First Person

A tale of two schools: How summer reveals a growing divide

Toward the end of June, I asked one of the students at the school where I am an assistant principal – a public elementary school located in Manhattan’s Chinatown where 95 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for free lunch – whether she was looking forward to summer vacation. “No,” was her response. “Why not?” I asked. “Because I’m not doing anything,” she replied. Such is the reality for many of New York City’s 1.1 million schoolchildren, who recently started summer vacation.

One year ago, I stood in a very different place. I was a teacher at a sought-after public elementary school in brownstone Brooklyn where students attend pricey summer camps filled with enriching activities and then go off to vacations overseas, to the beach, or the mountains—anywhere but the sweltering August streets.

This year has been a journey through New York City’s very divided populace; I have borne witness to what Mayor de Blasio called “the tale of two cities.” Along the way, I have become convinced that there are ways that all of us can turn our attention to schools and communities where the need is greatest.

The students at my current school are truly remarkable. Many of them are recent immigrants to the United States; they live in cramped tenements in Chinatown, sharing one room with grandparents and siblings, and renting out additional rooms in their apartments to complete strangers. Their parents work long hours, sometimes out of state. Other students live in the city’s Catherine Street homeless shelter, and despite promises by the mayor to convert this to an adults-only shelter because the conditions are unfit for children, we enrolled students through mid-June whose families had just been placed there by the Department of Homeless Services. Others live in the public housing projects directly adjacent to our school. Parents share stories of their struggles – to find work, to keep their children out of trouble, and to pay for necessary, but not always covered, medical care.

Despite all of these challenges, our students show up to school every day, with smiles on their faces, ready for a new day. And we try to provide them with everything we possibly can. We take them on field trips often; they have drama, art, music, physical education, science, and technology class at least once a week; we offer them enrichment clubs after school. Our teachers try to bring the outside world – to which our students have little exposure, into the classroom. (Second graders, upon disembarking from the subway in Battery Park, asked whether they were now in the countryside, never having seen so much green space in their lives.)

But what about my student’s lack of enthusiasm for summer vacation? Policymakers will argue that there are many programs that try to fill in the gaps for low-income students and families. There’s Medicaid and Title I and city-run summer programs. There are local nonprofits that offer free or low-cost enrichment activities and public libraries that run summer reading programs. There are social service agencies that offer families support and counseling. But these programs and funds cannot plug what have, by now, become gaping holes in our society’s safety net.

The Great Recession exacerbated the precarious situation in which many Americans were already living. It is evident to those of us who work in the public schools that our families are suffering, perhaps even more so than at any other time in recent history.

This suffering has a very real impact on a student’s ability to learn and achieve. No program can significantly alter the impact on a child’s brain development when she lives in a chaotic and stressful environment because her family is doing everything they can to scrape by. The achievement gap will not be closed by the scraps that our policymakers throw at families who are in crisis. Instead, the “haves” – those members of our society who have been content to turn their heads away from our neediest citizens – must begin to advocate for structural change that will improve the lives of the “have nots.”

That means we must raise the minimum wage; provide quality health coverage; offer truly affordable housing; reduce the bureaucratic burden on families trying to get services (the amount of paperwork and appointments that these already-struggling families must keep track of is staggering); and provide eldercare, high-quality childcare, and paid maternity leave. It also means providing before- and after-school programs and continuing to work to improve and integrate our public schools.

While these major initiatives may seem daunting to the average citizen, there are other ways to help the schools with the greatest needs. The families whose children attend my former school, for instance, can focus their energy on communities that do not possess the same fundraising potential, political power, and social capital. They can identify partner schools in high-poverty neighborhoods for which they can raise money, conduct pen pal campaigns, and visit each others’ schools.

Rather than volunteering their time to provide more for those who already have a lot, they can spend time tutoring a struggling student in their partner school, or running a yoga, drama, music, or sports program for those students, either during the school year or in the summer.

These small steps can do a lot to bring necessary attention to the yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots in our public system. It won’t fix the problem, but it will force all of us to open our eyes.

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.