inside the iZone

Wired Olympus students race toward diploma at their own pace

Danielle Boone at work in her U.S. History class.

Danielle Boone’s U.S. History class at Olympus Academy High School had just begun, but she didn’t need a teacher to tell her what to do. The glowing screen looking back at her told her everything she needed to know.

Boone typed out the final section of an assignment on immigration – “a FIVE-sentence summary paragraph (including analysis sentence) about immigration and urbanization” – which she emailed to her teacher, sitting nearby, for grading. She then watched a short video online about the Civil War to research her next assignment, an essay on the Transcontinental Railroad.

Boone will continue knocking off these assignments on her school-issued Mac computer at her own blistering pace until, finally, she’s completed what is required to pass the course and earn a credit. The day after she completes the last assignment for the U.S. History class, she’ll start working on another course she needs to pass to graduate.

“I’m a student who works fast and this school helps me get credits,” Boone said during a brief break in her work. “The faster you go, the faster you get credits.”

Boone is the kind of self-starter that city officials envisioned when they tasked Olympus Academy, a transfer school, with creating an online learning model in its school for its over-aged population two years ago.

Olympus is part of the iLearnNYC initiative, a division of the city’s Innovation Zone. Until now, the initiative, which included 124 schools this year, mainly provided technological resources to schools that were devising ways to mix traditional classroom instruction with online curriculum, an approach known as blended learning.

Next year, iLearnNYC will expand to nearly 200 schools and be reorganized around eight clusters that the DOE hopes will provide more support and help develop ideas for best practices. Olympus will lead one of the clusters, which will include 13 other transfer schools, in what DOE officials hope can chart a new way of educating the city’s over-aged student populations.

“We have seen over-aged and under-credited students make significant academic progress when they have access to a personalized online curriculum and out-of-classroom instruction,” said David Weiner, the Deputy Chancellor for Talent, Labor and Innovation.

When he founded the school in 2008, Principal Seth Schoenfeld designed a 17-credit trimester schedule to fast-track his students toward graduation. But after two years of using the schedule, he noticed that students were falling short in a key college-readiness measurement.

“We noticed was that there was some disconnect between the ability to pass a class and then an ability to pass a Regents,” Schoenfeld said, referring to the state exams students must pass to earn a diploma.

He searched for alternatives that would emphasize mastery instead of simply requiring students to outlast the duration of a course and learned that the DOE was actively seeking the same thing. Officials had successfully lobbied the state education department to lift minimum seat time requirements for blended learning classes, allowing them expand the iZone.

As Schoenfeld considered switching to the blended learning model, teachers at Olympus worried their jobs would soon be obsolete.

“All of a sudden, everything is online and you’re never going to be able to talk to your students,” Adrian Scott recalled thinking.

Nearly two years into the experiment, Schoenfeld and his staff are ready to declare the experiment a success. New York State Regent passing rates spiked in nearly every subject, and are up particularly in Living Environment and U.S. History. Credit accumulation among his most dedicated students is also up – 15 of 58 students who graduated last year would not have done so under the school’s old trimester model.

Students at Olympus, located in Canarsie, spend most of their day buried in their personal laptops, seated around large tables on the room. Many listen to music on headphones while they work, a practice Schoenfeld said teachers accept as long as students don’t also surf the web.

Students earn credits and diplomas on a rolling basis, based on how quickly and proficiently they complete the work. Curriculum consists of assignments worth anywhere from one to more than ten points. All classes are made up of 100 points.

And students don’t have to wait for the end of a marking period or the end of the school year to earn a class credit or diploma, respectively. As soon as students have completed all the necessary assignments – and demonstrated the school’s standard of mastery – they can theoretically be enrolled in a new class the next morning.

Boone entered the school with 15 credits, but she has already doubled her credits this year. Another student, Stephanie Paulino, has moved at a slower clip but both said that the school’s online credit-tracking program kept them more focused on completing school work than at their previous schools.

“We would have to wait for the whole class,” Paulino, 17, said of her former high school. Paulino said that so far she’d earned eight credits during this school year after earning 16 over the previous three years.

Not all students have excelled and overall credit accumulation rates has actually fallen because many students have struggled to adapt to the new online curriculum.

“Not every student found it as easy,” Schoenfeld said. “But those students who were willing to push and engage in the new learning experience were able to be successful and we feel they’re better prepared to be successful for college and post-secondary work.”

U.S. History teacher Adrian Scott helps a student during class.

Olympus teachers created their own online curriculum, but accepted a diminished role in the classroom. Even Scott, who said he was the most vocal skeptic of blended learning, has come around. He said he missed his role as the central figure in his classroom, but said the new role meant more time for individualize attention to students who may not have been as engaged in a larger classroom setting.

Andrew Rabinovici, a Global History teacher at Olympus, said that he still had some flexibility over his classroom. As Rabinovici roamed the classroom to offer help on essays about world religions, some students scribbled their work on a piece of paper.

“I kind of let the students choose,” Ravinovici said. “Some students like to write and some students learn better when they type.”

Ultimately, students at Olympus have more accountability in completing their work than they ever had before, Schoenfeld said.

“There’s no saved by the bell,” he said. “There’s no ‘at the end of this time period, you’re either passing or failing.'”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.