Articles in the Urban Schools category

New ASBJ examines impact of school choice

The December issue of American School Board Journal, now available online, goes inside two schools in Camden. N.J.—one a charter, one a traditional public school—to see how school choice has impacted the high-poverty community. How has the traditional school fared since many of its most engaged students and families left for the charter? And is the charter actually offering a better education? Read “A Tale of Two Schools” to find out.

Also available online is the recently updated version of the annual Education Vital Signs report:

Erin Walsh|November 24th, 2010|Categories: Charter Schools, School Board News, Urban Schools|

Dichotomy’s present, prolific in story of public education

otb-camdenCamden, N.J., is no longer the most violent city in America. That distinction now belongs to St. Louis, Mo., my hometown.

At least, that’s the assessment by CQ Press, which each year examines the rate of violent crime in America’s cities and metropolitan areas. For the record, according to 2009 statistics, St. Louis had 2,070 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, with Camden, last year’s “winner,” not far behind.

CQ’s whole enterprise is misleading, however. In Camden, as in St. Louis, how violent it is depends on where exactly in the city you are. Visit Camden’s gleaming, touristy waterfront, its lovely aquarium and fine hotels, and you might not know what problems lurk in its neighborhoods. Spend a weekend in downtown St. Louis – going to the zoo, the symphony, or a Cardinals game – and you’d probably have no idea you’re in the “most violent” city in America.

I mention Camden’s crime rate, because Senior Editor Del Stover and I wrote about two schools in some of the poorer parts of that city for this month’s ASBJ. Del went to LEAP University Charter School.  I visited the more “traditional” Woodrow Wilson High School.

Naomi Dillon|November 24th, 2010|Categories: American School Board Journal, Dropout Prevention, Governance, Policy Formation, School Reform, Student Achievement, Urban Schools|Tags: , |

The week in blogs

Georgia is looking to cut back on compensation for teachers with advanced degrees in areas not directly related to the core subjects, says Maureen Downey in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s “Get Schooled” blog.  Last year’s bill for all advanced degrees was $880 million, she says. But only 10.4 percent of these degrees were in core subjects, and nearly three times that many (31 percent) were in Educational Leadership.   

 “Your colleagues are taking the path of least resistance to get a pay raise,” Kelly Henson, the director of Georgia’s Professional Standards Commission, told teachers earlier this year at a hearing attended by Downey. “They are not getting degrees in the areas in which they teach. They are getting the easiest and most convenient degrees. They are getting degrees for the raise and not for how much it will impact their performance.”

Downey points to a RAND study that looked at student performance in 44 states between 1990 and 1996 and found that attaining a master’s degree had no measurable effect, in terms of student performance, on teacher quality.

Lawrence Hardy|November 12th, 2010|Categories: American School Board Journal, Assessment, Curriculum, Educational Research, Governance, Policy Formation, Student Achievement, Teachers, Urban Schools|

Important messages, questions arise from recent rash of films on education

1110CoverASBJI think I was correct.

As that’s a rare event, I might as well crow about it. But a few months ago, I started hearing a bit of buzz in the education community about “Waiting for Superman” and a bunch of other education documentaries that were being released this year.

It seems some education groups “inside the Beltway” were worried that public education was going to go through another round of “school bashing” because of these films, and rumors were that these documentaries were very “pro-charter schools.”

There was nervous chatter about how to respond to this public relations threat. My boss had heard the same thing, and the mandate came down on me: Check it out for the November issue of ASBJ.

So I checked it out. I called a lot of education groups. I called media and public relations experts. And I watched a lot of movies.

Naomi Dillon|November 4th, 2010|Categories: American School Board Journal, Governance, Policy Formation, Urban Schools|

ASBJ chronicles Broad winner Gwinnett County’s efforts to educate immigrants

The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has announced the Gwinnett County, Ga., school district as the winner of the 2010 Broad Prize, which includes $1 million for student scholarships.

“Gwinnett County has demonstrated that an unwavering focus across a school system – by every member of the district and the community – can lead to steady student improvement and achievement,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said at the announcement on Oct. 19. “Districts across the country should look to Gwinnett County as an example of what is possible when adults put their interests aside and focus on students.”

The Broad Foundation will award $250,000 for scholarships to each of the four other finalists—Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina; Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland; and the Socorro Independent School District and the Ysleta Independent School District, both in Texas.

According to the Broad Foundation, ore than half of Gwinnett’s students are African-American or Hispanic, and half are eligible for subsidized lunches.

American School Board Journal wrote about Gwinnett County’s efforts to educate its rapidly growing and diverse population of immigrant students in its Sept. 2008 Special Report on Immigration and Diversity. The story is featured below:

A Race Against Time

With well-organized stacks of student files and forms, Judy Schilling’s office bears the telltale signs of a high school counselor. A veteran in guiding students through transcripts, Schilling volunteered for one of Norcross High School’s most daunting assignments: navigating its diverse and growing population of English language learners (ELLs) toward graduation. Her job entails a sense of urgency that she deftly yet calmly describes as “a race against time.”

Time is a critical element for Norcross’ immigrant students to learn English, assimilate to a new culture, catch up with class work, and pass the numerous content exams required by both Georgia and the Gwinnett County school district to receive a diploma. Schilling must help these students overcome the major disadvantage of starting school at the secondary level—research clearly shows the earlier, the better—within the confines of a suburban district struggling to manage its growth.

With 2,800 students and a labyrinth of hallways and classrooms, Norcross High could be described as a microcosm of the immigration trend that’s swept Gwinnett County and the rest of the U.S. in the past two decades. The school’s student population, which was predominantly white in the early 1990s, has no racial majority; about 30 percent each are of white, black, and Hispanic origin and 10 percent are Asian. Last year, 423 Norcross students were classified as ELLs.

Norcross has won national praise for its International Baccalaureate program and other rigorous classes, and Principal Jonathan Patterson strives to increase the staff’s expectations for ELL students and educate them in the most challenging environments. Still, only 39 percent of Norcross’ ELL students graduate in four years, a figure that he calls “pretty terrible.”

Even within the success stories, some students are undocumented and can’t find legal employment, and many more will be unable to afford higher education, even if they are legal residents who qualify for in-state tuition and Georgia’s HOPE scholarship. One of Schilling’s dreaded tasks is telling students that, despite their hard work and perseverance, she can’t change their fate.

“We see talent and potential every day, and it saddens me to think that ends at high school,” Schilling says.

Dealing with enormous growth

In the South, Georgia has seen much larger numbers of new immigrants than most other states. And while Atlanta historically is considered a diverse city, it’s mainly in the sense of black and white. As the primary commercial hub of the Southeast, it has grown exponentially in recent decades, and that prosperity as well as a nearby refugee relocation center attracted newcomers from all points of the world.

The city’s growth has stretched its suburban boundaries farther and farther, recently making Gwinnett County one of the nation’s fastest growing areas and a mecca for immigrant groups. Hispanics were wooed by an abundance of construction jobs, Koreans bought homes in luxurious subdivisions, and Eastern Europeans opened restaurants and grocery stores. As the city’s traditional black-and-white segregation eased, African-American families also settled into Gwinnett’s suburban lifestyle.

The school district was largely unprepared for the new arrivals, some observers say. Gwinnett is criticized for building large, comprehensive high schools for efficiency, and the size and boundaries of Norcross have hindered its efforts to engage immigrant students and their parents. And staff members say local politics, which recently turned more hostile to immigrants, significantly impact the school’s actions.

Politics aside, the increase in new arrivals demands that schools provide an adequate education, or Southern states ultimately will face severe economic consequences, says Joseph Marks, the Southern Regional Education Board’s director of education data services.

“The groups that are growing the fastest are the groups where students historically have been less prepared, and either don’t attend college or don’t complete college,” he says. “The education system is going to have to do a lot better at preparing and encouraging these populations to do much better, or the educational attainment of the workforce would become stagnant, and that’s a historically unprecedented stall.”

Gwinnett saw its numbers of limited-English-proficient students jump from 575 in the 1990-91 school year to 19,409 in 2006-07, and the more recent arrivals often have a more basic education background, says Tricia Kennedy, Gwinnett’s assistant superintendent for instruction and curriculum.

“We have an increasing number of students coming to us as high school students who have gaps in their education,” she says. “We’re having to provide a lot of scaffolding to build in those gaps in learning.”

Skills in native language critical

By far the best indicator of whether new immigrants will succeed in high school is proficiency in reading, writing, and math in their native language, teachers and researchers agree.

“If they’re literate, we move much more quickly,” says Jeannette Butler, an ELL teacher at Norcross. “A lot of these kids work very hard and can make it to a higher-level curriculum.”

That may still take years. Butler estimates that a midlevel student, with average intelligence and moderate literacy in their home language, will be in ELL classes about seven years. Research shows it takes five to seven years to gain competency in English.

Nevertheless, Georgia requires high school students to take the district’s graduation exams after they have been enrolled for only one year, beginning in 10th grade. Norcross’ ELL students struggle to pass any of the seven required subjects, particularly the writing exam. Students may retake any failed exam as often as the tests are offered, but teachers say many become discouraged and may drop out after repeated failures.

Determining whether a student fails because of a lack of content knowledge or language difficulties is yet another challenge. Nationally, ELLs struggle to pass the growing number of exit exams required by states or districts. A 2005 survey of six states for the Center for Education Policy showed that the percentages of ELL students who passed graduation exams on the first try were significantly lower than all other subgroups, including students living in poverty.

The educational experiences of Gwinnett’s new immigrant students vary, from a 15-year-old Guatemalan boy who had left school in second grade and spoke only a local dialect to Hoang Nguyen, who came from Vietnam as a ninth-grader with credits for calculus and physics classes.

Speaking in newly acquired English, Nguyen says U.S. schools are easy for him, but many classmates are struggling or disengaged.

“Not all ESOL kids have the motivation to graduate, or they are scared or don’t have the courage to take on the classes,” says Nguyen, who planned to study computer science at Georgia State University this fall. “I go up to my friends and say, ‘Are you going to graduate?’ They say,

‘Maybe,’ so I say, ‘Why?’ And they say, ‘Oh, it’s so hard, and I have to pass the tests.’”

Center for newcomers

Given the needs and complexities of educating immigrant students, the district opened its International Newcomer Center (INC) to decipher and translate foreign transcripts and find appropriate placements. The center, which recently extended its hours to meet increasing demand, employs translators, outreach specialists, and graduation coaches who sort through the new students’ academic transcripts and test for content knowledge and English acquisition. Now located in an administrative building, the center welcomes families with multilingual DVD programs that explain the district’s rules and expected behaviors, such as dress codes and policies for absences. Counselors then take families into private rooms for interviews and to review transcripts, and finally, the student takes subject-matter tests.

The center also works with refugee and family services centers to bring in translators for less-common languages.

INC director Victoria Webbert says placing a student is “an art, not a science,” and schools have discretion to change placements once a student acclimates. Often, she says, the staff tries to place students cautiously, as it’s more encouraging to be moved to a higher-level class than to be demoted.

Gwinnett has organized its ELL classes using a grid that factors in a student’s age, language acquisition, and content knowledge. The district also offers inclusive classes for students who have some English and significant content knowledge. The state requires all ELL classes to be taught in English, and most ELL teachers at Norcross do not speak a second language.

“You have to do a lot of rephrasing, and learn to say things in different ways,” says Norcross teacher Amy Crisp. Teachers in the ELL classes, which usually contain fewer than a dozen students, often communicate with gestures and pictures.

The school has tried numerous initiatives, some of which have been more successful than others, she says. An afterschool tutoring program faltered, but the teachers plan to give more intensive English and math instruction this year. The percentages of Norcross ESOL students passing the math and language arts components of the graduation exams increased slightly this year.

“There is hope,” Crisp says. “I believe things are working. It’s just the time factor that we’re up against.”

Unique needs and issues

After academics, Norcross must deal with the special needs of students who may not have come to the U.S. by choice and may be dealing with unique family and social issues.

Many students are caught between two cultures, wanting to assimilate to U.S. norms but feeling pressured to uphold their native culture and language. Some work to help their families pay bills or send money to relatives, and some serve as interpreters for their families, an act that becomes stressful when dealing with complicated legal or financial matters.

Depression and emotional issues are common, but not always recognized or addressed, teachers and counselors say. Another ongoing challenge is recognizing cultural differences and making efforts to draw in newcomers. For instance, teachers are urged to include references to different cultures in their work, and in some cases reference a student’s family—saying, for instance, “Your family would be proud of you”—rather than individual praise.

Norcross students tend to gravitate toward cliques with the same cultural background. Some Hispanic students say they were pleased to find so many Spanish-speaking peers, but students with more unique backgrounds, such as Francious Aka, an Ivory Coast native who lived in Italy before arriving in Gwinnett, find it tougher to socialize.

Francisco Rivera, who moved to Georgia from Mexico when his father took a job selling farm equipment, says he’s made more friends because he speaks English. But he realized that could complicate relationships with his Hispanic friends and family members.

“I have a lot of American friends because I’m not afraid to speak English,” says Rivera, who plans to go to college or join the Air Force to become an engineer. “Some people from Mexico say I’m forgetting my heritage, but I’m in the United States.”

Gwinnett schools have encouraged immigrant students to share their experiences through extracurricular activities—one high school has a mariachi band, another has a Latino student group. But extracurricular activities at Norcross pose more challenges. Many immigrant students hold jobs after school, and school buses are the only transportation option for most others because the suburban areas are so sprawling. Several after-school activities, including a girls’ club that encouraged self-esteem and discouraged pregnancy, disbanded because of low participation.

Efforts to engage parents through evening dinners and activities also have seen low turnout. Patterson, Norcross’ principal, is particularly concerned that, without an adequate education, too many of his students will continue a cycle of poverty.

“We can see that motivation is the key to everything, and that is the thing that is the most difficult to calculate,” he says.

Federal law prohibits schools from questioning citizenship status, but the staff at Norcross say immigrant students often let them know if they are undocumented. For instance, the counselors might recruit top students for plum work-study assignments but find that some don’t have Social Security numbers.

“It’s frustrating,” Patterson says. “Here we don’t ask; we just hear of situations where a kid is showing motivation and determination and effort to do well, and push themselves academically, but then they look at the economics of getting a higher education degree.”

Curbing the dropout rate

Several Southern states have turned hostile to illegal immigrants, adding to the national debate on whether undocumented students who have attended U.S. secondary schools should pay in-state tuition rates for higher education institutions.

The 1996 welfare reform law prohibited in-state rates, but some states sidestepped that requirement. Last year, Georgia’s legislature shot down a practice by the state’s Board of Regents and mandated undocumented students must pay out-of-state tuition.

In June, South Carolina adopted one of the most stringent measures, the Illegal Immigration Reform Act. One section of the law deems undocumented students ineligible to attend any public higher education institution in South Carolina and denies them scholarships, financial aid, and grants. And the North Carolina legislature is considering a measure that would bar undocumented students from attending its public community colleges.

The percentage of recent immigrants who drop out, though, is much higher than native-born students or students who arrived in the early elementary grades. Teen pregnancy is contributing to Norcross’ ELL dropout rate, and other dropouts were lured by jobs.

“Once you start making money, living a hair better, it’s hard to give that up,” Patterson notes.

Senior Liliana Gomez could be considered an “at-risk” student. Outside school, she works about 40 hours a week, including every weekend, at a clothing store. She came to Georgia at the request of her mother, who left her with her father after moving to the U.S. with a new husband.

In Mexico, Gomez enjoyed a middle-class lifestyle on her father’s farm. Gomez says she’s determined to graduate despite her academic struggles and personal hardships. She’s also motivated to learn English because, “I want to understand everything.”

People stereotype Mexicans as poor, she says, at the same time admitting her family is struggling. She may return to Mexico if her prospects do not improve.

“I really want to go to college, but I can’t. It’s too much money,” says Gomez, who hopes to graduate in 2009.

Schilling takes her hand. “Things change,” she says. “We have to hope.”

Afterward, Schilling admits there is little she can do for the many students in Gomez’s situation. “Sometimes we get hung up on statistics, but when you meet these people, it’s a whole different ballgame.”

Joetta Sack-Min|October 19th, 2010|Categories: Announcements, Immigrants, School Board News, Urban Schools|

The week in blogs

Photo by Jim Lillicotch courtesy of

Photo by Jim Lillicotch courtesy of

Greetings, blog readers. And welcome to The Week in Blogs’ First Occasional Pop Quiz About Important Education News You Should Know About. (We’re still working on the title.)

Today’s question: What big-city school leader announced plans this week to step down after a whirlwind tenure that included closing 22 schools, instituting a new evaluation system for teachers, and introducing performance pay?

Michelle who?

No, we’re talking about Mark Roosevelt, the innovative superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, who is stepping down Dec. 31 to seek the job of president of Antioch College, which had closed because of financial difficulties but is planning to reopen next fall.

An excellent analysis of Roosevelt’s tenure in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also describes the superintendent’s bold “leap of faith” in establishing the Pittsburgh Promise college scholarship program for city schools graduates who meet certain requirements. With the help of a major grant from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, as well as its own fundraising, the program has provided more than 2,400 scholarships.

For a change of pace (or perhaps comic relief) read Slate’s story, entitled “Tea Party Candidate Wants to Eliminate Public Schools.” It’s about David Harmer, the GOP candidate for California’s 11th Congressional District, who 10 years ago said public schools are “socialism in education” and proposed going back to “the way things worked through the first century of American nationhood.”  Did we say this was funny? Slate cites one election analyst who gives Harmer a 54.7 percent chance of beating Democratic incumbent Jerry McNerney. (Thanks to Alexander Russo’s This Week in Education for alerting us to the stories about the Pittsburgh schools and Harmer’s candidacy.)

Lastly, read the Alliance for Excellent Education’s blog about the high cost to the nation (and to taxpayers) of students dropping out of college. The American Institutes for Research study says that states appropriated almost $6.2 billion between 2003 and 2008 to help pay for the education of students who did not return for a second year. The study underscores the important work school districts must do to ensure that all college-bound students are prepared for the academic challenges ahead.

Lawrence Hardy, Senior Editor

Lawrence Hardy|October 16th, 2010|Categories: American School Board Journal, Budgeting, Curriculum, Diversity, Dropout Prevention, Governance, Policy Formation, Student Achievement, Teachers, Urban Schools|

Rhee to step down but questions still abound about her, D.C. schools future

Michelle_RheeIt’s a wrap. Michelle Rhee is leaving her post as D.C. schools chancellor. Though it dispelled weeks of speculation, her announcment is hardly a surprise.

After all, she made it very clear—from her active campaigning for Mayor Adrian Fenty to her public lamenting after his defeat— that her tenure was dependent, motivated, shaped by the absolute control she enjoyed under Fenty- — and likely wouldn’t under political victor Vincent Gray.

No, her ouster is not news to me— though I find her departure timeline a bit surprising. But what really intrigues me about Rhee is how she became news in the first place.

How and why did she garner so much attention? She’s not the first mayor-appointed schools chief, a phenomenon that began two decades ago with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino who scored big when he nabbed  former U.S. Secretary of Education Tom Payzant as city superintendent.

Though Rhee and Fenty’s no-holds barred approach has ruffled many feathers, they were hardly the most controversial duo. As a former Chicago reporter, I can assure you Mayor Richard M. Daley and city budget director-turned schools chief Paul Vallas are hardly the warm and fuzzy type … then again, that is Chicago.

Naomi Dillon|October 13th, 2010|Categories: American School Board Journal, Governance, Urban Schools|Tags: , |

The benefits of outdoor classrooms

Students are happier and learn better when they spend time outdoors, research shows. A webinar sponsored by NSBA’s National Affiliate programs on Oct. 12 gave examples of how schools, even in the most urban settings, can use outdoor areas as hands-on laboratories.

Laurie Harmon, an assistant professor in the department of parks, recreation, and leisure studies at George Mason University, showed data that says children’s and teens’ lives are too structured, and getting outdoors helps them unwind, de-stress, and regain focus. One study showed that students ages 6 to 12 cited “too much schoolwork” and “not enough time” as main factors for not going outside.

Already, technology is taking up a larger amount of young people’s time — one study showed that teenagers spend 7.5 hours using some sort of media and one-third of that time multitasking, double the time just five years ago, Harmon said. It’s important, she added, that schools find ways to engage students through outdoor learning activities.

“While parents are the number one influencer, school programs also have an influence, and schools have room to be more influential,” she said.

Barnard Elementary School in Washington, D.C., is an example of school that has successfully integrated outdoor activities into its curriculum. Principal Grace Reid said that she applied for grants to help teachers make outdoor education a part of their lesson plans.

When she realized that students lacked knowledge about where their food came from, she helped build an herb and vegetable garden.

“Many children have never seen vegetables or fruit grow, and they have no idea where they come from,” Reid said. “The gardens have provided experiences for authentic learning.”

Students are now much more willing to try new foods and choose healthy options in the school cafeteria, which uses vegetables harvested from the garden.

Another panelist, Michael Rizo, a program specialist with the U.S. Forest Service, gave tips for school officials looking for ways to use outdoor spaces to enhance students’ learning and overall educational experiences.

“You definitely have to plan a location,” taking into account sunlight, proximity to a source of water, and safety, he said.

“And when focusing on schools, first and foremost, you need a dedicated teacher, ideally a team of teachers,” he added. Support from the school principal and parents is also critical.

He recommended placing signs to explain the workings of the garden or outdoor area for the community, particularly if it is off-season or a habitat is designed to look “weedy.”

What doesn’t work, Rizo said, are after-school programs and those not clearly tied to the school’s day-to-day activities or supported by school leaders and teachers.

National Affiliates who would like to listen to a replay of the webinar can go to

Joetta Sack-Min|October 12th, 2010|Categories: Curriculum, School Board News, Student Achievement, Urban Schools|

Education headlines: How would you redesign a classroom?

Classrooms have not changed much since the Little House on the Prairie days, and Slate magazine is asking for ideas on how school buildings should be revamped to better meet students’ needs. Read more and submit an entry today….On the heels of “Waiting for Superman,” another parent-filmed documentary, “Race to Nowhere,” examines the standardized testing movement and the pressure that students, particularly from upper- and middle-class families, face, according to a review in the Washington Post… Also in the Washington Post, Metro columnist Robert McCartney says that the Baltimore City school district’s success shows that D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s reforms “aren’t the only way to success.” Baltimore is the winner of the 2010 Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) Award.

Joetta Sack-Min|October 8th, 2010|Categories: Announcements, School Board News, Urban Schools|

Baltimore City Public Schools makes a comeback

In the wake of “Waiting for Superman” and the hype surrounding it, there’s a district that has been working very hard to make some changes for the better, and they haven’t called any caped crusaders yet.  Last weekend, NSBA’s Council for Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) recognized Baltimore City Public Schools in its annual Award for Urban Boards of Education.  While much of the press surrounds urban districts woes, Baltimore and the three other finalists districts (Florida’s Broward County Public Schools, Texas’ Houston Independent School District, and Virginia’s Portsmouth Public Schools) have reasons to be proud in their communities.  Increased test scores, improved civic involvement, and narrowing the achievement gap, are just a few of the things to celebrate.  Baltimore has showed improved test scores, increased high school graduation rates, improved school safety, and has had an increase in the number of students attending their schools for the first time in decades.

Baltimore has also recently struck a tentative deal with their teachers’ union that many thought would never happen.

But don’t take our word for it.  Take a look at more of the details in School Board News Today, The Washington Post, and The Baltimore Sun.  There’s no doubt that while many are waiting for a Superman, Baltimore decided to get up and do something for themselves.

Kevin Scott|October 7th, 2010|Categories: Governance, NSBA Opinions and Analysis, School Boards, Student Achievement, Urban Schools|
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