up close and personal

Northeast Denver charter puts a new spin on teaching and learning

Roots Elementary students hold iPads as they stand in line to go into one of the school's mini-classrooms.

One hundred kindergartners and first-graders scrambled to get their iPads from black metal cases around the lunchroom on a recent morning at Roots Elementary, a new charter school in northeast Denver.

A few stared blankly at the screens, which displayed large letters or symbols showing the children their first learning station of the day. Some swarmed around teachers for help while others figured out their destinations and headed off with little fuss.

The September morning marked a new beginning for students at Roots, which opened its doors in mid-August in the Holly Square neighborhood’s Hope Center. It was the first day that each child was following a personalized schedule, moving to a new station every 15 minutes for much of the day.

Principal Jon Hanover, a former business consultant and kindergarten teacher, said, “It’s literally the first time something like this is happening with elementary school.”

The scene—with 5- and 6-year-olds checking iPads and navigating along colored tape lines to get to their appointed stations—does appear to be a huge departure from the traditional school model. Students no longer have a single teacher, classroom or a standard sequence of lessons.

But Hanover said such a drastic shift is needed in an area that’s not been well served by traditional neighborhood schools.

“When you look at the achievement data of the schools in the region, there’s a crisis at the elementary level,” he said.

The percentage of third-graders reading proficiently at five nearby district schools — Smith, Barrett, Hallett, Columbine and Stedman — ranged from 35 to 47 percent, according to 2014 state tests. All have large populations of low-income students.

Roots, where about 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, won’t have a comparable third-grade achievement data until 2018. Still, when the time comes, Hanover’s goal is that 90 percent of students who’ve been at Roots for at least two years will be proficient or advanced in all subjects.

It will be an immense challenge, he said, but one that can be overcome by teaching “the right objective to the right scholars, at the right time, in the right way.”

For parents like Adam Harmon, who lives a few blocks from the school, Roots is a godsend.

“This is a new school with a revolutionary idea,” he said. “I don’t see the traditional elementary school surviving in 20 years.”

He believes Roots’ personalized approach will allow his 5-year-old son, Sir Adam, to advance unfettered by traditional grade levels.

“Their structure…is blended so you don’t know where kindergarten stops and first grade starts,” he said. “My son is in kindergarten but he just learned to count to 120.”

Differentiation with a twist

On the inaugural day of personalized schedules, 5-year-old Leilani was confused at first. She followed the crowd into The Grove, the large open room where students work independently at stations like the “Writing Center,” the “iPad Center” or the “Flex Center.”

Roots Principal Jon Hanover helps 5-year-old Leilani find her next station.
Roots Principal Jon Hanover helps 5-year-old Leilani find her next station.

Hanover came to the rescue, reminding her that the orange symbol on her iPad corresponded with the orange sashes hanging from the ceiling above the Writing Center. After a couple reminders by a supervising teacher to find her portfolio, she settled in to draw a picture of a house.

A few minutes later, chimes sounded, signaling students throughout the room to move to a new station. Some stayed in the Grove and others followed a blue tape line called “The Trail” to mini-classrooms around the perimeter.

It’s in these spaces, named for the neighborhood’s flora-themed streets, that students will work more directly with teachers. All told, the children will spend about half their academic time in these rooms, but the size of the group and the lessons they’ll focus on will depend on their personal needs.

In the “Birch” mini-classroom, the scene was similar to that in any early elementary classroom—though it was impossible to tell which students were officially kindergarteners and which were first-graders.

During one rotation there, writing and social studies teacher Mackenzie Wagner led 18 students as they practiced tracing then writing their names on paper attached to clipboards. During the next rotation, Hanover, subbing for a teacher who was sick, read the classic book, “Where the Wild Things Are” to a group of 24 students.

Students work independently at stations in this large open room, called "The Grove."
Students work independently at stations in this large open room, called “The Grove.”

Students do have breaks from shuttling between stations. Besides lunch and recess, they have “opening circle” and “closing circle” each day. Staff members called coaches lead these sessions, which focus on social-emotional skills and always include the same group of students.

“It’s very familiar there,” said coach Debbie Van Roy, a former teacher who will follow a cohort of 50 students throughout their Roots career.

In addition to working with children in groups and individually, coaches spearhead communication between home and school.

“We’re constantly in touch with kids’ families,” she said.

Another piece of the puzzle

While Roots may be a school to watch for its re-imagination of instructional delivery, it’s also distinctive for the gap it will fill in the geography of the Holly Square neighborhood.

Its permanent building, set to open next fall, will soon rise a stone’s throw away from its current quarters, on a plot once occupied by the Holly Shopping Center. That building was burned down in 2008 in a gang-related arson.

Roots Elementary's permanent building will go up where these temporary basketball courts are now.
Roots Elementary’s permanent building will go up where these temporary basketball courts are now.

The new school will be nestled among a complex of buildings that includes a Boys & Girls Club, the Hope Center, a library and a city recreation center. It was selected for the spot, which is owned by the Urban Land Conservancy, by a group of community stakeholders.

“This idea of creating a children’s campus…really resonated with everyone around the table,” said Tony Pickett, vice president of master site development at the Urban Land Conservancy.

“Seeing Roots fit into that was a sort of natural evolution.”

That evolution is set to continue in the fall of 2016 with the opening of a new charter middle school, the Near Northeast Community Engagement School, inside the Boys & Girls Club space, Pickett said.

“I think there is a tremendous opportunity to really change the life course of young people in that community,” he said.

While Roots, like any charter, is technically open to students from across Denver and even outside the district, Hanover and his team have put a premium on attracting students from the neighborhood.

“We knocked on every door in Northeast Park Hill at least four times during the enrollment process,” Hanover said.

Pickett noted that Hanover and other school leaders have consistently showed up to community meetings and worked to build relationships with parents.

Those efforts seem to have paid off. About 80 percent of students are from the immediate neighborhood.

National influences

Before Hanover taught kindergarten for two years at Rocky Mountain Prep charter school, he worked at the Broomfield-based Charter School Growth Fund.

roots uniforms

That organization, which gave Roots a $200,000 “Next Generation” grant, funds expansion of high-performing charters across the country and provides start-up grants for promising schools.

Given Hanover’s background, it’s not surprising that Roots is heavily influenced by certain high-profile charter sector practices. Examples include the school’s gray and blue uniforms, the way teachers address students as “scholars” and reminders for children to track the speaker.

But it extends beyond that. For example, the school’s math program, Cognitively Guided Instruction, is drawn from the high-achieving Success Academy charter network in New York City. Summit Public Schools, which operate in California and Washington, was the model for Roots’ “Habits for Success.”—reminders like “I stop, think and make a good choice when I’m upset.”

Finally, the school’s approach to culture, which emphasizes core values like kindness and respect as well as community-building activities, comes from the Brooke Charter Schools in Boston.

Hanover describes the various charter school influences as “taking the best from the best.”

At the same time, he believes working closely with other local youth-serving groups is critical to the school’s success.

“A great elementary education is super important but not enough,” he said. “The only way for us to meet our mission is if we’re really smart in how we’re partnering with other entities in the community.”

Schola Latina

With school board approval, new Detroit Latin School plans to enroll students as soon as next fall

Plans for the new Detroit Latin School involve renovating the former Brady Elementary School building on Detroit's west side.

Detroit students in grades 5 through 7 might start enrolling as soon as next fall in a new school focused on the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.

The new Detroit Latin School, which hopes to eventually serve students in grades K through 12, won approval from the Detroit school board Tuesday night to enter into a 99-year, $1 lease for an abandoned school on the city’s west side.

The school is one of two new schools opening next year as the district makes a play to recruit some of the 30,000 Detroit children who currently commute to the suburbs for school.

When news of the school first broke last month, some critics grumbled that the district should focus on supporting its existing schools rather than opening new ones. The 106-school district has dozens of buildings that are half-full or in serious disrepair. Others wondered why a district overwhelmingly serving African-American students is backing a school that emphasizes European culture rather than building additional Afrocentric schools.

But Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he hopes the Latin school’s unusual curriculum will appeal to families who might otherwise shun the district and will keep students — and the state funds that come with them — in the district rather than see them flow to charter or suburban schools.  

Board members, who approved an agreement for the Latin school in a unanimous vote Tuesday night, said they hope the district will hold the new school to high academic standards and will push to make sure that ancient African cultures such as Carthage and Kush are incorporated in the school’s curriculum along with Greece and Rome. They also called on the district to add Afrocentric programs to its schools.

“I’m pleased with this and excited,” said board member Misha Stallworth. “I like the classics but I also hope that as we continue to look at new school opportunities, we can pursue subjects that are a little more reflective of our community.”

According to an agreement approved by the board Tuesday, the new school will be run by the George Washington Scholars Endowment, an organization founded in 1785 that has opened similar schools in Washington, D.C., and New York.

The Detroit version will be a traditional district school, subject to school board oversight and policies. Teaching staff will be district employees and members of district unions, though some administrators will work for the endowment.

The district will pay for routine maintenance and operations, while the endowment plans to raise money — as much as $75 million — to support the school and to renovate the former Brady Elementary School on the city’s west side.

The endowment, which will operate the Latin School in another district building for two years while the Brady campus is being renovated, has ambitious plans involving a four-building campus in a traditional quad configuration. The campus will include a lower school serving grades K through 6, an upper school serving grades 7 through 12, a science and technology building, a “center for rhetoric and performing arts,” and a dormitory.

The agreement authorizes the school to house about 20 international students in the dorm.  

It’s not clear what happens if the endowment falls short of its ambitious fundraising goals. The agreement approved Tuesday calls for the property to revert back to the district if it is no longer being used as a traditional public school.

Also not clear is what happens if the school struggles academically or doesn’t meet the district’s expectations for serving students. The agreement approved Tuesday largely spells out the financial relationship between the district and the school and doesn’t go into detail about the school’s curriculum or academic policies beyond specifying that they will align with Michigan state standards.

The agreement states that if the district terminates the lease, it would have to repay the endowment for its renovation expenses — a provision that one school board member encouraged the district to reconsider as it negotiates the final language for the lease.

“I would push you to think about the terms under which you can cancel the lease,” said board member Sonya Mays. “There’s a requirement in here that we would have to pay back for the first 20 years. I would hope that we can carve out …. If they don’t meet academic standards or something like that. So just making sure that [repayment] is not sort of a blanket requirement on our end.”

Vitti said the district will require the school to meet or exceed the district average for academic performance.

The Latin school will be open to all Detroit residents but admission will be selective, based on grades and a student interview — not on standardized tests. The school will open initially with just fifth, sixth and seventh grades. It plans to add additional grades once it moves to its permanent building in 2021.

Revisiting CTE

How a new career program has put these Indianapolis students to work as nursing assistants

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Antonia Dove, left, and Shireah Washington are seniors at Crispus Attucks High School.

A few days each week, seniors Shireah Washington and Antonia Dove end their school day at Crispus Attucks High School at about 11 a.m. Instead of spending the afternoon in the classroom, they work as certified nurses assistants at a senior care facility.

The jobs, which come with both paychecks and school credit, are part of a program the high school launched last year to help prepare students for careers in medicine. Six seniors, including Washington and Dove, who trained as CNAs and passed the state exam last year, now have jobs. The program was so successful that about 40 students are studying for the certification this year, according to the administration.

Nursing assistants’ work is not glamorous. For the eight-hour shift, the students take residents to meals, bathe them, and help them change. Some of the labor is strenuous — Dove said it takes upper body strength. Sometimes it’s off-putting — Washington said it takes a strong stomach. On slow days, it can just be a little dull, they said. But ultimately, it gives students a chance to see up close what it’s like to work with patients.

“It’s like stuff you see on TV,” said Dove, who wants to be a neonatal nurse. “You’re just seeing it in real life.”

The CNA program is part of Indianapolis Public Schools’ effort to revamp education for high school students by creating specialized academies that allow students to choose their school and program based on their interests. The academies cover a broad range of areas, from construction to rigorous college preparatory programs such as International Baccalaureate. But the central idea is that high school should prepare students for the careers they want to pursue.

The strategy is part of a career and technical education trend across the state and nation. Indiana is increasingly focused on connecting education and workforce development by encouraging high schools to give students more opportunities to explore careers and pursue internships. And national politicians from across the political spectrum support career and technical education.

At Attucks, there are two academies: health science and teaching, learning, and leading. The CNA training is part of the nursing track, one of four paths in the health science academy. The others are physical therapy, health informatics, and Project Lead the Way biomedical sciences.

Career education sometimes has a negative connotation as a program for students who can’t perform academically, said Mee Hee Smith, career academy coordinator at Attucks. But the health science academy has rigorous programs, she said.

For students to qualify for the CNA program, they must have a 3.0 grade point average, good attendance, and no discipline issues. The state also requires them to pass criminal background checks and health exams before they can begin clinical work with patients.

In addition to allowing them to earn credentials in high school, the CNA program can help “catapult” students into a two- or four-year degree program, Smith said. When students are applying to colleges, graduate programs, and jobs, they will already have experience working with patients and a state credential.

“When Shireah goes and finishes her four-year degree and then applies to med school, she gets to put that on her applications,” Smith said. “The hope is that she uses this experience and uses that to her advantage and maybe gets ahead.”

It’s also a chance to make some money. Students working as CNAs are paid between $11 and $13 per hour, depending on whether they are working early or late hours.

Dove is saving up to pay for expenses at college, like what she will buy for her dorm. Washington has been a little freer with her spending, buying clothes and gear for volleyball. “I just feel like I’m rich,” Washington said with a laugh.

But Washington, who wants to be a pediatrician, also takes her job seriously. “If I was anywhere else, I wouldn’t have had this experience,” she said.

While CTE has been embraced by politicians in recent years, there are some concerns about students focusing on career-specific skills in high school. Some question whether the skills are taught as a substitute for broad knowledge and whether students will have the general skills needed to adapt in a changing workforce. Others raise concerns about whether students from economically disadvantaged families or students of color are being steered toward CTE.

CNAs don’t make great money — the median pay is $12.21 per hour, according to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. But if students pursue further education, it could open the doors to lucrative, in-demand occupations. Health care is projected to add more than 77,000 new job openings, including about 3,000 openings for nursing assistants, by 2026.

When principal Lauren Franklin took over at Crispus Attucks High School three years ago, the school was a medical magnet on paper. But there were only a few medical courses, and students could not take them until 10th grade, she said. Franklin set out to change that by adding more medical classes to the curriculum and helping students learn what medical careers would be like.

The nursing assistant program is part of that shift. It offers students the opportunity to work in medical settings with patients while they are still in high school. For some teens, it reaffirms their desire to go into medicine. But for others, it can change their perspective. Over the course of the first year, many students decided they didn’t want to continue the CNA training, said Franklin.

“I think people tend to romanticize it,” she added. “There were kids who … go to clinicals and they see blood for the first time, and it’s like, ‘thought I wanted to be a doctor, nevermind.’ ”

Ultimately, Franklin hopes the academies will give students a more concrete sense of what their future holds. “It gives kids that something to hope for and that something to strive for,” she said.