School leaders go back to school

The school is called High Stakes High. Its motto? Proficiency or death. Teachers act as spies, and weak students are eliminated, Hunger Games-style.

D-21 Assistant Principal Renard Simmons presents his vision for his school, which serves credit recovery students.

No, it’s not the latest young adult novel craze. Instead, the story of a school that takes accountability a bit too seriously was part of a short video exercise for current and aspiring school leaders aimed at opening them up to creativity and teamwork and at exploring the importance of structure when thinking about transforming a school.

The video was created as part of a weeklong intensive training run by Get Smart Schools for 16 fellows whom the organization plans to support for the next two years as they develop their own visions for education and learn how to effectively manage and run a school.

The fellows, who came to the seminar from Denver, Aurora, Sheridan, Douglas County and Salida, have an average of six years of teaching experience and an average of five years of school leadership. Sixty percent of the participants are women; 26 percent are minorities.

The fellowship aims to shift principals’ leadership and management outlook from traditional problem-solving strategies toward more structural thinking.

“In the past, school leaders addressed problems and challenges by fixing the problem and restoring order,” a description of this week’s training read. “They used data and logic and created long-term, strategic planning processes based on traditional decision-making approaches.

Get Smart doesn’t believe this strategy has worked.

“As our world has become more complex, patterns change and situations don’t fit into neat boxes. This requires a different approach that relies on specific patterns of thinking and a deep understanding of systems and structures.”

“We are approaching ideas as if you are a CEO,” trainer Andrew Bisaha said.  “We want to help them create a picture [of a school] anyone can buy into.”

Fellowship details

In the first year of the fellowship, leaders are immersed in learning and application through a series of modules that include interactive coursework, simulations, case studies, reflection, independent reading and research and workplace application.  This learning is then applied in the workplace with support and feedback from executive coaches. The final project for the year is a comprehensive organizational analysis of a school and the development of a strategic plan that is implemented in the second year.

In the second year, fellows refine the skills learned in year one and apply those skills in the context of new school development or school turnaround strategy. Cohort meetings are focused on deeper analysis and more sophisticated case studies. Executive coaching targets the personal talents and strengths that have been identified for the individual leader and the coach supports the fellow to develop those talents into leadership strengths.

The video exercise was intended to get them to think about the need for a beginning, middle and end — a structure to go from vision to reality in a school. To make the exercise more realistic, workshop leaders had the fellows work a conch shell and large chunk of cheese into their films — meant to represent the challenge of meeting state or federal mandates.

Sample school vision

After the principals had fun with videos, they then used poster paper to write out a vision statement for improving a school or creating a new one.

Angelique Sanchez-Hutman, an administrative assistant at D-21, a credit recovery school in Denver, said it’s her goal to become an assistant principal then a principal one day.

“I enjoyed the idea of looking at the current reality and your vision and then building steps to get there…and seeing the gap,” she said of this week’s workshop.

Her goal is to create a dual language school for middle and high school students in Denver.

Dave Fromson, teacher and activities director at Sheridan High School, found the workshop compelling because it examined the difference between problem solving and truly creating a better school structure.

“Problem solving is temporary and bound to experience the same level of ultimate failure as you have of success vs. truly creating a new and better structure,” Fromson said. “You can change things for the good permanently.”

Fromson’s goal is to transform the school he’s in.

“I want to transform it into something in which our students are empowered to be part of creating their own postsecondary plans,” he said. “A lot of our students just don’t realize what is out there. They don’t realize what is out there is also for them.”

A school with kids who are behind

Renard Simmons, assistant principal at D-21, said he has many bright students in his school, but they’re at a third and fourth grade level academically. He wondered how people could accurately gauge their progress  — not just based on test scores. To him, it’s a major coup if a student learns to be respectful after being in a pattern of cussing in the hallway.

“I look at the student in June – that is not the same student I saw at the beginning of the year,” he said. “That kid may still be behind, but they’re not going down the hallways, saying [expletives].”

He said he’s also got gang members and there have been fewer fights this year, only a recent fight involving girls.

Simmons said he is interested in emphasizing a school that builds character, uses project-based learning and creates a sense of community. Character is the big thing for him. He tells his students that life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to what happens to you.

Get Smart trainer Jane Shirley said it would be key for this student population to be trained with the skills they need to handle project-based learning.

“Those students come in with a gap,” she said.

Fellow Garrett Rosa is a director of the Vista PEAK P-20 campus in Aurora.

Rosa said Shirley “helped us early on structural thinking.”

“I loved that [Get Smart] had more of a business mindset in how to operate a school,” Rosa said. “They look at it very intentionally.”

It was those interactions with Get Smart that led Rosa to become a fellow.

“The hard part of school of innovation is I am not connected to innovative leaders in Aurora Public Schools,” he said. “Having like-minded, creative, dynamic people around who don’t have blinders up to what’s possible inspired me.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.