First Person

This week's teaching & learning tidbits

National School Choice Week prepares for takeoff with in-flight video

Last January, tens of thousands of parents, concerned citizens, and advocates from across the political spectrum joined together for National School Choice Week, a week dedicated to promoting the right of all parents to choose the most effective learning option for their children.

The previous National School Choice Week involved supporters from more than 200 organizations, and resulted in more than 150 events all across the United States. The second annual is expected to be even bigger.

Beginning this month, NSCW supporters are presenting their school choice message to passengers on board select airline carriers as part of the in-flight video programming. Over the next three months, the video will be shown on 29,000 flights, to an audience of more than 3.8 million viewers.

Viewers will be urged to get involved in the next National School Choice Week, which is being held Jan. 22-28, 2012. The video can be seen by clicking here: Anyone interested in getting involved in the upcoming National School Choice Week can visit to find an event in their area.

Obama launches ‘Digital Promise’

The Education Department provided start-up funding for the new project, which promotes software and “digital tutors.” The White House announced Friday the launch of “Digital Promise,” a nonprofit initiative meant to bring more technology to classrooms. Read more in The Hill blog.

Vouchers, merit pay spice Dougco forum

Anger on both sides of Douglas County’s controversial school voucher program, its equally controversial performance-pay plan for teachers, and the perceived politicizing of the school board drove debate at a candidates forum Monday night, as six of the eight people seeking a seat on the county school board came together at a Highlands Ranch elementary school to field questions submitted by voters. Read more in EdNews Colorado.

Latin lost in budget translation at Jeffco schools

In Laurie Lawless’ Latin class at Dakota Ridge High School, 18 eager students study the classics: works by Vergil, Ovid, Horace — and, of course, the timeless … Seuss? Read more in the Denver Post.

SAT reading scores fall to lowest level on record

SAT reading scores for the high school class of 2011 were the lowest on record, and combined reading and math scores fell to their lowest point since 1995. Read more in the Denver Post.

Equity Education Conference held in Aurora

The Equity Education Conference will begin at 8 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 17, at Vista PEAK Preparatory 9-12, 24500 E. 6th Ave., Aurora.

This year’s topic is Culture, Community and Our Classrooms: Examining the Impact of Equity through Relevance, Rigor and Relationships. Gary R. Howard, who has 35 years of experience working with civil rights, social justice, equity, education and diversity issues, will serve as keynote speaker. Considered groundbreaking, his work regarding privilege, power and the role of white leaders in a multicultural society can be found in his most recent book, We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know: White Teachers, Multicultural Schools.

The conference is open to all teachers, classified staff, parents, students and community members of Aurora Public Schools.

New STEM schools target underrepresented groups

Few Americans may know about the Grand Challenges for Engineering—from making solar energy affordable to ensuring access to clean water—but the students at a new school on the campus of North Carolina State University are getting to know them firsthand. Read more in EdWeek.

Poudre schools 101 event for community members

PSD’s parent District Advisory Board invites parents, community members and staff to a free “PSD 101” conference to learn how the district operates and how to make an impact in the decision-making process. The free conference will be held from 6 to 9 p.m., Monday, Oct. 3, at Blevins Middle School, 2101 S. Taft Hill Rd. No pre-registration is required. Spanish interpreters will be available.’

Get Into Water’ project teaches water science in Boulder Valley

Boulder High juniors and seniors are learning the basics of Colorado’s water system with the possibility of getting jobs in the water industry after they graduate or continuing in that field of study in college.

The Boulder High class is part of the “Get Into Water” project through the Boulder Valley School District’s Lifelong Learning Program, in conjunction with the Rocky Mountain Section of American Water Works Association and the Colorado Workforce Development Council. Read more in the Daily Camera.

Brighton parents begin push for school district’s mill-levy ballot measure

BRIGHTON — Parents are hoping a November ballot measure will help the financially starved Brighton School District 27J, considered the most poorly funded in the Denver area.

“Something has to give soon or we’ll be up the creek without a paddle,” said Edith Kohler, the parent of a district third-grader. Read more in the Denver Post.

Boulder Valley parents raised $370,000 for tutors, teacher aides

Budget cuts in the last couple of years could have endangered the jobs of some classroom aides at Boulder’s Flatirons Elementary.

But, according to Flatirons Principal Scott Boesel, the school’s parents raised enough money that he could continue to provide critical support to classroom teachers, reducing class sizes and increasing the hours for gifted advisors. Last school year, Flatirons raised $34,000 to pay for staff time. Read more in the Daily Camera.

District 6 Board of Education to hold community conversation

The District 6 Board of Education will hold a community conversation session from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Monday, Sept. 26, in the auxiliary gym at Franklin Middle School, 818 35th Ave. Parents, students, staff members, and community members are invited to attend and participate in the conversations.

The meeting format will feature small-group conversations at tables set up in the gym, with board members spread among the tables. District staff members will be on hand to answer questions at individual tables as needed.

Attendees will be asked to share their thoughts on a variety of educational issues. In addition, participants will be asked to discuss what programs and services they would add or strengthen in the district, should K-12 funding be improved in the future. Input gathered from table conversations will be factored into the Board’s discussions and decisions throughout the school year. The Board of Education regularly holds several community conversation sessions throughout the school year.

Notes from the table conversations will be compiled after the meeting and posted on the district website, Community members who are unable to attend the meeting can provide their comments by e-mail to [email protected].

Middle-class schools miss the mark

Middle-class public schools educate the majority of U.S. students but pay lower teacher salaries, have larger class sizes and spend less per pupil than low-income and wealthy schools, according to a report to be issued Monday. Read more in The Wall Street Journal.

Boulder Valley School District seeks input on standards curriculum

Boulder Valley School District is inviting community members to play a role in developing new curriculum to align with the new Colorado Academic Standards adopted by the Colorado State Board of Education in 2010. BVSD must revise its standards as necessary to ensure that district standards meet or exceed the statewide standards.

This curricular revision and alignment with state standards must be completed and approved by the Board of Education by Dec. 15. To meet that deadline and receive as much input as possible, the district is holding public meetings this month. Meetings will be from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on the following dates:

Sept. 20 — Monarch K-8 School, 263 Campus Drive, Louisville

Sept. 22 — Southern Hills Middle School, 1500 Knox Drive, Boulder

Sept. 29 — Lafayette Elementary School, 101 N. Bermont Ave., Lafayette

Those who would like to review the curriculum documents, but cannot attend one of the above meetings, can request a copy by calling Susan Wojciechowski at 720-561-5139.

In October, district personnel will review public input and amend curriculum revisions before submitting them to the school board for review and discussion. The curriculum revision is slated as a study item at the board’s Nov. 8 meeting and final action is slated for its Dec. 13 meeting.

34 percent new principals in DPS schools

Denver Public Schools opened its doors last month to more new principals than it has in at least six years.

Denver Public Schools logoPrincipals at 46 of the district’s 134 non-charter schools – or 34 percent –  are new this year to their position, their school or both, according to district information.

Suzanne Morey, new principal at McGlone Elementary, works with a student. Photo courtesy of McGlone.

Sixteen of the new principals are moving into the position from that of assistant principal. If the 11 principals who simply moved laterally – jumping from the leadership of one Denver school to another – are not counted in the total, DPS still has 35 new principals. Read more in EdNews Colorado.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

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

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.