Parents ‘trigger’ change — without a charter

At a Los Angeles school, a parents’ group used the state’s “parent trigger” law to get the changes they wanted, while keeping West Athens Elementary in the school district, writes Natasha Lindstrom for the Hechinger Report.

Los Angeles Unified agreed “to bolster school behavior and safety plans, improve communication between parents and teachers and provide increased professional development and support for teachers,” reports Lindstrom. The district will spend $300,000 to fund a full-time psychologist, a part-time psychiatrist social worker and a full-time attendance officer.

Members of the 24th Street Elementary School parent union meet at a park near their children's Los Angeles school to discuss the next steps to force a major overhaul of their struggling neighborhood school. They're among the first in the nation to use the so-called "parent trigger" law to transform a school. (Photo courtesy Parent Revolution)

Members of the 24th Street Elementary School parent union meet at a park near their children’s Los Angeles school.  (Photo courtesy Parent Revolution)

The law lets a majority of parents at a low-performing school petition for changes “ranging from replacing the principal and half the staff to converting the school into a charter,”  reports Lindstrom.

Gabe Rose, deputy executive director of Parent Revolution, said he views the collaboration as a positive sign that these types of efforts can lead to changes without disrupting and dividing communities. In this case, the parent trigger served as leverage, a negotiating tool to ensure parent concerns were heard, but invoking the actual law didn’t prove necessary, he said.

“Districts have seen the story play out enough times now, I think, that they understand they have to take organized parents seriously because they have real rights and they have real power if they stick together,” Rose said.

Two early trigger campaigns in Adelanto and Compton were fought fiercely. By negotiating with parents, Los Angeles Unified now has avoided a takeover fight at three schools. At 24th Street Elementary, a deal was worked out: The district runs the K-4 grades while a charter operator runs grades 5 to 8.

School safety problems — and a principal who was never available — prompted West Athens parents to form a union, says Winter Hall, whose kindergarten daughter was bullied. Once the instructional director began listening to their concerns, “we opted out of trigger and decided maybe this would work, maybe we could collaborate instead.”

D.C. renovates schools, but kids don’t come

Washington, D.C. neighborhoods are gentrifying.  “Controlled choice” could integrate D.C. schools, write Sam Chaltain, Mike Petrilli and Rick Kahlenberg in a Washington Post op-ed. Should integration be a policy goal?

The school district is spending $127 million to renovate Theodore Roosevelt High’s 1932 Colonial Revival building, reports Washington City Paper. It will be a “palace.” But who will enroll? Most neighborhood students choose charter schools or a higher-performing district school not too far away. Unless the new building attracts more students, it will be more than half empty. 

Last year, more test-takers at Roosevelt scored “below basic” in math on the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System exam than at any other D.C. Public Schools neighborhood high school—45 percent, to fewer than 20 percent who scored “proficient.” In math and reading growth, which compare students’ progress to that of peers who started at the same achievement level, Roosevelt likewise comes in dead last. Fewer than half of entering Roosevelt 9th-graders graduate in four years.

Once poor and crime-ridden, the area around Roosevelt, Petworth, “is at the epicenter of D.C.’s gentrification wave,” reports Washington City Paper Educated middle-class professionals, often with young children, are moving in. Some poor families have been priced out.

The local elementary school improved dramatically and now has a wait list. But when children reach middle school age, savvy parents apply to charter schools or “follow convoluted feeder patterns to DCPS schools west of Rock Creek Park.”

When the two-year renovation is complete, Roosevelt High’s front entrance will be restored, flanked by  two more columned entrances to the arts and athletics wings. “The claustrophobic central courtyard will become a spacious, glass-topped atrium, and two new courtyards will be added to bring light into the building’s dark, 1970s-era additions.” A 1934 fresco is being restored. But who will go there?

Charter group: Close low-performing school

A low-performing charter school with university affiliations should be closed, says the California Charter Schools Association. The charter group believes in accountability.

West Sacramento Early College Prep, which is run by University of California at Davis, Sacramento City College and the Washington Unified School District, is one of the worst-performing schools in the statereports the Sacramento Bee

 “I think the school is doing a great job,” said Harold Levine, president of the school’s board and dean of the UC Davis Education School. “I think we are doing what the state of California is asking us to do: develop college-ready kids.”

All students in the first graduating class of 32 went on to university, community college, trade school or the U.S. Marines.

The school serves students in sixth through 12th grade. Many come from low-income families and have emotional problems, according to Levine.  

Levine says students at the school don’t fare well on the state’s standardized tests, known as STAR tests, because they aren’t aligned to “the way we want them to think.” He said the school adopted project-based learning in 2008 that is more closely aligned with the new Common Core State Standards curriculum that California students will begin to be tested for in 2014.

The dean noted that California students are no longer taking STAR tests. He questioned why the charter association is using an “outmoded” measure to decide if a school is performing well academically.

“If anything, the CCSA should look to us and work with us to see what useful reforms can come to California,” Levine said.

The school rates as a 1 out of 10 — the lowest level — compared to schools with similar demographics.

The best and the brightest have no freakin’ idea what they’re doing, responds Darren, who teaches math at a Sacramento high school. But they know how to make excuses.

I’m told that Common Core will boost students’ academic thinking beyond mere regurgitation of facts, that they’ll understand the material on a deeper level. If this school is teaching its students to operate that way, wouldn’t those students perform even better on the STAR tests, which supposedly ask for only a cursory, fill-in-the-blank-style understanding?

I’m no fan of the Common Core standards or of the effort to use them to impose so-called discovery learning or any other educational fad on us, but even CC supporters must concede that using CC standards to excuse and explain low performance is a harsh indictment indeed.

If this school is the best UC Davis eggheads can come up with, “how much confidence should we taxpayers have in that university’s school of education?” asks Darren.

Small schools that recruit disadvantaged students often boost graduation and college enrollment rates by paying attention to students. (Community colleges take anyone and some four-year schools are almost as open.) It’s much harder to raise achievement levels.

More flipping, less failing

“Flipping the classroom” — students watch video lessons at home and practice skills in class — has cut the failure rate at Clintondale High near Detroit, reports Tina Rosenberg in the New York Times.

Teachers record video lessons, which students watch on their smartphones, home computers or at lunch in the school’s tech lab. In class, they do projects, exercises or lab experiments in small groups while the teacher circulates.

Principal Greg Green had been using videos to demonstrate baseball techniques to his son’s team, leaving “more time for hands-on work at practices,” Rosenberg writes.

In spring of 2010, he asked a social studies teachers to flip one of his classes. The flipped class had more students who’d failed before, but after 20 weeks, they were outperforming the traditional class.

In the fall, Green flipped all ninth-grade classes.

The results were dramatic: the failure rate in English dropped from 52 percent to 19 percent; in math, it dropped from 44 percent to 13 percent; in science, from 41 percent to 19 percent; and in social studies, from 28 percent to 9 percent.

The next year, the fall of 2011, Clintondale became the first high school in the U.S. to flip every class in every grade.

“On average we approximated a 30 percent failure rate,” said Green. “With flipping, it dropped to under 10 percent.” Graduation rates rose dramatically, and are now over 90 percent. College attendance went from 63 percent in 2010 to 80 percent in 2012.

Test scores went up in 2012 and then dropped. But state education officials say Clintondale added many more low-income, low-scoring students from Detroit.

At first, teachers assigned 20-minute videos, but now they run three to six minutes long to encourage rewatching. Teachers record bite-sized lessons or use videos from the Khan Academy, TED and other sources.

Robert Townsend, who teaches ninth-grade physical science, said only half of his students did traditional homework, but 75 to 80 percent watch the videos.

Flipping has helped failing students the most, teachers say. “It’s tough to fail a flipped class, because you’re doing the stuff in here,” said Rob Dameron, the head of the English department. “I used to have about a 30 percent failure rate in English – these kids come in a lot at third-grade, fourth-grade reading levels. Now, out of 130 kids, I have three who are failing — mostly due to attendance problems.”

Townsend said he feels like an “educational artist” who doesn’t just talk and hand out sheets. “I can create interactive lessons and exciting content. There’s so much more time to educate!”

But “flipped classrooms require more creativity and energy from the teacher,” said Dameron.

Turnaround dream turns to nightmare

When Jill Saia was hired to turn around a low-performing Baton Rouge elementary school, she was promised autonomy in decision-making and School Improvement Grant funding to pay for extra staff and a longer school day. Her turnaround dream became a nightmare, she writes on Teacher in a Strange Land.

Two months into the first school year, the new district administration dismantled the “dream team” that had planned the transformation of Delmont Elementary and moved two teachers and an aide to another school. Saia was cited for insubordination for insisting SIG entitled the school to extra staff.

Still, Delmont started to improve. While there was little progress on test scores in the first year, “we did change the culture and climate of the school, increase enrollment, and foster a high level of parental involvement,” Saia writes.

In the second year, she got funding for the extended day program.

We began to turn the corner – more children were reading, asking questions, and flourishing. Fewer behavior problems, more time on task. Children were communicating with each other, with teachers, with staff. They understood what the parameters were for being a student at Delmont, and they rose to our challenges. We planted our vegetable garden, had choir concerts, and participated in the Kennedy Center for the Arts program to integrate arts into the curriculum. We partnered with the local hospital’s health program to host the “Big Blue Bus” every week, which provided medical and mental health care to children and families. We were awarded a sizable grant from a local foundation to adopt a parenting program, and worked with a local university to design a new playground.

But, in November, the superintendent told her Delmont would close after two years of its three-year turnaround plan. Then the board decided to turn it into a K-2 school, then a pre-K center and finally a preK and K school. The final decision was announced in the middle of state testing week.

Students were assigned to a school three miles away, which has an F rating.

. . . because I stood up for my school and tried to keep it open, I was given another letter of insubordination. I was also rated “ineffective” at midyear because of my refusal to change my ratings of teachers to match their pre-identified quota in the value-added system. Their assumption was that if test scores were low, then the teachers must be ineffective.

. . . I was placed on an Intensive Assistance plan. Two months later, I turned in four binders full of data, observations, meeting notes, mentor reviews, etc. My mentor was a local award-winning principal who was part of the original “Dream School” team. Needless to say, she loved Delmont and what we were doing there. . . . After looking at all of my documentation, the director said that it “looked complete,” but then a week later told me that I was still ineffective and would have to wait for his final evaluation.

Saia began looking for a new job, but found “no public school district in this area would hire me because of my track record in a ‘failed’ school.”  After 29 ½ years in the state retirement system, she retired with less-than-full benefits to become dean of instruction at a public charter school about ½ mile from Delmont. Many former Delmont parents have enrolled their children.

Test scores from Delmont’s second turnaround year were “outstanding,” Saia adds. Delmont would no longer be a “failing” school — if it had remained open.

Videotaping helps teachers improve

At a low-performing Indianapolis high school, instructional coaches use classroom videotapes to help teachers improve their lessons and learn from colleagues, reports Scott Elliott in the Indianapolis Star. The Star is following the turnaround (it’s hoped) of Arlington High, which was taken over by the state after six years of very low test scores. EdPower, which took over the school a year ago, installed a camera in every classroom.

As a video played showing first-year high school English teacher Katie Bonfiglio at work, Spanish teacher Patrice Patton watched in awe.

“Wow, I’ve never seen those kids behave like that in my class,” Patton gushed, as she watched a room of typically restless ninth-grade boys fully engaged in a discussion of literature.

That’s just the reaction Paul Chin, Arlington High School’sassistant principal, was hoping for when he asked Bonfiglio if he could show her recorded lesson to about 15 of her colleagues.

.  . . (Bonfiglio) found the discussion with her peers so eye-opening she made changes to some of her other teaching routines.

As a teacher at a high-performing, high-poverty charter school in Newark run by Uncommon Schools, Chin recorded himself teaching so he could analyze his lessons and discuss the video with the principal. He shows Arlington teachers videos of teachers at his old school teaching effectively and helps them analyze their own lessons.

Video recording of teachers also can be used to evaluate teacher performance, which means it’s controversial. Indiana is requiring public schools to create teacher evaluation and rating systems.

Harvard researcher Thomas Kane analyzed 7,500 lessons taught by 1,300 teachers in six school districts for the  Methods of Effective Teaching Study, which was funded by the Gates Foundation.

“Digital video may be more valuable than an observer’s notes for allowing a teacher to “see,” literally, the strengths and weaknesses in their practice,” Kane said. “Someone cannot remember what they did not notice in the first place.”

Kane believes all teachers should record themselves teaching and submit “lessons they are proud of” for their performance reviews. “We would then train principals on how to use the video for evaluating and providing productive feedback to teachers.”

‘No confidence’ petition included teachers

A Los Angeles parent trigger campaign forced out the principal of a low-performing school, but most teachers say they’ll leave too, disappointing the parents. Here’s a new wrinkle: In June 2011, months before Weigand Parents United was formed to launch the parent trigger campaign, parents and six teachers signed a petition expressing “no confidence” in the principal, Irma Cobian. Several parents complained she was rude to parents and hostile to special needs students.

The principal stayed at Weigand and all six teachers who signed the petition left, according to Parent Revolution, which helped organize the parent trigger campaign. Teacher turnover has been high at the school: Of 22 teachers at Weigand in Principal Cobian’s first year, 2009-10, 14 have left the school.

During Cobian’s tenure, the school’s Academic Performance Index fell from 717 (23 points above average for Los Angeles Unified schools) to 689 (56 points below the average).

‘Trigger’ parents fire principal: Unfair? Satanic?

A majority of parents at Weigand Avenue Elementary School signed a parent trigger petition asking for a new principal for their chronically low-performing school. Los Angeles Unified will replace Principal Irma Cobian.  Parents had hoped to keep Weigand’s teachers, but 21 of 22 teachers say they’ll transfer, reports the Los Angeles Times.

The story portrays Cobian as a child-hugging, teacher-mentoring paragon who had a plan to turn Weigand around.

Third-grade teacher Kate Lewis said Irma Cobian is the best principal she’s had in nine years at Weigand Avenue Elementary School in Watts.

Joseph Shamel called Cobian a “godsend” who has used her mastery of special education to show him how to craft effective learning plans for his students.

The story implies Weigand was making progress during Cobian’s four-year tenure, which started in 2009-10. The school’s low Academic Performance Index scores have declined slightly; students are doing about the same in reading and worse in math. The school rates a 1 out of 10 compared to all elementary schools in the state, a 2 compared to schools with similar demographics.

LA Times commenters attack the parents — most are low-income Latinos — as too stupid, lazy and uncaring to help their kids learn at home or appreciate their principal’s efforts. Many blame Parent Revolution, which is organizing parent trigger campaigns.

Anti-reformer Diane Ravitch assigned a “special place in hell” to Parent Revolution and its supporters. Ben Austin, who runs the group, is a “loathsome” person who . . . ruined the life of a good person for filthy lucre, she writes.

I agree with Rick Hess. Replacing Cobian may not help, but it’s not unreasonable for parents to seek new leadership.

Llury Garcia, coordinator for Weigand Parents United, said in a private communication, “We love the teachers at our school and don’t want them to leave. However… many of the teachers have turned on us, calling us ‘uneducated’ and unable to make good decisions for our children. By trying to support the principal who is leaving after years of failure, the teachers are the ones now trying to divide our community.”

It’s possible the principal was “on the cusp of turning things around . . . but parents didn’t think so,” Ben Austin wrote Hess. “The parents felt they had waited long enough.”

Hess knows both Ravitch and Austin personally, which I don’t. He thinks Ravitch has gone off the deep end rhetorically: Austin is “smart, well-intentioned, passionate, humble, and nice,” according to Hess.

Austin is a liberal Democrat who thinks empowering parents is the way to force schools to improve. I’m not sure he’s right, but I’m fairly sure he’s not doomed to burn in hell for trying.

“Once-respected education historian Diane Ravitch no longer deserves to be taken seriously,” writes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation.

Parent trigger used to oust principal

Using the parent trigger law, Los Angeles parents have ousted the principal of their low-performing elementary school. The school board voted 5-2 to accept the parents petition after 61 percent of parents signed on.

Weigand Elementary parents didn’t ask for a charter school. They want to fire the principal.

“We support our teachers,” said mother Llury Garcia.

“I think that the teachers are very intimidated right now” by Principal Irma Cobian, whom Garcia said is rarely on campus and has been unresponsive to parent complaints in the past.

The district will name a new principal for the school, which serves low-income Hispanic students.

Parent Revolution, which helped Weigand parents organize, is touting the campaign as evidence trigger laws are about empowering parents, not promoting charter schools.

“We keep hearing about how “parent trigger” is anti-teacher and about privatizing schools,” writes Eduwonk. The Weigand trigger could change the debate.

‘Converted’ school fires activist teachers

Half the teachers at Crenshaw High in Los Angeles were fired this month as part of the latest plan to turn around the low-performing school, writes Dana Goldstein. The “conversion” got rid of Alex Caputo-Pearl, an activist teacher and reform leader. One of the first Teach for America recruits in 1990, Caputo-Pearl taught in high-poverty Los Angeles schools for more than two decades. He helped design the Extended Learning Cultural Model, which drew federal and philanthropic dollars to the troubled high school. He led Crenshaw’s Social Justice and Law Academy, a small school within the school with high expectations.

For their final project, (10th graders) had to analyze a data set that included test scores at various schools; neighborhood income levels; school truancy rates; and incarceration rates.

In math, students graphed the relationship between income and social opportunity in various south L.A. neighborhoods. In social studies, they read conservative and liberal proposals for school reform and practiced citing data in their own written arguments about how to improve education. In science, students designed experiments that could test policy hypotheses about how to improve education. And in English class, they read Our America, a work of narrative non-fiction about life in the Ida B. Wells housing projects on the South Side of Chicago.

Some Crenshaw students were placed in paid community-service internships. Others worked with local colleges to conduct research in their neighborhoods.

With 30 different administrators in seven years, Crenshaw relied on teachers to lead the reform effort. Test scores began to grow, especially for African-American and disabled students, Goldstein writes. But the district has rejected teacher-led reforms at Crenshaw.

Superintendent John Deasy announced in November that Crenshaw would be reconstituted with three new magnet programs on the arts, entrepreneurship, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). There will be more Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate offerings and no Social Justice and Law Academy.

Teacher had to reapply for their jobs. Cathy Garcia, the teachers’ union chair, charges the district targeted reform leaders, Social Justice teachers and experienced black teachers who live in the neighborhood. She lost her job too.

Cities are breaking up large comprehensive high schools across the country, Goldstein writes. In New York City, the small specialty schools are superior to the big high schools, according to research from the New School. But who gets to go?

. . . students whose schools close may not end up enrolled in those better schools; instead, a significant number of them will be enrolled by default in the nearest large high school that is still open, which itself has extremely low test scores. That school, in turn, will eventually be shut down, creating what the New School researchers call a “domino effect,” in which the most disadvantaged teenagers are shuttled from failing school to failing school, while those with more active, involved parents win spots at new schools.

. . . only 6 percent of students whose schools are shut down end up enrolled in a school within the top achievement quartile, and 40 percent of students from closed schools ended up at schools on academic probation.

Smaller, themed schools seem to be better for kids, Goldstein writes. But the transition may leave behind the students who need help the most.

At Crenshaw, a “politically and intellectually challenging” themed school-within-a-school reform was dumped and its leaders dispersed. That’s “discouraging,” Goldstein writes. It certainly doesn’t encourage the remaining teachers to become leaders.