deepening the dialogue

Report Card For School Success

Stacey Gauthier, a co-principal of Renaissance Charter High School, and Marc Waxman, who is opening a charter school in Denver, are corresponding about school policy. Read their entire exchange.

Hi Marc,

I’ve been thinking about your question asking me for my metaphor for the concept of teacher effectiveness. The direct answer is that I am a firm believer in these three C’s for organizational success: collaboration, cooperation and communication. Therefore, while individual teacher effectiveness is important, in the end we need a team of effective educators to have a successful school. So with that, and with no slight intended to the work it takes personally to be a successful educator, let me challenge somewhat the concept of teacher effectiveness in and of itself.

I want to argue that effective schools, as organizations, help create effective teachers. Now, I realize that this is a bit of a chicken and egg argument, but let me take this further. I understand that there are “stars” in many schools, no matter how poorly functioning the school itself may be. Hey, these are the folks of “To Sir with Love” and “Stand and Deliver.” There are also less effective teachers in all of the top-rated schools. And while ideally we want the best performance from each individual, and operationally we must strive for each and every staff member in a school to be highly effective, the measure of a great school is a collective one, not an individual one.

So, here is my list of the attributes for a highly effective school. I do not claim to be the originator of any of these, so thanks to all those people who have been advocating for these ideas. Please note that I did not put this list in value order and certainly there are schools that beat the odds by not having all of the ingredients which may in and of itself tell you something about the value of each attribute. You may notice, I hope, several charter school characteristics that I suggest should be available to all schools.

  1. Strong school-wide accountability objectives that both create a culture of high expectations for all students and understands the need to start where the kids are at (I want to thank Dr. Art Pritchard for our excellent conversation on this topic).
  2. Teacher leadership and decision-making ability. Teachers must be valued as professionals and experts and supported as such. This attribute should be further elaborated to include evaluations, planning time, salary structure/benefits and other determinants for success.
  3. School level autonomy on matters such as programming, curriculum, budgeting and staffing and other policy decisions of importance. Without some degree of meaningful autonomy, it becomes very difficult to get buy-in around higher academic outcomes.
  4. The ability to determine class size and cut off over-the-counter enrollment. Please note that I am not necessarily advocating for low class sizes across the board. Nor am I advocating against them. I think there needs to be some school-level decision-making around this area and certainly most reasonable folks would agree that a constant influx of students is not beneficial to any learning environment. However, as a district we must serve all students regardless of their time of entry and this service should be equally distributed.
  5. Balanced enrollment of high needs students.  When Renaissance first opened as a New Visions School, we had an admissions policy of 50% random lottery and 50% selection to balance demographics, academic levels, special education and English Language Learners.  This created a specifically designed blended learning community that supported all of its members.
  6. Access to quality social and emotional support and educational resource services for students and their families. These can help level-the-playing-field with students who are more advantaged. While schools cannot be expected to reverse all the woes that poverty has on our students, we also cannot use poverty as an excuse to justify why children are not learning. As schools we can provide three hot meals to our students, after-school programming, tutoring/homework support, access to cultural institutions, counseling and connections to caring adults who can serve as lifelong role models for the young people we are charged with educating.
  7. A safe school community.
  8. A school where parents are valued and their participation is encouraged. I also feel that this participation is determined by the school community itself, not necessarily by an outside force.
  9. True measurements for authentic and sustainable learning beyond those of the required standardized exams. I was inspired by a workshop I attended sponsored by the UFT where this was discussed.

I would be interested in working on a system that would measure these attributes for each school and rate schools on each of the ingredients to build a successful program.  Since we are so entrenched in a climate that promotes accountable talk and outcomes, let’s take it to the next step, or what should have been the first step, and make sure that we are setting up the systems and infrastructure so that every school and every teacher and administrator can be successful.

Marc, I would really like to hear your thoughts on this new “report card” that I am suggesting.


First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.