Alternate Route

School without Regents exams says mayor should spread its model

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students at City-As-School High School, which is a member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium. The Consortium will help run one of the new "affinity groups."

Hunched-over high school students across the city will be shading in multiple-choice bubbles and dashing off essays next week as they take the state Regents exams.

But last Friday, students at City-As-School High School in Manhattan offered a very different vision of assessment.

During a student-organized conference meant to showcase the school’s instructional model, students read monologues from the point of view of Chinese immigrants, screened documentaries they had produced on gun violence and harassment, argued for changes to the city’s school-discipline policies, and described internships where they had cared for injured animals and assisted kindergarten teachers.

Such projects stand in for tests at City-As-School, which is one of more than two-dozen city high schools that have state permission to tie graduation to student work instead of Regents-exam scores.

As Mayor de Blasio promises a school system that relies less on standardized tests and more on portfolio-style assessments, students and staff at City-As-School suggested Friday that their school could serve as a model. At the same time, the school’s experience may hint at some of the difficulties of moving away from traditional tests.

“I feel like now is our moment, because there is so much dissatisfaction about standardized testing,” said John Antush, who teaches a class called “Economics and Education.” “I think the world is on our side.”

City-As-School, a four-decade-old public school for older students who transferred out of other high schools, is a member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium. The consortium is a longstanding coalition of 28 high schools (all but two are in the city) with state waivers that allow their students to complete intensive projects rather than take the Regents exams (except for English, which they still must pass).

The consortium enjoys the backing of the city’s teachers union and education department, which has lobbied the state to let 22 additional city schools that have been trained in the consortium’s assessment model also skip the Regents tests.

While de Blasio hasn’t explicitly cited the consortium model, he too has called for more schools to use student-work portfolios to assess student learning.

Students in Antush’s economics class, who organized Friday’s event, said de Blasio should apply elements of their school’s model, which they call “performance-based education,” throughout the school system. They made petitions to that effect, which they plan to deliver to City Hall.

Classes at the City-As-School are ungraded. Instead, if students meet the class requirements and complete a culminating project, they earn credit.

To graduate, they must earn 40 class credits, pass the English Regents exam, and complete a portfolio. The portfolio includes an internship report that involved research, a literary essay, science experiment, math project, career plan, and a college application.

When students choose to include projects in their graduation portfolios, they must defend them before evaluation panels that can include teachers from other consortium schools. The projects are evaluated according to rubrics used by the entire consortium.

Alexandra Garcia, 18, transferred to City-As-School in September from Brooklyn Technical High School, where she said she struggled to keep up with the heavy workload. She said that while City-As-School is “not as hard” overall, the portfolios can be more demanding than traditional tests.

“I think it’s actually a little harder to stand in front of a group of people and talk about what you wrote and know it well enough to prove your point,” she said. “You can’t just guess.”

Because teachers are freed from having to cover all the material that might appear on the state exams, they can design courses that explore particular topics in depth, such as transcendentalism or immigration, students and staff said.

The school’s defining feature — and the source of its name — is its focus on real-world learning. Students spend up to 20 hours and two to three days per week interning at about 300 different sites, according to Principal Alan Cheng.

Those sites range from bakeries and flower shops to museums, law offices, and hospitals. Unlike at most high schools, students earn academic credit for the unpaid internships if they complete all the requirements, including the final reports.

“You learn so much hands-on that you take back with you,” said Jennifer Matos, 17, who interned at a wildlife rehabilitation center. “If you’re learning in a school environment, just learning definitions, you don’t remember that.”

But if City-As-School reveals the benefits of a hands-on, mostly test-free model of learning, it suggests some of the challenges as well.

First, the amount of academic content students glean from their internships — which they describe in reports that can go in their graduation portfolios — seems to vary widely according to the sites they choose.

Also, the school’s deep-dive classes miss out on some of the breadth of material covered by classes subject to the state tests.

And while students’ graduation portfolio work is judged by panels using the consortium-wide rubrics, they may still enjoy some flexibility in grading not afforded to students who must pass the state’s standardized tests.

“It is somewhat subjective,” Antush said about the school’s grading system.

While City-As-School’s experiential learning model has attracted the interest of other districts, the school earned a C on its most recent progress report and an F in the section that factors in credit accumulation, attendance trends, and scores on the English Regents exam.

Cheng said a recent quality review of the school, which commends its environment and leadership, offers a fuller picture of the school. But the staff is also “actively working to make improvements” in the areas cited by the progress report, he said.

He also said City-As-School graduates who go to college tend to remain enrolled at higher rate than graduates of other transfer schools — mirroring higher-than-average college persistence rates for consortium graduates as a whole.

Cheng said those rates stem from the consortium’s teaching and assessment model.

“It certainly is a higher standard,” he said, which, “more closely replicates the kind of skills students will need once they leave high school.”

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.

Facilities

These 102 schools failed latest round of ‘blitz inspections’

PHOTO: Tim Boyle / Getty Images
Taft High School is one of 102 schools that will have to be reinspected.

Chicago Public Schools said Tuesday that 102 schools will require reinspection for cleanliness before students return to class in the fall. The district has been conducting “blitz inspections” at schools to help address widespread concerns about filthy conditions, including rats and rodent droppings.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier in the year that complaints of a rodent infestation at a South Side elementary school had spurred an initial round of investigations, and that 91 of 125 schools failed them. The story brought citywide attention to the issue and raised questions about CPS’ decision to transition the work of keeping schools clean to two private contractors: Aramark, which is based in Philadelphia, and SodexoMAGIC, which is a joint venture between the French company Sodexo Inc. and Beverly Hills, California,-based Magic Johnson Enterprises.

Since 2014, the district has spent more than $400 million on contracts with the two companies.

CPS said in a statement Tuesday that it is “committed to carrying out a multi-pronged plan” that includes adding 200 additional custodians who are deep cleaning schools this summer. Of those, 100 custodians will remain with the district once the new school year begins. A district spokeswoman said monthly inspections will continue and that a “stronger facilities services structure” that employs one building manager to oversee janitorial and engineering services at each school will yield better results.

Jesse Sharkey, the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said that the additional custodians do little to make up for the mess. “(Mayor Rahm) Emanuel made a token commitment to increase full-time custodial staff by 100 next fall—about a tenth of the staff that was cut when (he) moved to privatize janitorial and facilities management services for CPS, and a fraction of what’s needed,” Sharkey said in a statement.

Schools that have not yet passed an inspection have received orders for actions, structures, and timelines for improvement, the district said. CPS does not inspect charter, contract, alternative, or options schools that operate outside of district-managed facilities.

Here’s a list of the schools that require reinspection.

ADDAMS
ALCOTT ES
ALDRIDGE
ASHBURN
AZUELA
BARTON
BELMONT-CRAGIN
BENNETT
CAMERON
CANTY
CARDENAS
CARROLL-ROSENWALD
CASTELLANOS
CHICAGO AGRICULTURE HS
CLINTON
COOK
COONLEY
CORLISS HS
CURTIS
DAVIS M
DUBOIS
DUNNE
DURKIN PARK
EARHART
EARLE
ELLINGTON
ERICSON
FAIRFIELD
FORT DEARBORN
FOSTER PARK
FRAZIER PROSPECTIVE
GALLISTEL
GARVY
GOETHE
HALEY
HARVARD
HAUGAN
HEARST
HEFFERAN
HOLMES
HOPE HS
HOPE INSTITUTE
HURLEY
IRVING
JACKSON M
JOPLIN
JORDAN
KENNEDY HS
KERSHAW
KIPLING
LANE TECH HS
LANGFORD
LAVIZZO
Lee Elementary
MARSHALL HS
MASON
MAYS
MCDOWELL
MCKAY
MORGAN PARK HS
MORRILL
MULTICULTURAL HS
NOBLE – COMER
NORTHSIDE LEARNING HS
NORTHSIDE PREP HS
NORTHWEST
OGLESBY
OTIS
OWENS
PARKER
PARKSIDE
PENN
PETERSON
POE
PRITZKER
PULLMAN
REVERE
RICKOVER MILITARY HS
RUDOLPH
RUGGLES
SCAMMON
SKINNER West
SMITH
SOUTH SHORE ES
SOUTH SHORE INTL HS
SPRY ES
SULLIVAN HS
SUTHERLAND
TAFT HS
TARKINGTON
TAYLOR
TELPOCHCALLI
THORP J
URBAN PREP – WEST HS
VOLTA
WASHINGTON H ES
WASHINGTON HS
WEBSTER
WELLS ES
WESTINGHOUSE HS
WHITNEY
WILDWOOD