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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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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.”

27Weiss-jumbo.jpg

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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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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Tapping Into the News to Teach Math (Forrest Hinton)

“Forrest Hinton is a math instructor at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, a STEM-focused public boarding school for high school juniors and seniors in Durham, North Carolina. He teaches a wide range of core and elective math courses in his department and for programs like Summer Accelerator and ENC STEM. He also serves as the coordinator of the Teaching Contemporary Mathematics Conference. In his work, he inspires students to critically examine and improve systems by using analytical tools from mathematics and statistics. He is strongly committed to making the study of advanced mathematics more accessible to students who have traditionally been underrepresented in the field.”

This article appeared in Edutopia, June 7, 2019

 

“Why should the people who work hard and earn more money foot most of the tax bill?”

“People at the bottom need their dollars more than those at the top.”

These are snippets of a political debate that many would expect to read in The Washington Post. They wouldn’t expect to hear these ideas in a high school math class. Yet these are the types of ideas I regularly hear in my classroom. Sure, my students solve equations and graph curves like all students, but they also apply the math we’re studying in real-world activities that are open-ended, complex, and collaborative in order to get them excited about the possibilities of using math. One way they do this is through math debates—passionate arguments about the data sets they analyze and the mathematical models they create.

Connecting Math to Current Events

The student debate highlighted above comes from an activity about federal income taxes that I use in my precalculus and modeling course to introduce piecewise-defined functions, which use different formulas for different input values. My goal is to convince students that studying piecewise-defined functions is worthwhile. In calculus, my students do math debates around state transportation as I introduce them to the mean value theorem. Math debates around real-world issues allow them to explore, ask questions, and be creative with the math.

Most students don’t know much about the topics I introduce. I teach students about the fundamentals through a brief discussion. For the federal income tax activity, I generally ask questions like “Why does the federal government need revenue?,” “What are the different ways that the federal government collects money from citizens?,” “What is a progressive income tax and how does it work?”

Next, I have students read a news article that explains some of the debates surrounding the current event I introduce. While Congress was writing a bill to reform the federal tax system in late 2017, I had my students read an article from The New York Times about some of the proposed changes.

Diving Into the Math

At this stage students are invested, and they’re ready to engage in problem-solving. I divide students into small groups of two or three. For the federal income tax example, I gave students two data tables from the IRS—from 2017 and 2018—which show the marginal tax rates for the seven tax brackets. With that data they built two piecewise-defined functions. A citizen’s personal income is the input, and the output is the total amount of income tax that person owes to the federal government. I leave out deductions and tax credits from the analysis to keep things simple and to allow students to clearly examine one aspect of income tax policy. Once students have built their two income tax functions, I ask them to graph the functions with an online graphing calculator, like Desmos.

Before students can debate, they need to understand how their math translates to the topic I’ve introduced them to. For example, with federal income tax, they need to understand how the mathematical properties of the functions translate into policy decisions about tax brackets and marginal tax rates.

To explore this, in their groups or through whole-class discussion they describe some of the graph’s important characteristics using precalculus terminology like continuity, domain, and slope. I also have them interpret each characteristic of the graph in the context of income tax policy. I want students to clearly see the connections between precalculus concepts and political choices.

Some students notice that for each piecewise-defined function the slopes of the line segments increase from left to right. They explain that the slope represents the marginal tax rate for each bracket and that the increasing slopes show that we have a progressive income tax in the United States.

Getting Into the Debate

Before starting the debate, it’s important to lay out expectations. I encourage students to listen to one another carefully and then ask questions in ways that seek to understand others’ ideas and perspectives before challenging them. For example, if a student believes that a peer made an erroneous assumption in reaching a conclusion, she might ask, “What are some of the core assumptions underlying your argument?” Part of the expectations around these math debates is that students’ proposals will be challenged so that they have to clearly explain and strongly justify their positions. I play devil’s advocate when students aren’t adequately challenging the ideas put forward.

The debate revolves around a final problem. For example, my students debated about their ideal federal income tax function, which I had them sketch as a graph. This is the most fun part! Some libertarian students sketch a horizontal line, which means that every citizen would pay the federal government the same amount in taxes. Other libertarians and some conservatives sketch a single diagonal line, which represents a flat tax rate for all citizens. Finally, some conservative, moderate, and progressive students suggest that the current progressive income tax system is fine the way it is or that it should curve upward more or less steeply.

Of course, there are no universally accepted “right” answers to the debate. Math can help us analyze trends and outcomes in public policy, and it can also clarify tradeoffs, but it will never be able to tell us what is “fairest” or “most effective.” It can’t make our decisions for us.

Whether or not some of my students become U.S. senators or IRS tax analysts, all of them are future voters and participants in our democracy. My hope is that, through math problem-solving activities like this one, they will be informed and engaged “mathemacitizens” on tax policy and on all of the other issues that impact the well-being of our people.

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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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