The MetWest High School Story (Part 1)

Readers who have followed this blog know that I am writing a book about success and failure in American schools. Over the past year I have posted sections including descriptions of teachers I observed in two California high schools: Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles Unified School District and MetWest High School in Oakland Unified School District. I have already posted the history and operation of SJHA and in a multi-part series, I now describe MetWest High School.

Oakland Unified School District: MetWest High School

MetWest High School is neither a magnet nor charter. Founded in 2002 as a Big Picture Learning school (more below), it is part of OUSD’s decades-long effort to create small innovative, academically strong, and caring schools for children of color in a district that is largely minority and poor, and low-performing on state metrics of “success.” That small schools strategy begun in the early 1990s yielded many new schools yet strained a district budget subject to school board overspending, accounting errors and poor projections. Oakland Unified’s history of financial crises was well known in the Bay area including a state takeover for fiscal mismanagement. [i]

OUSD has an average daily attendance of over 34,000 students distributed across 121 elementary, middle, and high schools (2018). Of the 121 schools, nearly one out of four is a charter (2018). In addition to charter schools, OUSD has alternative schools, magnets, and thematic schools. The district has 87 of those schools with an average size of 412 students (2018), prompting repeated public calls amid annual budget deficits to close the smallest of these schools.[ii]

In 2019, it faced a fiscal deficit requiring substantial budget cuts, identifying schools to be closed, and a week-long teacher strike that netted OUSD teachers significant salary increases, further adding to the deficit. Within a week, the Oakland school board made $20 million in cuts to programs and individual school budgets and laid off 100 employees (mostly district office and clerical staff) in order to give teachers the raises they won in the strike settlement and balance the budget. [iii]

Consider further that top district leadership has been a revolving door. Many observers have pointed out that reforming urban schools requires continuity in top leadership. Turnover among the nation’s urban superintendents since the 1960s was frequent; district leaders averaged over five years in office. Yet scholars of school reform estimate that it takes anywhere from 5-10 years for school board and superintendent policies and programs aimed at improving district, school, and student performance to show positive outcomes.[iv]

And the record of superintendent continuity in OUSD? Since 2000, the district has had seven superintendents, the most recent sworn in 2017.

Not a picture of a school district displaying organizational stability, fiscal health, or on the road to higher academic performance. All of this with a half-billion dollar budget to spend effectively and efficiently. [v]

MetWest High School: A Big Picture Learning School

Within OUSD sits MetWest High School with 160 students. Of these students, 76 percent meet the measure of family poverty. Twenty-two percent are English Language Learners. On ethnicity and race, 61 percent are Latino, 19 percent African American, seven percent Asian and seven percent white (less than 100 percent due to no reports and multi-racial students).[vi]

This small Oakland high school is nearly 20 years old. David Bromley and Matt Spengler, two former social studies teachers from Los Angeles Unified District, founded MetWest in 2002, one of a national network of Big Picture Learning schools. There are now 65 such schools in the U.S. with others in Australia, the Netherlands, and elsewhere in the world. [vii]

It is, of course, so easy to say that two teachers founded the school and leave it at that. What is missing is the grinding essential political work in the community that these teachers had to do with students and their parents, OUSD administrators, community activists, and the school board to simply get the mission of this small high school accepted and then get it up and running. The political spadework was constant and unrelenting in meeting people, locating resources, sharing the Big Picture Learning school design, and showing how MetWest would fit into the district plan for small, innovative schools.

And even after the school board formally adopted MetWest, the gritty work of finding a location for the school, acquiring staff, orienting parents, students, and faculty to its mission and design—all of these tasks were “musts” that involved serious negotiating and political tap-dancing. But each step of the way was completed and the small high school opened in 2002. Achieving the political basics of adopting and opening a new school was a “success.”[viii]

Mission and Learner Outcomes

Reflecting the mission and design of Big Picture Learning schools, MetWest has revised its mission statement and goals for students a few times. The most recent statement I could find was it “Progress Report” prior to a visit from a committee from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) in 2018.

MetWest prepares young adults to recognize and take advantage of all resources to further their well-being and the well-being of their communities. Our graduates will have the skills, habits, knowledge, and networks to overcome obstacles to their success, access four-year colleges, engage in fulfilling work, and contribute positively to our world.[ix]

The generic-sounding mission gets more specific with its statement of Expected Schoolwide Learning Results (ESLRs) which came about from preparation for a WASC visit in 2014. Prior to that, there were few specific curricular goals and objectives that the entire staff had agreed upon and enacted in their classrooms in a consistent way.

As one would expect in small schools such as MetWest with its largely low-income enrollment and being part of the Big Picture Learning network, different literacies (e.g., reading, writing, math, and science) and “critical thinking” were expected as student outcomes. In addition, there were ESLRs that reflected BPL such as “Real World Learning” (“Students will have the communication, independence, and self-advocacy skills … to follow their passions and successfully navigate professional and higher education environments”).   Social and emotional intelligence was another ESLR. Finally, there was an ESLR for “Social Change Agents/Promoters of Social Change” where students were to “understand the historical roots and current effects of oppression in society and affect social change in their communities and in themselves through conscious and liberatory actions.”[x]

This combination of a range of student academic, personal, and activist outcomes echoes the Social Justice Humanitas Academy’s mission and expected student outcomes as well (see previous chapter). While SJHA had continuity in leadership and a coherence in linking its mission to daily school activities with two of the founding teachers who had been colleagues for years at a previous high school serving as principals since 2011, that has not been the case at MetWest.

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[i] EdData, Alameda County, Oakland Unified School District at: https://www.ed-data.org/district/Alameda/Oakland-Unified

Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, ”Oakland Unified School District: Assessment and Recovery Plan Update, September 30, 2003 at: cmat.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2014/02/OUSDExecSum0903.pdf

Katy Murphy, “Oakland’s Small School Movement, 10 Years Later,” Scope Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, May 6, 2009 at: https://edpolicy.stanford.edu/news/articles/899

[ii] Ali Tadayon, “Grand Jury Report: Oakland Unified Operating Too Many Schools,” East Bay Times, June 28, 2018; Ali Tadayon, “ Oakland Unified Scrambles To Identify as Many as 24 schools That Could Be Closed in Five Years,” East Bay Times, January 8, 2019.

[iii] Theresa Harrington, “Oakland School Board Cuts $20.2 Million from Budget, Including 100 jobs,” EdSource, March 4, 2019.

[iv] Gary Yee and Larry Cuban, “When Is Tenure Long Enough,” Educational Administration Quarterly, 1996, 32(1), pp. 615-641; In Michael Fullan, “Whole School Reform: Problems and Promises,” Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, June 2001, he estimates eight years for a district “turnaround,” meaning improved student achievement. In my experience as a superintendent and research I have done on sitting superintendents, it takes five-plus years at the minimum and up to a decade to show positive results. See As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); Larry Cuban, “The Turnstile Superintendency?” Education Week, August 22, 2008.

[v] Joel Shannon, “ ‘When We Strike, We Win;’ Tentaive Agreement Reached In Oakland Teacher Strike,” USA Today, March 1, 2019; Thomas Ultican, “Oakland Is California’s Destroy Public Education Petri Dish,” San Diego Free Press, April 4, 2018. In addition, I have tracked the arrival and departure of Oakland superintendents since the 1960s.

[vi] EdData, Alameda County, Oakland Unified School District at: https://www.ed-data.org/district/Alameda/Oakland-Unified

[vii] Information on founders comes from documents and interview with Michelle Deiro, current principal, February 1, 2019 and Young Whan Choi, April 4, 2019. Because the first Big Picture Learning high school, located in Providence (RI) was called the “Met,” the Oakland unified high school was named MetWest. Brief history of the network is at the BPL website at: https://www.bigpicture.org/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=389353&type=d&pREC_ID=882353

[viii] Joseph McDonald, “Scaling Up the Big Picture,” 2005, “Unpublished study funded by an anonymous foundation, 2002-2005” in author’s possession.

[ix] Oakland Unified School District, “MetWest High School Progress Report,” for April 17, 2018 visit from Accrediting Commission for Schools, Western ssociation of Schools and Colleges, p. 2.

[x] Ibid., pp. 2-3.

 

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Cartoons about Grades and Report Cards

For this month’s cartoons, I have selected a bunch of cartoons that tickle me about the onerous tasks of judging student performance and behavior on a daily basis and deciding what mark to put down in report cards. Anyone who has taught in K-12 or higher education knows well the tensions, the periodic wincing, and doubt that accompanies report cards and grading tests and essays. So here are a few cartoons that I hope will give readers a chance this summer to chuckle or grin before teachers and students return to school  Enjoy!

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MetWest High School Story (Part 2)

Part 2 deals with MetWest High School principals, the design of the school, and the Big Picture Learning network of schools to which MetWest belongs.

School Leadership

The founding teachers left in 2005 and since then there have been four principals who have accepted and adapted the Big Picture Learning design to the contours of OUSD and Oakland students. Eve Gordon an Advisor/Teacher at the school became principal in 2005 and stayed until 2010 when she took a post in the OUSD district office. Thus far no principal has served five or more years.

Sean McClung succeeded Gordon in 2011. Coming from an assistant principal post in another OUSD small high school, the former Teach for America instructor left after two years for a principalship at Impact Academy of Arts and Technology in Hayward, 20 miles south of Oakland. Charlie Plant from the Big Picture Learning network arrived in 2014 and served four years after leading other BPL schools on both East and West coasts. A former house painter and business owner, Plant turned to teaching and administration becoming an advocate for youth who wanted to work in the trades. He returned to BPL in 2017 to coordinate the Harbor Freight Fellows program that have high school students working in manufacturing and craft trades. [i]

Michelle Deiro is the fifth principal of the school since the founders exited MetWest. A former English teacher and department head in an East Bay district, Deiro came to MetWest in 2004. As a Advisor/Teacher, she spent nine years before getting her administrative credential and leaving MetWest for a string of posts in another district, with a charter school in the area, and a hospital. She returned to MetWest after Charlie Plant departed applying shortly thereafter to be principal of the school. She was named principal in 2018. [ii]

Except for a commitment to the student internship experience, this instability in leadership exacted a price in pursuing consistently and coherently the school’s mission and expected learner outcomes over the years.

From the founding teachers who served as co-principals through Deiro, these principals had moved in and out of different locations in OUSD before moving in 2014 into a new building shared with an elementary school. Through these changes in facilities, site administrators remained attached to the design of a Big Picture Learning school. Even with principal instability, these administrators found the commitment to students working outside the school and integrating academic and work into daily lessons worthwhile enough to serve as its leaders. Knowing the Big Picture design, then, is an important factor in understanding how this small high school expanded traditional notions of “success” and “failure” in U.S. schools

The Big Picture Learning Design

The Big Picture Learning vision, mission, goals, and program design are intimately tied together and mirror the intentions of MetWest staff over the years.

It is our vision that all students live lives of their own design, supported by caring mentors and equitable opportunities to achieve their greatest potential. We move forward prepared to activate the power of schools, systems & education through student-directed, real-world learning. We are activists.

The mission “is to activate the potential of schools, systems, & education through Student-driven real-world learning.”[iii]

The Big Picture Learning website is clear on how that it is to occur. Under the title, “How It Works,” the design of the model becomes evident.

Each student at a Big Picture Learning school is part of a small learning community of 15 students called an advisory.

Each advisory is supported and led by an advisor, a teacher that works closely with the group of students and forms personalized relationships with each advisee.

Each student works closely with his or her advisor to identify interests and personalize learning.

The student as the center of learning truly engages and challenges the student, and makes learning authentic and relevant.

Each student has an internship where he or she works closely with a mentor, learning in a real world setting.

Parents and families are actively involved in the learning process, helping to shape the student’s learning plan and are enrolled as resources to the school community.

The result is a student-centered learning design, where students are actively invested in their learning and are challenged to pursue their interests by a supportive community of educators, professionals, and family members. [iv]

 

But every Big Picture Learning school is not like matching cupcakes sitting in a muffin pan. Although following the same design, there are differences that set apart MetWest in Oakland from The Met in Providence (RI) and others in its national network. While there is much that is common in the design and the umbrella organization wants the design to be adhered to across BPL schools, contexts differ causing design adjustments to be made.

 

Rural and urban BPL schools, for example, have different students and stakeholders. Community politics vary across settings. Some schools are in spanking-new buildings, others are in trailers and re-opened old schools. SomeBPL schools have stability in principal leadership, some do not. Then there is demography. Students coming to the Lafayette Big Picture High School in Onondaga County (NY) differ racially, ethnically, and academically from those arriving at MetWest in Oakland.

Most of these features stem from the small school movement in which BPL participated yet one key component missing from most small urban high schools founded in the 1990s and at the core of the BPL design—its “heart and soul”–is the internship. Students leave school twice weekly to work at a hospital, school, city agency, and business. That is central to BPL as it is at MetWest. [viii]

Nonetheless, there remains a tension between fidelity to the BPL design and the inevitable adaptations that occur in the different settings in which schools are located. Sticking to the elements of the design while tailoring those important pieces to fit a particular set of students amid changes in principals is a tightrope walk that each school, including MetWest, undertakes. BPL leadership acknowledges and encourages local adaptations as long as key design features are incorporated.

In what ways does MetWest vary from BPL design?

Neither a charter or magnet school, as a regular public school in OUSD, MetWest has carved out autonomy to meet BPL requirements for advisories, teachers staying four years with the same group of students, internships, a flexible schedule, focus on the humanities, and activism in the community by applying and receiving independent school status. Hence, MetWest conforms to the design, especially the role of Advisor/Teacher, internships and connections with the community. Where it swerves from the design is due to the Oakland students entering the school.

For example, MetWest accepts many students whose prior experiences in school left them minimally prepared to succeed in high school academic subjects, meet college requirements, and graduate. To conform to the BPL design and deal with the wide variation in student academic knowledge and skills, MetWest needed to adjust to the diverse and demanding academic needs of their students. To do that, MetWest had to be free of many, but not all, OUSD policies and procedures.

To gain that essential autonomy and adjust key features of the BPL design, MetWest school founders applied for Independent Study status as a school. As an Independent Study school, MetWest had wide-ranging autonomy to have smaller classes, much tutoring and mentoring of students, extra time in academic courses, teachers who doubled as advisors, afternoon internships, and, equally important the discretion to design an infrastructure for staff growth in expertise and skills. Savvy political negotiations on the part of MetWest leaders to become an Independent Study school made possible the creation of a high school very different from others in the district while tweaking both OUSD and BPL requirements.[ix]

Variation in design requirements occurred in the school’s work to strengthen students’ academic skills in reading, math, and writing. Elementary and middle school preparation left gaps in many students’ academic portfolios. MetWest students in 2017, for example, did not score high on state reading and math tests; proficiency levels in math are very low (seven percent with the state average 39); in reading it is 46 percent with the state average at 50. Moreover, students take few advanced courses and are ranked low in college readiness factors even with a 95 percent graduation rate. Such metrics only confirm the amount of work that needs to be done during these high school years for students, many of whom are the first in their families to consider college.[x]

For students to graduate and be prepared to enter college, much attention had to be paid in and out of class on sequencing of skills and knowledge from one course to another and one grade to another insofar as Expected Schoolwide Learning Results (ESLR). Additionally, a consistent strengthening of study, note-taking, and inquiry skills necessary for students to do well not only academically but also in their internships and planning for college had to be coherently planned across Advisor/Teachers.

MetWest’s daily schedule reflects the increasing concentration on improving academic skills and meeting ESLRs. For example, while most BPL schools set aside two days a week for internships uninterrupted by in-school classes, MetWest’s schedule calls for Tuesday and Thursday as Learning through Internship (LTI) permitting students to leave for their work-sites after 10: 00 AM except for those students taking math and science classes each day. Those students leave around 11:30 AM. In addition, there is an array of volunteer tutors, adult mentors, peer-help, and daily coaching by Advisor/Teachers that supplements course-work making MetWest more academic-focused, more time spent in strengthening and consolidating subject matter and skills than other BPL schools. And the current principal sees even more tightening up of a coherent academic program necessary.[xi]

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[i] The names of MetWest principals come from interviews with Michelle Deiro and Young Whan Choi, Internet search and videos. See, for example, one with Charlie Plant at: https://www.harborfreightfellows.org/apps/video/watch.jsp?v=207148

[ii] Interview with Michelle Deiro, April 4, 2019.

[iii] The mission statement comes from the Big Picture Learning website at: https://www.bigpicture.org/

[iv] At the Big Picture Learning website, “How It Works” can be seen at: https://www.bigpicture.org/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=389353&type=d&pREC_ID=882356

[v] See the Lafayette School District website at: http://www.lafayetteschools.org/bigpicture

[vi] Principal Michelle Deiro pointed out to me that MetWest has no formal policy on teacher looping with students for four years. At MetWest, it can be 2-4 years depending upon the teacher. Email to me from Deiro, July 3, 2019.

[vii] Ibid. https://www.bigpicture.org/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=389353&type=d&pREC_ID=902235

[viii] Of the ten BPL design features described above, for MetWest I will focus on the Advisor/Teacher role as enacted within classroom lessons, the internship experience, school leadership and organization, and assessment of work in classroom and school.

[ix] Interviews with Michelle Deiro, February 1, 2019 and April 4, 2019.

[x] Great! Schools.org, “MetWest High School,” at: https://www.greatschools.org/california/oakland/12550-Metwest-High-School/

[xi] Interviews with Michelle Deiro, February 1, 2019 and April 4, 2019; Interview with Young Whan Choi, April 4, 2019.

 

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Reforming Student Report Cards

If there is one truth that good-hearted reformers forget time and again it is a political one. If you want to make a significant change in school organization, curriculum, instruction, and any school procedure that affect students–make sure you have teachers and parents on board.  Case in point is students’ report cards.

That report cards have changed over the years is a fact that any parent and grand-parent can swear to. Some past and current ones illustrate reforms that have occurred.

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Get the picture? Over time, report cards have mixed academic performance with classroom behavior and personal traits. They have moved from judging children with percentages to letter grades to narratives joined to district and state standards. And, depending upon whether the report card is for elementary or secondary schools, moved back to letter grades. But the variation in report cards that go home to parents is stunning–rmemebr there are 13,000-plus school districts in the U.S.
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Reforms in reporting on children’s performance in schools customarily involved teachers and parents. Some supported changes in report card forms, others resisted. Compliments and criticism flowed back and forth. If large enough groups of either (or both) complained continually, reforms occurred.
Are the contents and format of report card, then, political decisions?
You bet. Without parental support, the principal, superintendent, and school board will hear from those parents who object to additions or subtractions in traditional report cards. Without teacher support, report cards changes will be subverted by inaccuracies and minimal responses.
This political calculus for introducing innovations to schooling is too often omitted from courses taught to principals, superintendents, and school board members. Most educators, however, already know it in their gut without taking a course on Reform 101. But sometimes well-intentioned reformers and educators forget the importance of political support from parents and teachers. Examples?
*Los Angeles Unified contracted with Apple to spend one billion-plus dollars for iPads for every student to use a newly-developed curriculum and eventually take Common Core tests in 2013. The superintendent consulted no parent or teacher representatives. He got the school board to approved the major change to schools and classrooms. The venture belly flopped with lots of splashes offering little help to teachers and students.
*Michelle Rhee served as Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. schools. Featured on the cover of Time magazine with a broom (she had fired principals and ineffective teachers), Rhee, a former Teach for America graduate, quickly became a super-hero superintendent for those in favor of charter schools, evaluating teachers carefully to rid the system of inept ones, and making principals responsible for raising test scores. In her swift introduction of paying teachers for their performance and scorn for experienced DC teachers who have been in system for decades, she quickly lost the support of the people who do the daily lessons in classrooms. Many of these teachers were voters and in the next election they help oust Mayor Adrian Fenty who had appointed Rhee as Chancellor.

When it comes to classroom teaching, however, super-hero superintendents–beyond their amazing energy, drive, and  commitment–are myopic. They, like dozens of policy wonks see charters, pay-for-performance, testing, etc. etc. altering  what teachers do daily in their classrooms and magically leading to higher test scores.

 

 

Super-hero superintendents, even ones who have had some teaching experience as did Michelle Rhee, are too caught up mandating changes and basking in media attention to spend the time and resources to find out what goes on routinely in classrooms. Without that knowledge, without a commitment to strengthen the teacher corps, and without staying on the job for more than a few years, reform success remains a mirage. Teacher political support is paramount when a superintendent makes policies aimed at improving classroom instruction.
*After an avalanche of parent opposition, the Mountain View Whisman School District announced last week that it will end the controversial new digital math program Teach to One….

 

In a Jan. 12 [2017] email to parents, Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said the Teach to One pilot program, which has been used in all sixth-grade math classes since the start of the school year, will be discontinued, effective immediately. The decision, Rudolph told parents, stems from test results earlier this month showing that fewer sixth-graders are able to perform at grade level.

 

The adoption of Teach to One has been a hotly contested move. The program is a new curriculum for sixth-grade students, complete with its own lessons, exercises and assessments done on computers. The selling point of the program is that it’s a “smart” math program with algorithms designed to adjust to each student’s performance, with lesson plans tailored to strengths and weaknesses.

 

In a lengthy letter last month, parents called on the district to discontinue the program, calling it flawed and brimming with problems. Among the concerns, parents noted that topics are taught in an incoherent and seemingly random order, are riddled with mistakes and outright wrong answers, and students are frequently given math problems that are better-suited for ninth-graders and beyond. Worse yet, many parents say their children are frustrated with math or have lost interest in the subject because of Teach to One. The letter was signed by 180 parents of fifth- and sixth-graders….

 

[After a study session with parents and teachers about 6th grade math program Superintendent] Rudolph repeated that many lessons have been learned in trying to implement Teach to One, and big improvements need to be made for the next time the district tries something new and experimental. More communication was needed to reach out to parents and the community….

 

“We have to make sure, if we have a pilot, that we engage parents and find more ways to gain feedback” Rudolph said. “We didn’t do a good enough job of getting enough qualitative data, we owe it to all of our parents that they have a voice to provide that type of feedback”

These examples illustrate anew the necessity of involving teachers and parents in making significant curricular, instructional, and organizational changes in K-12 schools. From school boards to superintendents to principals the politics of reform are essential to master for desired changes to occur.
Including student report cards.

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Goodbye AltSchool, Hello Altitude Learning

Begun by wealthy high-tech entrepreneur (and ex-Google executive) Max Ventilla in 2013, AltSchool made a splash with its string of private “micro-schools” in New York City and the San Francisco Bay area (tuition was $26,000)–see here, here, and here. Ventilla saw AltSchool as a string of lab schools where progressive ideas could be put into practice and the individualized software that staff designed and used in the “micro-schools” could be bought and used in public schools.

AltSchool “micro-schools’ were ungraded, used project-based learning complete with individually designed “playlists,” small classes, and experienced young teachers. Were John and Evelyn Dewey alive, they would have enrolled their six children in AltSchool.

But, there is always a “but,” running these “micro-schools” was expensive. The business plan (Ventilla raised venture capital of $176 million) was anchored in a dream drawn from the film Field of Dreams: “build it and [they] will come.” The plan depended upon tuition and licensed software bought by public schools. Didn’t work out as Ventilla had dreamed. Spending $40 million a year and taking in $7 million in revenue is a recipe for financial disaster. Ventilla closed some of the “micro-schools in 2017.

And on June 28, 2019, in a press release, came the news:

AltSchool to become Altitude Learning, an educator-run startup powering the growing learner-centered movement

Expanding support for districts nationwide with new approaches to professional development and the products schools need to shift to learner-centered models

  • Altitude Learning to formally launch later this fall
  • As R&D focus ends, tech co-founders pass torch to education industry veterans: Ben Kornell and Devin Vodicka
  • Fast growing partner network representing 300K students: 50% of new contracts for 19-20 school year are public districts, from Alaska to Texas
  • Lab schools to continue, operated by Higher Ground Education, using the Altitude Learning platform

In a blog post six months earlier, Ventilla signaled readers that AltSchool would be changing.

In 2017 we were fortunate to attract a number of world-class career educators and administrators to our team, to guide everything we do. Moving forward, I am pleased to announce Ben Kornell will become President of AltSchool. Ben joined our team back in 2017 as VP of Growth. He’s dedicated his life to reducing educational inequity; he started as a Teach for America middle school teacher and later went to Stanford Business School to learn how to cultivate educational change broadly. As COO of Envision, he helped lead a network of charter schools and scaled a performance assessment system to public schools across the country. Since joining AltSchool, Ben’s led our company’s transition to partnering with public and private schools nationwide. As we continue to integrate the platform into existing school systems, it is essential to have education leaders like Ben at the helm.

I interviewed Ventilla and AltSchool classrooms in November 2016. The creation story of AltSchool, according to Ventilla goes like this:

He and his wife searched for a private school that would meet their five year-old’s needs and potential and then, coming up empty in their search. “We weren’t seeing,” he said, “the kind of experiences that we thought would really prepare her for a lifetime of change.” He decided to build a school that would be customized for individual students, like their daughter, where children could further their intellectual passions while nourishing all that makes a kid, a kid.

In listening to Ventilla, that story was repeated but far more important I got a clearer sense of what he has in mind for Altschool in the upcoming years. Some venture capitalists have invested in the for-profit AltSchool not for a couple of years but for a decade. He saw beyond that horizon, however, for his networks to scale up, becoming more efficient, less costly, and attractive to more and more parents as a progressive brand that will, at some future point, reshape how private and public schools operate. And turn a profit for investors. Ventilla wanted to do well by doing good.

In 2019, that dream has foundered. New leadership has been appointed. Another organization takes over the remaining “micro-schools.”

Now this is a familiar story about start-ups in Silicon Valley. Plenty of hype, promises, and dreams at the beginning and then the initial slog to turn a profit. More often than not, the pain of hemorrhaging dollars leads to death. Employees update resumes and seek other jobs. But start-up schools are much harder to create and sustain than start-up companies. And when they go belly-up or shift to other managers, both students and their parents plus teachers bear the consequences.

And what did Ventilla learn as he stepped aside as leader. Here is the lesson he learned after six years running AltSchool:

People often ask what I wish I’d known before starting AltSchool and I say: However difficult you think working in education is…multiply that by 10. Life at a startup is hard, but education is exponentially harder.

No kidding.

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The Politics of Art in a San Francisco High School (Bari Weiss)

This op-ed column appeared in the New York Times June 28, 2019.

Bari Weiss (@bariweiss), a staff writer and editor for the Opinion section, is the author of the forthcoming “How to Fight Anti-Semitism.”

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More than $8,000. That was the amount John Ashcroft’s Justice Department spent on blue curtains to cover up the busty Spirit of Justice statue and her bare-chested male equivalent, the Majesty of Law, in the department’s Great Hall in 2002. The Victorian move against the Art Deco sculptures spurred a thousand lampoons. “A blue burqa for justice,” my colleague Maureen Dowd memorably called it. In The Harvard Crimson, a young Pete Buttigieg wrote, “It seems odd that an infant is supposed to feed on them, and a grown man is expected at some point to behold them, but for a period in between we feel the need to see to it that no child ever sees a breast.”

 

I wonder, then, what Mr. Buttigieg, now on the presidential campaign trail, would make of the San Francisco school board’s unanimous decision on Tuesday night to spend at least $600,000 of taxpayer money not just to shroud a historic work of art but to destroy it.

By now stories of progressive Puritanism (or perhaps the better word is Philistinism) are so commonplace — snowflakes seek safe space! — that it can feel tedious to track the details of the latest outrage. But this case is so absurd that it’s worth reviewing the specifics.

Victor Arnautoff, the Russian immigrant who made the paintings in question, was perhaps the most important muralist in the Bay Area during the Depression. Thanks to President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, he had the opportunity to make some enduring public artworks. Among them is “City Life” in Coit Tower, in which the artist painted himself standing in front of a newspaper rack conspicuously missing the mainstream San Francisco Chronicle and packed with publications like The Daily Worker.

Arnautoff, who had assisted Diego Rivera in Mexico, was a committed Communist. “‘Art for art’s sake’ or art as perfume have never appealed to me,” he said in 1935. “The artist is a critic of society.”

This is why his freshly banned work, “Life of Washington,” does not show the clichéd image of our first president kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge. Instead, the 13-panel, 1,600-square-foot mural, which was painted in 1936 in the just-built George Washington High School, depicts his slaves picking cotton in the fields of Mount Vernon and a group of colonizers walking past the corpse of a Native American.

“At the time, high school history classes typically ignored the incongruity that Washington and others among the nation’s founders subscribed to the declaration that ‘all men are created equal’ and yet owned other human beings as chattel,” Robert W. Cherny writes in “Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art.”

In other words, Arnautoff’s purpose was to unsettle the viewer, to provoke young people into looking at American history from a different, darker perspective. Over the past months, art historians, New Deal scholars and even a group called the Congress of Russian Americans have tried to make exactly that point.

“This is a radical and critical work of art,” the school’s alumni association argued. “There are many New Deal murals depicting the founding of our country; very few even acknowledge slavery or the Native genocide. The Arnautoff murals should be preserved for their artistic, historical and educational value. Whitewashing them will simply result in another ‘whitewash’ of the full truth about American history.”

Such appeals to reason and history failed to sway the school board. On Tuesday, it dismissed the option to pull an Ashcroft and simply cover the murals, instead voting unanimously to paint them over.

One of the commissioners, Faauuga Moliga, said before the vote on Tuesday that his chief concern was that “kids are mentally and emotionally feeling safe at their schools.” Thus he wanted “the murals to be painted down.” Mark Sanchez, the school board’s vice president, later told me that simply concealing the murals wasn’t an option because it would “allow for the possibility of them being uncovered in the future.” Destroying them was worth it regardless of the cost, he argued at the hearing, saying, “This is reparations.”

These and other explanations from the board’s members reflected the logic of the Reflection and Action Working Group, a committee of activists, students, artists and others put together last year by the district. Arnautoff’s work, the group concluded in February, “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.” The art does not reflect “social justice,” the group said, and it “is not student-centered if it’s focused on the legacy of artists, rather than the experience of the students.”

And yet many of the school’s actual students seemed to disagree. Of 49 freshmen asked to write about the murals, according to The Times, only four supported their removal. John M. Strain, an English teacher, told The Times’s Carol Pogash that his students “feel bad about offending people but they almost universally don’t think the answer is to erase it.”

Which makes one wonder who these bureaucrats actually seek to protect. Is it the students? Or could it also be their reputations, given that those in favor of preserving the murals are being smeared as racists?

“In my entire life, no one has ever, ever accused me of being a ‘white supremacist,’” Lope Yap Jr., a filmmaker and the vice president of the alumni association, told me. But if you buy into the expansive notion of “white supremacy” put forward by Alison Collins, one of the board commissioners, that is exactly what Mr. Yap, who is Filipino, is. “One of the earmarks of white supremacy culture is valuing (white) property over (Black & Brown) ppl,” Ms. Collins recently wrote on Twitter. “I think about this when I read comments from folks arguing to ‘protect’ the ‘Life of Washington’ murals.”

Mr. Sanchez, the board vice president, told me: “A grave mistake was made 80 years ago to paint a mural at a school without Native American or African-American input. For impressionable young people who attend school to have any representation that diminishes people, specifically students from communities that have already been diminished, it’s an aggressive thing. It’s hurtful and I don’t think our students need to bear that burden.”

The implications of this logic are chilling. What happens when a student suggests that looking at photographs of the My Lai massacre in history class is too traumatic? Should newspapers avoid printing upsetting images that illuminate the crisis at the border, like the unforgettable one of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, facedown, drowned in the Rio Grande?

All are fair game for censorship in a worldview that insists that words and images are to be judged based on how “safe” they make people feel.

“If K-12 schools start to provide top-down total protection from the emotional pain of confronting uncomfortable ideas — like what actually happened in real American history — we should not be at all surprised when these people go on to college campuses and then, into the work force, and demand the same sort of comforts: safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggression prevention, and so on,” said Robby Soave, the author of “Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump.” He added: “That’s not on them. That’s on us.”

The notion of erasing art has an American pedigree. Arnautoff was intimately familiar with it, having been interrogated in 1956 by the House Un-American Activities Committee for drawing a caricature of Vice President Richard Nixon. But I suspect he would have been surprised to learn that more than 60 years later, progressives in charge of educating San Francisco’s children are merrily following this un-American playbook.

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Tech Innovations and School Reform: Blood Cousins

When asked how I got interested in the uses of technology in schools and classrooms, I answer that I was the target for a quarter-century of high-tech innovations and classroom reforms when I taught high school history and as a district administrator in two urban school systems.

I then say that I have been trained as an historian and studied many efforts of reformers to improve schooling over the past century in U.S. classrooms, schools, and districts. I examined how teachers have taught since the 1890s. I investigated policymakers’ constant changes in curriculum since the 1880s. I analyzed the origins of the age-graded school and the spread of this innovation through the 19th century. And I parsed the Utopian dreams of reformers who believed that new machine technologies (e.g., film, radio, instructional television, desktop computer) would alter how teachers teach and students learn. I then conclude my answer by pointing out that these electronic devices are in the DNA of all classroom-driven reforms aimed at altering how teachers teach and how students learn.

What surprises me is that these questioners had not viewed high-tech innovations as having either a history in schools or as blood relations to constant efforts to improve schools. Instead, they saw (and see) innovative high-tech devices as singular, even exceptional, ways of transforming teaching and learning completely divorced from previous efforts at improving classroom practice through curricular (e.g., math, social studies, science), instructional (e.g., project-based learning, direct instruction) and organizational (e.g., site-based management, charters, mayoral control) reforms.

And that is a big conceptual error. Why? Because, school and classroom reforms including technological ones, are part of the same genetic code.

Creating a  school such as High Tech High is an organizational and instructional reform. Teachers using iCell App, Khan Academy videos, Google Classroom, Kahoot, and other software programs are implementing curricular reforms and shaping instruction. Technological innovations, then, are blood cousins to curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms. Consequently, they share similar genes.

For example, all reforms come bathed in rhetoric. Take the “21st Century Skills” effort, organized by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), a coalition whose members include Verizon, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, and Dell. Their mission is to prepare the current generation of children and youth to compete in a globalized economy. Their words, like the rhetoric of so many other reformers—past and present—portray a economic, social, and political crisis for U.S. competition in world markets unless today’s youth leave school fully equipped with the skills of creating, innovating, problem-solving, collaborating, and critically thinking. And don’t forget: a repertoire of technological skills. The rhetoric must not only create a sense of crisis, it must portray existing institutions as woefully deficient. Read the stuff.

If patterns emerge from analyzing reform rhetoric so can patterns be observed in the journey from policy talk to an adopted and funded program. Designing the policy and program means frequent revisions as they go through the political vetting process to get adopted and funded (think of federal laws such as No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds Act and a brand-new whole language software program for district schools).

Ditto for finding patterns in the degree to which those adopted policies get implemented and changed as the design wends its way into the school and eventually into the classroom (e.g., e.g., Success for All, Maine’s 1:1 laptop initiative, ClassDojo)

If reform rhetoric, policy adoption, and putting innovations into practice can be examined for regularities so can the criteria used to assess the reform (e.g., test scores, satisfaction of teachers and students with innovation, rates of graduation, etc.). Once assessed, determining whether or not the reform should be incorporated—should the innovation be sustained–in school and classroom practices is a judgment call that authorities make on the basis of political, ideological, and evidentiary grounds.
You get the picture. In viewing technological innovations as a sub-set of curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms, teachers, principals, and parents can identify patterns, determine consequences for the adoption of the innovation, track the journey as it goes from policy to classroom practice, and expect certain outcomes while being open to unanticipated ones as well.

Too many policymakers, practitioners, and parents see technological innovations as unique initiatives unrelated to the historic patterns in school reforms. They err. My experiences as a practitioner and historian have taught me to see technological devices as part of the river of reform that has flowed constantly through U.S. schools for nearly two centuries.

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Filed under Reforming schools, technology use