a second look

For three co-located schools, Learning Partners pilot leads to plenty of suggestions

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

The eight schools housed in the massive John F. Kennedy campus in the Bronx get along. Schools share floors of the building, administrators meet regularly, and teachers often stop to chat while passing in the hallways.

But when it comes to teachers knowing what goes on inside each other’s classrooms, the schools might as well be in different boroughs.

“I’ve been in this building for seven years and I’ve never been in this room,” said Wanda Dingman, an assistant principal at the Marble Hill School for International Studies, sitting inside a High School for Law and Finance classroom.

Dingman was finally in the room, which is outfitted with wooden benches for a criminal law class’ mock trials, through the city’s new Learning Partners program. The program is the extension of Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s guiding theory that schools can improve by sharing their best ideas with others. And as the pilot program gets underway this spring, Chalkbeat tagged along for one of those idea-swapping visits to ask, how is it working?

The day-long meeting included staff members from Marble Hill, Law and Finance, and Bronx Engineering and Technical Academy—schools that have a lot in common and make up one of the pilot program’s seven “triads.” All three high schools are inside the JFK campus, so teachers are a just flight of stairs or a few doorways from some classroom visits. They also benefit from sharing a school support organization, New Visions for New Schools.

But Law and Finance is an open-enrollment school that serves a different student population than Marble Hill, which itself serves a high proportion of recent immigrants and English Language Learners. Law and Finance has more than twice as many students with special needs and a high percentage of overage students. The school’s attendance rate is 82 percent, about 10 points below the city average.

As the day began, staff members said that even small amounts of mutual feedback have already sparked change. After one visit to Marble Hill, BETA is redesigning its seven-week summer school program for incoming freshmen based on Marble Hill’s model. Principal Karalyne Sperling said that if it’s successful, she might incorporate it into a new career and technical program that she’s developing.

Those conversations continued as Law and Finance hosted staff members from both Marble Hill and BETA—when it was clear that the program is causing some anxieties as well.

The full-day visit started with a presentation from Law and Finance assistant principal Tyrone Iton, who said he wanted Marble Hill to help his school improve the “rigor” and consistency of its classes. Law and Finance’s challenges were occasionally on display during the classroom visits: In one economics class, where students were calculating what their yearly raises should be in order to keep up with inflation, visiting adults outnumbered the students.

But the teachers’ and administrators’ takeaways were varied, and ideas didn’t always flow from host school to partner school. Marble Hill’s Dingman said she had learned some things herself, pointing to the group’s visit to a 10th grade English classroom where students passed around a conch shell and debated the role that two Lord of the Flies characters played in the murder of Piggy.

“The teacher said almost nothing at all,” said Dingman, which she attributed to high student engagement with the Socratic-style seminar. “I’d like to see more of that in my school.”

Still, the partner schools said they were looking to Marble Hill’s example. One key to that school’s success in graduating their mostly high-need students at an 89 percent clip, and preparing a larger-than-average percentage of them for college, is its project-based curriculum, teachers said.

Teachers and principals agreed that the length and number of visits prescribed by the Learning Partners are likely to prompt concerns. BETA Principal Sperling said she had to issue reassurances to teachers wary of missing class as students were preparing to take end-of-year Regents exams.

“We’re a small school, so for five of us to be out, that’s a big deal,” said Jessica Goring, principal of Law and Finance. “But do we make it work? Absolutely, because we believe in it.”

Next year, the city plans to include 75 schools in the program. The city received 253 applications, including seven from charter schools, officials said.

As the program grows, principals at the JFK campus all said they hoped to remain together since the pilot program started so late into the school year. The city hasn’t guaranteed that yet.

Joseph Urrico, a social studies teacher in his fifth year at BETA, said that collaboration had never felt possible in the past. “We share floors,” he said, “but there’s so many things to do.”

Correction: A previous version misattributed a quote to the principal of Bronx Engineering and Technical Academy. The correct attribution is to Jessica Goring, principal at the High School for Law and Finance. 

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led to changes in school improvement strategies. Leaders also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede