four in 1750

Identifying a weakness, Explore Schools shifts focus to literacy

A group of Explore teachers listen to a teaching training session on cognitive engagement in literacy at Brooklyn College on Wednesday.
A group of Explore teachers listen to a teaching training session on cognitive engagement in literacy at Brooklyn College on Wednesday.

When second-year teacher Alyssa Reyes saw her fourth-graders’ state exam scores, she was surprised. Math was a lot higher than she thought it would be and literacy was lower than she expected, she said.

The Explore Excel Charter School teacher attributed the disparity to the fact that last year her school didn’t have a literacy coordinator, while it had a full-time math coordinator who was “exceptional.”

“She really challenged me as a first-year teacher to not only get good at planning but also be much more reflective about execution and coming back to help students with different learning styles,” Reyes said.

Explore Schools picked up on this network-wide weakness in literacy and has responded by adding full-time literacy coordinators to join the ones in math and increasing the time that teachers have to work together. It is also strengthening its shared literacy curriculum and pushing teachers to tackle bigger-picture goals like “cognitive engagement” in their classrooms.

New York schools have known about the new Common Core standards for nearly three years now and were supposed to tie their instruction to the new standards for the first time last year. But the results of the state tests released earlier this month have made the changes a reality, and educators across the city are spending the waning weeks of summer considering how to adjust their teaching in light of the scores.

At Explore, which convened all teachers for five full days of training this week and new teachers for an additional week, network officials said they had planned a renewed focus on literacy before the test results were released. But the network’s scores — the four schools posted math scores higher than the state and city averages, but fell far short in reading, in keeping with a trend at city charter schools — reinforced that choice.

At the heart of the literacy focus is an overhaul to the network’s literacy curriculum and the way it is delivered. The network has had a single math curriculum for a few years, which has allowed teachers to focus on tailoring lessons to meet students’ needs rather than creating lessons from scratch, said Miriam Barry, the network’s literacy coordinator. Now, the network’s standard literacy curriculum will be augmented with additional materials created by network educators and others. The same will go for the literacy curriculum, she said: Instead of having to waste time hunting down the perfect text, they’ll be able to draw on resources that have already been compiled.

In a network that is still adding grades at most of its schools each year, the more robust curriculum materials will also let new teachers put their energy into how they teach, rather than what they teach, Barry said.

That emphasis will carry over into the network’s new “professional learning communities.” In previous years, teachers would have a 45-minute weekly meeting to plan lessons, but the conversations never went into depth about how the lessons would work or could be better, according to Marni Greenstein, the network’s director of curriculum and instruction. So now literacy teachers will work together in three 45-minute weekly sessions. Math teachers will have one 90-minute weekly meeting.

In these meetings, Greenstein said teachers will be talking about or rehearsing the actual lesson they will teach instead of just planning it. The idea is to help teachers learn from each other and collaborate more.

“Some teachers are really into the theoretical side and then you don’t see it in the classroom. And some teachers are natural and intuitive in the classroom, so we want to get them talking about how they’re thinking about it, and meld that with teachers who are more theoretical so it transfers into practice,” Greenstein said.

The additional scrutiny on what makes lessons work — or fall flat — is meant to allow teachers to strive for more than just academic knowledge among their students. The network has also set a goal of achieving “cognitive engagement,” or essentially getting all students to pay attention and think deeply about the work they’re doing.

In a math training session on Wednesday, Greenstein drew a cloud around the words “Cognitive Engagement” and asked the teachers what it meant to them. The group of Explore teachers shouted out words such as curiosity, ownership, grappling, investment and minds on (as opposed to hands on).

The brainstorm continued for another half hour until Greenstein organized everyone’s thoughts into a single definition: “Cognitive engagement is when all students are constructing and deepening understanding of content for themselves and others. This is evidenced through ‘minds-on’ work where students are synthesizing, grappling, applying and reflecting on content.”

Later, teachers watched videos of math and literacy lessons and pointed out what they observed that indicated students were “cognitively engaged,” and what the teacher could done differently. They also spent time talking about the tension between engaging students and getting through the material they need to cover in the time they have.

Mitha Nandogopalan, a fifth-grade literacy teacher in her second year, said the session made her realize she wants to focus on making her students do more of the thinking.

“Particularly as a new teacher, it’s easy to spend a lot of time thinking about how you’re presenting the material … because that feels like it’s in your control,” she said. “But if you aren’t stepping back and letting students do the work and doing the thinking, you can explain it beautifully and it will not have penetrated their heads.”

Greenstein said that while teachers get excited talking about this kind of learning, it takes a lot of practice to actually make it happen in the classroom, which is why the professional learning communities will play an important role.

And in a nod to the pattern that so often plays out in schools, in which big plans fade as teachers retreat into their own classrooms and the nitty-gritty of the school year gets underway, Barry began the literacy session by telling teachers that Explore’s emphasis on cognitive engagement “is not an initiative.”

“It’s not one of those things we’re going to talk a lot about and then stop talking about it when it gets hard,” she said. “This is how we’re going to reach that excellent instruction for our children.”

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”