open house

District leaders look under the hood of a Success Academy

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
School leaders from charter and district schools visited Success Academy Harlem 5 on Thursday.

At Success Academy Harlem 5, students were under a microscope on Thursday — though that wasn’t out of the ordinary for its elementary schoolers.

In most of the school’s classrooms, clipboard-toting assistants make sure students stay on task. Standing off to the side as students work, they praise and critique at a near-constant clip.

“Put the text flat on your lap,” one assistant told a student in a reading class on Thursday, taking notes. “That’s a check.”

The practice, known as “narrating,” is one of the many ways that the Success Academy school works to keep students focused during the school day. The meticulous attention paid to the details of student and teachers’ behavior — alternately credited with the network’s high test scores and derided as too regimented — was on display for 20 principals and administrators who attended a tour and training session hosted by Success, the city’s largest charter school network.

Some were from district schools, and the public invitation was seen as a gesture toward greater collaboration from Success and also as a chance to score some political points. Success schools have a history of clashing with district schools with which they share city-owned buildings, and Mayor Bill de Blasio and his allies have criticized charter schools for not serving their fair share of high-need students. City officials have repeatedly said that charter schools need to open their doors and do more to share best practices.

“Keeping in mind that charter schools’ original purpose was to share innovative practices, we also need them to come to the table and tell us what they’re doing,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said this week.

But most of the morning in Harlem felt comfortably distant from the political maelstrom that can seem permanently attached to Success Academy and its founder Eva Moskowitz, who has waged a public battle with de Blasio over his ambivalence over charter schools.

School leaders from 41 charter schools and 22 district schools signed up to visit one of two Success schools that were part of the tours, a spokesperson said. They came from the city’s other large charter networks, like Uncommon, KIPP and Achievement First, and from as far away as Albany. The group even included the principal of a district school that shares space with a Success Academy in the Bronx.

“We get along,” said the principal, who despite her friendly relationship with Success asked that her name not be used. “But it’s good to come and see if somebody is doing [something] different.”

Michaela Daniel, a top education policy adviser to Deputy Mayor Richard Buery and who formerly served as director of operations of an Uncommon charter school, also attended.

The visitors probed all aspects of the growing elementary school,where 97 percent of 165 third- and fourth- graders earned a proficient score in on the state math exams and 68 percent earned a proficient English score last year, when city averages were 34 percent in math and 29 percent in English. Of last year’s test-takers, 92 students were third-graders and 73 were in fourth grade.

Principal Khari Shabazz, right. is an active participant in lessons when he's observing teachers at Success Academy Harlem 5.
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Principal Khari Shabazz, right. is an active participant in lessons when he’s observing teachers at Success Academy Harlem 5.

In focus was Success’ feedback-obsessed culture, in which someone was frequently assisting the assistants. On Thursday morning, assistant principal Lavinia Mackall stepped in to tell the rookie teacher taking notes in the reading class that he was narrating a bit too loudly.

“I noticed that he was speaking in a tone that was almost as loud as the instruction that was going on,” Mackall recalled after.

During a guided reading portion of another English class, Principal Khari Shabazz interrupted and asked a teacher to repeat her instructions to make her directive more “kid-centered” before the class turned to work.

She had initially begun by saying, “‘When I am reading, I am going to be thinking about,’” Shabazz said. “So I told her just to rephrase and make sure that they are part of that conversation.”

What made that kind of interaction possible without disrupting the lesson, Shabazz and teachers said, was the school’s rigid structure. Classes are meticulously planned, and teachers huddle beforehand to consider how students might get stuck.

The real-time feedback caught the visitors’ attention.

“I usually sit back  and let the teacher go through the lesson and then we conversate after,” said Lynn Staton, who has served as the principal of P.S. 36 in southeastern Queens for nine years. “But I do see the value of standing next to the teacher and moving along with them.”

Also on display was the school’s approach to discipline, something for which Success schools have been criticized. If a student tallies up enough checks on the assistant teacher’s clipboard, he or she must spend time away from the class. One student, who a teacher said had refused to complete a worksheet, was told to remain seated at his desk in the back of the classroom as his peers moved to a work on a rug at the front of the room.

Discipline on display: A student in a Success Academy Harlem 5 classroom was told to stay seated while the rest of the class worked out a math problem on the rug.
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Discipline on display: A student was told to stay seated while the rest of his classmates moved to the rug to work on a math problem on the rug.

Most of the school leaders said they were impressed with the back and forth between Shabazz, Mackall, and their teachers, though others questioned whether the students they saw were overly restrained. Several requested access to the school’s schedule and curriculum in order to apply some parts of the Success model to their own schools.

Shabazz ended the morning session with a statement that underscored what stokes the interest in, and controversy around, Success Academy’s schools. Asked about his school’s test scores, Shabazz quickly pointed out that his students outperformed their peers down the hall.

“No disrespect,” Shabazz said, “but just to give you a sense of the school that I share space with, I don’t think more than 3 percent of those kids passed.”

In fact, 4 percent of P.S. 123’s students earned proficient scores in math, and 8 percent earned proficient English scores last year. But to Shabazz, the details were less important than the gap between the two schools’ performance.

“I think it’s important to think about when you talk about what is really possible,” he said.

Success Academy Principal Khari Shabazz’s coaches teachers in real time from Chalkbeat New York on Vimeo.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.