Only one good school?

West Philadelphia parents are demanding spots in their neighborhood’s K-8 school, which now uses a lottery instead of first come, first enrolled. Penn Alexander, which is supported by Penn, is an excellent school, writes the Philadelphia Daily News. “Why hasn’t the district done more to replicate . . . success?

“In a large system, your shining examples cannot just be islands unto themselves,” said Mark Gleason, executive director of Philadelphia School Partnership. “They need to be part of the effort to create more schools like their own.”

Since it opened in September 2001, PAS has attracted middle-class families to West Philadelphia, helped to increase home prices in its catchment area by tens of thousands of dollars and established a strong community in an area once plagued by crime.

Other popular schools in the city typically have strong parental involvement and partnerships with outside cultural organizations and businesses.

Penn Alexander caps class size at 18 children in kindergarten and 24 in other grade levels. It receives $1,330 extra per student, up to $700,000, from the university. The Graduate School of Education supplies student teachers and offers training to experienced teachers. “But the money alone does not make it a great school,” Gleason said. “It helps. By itself, it doesn’t change anything.”

Education-minded families have been moving to the Spruce Hill neighborhood to send their kids to Penn Alexander, sending property values soaring, reports the Daily News. Plan Philly estimates a house inside the school’s boundaries fetches $50,000 to $100,000 more than one a block away.

Ex-principal: Adult cheating hurts students

Test scores were up sharply at Communications Technology High in Philadelphia. The new principal, Saliyah Cruz, wondered how so many students could score proficient on the state exam while also testing into remedial reading and math. Two years later, an investigation found evidence of cheating by adults, reports NewsWorks and Philadelphia Notebook. Students paid a high price, says Cruz, who quit in frustration.

In 2010, 75 percent of 11th graders at Comm Tech scored proficient or above in reading. That was a 22 percentage-point jump over the previous year. In math, 70 percent of Comm Tech 11th graders scored proficient or above, 40 points higher than the year before.

. . . In both 2009 and 2010, a high number of student response sheets at Comm Tech had suspicious patterns of “wrong-to-right” erasures – a telltale sign of adult cheating.

When Cruz asked the school’s staff why scores had soared, they credited “Study Island,” a computer-based test prep program used at many Philadelphia public schools. Cruz expanded use of Study Island.

Reports generated by Study Island suggested that students didn’t understand the material. Interim tests used to predict PSSA performance pointed to huge score drops. Cruz’s own eyes told her that students weren’t learning.

Her staff resisted her efforts to get teachers to “change their instruction or re-teach content.” After all, the test scores were great.

As a result, says Cruz, students at Comm Tech got a Band-Aid when what they really needed was surgery.

With Cruz as principal, there were no more suspicious erasures. The school’s scores dropped 38 points in reading and 45 points in math.

At the district level, principals were pushed to show rapid gains, Cruz says. Slow, steady improvement was not good enough. Principals under suspicion of cheating have been promoted, including Cruz’s predecessor at Comm Tech, reports NewsWorks and Notebook.

Cheating report surfaces in Pennsylvania

Some 60 schools in Pennsylvania — nearly half in Philadelphia — showed signs of cheating on state exams in 2009, but the state education department report was buried until The Notebook obtained and published the report.

New state Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis is “concerned” that a 2009 report flagged dozens of Pennsylvania schools for possible cheating – then languished for two years.
. . . The “data forensics technical report” in question used statistical analysis to look for highly improbable test score gains and suspicious erasure patterns on statewide 2009 test score results on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exam. 

Philadelphia school officials say they were never given a copy of the July 2009 analysis.

Unsafe at Philly schools

Violence plagues Philadelphia schools, reports the Inquirer in its Assault on Learning series.

Teacher Christopher Paslay suggests ways to make schools safer, including requiring conflict resolution classes, rethinking arbitrary discipline policies, opening alternative schools designed for  disruptive students and offering vocational options to students who aren’t motivated by college-prep classes. Schools should “respect everyone’s right to learn,” he argues.

The needs and challenges of the troubled few shouldn’t take precedence over the education of the many. Resources are limited, and the rights of all children – especially those who are diligently pursuing their schooling – must not be compromised.

In addition, he writes, schools should “teach students to be responsible for their own behavior, rather than conditioning them to blame their misdeeds on outside forces.”

Cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, the mother of a Philadelphia teacher, wants parents to step up.

New ways to build skills, careers

On Community College Spotlight: Rethinking career education.

Also, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis are in Philadelphia today for the first regional community college summit.

And NBC News will feature advanced manufacturing training at Gateway Community and Technical College in Northern Kentucky on tonight’s newscast. There are jobs for skilled manufacturing workers in the area.

Mastery ‘restarts’ Philly schools

Taking over a failing school is too challenging for most charter school operators, who prefer to start their own schools from scratch. But Philadelphia’s Mastery Charter Schools is taking the “restart” challenge, according to Benjamin Herold in the Hechinger Report.

Last year, parents were trying to flee Smedley Elementary. The district asked Mastery to take charge. This year, families are asking for the K-5 school to add another grade.

Under the “restart” model, a district outsources management of an existing public school to an outside provider, often a charter-school operator like Mastery. The new management is then expected to overhaul school staff, renovate often-woeful facilities, revamp a dysfunctional school culture, win over disillusioned parents, and dramatically improve student test scores — all while ostensibly serving the same kids as the year before.

Restarts are also controversial and politically sensitive, in part because they involve the use of public money to support privately managed schools. Unionized staff may be supplanted by non-union replacements, just like at charter schools.

Mastery, which uses a “no excuses” model, took over three low-performing  Philadelphia middle schools in 2005.  Scores improved dramatically.

At Pickett Middle School, for example, just 14 percent of students scored proficient in math before Mastery arrived in 2007. After Mastery brought in new teachers and pushed them to work together, almost 70 percent of students scored proficient in math last year—a gain of 500 percent in just three years.

The U.S. Education Department has specified four change models for chronically low-performing schools: So far 454 are trying “transformation,” the least disruptive model, while 135 are trying “turnaround,” 31 “restart” and 18 have closed.

Ed Week looks at restart efforts around the country, including “a Latino advocacy organization, several small charter operators, a nonprofit started by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a private company co-founded by former New York City Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, and the American subsidiary of a British-based consulting company,” plus Edison Learning and Pearson Education.

Teaching in Philly and Taiwan

Claire teaches third grade at an inner-city Philadelphia school. Sister Nikka taught aboriginal students for a year in Taiwan. Scholastic discovered their blog here and asked them to write New Teacher: Two Sisters Tell Their Stories.

Monday, March 1, 2010:
How does your school begin the day?

Taiwan, 8:10 a.m.
I walk into the beautiful grassy entrance way of my school in Nan Ao, greeted by hellos from students scattered about the school grounds who are picking up leaves and sweeping. There are a few teachers dispersed amongst them. Everyone is cleaning and working together. There is music playing. In a few minutes, they will line up in the school courtyard to formally greet each other and begin the day.

All 200 students stand completely still and face the flag. A student band plays a solemn national anthem while another group slowly raises the flag. The students, in unison, bow towards the line to formally greet one another. Then they turn to their teachers, bow, and say, “laoshihao,” Hello, teacher.  -Nikka

Philadelphia, 9:22 a.m.
Packed together on cafeteria benches, students scramble to finish their breakfasts. The school climate officer begins to quiet the room. After several rounds of “SHOW ME YOUR QUIET SIGNAL,” (a peace sign) the school climate officer leads the staff and students through two recitations. First, the Pledge of Allegiance. Second, the school rules.

“School rule number one. There is no violence at our school. Violence will not be tolerated. If you feel that you have to be violent you will leave the school. If a teacher or a parent loses their mind and becomes violent they will have to leave the school.

“School rule number two. We have a beautiful school. Do not litter. We pride ourselves on our beautiful facility. Keep it clean and beautiful.”

“School rule number three. All students must be accompanied by an adult at all times. There are no hall passes. An adult is your hall pass. The only place you may be by yourself is the bathroom stall.”

As the climate officer reaches the end of the rules, students are still making their way into the cafeteria just in time for school to begin. -Claire

Claire’s school has no recess for fear children will be hit by stray bullets.  On the other hand, Nikka had a student who wanted to grow up to be a beggar.

Obama to students: Work hard

“Your life is what you make it,” President Obama will tell students at a Philadelphia magnet school in a back-to-school speech that will be broadcast nationwide.

And nothing – absolutely nothing – is beyond your reach. So long as you’re willing to dream big. So long as you’re willing to work hard. So long as you’re willing to stay focused on your education.

. . .  here’s your job. Showing up to school on time. Paying attention in class. Doing your homework. Studying for exams. Staying out of trouble. That kind of discipline and drive – that kind of hard work – is absolutely essential for success.

Obama will confess that he was a slacker in high school, till his mother told him to get his act together.

You see, excelling in school or in life isn’t mainly about being smarter than everybody else. It’s about working harder than everybody else. Don’t avoid new challenges – seek them out, step out of your comfort zone, and don’t be afraid to ask for help; your teachers and family are there to guide you. Don’t feel discouraged or give up if you don’t succeed at something – try it again, and learn from your mistakes. Don’t feel threatened if your friends are doing well; be proud of them, and see what lessons you can draw from what they’re doing right.

Obama will promise to speak at the commencement of a high school that shows “how teachers, students, and parents are working together to prepare your kids for college and a career.”

The speech ends with a call to show respect for classmates and avoid bullying.

President Obama chose to speak at Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration school, a high-scoring school for fifth- through 12-graders that primarily serves middle-class students. Masterman requires “high PSSA scores, excellent grades, and good behavior” for admission, according to the Inquirer.

What Philadelphia parents want

What do parents want from schools? The Philadelphia Daily News looks at the results of a Pew study of Philadelphia school parents, which included a poll and focus groups.

* Parents like charter schools. They really like them. A whopping 90 percent of parents who had chosen charter schools for their children – and an even higher 92 percent of Catholic school parents – approve of the choices they made.

* Parents don’t like district public schools. They really don’t like them. In the Pew poll, 58 percent of parents with kids in district schools said the overall job they were doing was “only fair” or poor. Nearly two-thirds of district school parents – 63 percent – said they had considered leaving the district for charter or parochial schools.

* Parents want safety and discipline in school. They really want it. Parents in focus groups rarely mentioned academics unless they were prompted to do so. Their positive evaluations of charter and Catholic schools – and their highly negative assessment of district schools – were based mostly on the perceived availability of safety, discipline and a caring environment.

* Parents want choices. They really want them. Most parents ( 72 percent) said they don’t have enough choices in schools, and increasing parental choice is the best way to improve education.

The Daily News worries that parents who are satisfied with their own school choices won’t care whether other children are getting a good education.

Maybe not. But would it better if nobody was happy?

District schools are improving to compete with charter schools, which have grown rapidly, the Daily News opines.  “But Father and Mother may not always know best – and educators need to know how to deal with that, too.”

I think this means:  Close low-scoring charter schools, even if parents are happy for safety reasons.  If students can move to higher-scoring, equally safe schools, sure. But remember that inner-city parents have very good reasons to value safety and discipline.

Via Flypaper.

How to raise graduation rates

What can we do to stem the tide of dropouts and help more students earn a high school diploma? The Hechinger Report and the Washington Monthly look at three cities that have tried to improve low graduation rates.

All three cities have taken remarkably similar approaches to the problem. Those approaches fall into two general categories: fixing existing low-performing high schools, often by breaking them into smaller schools; and creating alternative schools and programs—“multiple pathways,” in the jargon of the trade—that cater to the diverse needs of those kids who are on the verge of dropping out or already have done so.

New York City, which has created many small schools, has made significant progress.

Philadelphia is also improving, though not as dramatically.

Portland, Oregon, with more white and middle-class students, has made no progress at all. The city sends 20 percent of students to alternative schools with lots of support and very low expectations. Very few earn a diploma.

Also in the package: Small schools are beautiful — if they have real autonomy, good teaching and high standards, writes Thomas Toch. He also has a piece on the challenge of lowering the drop-out rate while raising academic standards.

Only between 70 and 75 percent of students who enter high school graduate, and, of those who do, less than half of them are college ready. Forty percent of community college freshman and 20 percent of students entering four-year colleges have to take remedial classes.

Twenty-four states now require graduation exams which typically test eighth-grade math concepts and tenth-grade language arts skills. Nineteen of the states grant waivers to students who cannot pass the test.

Next year, the U.S. Education Department will require states to use a uniform method of calculating dropout rates: the numbers are expected to go way up. That will give states and districts even more incentive to lower graduation requirements, Toch writes.

Schools can identify high-risk students.

If they get to struggling students early, schools can assign them tutors and mentors and closely monitor their attendances and grades. Researchers also point to another key to staving off higher dropout rates: creating a culture of high expectations in lagging high schools. When teachers and students believe in the importance of high standards and share a commitment to reaching them, much can be accomplished.

But it’s not easy to pull off, especially in large, impersonal high schools.