Posts Tagged 'Charter Schools'

Small Schools Leadership in Oregon

How can we prevent districts and school systems from reverting to the status quo? How can we encourage schools and school systems to truly innovate and to withstand the pressure of being sucked back to a laissez-faire time? How can we be unionized and have the protection of salary and benefits but not have “bumping”?

These were some of the questions that faced me this past week as I participated in the Oregon Small Schools Leadership Institute. I was the keynote speaker at the opening of the Institute and I titled my remarks, “Keeping the Vision in Tough Times.”

What an amazing group of educators!

For the past seven years Boston Arts Academy has had the privilege of working with schools and school districts in Oregon that have believed breaking up large high schools into smaller schools and creating new “start up” schools could dramatically increase academic achievement, especially among poor students and students of color. The data seven years later is very strong, but the pressure to return to the “good old days” of large high schools, with many electives, and the rule of advanced placement courses has continually threatened to turn back the clock for these forward-looking educators.

The small schools initiative, like so many others around the country, was spurred on by an influx, even an outpouring, of support from the Gates Foundation. Soon, however, that money dried up. The miracle of Oregon is that others stepped in to sustain the work. Most notably, those others are Duncan Wyse of the Oregon Business Council and Barbara Gibbs of the Meyer Memorial Trust. For the last three years, together with the recent leadership of Kathy Campobasso, they have forged a network of educators (principals, teachers, school board members and superintendents) determined to create a different paradigm about what education can be.

There are currently 34 small schools created through the Oregon Small Schools Initiative. I visited two of these high schools in Southern Oregon – South Medford HS in Medford and the Crater Campus in Central Point. South Medford – which just built a state-of-the-art high school that gave me terrible edifice envy – is comprised of four small schools: Freshman Academy, Discovery, Champs (Community Health and Medical Professional School) and BACH (Bridging Arts, Community and Humanities).

I had the chance to sit in on the BACH teachers’ weekly planning meeting, during which they discuss their students (there are 400 in each school), projects that students are engaging in, and ways to create more opportunities for interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Like schools in so many states, the teachers are up against the constraints of high stakes testing. “How can we really create interdisciplinary curriculum when students will be tested on just history or just English?” a history teacher asked me. “It feels like the country is conspiring against us. We want to create more engaging curriculum but today’s classrooms seem all about just passing tests,” a math teacher told me. “I know my kids need the basics, but I so wish I could teach in a way that my kids need—and not just about bubble tests. Math is also about discovery—about process—not just right answers. I didn’t go into teaching to be an automoton!” And yet, classes have nearly stopped in South Medford as students prepare for the Oregon State tests.

Teachers and administrators agree that testing has shone a light on how all students are doing, especially the most vulnerable ones, and this has been a positive. There is no way to hide the scores of special education kids, English Language Learners, or poor kids. That is a good thing, but the pendulum needs to swing back a little so that not everything about school is geared towards tests. Learning is larger than testing. Teachers are looking for multiple indicators to demonstrate how students are learning. The Oregon Business Council has been working to develop and advocate for these other learning indicators – such as attendance, senior projects, number of community college, arts, and other co-curricular classes taken, and college admissions and retention rates – to supplement the information obtained from standardized state tests.

Along with the issue of testing, educators at the small schools are also concerned that just as they begin to get the kids and teachers on board with the idea of small schools, it seems like educational policies and regulations conspire to pull them back to the status quo. As I sat in on the administrative team meeting that brings together all the small schools administrators on campus, staff lamented that, “We have data to show how kids are achieving better in small schools and how relationships between faculty and students are growing, but there is such pressure to just do what has always been done—Carnegie units [counting credits and hours], tracked classes, academics around sports schedules, etc…”

Sadly, throughout the country, the pressure to return to large schools continues—just look at what is going on in Boston with the closing of small schools! Yet, one hopes that Oregon will buck the trend and recognize that small schools really do enable higher high school graduation rates and higher college admission and retention rates. In fact, a recent study by EcoNorthwest concluded, “We have no evidence to suggest that operating an OSSI (Oregon Small School Initiative) model school, once implemented, necessarily costs significantly more per student than a traditional comprehensive high school.” The report when on to say, “If a model OSSI school can, for example, boost graduation rates by three or four percentage points, as have the Wave 1 and Wave 3 schools, the model becomes less costly to operate on a per graduate basis than a traditional high school costs.”

At the Crater Campus, the Coalition of Essential Schools principles hung in the hallways of the three small schools I visited: Renaissance Academy (the most CES-identified), CAHPS (Crater Academy of Health and Public Service) and BIS (Business, Innovation, and Science). I didn’t get to visit CANS (Crater Academy for Natural Science), as it’s closing due to budget constraints. The CAHPS administrator, Julie Howland, told me that while she hadn’t finished my book, she greatly believed in the importance of a framework, or grounding philosophy, for her school. She proudly showed me a document that they had just finished which identified the Habits of Mind for her school, the traits or values that she wanted her students to possess – such as being respectful, civic-minded, and critical leaders – and the strategies that they hoped to use to “get there.” The list included Socratic seminars, advisory, etc… Julie explained that she wanted me to do a brief walk-through of classrooms with a few of her teachers and some representatives from the district office to see if we saw evidence of these habits, traits, or strategies. She also wanted help in bringing her faculty together to encourage them to engage in hard questions about teaching and learning. 

In a 20 minute walkthrough it’s nearly impossible to ascertain much more than whether there is chaos or a sense of purpose in classrooms and whether or not students are engaged and teachers focused. When we sat down after the whirlwind visit to AP Psychology, Digital Media, Health and a few other classes, I refrained from making any judgments about what I’d seen; rather, I asked the team what they had seen. Some were quick to critique and wondered about whether the classes were rigorous enough; others mentioned the difficulty of getting all the faculty on the same page regarding beliefs about their students. Later, it came out that many of the CAHPS faculty had been most resistant to the break up of the large high school, and that many faculty still feel that students are losing out. Julie is the 2rd principal in 3 years and she believes in the model but feels like she is fighting an uphill battle with how to get buy-in from all her teachers.

The mood and the classrooms were quite different in the other two schools where there hasn’t been a fight for buy-in. The conversations at both BIS and Renaissance were more about doing a better job recruiting from the two middle schools and getting the community at large to buy into the idea that small, themed schools do not limit opportunities for kids, but rather, that they give students a chance to identify with a certain style of learning and approach to teaching. For example, at Renaissance, students all take a core English/History course in a double period. (One of the fascinating things that Renaissance principal Bob King did was to encourage arts teachers to become dual certified in English and History in order to teach this core class.) At the 10th and 11th grade level, students loop for two years with the same teacher and each section has a particular arts focus such as Photography, Digital Media, Drawing, Painting, 3D, Music, etc… and the students use this art form to express their academic learning. This core teacher is also their advisor so that students (and teacher) are together for almost three hours daily. While some might say this is too much time with one group of kids and one adult, the teachers and the students appreciate the close intellectual relationship, risk-taking and career and college guidance that ensues. And for teachers, it means that they are only teaching 50 students a day. This class is also where faculty can focus on their instructional strategies together.

By creating this innovative structure for English/History/Advisory, faculty and students feel that they have prevented kids from checking out. “This is a school and a class that requires you to be engaged,” said one staff member. Students agreed. “We have a lot of say over how we want to learn. I’ve really liked learning photography at the same time as I’m exploring ancient mythology and reading Ramayama in my English/History class.” I asked what happened if students didn’t get their first choice of “lens”—i.e. music and not drawing/painting – but the administrator explained that this rarely happens, and if it does, students are usually willing to try out the class.

Another impressive feature of Renaissance is the way second languages are taught—both ESL for non-native speakers and Spanish as a World Language. There is a conscious attempt to push students to use the language orally and to become comfortable, versatile speakers. In the Spanish class, all furniture is pushed against the walls and students learn by standing and moving about the room. The teacher, Darcy Rogers, has coined this approach, “Organic Language Acquisition.” I didn’t want to leave her classroom and promised to introduce her to every language teacher I know since her approach was so innovative and appealing to me. “I don’t want students hiding behind their desks. Speaking a foreign language is all about taking risks and putting yourself out there and too often students just want to receive the lesson and not give themselves to the lesson.” She explained that after the initial shock of standing for 80 minutes, students truly enjoy the kinesthetic approach to learning. (And Darcy admitted sometimes they do pull chairs together to work in small groups.)

At the BIS school, which emphasizes learning through entrepreneurship, the first thing that greets a visitor is a huge jigsaw puzzle map of the United States showing where all the BIS alumni have gone to college. There are pegs pushed into the map with the college logo emblazoned. As Principal Todd Bennett explained, most students and parents in his community don’t really see college as an option, or even as necessary, so it continues to be an uphill battle.

Todd also talked with me about buy-in issues; he wants more of his classes to be project-based, but talked about the pull of the status quo and how hard it is to get teachers, students, and families to buy in to the fact that by doing and making you can definitely learn, and learn more. Todd took me into airplane-hanger-like classrooms where student work from engineering, English and math classes hung on the walls. He showed me the shops that all students can use for their projects and when I told him that his spaces reminded me of High Tech HS he grinned happily and said, “I’ve taken almost every teacher to visit there. That school is our inspiration!” One of the coolest examples of a project that students are working on is the creation of small wooden toys in a Spanish class. They are learning the Spanish vocabulary for the toys and then the engineering concepts of prototyping, designing, researching, building, etc. The BIS framework is expressed by the process of Problem Solving, Communication, and Teamwork.

While I saw wonderful classrooms, dedicated teachers and administrators, and hardworking kids at all the schools I visited in Oregon, I worried along with the administrators and teachers there about the pull back to the status quo—to the image that so many of us have in our minds about what the American HS is supposed to be like. Each of these small schools has worked on the development of a positive school culture; each is working on ensuring that all students, regardless of socio-economic level, race, language of origin, even sexual preference (which is a hard issue to discuss in deeply conservative Southern Oregon), will have the opportunity to succeed in high school and beyond. But the pulls to keep things the way they’ve always been; to just shut the classroom door and teach as an isolated, not collaborative, journey; and the pressure to perform on standardized tests all conspire to destroy the work of this 7-year initiative.

Perhaps the most plaintive call came from teachers, who said, “We’d give up seniority to be able to have some stability in our small school.” “Just as we begin to develop a culture among the staff, the budget crashes and we have to start again with all new colleagues. It’s just not fair. We need a different kind of unionism.” Again and again we asked one another, “How can we rethink our systems and have the chance and the time to make those differences take root and take effect?” I remain hopeful about what I saw in Southern Oregon. There is a recognition that the system is outmoded and must be changed.

However, when I traveled briefly to Portland, I was horrified by what had transpired there. How is it possible in a city with 45% kids of color that there is a high school (Lincoln HS – which is not part of the Oregon Small Schools Initiative) that is 98% white kids? How is it possible that the district has allowed this to occur? Where is the lawsuit? Evidently, Stand For Children is strong in Portland, and parents and teachers told me quietly that they hope Stand will take on both the District and the Union to save their schools.

As I left Oregon, I wondered about what a new Sizer et. al. five year study would show. Would the results be any different than when Sizer wrote his seminal book in the early 80s (Horace’s Compromise), based on the five-year study of high schools he and his colleagues had conducted? Have we been able to redesign the way we do education? Certainly, that has been the hope of Charter schools, but as many Oregonians told me, they don’t want to have to give up hard-fought wages and benefits to convert to Charter schools. (Charters, as a rule, pay much lower salaries and give much poorer benefits).

I want to believe in the durability of the changes that I saw in Oregon. I want to believe that systems can innovate. I want to believe that we can professionalize teaching by protecting salaries and benefits and creating a new kind of unionism. I want to believe, as the students and teachers I met believe, that these small schools are not just a blip on the screen, but a new way of approaching education and doing what’s right for kids.


2011 ASCD Conference: Bold Actions for Complex Challenges

At the end of March, I will travel to San Francisco California to participate in the annual conference of ASCD, an educational leadership organization. This year’s theme is Bold Actions for Complex Challenges. While there I will join two other principals, Baruti Kafele (from Newark Tech in New Jersey), and Tim King (from Urban Prep Academies), on a panel discussing urban education.

I have posted a promotional video (below) made by the ASCD to publicize the event. The interviewer asked me to describe a time when I felt I had failed a student. I have to admit that I was caught a little off-guard by the question, and in the video, emotionally recall the difficult story of Shanita (from chapter six of The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test).

Waiting for Superman?

Last week I had the chance to participate on a panel discussion at the Center for Public Leadership (Harvard Kennedy School) following a screening of the newly-released documentary Waiting for Superman. I was joined on the panel by Jim Berk (CEO of Participant Media, the film’s production company) and Thackston Lundy, a student at Kennedy school and former Director of Operations at one of the schools profiled in the film. David Ager, Director of Undergraduate Studies and Professor of Sociology at Harvard, moderated the discussion.


Panelists Thackston Lundy, Jim Berk, and myself with Moderator David Ager

You’ve probably heard about this moving but controversial film directed by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth). In Waiting for Superman, Guggenheim documents the aspirations of five families seeking charter school admission as a way out of under-performing district public schools. By focusing primarily on charter schools while omitting well-performing district schools entirely, the film (intentionally or not) promotes charter schools as the logical alternative to public school systems. Although charters have been one source of innovation and best practices, the overall record for these schools has been a mixed bag at best. As a person with first-had knowledge of many high-functioning district public schools, you can be sure that I had a few things to say!

In our discussion Jim Berk stated his hope for a sea change as a result of this film; a vision of people rising up to get involved in their communities to demand better schools and better results for kids. I do hope that this will happen and that the film doesn’t continue to polarize the debate about charter and public schools. 96% of our young people go to public schools in public school systems, so we have to get public education right.

Maybe charters can help show the way to some “best practices.” While the autonomies of charter schools (and of pilot schools–Boston Arts Academy is a pilot school within Boston Public Schools) certainly provide some of the tools necessary for improved schools. These autonomies in and of themselves are not a magic bullet. They are part of the solution. The autonomies in both charters and pilots are:

1.      Autonomy of curriculum and assessment, within the constraints of state tests
2.      Autonomy of schedule and school year calendar
3.      Autonomy of budget
4.      Autonomy of governance
5.      Autonomy of hiring and staffing

A major difference with pilots and charters is that pilots are still within the district and teachers part of the union.

Waiting for Superman truly excoriates the union–in incredibly vicious ways. While there are many areas in which I’d like to see unions become more progressive, I don’t want us to forget that it was the union that brought us pilot schools and it is always the union that fights for better conditions in classrooms (often when districts or even the public is looking the other way). And if the union was so much the problem, why wouldn’t non-unionized states like Texas, South Carolina or Virginia have fabulous schools?

To end on an optimistic note–let’s hope that this film does elevate the dialogue in all communities about how to improve schools and help all of us focus on what’s important in education: students who are truly engaged in learning communities; teachers who are inspired and inspiring, creative and knowledgeable about content area, and dedicated to kids; and clear standards and assessments that allow all students to stretch to high standards of achievement.

We need fewer constraints and less bloated bureaucracy to get there, that is for sure. And the film does point this out. Let’s make sure that everyone feels motivated and welcomed in their local schools and that there are great schools for all kids.

Raleigh and Durham, NC (a slightly delayed post)

In February I visited the Raleigh/Durham areas of North Carolina all by myself-not nearly as exciting as traveling with kids and teachers! I was hosted at two bookstores—Quail Ridge in Raleigh and The Regulator in Durham. Lots of books were sold in Raleigh! And, my picture was put in the bathroom (I hope near the photo of Tomie dePaola!). Many fabulous authors have been featured at Quail Ridge and the bathroom is where the author photos are framed and hung!

Alice Verstrat (watch a nice video about her here), who did her student teaching with us at Fenway High School many years ago, helped set up the Quail Ridge event, and the book store did tremendous outreach. There were over 40 people there; teachers, administrators, and other various interested folks (including someone who had worked at BAA years ago helping in Development). But the most exciting guest was current BAA intern Pete Shungu’s MOM! That was so cool. I usually open my talks by asking what has brought people to the event: are they a teacher, parent, alum, interested community member, politician or policy person? Mrs. Shungu introduced herself as “the mother of one of your interns.” The audience also included members of the North Carolina state-wide PTA, who asked excellent questions about ways we involve parents/caregivers at our school. I was impressed with their organization and determination to find new and innovative ways to involve parents/caregivers.

The next night in Durham, three of six local school board members came and asked excellent questions about issues related to achievement, student engagement, and development of a professional learning community. I was impressed by how seriously they took their elected positions as leaders, and had to wonder about the wisdom of our appointed school board in Boston. I remember being in favor of it back in the 1990’s when we abolished the elected school board because they seemed to be more interested in political-not educational-agendas. But, if done well, elected school boards are a way for a community to experience living in a democracy. It can be messy and consensus is hard, but if one understands ones roles (as they appeared to do in Durham), perhaps it is a valuable exercise. One of the best questions of the night came from a community member who asked: “Do you think there is such a thing as a good school SYSTEM? There are NOT systems for independent schools, or really even for Charter schools: is it an oxymoron to think of good school systems?” The question gave me pause and I am still thinking about it. Other folks of interest included a teacher from Durham School of the Arts which sits on a huge campus and includes 6-12 grades (edifice envy again!). It has lottery-based admissions as with the other high schools in Durham. There was also a person who had studied with Ted Sizer, and was a founding teacher at a local charter school.

I continue to be perplexed by the world of charters and public schools, and of course the role of private schools (though those seem clearer to me—you pay!). Charters don’t have to provide bus transportation, so in many instances their population ends up being skewed towards those able to get their children to the school (we saw this phenomenon in San Diego at High Tech High School). In addition, a lottery system means that those in the know pick the school and so there is no sorting down for special education, ELL students, etc… One charter in Raleigh is decidedly middle class and white. I thought that in a county quite mixed by race and social-class, this seemed wrong. How can you use public money and not reflect the district from which you draw? And yet, if I were there and fed up with the public schools, would I start my own charter, too?

As I wrote in my LA/San Diego reflection, I struggle with the balkanization of the community. But maybe, if excellent systems are so hard to come by, at least in urban areas, this balkanization provides good schooling for some…

I also continue to struggle with what it means to work in a non-union state, like North Carolina. Often one hears that it’s because of the unions that there is such entrenchment and that unions impede school change. But North Carolina doesn’t have a union and I wouldn’t describe school politics, policies, hiring, or curriculum as any more enlightened than in Massachusetts. Perhaps even less so.

The issues of segregation by race and class seem exacerbated in North Carolina because of how county school lines are drawn. There is some bussing across the counties, but folks also choose to send their kids to schools closer to home. So in the end, you get schools that are segregated by neighborhood. Sound familiar? This is the story of “desegregation” in Boston.

The story in North Carolina is a story of tobacco and slavery and more recently, the research triangle. It is a story of urban decline and attempts to bring vitality back to cities that have seen better days. It is the story of newcomers coming South and “old timers” wondering about better and worse times. It is the story of folks committed to improving their schools and longing for vibrant and workable ideas. It is the story of committed teachers like my friend Alice (who is Teacher of the Year in her school), who asks hard questions about practices that might not be good for kids and figures out ways to bring her colleagues into the discourse. It is the never-ending story of trying to find better ways to ensure that kids get a good education. But there must be some givens, and these givens may be eluding some of the state policy makers in North Carolina and elsewhere:

•    If testing is the only way to deem knowledge and learning “stuff” worthwhile and important, we are in deep trouble;
•    Accountability can’t just mean more tests;
•    Teachers need time to work together collaboratively on curriculum and on issues of teaching and pedagogy;
•    Huge schools of 3,000+ students mean that most students won’t be known well;
•    If students aren’t known well by many adults, chances are they won’t feel particularly engaged in school (and therefore probably won’t do well);
•    Teachers, parents/caregivers, students, school board members need to develop language and structures to talk about the inequities in front of them in their schools/classrooms/communities that polarize them by race, class, language and gender

I worry that the miracle Arne Duncan proclaims to have had in Chicago is not nearly as neat and wonderful and pretty as he claims. It’s like what we heard from Papa Bush about the Texas miracle, and that was a lie.

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