come together

Charter-district school tours kick off with lessons in creativity

Visiting educators observe students at Bronx Charter School for Excellence. (Team B Productions)

The first round of school tours hosted by a group promoting collaboration between the city’s charter and district schools kicked off last week when more than 20 educators visited a high-performing Bronx charter school.

Tuesday’s tour at the Bronx Charter School for Excellence was organized by NYC Collaborates, an initiative that stems from a compact between the Department of Education and more than 85 charter schools to set aside their differences and work together.

“The impetus for the tours … is that there are just not many formal mechanisms for sharing,” said Cara Volpe, who manages NYC Collaborates, part of a national initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. New York became one of nine cities to join the initiative when then-Chancellor Joel Klein signed the foundation’s collaboration compact in 2010.

This month, the group organized four school tours, all in the Bronx. Each has a different theme: Educators will visit KIPP Academy for lessons in character education and the Eagle Academy to learn how new schools can create traditions to build school culture, for example.

Last Tuesday’s tour focused on creativity in the classroom. Sitting in front of blue plastic desks with notepads and pens in their hands, principals, teachers, and other school officials raised their hands to ask questions as they listened to BCSE’s principal, Charlene Reid share tips on how to foster creativity while also achieving strong test scores.

“High-performing charter schools are not synonymous with creativity,” lamented Reid, who said BCSE switched to project-based learning after April’s state tests. “Children need skills but also need to think flexibly.”

The Bronx charter school is thriving after a rocky start. After opening in 2004, the school initially struggled with low test scores and unsteady leadership. After the board brought in Reid in 2007, performance began inching up, and last year, 96 percent of students passed the state’s math exam and 91 percent passed the English test.

One charter school principal, Curtis Palmore, said he specifically signed up to visit Bronx Charter because of the school’s strong reputation. Until last spring, Palmore led a charter school that performed so poorly that it was selected to be taken over by another charter operator, and now he is set to lead a different charter school, Explore Exceed, starting next month.

After the conversation with Reid, teachers on the study tour spread out to observe elementary-grade classes.

“I wanted to come to this [school] because I’m curious about adding creativity to my lessons. I feel like it’s a big problem in charter schools. Often times the achievement gap is prioritized over lessons being creative,” said a first-grade teacher who wanted to be anonymous to avoid identifying her East Harlem charter school.

Soft instrumental music played in the classroom as the teacher crouched down to speak with kindergarteners who were busy coloring. “I want to make my lessons interesting for the kids,” she said.

Reid said she volunteered to host a study tour out of a desire to see charter-district school relations become less polarized.

“The big wedge that drives schools apart is the lack of communication. We are educating the same students,” she said. “I think if we can create more formal ways to communicate and actually work together and collaborate with each other, our co-existence would be more harmonious.”

Most of the educators who signed up for the Bronx tours are from charter schools, despite Volpe’s efforts to raise interest in district schools as well.

“We made sure to get this in the hands of the district schools, which is challenging for sheer communications reasons,” Volpe explained. “We went painstakingly through public information. We pulled every Bronx principal’s email that we could find and then sent them an email and a hard copy” of an announcement.

The handful of district teachers who visited BCSE included Chana Comer, from Baychester Middle School.

“I came here to see what they were incorporating and what their definition of creativity was,” said the sixth-grade science teacher, who added that her principal invited all the teachers at her school to join the school.

Comer said she was impressed with the advice she received at Bronx Charter and emphasized that she doesn’t believe students’ success depends on the type of school they attend.

“I think it really boils down to the administration,” she said. “I think a school is only as good as the administration, whether it’s a public school or a charter school.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”