updates for 12.23.2011
Tomorrow is the final day of school before my winter break begins. My school district is probably the last district in the nation to get out but I've long accepted that misfortune. I'll be able to fly back to Maine on Saturday morning as long as that Colorado snow storm stays put. Anyhow, I'm excited that we may have a teacher-student basketball game tomorrow. It got cancelled twice last year due to time constraints and student behavior but I'm crossing my fingers that it actually happens. We're technically not allowed to show movies or have parties, but I'm still having some music and snacks for my kids as they read science magazines, finish research reports or makeup work, and/or relax after a week of testing. I owe my homeroom and 5th period prizes for winning our class points competition. As they definitely let me know: "it's time to pay up!" Since I realized last quarter that my homeroom doesn't like a lot of milk with their donuts, I decided to cave and make them Kool-Aid. OMG!! It's been a while since I made actually Kool-Aid, not the cheap wal-mart brand lite stuff. There are a few things I re-realized while mixing up this deliciously, addictive red drank: 1.) This stuff stains! I can wear a green shirt, splash some Kool-Aid on it and be the most spirited guy around. Shoot! 2.) One cup of sugar is A WHOLE LOT of sugar! No wonder the stuff gets people off the chain! 3.) I'm totally going to spill the container all over my car. It's a shame we already learned about Newton's Laws. This will make for a great bell ringer, though: "Which concept that we studied in the second quarter best explains why it's a horrible idea for Mr. B to put a container of red Kool-Aid in the seat while driving to school?" 4.) Testing the concentration of Kool-Aid is the best! I had to remind myself to save some for the kids tomorrow. 5.) I remember my roommate left us a few packs of Kool-Aid when he quit a few weeks in last year- it was bittersweet. If only TFA Kool-Aid tasted so good. I know I'm not doing the Delta any favors when it comes to obesity and child nutrition, but one day of hot cheetos, soda, kool-aid, donuts, and candy can't hurt, right? If I don't write a post on Sunday, you'll know that I spoke too soon. It was probably also not a great idea to hang a miniature basketball hoop above my door, but we'll see what happens! Wish me luck.... [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="310" caption="Oh, yeah!"][/caption]
I am home for break, and got the huge fortune of getting to go see one of my former colleagues at her new job. This is the woman who taught me everything I know about building conceptual understanding and teaching problem solving (You know, the important stuff... which no one else has ever been interested in training me to do. But that's another blog entry.) She was a TFA alum when I started my first year, we taught next door to one another, we both left Arizona at the same time, and she moved on to a charter in my hometown. The most interesting thing about getting to see her was having the chance to compare her High Performing Charter School in one state to my High Performing Charter School in another state. It made it even more clear that there is a recipe being followed by these schools as they crop up all over the country. A few key similarities include: 1) Making college part of the daily conversation, including naming homerooms after colleges. 2) Defining a set of school values (things like Respect, Integrity, some variation of Working Hard, etc.) that permeate every aspect of school culture. 3) Using the values as the language when students are praised/reprimanded and giving them regular feedback based on their values scores. ("Johnny, that's a Responsibility Point for you!") 4) Big chunks of time devoted to math and language arts. 5) Student data prominently displayed everywhere. 6) High percentages of young TFA staff (although unclear whether that's intentional or just who these schools attract) 7) Lots of feedback for the school, both from within and from visitors. 8 ) An obsession with order and control over even small misbehaviors. 9) Longer school days. I'm sure there are a million more, but those jump to mind first. What interests me is that there are so many huge similarities because there is so much dialogue and idea-sharing that goes on between charter schools of this type. My administrators traveled the country to observe schools before we opened, other schools regularly come from all over the US to see us, and there are frequent administrator visits between my school and the other big charters in our city (technically the competition, but you'd never know that from how much they work together). One school comes up with an idea and tries it, and if the idea goes well then you suddenly see it pop up all over the country. I want to say that charters shamelessly steal from one another, but "steal" can't be the right word when it's so blatantly what you're supposed to do. If you want to run a charter, you have to say to every other school administrator in the country, "I want to be better than all of you and am going to be deeply competitive all day every day, but please come right in any time and copy everything we're doing. On your way out, could you please leave feedback about what we could improve? Thanks. I love your school, by the way." I love knowing that this type of collaboration and sharing of best practices is going on. I know the nuances of education are different everywhere because kids are different everywhere, but it doesn't make sense to just make up everything from scratch at each school and cross your fingers that it works. The whole point of charters was to be a laboratory where ideas could be developed and the good ones could then be shared with everyone else, and the thought of that actually happening is an exciting one for education. The problem is that the good ideas were eventually supposed to end up in standard public schools, so that charters would be improving education for all kids. Yet I don't see many public school administrators in on these conversations, and you don't see most public schools jumping on the models that the High Performing Charter Schools seem so obsessed with. Why not?
A very practical question one might have when moving to San Antonio is "Will I need a car?" I will say -- with some equivocation -- almost certainly, yes. I say this as someone who hates driving, cars, and all the million problems exacerbated by them. But because of the way our city is designed, you will be pretty limited getting around by foot, bike, and/or transit. Now, this is very dependent upon where you live and work. If you live near the city center and work there, too, it is feasible to be carless. Some of our corps members are making that work. But, where I live and work makes bus transportation a labyrinthine nightmare. As a gainfully employed teacher in a two-income household, I have that privilege. If you don't already have a car, you will be earning an income that will afford you the opportunity to get one. Which leads me to this: a lot of our families are having to make do without automobiles in a very car-centric city out of necessity rather than by choice. The stresses of commuting between multiple jobs and in many cases being the sole provider for a family can place undue burdens on our families trying to balance school with maintenance of a household. Unfortunately, our development strategy thus far have been to build single-use developments further outside the city center and to construct freeways as linkages. This is desirable in the short-run for cost and convenience, but mortgages the future of our city (i.e. What will San Antonio look like when gasoline is $6/gallon? $8? $10). But it also denies opportunities to those who are priced out of the car market and rely solely on other means for transportation. This can have a stifling effect on families and on neighborhoods poorly served by this system. It is my hope that we have more than a few of our transformational leaders going into urban policy and law to make the mobility of our poorest citizens a priority. The need for greater access to educational and economic opportunities is palpable, and if we are to value an economy that thrives on dynamism and constant adaptation, we need a labor force that is able to adjust to that kind of flux.
It's a lot more satisfying showing that a 'failing' school is being unfairly closed than showing that a 'miracle' school is getting accolades it doesn't deserve. I applied the same analysis I recently did for Jamaica High School to the just announced closure of a New York City school since 1913, Washington Irving High School. I learned that they had very respectable Regents 'progress' scores compared to the rest of the New York City High Schools. A weighted Regents pass rate of 1 means that the students did just as expected on the Regents. Higher than 1 means they outperformed expectations. See my post about Jamaica High School for a more detailed explanation of this metric. The five weighted Regents pass rates for this school were English 1.36, Math 1.32, Science 1.75, Global History 1.42, and U.S. History 1.16. Compared to all the other high schools that had scores reported for these, Washington Irving High School would be ranked a respectable 175th out of 343 school in 2010-2011. This is a school that does not deserve to get shut down.
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