First Person

After One Space Shift, Our School Contemplates Another

At the Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters — the decade-old unscreened district secondary school in the poorest Congressional district in the country, where I have taught for the last six years — we do a good job with a tough hand. The work here is big and challenging, and the people are wonderful.

But every year, another policy-level challenge makes our already difficult work seem nearly impossible. First it was massive budget cuts, then centralized layoffs of school support staff, a special education overhaul, rotating teachers sent from the Absent Teacher Reserve (but not enough money to hire them!), and rising numbers of mid-year over-the-counter transfer students. Now, the challenge is a second year of space changes planned by the Department of Education.

Like many other public schools in the city, our school shares space with three others: a District 75 school for students with disabilities in grades K-8; a district middle school; and as of this year, a charter elementary school. After less than one year since the last space shift, the Department of Education has proposed two big changes: The district middle school, M.S. 203, will phase out over the next two years, and Bronx Success Academy 1, the charter school, will expanded to eighth grade over the next five years.

Though the individual teachers, students and staff from the other schools in our building have been respectful, generous neighbors, the system-level decisions about space and co-location have resulted in serious concerns for the Bronx Letters community. While the city’s planning documents say that our “enrollment will be unaffected” and that we will “be able to continue offering the current academic program,” our experience over the last seven months has shown us that is unlikely to be true.

We only have one chance to convince the Department of Education to recognize Bronx Letters in its space plans going forward: a public hearing – at 6 p.m. on Valentines’s Day! To prepare, our high school House Council student government representatives planned “community education” activities, with my help. Almost every advisory group in the school engaged in a facilitated discussion around the following three questions: 1) What do you appreciate most about Bronx Letters? 2) What are your concerns related to the proposed changes in our building? 3) What is something you’d like share about your experience at Letters that could affect decision-making about our shared space?

Together, they turned their answers into statements that could be presented at the public hearing. The statements, excerpts of which I am sharing here, reveal the profound effect that co-location and space allocation policies have on the learning and growing that happens in a school building. Even if the negative consequences of sharing space are unintended, they are deep and wide — and can truly change a school. I’ve seen it happen, and so have my students.

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Quin, 11th grade:

I am a Bronx Letters student and because I have a little sister in Bronx Success Academy, I can honestly say I understand that there are many sides of this issue. This is very hard for me and my family. We understand that Bronx Success wants to grow to eighth grade for a better future for their students, but we are both great schools and both want to remain that way! We want all the schools in the building to be treated fairly.

Since Bronx Success moved in, the number of students in the same classroom has increased. It is becoming harder for teachers to teach and harder for students to learn when the teacher can’t meet every child’s needs. Without the space we used to have, the classes will only get bigger and harder to manage.

Ashley, a junior:

Our school is now spread out through the building, breaking the community that the middle and high school here has worked very hard to create. … Bronx Academy of Letters has not been and is not the same place it was five years ago. Not only does this affect me now but this would affect my future. What I want to be and what I have always wanted to be is a dancer. I want to major in dance in college and make it my career choice for the rest of my life. As a junior I no longer have access to the dance room in my schedule. This has never been true in my six years of being at this school. Last year I was not given dance as a class but I was allowed to have access to it during lunch. This too is no longer true. During our lunch period, another school is having gym in the dance room! … What’s going to happen when I have college auditions and nowhere to rehearse for an audition that determines my future?

Tajonae, eighth grade:

This school year, the seventh and eighth grades moved to an area that has tiny classrooms and small hallways spaces and we are always bumping into each other, which causes conflicts that could have been avoided. Every time I am in a classroom, no one can walk around the classroom without bumping into something or someone…

Fatoumata, eighth grade:

Bronx Letters is supposed to be a family and now the middle school and the high school don’t interact that often. We want to be less spread out and have spaces that are connected to one another … Now, rooms are being used ALL the time. Students have a hard time finding teachers. One on one time with teachers is very difficult because there is literally nowhere private they can meet.

Ana, ninth grade:

We have so many opportunities to be successful in our future. One of them is office hours, which is like tutoring that all teachers have during lunchtime on Tuesday and Thursdays. You have no idea how helpful these are to me to improve my grades and my understanding of in my classes. Sometimes even now office hours is hard because there are too many teachers in each room and we can’t get any attention. But this school is already amazing by trying to help us. Please don’t take that away from us. The space we have is already small and crowded. We make the best of it but if things change too much, one of the things we might miss is office hours!

Kyesha, 11th grade:

One of the reasons why I decided to stay at Bronx Letters for high school is because I felt comfortable. By the time I got to the ninth grade, I already knew some of my high school teachers and, even better, some of the high school students, which made it easier to transition into my new high school experience. Now, being a junior, I look at the middle school students and have no clue who they are, which is breaking the school community that we once had. It is also frustrating to see that our seniors have to stay outside during ANY weather because there is no supervised classroom for them to be in to eat. I will be a senior next year and don’t know how well I am going to take having to eat my food outside in the snow. Also, during lunch time we have to wait in the hallway until the other school leaves, the cafeteria is cleaned up after them, and if the cafeteria staff is ready for us to come in, which takes about 15 minutes of our lunch time with nowhere to go.

Delquan, eighth grade:

I have been at the Bronx Academy of Letters for three years and have witnessed many changes between last school year and this one. We have been forced into the corners of this building and we don’t have enough space. When we are released from classes, we’re all on top of each other and if we had more space, we could avoid conflict. Our school is divided into different parts of the building and I don’t know the other students in our sixth grade or in high school so it’s harder to make friends outside my grade.

Destiny, eighth grade:

We also have to wait and wait to go into our Math class and you know why? Because we have teachers sharing EVERY classroom. The teachers have no time to set up their lesson plans. All of this space loss is hurting our learning environment.

Roxanna, eighth grade:

The hallways get cramped in between periods, and kids shove, push, etc. That leads to conflict and problems and we can’t ever get away from each other. Most of our classrooms don’t have windows or heating. One of my favorite classes is gym and I have to share the gym with four schools! It is very cramped and we are sometimes getting hit with basketballs. Some of our classes like Drama, Math and Health are in very small rooms because all the other rooms are being used. How are we supposed to focus in small, sweaty rooms??! Our grades have dropped because of this. We need a bigger, more comfortable environment to learn and study in.

The juniors of Bronx Academy of Letters Thomas House Advisory:

Last year, our advisor was saying that we were going to lose space because Bronx Success Academy was moving in. We felt like we had no say. We were scared, frustrated, and disappointed after we had written letters begging to keep our space and explaining all of the extra-curricular activities and opportunities we would risk losing. She left a few months later saying that she didn’t like the way that the school was going.

Now, here we are again. This year there is a new advisor asking us to do the same thing. We feel like our education is threatened and are afraid that when we, the class of 2014, return to visit after graduating, we won’t have a school to come back to. … Part of the reason why schools in this area aren’t offering a strong education to students is because of problems like this. We want our concerns and voices to be heard and to think of compromise so that our school can be successful and Bronx Success can offer the best education possible as well.

First Person

A Chalkbeat roundtable: The promise and perils of charter networks like Success Academy

When we published an essay about the promise and perils of charter schools by our CEO and editor in chief Elizabeth Green last month, we heard from a lot of readers.

Elizabeth’s piece outlined her conclusions after more than a decade of reporting about charter school networks, and more specifically the Success Academy network in New York City. She wrote that charter school networks offer both great advantages — in their ability to provide rare coherence in what is taught across classrooms — and significant danger. Charter networks, she wrote, have changed public education by “extracting it from democracy as we know it.”

Some of our readers saw their own thinking reflected in her conclusions. Others had a very different take.

What was clear was that Elizabeth had kicked off a conversation that many Chalkbeat readers are ready to have, and that, as always, robust and respectful debate is good for everyone’s thinking.

So we reached out to people who engage with big questions about how schools are structured every single day, in their work or personal lives. Today, we’re sharing what they had to say. But we think this is far from the end of the conversation. If you want to add your voice, let us know.

 
 

 

Charter networks’ needs and goals may not be the community’s

By Tim Ware, former executive director of the Achievement Schools managed by the Tennessee Department of Education and founder of Ware Consulting Group

As the founder and former executive director of a high performing public charter middle school in Memphis, Tennessee, I am a firm believer in the promise of well-run charter schools. I also understand the limits of these schools.

A key aspect of public charter legislation is autonomy. This means that public charters decide how to staff their schools, which curriculum to use, how to allocate resources for student support, and how their daily and summer schedules work. However, this legislated autonomy creates issues that thoughtful policymakers need to address.

For instance, in Memphis, a high-performing public charter network began operating a chronically underperforming middle school as a part of a turnaround intervention effort. Despite significant improvements in learning and school culture, as well as the support of the community, the school grappled with dwindling enrollment and suffocating building maintenance costs. Fewer dollars were available to invest in high quality teaching and learning, social-emotional supports, and extracurricular activities. Ultimately, the charter operator made the difficult decision to cease operating the school.

This example illustrates the limits of public charter schools. The same autonomy that allowed them to create an approach that drove improvement for children also allowed them to decide that they could no longer operate the school. This means that, as long as autonomy exists for public charter schools (and it should), we cannot eliminate traditional districts.

The solution for historically underserved communities will be found by creating strong ecosystems of education. These ecosystems should consist of a healthy mix of traditional schools, optional schools (schools with competitive entry requirements), magnet schools, public charter schools, and private schools. By ensuring that multiple types of schools flourish and are accessible to all, parents will be able to make informed choices and select a school which best meets the needs of their most precious belonging — their child.

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Focusing on charter networks is a mistake. Districts have the same potential

By Josh Thomases, dean of innovation, policy, and research at Bank Street College of Education

Elizabeth Green’s article on Eva Moskowitz misses one important detail – districts have successfully scaled change for students. In this era of attacks on government, it is worth looking closer.

The hundreds of new small high schools opened in New York City between 2000 and 2012 transformed thousands of lives. The research firm MDRC documented that impact, showing a 9.4 percent increased graduation rate and an 8 percent increase in college attendance. Notably, this increase was driven by success with groups that school systems often fail: poorer students, black students, and students with disabilities.

This extraordinary effort happened with district educators and unions, public resources and processes.

I saw this reform inside and out. I helped create a small school in the 1990s and was part of community protests against some of the initial school closures under Chancellor Joel Klein. And, in 2004, I became responsible for the development and support of new schools within the education department.

The new schools work was an example of democracy in action – with all its imperfections. There were legendary protests against the Department of Education and arguments over race, equity and power. And through all of that, the process transformed schools.

Why the success?

  1. The point was to improve teaching and learning. Everything was looked at through this lens.
  2. Educators were the agents of change. The new schools process challenged principals, teachers, community members and parents to reimagine school.
  3. External partners multiplied the power of the changes. These included school development organizations (such as New Visions and CUNY) and local partners ranging from the Brooklyn Cyclones and South Bronx Churches. For the first six years of the reform, the unions were a partner, too.
  4. The district shifted authority towards the principal and school based staff in key areas: hiring, scheduling, budgets, and curriculum.

This is not a story of perfect success; as a district, we made mistakes and they were debated publicly. But the results show that districts can take bold action to change what is happening in schools.

Charters in New York have also demonstrated they can make an important contribution to a district. The task ahead is not to forego government, but to activate its strengths.

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Charter networks are a laboratory for consistent and high-quality instruction

By Seneca Rosenberg, chief academic officer at Valor Collegiate Academies in Nashville, Tennessee

My first year in the classroom, I desperately wanted to be the teacher my fourth graders deserved. A diligent student, I carefully examined California’s standards, the curriculum my district had adopted, new research, and popular trade books. I quickly saw that the approaches they outlined — for how to teach reading, for example — were often in direct conflict.

Veteran teachers advised: have your students fill out the mandated worksheets to avoid scrutiny, then close your door and teach as you want. This would have been good advice if only I had known what to do behind that door to help my students to learn.

Now, as chief academic officer of Valor Collegiate Academies, a small charter school network in Nashville, I reflect daily on how our autonomy and network structure provide crucial, and often unremarked upon, resources for developing coherent systems of teaching and learning.

Like other charter networks, Valor has the flexibility to set our educational vision and then organize our own curriculum, assessments, hiring policies, student and teacher schedules, and culture to realize it. Many of our teachers and school leaders report that our shared systems, while demanding, buffer them from some of the stress that comes with making sense of dissonant policies and practices they more regularly encountered in traditional public schools.

Even more importantly, our infrastructure provides our teachers and leaders with a common framework around which expertise can be developed, shared, and improved.

For example, at Valor, our teaching teams meet frequently to study and plan from our students’ work. We have shared protocols for data analysis and teacher coaching. Each piece has been intentionally developed as part of a system. As a result, teachers have opportunities to learn that far exceed anything I had access to as a teacher — and our students benefit.

I share some of Elizabeth Green’s ambivalence about the potential impact of the rise of charters nationally, though she inflates the extent to which charters “extract” public education from democratic control — at least in states in which authorizing laws are well crafted. I am also skeptical of Moskowitz’s suggestion that perhaps “a public school system consisting principally of charter schools would be an improvement.”

But charter networks’ unique conditions do provide a useful laboratory. Critics who dismiss our high-performing charter networks’ many successes risk missing what we are learning from this critical innovation — coherent instructional systems — and how that might contribute to new possibilities for American education.

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In my city, no schools have it figured out

By Bernita Bradley, parent advocate and blogger at Detroit School Talk (and a Chalkbeat Reader Advisory Board Member)

Take all kids out of charter schools, they say. Close them down and require those students to attend their closest public school, no matter how far, how full the classrooms, and how low-performing. Hop on a bus more than 25 minutes to attend the closest high school near you and sit at the back of the class on the floor. After all, public schools were perfect before charter schools came along, and in order for them to be perfect again, we need everyone on board.

Don’t talk bad about public schools, they say. Don’t draw attention to the fact that we are still figuring out how to improve public schools and need your help. The city of Detroit must unite, be of one mind, and let all charter school leaders know that we are only supporting traditional public schools.

These arguments won’t work. I fight for quality public schools and fought for us to not lose more of them. However, if you strip parents of choice, you prove that you are not committed to providing children with what they need.

To be clear, I am an advocate for both sides. Parents don’t care about this war — we just want good schools that will educate all children equally. Can we have that conversation?

Let’s tell the truth about how, here in Detroit, both sides cherry-pick students and “counsel out” parents. Public schools just suspend students indefinitely until parents leave to find a charter school. Let’s tell the truth about how teaching to the test has affected both charter and public school teachers’ ability to make sure student academic growth is more robust.

Both sides could do better. My children have attended both kinds of schools. I’ve bused my kids 15 miles away. I’ve sent my kids to the top charter and public schools in the city. And no one — including charter schools — has this figured out.

I can’t think of a person would say they are totally happy with their child’s educational experience here in Detroit. We have come to the point where, while we’ve made friends in both charters and public schools, this is a journey full of struggles and broken promises that we would not wish on any parent.

Believe me, if we had our way there would be no need to choose. The school on the corner would be full and alive with students, parents, and teachers who have one common goal, to educate all kids.

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The rise of networks hurts the charter movement

By Steve Zimmerman, Coalition of Community Charter Schools

In the ongoing saga of Eva Moskowitz and her war against the the educational status quo, two key issues are overlooked. The first is that the rise of Success Academy has come at significant cost to the charter school movement and the democratic values that were at its genesis.

The rigidly top-down managerial approach of the Success network is the antithesis of the original idea of chartering: to free schools from district-imposed conformity so they have autonomy to innovate. There is no autonomy or innovation in a franchise. Franchisees follow the script.

The second issue is that Success Academy schools, for all intents and purposes, turn teachers into technicians. They are trained in a rigid model of classroom management with a relentless focus on student outcomes. As Elizabeth Green and others point out, the effectiveness of this system, at least in terms of test scores, is well documented and ostensibly justifies the orthodoxy of “no excuses” education reform.

Relentlessness, however, comes at a cost. Just as legendary as its record-high test scores is Success Academy’s teacher attrition. Success Academy appears to welcome an increasing number of bright young people to learn and execute the scripts, and then watch as they move on to their real careers after they burn out in three years. The consequences of this trend are chilling to imagine.

If we believe the purpose of public education to be the development of exceptional test takers, then Eva Moskowitz has clearly pointed the way to the promised land. If, however, we believe the purpose is the betterment of society and the development of the whole child, there are better models to emulate.

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Coherence is important, but charter networks aren’t necessary to achieve it

Andy Snyder, social studies teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City

Who should decide what students learn in school? Families or individual teachers? District and charter school leaders, elected officials, or panels of professors?

Elizabeth Green’s recent essay focuses our attention on this huge question. She points out that many other countries provide “a clear sense of what students need to learn, the basic materials necessary to help them learn it (such as a curriculum).” And she argues that some charter school networks, enabled by their anti-democratic powers, are developing coherent and meaningful ideas of what to prioritize and how to teach it well.

When I began student teaching, I was shown stacks of textbooks and boxes of transparencies, quizzes, tests, homework — corporate-branded, filled with facts, empty of meaning. I switched to another mentor and recreated the trial of John Brown. Later I left one innovative public school where administrators were attempting to bend my courses into more traditional shapes for another where the interview includes, “Describe a dream course that you would love to teach” and where we teach those courses every day.

But I’ve seen in Germany the effects of a thoughtful curriculum — classes connect between disciplines and spiral powerfully between grades, and teachers adapt rather than invent.  Improvised individual efforts often produce a worse result than a strong system. That’s why I commute in New York by subway, not bicycle.

The systemic approach can break down too. Today we curse the defunding of our transit agency, and we saw what happened to the Common Core. How can charter schools develop truly excellent curriculum when their priority seems to be preparing students to win against bad bubble tests?

Students, no matter what kind of school they attend, deserve lessons crafted by well-trained practitioners who draw from the best ideas of the profession.

In the best future I can imagine, each school or district adapts curriculum from one of several coherent curriculum packages developed over years with millions of dollars and genius and honest sweat. Teachers trained in that tradition lead students in cultivating the deep questions and necessary knowledge, and students graduate with a sense of how it all adds up and what they can bring with them into the world.

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First Person

I’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.