Future of Schools

In a first, Englewood hires Generation Schools to overhaul district

When students at Englewood School District arrive at school next year, they won’t just find new classrooms and unfamiliar teachers. They may also be facing a totally new academic model.

Students in Englewood Schools will see big changes next year. District photo.
Students in Englewood Schools. District photo.

The school district, located directly south of Denver, has signed a year-long partnership with the non-profit Generation Schools, a non-profit whose model includes extended learning time, increased teacher collaboration and smaller class sizes. The deal is a first for Generation Schools, which has only worked at the school level.

“It really sets a new precedent for what’s possible,” said Wendy Piersee, CEO of Generation Schools. “I think the size of the Englewood district mirrors the typical size of districts across the country. It really hits that model for hundreds of districts across the country.”

Generation’s approach, nicknamed the “Rubik’s cube” model, aims to create longer days and longer schools years for schools while still working within the school’s available resources, including existing financial capabilities and teacher contracts.

Generation’s partnership with Englewood schools is a first for Colorado, said Janet Lopez of the Rose Foundation, to whom Englewood has applied for grants to help fund the project.

“The unique element is an entire district that’s trying to work entirely within the constraints of Colorado’s school finance restrictions,” said Lopez, a program officer for the foundation.

Generation’s typical approach to previous projects has included a massive overhaul of teacher and staff scheduling as well as budgeting to compensate for those changes. The details of how Englewood will manage those changes without increasing its budget remain undecided.

Englewood and Generation Schools, who signed the deal just over two weeks ago, are still unsure what exactly the new model will look like, but they hope to go beyond the academic calendar. The district and Generation’s management group are considering a new approach to student attraction and retention as well as an overhaul of the district’s college and career preparation.

Urban district in the suburbs

Despite Englewood’s distance from Denver’s urban core, it struggles with many of the same issues urban districts do. Roughly 65 percent of Englewood’s 2981 students receive free and reduced lunch and about 15 percent of students make use of English language learning services.

“They are becoming an urban district that sits on the fringe,” said Piersee.

Englewood, which was designated as a turnaround district by the state in 2010, which has already implemented a slew of changes, including a more collaborative learning model for students and including iPads in classroom instruction. The district was re-designated as a priority improvement district in 2011, but has failed to increase its ranking since then. The district’s superintendent hopes the changes the partnership with Generation Schools will bring will accelerate their improvement and increase scores.

“You can have all the best instructional strategies and technology and if you have kids coming in halfway, it takes time to catch up,” said Brian Ewert, the district’s superintendent. “It takes more time and resources to get these kids to the same place as some of their affluent peers, who have far more opportunities. We have to do something significantly different.”

Engelwood’s growth scores have improved but the majority of its students still do not meet achievement expectations on state assessments. Ewert believes the district has already made some important changes but that they aren’t sufficient to the needs of the students.

“We have seen some small successes and we’re proud of that, but we’re really clear within the system that we aren’t moving quickly enough,” said Ewert.

New campus, new rules

Despite the challenges the district and Generation Schools face, change will have to come at a fairly rapid pace. In addition to the constraints of the district’s improvement plan, a bond and mill levy passed last year funded the construction of a brand-new campus for the district’s high school and two middle schools. The district plans to time the academic overhaul with the move to the new campus, which will open in winter 2014.

This presents a unique challenge for Generation Schools.

“This is the first time I know of where there’s a facilities deadline,” said Piersee.

The new building features a far more open floor plan than the old campuses as well as improved STEM facilities and space for the school’s popular new career preparation effort, a culinary training program. The district hopes these aspects will be incorporated in the new model.

“What we’re trying to do is create our climate and culture and what we want the new building to feel like,” said Mandy Braun, principal at Englewood Middle School.

Ewert agrees, saying the two pieces, building and instruction, have to compliment each other.

“The practice supports the building and the building supports the practice,” Ewert said.

A different model of change

Generation School’s partnership with the district comes on the heels of extensive talks between district leadership and a group known as “Team Phoenix.”

Team Phoenix, which is made up of principals, teachers and staff from the district’s middle and high schools, has met twice a week for over a year and a half to discuss possible changes to the district’s model. Last year, they created a list of about 80 things they wanted to see changed in the district.

“A lot of the things we were wanting were things that Generation Schools practices,” said Braun, who is also a member of Team Phoenix. Braun and her team members support the partnership with Generation Schools, as did the district’s board of education.

Ewert says the involvement of school and community members is key to his plan.

“There are two kinds of approach — and this is totally my opinion — to what people call reform,” said Ewert. “You can have boards of education and superintendents come and make a change and say ‘we are going change in a year.’ That really collapses the community of parents and teachers and students.”

Despite the apparent transformations of the past few years, Ewert believes he has taken as restrained and considered approach as possible with lots of community involvement.

“And what we’re trying to do is really thoughtful change,” said Ewert. “If you take people along a bit slower, it’s still painful but people stay involved.”

Ewert’s slow and steady approach is informed by the district’s tumultuous history prior to Ewert’s arrival in 2010.

“There were ten superintendents in ten years,” said Karen Brofft, the district’s assistant superintendent, who was hired at the same time as Ewert.

Englewood’s decision to partner with Generation has not yet been presented to the district and the community, although it’s no secret. Teachers and staff have begun to discuss its implications.

“It will be a huge adjustment for people,” said Lindsay Taylor, a drama teacher at Englewood Middle School and a member of Team Phoenix. But she says, “the parents that we’ve talk to, they’re kind of getting used to big adjustments in the classroom.”

The district and Generation Schools will start holding talks with faculty and staff in the next couple weeks to discuss the decision and any changes those stakeholders want to see. Conversations with parents and community members will start soon as well.

As far as the community response, Ewert is optimistic.

“I’ve been pretty aggressive in our timeline,” said Ewert. “So far the system’s been pretty tolerant.”

change of heart

Chicago school board backs down on ID policy but clings to limits on speakers

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
The Chicago Board of Education

Public visitors to the monthly Chicago Board of Education meetings will not be required to show ID to enter the meetings, despite a notice in the September agenda prominently displaying the rule.

“It is crucial for the board’s monthly public meetings to be open to all interested community members, and to ensure no barriers to participation exist, we are rescinding the photo ID requirement for tomorrow’s meeting and all future meetings,” Chicago schools’ spokesman Michael Passman said Tuesday.

The identification rule was not new, and no one had ever been denied entrance for failing to bring ID, according to Passman. But the Chicago Teachers Union and several community members complained when the September agenda was released earlier in the week, prominently displaying the rule front-and-center.

Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates called the ID requirement a “Jim Crow-era voter suppression” tactic that could “disenfranchise black voters and scare off undocumented residents.”

The board, however, is not planning to back down from another rule it also highlighted in the September agenda, according to Passman: That one prohibits public commenters from addressing the board two consecutive meetings in a row.

Similarly, the limit is not a new policy — in fact, it dates back to 1999. The board opted to spotlight it this month to deter consecutive speakers from signing up for speaking spots and then finding out later they would not be permitted to participate.

Chicago still requires public commenters to register before meetings and limits the number to 60. The two-minute spots usually fill up a day early. Same-day slots for observers who wish to attend but not participate are first-come first-serve.

Among the planned speakers on Wednesday is a group of parents who have written a letter of concern over a district policy requiring Local School Council members to undergo fingerprinting for a background check. They argue it deters participation from undocumented families. Chicago had nearly 200,000 undocumented residents in 2017, according to one demographer’s estimates.

listening tour

Estos padres quieren eliminar los obstáculos para hispanohablantes en las escuelas de Detroit

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Un aguacero no pudo detener estas madres el martes. Asistieron una discusión sobre las escuelas en Detroit.

To read this story in English, click here.

Si te parece difícil navegar el sistema escolar de Detroit, imagínate como es cuando nadie habla tu idioma.

Una discusión el martes sobre los obstáculos que enfrentan los estudiantes que hablan español en Detroit dejó en claro que sus padres también se encuentran problemas parecidos.

Los padres que se presentaron en el edificio de Brilliant Detroit quieren apoyar a sus hijos mientras aprenden a leer y hablar en inglés, pero afirmaron que es mucho más difícil hacerlo cuando no se pueden comunicar con las escuelas.

“Uno siente que no tiene valor,” dijo Gloria Vera, hablando de sus interacciones con maestros angloparlantes. “Te sientes que tienes menos oportunidades para hacer preguntas. Yo por ejemplo me da miedo.”

Varias madres confesaron inquietudes sobre los efectos de la ley de lectura de Michigan, que podrá retrasar a estudiantes del tercer grado si su nivel de lectura no es suficientemente alto para el año que viene. Según una investigadora, un 70 por ciento de estudiantes que hablan español en Michigan podrán ser retrasados.

Una madre dijo que quiere apoyar a su hija mientras aprende a leer, pero se preocupaba que su propio nivel de inglés estaba demasiado bajo.

Otra, Delia Barba, sospecha que su hija tiene una discapacidad de aprendizaje, pero afirma que su escuela en el suroeste de Detroit, un barrio mayormente hispanohablante, todavía no la ha examinado.

Barba — como casi todos las madres que asistieron el evento — dijo que las escuelas deben contratar más empleados bilingües.

“No sabemos con quién hablar,” Barba dijo. “No hablan español.”

Chalkbeat, un periódico en linea que se enfoca en las escuelas de Detroit, está recorriendo la ciudad, preguntándoles a padres cuáles asuntos debemos investigar. Esta vez, Chalkbeat fue acompañado por organizaciones centradas en el barrio “Southwest.” Juntos, iniciamos una discusión con docenas de padres, mayormente madres hispanohablantes. Vinieron a la sede de Brilliant Detroit por la mañana, a pesar de un aguacero.

Algunas de las presentes ya habían colaborado con organizaciones locales como Congress of Communities y el Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation para insistir que los líderes del distrito de Detroit expanden acceso para familias que hablan español. Apuntaron que sus preguntas fueron ignorados por administraciones pasadas.

“Los residentes de la comunidad se sienten frustrados en 2018, porque han expresado la necesidad de acceso al idioma en repetidas ocasiones a lo largo de los años y una resolución es continuamente ignorada,” dijo Elizabeth Rojas, una organizadora que también es una madre del distrito. “Sabemos que los estudiantes se van de nuestra ciudad para asistir a los distritos escolares en los suburbios. Si fortalecemos nuestros servicios de idiomas, estamos seguros de que muchas más familias regresarán al distrito.”

En una reunión el mes pasado, el superintendente de escuelas Nikolai Vitti señaló que iba a establecer un “hotline” – linea telefónica – en español y que cada escuela con estudiantes que hablan español iba a contratar a un empleado hispanohablante en la oficina central, entre otras promesas.

Al recibir los resultados de una encuesta en el barrio, los padres ahora se están enfocando en la pregunta de seguridad en las escuelas. Esperan que las escuelas contratarán a más policías bilingües, y que padres que no tienen papeles serán permitidos entrar en las escuelas con una tarjeta de identificación alternativa, por ejemplo un pasaporte mexicano o un ID proporcionado por el mismo distrito.

El martes, los padres reportaron que también hay una falta de servicios bilingües en las escuelas “charter” en el suroeste de Detroit. Angelina Romero, quien llegó con su familia de México en los últimos años, se preocupaba que su hijo del primer grado no está aprendiendo inglés en una escuela “charter,” y que tenía dificultades en comunicarse con su maestra.

“Ojalá que las familias que asistieron este evento se dan cuenta que hay padres en otras escuelas y en otras partes de la ciudad que también quieren más servicios bilingües,” dijo Jametta Lilly, directora del Detroit Parent Network, uno de los anfitriones del evento.

Para Gloria Vera, fue aun más difícil navegar el sistema de educación especializada por la presencia de una barrera lingüística. Su hija recibió un diagnosis de autismo, pero cuando se presentó a la escuela le dijeron que no había suficiente espacio.

“Me dijeron, no puedes matricular tu hija aquí,” dijo Vera.

Le dieron un número de teléfono para llamar, pero Vera dudaba que la ayudara.

“No sabía inglés,” explicó. “Me sentía perdida.”

Encima de la discusión se cernía la ley de lectura del tercer grado. Para estos padres, nunca iba a ser fácil ayudar a sus niños a aprender a leer en un segundo idioma — pero la ley aumentó la presión.

Yesenia Hernandez afirmó que lee a su hija de segundo grado en inglés, pero se preocupaba que su pronunciación no es perfecta.

“Ella está aprendiendo, y yo la estoy confundiendo,” dijo.

Trabajando a lado de cinco madres, Hernandez creó una lista de las maneras en que su escuela podría ayudarle a ayudar a sus hijos. Otros grupos trabajaban en sus propias listas, y cuando compararon los resultados, se notaba muchas semejanzas. Por lo general, los padres querían comunicarse con las escuelas en español, y pidieron recursos — como clases de inglés para adultos  — cuyos beneficios se trasladarían a sus hijos. Un grupo apuntó la “sala de padres” de Priest Elementary-Middle School, donde padres que hablan español pueden reunir para compartir información y recursos.

Quieren apoyar a sus hijos mientras aprenden a leer, pero los padres admitieron que sienten inciertos sobre los efectos de la ley del tercer grado, que iniciará el año que viene. ¿Si sus hijos fueron retrasados al tercer grado, cómo serían afectados?

Para Delia Barba, no había problema: “¿Qué pasa si dicen pasa, pasa, pasa, y no sabe cómo leer?” preguntó.

Pero Gloria Vera tenía dudas. En su barrio, aproximadamente 80 por ciento de los estudiantes hablan español en casa. ¿Cuántos iban a ser regresados?

“En esta parte de Detroit, debe haber una solución,” dijo.