Without ‘grit’ or ‘no excuses,’ how one charter high school is preparing to send high-needs students to college

Navigating a career path used to be like riding a steamship — a slow and steady trip to a certain future, said Erin Mote, a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter High School. Today, it more closely resembles whitewater kayaking, she said, full of rocks and choppy waters.

Yet, Mote and her husband, co-founder and executive director Eric Tucker, have a plan to help their students learn to paddle the waves. They have decided to open a charter high school in 2017, as a planned extension of their current Brooklyn middle school.

With their vision newly approved by the Board of Regents in June, Mote and Tucker join a growing number of charter school leaders who are branching out into serving older students. (The vast majority of charter schools are still elementary or middle schools.)

Their approach is ambitious. While some charter schools have come under fire for serving too few high needs students, Brooklyn Laboratory plans to recruit an equal or greater percentage of low-income students, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners than the district in which it is located. The founders also plan to use a weighted lottery to select for those students if necessary. Despite serving high-needs students, their goal is for every student to aim for selective four-year colleges.

To make that happen, Mote and Tucker say, they have to ensure that students have the structure and rigor they need to excel, while also fostering the independence the students will need for life after high school.

They won’t sugarcoat the difficulty of passing an Advanced Placement exam, but they reject the common charter school label “no excuses” to explain their culture of high expectations. They also hesitate to use the word “grit,” a trait often invoked to explain what students need to be successful, and instead prefer the term “persistence.”

Here’s how Mote and Tucker are thinking through these and other issues as they venture into high school education. (The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

You say that every student should aim for selective four-year colleges. Why say “selective” colleges, and why have every student aim for a four-year college?

Tucker: The reality is that the types of jobs that would allow you to take care of your family and to compose a meaningful adult life increasingly have requirements that look very similar to the [qualities] a Caltech or a University of Michigan cares about. We’re not making a four-year-college-for-all argument, we’re making the argument that durable, public institutions need to be committed to serving all students and need to set their sights high.

Mote: When we think about what today’s work world looks like, when our grandparents started out it was like a steamship. You sort of got on the steamship, set the direction, and you just went. And at the end of that journey, you likely walked away with a pension and you had been working at the same job for 50 years. Then there’s our parents, where it was more like a sailboat. You still got where you wanted to go and there was still a sort of manageable pathway there. I think more and more for our scholars today, it’s like being whitewater kayakers. The world is changing so quickly and the currents are rushing past you, and there’s big waves or rocks in your way. We really think about how do we, in our students, engender not just the academic skills but the ability to navigate that complexity?

What if you have a student who’s not ready for a selective four-year college?

Mote: We want to pitch our school so that our scholars have the option of a four-year selective university. Let’s take Malia Obama, who has decided to take a gap year. She goes to Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., one of the best schools in the country. Sidwell holds this bar of a four-year selective university, and it’s not that they’re saying to her, ‘It’s a bad decision to take that gap year.’ She has every option in the world and I think that’s what we want to narrate for our students, that they have every option in the world.

Maybe that means that they get into [New York University], but that they decide to take a year and take coding classes at [the technology training center] General Assembly. But they have the option to walk into NYU, and that door isn’t closed as a factor of where they were born, what zip code they live in, or what high school they went to.

What makes you so committed to serving high-needs students?

Mote: When [Eric] was in middle school, he dropped out of middle school. When he got to Brown, he was diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and attention deficit disorder. Traditional schools didn’t understand his condition as a learner. It’s a very personal thing when it comes to serving complex students.

Erin Mote and Eric Tucker are preparing to open a charter high school in Brooklyn.

As space becomes more and more precious in downtown Brooklyn, the need to have high-quality, non-selective seats at the high school level is really important. Brooklyn Tech’s a great school and we love having them as a neighbor, but I think we’re all really aware of the challenges that selective seats can provide. Brooklyn Tech seats are never going to be open only to students that live in this neighborhood.

How do you plan to do both serve high-needs students and prepare them all for college?

Mote: If you look at what we’ve been able to do at our middle school, we’ve been able to do that and close the achievement gap. It’s a huge undertaking, but I think we have the team, the staff, that’s dedicated to moving the needle for these kids and we have the track record to do it. I’m confident — can you tell?

You hesitate to use the word “grit” to describe a quality you want to teach your students. What are you teaching instead?

Mote: I hesitate to use that word because I think that so many of our scholars already have grit. We’re not teaching them grit, we’re teaching them persistence. I think those are different things. Grittiness comes from being able to survive and to keep going. Persistence is a different set of skills; it’s continuing to do the same things over and over again until you master it.

You are advocating a warm yet demanding learning environment. What does that mean and how does it differ from “no excuses”?

Tucker: I’d say our approach is positive discipline and youth development, and that entails clarity, consistency and transparency, so our scholars and families know what to expect. But, particularly in high school, you need to have a deliberate release towards independence. You need to, by 11th and 12th grade, be closely simulating the types of independence, student ownership and responsibility that set young people up to thrive in what’s generally a pretty unstructured time in college.

We are firm believers in high expectations, and in no-nonsense nurturing, and in authentic relationships. Pretending that [Advanced Placement] exams are less challenging than they are doesn’t do anybody any good. Pretending that we can take the foot off the accelerator on how high our expectations are for attendance, or for homework completion, or for participating in class, doesn’t set students up for future success.

What do you think are some of the biggest challenges of opening a high school as opposed to a middle school?

Tucker: When you think about a great high school experience, you think about a student competing on a debate team, or a robotics team, or in a Google science fair context, while having a great course of study. Those things exist in our society for some students at selective high schools or in affluent suburban high schools. The commitment that our city needs to make is that every student deserves access to a high school education that genuinely prepares them for the best colleges. It means that they need to understand what it means to work at a law firm, or at the U.N., or at a tech startup, or at a university research lab.

Mote: For many of our students, they would be the first member of their family to go to college. [We will be] helping our scholars both navigate that guidance and advisory process, but also working with our families so that they understand, appreciate and support the young people.

When Eric and I had originally designed the budget and the charter, we had said, ‘Oh we’ll do guidance at 11th grade.’ After talking with our families, our scholars, our communities, it became really clear that we need to think about guidance right now, like in the eighth grade.

Eric and I live in this community. We see our kids at Target. We’re deeply committed to the diversity of our community being represented in our students’ population and knowing that really, truly means embracing our mission, our values and our vision, around serving every student. And that often means serving their family, too.

Future of Schools

Cary Kennedy, a Colorado gubernatorial candidate, wants to give teachers a raise. Here’s how.

Cary Kennedy (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Former state treasurer Cary Kennedy wants to give Colorado teachers a sizeable bump in pay.

One of several prominent Democrats running for governor, Kennedy, who helped write a constitutional amendment to increase school funding, released her education plan Thursday. The main goal is to get every Colorado kid into college or the work force by the age of 19. To do that, she’s putting her political capital into making the state’s teachers happier.

The proposal calls for more pay, a scholarship program to attract more teachers of color, and giving teachers a larger say in the state’s testing and accountability systems. She’s also calling for school districts to adopt a school improvement policy favored by teachers unions that calls for more welfare programs in the schools to combat the effects of poverty.

In a conversation with Chalkbeat, Kennedy discussed how she plans to reform the Taxpayer Bill of Rights to send more money to school districts, how she was influenced by attending a historically integrated high school in Denver and why access to free preschool is important.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’re calling for teacher raises. How can a governor in a local control state such as Colorado where salaries are set by school boards do that?

Provide the funding. I’m not proposing that I dictate to school districts what they pay their teachers. I’m proposing that the state provide adequate resources to school districts so that they can adequately pay our teachers.

We read every day about the teacher shortage in Colorado: 3,000 teaching positions right now that are not being filled. And it’s in large part because teachers can’t afford to work here. They can’t afford to live here. We pay our teachers among the lowest salaries in the country. I hear from principals that they are losing their best teachers because they’ll make $20,000 or $30,000 more for the same job if they go teach in another state.

This issue is impacting rural Colorado the most. We have 90 school districts where the average teacher salary is below $40,000. We can’t compete for the talent pipeline. And we’re not giving our great teachers who are doing amazing work in classrooms every single day the support they need and deserve, the professional pay they need and deserve.

This all goes back to what do we want to accomplish in education. And I’ve laid out the goal that every single student in Colorado, by the age of 19, is ready for higher education, has an employable skill, or both. And it takes great teachers. We know from data that the most important thing for a student’s success is the quality of the teachers that they have. We want Colorado to be the best place in the country to teach.

Have you put a price tag to this?

My goal as governor is to bring Colorado teacher salaries at least up to the national average and to eliminate what we call the teacher pay penalty, which is the difference between what a teacher gets paid and what someone with a comparable level of education earns in other professions. We want to eliminate the disincentive to teaching. Bringing Colorado up to the national average, we estimate to be around $240 million a year. To eliminate that teacher pay penalty is around $500 million.

It does not make any sense that Colorado’s economy ranks No. 1 in the country right now, according to U.S. News and World Report, and our investment in education ranks at the bottom. We’re living the consequences every day by having the teachers leave the profession and by having people who want to teach say they can’t do it in Colorado.

Where are you going to find that kind of money?

We need to recover what TABOR has taken away. TABOR (the Taxpayer Bill of Rights which limits how much money the state can collect from taxpayers) has put us in a hole. As our economy has grown over the last two decades, our schools have not benefited from that economic growth. TABOR has prevented us from doing that. We’ve been cutting school budgets for 25 years. That isn’t what anyone in the state wants. They want Colorado — we want Colorado — to have the best education system in the country.

I will lead, as governor, to build the coalitions to get back what TABOR has taken out of our schools.

Conventional wisdom would say this promise is a huge political risk.
I’ve called for permanent TABOR-reform for my entire career. I have helped lead our state to have responsible fiscal policy, a balanced budget throughout the economic crisis, low to moderate debt levels. We pay our bills; we keep our taxes in Colorado low. All of that helps us remain competitive and attract capital investment in our state.

But we can not continue the prosperity we are enjoying today if our kids growing up can’t compete for the jobs we’re bringing here. We have to give our kids the educational foundation they need to be competitive for those jobs.

And it’s also how we’ll make sure our prosperity reaches everyone. Right now we have people who are being left out, who are being left behind. And a great public education system is the only way we’ll ensure our progress reaches everyone.

What does TABOR reform look like? How do you want to change it?

It would be to allow our state to keep up with growth. TABOR has said as your economy grows, you are not able to generate taxes off that growth to invest in your infrastructure or education system or your health care system.

People in Colorado know they’re sitting in traffic. Our streets are crowded, our schools are crowded, we’re underinvested in education. That’s because we have not been able to keep up with the demands of a growing economy. We can keep low taxes, we can keep the protections for taxpayers that are in TABOR. There is bipartisan support today to modify the caps in TABOR to keep up with growth. You will see me lead on that as governor.

There are folks out there who say public schools receive the largest chunk of the state’s budget and don’t need more money. It’s a question of them spending the money in a more efficient way. What do you say to those folks?
We’ve been cutting school budgets in Colorado for three decades. Half of our school districts in Colorado today have had to cut back to a four-day school week. We pay our teachers among the lowest salaries in the country. We’ve got 90 school districts with an average salary below $40,000. We have to make the investment to compete as a state for the kind of economic progress that we all want in Colorado. People in Colorado know that education needs to be our priority and we’re not where we need to be as a state.

You want to expand the role teachers play in assessments, teacher evaluations and school quality ratings. What does would that look like in practice?

We know from (the state’s teacher) survey that teachers don’t believe the current assessment data is helpful to them in their efforts to improve student learning or improve their instructional strategies. We want this assessment data to help support our teachers in really knowing and understanding how their kids learn and what their students need. Teachers need to be much more involved in developing that process.

To do that would cause a lot of upheaval in the current system. One of the things we’ve heard is that teachers and principals are tired of change. How do you balance rethinking those systems while making sure there isn’t another upheaval and more ‘unfunded mandates?’

I think teachers and principals right now feel they’re spending a lot of time on an assessment system that isn’t giving them meaningful information and they’d welcome the opportunity to spend the time to bring their voice to the table on how we can do a better job in this state.

Your proposal is heavily focused on teachers. I can imagine there is someone out there thinking you’re just angling for the endorsement of the teachers union.

I’ve spent my career trying to improve our public schools. I graduated from Manual High School. I’ve seen the challenges in our public schools firsthand. I had great teachers. I’ve always done the work I’ve done because I really believe that public schools are where kids get opportunities to go on and lead productive lives. I grew up with three brothers and sisters who joined my family through the foster care program. I also have a sister who joined my family through her church. So, I’ve grown up with brothers and sisters who didn’t have the opportunities that I had been given. And I saw firsthand how important the opportunities are that kids received through their public schools to determine their future success.

You’re the product of an integrated school. Integration has become a hot topic in education circles again. How have you been thinking about integration?

The achievement gap in Colorado today, the difference between how white kids are performing compared to students of color, is unacceptable. We have the second-largest achievement gap in the country. There are too many students of color in Colorado who are being left behind, who aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve. That’s why this proposal is so important. We want all of our kids regardless of where they grow up, regardless of their family income, regardless of their background, to be successful in school.

We want our schools to reflect the diversity and the richness of our communities. That will happen if all schools have and provide meaningful learning opportunities with high-quality teachers.

You see in my proposal a real focus on attracting and retaining teachers who also reflect their student makeup: Latino teachers, black teachers, teachers of all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds so kids going to school have role models they can look to.

We want integrated, inclusive community schools that reflect the diversity of the state’s population.

You’re calling for universal access to preschool. So is your opponent Rep. Jared Polis. In fact, it’s his central education campaign promise. How are your proposals different?

I worked for Educare Colorado and developed the school readiness legislation that is current law that expands opportunities for low-income kids to attend high-quality preschools. I was also involved in the Colorado Preschool Program, the Denver Preschool Program. Even with these successful efforts, only half the kids in our state attend preschool and full-day kindergarten. Half the kids in our state start behind. And teachers will tell you that it’s really hard to catch them up. They stay behind and they finish behind. As a state it’s imperative that we make sure all kids have access to high-quality early education.

It’s going to be more money.

It’s an investment that’s critically important. We can look to private and public partners. But it is not acceptable that we prevent 4-year-olds from attending a high-quality early learning opportunity.

Is this another ballot question or is this something you can do with existing revenue?

You have to prioritize it. It’s building a statewide vision for what our public education system in Colorado can and should be.

You call for expanding so-called community schools. That’s an amorphous term that means something different depending on who you talk to. What does a community school mean to you?

Community schools are focused on engaging the community in supporting the school. It’s bringing in two-generational learning so that parents and students can learn together and parents can support their student’s learning. But it’s also bringing in wrap-around services. A lot of kids arrive at school with challenges. It’s social-emotional, growing up in stressful home environments, suffering from toxic stress. We have kids who are coming to school who are homeless and who need additional support in their learning. If we want all kids to be successful, we have to address the challenges kids show up every day with.

priority exit

Four Memphis schools improve enough to exit ‘priority’ list, including one in Achievement School District

PHOTO: Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary staff celebrate test score results in 2015. The state-run school is now one of four to exit the state's priority list.

Four schools improved enough to exit Tennessee’s list of lowest-performing schools, the state announced Friday, and they’re all located in Memphis.

The schools, including one within the state-run Achievement School District, are:

  • Mitchell High, Shelby County Schools;
  • Treadwell Elementary, Shelby County Schools;
  • Northwest Prep Academy, Shelby County Schools;
  • Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Achievement School District.

The moves are significant, as only 16 percent of “priority” schools have moved off of the state’s 2012 and 2014 lists.

This is only the second time an ASD school has left the priority list, said Bobby White, the turnaround district’s executive director of external affairs. He said that Brick Church College Prep, located in Nashville, exited the list previously. The ASD was created in 2012 to bolster the state’s lowest-performing schools and now oversees 32 schools in Nashville and Memphis.

The state’s priority list is released every three years and includes the bottom 5 percent of schools, which could see state intervention. Memphis has historically contained a significant portion of schools on the state’s list of priority schools.

The Department of Education has postponed the release of this year’s full list to next summer. On Friday, it released several smaller lists, including schools eligible to leave and schools that are close.

Seven schools were named “priority improving” schools by the state, meaning they did well, but not quite well enough to exit the list:

  • Westwood High School, Shelby County Schools
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Sherwood Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Lester Prep, Achievement School District
  • John B. Whitsitt Elementary, Davidson County
  • Inglewood Elementary, Davidson County

The state also oversees more than 200 “focus schools,” which are schools struggling to close achievement gaps based on race, poverty, disabilities and language.  Fifteen schools exited the focus school list, the state said Friday, and another 20 made significant improvements. See the full list on the state’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with more context around the ASD’s exit.