Friday, June 12, 2015

Learning Does Not Stop in May...

This year Jones Elementary students will continue learning ALL summer long.  Announcements were made, notes were sent home, and parent meetings were held to make all families aware of summer reading activities at school and even in the community. The most important thing for students to do over the summer is READ! Throughout the school year the students were given 25 books through The Home Library Project. To continue this reading momentum, students received reading logs to document their reading progress over the summer.

Jones Elementary is a school site for the district summer lunch program.  All students under 18 can eat lunch for free Monday-Friday at the school throughout the summer.  Having students in the building for lunch was an opportunity we could not pass up to encourage summer learning. A book swap is held each Wednesday before they begin serving summer lunch.  During this time, students bring back any book they have finished and swap it for a new book.

An additional way to encourage summer reading is a book fair. In a few weeks, students will bring their reading log to school and be given "reading bucks" based on how many books/days/minutes they have read over the summer.  Students will be able to purchase new books with the "reading bucks" they have earned.

Another exciting incentive to read will take place in August.  The local fire department will be coming to do a fire hose spray event.  Students will use their reading log as a ticket to enter the event. Students will be able to run through water and enjoy popsicles together.

Families were also informed about how to sign up for programs at the Springdale Public Library over the summer. Registration forms were distributed for the students and sent over to the library once completed.

Exciting times are in store for Jones' readers of all ages. Doesn't this excitement make you want to begin reading???

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Home Library Effect | How a simple idea is transforming the lives of at-risk readers

The Home Library Effect

How a simple idea is transforming the lives of at-risk readers. 

June 8, 2015
Justin Minkel's students with books for home library project
Think back to your first memory of reading. Did the memory involve someone you love—your mom or dad, grandma or grandpa—perhaps a big brother or sister?
Children living in poverty don’t always get that early experience of reading with someone they love. For these children to someday live the lives they dream of, we have to close the book gap in their homes. 
When I started the home library project five years ago with my second-grade class, it transformed the worlds of 25 children. In 2015, the initiative will impact 2,500 at-risk readers.
The idea for the project was simple.
Problem: Many children who live in poverty have few books at home.
Solution: Provide those children with their own books to keep.  
How to make it happen: Make sure each child has a place in his or her home for a growing library—it can be a bookshelf, a plastic tub, or even a shoebox decorated with stickers. Over the course of the year, help the students choose 10 or 15 books at their reading level. Then, watch as their world changes.
When I began the project, I was amazed at the impact on reading development, family literacy and love of books.
Student Jasber with boxes of books as tall as he is
One of my second-grade students was reading at a kindergarten level, and no one in her home was literate. She made two full years’ reading growth that year. When I asked how she had done it she said, “Well, you know those books you gave me? Now when my mom and little sister and I are watching TV at night, they say, ‘Melinda, read to us.’ So I do.”
The project has grown gradually during the past five years, but its roots go deep. What started with one classroom became a third-grade project with three other teachers and later expanded to 13 teachers at our school— Harvey Jones Elementary School in Springdale, Arkansas.
This year, thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Farmers Insurance Dream Big Challenge, every teacher at our school became part of the home library project. We also held two family literacy nights for children and their parents to choose books from a Scholastic book fair, including many titles in Spanish.
A mom came with her daughter, and she thanked us for the project. “I know how important it is to get books for her,” she said, “but after rent and groceries, we just don’t have anything left.”
We have expanded the project’s reach to two nearby elementary schools with high levels of poverty. We have also partnered with a community group called Bright Futures—a non-profit dedicated to the success of all children—and the University of Arkansas Center for Community Engagement, which have brought the project to two additional schools in the district and several rural schools in the region. 
Educators from all over the country have reached out for ideas on starting their own home library projects, ranging from a kindergarten teacher in Oakland to a child development professor in Texas. The Center for Teaching Quality, a national education non-profit, is working with us to develop a digital platform that will feature contacts, resources and a starter kit for anyone who wants to start a home library project in their own classroom, school, or district.
Student TJ with three of his very own books
We live in a time when amazing things are happening in classrooms all over America, led by truly talented teachers. In too many cases, their innovations never reach beyond their own classroom walls. The home library project is a powerful example of teacher leadership taken to scale: a simple idea with profound impact on students.
Home libraries have the potential to shape our national approach to literacy for at-risk readers. There are times when effective classroom instruction is not enough to move a struggling reader from frustration to confidence. In these cases, providing a child with great books can be a potent intervention with greater impact—and a lot more joy—than summer school or conventional remediation.
By the end of 2015, this effort will have put 50,000 books into the hands and homes of children who need them. These children will become more confident readers, inquisitive thinkers and compassionate human beings as a result.
Milken Educator Justin Minkel
Justin Minkel is a 2006 winner of the Milken Educator Award and 2013 Lowell Milken Center Fellow. He teaches second-grade at Harvey Jones Elementary School in Springdale, Arkansas. 

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Monday, April 27, 2015

Oh, the Places They’ll Go How a Springdale principal has made her elementary’s “whole child” approach a model for the nation’s poorest schools

Oh, the Places They’ll Go

How a Springdale principal has made her elementary’s “whole child” approach a model for the nation’s poorest schools


By all appearances, Jones Elementary School in Springdale is typical of any public school in the United States. The playground buzzes with the energy emanating from dozens of unleashed kindergartners through fifth-graders. Interior walls display primary-colored signage and student work in a variety of shapes and sizes. Caricatures of a team mascot—a jaguar, in this case—abound.
But Jones isn’t a typical public elementary school. That its students face some overwhelming challenges—98.5 percent of students come from families that live at or below the poverty line, and for 80 percent, English is not their primary language—is not what sets it apart. What makes the school unique is what it has done to overcome these challenges.
Case in point: This school year, the school launched Parent University, a program that offers free night classes to parents on topics such as computer literacy and gang-awareness training. Another relatively recent initiative is the school’s home library project, whereby every child at Jones gets 20 to 40 new books per school year to keep at home—an idea first hatched when a teacher realized many of the students in his class didn't own a single book. Older programs, such as the school’s free daily breakfast and its on-site health and wellness center, highlight how Jones has tackled student problems such as hunger and access to basic health care.
Behind each one of these initiatives is Melissa Fink, who launched these programs and more in both her previous role as assistant principal and in her current one as principal. Fink believes that poverty is not destiny, as she’s been known to say, and that every child can succeed at high levels. It’s a lofty notion, but no one can accuse her of not being realistic about the challenges her students face.
“Poverty, hunger, not having adequate clothing or health care, safety issues—these are the barriers our students are up against,” she says. “If you’re hungry, you’re not going to learn. If you’re worried about what’s going to happen to mom while you’re in school, you’re not going to learn.”
The many programs Fink and her faculty have instituted to remove those barriers are paying off, and not just anecdotally. Today, the numbers tell the story: Eight years ago, only 26 percent of the kids at Jones could read at their grade level. Today, that number is 73 percent. The school’s successes have even caught the attention of the nation’s capital. Earlier this year, U.S. Department of Education representatives visited Jones with a film crew in tow to interview Fink and other school faculty for a video series highlighting schools that are role models for the rest of the nation.
We caught up with Fink during a hectic week of standardized testing to hear more about the school’s successes and on where it’s headed next.
That’s a pretty significant jump in literacy improvement these past eight years. Looking back, what were the biggest factors contributing to the increase?
One of the biggest factors was instilling a culture of collaboration among the faculty. For so long, teachers shut their doors and just kind of did their own thing. What we found at Jones over the years is that when teachers get together, when they collaborate and talk about their students, that’s when we can really see a change. For instance, it’s not uncommon for a fifth-grade teacher to check out a first-grade reading class. In fact, that’s something that happens here on a regular basis. Sometimes we get kids in the fifth grade who are struggling readers because they’re missing the reading foundational skills that are taught in the first grade. And fifth-grade teachers don’t have the experience working with kids on those basics, so they’ll look to their colleagues in the first grade for guidance.
In addition to focusing on academic improvement, you've been recognized for focusing on the well-being of students. Can you give me some specific examples of how you do that?
We started our health and wellness center about six or seven years ago. Having the center helps us support our parents in providing medical care for the students. We have a full-time nurse practitioner on staff, as well as two mental-health specialists and a nurse. Thanks to the work they do, new kids who are uninsured can get their vaccines here at school instead of having to go to the health department in Fayetteville, which was a strain on parents who didn't have transportation or couldn't take time off from work. The nurse practitioner can also treat chronic illnesses, such as asthma or diabetes.
In the past, if we had a kid who came down with an illness—strep throat or an ear infection, say—we’d have to call mom or dad and have them come and pick up the child. A lot of time they wouldn't have transportation, or they wouldn't have insurance to get their child the proper medical care. Three or four days would pass, and if the child didn't come back to school or we didn't hear from the parents, we’d go knock on their door. Often we’d find that the parent hadn't taken the child to the doctor for whatever reason, be it financial or a lack of transportation. And we’d have to load the kid in my car or the school nurse’s car and take him or her to the emergency room.
Was your approach a radical change for the school? Were district folks a bit gun-shy at first?
Yes, it was a radical change, but no, district members were not gun-shy—not at all. Jones is what it is today because we have such a supportive district and superintendent, not to mention our entire community just wraps its arms around us. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to raise a school. I think what [the school district members] have come to realize over the years is that because of the socioeconomic challenges our kids face, many of the approaches we take to successfully educate our kids will have to look different from those taken at other schools. There are simply a lot of services we have to provide our kids to remove those barriers to learning. And they get that.
Can you give me an example of a child whose life was impacted by the programs in place here at Jones?
We had a student who started second grade not being able to read. Because of his struggles with reading, he was frustrated and acted out a lot. He came from a two-parent family where Mom managed a restaurant, but Dad was unemployed. We were really concerned about his struggles with reading, but Dad was frustrated with the reading homework we sent home. You see, Dad was illiterate, and I think he was frustrated that he couldn’t help. So there was a lot of tension in the home, and between home and school. So we wondered, “How can we help this child without creating problems for him at home?” And we came up with the idea of finding him a homework buddy here at school.
He worked on his reading with our librarian assistant every day after school, and steadily, his reading began to improve. In the third grade, he had a teacher who was very involved in the home library project. She was very intuitive about what his interests were—he was crazy about Harry Potter, so she made sure he was picking books in the same genre. When most kids go home over the summer break, they regress in their reading and English skills. But when he came back and started the fourth grade after the summer break, not only was there no regression in these areas, his reading score actually improved by 10 points. A big jump! So I called him into my office, and I asked him why he thought he’d made such an improvement, and he said it was because he read all summer long. He said he read every book he had in his home library. I asked him who had helped him. And he said, “My dad did!” He said he and his dad would set daily reading goals. For instance, his dad would say, “I want you to read 10 pages today.” But, he admitted, once he started to read his book, he couldn’t put it down. This child went from a child who could barely read and had a lot of anger issues in second grade to a confident and self-possessed kid who is now a voracious reader in fourth grade.
How have other schools in the district reacted to the success you’re having here at Jones?
It’s not uncommon for other schools in the district and in the state to come and observe what is going on in our school. For instance, we have several teachers here whose classrooms are model classrooms for the nation, especially in math. But we ourselves are eager to learn from the successes of our counterparts in the state, so it’s also common for us to pay them visits.
I’ll be honest with you—the Department of Education video has thrust us into the spotlight, and it hasn’t been very comfortable for me. I don’t do the spotlight well. But I do it because I want the same for every other poverty-stricken kid in America. I want people to see that these kids have potential, and when you commit to them and to collaboration among your teachers, and you think outside of the box, it’s endless what you can accomplish with these kids.
What inspired you to take on this challenge?
I’m a person of faith. I have a very strong belief in God. I sit in church, and they talk about the mission field, and I think, “I go to my mission field every day.” Some people go across the ocean to do mission work. I go across town. I believe this is what I was called to do, and I can’t imagine serving any other population. I feel very passionate about what I do. It’s very rewarding to empower kids who in the past might not have had hope for their future.
What is next for the school?
We just want to continue to get better at getting better. We won’t be satisfied with ourselves until we have 100 percent of our kids reading at grade level, and until we do that, we have to keep getting better and examining our practices, and looking at what our data is telling us, and putting systems in place to achieve that big audacious goal of 100 percent.
Plus, we’re committed to growing our parent support. We’ve progressed at this school from serving the academic child to serving the whole child, which means focusing first on meeting their basic needs—food, clothing, shelter, health care. Now we’ve begun to focus on another layer: helping to support their families so they can have better resources and be knowledgeable about how to better serve their kids. Specifically, we’re committed to growing our Parent University, and also, we’re in the discussion phase of a program that would offer family mentoring in conjunction with it. It would be other adults mentoring other adults, but we don’t know exactly what that looks like yet. Our goal is to work out the specifics for the next school year.
What fulfills you the most?
Anytime that I’m in a classroom and I see kids working at grade level who have overcome so much—I know the story behind the kids and their families and the situation they come from. When I see them in a classroom and I see the strong relationships they've built with their teachers and their peers, and I see them learning and achieving, that makes me go home at night and think, “This has been a good day.”

Center for Teaching Quality | Students matter. Teachers, not so much

Last week I wrote a column for Education Week on the damage done by a “D” grade awarded to our high-achieving, high-poverty public school: 
My editor responded to the first draft with a simple question: 
“Has the grade affected students at all? You say that such policies have a punitive impact on high-poverty students but you don't really spell out why.”
His question baffled me, because I thought I had spelled out the impact on students. It took a re-reading of my draft to realize he was right.
An effective teacher, by definition, focuses on the needs of students. We meet their needs all day in myriad ways. Sending books home with them at night. Figuring out their interests, strengths, and needs, then teaching in a way that honors those individual elements. Conveying to each child her potential and the hard work it takes to fulfill it.
We need to add another job to that list. 
When advocating for policies to better meet student needs, we can’t bury our lead: the students. We need to explain how the changes we advocate will improve learning outcomes for students, not just working conditions for teachers. 


Most teacher leaders have spent years thinking about the connections between the larger system and individual children. As a result, connections that may be evident to us are not always clear to policymakers or members of the public. 
We sometimes stumble by making the same oversight I made when writing the first draft of that column. 
We focus first on the impact felt by teachers from a bad policy, assuming our audience will make the logical leap to the impact on students. We can’t make that assumption.
Example: Consider my school’s “D,” awarded based on a new state formula that pays scant attention to growth. The following argument will gain little traction with non-teachers:
This failing grade hurts teacher morale.
You can imagine the responses: 
  • “Who cares? Do a better job and your morale will go up.” 
  • “You know what hurts student morale? Not learning how to read and do math.”
  • Or, in the immortal monosyllable uttered by Dick Cheney in response to data that most Americans opposed the Iraq war, “So?”
The three arguments below are much more likely to move policymakers, legislators, and the public at large to improve the formula that branded our school with a failing grade.
1. For children living in poverty to succeed in school, life, and a career, they need highly effective teachers and principals.  Systems that fail to measure growth often drive talented teachers and administrators away from high-poverty schools.
I know plenty of teachers, principals, and superintendents who are willing to work harder on behalf of high-poverty kids with daunting obstacles to their learning. But when these educators are publicly labeled as failures—even if they elicit greater growth than schools with more affluent populations—it creates a reverse incentive. These teachers and leaders may decide to move to a school or district with a population that requires less growth to reach proficiency. 
In the case of my own school, we have the great fortune of being led by a superintendent, principal, and teachers who care too much about their students and are too deeply rooted in their community to leave. But talented educators considering their next career move might think twice about going to a school where harder work for greater growth still results in a failing grade.
2. When you publicly shame a school, you send an implicit message to students and families that they have failed, too. This stigma has potent consequences for communities already confronted with poverty and racism.
True, some schools and districts are failing their high-poverty students. They are not eliciting the growth you should be able to expect from a child despite obstacles like poverty or learning English as a second language. 
Lack of growth in a truly failing school is not the kids’ fault. There’s nothing wrong with the children; there is something wrong with the system providing them a second-class education. 
But many high-poverty schools throughout the nation have received failing grades due not to poor instruction, but to poverty. To be clear, children living in poverty—including English Learners—are capable of brilliance, remarkable growth, and the same levels of academic achievement as more affluent students. But for a child who enters our school several years below grade-level, it may take more than a single year for that child to catch up—even if she makes more than a year’s growth.
When students at schools like mine receive a schoolwide failing grade despite outperforming students at more affluent schools, they receive the message that they are failures. 
When my 1st graders take the MAP test, I emphasize their individual growth goals rather than their overall score. If I didn’t do that, kids far below grade-level could make 20 points of growth and still look like failures, while students above grade-level could make no growth and still look like successes. The same principle applies to grading growth rather than overall attainment for schools.
3. Over-emphasizing a single test leads to increased time spent on test prep. This narrow focus eliminates many of the rich experiences that contribute most to student learning, like science experiments, engineering projects, and time devoted to the arts.
Some people disagree with this point. They insist that if you simply provide rich, rigorous classroom instruction, test scores will rise. But for children who live in poverty and speak English as their second language, it takes an enormous amount of time to teach the vocabulary, format, and strategy involved in standardized tests. Most of this skill set has limited application to any endeavor other than taking tests.
When a school’s public perception is based on a single standardized test, teachers and principals will spend more time preparing students for that test. The result is a narrowing of the curriculum. 
The very system declared as an antidote to poor instruction for high-poverty students ends up damaging those students’ access to rigorous instruction. It robs them of opportunities to develop creativity, critical thinking, ingenuity, and other 21st century and non-cognitive skills—which tend to have a far greater impact on success in college, career, and life than accurately filling in bubbles on a multiple choice test.
Children living in poverty need the arts and sciences just as much as more affluent students. Their chances of attending and graduating college depend on that access. 
More immediately, they deserve an education that ignites their imaginations. The saying that “a child is a candle to be lit, not a cup to be filled,” applies to all children—not just those in middle-class zip codes.


Education policy impacts too many students’ lives to leave it entirely to non-teachers. For those of us who choose to teach and advocate for better policies, we have to keep one critical point in mind:
What we understand intuitively about the connections between our profession and student learning is not always apparent to people outside the classroom. 
Professional autonomy, a role in shaping policy, and collaboration time in the school day all have an undeniable connection to better outcomes for students. But if we don’t connect those dots for people who haven’t lived the connections, it will sound like we’re just trying to make things better for ourselves, not for the students in our care.
When teaching a new concept to our students, we meet them where they are. We don’t assume they already know what we know.
We need to do the same thing with policymakers, legislators, and members of the public. It’s the only way to bring about the changes we know our students need.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Education Week | Giving Excellence a 'D': When School-Accountability Grades Fail

Giving Excellence a 'D': When School-Accountability Grades Fail

Students at Jones Elementary in Springdale, Ark.
Students at Jones Elementary in Springdale, Ark.
—Provided by the author
What grade would you give Jones Elementary, the school where I work?
Consider the following data:
  • Ninety-seven percent of the children at Jones live in poverty, and 85 percent are English-language learners. Despite these obstacles, the school had the highest literacy growth in the entire district on the state’s 2014 benchmark test: 78 percent. In the eight previous years, proficiency in literacy soared from 26 percent to 73 percent. Individual student growth on the computerized MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) test is consistently strong in both reading and math.
  • This year Jones Elementary was one of five schools in the nation profiled by the U.S. Department of Education in recognition of its strong academic growth, effective use of data, ethos of collaboration among teachers, and support services like a school-based community health clinic, three pre-K classrooms, and a breakfast program where every child eats every morning.
  • Despite such a high-poverty student population, staff turnover is virtually zero percent. Five teachers at Jones hold certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and two teachers are finalists this year for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. Each year, 10 interns from the University of Arkansas master’s degree program in ele-mentary education are placed with master teachers at Jones. Principal Melissa Fink, who is one of a handful of school leaders completing the Master Principal Institute at the Arkansas Leadership Acad-emy, was recently tapped as one of 15 principals in the nation to advise the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Jones Elementary regularly hosts visitors from around the state and nation who want to learn from its success in teaching high-poverty English Learners. The school is a state model for Cognitively Guided Instruction in math. This week a film crew from ASCD, an association specializing in educational leadership and professional development, will tape a video series in several classrooms for national use. During the same week, an education professor from Sweden will visit the school to learn from its strengths.
I have taught at this remarkable school for the past 11 years. Before you decide on our final grade, consider these first-hand accounts, too.
  • Every year I see children at the school become more creative, compassionate, curious human beings as a result of the teaching and support services they experience at Jones.
    One example of the school’s culture: A few years ago, one of our students was sexually assaulted by her stepfather and was placed in an institution in another city. The student had made remarkable progress at our school, including two years of reading growth in a single year in 2nd grade. She had become happier and more confident. She had begun smiling again.
    Our principal wanted to make sure our teachers, counselor, and nurse could continue meeting the child’s many needs, so she called the facility to make sure she would come back to our school when she was released. The director of the facility was quiet a moment, then said, “In 17 years in this job, I have never had a school try to get a student back. Usually, given all the behavioral problems these kids have, schools want to make sure a child will be sent somewhere else.”
    The student returned to Jones the next year. She's now in middle school and has plans to go to college and become a nurse.
  • Our school supports individual students, but we also support their families. We host regular parent literacy nights, we implemented a family literacy program that involves parents learning English alongside their children, and we recently started a Parent University to address community needs, including the prevention of gang violence.
  • Our school’s vision is to help children “live the lives they dream.” While our students display impressive growth on standardized tests, we also focus on 21st-century and non-cognitive skills: creativity, integration of technology with higher-order thinking, persistence, and collaboration. Students leave Jones Elementary as strong readers, writers, mathematicians, and scientists, but they also leave our school as strong thinkers, engineers, and problem-solvers, not to mention kinder and happier human beings.

Formula Fail

So: What do you think of us? What grade would you give our high-poverty, high-performing public school?
The reason I ask is that the Arkansas Department of Education, acting on new state legislation that requires each school to receive a letter grade, recently awarded us a “D.”
Why, you might ask. Well, in my view, the formula used to come up with the school grades contains flaws that range from the subtle to the profound.
Too much attention is given to overall proficiency and too little to growth. As a result, schools with more affluent populations look like they’re doing better than they are, while schools with high poverty or high numbers of English-learners look like they’re doing worse.
The formula does look at the gap between students with particular needs (high poverty, English-learners, children in special education) and students without those needs. Our school had no such gap, which is rightly considered a good thing.
But in a bizarre wrinkle, our school has so few students without some type of special need—fewer than 20 of our 500+ students, most of them children of Jones teachers who choose to send their own sons and daughters to our school—that we got no points for closing the gap. If we were just 80 percent high-poverty instead of 97 percent, we would have done better on the state’s formula.

Misplaced Priorities

The goal of all education policy should be to improve schools for students. Policymakers should pay particular attention to the needs of children living in poverty, who have to rely most desperately on schools to break that cycle.
In reality, of course, policymaking in the No Child Left Behind era often penalizes children living in poverty. State legislators and data analysts may have thought that giving our school a failing grade would make us work harder (hardly possible), or take a closer look at our students who are below grade level (as if we weren’t already doing that). Maybe they thought they were giving families greater school choice by creating an incentive to leave Jones Elementary for a school with an A or B grade.
Here’s what happened instead:
  • The “D,” reported in the local newspaper, felt like gut punch to every teacher and staff member who works at our school. It made a very difficult job that much harder. No teacher at Jones believes that poverty is destiny. We are committed to ensuring that our students make enough growth to reach and surpass proficiency. But when you elicit greater growth than schools with more affluent students, despite the daunting obstacles that poverty brings, you don’t expect to be publicly labeled a failure.
  • The grade labeled Jones Elementary a failure at least in the eyes of those who don’t know the school firsthand, adding stigma to a neighborhood already afflicted by poverty. It has created a potential disincentive for talented teachers and principals to consider working at the school in the future.
  • For those of us who regularly partner in good faith with legislators and policymakers to better serve children, our trust in their judgment and intentions has been profoundly shaken.
Just to be clear, we are always willing to listen to constructive criticism and work to become better. Given how many children and families depend on us, we know it’s not enough to do an exceptional job; we need to improve upon excellence every year.
We welcome input from anyone—legislators, policymakers, members of the public—who can help us get better at our work. But to have years of dedication, expertise, and accomplishments reduced to a “D” on the basis of an arbitrary evaluation makes you question whether those who should be supporting your work will ever see you clearly.

A Question of Credibility

So whose credibility has been eroded by this failing grade?
Families at our school know that we do an exceptional job of teaching their children, meeting their health needs (we even send backpacks of food home each weekend so students won’t go hungry), and ensuring the safety of every child in our care.
Teachers at our school know we have the great fortune of working with dedicated colleagues who care deeply about children and work to become better every year.
Partners, including the University of Arkansas, Scholastic Books, foundations, and businesses like Farmers Insurance (which awarded one of five $100,000 grants in the country to our school for a home library initiative this year), all see our strengths. They witness the remarkable student learning happening every hour of every day of every year, and they are a part of it.
So whose abilities, judgment, and intentions have been called into question as a result of this grade?
In my view, it’s state legislators who passed the school-grading bill. And the data analysts who created a formula that can draw such distorted conclusions about school performance. And the policymakers and think tanks who have still not learned, after 15 years of failed policy, a proven point:
Publicly shaming schools that serve high-poverty students—including those that elicit greater academic growth than schools with affluent populations—is a terrible strategy to improve outcomes for the children who need high-quality schools most.

Earning Trust

Schools need data. We need high standards. We need accountability, so long as that accountability is balanced with autonomy for teachers, administrators, and school systems with a proven record of professionalism and academic achievement.
Grading systems like the new Arkansas formula undermine these core elements of education reform. They hurt students by driving away talented teachers and leaders. Those of us who teach in high-poverty schools are often willing to work harder for less pay on behalf of students who need more. But we are not willing to add public stigma to that lopsided equation.
There is no group of talented professionals I would rather work with than my colleagues at Jones Elementary. We collaborate daily, using our collective strengths to address our weaknesses. We support each other, and we push one another to become better teachers every year.
We give our days and hours to the children we teach, and we love the work. Our job is often exhausting, but it is also renewing, because we have the great honor of teaching such remarkable little human beings.
They place their trust in us, and we do all in our power to earn that trust.
We will never fail the brilliant, funny, courageous students in our care. But the system that gave our school a failing grade has failed every one of these children abysmally by sending the message that their remarkable growth constitutes failure. They deserve better.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Filling the Gaps | CTQ Posted by Justin Minkel

Filling the Gaps

Posted by Justin Minkel on Tuesday, 03/17/2015

This week Scholastic delivered 10,500 books to our school for the first book fair of its kind. Two things make this book fair different from most:
  • The kids don’t have to pay for the books.
  • The book fair is tied into six family literacy nights planned by every grade level, kindergarten through fifth grade.

Every child in every class gets to choose five books to add to their home libraries, and the children who come with their parents to a family literacy night get four additional books to take home and keep. 98% of our students live in poverty, so providing the books free of charge makes a huge difference in the number of books going into children’s hands and homes.

Today at our book fair, I saw Jasper—a little guy from the Marshall Islands who wears comically big glasses—moping around as the other students chose their books. I asked him why he wasn’t picking out any books and he said in a forlorn voice, “I don’t have a dollar.”

When I explained that this book fair is different, he doesn’t need money to pick out books, he grinned and set out to make his selections.

Angela held up a book and told me, “I picked this one for my brother.”

On our way back to class, Sala said, “When I get home, I’m going to teach my little brother to read.”

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

15 Principals, One United Voice

What happens when you pull together 15 principal from Arkansas, Indiana, New York, Montana, California, Louisiana, Illinois, New Jersey, Tennessee, Kansas, and Idaho together for a meeting? One united voice begins to emerge working to improve the quality of education for children in America.

I was recently invited to Washington DC to participate in a round table discussion at the US Department of Education. We were privileged to meet with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Assistant Secretary of Education Deb Delisle, and senior staff members from the department. We visited about the reauthorization of the Elementary Secondary Education Act, Early Childhood, English Language Learners, the importance of an effective principal, accountability systems, and equity among high poverty schools.

Prior to attending the meeting, I was very reluctant to voice my opinion at the state or the national level. I had a preconceived notion that my opinion didn't matter and no one cared what a principal from Arkansas thought. I even told my assistant superintendent to permanently mark me basic in political advocacy on my principal evaluation. I never saw myself talking to political leaders.

When I received the invitation to attend Principal's at ED, I felt many emotions. I felt humbled and honored to be selected to be part of a prestigious group. I felt scared because I was traveling far away to a place where I didn't know anyone. I felt intimidated because I had never been placed in the political spotlight. I felt inadequate to speak to such important people.

My fears and insecurities began to melt away the first evening in DC. We had an informal dinner to meet our colleagues. My walls started coming down as we visited about our schools, our communities, and our personal lives. It became apparent that although we came from different backgrounds, served in different communities, led diverse staffs, taught children from all ethnic backgrounds and social statuses, we had many similar ideas on best educational practices.

The next morning, we gathered in the lobby of the US Department of Education. After clearing our security checks, we were ushered to the Secretary of Education's Conference Room. We had a packed agenda and it seemed overwhelming.

As the meetings started, I began to feel more comfortable. It was apparent by each and every employee of the US Dept of Ed how much they wanted to learn from us. Each person shared a little about what they did, but had questions for us. They fervishly took notes and engaged in dialogue to gather our thoughts and opinions on different topics. The day was spent with reciprocal learning happening around learning from them...them learning from us.

The tight bond that was formed between the administrators came quickly. I was amazed that a principal from an Indian Reservation in the middle of Montana had the same beliefs about best practices that a principal from New York had. The perspective that each principal brought to the table was invaluable. The wealth of knowledge in the room that day was priceless; I learned so much from them. As the bond quickly formed, our voice became united and it grew stronger.

The time we spent with the US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, felt very natural. He entered into the room with his sleeves rolled up and was eager to learn from us. All of us had an opportunity to give feedback into what we wanted to happen with the reauthorization of ESEA. He gave us some insight and justification into his thoughts on ESEA and allowed all of us to give our opinions about what would make ESEA better for our students.

If I had to sum up my experience with the Principals at ED with one word, I would say it was empowering. I entered the situation feeling like my voice was not worthy of being heard, but left feeling my voice was important and mattered.

The experience in Washington DC has opened  my world. I am now serving on several state level committees to improve education for Arkansas students. I have also begun to contact my state legislators and representatives to encourage policy makers to make decisions in the best interest of students. I've also been given the opportunity to address the Arkansas State Board of Education to discuss best teaching and leadership practices.

Although these experiences have taken me completely out of my comfort zone, I have been empowered to be the voice for children everywhere. I take comfort in knowing the other 14 administrators I became fast friends with are fighting the courageous battle with me...although we are miles apart. It was a great experience and one I would highly recommend to anyone.