Friday, February 26, 2016

Building a Community of Learners Committed to All Voices

Melitzi Torres and Becky Thibeault, second grade teachers at Blackstone Valley Prep Elementary School 2, share their insights on finding space in everyday lessons to build a community of practice committed to diversity.

Intentional diversity is an organizational priority and a core belief shared across the Blackstone Valley Prep network. Building a community where conversations about equity are held openly and safely requires thorough planning and lots of self-reflection.

Before any of us can embark on such powerful discussions we focus on finding our voice and place in the conversation. Both of us are second grade teachers and while our intentions are the same, our perspectives and experiences are different.

We have a good starting point in the curriculum that BVP’s network team has developed. Our current 2nd grade ELA unit introduces scholars to the true stories of the heroes who catapulted the Civil Rights Movement into America’s consciousness, including Martin Luther King, Jr., the Greensboro Four, Rosa Parks, and Ruby Bridges.  We read biographies and memoirs, investigate photo archives of civil rights protest and segregation, consider the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and spend several days carefully picking apart the original text of the “I Have a Dream” speech. Along the way, we write about Dr. King’s dream and our own for America, and debate whether his dreams have been realized today.   There is so much to work with in this unit to build skills and knowledge and to also encourage our scholars to think critically about the world around them.  Exciting stuff!

Keep reading below for our individual reflections about this collective journey we are taking with our fellow 2nd grade teachers and our amazing scholars.

I admit that looking for my voice in civil rights discussions created an internal sense of nervousness. To host deep discussions about race and equity I needed to first become comfortable with myself and comfortable with uncomfortable conversations. As a white educator in an urban school setting I have come to understand the power that many voices within a classroom holds for closing achievement gaps, resolving inequities, and becoming comfortable with discussing racial issues.

As a first-generation college graduate, and as a Latina, I knew I wanted to be able to discuss topics to build a sense of activism in every scholar. What I wasn’t so sure on was how I could find time to lead these discussions as the second grade math teacher. I decided to introduce historical events in problem solving and create story problems that would have scholars not only dig deep into their math brains, but also be able to relate to the characters in the story problems on an emotional level.

Topics from the ELA curriculum (such as MLK, Ruby Bridges, Rosa Parks, the Little Rock Nine, and more) become the content for math story problems as they are discussed as part of the broader units of study.  The discussions that occur involve real character emotions, and situations while also focusing on the skills we are working on as part of our math units.

After working on this project for a couple of weeks, Becky and I realized that the problem solving block wasn’t enough time.  Our scholars were becoming more and more comfortable and engaged with the discussions.  Now, conversations extend into our community circle/morning meeting time too.

It was important for me that I set up an environment where my scholars felt comfortable speaking about issues related to struggle and to inequities, both in our history and today. To do this it took much reflection and planning in order to facilitate meaningful discussions.

To start off, there are simple rules or norms for discussion in our room: we sit in a circle and make eye contact with each other and listen to each other’s ideas by agreeing, respectfully disagreeing, and adding on to what each other says. Scholars know this culture has been established in our room so that all of our voices are held equal in the conversation.

Establishing these norms were crucial for our success. They have allowed us to really focus on the topics at hand.

So what have we learned?
This work is ongoing. We have begun to foster a culture where important conversations are being held every single day by all of us. This isn’t easy, but it’s not supposed to be. Our hope is that by facilitating opportunities for our scholars we are supporting their growth into citizens that not only care about each other and about the bigger world around them, but also feel educated and empowered to take action. It’s working too.  Just this week, scholars asked if they could write letters to Detroit community leaders after reading about some of the physical conditions of the Detroit public school buildings. Examples like this make us hopeful for our collective future and for their futures--today we learn, tomorrow we lead.

(Scholars working collaboratively to write thank you letters.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Commended (times two!)

Today, the Rhode Island Department of Education announced that Blackstone Valley Prep (BVP) High School, Blackstone Valley Prep Elementary School 2, and fifteen other schools across the state are Commended.  

But there is more.  BVP is also home to the only high school and to the only two high poverty schools that received a Commended rating.   
Why does this matter?

  1. BVP staff, scholars and families are once again proving that demographics do not define destiny, that a zip code need not determine one’s educational opportunities.  The other Commended schools are overwhelmingly suburban, white and more affluent. BVP is intentionally diverse by design.  BVP is a mixed-race, mixed-income network of schools focused on proving what is possible for all kids. Just today, this feature in The Atlantic serves as important context and as a reminder that integrated schools are gaining (promising) national attention.

  1. BVP’s successes are not without challenges.  Public funding for the nearly 1,400 scholars BVP serves has been constantly under attack since our opening in 2009.  Moreover, adequate facilities for our scholars to grow and develop into their best selves continue to be a challenge.  Several efforts to share unused public school seats have been rebuffed; our efforts to rehabilitate vacant buildings have been stymied; and our efforts to lease excess capacity from private and parochial schools have been received with mixed response.  

News like today’s announcement reminds me and all of us what our work is about - proving what is possible for all kids. Despite obstacles, or perhaps because of them, BVP is committed to solving the challenges that come our way. We are committed to supporting the success of our scholars, both today and tomorrow.  

Our work is urgent. Statistics like this show that closing the achievement gap, which we know becomes a lifelong opportunity gap, is absolutely possible, but we need dedicated people to work together to continue driving this hard work forward.  If you are reading this and thinking about what is next in your life, please know that BVP is actively accepting applications from professionals ready to teach, lead, and take on the challenge to rethink what is possible in public education. Advocates for educational equity are strongly encouraged to apply at Click the “Careers” tab to view BVP’s full list of openings.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Our First #BVPSnowDay's of 2016

At BVP, we have a snow day tradition of hosting Twitter chats using #BVPSnowDay. With two back-to-back snowy school days ending last week and staring this week, we kept with tradition and once again had our Twitter chats.

On Friday, February 5th we asked our staff & friends to participate in a discussion answering the question "Why BVP?" using 6 words.

Then on Monday, February 8th we asked staff & friends to read and share out links to interesting articles and blogs relating to our work.

As always, the musings and stories shared were inspiring. Take a look below to see where our heads were during the first (and hopefully the last) snow days of 2016.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Our Staff and Intentional Diversity

By Osvaldo Jose Martí, Middle School 2 Founding Head of School. 

       Blackstone Valley Prep (BVP) Mayoral Academy is an intentionally diverse network of public charter schools. When you read that statement, it’s safe to assume that you are likely thinking of our student body. Nationally, while our student population becomes more diverse, our country's teacher and administrative workforce remains remarkably stagnant. In Rhode Island, we are no exception and mirror the nation in terms of this gap. Meanwhile, research has shown that teachers of color produce more favorable outcomes for students of similar backgrounds. Additionally, there is an emotional and social need that teachers of color can provide while serving as role models to scholars who share racial and ethnic identities. Moreover, the Atlantic reported on the importance of a diverse school not just for students of color, but also for white students.

       For these reasons and so many more, I believe it’s important for our BVP school staff to reflect the communities we work with. As we strive for this, we work to build robust talent pools, with a focus on candidates of color and varied backgrounds. As an incoming Head of School and person of color, it goes without saying that our commitment to diversity is important to me. Even so, the urgency of this work was underscored for me one early morning at Elementary School 2.

       On this particular day, I had spent the morning doing instructional rounds, popping into classrooms and providing feedback to our teachers. As I walked the halls I came upon a teacher with a 2nd grade scholar who was walking to their classroom. The teacher cheerfully introduced me to the scholar, “In three years, Mr. Martí will be your principal just like Ms. Colarusso is now.” Full of innocence, the scholar looked at me and said,
Wait, how can you be a principal? You’re black.
       The comment shocked me. This young, African-American boy had not yet encountered a leader who shared his background and so the idea of someone who looked like him rising to a leadership position was impossible to him.

       I explained to the scholar that I was black and Dominican. I also explained to him that I was fluent in Spanish, but that those details did not mean I couldn't be a principal. I then told him that he could be anything he dreamed. This interaction has stayed with me since then and reminds me why we focus on intentional diversity. A general lack of diversity in schools can manifest itself in many ways. For the little boy I met in the hallway, a lack of diversity meant he couldn't see a black man be principal and likely also meant, as a black boy, he couldn't see himself ever being principal either.

       Conversations about race are not comfortable or easy, but they must be had if we are going to help our scholars see their potential and understand the world around them. It’s our responsibility and part of our commitment as educators who strive to thoroughly prepare children for their future.

       I am committed to this work and if you feel as passionately as I do, I invite you to consider joining me. Be a role model. Be the reason a scholar believes in himself or herself. Be part of a team that makes a difference. To see our current listing of open positions, click here.