.

“There is a very real chance that my child with autism will never be able to accomplish” parts of the graduation pathways plan that go beyond what’s required by the state’s general diploma, Brewer said. The state is “not weighing out the disastrous impact” the plan would have on students.

As she finished her passionate testimony, she walked back to her seat to energetic applause from the packed auditorium. Many with similar stories and sentiments spoke after her.

J.T. Coopman, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents said before Indiana can create graduation pathways, it needs to figure out what’s happening with its diplomas — a related issue that has vexed parents and educators ever since the federal government announced it would no longer count Indiana’s general diploma in the graduation rate the state reports. The move could exclude about 12 percent of Hoosier high schoolers from being considered graduates.

Indiana has four diplomas: The standard Core 40 diploma, a general diploma with fewer requirements, and two honors diplomas, one for academics and another for career and technical education. Most students in the state earn a Core 40.

“Don’t we need to fix the diploma statute to better serve all Indiana students before we embark on a new, untested direction for our graduates?” Coopman said.

Not all of the feedback was negative. Mary Roberson, a superintendent in Perry County, said she supported the graduation pathways plan overall, and that her district was already having students with disabilities pursue internships, where they’ve been successful.

In a newsletter sent out last week, Pam Wright, director of special education for the Indiana Department of Education, said policymakers and educators need to remember that all students with disabilities are not the same and have different needs and abilities. Some might struggle to meet the pathways requirements, but others might not.

“It is my hope that as other debates occur during this legislative session, the one-size-fits-all disability myth continues to be debunked,” Wright said in the newsletter. “Yes, definitely, students with disabilities need to be considered in any public policy change, but the uniqueness of each student’s capabilities should not be lost in the debate.”

Only about 17 percent of students with disabilities don’t earn a high school diploma, and almost half earn the state’s standard Core 40 diploma or an honors diploma.

Conversations about pathways, both as they relate to special education and to a variety of other topics, are just getting started. The pathways committee said it would continue to meet to address whether Indiana should create a single statewide diploma and how graduation waivers work in the new system.

Indiana law allows for a graduation waiver if students fail to meet pathway requirements, but the waivers are controversial, and schools are sometimes hesitant to award them. Supporters say they give opportunities to students who might face specific challenges, but critics believe the waivers give students a free pass and don’t ensure they leave high school with adequate skills.

No additional committee meetings have been scheduled at this time.

Students with significant cognitive disabilities — generally about 1 percent of students across the state — wouldn’t be affected by the pathways plan. They typically don’t earn high school diplomas, instead they receive a certificate of completion, a credential that until recently showed employers or educators little else besides that a student physically attended school. (It has since been expanded and updated to include more course suggestions and academic structure.)

Last week wasn’t the first time special education advocates came out in full force to challenge state officials on policy that could be detrimental to students with disabilities. Several diploma-related topics have garnered considerable attention, such as when the state attempted to overhaul diplomas in 2015.

The next year, when lawmakers passed legislation to ensure all schools offered students a chance to earn any state diplomas, educators, parents and other community advocates were there testifying to lawmakers, too. And as recently as last year, when an early version of a bill would have killed the general diploma, the language was amended out after pressure from the special education community.

Often, these graduation policy changes are sparked by a call for students to meet higher standards demanded either by employers or higher education. But Kim Dodson, executive director for the Arc of Indiana, an organization that advocates for people with disabilities, said focusing on raising the academic bar distracts from the very real problems policies like the current graduation pathways plan could present to students with special needs.

“Most of the time, when students fall short of their expectations, it’s not because the bar wasn’t set high enough,” Dodson said. “It’s because they didn’t have the resources and accommodations they needed to be fully successful.”