First Person

How I transformed my school with just five new hours a week

It’s a midweek afternoon and all 450 of the students at our Denver middle school are staying an hour later. They’re not in detention. The buses aren’t late. Instead, students are participating in a range of activities, from a rocket-building class to one-on-one tutoring in math, and they’re excited to be here.

I’m the principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, an urban public school in southwest Denver. We have a diverse set of student needs and a student population comprised of 85 percent on free and reduced lunch, 20 percent receiving special education services and 30 percent are English language learners.

Just a few years ago, Grant Beacon looked very different than it does today. Our enrollment numbers were declining, our students weren’t reaching required academic levels and our school was “on watch” by the Denver Public Schools district. In short, we were facing possible closure.

We have since turned our school around by implementing an innovation plan based on expanded learning opportunities — practices intended to expand and deepen learning opportunities for all students. After only a few years, we have successfully improved our status from “on watch” to “meets expectations.” We’ve seen our attendance rates rise by 2 percent, and suspensions are down by 110 percent. We’re also seeing substantive gains in proficiency and growth. We even have an enrollment wait list.

Changing our approach wasn’t easy, but it was well worth the impact we’re having on all of our students today and toward helping close a district-wide achievement gap.

Grant Beacon hopes to serve as a model for other schools interested in implementing similar innovative strategies and we’ve opened our doors to numerous leaders, educators and teachers to observe and experience our approach in action.

To help others around the country learn from our experience, I’ll share some of the key changes made at our school as well as lessons learned.

At the heart of our new approach is an extended school day that added five hours each week. We are using that time to offer enrichment programming, advanced classes, student leadership development and interventions. We also increased time in some of our core subjects.

Enrichment for all students was a big driver for extending our day. In a predominantly low-income school like Grant Beacon, students aren’t often exposed to enrichment activities like their more affluent peers. We know for a fact when kids are engaged in activities such as clubs, after-school programs, music, and sports, they’re more likely to succeed, do well in high school and go to college. Before, only 10 percent of our students were taking part in such activities. Now it’s 100 percent.

Our students are thrilled as they line up for enrichment classes like hip-hop dance, athletics, cooking, resume-building and leadership development — extracurricular activities that these students might not otherwise be exposed to. The experiences are giving our kids incentive to want to come to school. They’re focused, they’re finding new passions, and they don’t want to miss a minute of it.

As for the teachers, the extended day has allowed for additional collaborative planning and professional time thanks to more than 20 community partners who teach many of the enrichment programs. They’re also now able to devote more time to students who are struggling and can spend one-on one time providing real interventions that are having a noticeable impact.

Our extended day model is further supported by a new blended-learning approach that utilizes technology to create learning environments with more individual and small-group activities, and a system of online interim assessments that teachers can use to measure real-time feedback on a student’s progress.

While implementing these new approaches wasn’t easy, I believe several elements played a key role in our success:

The first is buy-in. It’s important that everyone buys into it 100 percent — teachers, students and parents. By developing our innovation plan together with the community, we were able to get everyone on board from the beginning.

Our students have also helped us craft a catalog of enrichment programming that they want. And, extended day and enrichment programming are now part of the hiring process. We look for teachers who want to work in an extended day environment and who have unique enrichment ideas to offer to students.

The second is structure. We put clear structures in place from the beginning. Teachers know exactly what their schedule is and so do students. Students understand they can choose from the enrichment classes, but they also understand they need to be doing well in school to have those options.

It’s also important to have someone who’s committed to the program. Our dean of students has been committed to making sure the systems are in place and to reaching out to and training quality community providers of the enrichment programming.

Finally, it’s critical to support the funding. This approach is really good for kids and it’s making an impact. We need to figure out how to sustain and provide funding to schools that have found great success.

The question most often asked about our new approach is ‘what are the costs?’ Of course, with teachers working more hours, students staying longer, and added programming, our expenses have indeed gone up. Luckily we have been able to fund the added costs over the past two years with special grant funds available through Denver Public Schools specifically for Expanded Learning Opportunities.

We recognize those funds won’t be around forever and it’s a top priority to determine how to make this new approach sustainable – not just for us, but for schools around the country interested in this model. That’s why we’re working with a local funder, Rose Community Foundation, to create a long-term plan for sustainability of the extended day model. The organization is a leader in expanded learning opportunities in our community and provided us with a grant to plan for the future. The grant will also support efforts to incorporate Colorado academic standards into our extended day curriculum, and integrate the enrichment programming into our academic departments.

We as a school and community are confident in our approach. As I look around, our students are beaming, parent support is huge and teachers are energized. Our scores tell an equally encouraging story – our 2014 numbers show high gains in all subject areas. Our approach is allowing us not only to provide enriching opportunities to our students but also close the opportunity gap for them, and we’re committed to ensuring this impactful programming continues for years to come.

This piece originally appeared at the Hechinger Report.

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.