First Person

This week's teaching & learning tidbits

California to require gay history in schools

LOS ANGELES – California will become the first state to require public schools to teach gay and lesbian history. Read more in the New York Times.

Sixth and Ninth Grade academies jump start student success

DENVER –  Thousands of Denver students are getting a head start on middle and high school this summer through the Denver Public Schools (DPS) Sixth Grade Academy and Ninth Grade Academy programs.  The programs combine learning, leadership development and team-building activities to give students the confidence to achieve academic success throughout their middle and high school years. Read more from the Denver Public Schools.

Crayons to Calculators school supply drive underway

Crayons to Calculators, a school-supply drive created to ensure students in the Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley school districts head back to school with the supplies they need to succeed will be collecting supplies through July 29. Read more in the Broomfield Enterprise.

Sen. Bennet sits down with CBS4 over education reform

Sen. Michael BennettDENVER (CBS4) – Few members of Congress are as passionate about improving education as Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet. As a former superintendent, Bennet knows the problems first hand. CBS4 political specialist Shaun Boyd sat down and talked to him about what he’s doing to change the system.

When making his case for education reform, Bennet loves to talk about the rally that no one would show for. Check out this CBS4 report.

Mogul John Malone to donate $7 million to DSST

Liberty Media chairman John Malone said Tuesday that he will donate $7 million to the Denver School of Science and Technology — the charter school’s largest donation ever.

Malone will give $4 million to the school this year and an additional $3 million to match funds raised by DSST through 2013. Read more in the Denver Post.

Douglas County School District to create faux charter school

CASTLE ROCK – There will be no classrooms full of students. There will be no staff of teachers. The sign outside indicates that the location is the school district headquarters. Yet, this will be the location of Douglas County’s newest charter school. Watch this 9NEWS report.

Advisory group questions ‘voucher charter’

CASTLE ROCK – Five parents who serve on Douglas County’s district accountability committee asked lots of questions Tuesday about the voucher charter school slated to open this fall.

Kevin Leung, a member of Douglas County’s district accountability committee, questioned staff about the Choice Scholarship School.

The charter school will serve as the administrative home of the 500 students awarded vouchers – worth $4,575 in state and local tax dollars – to private schools in Colorado’s first district-driven voucher pilot. Read more in EdNews Colorado.

Jeffco employees agree: It’s a good place to work

The results of a recent district-wide employee survey show most of Jeffco’s 12,000 employees expressed pride in their jobs saying their work is important and has a direct impact on student learning.

Every two years, Jeffco Public Schools uses the survey to measure employee satisfaction and find areas needing improvement.  Over 8,000 employees finished the 2010 survey; a 77.6 percent response rate with most of the survey questions receiving a positive rating and very few responses falling into the negative range.

Survey results show that employees rated their sense of personal responsibility, accountability and feeling respected very high.  Staff said the strength of Jeffco Schools is found in the district’s supervision, effectiveness, diversity and values, by giving them high marks.

“This survey is one of the silver linings from a difficult year because it shows that even though we have had some difficult challenges with K-12 budget cuts, our employees continue to say that Jeffco is a wonderful place to work and learn,” said superintendent Dr. Cindy Stevenson.

Stevenson adds that it’s no surprise that many employees expressed concern over their increased workload.  “Our staff is doing more with less time and fewer resources,” she said.

Study finds key early skills for later math learning

Psychologists at the University of Missouri have identified the beginning of first grade math skills that teachers and parents should target to effectively improve children’s later math learning. Learn more from the Science Blog.

41 Colorado school districts line up for evaluation pilot program

Colorado school districts have overwhelmed the state Department of Education with their interest in participating in a state pilot program this fall for evaulating new teachers and principals.

“We thought we would be lucky to get 10 districts who were interested,” said Ulcca Joshi Hansen, the department’s associate director of educator effectiveness. Read more in the Denver Post.

Dist. 6 takes advantage of technology with new online learning program

The Greeley-Evans School District 6 Board of Education had to find $6 million to cut from its 2011-12 budget, but it also had to find ways to be creative and move the district forward.

Board members think they’ve done just that with a new online-learning option that begins this fall. Read more in the Greeley Tribune.

Official: Investigation into possible test cheating expands

WASHINGTON — Investigators from the U.S. Department of Education have joined local investigators looking into possibly widespread test cheating by District of Columbia public schools educators, a D.C. official said Friday. The scope of what has been a limited probe has greatly expanded. Read more in USA Today.

Boulder students have more access to AP classes than students statewide

Analysis of new federal data backs up assertions by Boulder Valley School District leaders that they’ve made strides in increasing access to advanced classes.

But there are still some disparities among schools, with slightly higher percentages of students taking advanced placement classes at schools with the fewest low-income students. Read more in the Daily Camera.

DPS shows off latest purchase for future charter schools

DENVER (CBS4) – The Denver Public Schools is showing off its latest purchase — the future home of two charter schools.

The school district bought Denver Lutheran High School with bond money. The new campus in southwest Denver will house a new West Denver Prep High School. Watch this CBS4 report.

Summer internship has Denver students help with bond projects

Itzel Salazar, 17, walked through a K-8 school in Denver last month, looking for imperfections in the site’s bond project.

An aspiring architect, she noticed two places where the carpet was sticking up — a potential hazard for students. “It just didn’t look right,” she said. Read more in Your Hub.

Denver Head Start program lagging in funds

Some agencies that provide the Head Start program in Denver are facing budget cuts and a reduction in the number of slots they requested this year.

The Head Start program, which earlier this year faced potentially deep federal budget cuts, provides preschool and health-related services to low-income families. Read more in Your Hub.

Loveland students learn to tell the tale

Loveland storyteller Vivian Dubrovin asked the 50-plus children circled around her Tuesday morning to say “boo,” giving voice to the marionette she manipulated in the media center at Monroe Elementary School.

Dubrovin told “The Little Ghost” from “Storytelling Discoveries: Favorite Activities for Young Tellers,” that she co-authored with her daughter Barbara Dubrovin.

With a few props on hand, Dubrovin gave the students in Camp Monroe – a five-week summer camp for students entering kindergarten through fourth grade – a lesson on storytelling. Read more in the Loveland Reporter-Herald.

New standards focused on post-grad performance

New state academic standards will begin to take effect in the upcoming school year in an effort to revolutionize and streamline Colorado education.

“Our mantra was fewer, clearer, higher standards; fewer areas that students will focus on to a much higher depth and greater rigor,” said Melissa Colsman, director of teaching and learning for the Colorado Department of Education, who is responsible for standards implementation throughout the state. Read more in the Fort Collins Coloradoan.

Poudre schools ready to implement new standards

Teachers at the Poudre School District are gearing up for a year of change.

With the new Colorado Academic Standards taking effect for the 2011-12 school year, principals across the district have prepared their teachers to give students an experience- and goal-based education. Read more in the Fort Collins Coloradoan.

DPS bond savings fund additional school projects

DENVER – This summer, Denver Public Schools is busy working on major construction projects that are part of the 2008 voter-approved General Obligation Bond, including dozens that were not part of the original scope of bond projects but were made possible thanks to $90 million in savings from strong cost management and favorable market conditions.  Read more en Español or in English and find out when ribbon cuttings are planned.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.