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!