First Person

The Fruitful Marriage Of Classroom And Community

“The Art of Debate,” “The Four Steps of Social Justice,” “Redefining Rehabilitation,” “Gender and the Media” — they sound like titles of college courses many of us have taken (or wish we could have). But at our school, they were the subjects of a student-created social justice mini-conference that we held this spring.

My colleagues and I challenged a number of 11th-graders to devise 30-minute lessons to teach the underclassmen about social justice. In less than 48 hours, students came up with slideshows, posters, and engaging activities to present to the whole school.

Each session took on its own character. For instance, the one I advised was high-energy with lots of debate about oppression throughout history. Another I watched was marked by a contemplative circle discussion on the Trayvon Martin incident and racial profiling. One had students acting out scenarios where they practiced asserting their constitutional rights when approached by a police officer who wanted to search them without cause.

Needless to say, I was extremely proud. It was one of those precious days when I unequivocally knew our school’s social justice agenda was rigorous, meaningful, and successful. A year and a half ago there were few students or staff who were able to articulate social justice, let alone actively teach it. Now our upperclassmen can eloquently speak it, write it, and teach it.

They don’t just do this within the walls of Hyde. Their interest and mastery of complex social justice issues has earned them awards, internships, and jobs. They’ve presented at the NYCORE (New York Collective of Radical Educators) conference, they’ve been placed in competitive programs, and they have developed working relationships with local politicians and activists.

There are three major elements that had to come together for us to make so much progress: staff buy-in, classroom integration, community partnerships.

Last year our staff collectively defined social justice as a process with four key steps (1. Recognize oppression, 2. Show concern for oppression, 3. Research the underlying reasons for oppression, 4. Take leadership, take action). The steps are posted in a few places in our school and most teachers know them by heart. Now in interviews, our leadership team explains the steps and asks candidates to speak about their connection and commitment to social justice, a practice that did not exist two years ago. This coordinated effort rubbed off on the students.

Though not every course lends itself to discussion of injustices, you can find students engaged with social justice in electives such as our civil rights class. It’s all over art, history, and English. Students do inquiry projects, hold debates, and write research papers that connect to real-world problems that relate to their lives. At a NYCORE conference this spring, our students were asked how they manage to stay interested in school when they face struggle or tragedy outside of Hyde. They replied that our best teachers consistently found ways to integrate the realities of life into the curriculum (even though the realities were sometimes unpleasant). Thus, the students become the text of the class. Suddenly school was no longer this place where you go for teachers to give you a pre-ordained set of facts and worksheets. It became an extension of students’ lives: a place to be consoled, understood, and challenged.

Breaking the school-“real life” boundary could not have been accomplished if we had made Hyde a disconnected fortress against the rest of Hunts Point. My colleagues and I have been working to fuse our new building with the outside community. We have done this by bringing myriad community groups — Iridescent Learning, Project Groundswell, The Point, Rocking the Boat — to tour the school and meet staff members. In this way we gain a familiarity and solidarity with stakeholders. Then we usually bring students down to see the way programs operate.

The networking leads many of our students to connect with programs that help their self-esteem, their resume, and sometimes their wallet. Students get paid to teach science classes to elementary school children and advocate for policy issues. Students have given their time to build boats to row on the Bronx River, coordinate volunteer opportunities with our Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, contribute to a feminist magazine, and travel the world to help the disadvantaged.

I have started to do some recorded ethnographic research about how these partnerships enhance the classroom experience and have found very positive results. Students told me they use what they learn at community programs to educate and engage others at Hyde who might be interested, but not as involved. Another student, who is a member of A.C.T.I.O.N. (Activists Coming to Inform Our Neighborhood), explained that he chose the topic of police brutality for his five-page English research paper because he knew he would get some information in my class, and then later that evening would get even more sources and ideas from his advocacy group. The marriage of the classroom and community greatly motivated him to complete his paper and write it at a high level.

It is no coincidence that the students who regularly took advantage of the community/school partnerships were the same people who, this spring, planned the social justice classes with alacrity and taught them with passion.

We’re not stopping here. Our goals for the coming year include getting many more students involved in community groups or projects from the start, mandating and facilitating meaningful internships, and more formally recording the results of our efforts through research.

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.