Friday, November 30, 2012

The Diverse Schools Dilemma - Book Review

Michael Petrilli offers a must read for those working in or studying education policy, parents and caregivers living in the DC area, and those with an interest in or already work in a diverse school setting.  In other words, this book will likely join Teach Like a Champion as required reading for BVP staff.  Indeed, this is a great read for BVP families and everyone connected to the innovative Rhode Island Mayoral Academy model, whereby Rhode Island statute requires that half of the Mayoral Academy seats are offered to urban students and half to non-urban students.

When I joined the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, I was actually hesitant about the diverse elements of the work.  Early in my career, I completed the Teach For America program, having taught in Harlem and Washington Heights in New York City.  About four years ago when I decided to join the Mayoral Academies, I was working in Providence, in schools seemingly more challenged than those I worked with in New York.  Thus, the idea of leaving the hard and noble work of leading schools in an urban setting for a start-up charter program serving a mix of urban and - egad - suburban kids was hard to get my head around.  (If I wanted to lead a suburban school district, certainly there would have been an easier path than the one was on....)

What tipped the scales for me to join the diverse schools work was a conversation with a mentor - a Rhode Island urban superintendent.  She suggested that if my goal was to serve urban poor kids well, then the best way to do so was to lead a truly diverse school.

Fast-forward three-and-a-half years, and BVP is having many great successes.  The academic strength of our young people has been demonstrated in formative and summative assessments.  As importantly, the growth of the whole child is evidenced by strengths in athletics, music, the arts, and service to the community.  Within BVP, proficiency gaps are nearly eliminated, though our more affluent students are outperforming our lower income students when it comes to achieving "advanced" scores.  Perhaps most thrilling is this notion, this gut feel, that when our scholars go off to colleges and universities that they will be more prepared for success not only because of our academics, but also because of their experience with the real difficulties of navigating a diverse school community.  So much easier imagined than realized, but this is the goal that we are working towards!

Some of the challenges that BVP has experienced over the years, especially with recruiting and retaining some sets of upper middle income families, are actually well-explained by Petrilli in his "anti-tome."  At just about 120 pages - appreciated by someone now reading most news via twitter - Petrilli offers both research-based thoughts and personal experience as he seeks to find the right school and neighborhood for his growing family.  The Diverse Schools Dilemma brings to light one of the biggest of the internal challenges we face - thinking through pedagogy knowing that some parental sets are more likely to push for "progressive" education while other sets are choosing BVP because of our "high expectations" academic and classroom culture.

Ultimately, Petrilli does what many great authors do, leave you wanting for more.  The benefit of 120 pages is that it is easily consumable, but the brevity does leave me with some outstanding questions:
  • What are the key public policy shifts that need to be made and at what levels?  Spell out the hypothesis in greater detail.  Is it bussing? Is it greater, "cross border" choice? Is it greater financial incentives for diverse schools?
  • The threshold of 50% Free-Reduced Price Lunch is used when showing safety statistics.  How dramatically does that data change as you increase that metric?  How might the data change if you just use Free Lunch as the metric?  (Hypothesis, 50% FRL is actually too low of a benchmark to be realistically implemented, and that things start to really negatively shift above of 70% FRL or above 50% FL).
  • There is a hypothesis that high need kids are more likely given higher poverty levels, and that that "one kid" can throw off learning for a whole class.  Where does inclusion and special education fit in this paradigm?  Is this potentially an unintended anti-inclusion argument as well? This worries me, a lot.
  • The challenge of grouping homogeneously versus heterogeneously seems ultra-big and mostly unanswered. Who, nationally, is doing this really well?
  • What are effective programs, tools, resources to bring families (and students) together in diverse schools?  Is it okay if some kids sit on a different side of the cafeteria? If not, what then?  The anecdotes in the book show that parental exchange is a challenge, but what are some proven solutions and models?
After you have read Petrilli's book (shoot me a note to borrow one of my copies, or click here) please send me your unanswered questions and perhaps we can get Mr. Petrilli to venture up to Rhode Island for a Q&A.

And, if you were looking for a real book review, check out the Washington Post.  

Can't wait for a visit to engage with Michael? You can find him, like me, on twitter...

Sunday, November 18, 2012

What I am thankful for, BVP style...

At BVP we take the full week of Thanksgiving off as a fall break.  The genesis of this week off comes from my wife who had the whole week off when she taught at KIPP Bronx.  We pitched it here at BVP and have been doing it from the beginning.  

Last year we surveyed the staff about how to make BVP better.  We asked a ton of questions - one was should we come in Monday-Wednesday of Thanksgiving week like most area schools.  This was the only survey question with near universal agreement - so we have elected to keep the week off.  

Even though there's no school this week, there are lots of things happening at BVP.  Teachers are busy catching up on grading and revising curricular plans, leaders are revising schedules and interventions to best meet the needs of our young people, the middle school is receiving hundreds of holiday pies for their fundraiser, and the network team is overseeing a few classroom moves and conducting family outreach for the 13-14 lottery.  Scholars, meanwhile, have pretty significant homework packs - keeping their brains engaged as much as possible.  

Each year when I welcome new families to BVP, I make some version of this statement:
Welcome to BVP.  We are crazy.  All of us, parents, teachers, leaders, scholars, will work harder than we ever have before.  We are going to keep your scholar busy during the day and at night and over the holidays with hard work. You have "won" the lottery to be here.  Now go home and turn off your cable and sell your TV on craigslist.  Be thankful, you  don't need that stuff don't have time.
And it is with that, that I share with you this year's quick list of what I am thankful for this year:

  • Amazing teachers
  • Dedicated teachers
  • Skillful teachers
  • Empathetic teachers
  • Smart teachers
  • Crazy teachers
  • Fun teachers
  • Those who support and lead the aforementioned teachers
  • Incredibly talented, creative, and mission-aligned network team members
  • The 700+ families who trust BVP with their children
  • Commissioner Gist's recovery and imminent return
  • Rhode Island College's partnership and leadership especially President Carriuolo and Dean Sidorkin
  • The growing urgency to improve public education here in RI and around the country
  • Teach for America
  • The Principal Residency Network for training our leaders
  • The Board of Regents for approving Achievement First
  • RI-CAN
  • Achievement First for joining the Rhode Island education space
  • Data - all kinds of data:  ANet, STEP, STAR, formative assessments
  • Eli Broad
  • Central Falls District-Charter Compact
  • KIPP Leadership Design Fellowship
  • Generosity of BVP staff and families
  • RIMA
  • Bristol County Savings
  • Walton Family Foundation
  • The whole Sodexo crew
  • The BVP Board
  • Family Leadership Council (especially when they cook!)
  • Violins
  • Last minute trips to New Hampshire to see POTUS
Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Join our team- come to a talent recruitment event on 11/28

In preparation for our enrollment season, I interviewed three current parents about their decision to send their scholars to Blackstone Valley Prep (BVP) Mayoral Academy.  A clip of our conversation is included below for your enjoyment. 

"Close to home" assets like BVP families, as well as readily accessible sources of information like the Rhode Island Department of Education and the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools are great resources for those who are exploring the option of sending their children to a charter school.  Maria, Estrella and Ana, the three parents featured in the above video, took a leap of faith by sending their children to BVP in its founding year, when the elementary school's enrollment was the size of only 76 scholars.  Their words about BVP today are that much more powerful and meaningful to prospective families than if they were to come from anyone else.

Similarly, when it comes to recruiting high quality talent for the team at BVP, the staff perspective is just as important.  Hearing parents talk about the way our schools have changed their scholars' lives allowed me to reflect on my own first impressions of BVP upon joining the Network Support Team as the External Affairs Associate just this past August.

These are only a few of my observations:

1. BVP, as an organization, holds high expectations for everyone who has a role in scholars' lives.  We're talking not just scholars themselves, but families, teachers, parents, the community, etc. etc.  Families sign a compact in the first week of school that outlines to what they will be held accountable and why.  BVP has responsibility codes in writing for teachers, staff, scholars AND families. This is not about control; it's about valuing each of these "players" as a VITAL component of the overall influence on a child's education.   Parents and families speak on panels at teacher professional development in the summer, even before the first day of school, to give helpful hints about how teachers can experience success with their children.

2. There are no barriers between the classroom and home.  Teachers conduct home visits to each of their scholars' houses within the first month, if not the first week of school.  We (scholars, teachers, staff, families) spend an inordinate amount of time together during the normal school day (7:30 or earlier to 4:30 and later) and at field trips or other events.  Although this poses its own series of challenges (see Jeremy's post, The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good), it's clear that BVP is serious about its scholars and their success.

3. The PRIDE values of Perseverance, Respect, Integrity, Discipline, and Enthusiasm are discussed on day one for new hires. Anyone who has ever experienced a top-down management mentality can appreciate a values-based approach to leadership.  Instead of focusing on the "don'ts"-- don't call out sick and not send a lesson plan, don't yell at a scholar-- actions and processes are framed by each of the core values.  Are you showing integrity? Are you modeling enthusiasm and respect?  Nobody's perfect and there is always room for improvement, but this healthy mindset is the foundation of any positive results-oriented culture.  Every teacher I have met at BVP exudes discipline and perseverance, and we only hire the best of the best-- the teachers who are willing to take initiative, take ownership, and immerse themselves in the work without a second thought.  Yes, the work is hard.  On the flip side, teachers and staff receive salaries commensurate with the results they work hard to achieve and benefits that are competitive with surrounding districts.

But don't take it from just me. Talk to our teachers. Talk to our staff.  Start the discussion by coming to our talent recruitment event on November 28th.  Click here to RSVP, and we'll see you there!

Monday, October 29, 2012

On Canceling School

I love my job.  I love coming to work (most days).  I love being in classrooms (always).  I love talking about school, thinking about school, doing school.  Often to my wife's chagrin, I am (too) often all-school-all-the time.  Thus, it was with a heavy heart that BVP cancelled school yesterday.  

Sunday morning I posted on the BVP Parents Facebook Page (an informal and unofficial closed group of parents for parents) that an announcement would be made in the early evening, by 8PM at the latest.  Between that post and our announcement at 5:30PM, lots of things happened:

  • Church and Sunday school.
  • Lowes run for batteries, water cooler, extra flashlights.
  • Kids soccer.
  • Grocery store run.
  • Phone battery died.
  • Read some books with Mollie.
  • Watched Dora with Mollie (it's a really, really, really boring show, but she is obsessed).
Even though I was busy with the above, until the phone died I was also monitoring announcements on the news, Twitter and Facebook: Governor declares State of Emergency; Coventry closes Monday and Tuesday, Providence Schools cancel....  Also monitored were the dozens of parents posting away about whether or not BVP would be open and why we should be open or closed....

The BVP leadership team had a call at 5:15PM, but by then the cancellation was a foregone conclusion.  Three of the four sending towns had cancelled, and during the call the Central Falls cancellation announcement went up on the screen.  We then briefly discussed the wisdom of having staff and teachers come in for the morning to collaborate and plan - then decided against that too.

To say I was disappointed is an understatement.  I can't quite say that I would go so far as some of the posts on the BVP Parent Facebook page, including: 
  • "My kids love BVP so much. They are both upset that there is no school tomorrow."
  • "Mine went to bed in tears!"
But I'm bummed - no tears before bed, but....  (Note: Katie, my 2nd grade daughter at BVP is not bummed at all. She was dancing and doing cartwheels at the announcement - though she professes to love school - very curious....) 

The reality is that we have some urgent work to do - not to mention that too many of our scholars depend on BVP for what amount to the two biggest meals of the day - school breakfast and school lunch.  But canceling school is a far, far better outcome than jeopardizing the safety of our scholars and staff.

While this cancellation, at the end of the day, was an easy call, I do worry about the short and long term negative impact of any cancellation.  In the short-term, learning loss is real, routines get undermined, kids may be hungry.  For many, these days at home constitute a day locked inside, some home alone.  

In the long-term, if the storm lasts for days and we have a rough winter, we will be forced to mandate Saturday school, cancel April Break, or both.  To be sure, even though BVP has a ridiculous amount of additional time than a traditional public school in Rhode Island, the Commissioner and Regents have upheld that there is a minimum number of hours in school to constitute a day, but that extra hours cannot be combined to create makeup days.

Through it all, BVP will remain a strong team and family, regardless of what we need to do.  Please reach out if you need assistance during this weather event, we are here for one another.  In the meantime, my new favorite phrase is "batten down the hatches".  Get ready Sandy, because we are!


Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency
American Red Cross - Rhode Island
Rhode Island Shelter Information:

Saturday, October 20, 2012

(Re)thinking BVP Exit Tickets

BVP uses various forms of exit tickets in almost all classes almost all the time.  It is a part of who we are - it is one of the techniques identified by Lemov in Teach Like a Champion - and the practice is common at virtually every high-expectations or no-excuse charter.  An exit ticket for kindergarten art might look pretty different from 7th grade math, but the purpose of the exit ticket is the same...or is it?

The exit ticket, at a high level, seems to serve one of two purposes:
  1. Formative assessment of the scholar
  2. Formative assessment of the teacher
When you consider the first purpose, the exit ticket starts to look and feel like a mini-quiz that allows the teacher to understand how the class as a whole is doing and also how individual scholars are handling the materials.  This is very common at BVP.  Often the exit ticket will be a pen-to-paper response, or sometimes a whiteboard activity.  In our own work at BVP, check out this inspiring example from Mrs. Turner's art program:
Beginning art criticism:  after a lesson where a masterwork has been used as project inspiration, scholars are asked to pretend the masterwork won a contest and give it an award.  What award would you give this artwork?  (i.e. Best Lines?  Best Colors?  Coolest shapes?  Strangest title?  Spookiest? ...)  Scholars decide on their award criteria, fill it in on their award ribbon outline, cut it out and pin it to the masterwork copy when their table is called to line up.  This activity touches upon the four areas of art criticism: description, analysis, interpretation and judgement in one activity. 
As we look to continuously improve, how do we take this type of exit ticket to the next level?  (We will leave grading of exit tickets and grading practices in general for another blog.)  One BIG IMPORTANT idea is around differentiation in exit tickets.  Check out this video of a middle school math teacher using differentiated exit tickets and then using the results from exit tickets to inform instruction for the next day.  Moreover, excellence in exit tickets requires scholars need to see the result of their exit ticket - ideally in real-time - with a quick self or peer-grade.  Have you ever tried this?

The second type of exit ticket, the teacher formative assessment, is something that I have actually seen very little of at BVP. That said, I think implementing this type of exit ticket might push our work to a higher level. In last week's Marshall Memo (BVP staff check your email/spam - others click here), Kim Marshall summarized a recent article by Robert Marzano, "The Many Uses of Exit Slips" - this is what really got me thinking about how we might better engage scholars in ownership of their own learning through exit tickets. (That and a fun debate on Monday night with Ms. Emet and Ms. Afonso after a great grading workshop with Dr. Phil Thornton.) Read Marshall's summary (or the not much longer full article) and consider what responses you might get to an exit slip that would read:
  • What are you most confused about from class today? or
  • What is something that I (teacher) can do to improve your understanding of the content?
I have seen school leaders have great success with this strategy whereby they solicit feedback from teachers on how the school leader can better support them. (Colleen Colarusso takes this pulse weekly with her team at ES2 and puts the feedback into action...or certainly deeply considers the feedback).  Why can't we ask the same of our scholars?  Here's a quick and simple "smiley face" grid from a Rhode Island high school (yes, even high school kids love smiley faces).  

Herein lies the BIG CRAZY IDEA: 
  1. Take a week's worth of exit tickets and divide them in half.  
  2. With one half of the exit tickets, think through what a differentiated ticket might look like (see the video above) and implement the differentiated ticket a few times a week (you would be wise to reach out to peers or special educators for ideas on how best to build this system). 
  3. With the other half of your exit tickets - throw them out and replace them with an explicit teacher formative assessment like one of the ones from Marzano above or the smiley face grid.
  4. Repeat.
You can actually get back the extra time spent on differentiating scholar-focused exit tickets by building a standard set of questions that you regularly use for the teacher-focused exit tickets.  

My challenge to all teachers at BVP is to attempt 1) a differentiated exit ticket, and 2) a teacher-focused formative assessment between now and the end of October.  Use the comments section below to share your experience, or, if you aren't interested in a public dialogue, shoot me an email and let me know how it's going!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Inspired by KIPP to push BVP to the next level

This week I had a fantastic experience visiting schools and classrooms as part of the KIPP: Leadership Design Fellowship.  I learned many things over the week, among them that BVP has already adopted and is implementing some great practices that will help push our scholars "to and through college."  As we all know, however, there are a many opportunities for BVP to continuously improve....

During the sessions, I divided my notebook pages in half: the right side was intended to capture the notes of the session to help me keep focused; the left side was for my ideas and inspirations to bring back to BVP.  I found myself writing on the left side non-stop.  Jumping to the top of my pages are two highly related actions that I am convinced will propel BVP to the next level:

  • Every teacher, every week is observed for fifteen minutes after which there is a fifteen minute face-to-face feedback session.  
  • The focus of the classroom visit is almost exclusively on the actions of the scholars.

The idea behind the first is that there is no better professional development than a one-on-one, highly focused conversation between educators.  The observation provides a platform for a focused and powerful conversation about what teacher actions can be improved to enhance student learning.  According to Paul Bambrick-Santoyo by keeping the ratio of teachers:observer at 15:1, these actions will become the most powerful 7.5 hours a week in a leaders calendar. This sounds eminently doable.

Focusing classroom visits on the actions of scholars is a little less intuitive. Jeff Rutel of 102 Group asked us how many of us use video to help teachers improve instruction - most hands quickly shot up. He then asked how many deliberately and almost exclusively point the camera at scholars - most hands shot back down.  He pressed us to really think about the "so what?" question.  Rather than give feedback on teacher actions, focus on the results of those actions. 

He asked us to complete the following statement in each classroom:
The teacher action was ____________, and as a result the scholars did ____________.
School and teacher leaders then use the weekly check-in to focus on the scholars' doing (often to ensure rigorous use of higher order thinking skills (HOTS) to engage 100% of the class).  Consider these examples where small changes in the teacher actions lead to much more significant engagement and potential for rigor:

An elementary example

The teacher action was to enthusiastically and charismatically read a picture book, and as a result 26/26 scholars demonstrated that they could sit in STAR.
The teacher action was to enthusiastically and charismatically read a picture book and ask questions, and as a result 26/26 scholars demonstrated that they could sit in STAR, and six scholars could answer a range of questions including recall questions and prediction questions.
The teacher action was to enthusiastically and charismatically read a picture book and ask questions, as a result the scholars demonstrated that all could sit in STAR, 22 of 26 scholars actively engaged in a turn-and-talk and appeared on task, and then 25 of 26 scholars wrote in their journal an alternative ending to the story.
A middle level example
The teacher action was to use an overhead (or PowerPoint) to deliver guided notes, and as a result 25/26 scholars demonstrated that they could transcribe notes.
The teacher action was to use an overhead (or PowerPoint) to deliver guided notes while "asking for hands" 8 times scholars to read the notes aloud and answer questions, and as a result 25/26 scholars demonstrated that they could transcribe notes, 5/26 showed that they could read aloud, and 2/3 called on could successfully answer questions.
The teacher action was to use an overhead (or PowerPoint) to deliver guided notes while "asking for hands" for scholars to read the notes aloud and use whiteboards both in pairs and individually to answer questions, and as a result 25/26 scholars demonstrated that they could transcribe notes, 5/26 could read aloud, 22/26 could answer the questions while working in pairs and 20/26 could answer the questions individually.
Clearly there is a ton more to cover than what is already too long of a blog entry, but get ready for a push in two areas:

  1. Far more and regular observation and feedback, and
  2. Looking closely at the actions of scholars to ensure that they are engaged in rigorous thinking.

If, however, you don't believe in HOTS, you aren't alone - check out this report about Texas via Valerie Strauss and the Washington Post! (Pretty ironic to cite Valerie in blog commending KIPP, but sometimes she's right on!).

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Roller Coaster Sharks

Ever hear of a roller coaster shark?

That was Ms. Harrison and the University of California- Santa Cruz Class of 2028, performing a celebratory cheer after practicing some strong handshakes during morning meeting.

One of our many ambitious goals for this year is to capture and communicate the dedication, joy, and collaboration that provides the foundation for the hard work that happens at Blackstone Valley Prep every day. With a longer school day and a longer school year, it's important to celebrate learning as a not only rigorous, but fun and exciting process.

You have received our new email updates, visited our revamped website (shout-out to BVP Parent Chris Horvath for volunteering to help with this work), and enjoyed weekly blog musings courtesy of Executive Director Jeremy Chiappetta.

Communication is a vital part of what we do because it allows us to connect with scholars and families and engage meaningfully with fellow educators and community members who also care deeply about this work.

Not to mention, who doesn't love watching NECAP celebrations at which the Head of School dresses up as Lady Gaga to motivate scholars?  Or teachers impersonate celebrities just to see their kids smile before rolling up their sleeves to take a tough test?

This is work we can look forward to celebrating all year.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Something Matters

As a first-year classroom teacher in Harlem, I struggled in many, many ways.  My school was equipped with few resources to teach a very underserved population.  As a beginning teacher, support was wanting - the one and only time I was observed in my first year was in April for my formal evaluation....  Curricular materials? Nope. Working photocopier? Safe school? Chalk? No, no, no.  There was next to nothing.  Pretty much the only thing that seemed to work well was the metal detector - somehow I don't think airport-like security is quite the version of "threshold" Doug Lemov envisioned when he was writing Teach Like a Champion.

Through happenstance, I stumbled upon something that would forever dramatically change my perception of what is possible.  My enthusiasm for work skyrocketed. As my excitement soared, so did the engagement of my students.  Discipline challenges dwindled, academic performance increased, and family support rose.  Moreover, all of us involved were having a lot more fun.

As I looked around at other schools, I discovered this same phenomenon. I began to see classrooms of excellence, and sometimes schools of excellence, that allowed students to become anchored and rooted in something.  My wife taught at KIPP Bronx, and it had something.  My own high school had something.

So what is that something and how do we bottle it up and get it to schools everywhere?  The something that matters, I believe, is an incredible passion that inspires others to share in that love, whatever it is.  My urban studies professor at Penn, George Thomas, so loved Philadelphia architecture one couldn't help but fall in love too - Frank Furness, I now know, is truly amazing because of George's love for him and his work.

At my school in Harlem the chess program we started became that something. At KIPP Bronx, it was and remains a tremendous orchestra. For my high school, it was successful mock trial and Model UN programs.

At Blackstone Valley Prep Elementary School 1 (ES1), one of our somethings is the music program.  Starting in kindergarten, scholars begin to learn rhythms, music, and note values.  Explicit "music math" is introduced in K - essentially we teach five-year-olds to solve algebra problems (we'll save my take on "developmentally appropriate" and the need to teach algebra for different blogs).  Last year, K-2 scholars performed concerts at local nursing homes.

The power of that ES1 something was on display a little over a week ago when our cafeteria was packed (literally standing room only) on a Thursday night as families came in to school to sign out their scholar's violin.   The enthusiasm and excitement in the room was palpable.  Parents and teachers - yes I saw some of you - were brought to tears of joy.  As one of a handful of elementary schools in Rhode Island that can now boast a strings program, we definitely have a something.  Indeed, while some schools are (rightly) celebrating 1:1 technology with ipads and the like, at ES1 we are a little more old-school: our 3rd graders are now 1:1 with the violin thanks to support from Bristol County Savings and our amazingly passionate teachers.

So, my question for those of you still reading, what is your something, and what is keeping you from making something happen in your classroom, school, community center, neighborhood, or church?

P.S. And speaking of music, check out our scholars as they join other music lovers during Pronkfest on October 8th on the streets of Fox Point in Providence!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Continuous Improvement - or else

There are entire industries built around teaching others the best practices for organizational improvement.  One may have heard the term kaizen, a Japanese word that has become an Americanized business buzzword for continuous improvement.  Indeed, how can one argue with the phrase continuous improvement?  We are all human, and the last I checked I have yet to meet someone who is flawless.  (I had hoped that maybe our third child, Mollie, might be the first perfect person.  As every other parent before us has learned, however, once kids learn to talk all bets are off...even little Mollie isn't perfect.)

As a public charter school, continuous improvement - or else, is probably a more apt way to describe our situation.  By design, Rhode Island public charter schools are granted organizational flexibility, and, in exchange, we are held to a higher bar.  Indeed, this week the RI Board of Regents voted to deny a five-year renewal to a Providence charter high school because of academic performance on NECAP.  Instead, the school has the next two rounds of NECAPs to show significant improvement or be closed.  This year Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy will be under the microscope as part of our own charter renewal process...and we will do everything we can to demonstrate that we are working hard to get better.

Unquestionably, continuous improvement at Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy is a way of life.  Elementary classrooms boast literacy growth trackers, grades 2-7 have regular data meetings to look at the Achievement Network interim assessment data, classrooms are regularly open to peers offering feedback, and we are launching our first network-wide Instructional Rounds next month.  Even the elementary "Recorder Karate" and "Violin Karate" programs are built around self-monitoring of continuous improvement.

This coming week, BVP will host a team of educators from SchoolWorks who will provide a third-party, objective view of our work to help us identify our next key areas of improvement.  The visiting team has experienced teachers and leaders who have conducted quality reviews for dozens, if not hundreds of schools around the country.  We have asked that their focus be a hybrid of their School Quality Review Protocol and the RI Charter Renewal Site Visit Protocol.

I, for one, am really looking forward to the SchoolWorks feedback and push.  One of my biggest challenges is that when I walk our schools, which I have done several times this week, I find lots and lots to celebrate.  I am crazy proud of the BVP teachers, leaders, and staff for the amazing work that is happening at BVP.  While I believe that they will what I see, which is inspiring and rigorous instruction, I am also hoping that they offer us many critiques - how else will we get better?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

"Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien."
'The perfect is the enemy of the good.' 
- Voltaire

Those who know me know that I am not a philosopher.  A brain-stormer? Definitely.  Doer? Yup.  Deep thinker? Hardly.  The quote above doesn't come from my reading of Voltaire, rather from hearing it in the pub somewhere talking shop with family or friends.  In fact, I had to google the quote to source it.

I share this quote, though, because it speaks to the heart of what may be our biggest challenge at Blackstone Valley Prep: sustainability.  We hired the members of this team because we believe in people who are driven to dramatically change the course of young peoples' lives.  We believe that our teachers are urgent about closing achievement gaps and raising the bar for all. We believe that the BVP team believes in every one of our young people - 100%.  Indeed, this is hard work, and we celebrate hard work!  One phrase I've heard used to motivate scholars to push themselves is "the reward for hard work is more hard work."

What happens when you combine this urgency and push for excellence with our strategy of more time?  The immediate result: amazing outcomes for our scholars.  I have had the opportunity to watch tremendous lessons this year.  Classrooms look incredibly inviting.  Student work is celebrated publicly.  The trajectory of our scholars is very, very high.  And there is data to prove our model, both our own data and the results of others who espouse the same high expectations model around the country.

But what about longer term?
Couple pushing for excellence with a scheduled longer day, the actual work-day for teachers too often turns into eleven...or twelve...or more hours.  Add a commute to Newport, and, ... wow. Weekends?  If not serving scholars on one of the Opportunity Days, Saturday and Sunday are often spent planning, grading, or both.  To be sure, when at family events, the conversation (too) often turns to school the intended respite is undermined.  So what do we do?

Part of the answer:
Organizationally, based on meetings with a teacher committee last year, we are trying to tackle  sustainability head-on.  We made many attempts to improve communication of planned events outside of school time.  We have reduced the required number of Opportunity Days, and we have added additional stipends to hire team members to do the planning for these days.  Moreover, we have made some moves to build additional staff into our model to support teacher absences without lowering the quality of instruction for our scholars.

Another part of the answer:
"Martyrs" cannot be celebrated.  Working through a cold - definitely.  Coming in when you think you have mono - not okay on many, many levels.  Checking in during a maternity leave? Sounds great (send us pictures!).  Trying to grade papers or write plans from the hospital - no way!

Yet another part of the answer:
We need our super-motivated, highly urgent, perfectionist team to look into themselves and say, this work is good enough, and then go home, or to the movies, or the gym, or the pub.  The cost of getting to perfection is, indeed, too often too high.  The break might even help process the solution to the work...surely there's brain research out there on this topic.

But short of that imaginary thirty hour day, know that "the perfect is the enemy of the good."  We must be able to continue to do extraordinary things for our scholars and still live full, meaningful, satisfied lives.  As long as we communicate with one another what we can and cannot reasonably accomplish in a reasonable amount of time, we will achieve excellence together.

And with that, I am signing-off to back-to-back soccer games for my two eldest...perhaps during the work-break my brain will accidentally stumble upon the right way to launch our much needed capital campaign....

Sunday, September 9, 2012

got college?

One of the first things that visitors notice at BVP are the strong cultural elements that make our schools stand out.  From silent hallways to lots of quirky engagement techniques (e.g. sending support, two vertical hands, snaps), the sense that "this is not your old school" is a very real and visceral reaction to a trip to BVP.

One of the most palpable of these cultural elements is our explicit and relentless pursuit of "putting 100% of scholars on a path to college."  Indeed, classrooms are named for colleges, and even the reference to the grade levels has been surreptitiously replaced by the expected four-year college graduation year of the scholars.  To be sure, this year's kindergarten class is referred to as the "college class of 2029."  College language is infused everywhere - we make "college lines," we raise "college hands," and teachers often can be heard saying, "when I was working on a problem like this in college...."

To celebrate this college focus, last year BVP printed t-shirts with the phrase "got college?" on the front, and we regularly use the hashtag #gotcollege? on twitter.  College is central to who we are and how we operate.

Visitors sometimes challenge me with questions like, "do you really believe that every child should attend a four-year college?" A few have been far more blunt by stating "you know that lots of kids are better off working with their hands" or even more direct, "college just isn't for everyone."  Indeed, one close family friend (a highly educated, highly successful professional) said to me, "at a macro level, our economy requires an entry-level labor force, so everyone shouldn't go to college."

Compound these challenges with some rough data from a Harvard study - 57% four-year college completion rate (in six years) and a bunch of other eye-popping stats - and you really start to wonder if the naysayers are right.  On top of that, when you look at how hard we work to get many of our "scholars we love the most" to approach grade level, it is fair to think hard about what it will take for some to make it to and through college.

So what is the answer?  Is college a just a euphemism for success? Are we setting our scholars up for imminent failure in post-secondary study by pushing college for everyone? 

My response is unequivocal - we must do everything, and I mean everything, that we can do to ensure that we achieve our mission to put every scholar on a path to college.  Even if some opt to pursue trades, armed forces, or starting a family, our job is to help every single BVP scholar be ready to tackle higher education.  Indeed, if we are successful, our scholars will have that choice to pursue college.

We are well on our way.  Indeed, allow me to share a published comment from one BVP parent who is adamant that we continue to push her scholar for success:
For those of you who don’t know my daughter was diagnosed this February with borderline intellectual function, and we were told that no matter what we do she would never exceed the comprehension of an 8 year old… we were crushed. People told us to pull her from BVP (as it would be ‘too hard’) and put her in a school with children with extreme special needs… long story short, she has been doing GREAT under the structure and direction of the teachers and special education staff at Blackstone Valley (I, personally, feel like she is a different child when she has long school breaks and in the summer). Yesterday her step father and I sat down to help her with her homework and realized she had done it at her afterschool program… I was worried they helped “too much” and asked her to explain the concepts to me… I almost cried when she explained perfectly what lines of symmetry were… We are both so proud of her progress and very happy she has such a great support system at BVP!  Thanks guys!
We can and will push for 100%.  Cien por ciento.  And when the work seems impossible, turn to one another, reach out to your team, call me.  We are all in this together. We #gotcollege!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Week One in the Books!

BVP Team we have one week in the books, and what a week it was!  With our 770 scholars (or thereabouts) and nearly 100 staff members, we are off to the races.  From K scholars learning how to sit in a chair (literally) to 7th graders developing teamwork skills at the Wheeler Ropes Course, with a ton of academics, benchmark assessments, service projects, anti-bullying, routines, music, art, physical education, soccer practice, professional development, and lots and lots of family meet-and-greets in between, this was arguably our best first week ever.

Some of our first week highlights have been captured beautifully by Carina and Jen on our first Constant Contact announcement, revised website and our Official facebook page.  I would be remiss not to remind everyone also to follow @BVPrep on Twitter where Carina, Jen, and I try to capture the essence of the day.  Also note that any tweet that mentions @bvprep will be (almost) automatically retweeted!  Thanks to many of you for taking a moment to use Twitter to share the positive things that are happening in your classrooms and schools.

The most important communication that we do is with our families.  At the end of the day, family engagement is all about communication.  Phone calls, emails, and, most importantly, face-to-face meetings drive positive relationships and trust which ultimately drive school excellence.  There is a ton of research out there on this, and I think that we are all seeing this anecdotally as well.  

But how do we manage the unmanageable?  The midnight text from a parent? The facebook complaint about school lunch?  The multiple calls each day to check on the little one (who almost always is totally fine, but maybe the parent is having adjustment challenges).  Perhaps it is all about educating the parents?  I found this article on "helicopter parents" pretty insightful and a really positively framed way of asking families to trust their how do we get everyone to read this one?

Professional Reading
Speaking of articles and professional reading, as a way of trying to help all of us efficiently stay up-to-date on the world of education, Lori has subscribed all of us to the Marshall Memo (shoot me or Lori a note if you need our username and password).  If you can't wait for these weekly summaries, you might want to subscribe to the ASCD Smartbrief which is an excellent daily summary of education news from around the country.

As for Professional Reading...check out this attack on TLaC
As you know, we use Doug Lemov's text Teach Like a Champion as a foundation for our work.  As several within our organization have posited, however, TLaC is not a panacea, but a starting point.  It is with that in mind that I wanted to share with you this article criticizing TLaC.  While I disagree with the author's interpretation of TLaC, it is important to think deeply about our practice and constantly check ourselves.  TLaC provides us at BVP with a common language and foundation...and it is up to us to build on that foundation with other tools, practices, and ideas.

Last, but certainly not least
September 11th is Primary Day here in Rhode Island.  While we do have a Professional Development Day, make sure that you find time to vote.  Several important primaries throughout the state feature candidates strongly for great public schools and choice competing against others who do not support charter schools.  Get informed and vote!

Cheers to each and every teacher and staff member at BVP!  With week one in the books, we are now ready for our most amazing year yet!

Sunday, August 26, 2012


With THE DAY finally upon us, I am writing to thank each of you for your significant contributions to get us to this point, and I am writing to thank you in advance for the important work in front of us.  Our first days of school (tomorrow and again on Tuesday) will set the tone in so many ways for the success of the 2012-2013 school year.  I urge each of you to do your very best - this is the most that we can possibly ask of one another!  As John Wooden wrote, "Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming."  We ask this of our scholars, and we ask this of one another.

Over these first few days, and in each day of this coming year, challenge yourself to be joyful and rigorous, to be warm and strict, to be your very best and to always be yourself.  Remember, all eyes are on you at all times - and your classroom IS a mirror.  As James Baldwin wrote, "children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them."  YOU set the example, YOU set the bar.

Getting BVP to this point is a team effort.  From our board members to our partners, from our scholars to every staff member. It is with that in mind, that I would like to take this moment to "shout-out" the network team for their efforts to get us to this point:
  • Jen LoPiccolo for leading the recruitment and selection of an amazing team
  • Mike DeMatteo for working like crazy to ensure that we have three buildings ready for prime time - including a major addition at ES1, a beautiful new playground at ES2, and a six-figure renovation at our new MS
  • Lori McEwen for heading up our August Professional Development highlighted by welcoming and preparing over 30 new team members for success at BVP
  • Jess Bunnell for ensuring that everything data-wise is up and ready to go with RIDE - from student information to teacher certification records...and 10,000,000 other things...
  • Steve Corrales for enrolling 250+ scholars and sharing exciting news with families and showing extraordinary patience with those still on our waiting list clamoring for updates...sometimes calling hourly!
  • Silvia Cuello for fighting with Verizon to get 98.6% of our team members have working phones, keeping me sane when the world around appears to be insane, and, perhaps most importantly, ensuring we are all paid and have benefits on time!
  • And, shout-outs in advance to Kate Crowe who is leading our charter renewal efforts and David Lauck who has personally committed to help raise $10,000,000 for the capital campaign we will launch this fall!
BVP is staffed by an incredible team of educators, and it is with Lindsey leading ES1, Colleen at ES2, and Joy at the MS that I am as confident as ever that our schools are in great hands and that everyone on our team will have the support that they need to be successful. 

As we know Joy loves to say, "Get your mirrors out - uh huh, oh yeah, looking good!"  We are ready!  Have an awesome year and know that I am here to support each of you to be your very best - do not hesitate to call me (maybe) at (401-871-5183), email, or gchat!


Jeremy Chiappetta

P.S. For those who might be wondering why we work so hard, look no further than Hannah Bishop who joined the BVP Team and Family on Thursday! Congrats to Beth and her family!