Keep On Keeping On

Struggling Colorado elementary school gets time to let innovation plan work

Superintendent Deirdre Pilch of the Greeley-Evans district felt “a little embarrassed” to be sitting before the State Board of Education Thursday.

“I really thought we would come off the clock,” she said of Billie Martinez Elementary School, which came within a hair of improving student performance enough to avoid state intervention. “But we did not come off the clock, and we own that.”

The state board, though, will let Martinez Elementary’s principal and teachers keep working within the additional autonomy they were granted last year.

A state review panel supported the school’s proposal to continue with innovation status, and five of the six board members agreed. This cooperative stance has been typical of the state board’s approach to stepping in to improve low-performing schools.

Commissioner of Education Katy Anthes praised the openness of administrators in Greeley-Evans to feedback and new ideas and said the school is making progress. Two other schools in the district north of Denver faced state intervention last year, and one of those, Franklin Middle School, has already improved enough to get off the so-called “accountability clock.”

Public schools in Colorado get a rating every year, known as the School Performance Framework report, based largely on results from student scores on the state’s English and math tests. The factor that carries the most weight is student growth, how much students learn year-to-year compared to their peers.

There are four ratings: performance (the highest), improvement, priority improvement and turnaround (the lowest). Schools that receive the state’s lowest ratings are put on “the clock.” Schools that do not improve within five years receive a state-ordered school improvement plan aimed at boosting student performance. Those plans can include anything from innovation status — which gives school leaders autonomy to address specific issues — to turning the school over to outside management to closing the school.

Martinez has been in priority improvement status since 2011. In 2017, 27.5 percent of students in grades three through five met or exceeded expectations in English and just 22.8 percent met or exceeded expectations in math. However, those numbers were up from 14 percent in 2015. The school’s overall performance rating for 2017 was 41.3 percent. The schools needs to hit 42 percent to go into “improvement” status and get off the clock.

“We have seen sustained improvement,” said Brenda Bautsch, an accountability specialist with the state Department of Education. “There are areas where the school needs to improve more.”

The school sought and received innovation status from the state board in 2017, in anticipation of but independent from the accountability clock process.

Under the increased autonomy that innovation status offers, Martinez has changed its learning model, offered more ongoing training to teachers, gotten a head start in hiring to scoop up more qualified applicants, and opened its own academic preschool serving three- and four-year-olds.

Classroom instruction is more oriented toward projects, and students are more engaged in real-world applications of what they’re learning. The school hopes to open a community health clinic in the future and offer other services to families, including basics like laundry facilities.

The school serves a community where 97 percent of students receive free or reduced price lunch, a proxy for poverty, and 71 percent of students are learning English as a second language.

Board member Val Flores, a Denver Democrat, was alone in criticizing the district and the school’s approach.

“You need to do more than depend on accountability, accountability, accountability and monitoring, monitoring, monitoring,” she said. “You could do some big changes. One of the things that really disturbed me is that one of the people who went and monitored your school found that teachers do not believe these students can be high achievers.”

Pilch said the teachers who saw students’ outside challenges as insurmountable have been encouraged to leave.

“If a state review panel came in now, they would not find teachers who think students can’t learn,” she said. “We now have a staff at Billie Martinez who truly believes that every student can learn.”

In accordance with the process, the State Board of Education did not take a final vote on Thursday. Instead, five of the six board members asked the district to submit a formal written proposal for innovation status. Flores said she could not support that “under these conditions.”

After the meeting, Draper, the principal, described improving the school as “the best work you can do as an educator and the toughest work you can do as an educator.”

“We are going to be a bright spot school in the state of Colorado,” she said. “We are going to set the bar for high-performing schools with the same demographics.”


History alive

Inspired by Hamilton, Colorado students perform their own raps and poems on the big stage

PHOTO: Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
From left, West Leadership Academy's Alexandra Andazola Chavez, Jose Torres Andazola, Rossy Martinez Sanchez, and Zehydi Chaparro Rojas perform "The Story of Peggy."

The plush red seats at the Wednesday matinee of Hamilton in Denver were filled with 2,700 teenagers who’d spent weeks studying a special curriculum about the hip-hop musical’s namesake, Alexander Hamilton, and the other Founding Fathers. Even though the show’s four-week Denver run had been sold out for months, the teenagers were seeing it for free.

Some of them had dressed for the occasion in high-heeled boots and three-piece suits. Others wore jeans and Converse. They represented 38 Colorado high schools that serve high proportions of students from low-income families, and many of them were students of color.

That’s notable because most of the cast of Hamilton are actors of color. Hamilton, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are played by black and Latino actors, a decision creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has said reflects America’s racial makeup and is meant to pull the audience into the story of an immigrant, Hamilton, who played an important role in the nation’s founding.

Before the show, 23 students took the stage to perform their own spoken word poems, raps, monologues, and scenes inspired by what they’d learned from the Hamilton Education Program curriculum, which was devised in part by Miranda and has its own hashtag: #EduHam.

“My body felt electrified,” said Josiah Blackbear, a 15-year-old sophomore at West Early College in Denver, who performed a rap he’d written about Alexander Hamilton. “The words I was speaking brought power and truth to the rest of the venue.”

Here is video of six of the student performances, including one entirely in Spanish.


During Memphis visit, former Newark schools chief touts ways to change student discipline

PHOTO: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Cami Anderson when she was superintendent of schools in Newark, New Jersey.

As the top schools chief in Newark, Cami Anderson was horrified at the strict discipline policy she saw in one of her high schools. Since then, she has left the New Jersey district and taken her ideas on the road about reducing suspensions and moving away from exclusionary discipline practices.

This week, Anderson came to Memphis as part of her Discipline Revolution Project at the invitation of Stand for Children Tennessee, The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, School Seed, and Shelby County Schools. The New Teacher Project is partnering with her on the national tour.

Anderson has been meeting with Shelby County Schools administrators and board members as well as charter school leaders, philanthropists, education advocates, and students. Her time will culminate in a public event hosted by Stand for Children on Thursday at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Chalkbeat sat down with Anderson after she explained to a group of about 40 charter leaders her six focus areas to reduce classroom disruptions while also preventing sending students home when they’re in trouble. (This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.)

Related story: Tennessee students more likely to be suspended if they’re black boys — or live in Memphis

Question: How did you land on student discipline as an area you wanted to focus on?

Answer: If there’s actually a thread in my career, it’s this. I essentially ran the system of supports for the kids in New York City who are on their last stop on the train, so to speak. I’ve always worked with kids who are marginalized, the ones who really struggled in school. So, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we need to get better at collectively to serve all kids, to really embrace the “all means all.” That’s been my lifelong question.

The three areas to me where inequities are most obvious are: enrollment policies, how we handle discipline, and mobility and how a kid stays connected to school. Discipline is where it comes to a head. It’s both a place where our collective inability to reach all kids shows up and it’s also an opportunity if we actually figure out how to prevent young people from misstepping in the first place, but then respond in healthy ways when they do Then we’d actually start to solve the broader equity issues.

Q. School leaders say they don’t want to have a lot of suspensions because students miss out on class. But they’re also not sure what to replace suspensions with to manage student behavior well. What would you say to them?

"You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something."Cami Anderson

A. That’s one of the main reasons we started Discipline Revolution Project. We don’t want you to do X, whatever X is: suspend kids, use corporal punishment. But educators are saying, rightfully so, then what are we doing? Our whole framework is trying to answer that question and give them tools to get to the “why” behind finding alternative responses.

Most people who use punitive or exclusionary discipline don’t actually think it works that well. They just don’t have a lot of other tools. So, when you give folks a lot of other tools and they find that it works, it’s a very powerful thing. When people try out a restorative conference, they say “Oh, I feel better. The kid feels better. And we actually got back to the lesson faster.” You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something.

I’ve heard a lot of demand for basics of restorative practices (conflict resolution between students and students and teachers), though I don’t think they should stop there. They want training for student support teams. And overwhelmingly, the places I’ve been want to talk about how teacher bias plays into who gets disciplined, but they don’t know how to start the conversation and for it to be productive.

Q. Memphis’ two school districts have emphasized a bottom-up approach on discipline reform: adding behavior specialists, school counselors, soliciting support from principals and teachers. How have you seen other districts do it?

"Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that."Cami Anderson

A. I’ve seen districts lead with policy and only make statements declaring they will cut suspensions in half or put a moratorium on suspensions or rewrite their policy. Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that. What you see is folks who are actually on the ground working with students may not have the strategies to replace it with something productive. That causes people to be more entrenched in their views that discipline reform wouldn’t work, some schools subtly pushing kids out, underreporting discipline data, all that.

I’ve also seen the opposite where it’s all about professional development and capacity but at no point is there is any accountability for those same schools, for example, that suspend 90 percent of the kids. People watch what you do, not what you say. If you don’t align your policies and your actions with your values, then you also have limits to the impacts you have for kids.

Frustrated with high suspension rates, Memphis schools shift to restorative justice

I’ve come to believe you need all of it and you need everyone working together. Stop admiring the problem and get on to the solutions.

Q. What pushed student discipline practices more widely into the national conversation? What have you observed from the conversation here in Memphis?

A. People are looking at data, which is a good thing, and seeing patterns like everyone else. Another thing is I believe a lot of people who got into education reform are completely dedicated to equity. And now they’re seeing this side of it, and like someone said in the training today, they feel a sense of “healthy guilt.” I think it’s great they’re having the courage to be honest. And then a lot of folks had kids. You start thinking, “Do I want any of that happening to my own kid?” I’m personally heartened and encouraged and motivated to see a collective sense of responsibility and focus on this.

There’s a lot of energy and candor in Memphis about this issue. Some other cities I’ve been in think they have it figured out when they don’t. When there’s that much energy, I think anywhere — including in Memphis — people can be tempted to devolve into the blame game, no matter what district or charter hat you wear. That energy can be the greatest asset or greatest liability.

Study: When Chicago cut down on suspensions, students saw test scores and attendance rise

Q. The school shooting in Parkland has been a catalyst for more conversations about the trauma students bring into the classroom — conversations that were already happening about violence in low-income communities of color. What would you say to school leaders on how to address that?

A. I’m most interested to know what adults can do to mitigate those risk factors for young people who experience trauma. I feel like it could take us down a very bad path to just observe that there are things called “adverse childhood experiences.” To me, that’s not enough. The question then is what are the environments and strategies that we can put in place as educators and adults to mitigate the impact of those traumatic experiences. Things like relationships, trust, consistency, high expectations, high supports, and support healthy identity development especially in times of conflict. We know from research that young people who face long odds who ultimately prevail, they are exposed to environments that really embody those things.

You can both be aware of and acknowledge those experiences that make it harder for them to succeed in school. But if you stop there, I don’t think you’re doing justice to young people. There are things we can do in schools to help create the environment to help them succeed.