Monday, June 28, 2010

Frowny face, or, turnarounds by the numbers

Today in my special education class we talked about particular needs of high school students with disabilities, and we looked at some numbers for students in high schools that we will be working in.

The numbers were pretty disheartening. At the school where I will be tutoring this summer (and where I have a 50-50 chance of being placed for the school year), the reported truancy rate is 53%. The mobility rate, which measures how often students move in and out of the district, is almost 40%. It's pretty hard to teach students when you don't know who is going to show up from one day to the next, or from one year to the next. In addition to that, more than 75% of students entering 9th grade at this school are reading at 6th grade level or lower. Only a handful are reading at grade level. About 15% are reading at 2nd grade or lower (including not at all).

So I was wrong to worry about seeing 150 students a day. On a really good day, I may see 90 or 100 of them.

Our job is to close the achievement gap, and at this school, that means preparing these kids to take the ACT. So these are pretty scary numbers. It's not that I wasn't aware of these problems before--far from it--but somehow they seem much more stark to me today. As our teacher said, "often you have a year or less to do as much as you can for these students" before they change schools or leave school altogether.

Our teacher had passed out "response cards" with a variety of responses (multiple choice, true false), including a smiley face and a frowny face. When she asked us how we felt after this review of the numbers, there was a clear majority of frowny faces. But one woman in my class showed her happy face. She said that she feels inspired to help these students and that she has hope and a drive for them to improve. And she's right--the numbers should not depress me, even though they do. They also make me feel the intense urgency of these students' need. So thanks, friend, for reminding me to hope and know that we can do better--that's why I'm here.

ADDENDUM: I learned today that the 53% truancy rate is actually a reduction from more than 60%, one year after getting turned around. Who knew that 53% would be an encouraging number?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

What exactly am I doing? Nuts and bolts

Here's my schedule:

now-Aug 3: course work, as well as introduction to a core of teaching strategies, from 8am-4:30pm, M-F. We are taking 18 credit hours (5 classes) in 7 weeks.

Aug 3-Sep 1: coursework switches to Fridays only

Sep 1-June: begin working with mentor teacher in an actual classroom Monday-Thursday, classes continue on Friday

June: receive MAT, state certificate to teach, job, happiness

drinking the kool-aid: thoughts on this blog's title and my opening days

I've decided to start a blog to keep a record of my experiences and reactions to my time in this program. I really feel like I've been thrown in the deep end with course work--just tons and tons of reading and assignments--so I haven't had much time to sit down and reflect, but I did have some reactions to our orientation days that I wanted to get down.

During the two days of our orientation, we had a lot of different members of the organization's leadership speak to us. Several of them repeatedly made remarks that made my ears prick up, and one especially stood out: "there are those that would wish to see us fail." I will have more to say at a later date on school turnarounds, I'm sure, but my initial impression was to feel depressed at how embattled they seem to feel.

After all, even though many people think that turnarounds are not a good model for school reform, can there possibly be people who care about education who WANT those school turnarounds to "fail," that is, to fail to serve their students? I doubt that this is the case. But the feeling of embattledness, the position that educators are not united in wanting students to succeed, permeates and poisons the education reform debate. This was evident in Steve Brill's caustic New York Times article about Race to the Top, and in many comment threads you read on the education blogs. Anyway, when the US Education Secretary, the President, the city government, and the heads of the district are all on your side (not to mention lots of private $$), then you probably don't have to worry too much about your naysayers.

We had an amazing panel of parents from a network school speak to us about their experiences. I think it was hard for a lot of us to be uncynical about how these parents were selected--they all had very positive things to say and they seemed to be some of the most active parents in the school. To be sure, some of them professed initial skepticism about the turnaround. But even though they weren't given any input before the school's "turnaround" (closure) was announced, they all agreed that now there is a lot of community input about goings on at the school. What they had to say about the changes that they've seen in their students and in the school community was truly moving and inspiring.

Over the next months and year I want to enter into this process with a pragmatic and open mind. I have some (informed) prejudices, but I want to be prepared to see what works and what doesn't, to feel like we all want students who have been underserved to succeed. If that is our mission, then no one will want us to fail.