The Other 60 Percent

Academy 360 aims to change the conversation

It was 7:45 a.m. on a cloudy Monday morning. About 100 children hopped up and down on the cracked asphalt outside their school, pretending to dribble basketballs, toss baseballs and jump rope.

Students at Academy 360 participate in morning movement.

Following the lead of Health and Wellness Coordinator Becky McLean, the children shouted, “I am smart! I am kind! I am a scholar!”

This is how each day starts at Academy 360, a new health and wellness charter school in the Montbello neighborhood in Far Northeast Denver. The 15-minute morning movement session is one small part of the school’s ambitious plan to bolster academics by promoting students’ physical, mental and emotional well-being.

Students, about 95 percent of whom come from low-income families, also get free breakfast and lunch in their classrooms and 45 minutes of physical education and 15 minutes of “guided” recess every day. Sugary drinks and flavored milks are not permitted, and unhealthy snacks like potato chips will likely prompt a note home with suggestions for healthier alternatives. Woven throughout the school day are formal and informal lessons on social-emotional skills such as compassion, tenacity and responsibility.

There is plenty more in the works. Although the school is currently located in leased church space, the long-term plan calls for a facility with a school-based health clinic. There are also plans for parent programs such as weekly exercise classes and talks on topics such as buying healthy food on a budget. Finally, the school, which currently serves kindergartners through second-grade, plans to add a grade on each end every year until it eventually offers preschool through fifth grade with additional programming for younger children as well as prenatal programs for parents.

Ultimately, school leaders and board members hope Academy 360 will help change the conversation around education, showing that healthy students and families are cornerstones of academic success, not optional add-ons.

“If we do this well, it does have the opportunity to be a new model of what education can look like,” said board member Dan Schaller, director of outreach and operations at the Denver Preschool Program.

In the classroom

The school’s focus on character education is obvious in the classrooms, with teachers discussing such attributes as graciousness or responsibility during lessons and walls and whiteboard adorned with aspirations such as, “I can be a model of tenacity.” Sally Sorte, the school’s founder and executive director, explained that these social-emotional themes are embedded deeply in expeditionary learning model used at the school and that teachers try to break it down into a discrete set of skills for students.

When two kindergartners had a tiff in Teacher Abbie Mood’s classroom, Sean Udell, the school’s special education and Response to Intervention coordinator, sat with the boy and girl at the “peace table” near the door and coached them through the conflict using a restorative justice approach.

A poster in a second grade classroom illustrates some of Academy 360’s values.

“It sounds like you both were hurt,” he said to the pair. “Instead of hitting her back, what could you have said to her?” he asked the boy.

Across the hall, second-grade teacher Dorothy Shapland, who is also the school’s director of curriculum and instruction, read the book “Children Make Terrible Pets” to her students. In between making the children giggle with her animated story-telling, she helped the children identify the characters’ feelings, and used the story to illustrate the meaning of compassion.

“She’s showing compassion,” Shapland said of the main character Lucy, a bear who adopts a little boy and then allows him to go home to his family. “She thinks about how someone else is feeling and then she acts on that feeling.”

A neighborhood in need of help

Across Scranton Street from Academy 360 is Amesse Elementary, a traditional public school that serves as a reminder to its new neighbor of the challenges that lay ahead. Like Academy 360, it serves a large majority of low-income and students of color. In the last few years, it has also gradually slipped to the lowest “red” ranking in the district’s five-tier performance framework.

“Sadly, they are one of Montbello’s many failing schools,” said McLean.

That’s in large part why Academy 360 serves Montbello as well neighboring Green Valley Ranch. Its leaders not only wanted to give parents a new school choice, but one cut from different cloth than the typical offerings.

“The mission was very attractive to parents,” said Board President Leslie Bayliff.

Funders found it appealing as well. Several have contributed financially to Academy 360, providing start-up grants or money for specific projects or staff members. They include the Colorado Health Foundation, the Gates Family Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Colorado League of Charter Schools and the Colorado Department of Education.

While Academy 360 may enjoy a brief honeymoon as it puts down roots this year and perhaps next, everybody wants to know if it can outshine nearby district schools.

Kindergarteners at Academy 360 have cereal, milk, apple slices and sunflower seed butter for breakfast in their classroom.

 

Sorte is quick to say, “Number one, we’re a rigorous academic school.”

The charter’s expeditionary learning model emphasizes interdisciplinary project-based learning designed to tap kids’ interests. The school supplements its math and literacy curriculum with programs such as Singapore Math and the “Lucy Calkin” workshop approach to teaching writing. Finally, at 8.5 hours, the school day is longer than most.

While Academy 360 tapped various sources for its curriculum and programming, Namaste Charter School, a health and wellness school in Chicago, may figure in most prominently. Sorte believes the nine-year-old school provides solid evidence that Academy 360’s model can work.

“They’ve done a good job in showing how health and wellness can lead to greater academic outcomes.”

Last year, Namaste earned the middle ranking, “good standing” on Chicago Public Schools’ three-level performance rating system. In 2012, 87 percent of its students met or exceeded standards on state tests, beating the district average by more than 10 percentage points. Of Namaste’s 482 students last year, 85 percent were low-income and 26 percent were “Limited English Learners.”

The journey

Academy 360 was just a concept two years ago when Sorte, who was 25 at the time, applied for a fellowship to design a health and wellness charter school. The fellowship was funded by the Colorado Health Foundation and offered through Get Smart Schools, a Denver non-profit dedicated to expanding the number of charter schools and other autonomous schools.

Sally Sorte, Academy 360’s founder and executive director, talks with students after morning movement.

Sorte, who taught high school in Hawaii through Teach For America and worked at Google before coming to Denver, describes the school-planning process as “long and grueling.”

Tasks included recruiting board members, filling out the lengthy charter application, passing out brochures at grocery stores and knocking on doors to meet prospective families. In addition to doing a month-long residency at Namaste Charter School, she visited the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City and The Odyssey School, an expeditionary learning charter school in Denver.

Sorte said at times she felt her age and gender prompted some push-back from the Denver Public Schools board, but she considered it “an opportunity to show it’s not just about the individual, it’s about the team they create.”

Part of that team is her 11-member staff, which went on an overnight camping retreat over the summer. All appear energetic and committed to the mission of educating students’ minds, bodies and characters. Take Udell, who used to teach special education at STRIVE Prep’s Highland Campus. He ran into Sorte, whom he’d met once previously, at a social gathering last June. She updated him on Academy 360’s progress.

We talked for about three hours and at the end of that conversation I was totally inspired by the vision and so impressed by how much was in line and how much she had reached out to the community… I didn’t want to miss out being a part of it so I sent her my resume from the bar,” he said with a laugh.

Mclean, who worked for the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition in 2011, is similarly passionate about her role as the school’s point person for health and wellness. In such, she not only collects health data from families and plans parent wellness activities, she has one-on-one conversations with students about how they feel when they eat too many sugary treats or with parents concerned about children exercising outside in cold weather.

While McLean has many plans to promote and publicize wellness efforts at Academy 360, one of her most ambitious is to have Michelle Obama visit the school. McLean envisions the First Lady eating at the salad bar with students and taking part in a school movement session.

“I think I’m just going to have to pitch the White House a bunch of times, prove that what we’re doing is working,” she said.

raising the curtain

Aurora high school students started rehearsing a musical about an earlier time — and discovered ‘harsh truths’ about today

Ebony Nash, left, sings during a rehearsal of Ragtime at Hinkley High School. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Nine weeks ago, more than 50 theater and choir students at Aurora’s Hinkley High School came together to begin work on a musical set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

At first, the kids did what high school students often do — cluster into familiar cliques, or self-segregate by race. Then the students started immersing themselves in the material.

The musical, “Ragtime,” intertwines the stories of a white family, a Jewish immigrant family and an African-American couple to spotlight differences and commonalities in the American experience.

At the urging of their teachers and directors, the Hinkley students began to use the plot and characters to examine their own actions, prejudice and biases. About 92 percent of Hinkley’s more than 2,100 students are students of color, the vast majority of them Latino.

The cliques and segregation slipped away. The production began taking shape.

“Ragtime” gets its Hinkley High School debut on Thursday and will be performed again on Friday and Saturday.

Chalkbeat sat down with a group of students involved in the production as they were in final preparations to learn about what their experience had taught them. The following is a portion of that conversation, slightly condensed and rearranged for clarity:

Janelle Douglas, a 17-year-old senior who portrays a friend of one of the story’s main characters, said the first time she saw and read through Ragtime, “it was intense.” She often cries as she rehearses her solo, sung during a funeral.

DOUGLAS: “I thought, this is powerful. This is overwhelming. This is amazing.”

Pamela Arzate, 17, plays the role of Evelyn Nesbit, a real model and actress who is incorporated into the fictional story and accused of being shallow.

ARZATE: “It’s very eye-opening because you look at it and it’s just a simple musical, but if you take a step back and go to the real world, it’s the exact same thing that’s going on today.”

Hodaly Sotelo, 17, plays the role of Mother, a woman whose attitudes toward her identity as a wife and woman evolve throughout the story.

SOTELO: “It reminds me of when I was younger and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re over all that racism.’ But now, I look back and I think, what the heck? This stuff is still going on and we thought it was way over.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, is one of two student directors.

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “It talks about all of the harsh truths that no one wants to talk about.”

DOUGLAS: “I think it’s safe to say it shows the true colors of our history.”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “Even within our cast we did have to have a talk about how we were so separated because we were at the very beginning. Everyone was in their little groups and with their friends. You just want to keep to yourself.”

DOUGLAS: “It was literally ‘Ragtime.’”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “We had a big talk with everybody. Things have gotten so much better. By the end of Act Two, we were all mixed up.”

Brenda Castellanos, 17, plays the role of Emma Goldman, drawn from a real-life political activist and anarchist.

CASTELLANOS: “Now that we’re closer, now that we’re all comfortable, we put in more effort.”

After nearly every rehearsal, teachers and directors give students a talk, urging them to immerse themselves in the feelings of their characters, relating to them if necessary through their parents, grandparents or ancestors who were immigrants, or through current events.

“What if you saw someone beaten, and bloodied and killed in front of you?” one director asked.

They also remind students of why the play should be impactful. “You have to figure out how for two-and-a-half hours you can give hope to that audience,” Marie Hayden, Hinkley’s choir director told students last week.

CASTELLANOS: “I think it it helps us. Every day, we get more into it and more into it until we actually believe it. You actually feel it — like how Janelle feels when she’s singing and she starts crying and makes everybody cry. We all feel connected.”

Students say they have different scenes that impact them the most, but they don’t hesitate to find how the scenes relate to their life despite the story being set in the first decade of the 1900s. Hayden’s class and the practice for the musical are safe places where they can discuss those parallels, they said.

Shavaun Mar, 16, is a junior who plays the main character of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime piano player who is the target of racial attacks and struggles with revenge and forgiveness.

MAR: “I feel like that is crucial that we give people those opportunities to talk because a lot of people have very valid things to say but they just don’t have a way to get it out.”

CASTELLANOS: “The shootings.”

ARZATE: “The racism. They help us discuss it because there’s so many things that are going on. Pretty much everyday there’s a tragedy going on. And so, in a way, we can use that sentiment, that emotion that we feel with the real world and convey it when we’re doing this show. We use those feelings and we try to think about it in that way. To display that emotion. To display it to everyone else. And not directly represent what’s going on today but just to give them that ‘aha’ moment, like ‘wow.’”

Ebony Nash, 17, plays the character of Sarah, an innocent girl who wants to help her boyfriend settle his problems.

NASH: “It just makes us want justice in real life because these things are still going on even though it’s not out there. It just makes us want justice for our community. This musical showed me that I need to become better within myself because I’m not perfect.”

SOTELO: “It opened my eyes a lot more for sure. This kind of just makes me realize the problems I have. It makes me realize yea, I’m having immigration issues with my father right now, but that also my friends, you know, they’re going through the same thing too. This DACA stuff or this coming out stuff. I became more accepting of what other people might be going through and how I can help.”

MAR: “The past few years, I have been in a bit of a shell. So putting myself in this situation and pushing myself to be this other person has really shown me what I’m capable of and it’s helping me break out of that shell and realize who I am as a person.”

NASH: “Basically, this is our getaway from real life because we get to come on stage and be somebody else. It also makes us want to put the story out right so people can understand. So people can feel what we want them to feel.”

CASTELLANOS: “That there’s hope after all this corruption that’s going on.”

DOUGLAS: “That even in your bad times you can still laugh, cry, dance.”

NASH: “What I want people to get from this is change. To learn how to change and learn how to forgive and learn how to come together as a community and just, like their worth.”

SOTELO: “And to be strong. To stand up for what’s right.”

ARZATE: “And it might sound weird, but I feel like they should feel a certain level of uncomfort because that means that they’re going to look at themselves while seeing the musical. Maybe they’ll go ‘I’m uncomfortable because I do that’ or ‘I have that prejudice’ or ‘I feel that certain way,’ so if they come out and they feel uncomfortable and then at the end they’re like, ‘Wow. There’s that hope for change.’ Hopefully that like…”

DOUGLAS: “… It inspires them to do better.”

ARZATE: “Like, you can do it.”

SOTELO: “It’s kind of like a water droplet. One small move can domino-effect to something bigger.”

 



Taking attendance

Want to make middle school admissions more fair? Stop looking at this measure, parents say

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Middle school students write their names down at a high school fair in Brooklyn.

Parents across New York City have pushed for changes in the way selective middle schools pick their students, saying the process is unfair.

Now, a group of Manhattan parents has come up with a novel solution: Stop looking at students’ attendance records.

The parent council in District 2 — where about 70 percent of middle schools admit students based on their academic records — points to research showing that students from low-income families are far more likely to miss school. Those children are at a distinct disadvantage in the competition for the district’s top middle school seats, the council argues, even though factors beyond the control of any fourth-grader — especially family homelessness — often account for poor attendance and tardiness.

“This outsized focus on attendance disproportionately impacts students who don’t have secure housing and may not have secure healthcare, and that is troubling to me,” said Eric Goldberg, a member of the community education council in District 2, which includes stretches of Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side. “There are many factors that should not impact a student’s educational opportunities — and the way the system is set up, it does.”

Eighteen of the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, and interviews. Of those, all but one school also considers how often students were late or absent in fourth grade, according to the parent council.

Most of the schools assign points to each factor they consider. Some give absences 10 times more weight than science or social studies grades, the council found, while others penalize students for even a single absence or instance of tardiness.

Disadvantaged students are especially likely to miss school.

A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that homeless students are more likely than other students to be chronically absent — typically defined as missing about 10 percent of the school year.

Schools with the highest chronic absenteeism are in communities in “deep poverty,” which have the highest rates of unemployment and family involvement with the child-welfare system, according to a 2014 report by the New School at the Center for New York City Affairs.

“We can use chronic absenteeism as a good guess of all the other things kids are dealing with,” said Nicole Mader, a senior research fellow at the New School and a co-author of the report. “If these middle schools are using absenteeism to weed kids out, that means they’re going to automatically weed out those kids who have the most barriers to academic success already.”

The attendance requirement can put pressure on any family, regardless of their financial status or housing situation.

Banghee Chi, a parent of two children in District 2, said she sometimes sent her younger daughter to school with a fever when she was in fourth grade rather than have her marked absent.

Her daughter would show up to class only to be sent to the school’s health clinic — which would call Chi to pick her up. Chi was thinking ahead to middle school, when a missed day of class could hurt her chances of getting into the most sought-after schools.

“It was something I was really conscious and aware of during my child’s fourth-grade year,” she said. “I think it’s unfair.”

The education council’s resolution, which will be put to vote in December, is nonbinding because middle schools set their own admissions criteria. But a show of support from parents could lead to action from the education department, which has been prodded by integration advocates to make other changes in high school and middle school admissions.

This summer, the department announced it would end the practice of “revealed rankings,” which allowed middle schools to select only those students who listed them first or second on their applications. The city is also appointing a committee of parents, educators, and community leaders in Brooklyn’s District 15 to come up with a proposal for making that district’s middle school applications process more fair.

“We’re collaborating with communities across the city to make school admissions more equitable and inclusive, including in District 2,” said department spokesman Will Mantell in an email. The department looks forward “to further conversations about this resolution and other efforts to improve middle school admissions in District 2.”