Saving ‘Dre

As part of Hechinger’s excellent Promise to Renew series on a Newark turnaround school, Sara Neufeld looks at a 12-year-old boy who’s doing well in school. D’Andre has lived with his paternal grandmother and her husband since the age of three.Grandma Jean is very involved with his school, Quitman Street Renew School. Will it be enough?

Click to read the entire seriesDre’s mother — who was 19 when she had her second child — gave up custody because of her depression and drug addiction. The boy’s half-sister, who lives with the maternal grandmother, is doing poorly in school.

“From the nights Grandma Jean dried his tears as a little boy missing his mom to her constant presence at school events, D’Andre has seen the extent of her devotion time and again, and he couldn’t bear to let her down,” writes Neufeld. “At the same time, he has never stopped longing for his mother, and he’s held out hope that if he is successful enough, she will want a bigger role in his life.”

Dre works hard in schools, reads goes to the library and created his own home science projects over the summer.

As Quitman strives to reverse years of low academic performance and produce more students like D’Andre, he is a testament to the power of a highly involved caregiver, even with minimal financial resources. Jean, 68, is more protective of her grandson than she was raising her own three boys: No violent games on his Xbox, no Facebook whatsoever, and when he plays outside, she’s there watching from the living room window, with lace curtains inside and protective bars outside. . . . D’Andre stays indoors, watching “How It’s Made” on the Science Channel or building an elaborate dragon or tank out of Legos.

Dre’s mother is thinking of taking her son and daughter to Texas, where her boyfriend has moved. His father may take the boy to Pennsylvania to live near his girlfriend’s family.

Meanwhile, Grandma Jean has persuaded Dre to apply for a foundation-funded program that prepares top students to apply to elite boarding schools throughout the Northeast. If selected in the spring, the seventh grader “would spend a year attending local classes to build his academic, social and emotional capacity and then receive ongoing support once away.”

Are Newark schools improving?

Two years after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made a $100 million gift to the Newark Public Schools, are Newark schools improving?

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, a former principal, wants local control — that is, mayoral control. The state of New Jersey took over the low-performing district nearly 20 years ago making Newark “a laboratory for experiments in top-down reforms,” he writes in the New York Times.

You might think that Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation in 2010 to kick-start a foundation for Newark schools would have been a game changer. But little funding went directly to Newark’s schools. Instead, the first $1.3 million was wasted on a poorly conducted community outreach campaign. Then another $100 million, including funds from Zuckerberg, went to a program for teacher merit pay.

Principals were given the power to re-interview teachers for their jobs and in some cases hire new teachers. But the rejected teachers joined a pool of floating staff members in the “rubber room” downtown, until reassigned to other schools or bought out. So even as Newark teachers worked without a contract, the state went on a hiring and cash-incentive spree.

Superintendent Cami Anderson’s have “plunged the system into more chaos,” writes Baraka.

Charters are #1 choice in Newark

Now that Newark parents fill out a single application to district and charter schools, a majority of K-8 students ranked charters as their first choice, reports the Wall Street Journal. Eight of the 10 most-requested schools are charters. Only 45 percent of students got their first-choice school.

In the fall, district schools expect to enroll 34,800 students while charters will take 12,200. District officials predict that 40 percent of public students will attend charters by 2016.

In addition to Newark, Denver, New Orleans and Washington D.C. are experimenting with universal enrollment. Parents fill out one form, ranking their preferences.

In Newark, children with special needs and free-lunch status are are more likely to get their first choice “if such high-needs students were underrepresented in a school’s applicant pool.”


Zuckerberg gives another $120 million

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan will give $120 million to Bay Area schools in “underserved communities,” reports the San Jose Mercury News.Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, will donate $120 million to public schools in the Bay Area.

Helping improve the quality of public education in this country is something we both really care about,” write Zuckerberg and Chan in an op-ed essay. Chan was a teacher and is now a pediatrician.

They live in Palo Alto, which has excellent public schools, within easy walking distance of East Palo Alto, a perennially low-performing district.

Zuckerberg gave $100 million gift to Newark public schools and was criticized for spending too much on consultants and failing to raise test scores. But there are signs of progress, the op-ed argues.

Newark now has the leading teacher contract in the country that was developed with teachers to reward good performance. New district and charter schools run by organizations with a track record of success have started, as well as 50 new principals. Across the district, the graduation rate has grown by 10%. It’s still too early to see the full results in Newark, but we’re making progress and have learned a lot about what makes a successful effort.

In the Bay Area, the first $5 million will go to high-poverty school districts in East Palo Alto and Redwood City and to “high-need” San Francisco schools, reports the Mercury News. (East Palo Alto’s Ravenswood district has received millions of dollars from high-tech donors over the years with few results.)

They’ll work with partners “to start new district and charter schools that give people more high-quality choices for their education,” Zuckerberg and Chan write. They also pledge to listen to “local educators and community leaders so that we understand the needs of students.” Priorities are providing computers and connectivity, teacher and principal training and parent outreach.

Newark backlash: ‘Raheem still can’t read’

Cory Booker, Chris Christie, and Mark Zuckerberg Had a Plan to Reform Newark’s Schools, writes Dale Russakoff in the New Yorker. They Got an Education.

Zuckerberg put $100 million into transforming Newark’s failing public schools.

Almost four years later, Newark has new principals, new schools and a new teachers’ contract that ties pay to performance, writes Russakoff. It doesn’t have higher test scores.

And people are angry about plans to move students to new schools and lay off teachers and support staff.

Newark’s public schools have been “a source of patronage jobs and sweetheart deals for the connected and the lucky,” writes Russakoff.

As Ross Danis, of the nonprofit Newark Trust for Education, put it, in 2010, “The Newark schools are like a candy store that’s a front for a gambling operation. When a threat materializes, everyone takes his position and sells candy. When it recedes, they go back to gambling.”

The ratio of administrators to students—one to six—was almost twice the state average. Clerks made up thirty per cent of the central bureaucracy—about four times the ratio in comparable cities. Even some clerks had clerks, yet payroll checks and student data were habitually late and inaccurate.

Elected mayor in 2006, Booker raised money from philanthropists to open charter schools, which drew students “in wards with the highest concentrations of low-income and black residents.”

“Charter schools received less public money per pupil, but, with leaner bureaucracies, more dollars reached the classroom,” writes Russakoff. Achievement rose significantly.

Zuckerberg’s $100 million — matched by another $100 million in donations — was supposed to help the district-run schools. In two years more than $20 million was spent on consultants.

Vivian Cox Fraser, the president of the Urban League of Essex County, observed, “Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read.”

Superintendent Cami Anderson “gave principals more flexibility and introduced new curricula aligned to the Common Core standards.” She closed low-performing schools and created “renew schools.” She let principals hire and fire teachers, added math and literacy coaches, bought smart boards and paid “renew” teachers to work a longer day and two extra weeks in the summer.

However, her plans created a massive backlash in Newark.

Booker thinks Newark could be a national model of urban education in two or three years, but he isn’t there to fight for the reforms. He was elected to the U.S. Senate.

The city is voting today on a new mayor. The mayor’s race pits radical Councilman Ras Baraka, who was principal of low-performing Central High, against Shavar Jeffries, a former assistant state attorney general who helped start a successful charter school.

The Newark backlash could have been avoided, says Jeffries. Too often, he said, “education reform . . . comes across as colonial to people who’ve been here for decades. It’s very missionary, imposed, done to people rather than in coöperation with people.” Reformers “have to build coalitions and educate and advocate,” says Jeffries. “You have to persuade people.”

Baraka won the election.

Newark principals sue over suspensions

Five Newark school principals suspended for speaking out against the superintendent’s school reorganization plan have filed a free-speech lawsuit reports the Newark Star-Ledger.

New Jersey took over the troubled district. Superintendent Cami Anderson’s turnaround plan is very controversial.

Four principals — H. Grady James of Hawthorne Avenue School, Tony Motley of Bragaw Avenue School, Dorothy Handfield of Belmont Runyan School and Deneen Washington of Maple Avenue School — were suspended with pay Jan. 17, two days after they spoke at a community meeting at a Newark church intended to oppose Anderson’s One Newark plan.

The principals work at schools affected by the plan. Hawthorne and Bragaw are targeted for use by charter schools and Maple is set to become an early childhood learning center. Belmont Runyon has been designated a “renew” school, which means new leadership will be installed and teachers will be asked to reapply for their positions. Brown’s school, Ivy Hill, is designated for “redesign.”

The fifth principal, Lisa Brown of Ivy Hill Elementary, was suspended for not heeding the district’s ban on Daryn Martin, the head of Ivy Hill’s parent-teacher organization who was escorted from the school Jan. 15 after he protested the removal of fliers he posted that were critical of the reorganization plan.

Motley, James and Handfield are now back to work at their schools. Brown and Washington will be reassigned.

“The school district has violated their rights and we’d like a judge to say that,” attorney Robert Pickett said. “Public employees have a right to talk about issues of public concern.”

Do principals have a right to oppose district policy and keep their jobs?

Charters adopt common applications

Applying to charter schools is getting easier in some cities, reports Education Week. Charter schools are adopting universal enrollment systems and common applications, so parents can apply to multiple charter schools at the same time.

• Denver launched a centralized enrollment system called SchoolChoice in 2010 for all district-run and charter schools in the 85,000-student system.

• In New Orleans, the Louisiana Recovery School District, in partnership with the Orleans Parish School Board, debuted a universal enrollment system called OneApp for charter and district-run schools in February 2012 and is now entering its third year of a unified lottery system serving the city’s 44,000 students.

• The Newark and District of Columbia school systems are making plans to implement universal enrollment systems for their district-run and charter schools for the 2014-15 school year.

Before OneApp, New Orleans parents had to deal with multiple applications, deadlines and lotteries. Now they apply once for both district-run and charter schools, ranking their choices in order of preference. Each student gets one “best offer.”

Master teachers take the lead

A master teacher, an assistant and blended learning produced “great results” at a new charter school with very disadvantaged children, concludes Public Impact‘s Opportunity Culture project. Touchstone Education opened Merit Preparatory Charter School in Newark in 2012 with a class of sixth graders. Most were several years below grade level; 90 percent came from low-income families.

By March 2013, seven months into the school year, students demonstrated two years of growth in reading and 1.25 years of growth in science. In math, where Touchstone leaders were unable to hire a master teacher, students made three-fourths of a year of growth by March.

The model allows master teachers, who lead teams of novice and developing teachers, to earn up to $100,000 a year, within per-pupil funding. Tiffany McAfee, the master teacher in literacy, worked with first-year Teach For America teacher Jonathan Wigfall in the school’s first year.

Laptop-equipped students were grouped by skill level. McAfee lead whole-group instruction and helped students work through their playlists of individualized lessons, while Wigall rotated among students to help them with questions and keep them on track.

For example, one day students worked in groups to study slides on figurative language,then watched a music video while listening on headphones,taking notes on examples of figurative language in the lyrics. Meanwhile, both teachers moved through the room, overseeing their work. Students then came together for a whole class discussion with McAfee, who asked higher-level questions about the purpose of figurative language and the author’s intent.

Helping less-experienced teachers improve their skills is part of the master teacher’s job. McAfee and Wigfall reviewed the week’s data every Friday and planned the following week’s lessons. The master teacher also worked with the school’s reading specialist and the special education teacher to plan the daily, three-hour reading block. (Students are pulled out for an hour of P.E.)

Next year, Merit Prep will hire a master teach in math in hopes of achieving gap-closing progress.

Charlotte, North Carolina is redesigning teachers’ jobs to improve low-performing schools, write Public Impact’s Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan C. Hassel in Education Next.  Again, the idea is to give more students access to excellent teachers, while using novices in support roles.

Charlotte, N.C.’s Project L.I.F.T.New Teaching Roles Create Culture of Excellence in High-Need Schools explains the plan. In One Teacher’s View of Becoming a Paid Teacher-Leader, a veteran teacher talks about becoming a multi-classroom leader.

Charters get $4,000 less per student

Charter schools received one third less per-pupil funding — about $4,000 less per student — than district-run schools in Denver, Milwaukee, Newark, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles in 2007 to 2011, according to a University of Arkansas study commissioned by the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation. “In the large, urban school districts evaluated, traditional public schools receive substantially more local, state and federal funds than public charter schools,” said lead researcher Larry Maloney.

As of 2011, the charter funding gap ranged from $2,684 in Denver to nearly $13,000 in Washington D.C.

Denver—$11,139; $2,684 less than regular public schools
Los Angeles—$8,780; $4,666 less than regular public schools
Milwaukee—$10,298; $4,720 less than regular public schools
Newark—$15,973; $10,214 less than regular public schools
District of Columbia—$16,361; $12,784 less than regular public schools

The research will appear in the September issue of The Journal of School Choice.

A 2010 Ball State study of charter school funding in 24 states and the District of Columbia found that charter school students received 19.2 percent (or $2,247) less per-pupil funding than students in regular public schools.

New Jersey union fights blended learning

New Jersey’s biggest teachers’ union is suing to shut down charter schools that use “blended learning,” a mix of online and group learning, according to the Hechinger Report.

Merit Prep opened this fall in Newark with 80 sixth-grade students, “mostly black, poor and below grade level,” and plans to add one grade level each year. Students spend part of the day working on laptops. They’re able to move forward at their own pace.

The online curriculum feeds each student’s answers into a data center operated by Touchstone Education, the non-profit school management group that runs Merit Prep. The data center then spits out reports that (math teacher Ben) Conant can use to monitor his students’ progress, figure out what one-on-one coaching each student needs and adjust what he will teach when he pulls a few kids aside into glass-enclosed seminar rooms for small-group instruction.

However, the New Jersey Education Association has gone to court to shut down Merit Prep and another charter school that uses blending learning, reports Hechinger. “The union’s lawsuit argues that charter schools can’t emphasize online instruction until the New Jersey state legislature evaluates and approves it.”

“Should we be experimenting with students during their academic experience?” asks Steve Wollmer, the union’s communications director. “They only get one trip through the public schools.”

After all, non-blended learning is a proven success in Newark. (Yes, that’s sarcasm.)