First Person

Editor's blog: National School Choice Week runs political gamut

In case you didn’t know, this week is National School Choice Week.  Today also happens to be National Reading Day, and National Handwriting Day. Last week was Penguin Awareness Day but you’ve now missed that.

It’s debatable whether all these designated events truly raise awareness or cause people to think differently. It seems there’s a “day” for everything. For me, it’s “I Need a Blog Post Idea Right Now” Day, and school choice is pretty darn important, regardless of how you feel about it.

So, if you want to jump on the choice bandwagon or if you are already a true believer and want to support the cause, then you might want to know about things happening around here.

Choice attracts interesting bedfellows

As part of National School Choice Week, Americans for Prosperity Foundation-Colorado and talk radio 710 KNUS are hosting a live telecast featuring political commentators Dick Morris (a Fox News political commentator who once worked for Bill Clinton but later became one of Hillary Clinton’s staunchest critics), Hugh Hewitt, an outspoken Republican, evangelical Christian talk radio host, and chairman of the Colorado State Board of Education (and former Republican Congressman) Bob Schaffer  “to do even more to support the teachers and the schools that are succeeding, and hold those that are failing firmly accountable.”

Cherry Creek science and technology buildingDespite calls for bipartisan support for choice, this particular event appears to have a specific agenda. Just look up the sponsor organization websites if you want bone up on the latest anti-Obama rhetoric. The groups are pushing a message that is clearly pro-market, anti-big government (or possibly any government) and definitely anti-union. For the record, Gov. Hickenlooper does not plan to attend, despite his endorsement of National School Choice Week.

“It’s time to put children first in the education policy debate, not the adults and not the unions,” Jeff Crank, AFP Foundation-Colorado state director, said in a statement.

Pitched as the week’s “kickoff event” in Colorado, the live telecast will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 24, at the Douglas County Events Center, 500 Fairgrounds Dr., in Castle Rock. The program will be telecasted live on the Internet at www.PutKidsFirst.com.

The location, of course, is also strategic as Dougco finds itself in the midst of a vigorous debate about school choice and vouchers in particular.

You may recall that a judge declared the school district’s voucher pilot unconstitutional in August. So, the district’s much ballyhooed Choice Scholarship Pilot Program, which happens to be the state’s first district-run voucher plan, remains in legal limbo. A decision from the Colorado Court of Appeals is not expected before March.

School choice proponents add voices to chorus

Similar “pro-school choice” events are happening across the country. Last year, National School Choice Week hosted events in 40 states and the District of Columbia, with the governors of 10 states officially recognizing the week – including Gov. Hickenlooper. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock also signed a proclamation recognizing the week.

On the national scale, organizers say National School Choice Week is planned by “a diverse and nonpartisan coalition of individuals and organizations with more than 180 partner organizations.” See for yourself by checking out this  complete list of partners http://www.schoolchoiceweek.com/who_s_in.

It will be interesting to see if the event in Castle Rock brings out a similarly diverse group of choice advocates. There are odd bedfellows indeed in the school choice movement.

National School Choice Week kicked off at a special event in New Orleans on Saturday. (See video above – and yes those are The Temptations). Bill Cosby got on board, saying, “I strongly support National School Choice Week because all children in America should be able to access the best schools possible. We have a moral and societal obligation to give our children the opportunity to succeed in school, at work, and in life. We cannot meet that obligation unless parents are empowered to select the best schools of their children.”

Don’t care about school choice? Bust out a pencil with your kid and write some cursive. (But wait, I don’t think that’s taught in schools anymore… ) Or read a book. Now that’s a safe bet.

Other National School Choice Week events

 

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.