Category Archives: Reforming schools

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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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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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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Technology Use in Two High Schools: Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles (CA) and MetWest in Oakland (CA)

Readers who follow this blog know that I have been working on a book about “success” and “failure” in schools. As part of that book, I visited two California high schools, Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles Unified School District and MetWest in Oakland Unifed School District. Both are small high schools. SJHA has just over 500 students and MetWest has 160. Both schools enroll predominately Latino and poor youth, most of whom are the first in their families planning to attend college. Both small high schools are neither charters or magnets. They are regular public high schools in their districts. More detailed descriptions of the unique character of each school can be seen here and here.

I observed classroom lessons, interviewed teachers and administrators and read documents and media accounts for each school. From these on-site visits I described classrooms and use of technology in each school.  These are my reflections on what I observed about access and use of mobile and desktop devices at both schools.

 

Technological devices played a minor role in classroom lessons. Tablets, laptops, and desktop computers were easily accessible throughout each school. Chromebooks sat on carts in most classrooms. Students were used to using devices when teachers directed them to work on assignments or do readings that were already loaded onto the machines.

Except for cell phones. At MetWest, I saw teachers collect all cell phones in a large basket or container at the beginning of every lesson; students retrieved their devices at the end of the period. Outside of class, students used mobile phones when they were in the school’s large atrium, before and after class and during brunch and lunch breaks.

At SJHA, district cell phone policy is explicit in banning these devices but gave individual schools latitude in enforcing the ban. SJHA’s website laid out those restrictions on classroom use and consequences except when teachers ask students to use them for a specific lesson.*

In one English class, according to a newspaper report in 2015, teacher Priscilla Farinas told her 31 students:

“This is the one and only time I will have you take out your cellphones,” she said, instructing the students to share their definitions of “privilege” via text message as part of a lesson on “The Great Gatsby.”

Students immediately grabbed their mobile devices. Their texts populated a screen in the front of the classroom. Every student appeared focused on their schoolwork…. “We’re trying to keep you engaged,” Farinas said. “This is part of a larger lesson: ‘There’s a time and a place to use the cellphone.’ **

That was in 2015. In February 2019, only one SJHA teacher I observed used a cell phone during a class period. She used a phone app to generate student names randomly for questions she would ask about the scene in Hamlet they were studying. Apart from this teacher, no SJHA teacher I observed asked students to use their cell phones during lessons..

As I reflect on teachers’ and students’ use of these devices in both schools they were seldom in the foreground, they were in the background of lessons. Sure they were present but used when they were integral to a lesson much as paper, pencil, and erasers would have (and were) used. Except for cell phones, then, electronic devices were pervasive in both schools but played a minor role in classrooms I observed.

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*District policy for SJHA banned the use of cellphones but gave schools latitude in enforcing ban. AT SJHA the policy was:

We understand that cell phones are important for personal communication and, at times, aid in student organization and learning. However, they can also be a major distraction to your education. Should you choose to bring your devices to school, you are to use them responsibly and appropriately according to the following guidelines.

  • Electronic devices can be used before school, after school & during lunch/passing periods
  • Electronic devices must be silenced and out of sight during class
  • Devices may be used in class for instructional purposes when explicitly permitted by the teacher
  • Students leaving the classroom for any reason, must leave their device with the teacher while they are gone

Students are subject to the following consequences when they violate the Electronics/Cell Phone Policy:

  • 1st Violation: Device taken away for the remainder of the day. Student may pick up in the Main Office after school
  • 2nd Violation: Device taken away for remainder of the day. Parent/guardian notified and required to pick up device between 7:30am-3:00pm
  • 3rd Violation: Device taken away for remainder of the day & will receive 3 BEHAVIOR stamps. Parent/guardian notified and required to pick up device between 7:30am-3:00pm
  • Additional Violations: The device will be taken away. Student & parent/guardian must attend meeting with counselor and administrator to receive the device.

 

**Daniela Gerson, “Cellphones Make a Comeback in the Classroom, with Teachers’ Support,” Los Angeles Times, November 15, 2015.

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Another OOPS! Philanthropist Sees The Light… Finally

Here is a “mea culpa” from Nick Hanauer, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist who made his fortune in technology companies. Hanauer gave much money to transform schools so that they could become engines of equity erasing economic and social inequalities (and poverty as well) that bedevil American society.

Long ago, I was captivated by a seductively intuitive idea, one many of my wealthy friends still subscribe to: that both poverty and rising inequality are largely consequences of America’s failing education system. Fix that, I believed, and we could cure much of what ails America.

This belief system, which I have come to think of as “educationism,” is grounded in a familiar story about cause and effect: Once upon a time, America created a public-education system that was the envy of the modern world. No nation produced more or better-educated high-school and college graduates, and thus the great American middle class was built. But then, sometime around the 1970s, America lost its way. We allowed our schools to crumble, and our test scores and graduation rates to fall. School systems that once churned out well-paid factory workers failed to keep pace with the rising educational demands of the new knowledge economy. As America’s public-school systems foundered, so did the earning power of the American middle class. And as inequality increased, so did political polarization, cynicism, and anger, threatening to undermine American democracy itself.

Taken with this story line, I embraced education as both a philanthropic cause and a civic mission. I co-founded the League of Education Voters, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public education. I joined Bill Gates, Alice Walton, and Paul Allen in giving more than $1 million each to an effort to pass a ballot measure that established Washington State’s first charter schools. All told, I have devoted countless hours and millions of dollars to the simple idea that if we improved our schools—if we modernized iour curricula and our teaching methods, substantially increased school funding, rooted out bad teachers, and opened enough charter schools—American children, especially those in low-income and working-class communities, would start learning again. Graduation rates and wages would increase, poverty and inequality would decrease, and public commitment to democracy would be restored.

But after decades of organizing and giving, I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that I was wrong. And I hate being wrong….

To be clear: We should do everything we can to improve our public schools. But our education system can’t compensate for the ways our economic system is failing Americans. Even the most thoughtful and well-intentioned school-reform program can’t improve educational outcomes if it ignores the single greatest driver of student achievement: household income.

For all the genuine flaws of the American education system, the nation still has many high-achieving public-school districts. Nearly all of them are united by a thriving community of economically secure middle-class families with sufficient political power to demand great schools, the time and resources to participate in those schools, and the tax money to amply fund them. In short, great public schools are the product of a thriving middle class, not the other way around. Pay people enough to afford dignified middle-class lives, and high-quality public schools will follow. But allow economic inequality to grow, and educational inequality will inevitably grow with it.

Hanauer’s open apology for misconstruing cause and effect between the larger society and public schools–a basic proposition that educators and non-entrepreneurs and venture capitalists  over the age of 25 learn–appears sincere but, for me, unconvincing. Why? Because Hanauer is only the most recent of well-intentioned philanthropists who underestimate the complexity of public schools in a market-driven democracy and see schools driving societal change. They donate large sums of money to transform schools.

PAST OOPS

Foundation officials often consult with smart people before giving away money to schools and districts but they seldom ask people who do the daily work or experienced practitioners who know the system from the inside (see for example the history of the Annenberg Challenge in the 1990s and Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million dollar gift to Newark (NJ). Or consider the Melinda and Bill Gates foundation.

The Gates Foundation gave over a billion dollars to make high schools smaller beginning in 2000. They stopped funding small high schools in 2008. In 2009, they began funding Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching in multiple districts across the country. No more funding after 2016 (see here, here, and here). My initial reaction was, hey, these foundation officers had not thought through carefully the complexity of schooling or the familiar perverse consequences that accrue to “innovations” that do belly-flops.

Critics of current donors often point to how philanthropists have supported centralizing school governance (e.g., mayoral control, state takeovers of districts and schools, No Child Left Behind). They note that the inevitable companion of consolidated authority is increased top-down regulation of schooling in cities and states. And that regulation, they claim, has seen the growth of explicit federal and state accountability mechanisms. The critics are correct.

Yet as venture philanthropists have advocated market-friendly ventures in public schools and approved of centralized local, state, and federal policymaking, donors themselves have escaped responsibility for errors they committed in grant-making. Like the Ebola virus, donors dread federal and state regulation of their publicly subsidized foundation activities. The fact is, however, that they have no accountability for their own “oops!” or dumb mistakes.

When foundation grants fail to achieve the objectives officials sought, philanthropists turn their backs, shrug, and walk away. They have no responsibility to districts, individual schools, teachers, students and parents for hopes raised and dashed. They shrug when anticipated consequences of their “gifts” harm districts, schools, teachers, and students. But donors are beyond the reach of being fired or voted out of office. Yet as anyone knows from personal experience, admitting error is crucial to insights into a problem and, ultimately inventing better ways to solve it.

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At least, venture capitalist Nick Hanuaer owned up to his mistake in thinking that transforming public schools will erase societal inequities. I do not know of other donors who have the guts to admit that they erred in their thinking and gift-giving when it involved public schools.

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In Classrooms: Social Justice Humanitas Academy (Part 5)

Brenda Arias teaches chemistry first period of the day—from 8:30 to 10:21. First period of the day is longer than other classes that run about an hour and a half). This is her fifth year at Social Justice Humanitas Academy (SJHA). While she taught physics the first four years, she is now teaching chemistry.  (Earlier posts about SJHA are here, here, here, and here.)

The 31 students—the largest class I have observed at SJHA–are mostly 10th graders. They are having breakfast at the beginning of the first period of the day. Two students had gone to the cafeteria and brought back milk, juice, cereal, and egg sandwiches to class. Students picked what they wanted and they spread out among lab tables to eat and talk. This occurs every morning across the school.

After breakfast, students toss trash in a can and pick up Chromebooks to take back to their lab tables. All tables holding 2-3 students face the white board and teacher desk—also a lab table. As Arias takes roll, I look around the room and see the “Habits of Mind” and “Common Core Mathematical Practice Standards,” college banners and the obligatory Periodic Elements chart for a chemistry room. A teacher aide is in the room because there are a half-dozen students with disabilities that will need help with the lesson. He circulates and talks to particular students about the tasks they have to work on.

Arias tells class what’s due today and during the week. “I need you to look at me,” she says. “I need you to focus.” Most of the class will be taking a 20-minute practice test for a later exam that will improve their low scores the first time they took the test. All of the practice questions and answers are loaded on the Chromebook and students begin working. Some students work with partners and others in small groups or alone at different tables. A nearby student shows me the questions and correct answers on her screen as Arias walks around the room checking students’ work and answering questions. I scan the class and see everyone clicking away on their devices.

Arias then asks class to close Chromebooks and return to their seats. She tells class that they must have the practice test completed by Thursday or “you get….” She pauses and a number of students say: “a zero.”

She then segues to next part of lesson. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are going over 4.3 homework. Log on to 4.3 and we will go over 7, 10, and 11 because I made mistakes and want to correct them.” A loud hum arises in class. Arias says, “Everyone calm down. If you didn’t do homework, what will you get?” Class responds: “A zero.” Students also know that teacher gives them three chances to do homework correctly. The number the teacher calls (4.3) out corresponds to a text chapter on gases and solids accompanied by worksheets, eventual homework assignments.

She goes over the incorrect answers on the whiteboard at front of the room and asks class to correct them. On one of the corrections about the temperature of a gas compared to a solid, she says, “My knucklehead move was the wrong answer.” She says, “I’m sorry. Everyone makes mistakes.”

Teacher asks students to pair up and make corrections. As they do, they are completing homework on the Chromebook. The students I observed in the class pay attention to what the teacher said and respond to her requests. I saw no students who rested their heads in the crooks of their arms on desks, students playing with devices, or whispered, sustained conversations among the 10th graders. I left the chemistry class after an hour there to go to another lesson.

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Since Social Justice Humanitas Academy opened in 2011, its student enrollments have stayed consistent. SJHA has 513 students (2019) enrolled in 9th through 12th grades. On race and ethnicity (2015), 95 percent were Hispanic, 2 percent African American and one percent each for Caucasian and Native American. Of that number 12 percent were English Learners. Special education students were 10 percent of enrollment. And 88 percent were eligible for free and reduced lunch (the poverty measure for LAUSD schools).

And some of the academic results were sufficiently eye-catching to attract media attention.

* Graduations rates increased between 2011 and 2015 from 83 to 94 percent. Both exceed LAUSD and state rates of graduation.

*Ninety-six percent of students have an individual graduation plan.

*Seventy-five percent of students passed all college required courses.

*Suspensions sunk to 0.2 percent in 2014.

*Six Advanced Placement courses are offered (English language, English literature, analytic geometry/pre-calculus, macroeconomics, Spanish language, Spanish Literature).

While tests scores in reading and math fall above and below state averages, overall, the school’s record in graduation and college attendance and its social activism, community participation, and teacher-powered decision-making have made it a candidate for awards. In 2019, SJHA received the Gold Recognition award for being a School of Opportunity from the National Education Center for Policy.

 

 

 

 

 

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In Classrooms: Social Justice Humanitas Academy (Part 4)

Social Justice Humanitas Academy is located in the city of San Fernando within the Los Angeles Unified School District. According to the website,

Our mission is to achieve social justice through the development of the complete individual. In doing so, we increase our students’ social capital and their humanity while creating a school worthy of our own children.

These mission statements act as a guide to all decision making” for a school that opened in 2011 on a new campus. Consider the school’s demographics and academic profile.

Since SJHA opened in 2011 its demographics have stayed consistent. SJHA has 513 students (2019) enrolled in 9th through 12th grades. On race and ethnicity (2015), 95 percent were Hispanic, 2 percent African American and one percent each for Caucasian and Native American. Of that number 12 percent were English Learners. Special education students were 10 percent of enrollment. And 88 percent were eligible for free and reduced lunch.

Since March I have published on this blog a series of classroom observations about a school that seeks social justice, advocates student activism, and self-actualization (see here, here, and here). In this post and the next I describe two additional lessons I observed.

Shaved pate, wearing a white shirt, blue tie and grey slacks, English teacher Robert Martinez immediately turns to the white board as the period begins—right after lunch, mind you–and directs the 24 ninth graders’ attention to what he has written on it: “Community Cultural Wealth: A Review.”

The students, sitting 2-4 at a table facing one another, look at the whiteboard as Martinez launches a whole group discussion through a series of slides on Community Cultural Wealth. From time to time, he calls on students to read a slide by addressing the student as Ms. Rodriguez or Mr. Montero.

Earlier classes have dealt with fixed and growth mindsets, grit, and three forms of capital: “Aspirational Capital, Familial Capital and Navigational Capital.” Martinez says, “I use these Capitals to resist and overcome oppression.” Then he asks the class what is “oppression.” A few students offer answers. He then defines the word and refers to the book they are currently reading, Always Running (full title is La Vida Loca: Gang Days in LA by Luis Rodriguez).

Whole group discussion continues as teacher moves through slides and students read about Aspirational Capital (hopes and dreams) and Navigational Capital (the different communities beyond family that each student interacts with). On the slide for Aspirational Capital, Martinez points out the upcoming trip to California colleges as a experience they will have that looks to the dreams they have for themselves—many are the first in their family to consider college.

Martinez intersperses reading of slides and occasional questions from students with comments such as: “Ultimately this (different forms of capital) is for you to see yourself, what mindset you have. Make the jump and get out of your comfort zone,” he says. To one student who reads a slide correctly, the teacher compliments her: “College level, girl.”

As I look around the room, I see that about half of the class has notebooks out and are taking notes.

Phone on desk rings and teacher answers. Hangs up and directs a student to go to office. Teacher returns to definitions of different forms of Capital. On Familial Capital, Martinez states: “You know the people who hold you back. You may be in a toxic relationship and have to ask yourself, ‘Do these people have my back?’ “

Some students yell out questions and statements after teacher makes comments about a slide. When he asks for students to calm down, class responds immediately and gets quiet.

After completing the slides on different forms of Capital, Martinez shifts to next part of lesson when he will divide class into groups of 4-6 students to read Chapters 7 and 8 of Always Running. He chooses which students will be in one group and directs them to read Chapter 7 and does the same the other groups asking them to read Chapter 8.

He directs both groups to fill out worksheet on each form of Capital. He passes out the worksheets and asks students to jot down what transpired in each chapter and link examples to different kinds of Capital. Then he says he will reassemble both groups so that each group will present information on their chapter to the other group. Each specific example drawn from the chapter and written on worksheet will get one point, he says. He then announces: “Read for 20 minutes and complete chapter.”

Groups turn to task of reading and completing worksheets. I scan classroom and see that individual students in each group are reading. Martinez walks around monitoring students reading. At this point, I exit the classroom to see another teacher.

 

 

 

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