First Person

An ex-Fahari teacher on the school’s likely closure

When I heard the news that Fahari Academy Charter School was not recommended for renewal by its authorizer, the Department of Education, I was not surprised. In fact, I was quietly pleased. This may come as a surprise for many, considering I was interviewed a year ago by GothamSchools to highlight positive changes at Fahari.

Coming out of graduate school and into my first teaching job at Fahari, I believed that school closure was only detrimental to schools and communities. My experience at Fahari pushed me to grapple firsthand with the challenge of actually trying to improve a struggling school.

After submitting my resignation letter this past June, I spent the summer reflecting on my experience there and trying to make sense of what went wrong.

Fahari was already struggling when I started working there in January 2012. For the next two years, first as a teaching assistant and then as an English language arts teacher, I witnessed repeated attempts to improve the school, including unionizing the teachers, pressuring the school’s founder to resign, and revamping the curriculum.

In the end, I’m very skeptical about what the outcome of the school’s charter being renewed would be. While I am deeply suspicious of efforts to close schools in New York City given the way closures negatively impact surrounding communities, it seems unfair and unjust to allow the level of mismanagement I witnessed at Fahari to remain unchecked.

What union?

Before my arrival and after some of the most unstable months in the school’s history, a group of teachers unionized, forming a dissenting group to advocate for teachers’ rights.

The hope was that unionization would address multiple levels of instability at our school. But as a teacher, I didn’t feel represented by the union.

At the end of my first semester at the school, key members of the union did not have their contracts renewed. This alone should have indicated to the rest of us how weakened the union had already become.

It felt as if our chapter simply became an extension of the administration. At several meetings, our chapter leader told us that we needed to hold ourselves accountable and “do our jobs,” referring in particular to our roles outside of teaching. These included responsibilities such as monitoring hallways, breakfast, and lunch, as well as inputting data and creating whole grade-level and school-wide disciplinary systems. We were told that leadership would listen to us only after we did these things. The irony was these were the very responsibilities many of us were frustrated about and wanted to change.

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

The schools founder, executive director, and principal, Catina Venning, was identified as a primary cause for the school’s struggles. Under great pressure, she eventually stepped down from all of her roles in June 2012.

The hope was that the school’s outlook would then improve. Staff and consultants worked to reset, reorganize, and rebrand the school. Still, these efforts did not resolve a lack of consistent leadership, and teachers felt left out of decisions about important issues such as the treatment of students with special needs and curriculum design.

I also noticed a persistent culture of low expectations that, at times, manifested itself in ugly ways. I recall one teacher and member of leadership telling students they behaved like criminals and they would end up in prison someday. I heard that same teacher yell a misogynistic epithet at a student.

Another administrator required students to clean bathrooms as a consequence for poor behavior. During a professional development workshop, another school leader explained the school’s struggles to staff through what seemed like a defeatist manifesto: that in a neighborhood like Flatbush where kids’ skill levels were so low, there was only so much work that could be accomplished.

Unmet special needs

One of the Department of Education’s gravest concerns about the school was the high number of students who left the school. Making sure students stayed enrolled in the school last year was one of Fahari’s highest priorities.

Perhaps as a result, special education was hugely compromised at our school, and I was surprised not to see it highlighted in the Department of Education’s reviews of the school. As a teacher with special needs students, I was involved in annual phone calls with parents, administrators, and the district representative updating and adjusting their Individualized Educational Plans.

On one occasion, two other teachers and I were not in favor of a decision to keep a student at our school. We believed this student was not receiving proper in-class support and services as required by his IEP. We didn’t think our school could provide the services he needed, so we believed it was in his best interest to consider other schools.

Our suggestions were ignored and his IEP was later changed to include services the school could provide. Most of the decisions made about special education appeared to be made to make sure the school was complying with the letter of the law — and our enrollment numbers didn’t drop — rather than making sure students were actually getting the services that would help them succeed.

When a colleague and I brought this concern to the union it was dismissed, and we heard the now-familiar “do your job” maxim.

Curriculum hurdles

In preparation for taking on my first year as an English language arts teacher, I had the opportunity to help develop the ELA curriculum.

Teachers rarely had this sort of opportunity under Vennings’s leadership, and I initially saw this as a great opportunity and a chance to learn about effective methods of teaching literacy. Instead, I learned much more about gaps in the way we understand literacy for urban students.

The work my colleagues and I did during the summer of 2012 to prepare the curriculum for the school year never prepared me for the challenges we would face. We spent the year implementing reading and writing workshops, a model that allows students more time to read and write independently, and gives teachers time to work with small groups of students on the skills they struggle with most.

We struggled to implement this model because our students required far more support than I had anticipated. Many students in the fifth and sixth grades came in reading nearly two to three grade levels below, and by the end of the year most of my students only moved up one grade level if any at all.

We knew our curriculum needed more work, and during the spring of 2013 we told school leaders that we wanted to chance to revise the curriculum over the summer, building off our experience during the 2012-13 school year. However, when the new principal, Stephanie Clagnaz, was hired in May 2013, she decided to move away from the workshop model and instead introduce an entirely new curriculum.

This approach to curriculum reflects a trend I noticed throughout my time at Fahari: constant overhauls that were made without input from teachers, and in ways that didn’t actually address the root causes of the problems we were dealing with.

I remain suspicious of the widespread school closures championed by the Bloomberg administration, but my experience working at Fahari last year has left me with serious doubts about whether the school is capable of improving enough to benefit the students and community it serves.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.