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.”

Achievement School District

Here’s why another state-run charter school is closing in Memphis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
GRAD Academy students work on a writing assignment during an African-American history class. The South Memphis charter school will shutter this summer.

The high cost of busing students from across Memphis to maintain the enrollment of GRAD Academy was a major factor in a national charter network’s decision to close the state-run high school.

Project GRAD USA announced plans last week to shutter its only Memphis school after four years as part of Tennessee’s Achievement School District. Besides high transportation costs, the burden of maintaining an older school building and a dip in enrollment created an unsustainable situation, charter organization officials said this week.

“Higher-than-projected transportation and facilities costs were major contributors to the operational challenges that GRAD Academy encountered,” CEO Daryl Ogden told Chalkbeat.

GRAD Academy will become the third state-run charter school to close in Memphis since the ASD began operating schools in the city in 2012. KIPP Memphis and Gestalt Community Schools closed one school each last year, citing low enrollment and rising operational costs.

This is the first school year that GRAD Academy didn’t meet its enrollment targets, according to Ogden. The high school started the school year with 468 students, a drop of about 13 percent from the 2016-17 year.

Ogden said enrollment constraints significantly hurt the operator’s ability to recruit students to the South Memphis school.

Unlike most ASD schools, GRAD Academy started from scratch. It was not an existing low-performing school taken from the local district and assigned to a charter operator with the charge of turning it around. As a “new start,” the high school could only recruit students zoned to other state-run schools or the lowest-performing “priority schools” in Shelby County Schools.

Most of the ASD’s 31 remaining schools were takeovers and are allowed to recruit up to 25 percent of their student bodies from non-priority schools. (Now, a 2017 state law prohibits the ASD from creating new schools.)

GRAD Academy was not required to provide cross-city transportation but, because the school did not have a neighborhood zone, chose to as a way to build enrollment.

“Students were coming from all over Memphis, since there is not a zoned area around the school, and that began to be a challenge with attracting students,” said Kathleen Airhart, the ASD’s interim superintendent. “Their transportation costs were much higher than their counterparts in the ASD.”

Airhart said the State Department of Education has been working closely with GRAD Academy since becoming aware of its financial issues last October. She noted concern over whether the school had the funds to stay open through May, and the state worked with administrators to reduce expenses and streamline funding.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Tennessee
GRAD Academy rented and maintained the building that formerly housed  South Side High School, originally built for 2,000 students and shuttered in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

Both state officials and Ogden declined to specify how much the school spent annually on transportation and building maintenance but said that the cost of facilities was also an issue. GRAD Academy rented and maintained the building that formerly housed South Side High School, originally built for 2,000 students and shuttered in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

Airhart is working with two other ASD charter operators — Green Dot Public Schools and Frayser Community Schools — to offer GRAD Academy students a high school option next year. A meeting is scheduled at the school for 5 p.m. on Thursday to answer questions from parents and students about the closure and their options.

The impending closure of GRAD Academy is another blow to the ASD. It’s the state-run district’s highest-performing high school and has its largest percentage of high school students scoring on grade level, according to state data from 2017.

Airhart commended the school for its career and technical focus on engineering and coding — two pathways that could lead to dual certification for students.

“The goal would be to transition the two programs and equipment to Frayser Community Schools or Green Dot,” Airhart said, adding that the details haven’t been finalized.

Many GRAD students felt their voices were lost in the decision to shutter their school, according to Kyla Lewis, a 2017 alumna who is still involved in the school’s poetry team. She called the news “heartbreaking but not surprising” and added that teacher and principal turnover was high during her years there.

“South Memphis has seen so much school closure and this hits hard for kids actually from the neighborhood,” said Lewis, now a freshman at the University of Memphis. “I don’t agree with the decision, but the main issue I saw was the thinning out of teachers. Once the best teachers left, by my senior year, the school culture was starting to fall apart.”

Ogden commended his team for the school’s academic strides, but acknowledged that “faculty and staff turnover associated with urban school reform” was a major challenge.

“There has been a continual need to reinvest in our staff and introduce our culture process and learning and development philosophy to new colleagues, which can slow academic momentum,” he said. “There is a persistent national, state, and local shortage of highly qualified, experienced math teachers which we, along with all of our fellow Memphis school operators, especially at the secondary levels, have had to work hard to overcome.”

who's next?

What you should know about seven people who could be the next New York City schools chancellor

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Carmen Fariña's retirement.

Nearly a month after Carmen Fariña announced that this school year would be her last as New York City’s chancellor, New Yorkers are no closer to knowing who will succeed her.

As city emissaries reach out to possible replacements around the country and City Hall vets people inside the Department of Education, speculation has mounted quickly. Will Mayor Bill de Blasio go with a trusted insider? Or will he try to attract a celebrated outsider who could drum up some excitement about his education agenda?

What’s clear is that de Blasio has committed to picking an educator for the slot, ruling out some officials who have played a leading role in his biggest education initiatives so far. Low pay, an established education agenda, and de Blasio’s reputation for being a micromanager may make it tough to recruit a high-profile outsider. Still, the job remains among the most prestigious education posts in the country.

Everyone who pays attention to education in the city has ideas about who might be under consideration.

After talking to more than a dozen people who keep a close eye on the education department and City Hall, some of them from within, we’ve sorted through the rumors and political jockeying to handicap several contenders.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Miami-Dade County Public Schools
Alberto Carvalho

Alberto Carvalho

Who he is: Carvalho is the widely admired leader of Miami’s school system, where he has spent his entire career. Under his leadership, the district’s finances and academic performance improved. He has an inspiring life story, too: He became an educator after first coming to the United States from Portugal as an undocumented immigrant.

Why you might see him at Tweed: Politically savvy, skilled in engaging with the media, and prolific on Twitter, Carvalho would certainly fill the mayor’s requirement of being able to sell an education agenda. During his tenure, he helped convince county voters to approve a $1 billion bond for school infrastructure and technology upgrades.

Why you might not: Things are going well for Carvalho in Miami, where his contract runs until 2020 — and he’s balked at high-profile opportunities in the past. Like other outsiders, he’s already far outearning the city chancellor’s salary: He makes roughly $345,000 in Miami now, compared to nearly $235,000 for Fariña in New York.

What he says: “My commitment to Miami is so strong and I have demonstrated it in the face of political opportunities,” he told Chalkbeat. “It’s really hard for me to imagine a set of circumstances that would lead to a different decision on my part.”

Kathleen Cashin

Kathleen Cashin

Who she is: Cashin is currently a member of New York’s Board of Regents, where she helps set education policy for the entire state. Before that, she spent more than three decades as a New York City educator — first as a teacher and principal before working her way up to be a regional superintendent.

Why you might see her at Tweed: De Blasio has signaled he’s looking for someone like Fariña, and Cashin fits that mold. She believes, as Fariña does, that principals must be veteran educators who earn their autonomy (she resisted Bloomberg’s efforts to hire principals who were not experienced educators). Crucially, she has shown results boosting student achievement in high-poverty areas of the city, a problem de Blasio has struggled to solve.

Why you might not: Cashin recently turned 70, she is not a person of color, and is not likely to bring lots of new ideas to the table.

What she says: Did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.

What a supporter says: “She had the toughest district in the entire city and she handled her district not only with focus,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, but also “elegance and professionalism beyond belief. I have so much respect for Dr. Cashin.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Rudy Crew

Rudy Crew

Who he is: Crew is the president of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, part of the city’s public university system. He previously served as New York City’s schools chief for four years in the late 1990s under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, spent another four running the Miami-Dade county school district, and did a brief (and controversial) stint as an education official in Oregon.

Why you might see him at Tweed: Crew is a black man, which makes him a standout among the education department’s top ranks. He knows the political landscape and has continued to take an interest in the city’s schools through his work at Medgar Evers, where he created a program that provides training to local public-school teachers and early-college classes for students. Crew also seems to share de Blasio’s belief that high-quality instruction should take priority over school integration, and as chancellor, he set up a turnaround program for struggling schools that has clear parallels with the mayor’s Renewal initiative.

Why you might not: While Crew has had some success boosting student achievement, he also has a record of political clashes. He left Miami after the school board’s chair said they had developed “irreconcilable differences” and Oregon amid controversy about his commitment to the job.

What he says: Crew declined to be interviewed, but a spokeswoman said he “has not been contacted about the job.”

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
MaryEllen Elia

MaryEllen Elia

Who she is: Currently the head of New York’s state education department, Elia previously led one of the nation’s 10 largest school districts, Hillsborough County in Florida. There, she gained a reputation for working closely with the local teachers union on policy issues that unions often oppose. She was named Florida’s 2015 superintendent of the year before being ousted by the school board shortly afterward, in a move that garnered some local and national criticism.

Why you might see her at Tweed: While Elia is considered a long shot, it could make sense for de Blasio to give her a look. She’s a good match for de Blasio’s overall orientation: She’s progressive-minded — see the state’s new initiative to help districts integrate their schools — but also believes that schools should be held accountable for helping students learn. Elia has spent nearly three years running the state education department without making enemies. She also hasn’t set out to make a big splash in her leadership, which could be appealing for a mayor whose agenda is already in place.

Why you might not: She appears comfortable in her role in Albany, where she’s helping the state adapt to the new federal education law, and reconsider its approach to teacher evaluations, graduation requirements, and more. Also, she has no experience working in New York City.

What she says: “Commissioner Elia has had no discussions about this,” said State Education Department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis. “She loves her job as State Education Commissioner and remains committed to fostering equity in education for all children across New York State.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Dorita Gibson

Dorita Gibson

Who she is: Gibson is the education department’s second in command as Fariña’s senior deputy chancellor. She has served at virtually every level of leadership within the New York City school system, rising from teacher to assistant principal, principal, and high-level superintendent. She’s helped lead big changes in the way the education department supports schools, and is partly responsible for overseeing the mayor’s signature “Renewal” program for struggling schools.

Why you might see her at Tweed: She’s already there, an advantage at a moment when some outsiders seem unenthusiastic about taking over the school system. Gibson is one of Fariña’s top deputies who leads initiatives that are core to the city’s education agenda. She’s also a longtime educator, which de Blasio has said is a requirement, and the department’s top-ranking deputy of color.

Why you might not: Despite being Fariña’s number two, Gibson has kept a low profile, and rarely appears in the press. Her absence raises questions about her interest or likelihood of assuming the top position.

What she says: Declined to comment.

What people are saying: Gibson “seems to be a natural successor,” writes David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “The only problem is that, like other central Department of Education officials, she doesn’t seem to have the support of the mayor or chancellor.”

PHOTO: Via LinkedIn
Cheryl Watson-Harris

Cheryl Watson-Harris

Who she is: Watson-Harris is the education department’s senior executive director of field support, who is responsible for helping manage centers that support schools on instructional and operational issues. She started her career as a New York City teacher before working as a principal and superintendent in Boston for nearly two decades. She assumed her current role in 2015.

Why you might see her at Tweed: Watson-Harris rose quickly from running just one of the large school-support centers to overseeing all seven. Multiple sources said she was perceived as being groomed for a higher-ranking position at the education education department. And on her Twitter feed, where she acts as a public booster for the school system, she notes that she’s the parent of a student in the city’s public schools.

Why you might not: She would have to leapfrog a number of more senior officials who have years of experience at higher rungs of education department leadership, including Gibson. Insiders question whether she’s ready to make that jump.

What she says: Declined to comment.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Phil Weinberg

Phil Weinberg

Who he is: Weinberg is one of Fariña’s six deputy chancellors. He began his career teaching at Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology — and wound up staying for 27 years before rising to principal in 2001. In 2014, Fariña plucked him from that post to head up a resurrected “teaching and learning” division that had been dormant for years.

Why you might see him at Tweed: Weinberg is widely respected among educators and has avoided major blowback during his four years leading teaching and learning at the department. The things he’s passionate about — including strong teaching, coherent curriculum, and collaboration among educators — are close to Fariña’s heart, which would matter if she plays a strong role in choosing her successor.

Why you might not: His efforts have been peripheral to the initiatives the de Blasio administration cares about most, such as prekindergarten and community schools. He seems to prefer an internal role to a public-facing one. And he’s a white man — hardly the top demographic choice for the leader of a district where more than 70 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

What he says: Did not respond to a message seeking comment.

That’s the short list, but many other names have also surfaced.

Josh Starr, a former New York City official who now works at PDK International, and Pedro Noguera, a professor at UCLA, would make good fits for de Blasio’s progressive platform, but both have said they are not in the running.

Other names that have been floated as potential contenders include Lillian Lowery, a former district superintendent and top education official in Maryland and Delaware (now a vice president at Ed Trust); Angelica Infante-Green, a fast-rising deputy commissioner in New York’s state education department who is reportedly in the running for Mass. state education commissioner; and Betty Rosa, a former superintendent in the Bronx and chancellor of New York’s Board of Regents.

There’s also a cadre of educators who have left New York City for other school systems and might be interested in returning, including Andres Alonso, currently an education professor at Harvard, and Jaime Aquino, who helps lead New Leaders for New Schools, a non-profit organization that focuses on training principals.

Philissa Cramer and Christina Veiga contributed reporting.