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.”

Newark Enrolls

Want to attend one of Newark’s coveted magnet schools? Get ready to take a test.

Newark students who hope to attend one of the district's six magnet schools will have to take a new exam in January.

Newark students will soon face a new hurdle when trying to snag seats at the city’s most popular high schools.

Next month, any student who wants into one of the city’s six magnet schools will have to take a new exam that gauges their academic prowess as well as their interest in each school’s theme.

“If you would like to go to any of those schools,” Superintendent Roger León told parents at a conference Wednesday, “you better get ready for the test to get in.”

The exam, which will be given to students on Jan. 11-12, has not yet been announced on the district’s enrollment site. In fact, the test itself is still being developed and logistical details, such as where students will take it, are still being determined, officials said.

In addition to the new test, each school will also begin interviewing applicants, León said — something only two magnet schools did last year, according to an admissions guide. It’s unclear whether the interviews will take place this admission cycle. If so, schools may have to schedule dozens or even hundreds of interviews in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, enrollment for next school year began on Dec. 3 and continues through February — giving students and schools little time to prepare for the new requirements.

“I know as much as you know right now,” one principal said. “Obviously the superintendent is revamping some items, but he hasn’t really shared the details with everyone.”

The district-run magnet schools, which have themes such as science and American history, include some of the city’s most sought-after high schools. Last year, nearly 1,800 eighth-graders listed a magnet school first on their high-school applications even though the schools had space for only 971 students.

The magnets, which vastly outperform the district’s six traditional high schools, already screen applicants. They look at grades, state test scores, attendance records, and — in the case of Arts High School — an audition or visual-art portfolio, when deciding which students to let in.

But even with those screens, some admitted students are not prepared for the rigor of work at the magnets or lack a strong interest in their programs, León said.

“The idea is to make sure that students who choose to go to these schools are going to meet whatever are the demands of that school,” he told Chalkbeat. “It’s not that your parents have the right to choose for you to go.”

Even as he moves to make magnet schools more selective, León — who became superintendent in July — also hopes to make traditional schools more appealing to top students.

On Wednesday, he also announced plans to create gifted-and-talented programs at each of the traditional high schools. To qualify, students will also take the new magnet-school exam.

León did not go into detail about what the programs will entail. But he may be drawing from his previous experience as principal of University High School, a magnet school that advertises a gifted-and-talented program on its website. Students must test into the program, which includes a “rigorous curriculum” in English, math, and another language, according to the site.

“Students are going into magnets because they think that’s where they can get their high-performing education,” he said. “Now they’ll be given a reason to not do that.”

The traditional schools will also develop specialized “academies” to train students for various careers, including engineering, teaching, and health services. Each school will partner with a higher-education institution and a professional organization to develop those programs.

Many Newark schools have tried to offer vocational programs, but often struggle to find qualified teachers and meet the stringent requirements to receive federal funding. It’s unclear how the district will help them overcome those challenges, especially if the timeline is also aggressive.

Traditional schools, for their part, seem eager for any support they can get. Angela Mincy, principal of Barringer High School, said the school created an honors program last year in an effort to retain high-achieving students.

“If I don’t create an isolated experience for them, I will lose them,” she said in an interview last month, adding that the goal is to keep attracting more and more top students. “The hope is that one day, one honors track will become two will become three.”

With their selective admissions and college-oriented courses, the city’s magnet schools have long been seen as a refuge for high-achieving students who cannot afford private school. County-run vocational schools, which also screen applicants, are another popular option along with some charter high schools — though they often have few seats left over for students who did not attend their lower-grade schools.

The district’s traditional, or “comprehensive,” high schools are viewed by many families as schools of last resort. On nearly every academic measure — attendance rates, test scores, college enrollment and completion — the traditional schools lag far behind the magnets.

In a sense, this disparity is built into the system. Magnet schools are designed to enroll academically and artistically accomplished students. Traditional schools take the rest, including almost all students who are still learning English and the majority of those with disabilities.

Other cities have begun to rethink this practice of tracking students into separate schools according to ability — at least as measured by a single test. In New York City, where a debate has raged over admissions to the district’s coveted “specialized” high schools, the mayor has proposed scrapping the schools’ entrance exam. Instead, he said, they should reserve spots for the top students from every middle school.

Some Newark parents have floated a similar plan for the city’s most exclusive magnet school, Science Park High School. Instead, Superintendent León is pursuing the opposite approach — adding new entrance exams for all magnet schools. In other cities, exam schools tend to be highly segregated by race and class, favoring families with the wherewithal to help students prepare for the exams or pay for test prep.

León said he expects the new magnet exams will measure students’ reading and math proficiency, as well as their interest in each school’s particular focus, such as science or technology.

“The whole concept that anyone and everyone can get into the magnet high schools — that’s not why they were designed,” said León, who graduated from Science High School. “You actually have to qualify to get into those schools.”

Karen Gaylord, Science Park High School’s community engagement specialist, said some teachers and  parents may grumble about the new test because they haven’t had a chance to prepare students for it. But she noted that families had become “resigned” to entrance exams when magnet schools used them in the past.

She also said many people would welcome the admissions interviews as a way for students to highlight skills and interests that aren’t reflected on their transcripts. The question, she said, is how schools will carry out these changes on such a tight timeline.

“It feels like there are so many opportunities to get this right,” she said. “I’m just not sure we’re going to get them all in this year. The clock is ticking.”

Newark Enrolls

In Newark, universal enrollment was in danger. So charters started planning a separate system.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark students arriving at a district school on the first day of class.

For much of this year, the fate of Newark’s joint district-charter enrollment system was uncertain.

So even as charter leaders negotiated changes to the shared system with the district’s new superintendent, they began quietly developing a backup plan in case it fell apart, according to a charter-sector memo obtained by Chalkbeat.

Beginning this spring, the sector began exploring a charter-only enrollment system, the October memo shows. This fall, the sector ramped up its contingency planning: It hired the district’s recently departed enrollment director to draw up plans for a charter-only system.

Ultimately, their efforts proved unnecessary — at least for now. Last month, after prodding from the superintendent, the Newark school board agreed to retain the joint enrollment system for at least another year.

Still, the behind-the-scenes planning shows how seriously some charter leaders took the threat that the five-year-old enrollment system, called Newark Enrolls, could unravel. And it illustrates their fear of returning to what many charter proponents consider the bad old days, when each charter school had to convince families to apply to it separately because no universal application form existed.

Michele Mason, executive director of the Newark Charter School Fund, an advocacy and school-support group, said the sector was simply doing it “due diligence” in case negotiations with the district over Newark Enrolls broke down. She added that the sector developed a plan for how to create a charter-only enrollment system, but did not actually build one.

“We’re trying very hard to keep one system because we believe that’s in the best interest of kids and families,” Mason said. “But things could change here in Newark, and somebody could change their mind on one system, so we were just committed to not being caught flat-footed.”

The citywide enrollment system, originally called “One Newark,” has been divisive since it launched in 2014. It upended the tradition of families registering in person at their neighborhood school or entering admissions lotteries at individual charter schools. Instead, they could list up to eight district or charter schools on a single application before being matched to one school.

Early on, the new computerized system failed to match some students with any school and sent some siblings to schools in opposite ends of the city. Meanwhile, charter critics saw it as a scheme to divert students from the district into charter schools.

In 2016, the city school board passed a resolution to dismantle the system. But the move was mainly symbolic because the district was still under state control. Then, in February, the state ended its 22-year-long takeover and handed control back to the school board. Suddenly, the future of Newark Enrolls was in doubt.

Around that time, a few board members undertook a review of the enrollment system, which included talking to charter leaders. The charter leaders were left with the impression that some board members wanted separate district and charter enrollment systems, according to the charter memo.

At that point, sector began developing “contingency plans” for a charter-only system, the memo says. The idea was that if families could not longer apply to district and charter schools through a single system, they at least would not have to apply to each charter school separately.

Charter leaders’ fears grew in late June when the district’s new board-selected superintendent, Roger León, forced out dozens of administrators and top officials — including two who oversaw enrollment, Kate Fletcher and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon. The board blocked their firing but both eventually resigned, leaving the enrollment office without a leader.

Around the time of León’s leadership shakeup, the Newark Charter School Fund hired a “research group” to study the computer program the district uses to match students with schools “so it can be replicated if needed,” according to the memo, which did not name the group.

Then tensions appeared to ease. In July, León assured charter leaders that he would protect the joint enrollment system. The two sides began negotiating the terms of an annual agreement that spells out how the system should operate.

Worried about the lack of leadership in the enrollment office and potential staff reductions, charter leaders pushed for a provision in the agreement that says the district must maintain “the quality and quantity of personnel necessary” to operate Newark Enrolls. The district accepted that change then proposed its own — an end to the practice of sending charter schools extra students to offset those who leave over the summer — which became a major sticking point. (The final agreement does not explicitly ban or allow the practice.)

Amid those talks, the charter sector hired Fletcher, the former district enrollment official, to develop a plan for “operationalizing” a charter-only enrollment system, according to the memo. That included contacting possible vendors and staffers to run the system, the memo says. (Fletcher did not respond to an email seeking comment.)

Eventually, district and charter leaders settled on the language of the agreement. At a board meeting on Nov. 12, Superintendent León made a forceful case for keeping the joint enrollment system, saying it eased the application process for parents and gave them more options. The board voted to approve it.

However, the vote was more a temporary truce than a permanent end to the battle over Newark Enrolls.

Board Member Leah Owens, who abstained from the vote, said during the meeting that the system was costly for the district to maintain and amounted to a district endorsement of charter schools. Board Member Reginald Bledsoe said he was only voting for the agreement because the district had not yet created an alternative enrollment system.

“We talked at great length with the community that we wouldn’t be moving forward with this system,” Bledsoe told the superintendent during the meeting. “When will this plan come to a halt?”