Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Support in Mental Healthcare Helps to See Students as "At Hope" Rather Than "At-Risk."

The author of this article, Leana Wen, conducted a discussion with a group of young Baltimore children asking for their biggest concerns, all of which included traumatic situations which can result in mental health issues.  Traumatic situations can involve seeing family or loved ones die due to gun violence or drug abuse, dealing with physical and verbal abuse, and living in poverty.  Scientific research has shown that children suffer the most from these traumatic events.  This trauma can play a significant role in negative situations occurring later in these children’s lives.  The Baltimore City Health Department has recognized that the effects of trauma in lives of the citizens of Baltimore, particularly its children, needs to be addressed. 
                The Health Department, along with its partners, have created four principles to address this issue.  The first principle is that children are seen not as “at risk,” but rather “at hope.”  The second calls for recognizing our city as a place of recovery and resilience.  The third calls for understanding how history has played a part in the amount of trauma that citizens are faced with today.  The fourth asks for a break in the stigma of mental health issues and to rely on our scientific findings—that trauma cycles can be broken, especially with early intervention. 
                Several grants are now being used to address and alleviate traumatic situations occurring in Baltimore.  With the help of a 2.3 million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Baltimore City Public Schools will be able to devote much more attention to mental healthcare.  This includes hiring a full-time clinician at 13 schools and providing training to all staff about recognizing and preventing trauma. 
                I found this article interesting because it seems to be addressing something that teachers and school staff, I feel, have known about for years.  Many teacher had students who disrupt class or struggle with paying attention.  In many cases, teachers are wondering in the back of their minds, “Where did this student sleep last night?” or “Who is caring for this student while his or parent is in jail?”  If we think back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, basic needs are the most important, closely followed by the needs of security.  If students are coming into school without these basic needs being met, how can we expect them to learn?  Speaking from my own personal experience, I had a student who I had discovered slept on the floor without a pillow for many nights.  How could I blame him for being too tired in math class the next day?    Many teachers go above and beyond to help make the classroom environment as mentally healthy and welcoming as possible for their students, but they cannot alleviate these problems alone.  They need support that will also address community needs.  They also need more support in what to do when they have students in their classrooms who are in need of mental health support.

Congressman Elijah Cummings is quoted saying, “It is our duty to ensure that where our children live does not determine whether they live.”  This relates to the idea that all children deserve a good education.  They deserve to be in a school where they are valued and given opportunities to become their most successful selves.  Aligning with this quote is the first principle that students need to be seen as “at hope” rather than “at risk.”  Currently in education, there is a great demand for change in mindset.  I think this is a great summary of what those changes are asking.  We cannot just label as child as “at risk” and consider it normal that they face these traumatic situations in their everyday experiences.  We need to work as a city to see that these students become “at hope”—that they aren’t seen as problems that need to be dealt with or ignored, but promises we need to keep. 

I have included the link to the Baltimore Sun article below.  

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Hidden Agendas: My Take on the Executive Orders

           The education community in Maryland has been abuzz about Governor Hogan’s executive order for Maryland Schools to begin after Labor Day since he issued it in August.  It’s a divisive issue and has two clear sides from what I have seen so far.  Governor Hogan cited giving children more time with their families, creating more tourism revenue, and keeping students out of un-air-conditioned schools as his reasons for creating the executive order.  However, some education officials believe that the governor is acting outside of his control and that his listed interest in the schools are less than genuine.

            On October 11, Governor Hogan issued a second executive order outlining specific guidelines for schools in Maryland to ask for waivers to begin school before Labor Day.  The new order states that only charters and low-performing schools may apply for waivers and only if they have a school schedule that requires them to be open in the summer.  The order also states that districts can seek waivers if they have been closed for 10 days within two of the last five school years for bad weather.  A spokesperson for Hogan said that this order was created as a best solution for the concern and confusion about the waiver process.
            I will admit that I as a teacher I was very excited to begin school after Labor Day and to be guaranteed to end school a few days earlier in June.  I think that the students really do have a harder time learning when it is nicer outside, and I know in my experience, keeping the students engaged during the summer months of June and August becomes twice as difficult.  When I went to elementary school, Catholic schools never started before Labor Day.  They didn’t start going back before Labor Day until I was in high school, although some still remain closed until then.  I have always thought, even before I was teaching in public school, that schools stay open too long and go back too early.  It seems like kids don’t even get to have a summer break any more.

This type of executive order is unprecedented in Maryland and many people believe that governor Hogan has over-stepped his authority.  They believe that he is taking away control from local school boards.

As with a lot of issues in education, I find myself in middle ground.  I personally don’t think that school should start until after Labor Day.  When I was in school, we never started before Labor Day, and I learned the same things that my counter-parts in public schools learned.  However, I understand that my view is a little biased because of how I spent my summer.  When I had summer breaks, my family was able to go on vacation, my grandparents or a baby-sitter could watch me while my parents were at work, and I had access to books that I could read all summer long.  I understand school officials’ concerns that lots of families cannot afford enriching experiences for their children during the summer, and that starting school later would be harmful to them both educationally and financially.  From what I have heard people within the education community, in addition to the concern about the actual education, are concerned because if Governor Hogan enacts executive orders like this they worry about what else he will enact orders about within the education community.

This may seem pessimistic of me, but I have a hard time buying into the fact that people on boards and people in politics have genuine agendas when it comes to education.  I put a lot more stock in what actual teachers and staff think when it comes to school policies.  I tend to think that people always have some other type of agenda, even if it’s just a power struggle.  For example, a lot of “school officials” are concerned about Governor Hogan’s orders because they think it will be detrimental to education, but I have to wonder if they really feel that education will suffer that much or if they are just concerned because they didn’t come up with the idea.  Baltimore, Carroll, and other counties created two calendars—one that starts before Labor Day and one that starts after, and their boards will vote on them in either November or December.  When discussing the original executive order, school officials and TABCO representatives were trying to explain to the public that students must be in school for a certain number of days and that schools had to be open before Labor Day to accommodate all of those days.  However, if Baltimore and other counties have created two calendars, I wonder how true that is.  To me, if they can create two calendars, it means that there is a workable option to have students be in school the required number of days while starting after Labor Days.  This makes me wonder if school officials are actually concerned about these students’ education or just the fact that the governor is encroaching on their territory.  I wonder what would have happened if Governor Hogan had enacted an executive order with which a lot of “school officials” agreed.  Would they still be questioning his authority or would they be more inclined to let it go.

            I think that a lot of time in education, particularly when politics come into play, there seem to be a lot of power struggles, and the students and teachers kind of get caught in the crossfire.  They get stuck following policies (or being stuck in schools without air-conditioning) because people who are making decisions have lost what their purpose is supposed to be.  I think that Baltimore and Carroll counties did the right thing by creating two options.  To me this shows their actual concern for students’ education because they took action and made two workable options so whichever way this debacle turns out, they will be prepared.

            I’m interested to see what becomes of this issue.  I want to know what will happen if it is determined that Governor Hogan is within his authority to enact the order.  What will school boards that oppose it do then?  I also wonder what kind of doors this is opening for other executive orders within the education community.  In general, and I know this probably every teacher’s dream, I wish that politicians, board members, and educators could work together to determine best policies for students, but I feel that too many power struggles and additional agendas get in the way.

The article that discussed the second executive order is from The Baltimore Sun and can be found at this link

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Commodore John Rodgers: A story of Title 1 funding

The entryway to Commodore John Rodgers Elementary School, located in the Butcher’s Hill neighborhood of east Baltimore, proudly displays their students who have perfect attendance and the latest school project of a certain grade level. Like the way I remember my own public elementary school, the hallways were decorated with brightly colored paper and the latest classroom artwork.

It was one of my favorite schools to visit when I moved to Baltimore in 2014 to work for an AmeriCorps program called The Choice Program. My team worked out of the Department of Social Services and served youth on the east side of Baltimore City who were considered at-risk of being placed in foster care. Part of my job was to visit a caseload of 15 youth at school twice a week, so I was able to view the daily workings of a number of mostly east Baltimore schools, and not all of them looked or felt as welcoming as Commodore John Rodgers.

It was somewhat shocking to learn from WYPR a couple weeks ago that in 2010 Commodore was one of the lowest ranked schools, not just in Baltimore, but in all of Maryland. The story explained that the school had applied and received a federal School Improvement Grant, which is often referred to as ‘turn-around funding’ and is available to all schools operating in the bottom 5 percent of the nation’s poorest schools. A new principal came in, armed with an extra $2 million a year, and was incredibly successful in turning the school around. So successful, in fact, that Commodore is no longer eligible for the extra funding.

The school specializes in accelerating learning for students who are levels behind where they need to be, as well as creating a school culture among students, parents and teachers. The youth I knew who was attending Commodore was two grades behind, and while she still struggled with math (mainly because it was her first class and getting to school on time was not her forte,) she did improve in English. She and her younger siblings also participated in several after school activities and sports, and her parents attended different nighttime shows and events at the school.

In my experience, it was one of the easier schools to meet with teachers or administration. The adults at the school seemed to really care about the students, and wanted them to succeed. Commodore had a different feeling to it than a lot of the Baltimore City schools I visited, and after hearing this story, the extra effort that went into the school seems centered around the additional funding.

It hasn’t been that long since Commodore received the additional funding, and dramatically improved test scores and decreased absenteeism. According to the article, Title 1 funding doesn’t work for every school that receives it, and then goes on to list several reasons why Commodore did succeed – a change in atmosphere, enrollment and absenteeism. But it doesn’t say what makes these changes different from a school that received funding and wasn’t so successful. Did that school just need more time? A better leader? More community involvement?

While there might not be one formula to turn-around our poorest schools, the principal of Commodore did bring up an interesting point at the end of his interview asking if “federal funds would be better spent fueling his school’s progress a little longer as opposed to being directed at an entirely new school.”

It is hard to know where Commodore will end up in the next 5 years. Will it keep it's high enrollment and attendance rates it's worked hard to obtain? And is it fair to continue to obligate funding while other schools have more of a need, and should be given the opportunity to succeed? The real test to Commodore's success is in the years ahead, without additional funding, rather than in the work they've accomplished since 2010 -- and whether or not they can keep their progress moving forward. 

Fixing failing schools: do school improvement grants build sustainable change

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Anti-Charter School Movement

“The education system in this country has never worked for poor people and people of color.  We’re not calling for the status quo. We don't want things to continue as they’ve always done."

Recently, there has been pushback against a bipartisan popular educational reform, namely, charter schools.  

Critics have focused on issues of poor oversight and regulation.  Lax enforcement of regulations have led to incidents of fraud, corruption and tax dollar waste such as covered on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight episode on charter schools

Other critics have focused on charter schools’ use as a mechanism to increase segregation, and exasperate, rather than alleviate the current problems in public education.  As a result, the NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives recently called for a moratorium on charter schools.

The Movement for Black Lives announced a big, overarching educational policy that had many different components.  Their educational policy called for a moratorium on charter schools and school closures, equity in funding levels and for an end to Teach for America and Broad Superintendents Academy, as well as other, more controversial measures.  BLM Educational Policy

The NAACP also called for a moratorium on charter schools, however, their focus was just on charter schools, and not on other aspects of educational policy. News on NAACP moratorium on charter schools

There is some serious debate going on in response to this issue, however, it appears to be primarily from pro-charter lobby groups, which is to be expected: Questions Of Race And Charter Schools Divide Education Reformers

But what about families?  Vouchers, charters, and lotteries in low-performing districts are hotly contested and people come out in droves to get into a lottery.  However, research from 2014 suggests that "87% of parents with school-age children have sent a child to a public school, more than a quarter have made use of an alternative type of school: 14% have had a child in a private school, 9% a charter school and 8% have homeschooled their children.  The totals add up to more than 100% simply because many families are making use of more than one type of school." quote by Paul E. Peterson from Education Next

Families seem to want good, safe schools, with decent curriculum, conveniently located and filled with quality teachers.   That isn't something that only charter schools can offer.
The question is, why are charter schools so popular among politicians and so unpopular among civil rights groups?  Why is there such an appeal to the privatization of public education instead of educational reform from within the system?  In practice, does competition equate better educational opportunities for all?   Is there a middle ground of an extremely well-regulated charter school system that goes in tandem with the public school system?  What states have been able to figure it out?  

Maryland seems to be one of the few states with consistently successful charter schools because it is one of the most restrictive in the country.  Charter school teachers are public school employees and are unionized.  Only the local school board can authorize charter schools.  They are under strict oversight and regulation.  A majority of the charters are in Baltimore (34 out of 47), and many are "mom and pop" charters, meaning parents or former local educators founded them, as opposed to some of the larger national charter management organizations. 

Governor Hogan introduced a bill to try and give more freedom to charter schools in 2015.   It became extremely watered down, and what was passed into law, did not make the impact that the pro-charter interests were hoping.  The bill ended up granting "greater autonomy to charters that have demonstrated five years of success, and it provides for increased flexibility with student enrollment. The bill also authorizes the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) and the DLS to complete a study by the end of October 2016 to determine what a more appropriate figure should be for districts when it comes to commensurate funding." A New Course: Larry Hogan wants to change Maryland's unique charter school laws and bring in more charters, but will kids suffer?

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Grading on a Curve in the Foreign Language Classroom

“But our Biology teacher grades on a curve, why can’t you Mademoiselle?” Students usually ask some variation of this question towards the end of first quarter. I should probably come up with a less dismissive answer, but I say, “I’ve never been in a foreign language class where the teacher grades on a curve.”
Let me really explain myself here. Over the years, it’s become clear to me that a grade curve does not belong in a foreign language class. It creates competition for an “A.” For the record, I teach at a Baltimore City public high school. In French level 1, the freshman are skeptical about learning a new language. Some even tell me they don’t speak English well enough, so how are they going to speak French? Through surveys, I’ve learned some students believe they’ll never leave the country to study abroad. Why learn French? Simply stated, in order to graduate from a Maryland public high school, two years of a language is needed. My goal as the teacher is to help fulfill this requirement, but to also teach how to communicate effectively in French. Ce n’est pas bon if the student doubts or doesn’t see the worth of the subject taught from the beginning. Furthermore, a grade curve can undermine class morale, and low class morale can lower student ability.
I realize a grade curve helps the student reflect on their performance in relation to all other students in the class. In an ideal world, students may take the class more seriously and study harder as they realize earning an “A” is limited. First, this isn’t the type of intrinsic motivation I want to instill. Second, I’m concerned about the students who aren’t motivated by the grade curve. The students who earn a “D” (in Baltimore City public schools 69 or below), even with the grade curve. For these students, their self-worth just took a hit. Competition, especially in the foreign language classroom, hinders an inclusive classroom environment. No support or cohesion in the classroom means basically no student participation. Language in the classroom is about production. This means skits, presentations, class discussions, small groups,  partner discussions, and choral readings to name a bunch of important activities.  
Avoiding grading on a curve doesn’t immediately encourage students to collaborate or support one another. It’s necessary to make sure students understand that every student has the opportunity to earn an “A.” Furthermore, students need to get to know each other as quickly as possible. Icebreakers may seem cheesy, but they’re vital if you want to build community. Students are more willing to speak French in front of their peers if they feel as if they’re part of the group.
Now that a level of competition is removed and a collaborative culture in the classroom exists, how do I extend it outside of instructional time? How do I get them to help one another?By helping one another, they’re teaching each other and that’s one of best ways to learn. I don’t want to continuously assign group assignments. The students don’t live close to one another. How do I teach the skill of group studying? At the university level, the author and professor of the class “built a collaborative culture with a reward system where one person’s success benefited someone else.” How do I replicate that in a high school foreign language class? I could try his tactic, “to pick the one question about which they were most unsure, and write down the name of a classmate who might know the answer — the equivalent of a lifeline on the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” If the classmate got it right, they would both earn the points.” But what about writing or speaking assessments? This tactic works for multiple choice. I’m thinking about limiting time on group work in class, especially when working on skits. Groups need to be of mixed ability (high-low) and so the time limit challenges weak students, but also pushes strong students to finish. I can suggest they continue practicing during study hall, during coach class, or after-school in the school library. Then when it’s time for the interactive oral assessment (a one-on-one interview cued by an image), if the student doesn’t know how to respond and they say the name of a classmate who might answer correctly, they both could earn the points, if the classmate gets it right. I’ll have to try this and report back.

Clashes of Culture: Racial Tensions in Integrating Schools

The Hair I Wear, The Skin I’m In: This Is Me. Please, Let Me Be.

Earlier this summer, students at the Pretoria High School for Girls clustered outside of their school’s towering gates to protest the school’s code of conduct that placed stringent limits on the ways in which the girls could wear their natural hair.

Several students reporting being ordered by school staff members to “fix” their hair. The recommended fixes—chemical straighteners and hot combs—were embarrassing and degrading to the African girls who perceived the school’s code of conduct as an obstruction of their cultural expression and identity. In an interview with NPR, Tiisetso Phetla, a recent graduate of the school, recounted how girls could be removed from class or excluded from assemblies as punishment for wearing their hair in an afro, “It was very difficult because they tell you that either you look barbaric or… to remove that nest off your head.”

Founded in 1902, the Pretoria High School for Girls, was an all-white school under apartheid, admitting its “first black, non-diplomatic pupils” in 1991. Phetla laments, “So you'd always be on the short end of the stick as a black child in the school or a mixed-race child because you were never included in the blueprint of the school when it started.” When girls at the school grew frustrated with the school’s attempt to dictate their hair in addition to discouraging them from speaking their native African languages, students began staging protests. The protests quickly went viral, sparking a national debate about the subtle and unsubtle ways that blacks are forced to conform to white culture.

After thousands signed an online petition supporting the Pretoria students, the head of the province’s education department organized meetings with students, parents and staff to address the students’ concerns. Soon after, the department ordered the suspension of the school’s controversial hairstyle code of conduct clause.

A Model For Baltimore City and County Schools

Multiple studies have shown the effectiveness of diversity on decreasing the achievement gap between minority and white student groups. However, integration is challenging and for schools strategizing new ways to compensate for increased minority enrollment, dialogue has proven to be a powerful tool for exploration and reconciliation.

Schools like Digital Harbor High in Baltimore City is one example of how thoughtful dialogue can be used as an vulnerary instrument in schools where shifting demographics lead to racial tensions. In 2014, the school’s growing Latino immigrant population faced ongoing conflict with the school’s dominant African American population. The mounting tension exploded into a weeklong procession of violence that culminated with the death of a student.

The following year, the school, along with a local Latino group called CASA de Maryland, started a program called SPIRIT to bring students together to find common ground, embrace their differences, and get to know each other. The group opens with an icebreaker before students begin answering questions about themselves that lead to honest dialogue about the students’ unique experiences and their perspectives on the challenges they face. So far, SPIRIT appears to be working and Digital Harbor High hopes to expand the model to other schools.

Final Thought

For those of us who champion integration and believe in its efficacy, we must also champion dialogue. When minority student groups enter schools with fixed cultures, rules, and social norms, there must be a safe space for those students to meet with their peers as well as stakeholders to raise their voices, questions, and concerns. Integration cannot be oversimplified and race relations cannot be overlooked. When a school’s demographics begin to shift, so should the school’s resources and staff, and ostensibly, so should its rules and policies.

From South Africa to Baltimore, Maryland, the effect of open dialogue between students, parents, and administrators is understanding, compromise and reconciliation. If Baltimore hopes to become a successful center of education, it must not look past integration and it must not neglect the dialogue that needs to accompany it. We must act before the protests erupt, before the violence catalyzes, before the lives are lost to create a culture of inclusion in our schools.