First Person

Don’t Smile ‘Til Christmas

That’s a popular saying. Basically, it means you’ve got to get tough with the kids when they first see you, and stay that way for a good long time. After all, every parent knows it’s the sacred duty of every kid to test every adult every minute to find out precisely what can be gotten away with.

I’m up to the challenge. On the first day of class, I might phone the homes of every kid who looked at me the wrong way. Doubtless that will be the talk of the classroom. “This teacher is crazy!” That’s music to my ears. They prevailing platitude states a good lesson plan is the single best factor in classroom control, but I’d say a bad reputation trumps the good lesson plan every time. After all, if the kids are tying you to a post and setting fire to it, your excellent lesson plan is likely to go up in flames with you, no matter how good the instructional objective may be, or how much praise it’s garnered from your supervisor.

Actually, I like kids a lot — working with them is by far the single best part of being a teacher. As an ESL teacher, drawing them out and making them comfortable enough to speak freely is a major part of what my job entails. So, much as we all treasure peace and quiet, I don’t have the luxury of simply telling them to sit down and shut up the entire year. Nor would I want it — I don’t think I’d like that any more than the kids would.

Once kids know who I am, and what I will and will not tolerate, they have a lot of freedom in my class. As long as they do the work, they can speak out and complain about the class (or even the teacher) as much as they like. I don’t mind. I can give as good as I get, for the most part, and kids who can out-talk me, even on an occasional basis, very much deserve extra credit. In fact, such kids have gone above and beyond what can reasonably be expected of newcomers.

But this year is a little different. Francis Lewis is, supposedly, annualized, meaning while class levels change, kids spend a year with any given teacher. But there are frequent exceptions. Most of my level-one kids proved to be what we call “false beginners,” meaning they had significant passive knowledge, and a huge head start over my real beginners.

Actually, despite what the 100% infallible state and city tests may have suggested, I’d have classified most of them as level two. Of course, I only saw them and their writing every working day of my life. That’s certainly not the same as knowing whether they’d blacked in A, B, C or D on standardized tests for 30 minutes on a single day when they may or may not have eaten breakfast, stayed up all night, or taken a family member to the hospital.

As new kids walk into my classroom, I ask them what’s your name, where are you from, and how long have you been here. In advanced classes, I’ve frequently encountered kids who were stumped at the first two questions. Yet they filled in the right circles, the state had spoken, and that was pretty much it. What’s the difference if they understand nothing? The test says they’re advanced, and that ought to be good enough for anyone.

Differentiating instruction is all well and good, but this year was a very tough balancing act trying to address the needs of two distinct groups that most definitely did not belong together. Whether or not you believe in learning styles, it went well beyond that. I’m afraid, though I specifically went back to square one at least twice in an effort to reach the beginners, I was more effective reaching the majority — in this case, the higher group.

This month we were able to remedy that, for the most part. I kept the false beginners and the rest joined another class, with kids at a similar level. But now, about one-third of my class is new, and I’m being tested all over again. This puts me in the unfortunate position of having to roll back the liberties of kids who know me well, who have certain expectations of me and what they can get away with.

So how do you go back to not smiling when most of your kids know very well it’s one of your favorite things to do? It’s generally believed that once you smile there’s just no taking it back. This may be true, but I’ve got a plan.

I’m going to try selecting a few of the most talkative and influential students who’ve been with me since September, pulling them out of their classes, and explaining what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. Hopefully they’ll understand. They are pretty smart kids.

If I can get them on my side, maybe they’ll encourage the new kids to get with the program. After all, they want their freedom back, and that’s the quickest way to get it.

In fact, that’s exactly what I’ll tell them on Monday. Wish me luck.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.