Posts filed under ‘Design Concepts’

Open Letter on Newton Public Schools Capacity Issues

March 16, 2014

The Honorable Setti D. Warren, Mayor of the City of Newton

Dr. David A. Fleishman, Superintendent of Newton Public Schools

Mr. Steven Seigel, Newton School Committee Member

Dear Sirs:

This is in response to the school capacity issues driven by rapid growth in school enrollment and addressed by school renovation plans in the Newton Public Schools. I am a Newton resident and an education reform analyst through SchoolsRetooled.com. I wish to change the conversation.

For reasons discussed below, I believe that the children of Newton would be better served in a model that created a new and improved split between Early Elementary grades PreK-3 and Middle School grades 4-8. This solution would allow existing schools to accommodate more children in a smaller number of grade levels. Also, it would allow for the assessment of buildings such that grade levels could be matched to building design, and the cluster of students who were less well-served by existing structures could then define the needs to be addressed in any new architecture.

A couple of years ago, when asked what I would do if given the chance to change one thing in education, I wrote the following:

I would reorganize elementary schools into a PreK-3 school and an adjacent school for grades 4-8. The mission of teaching children in a way that reflects their social, emotional, and intellectual development would be better served with this grouping. In addition, the crucial benchmarks for literacy and numeracy would coincide with graduation from a phase of education.

With the younger children, the whole team would work together to ensure every child [by grade 3] could read for comprehension, tell a story through writing, reason numerically, and be familiar with patterns and geometric shapes. They would be able to work interdependently with other children and resolve minor conflicts. In addition, they would show independence in managing their own resources for school and have personalized strategies to start solving a problem while waiting for assistance.

A new intermediate school defined as Grades 4-8 would create a safe harbor for kids in puberty that avoids the disruptive grade six transition and still clusters the kids with alignment for intellectual development. Schools need to be adjacent to allow for important mentoring and connectedness across age groups. In addition, facilities could be shared, such as library, cafeteria, PE, and playground.

I continue to believe strongly in this innovative design solution. Separate PreK-3 and 4-8 learning communities are better aligned to mission, as defined by 3rd and 8th grade academic benchmarks. The children would be more appropriately clustered for physical and psychosocial development. And, where possible, building proximity would support inter-age connections and underwrite shared facilities for libraries, cafeterias, and physical education.

In particular, this plan would eliminate the troublesome grade 6 transition, which has been shown to be the more disruptive to academic performance than even that of the grade 9 transition to high school. A school for grades 4-8 would recognize the movement from basic skill building to applied learning that is most significant in grade four. In addition, it would shift the change in schools to an age that is less complicated physically and emotionally. Children could solidify their identities in the context of emerging intellectual strengths prior to tackling the upheavals inherent in the onset of puberty. By grade six, their introspection and social development could occur in a safer and more familiar place.

Early intervention programs have already begun to expand the elementary school mission on the front end. This trend should only increase with growing advocacy of universal prekindergarten. And Newton’s concern for aging school buildings has not addressed issues at the middle school level yet. I feel my approach makes good sense for pedagogy, matches structures to mission, and proactively draws the middle school issues into the current conversation.

I appreciate your consideration of my suggestion and would be happy to open a dialogue with members of the Newton school community.

Best regards,

Kathleen T. Wright,  SchoolsRetooled.com

March 16, 2014 at 11:26 AM Leave a comment

How to Create a Legacy in Education…for New and Returning Mayors

Yesterday we honored our nation’s democracy as voters in state and local elections across the country. As we congratulate new or returning mayors, why not set aside politics and offer a few guidelines for education leadership? 

1.  Align schools to mission and benchmarks…

  • PreK through 3rd grade
  • Grades 4 through 8
  • Grades 9 through 12

2.  Manage education for balance between supply and demand…

  • Students organized around equitable access to education and bridges to their communities
  • Academics organized around student needs and  instructional effectiveness

3.  Streamline business functions around the mission of education…

  • Student-centered funding and resource allocation – school as locus of control
  • Information systems that integrate finance, teacher effectiveness, and student outcomes
  • Matching of support services to student needs

4.  Develop results-oriented approach to services for outliers in the system…

  • Accelerated progress toward grade-level proficiency in Special Education
  • Two-pronged approach to ELL with growth in literacy in 1st language translating into more rapid assimilation into English language content
  • Level playing field in academics for students at risk

5.  Reward leadership that…

  • Achieves successful student outcomes
  • Values continuous growth for professional staff
  • Attracts voluntary enrollment
  • Is responsive to all community constituencies
  • Monitors key indicators of student satisfaction, service delivery, culture, and safety to anticipate disequilibrium and address it proactively
  • Allocates resources effectively and efficiently

6.  Seek alignment with evolving standards of information and technology to…

  • Get the best data on student outcomes, teacher effectiveness, financial management
  • Transcend the evolution from traditional media to digital tools for learning, communicating, and managing educational efforts
  • Create a vision for achievement that relegates regulatory compliance to the lowest common denominator among educators

With achievement of each of these strategies, mayors could spend more time creating a legacy in education and far less time dealing with NCLB failures, Parent Trigger campaigns, union battles, or random disruptions to the business of running their cities or towns.

November 6, 2013 at 2:43 PM Leave a comment

STEM – The Old One-Two Punch

Future scientists, engineers, and mathematicians should be found among our fifth graders at the latest to realize their greatest potential. Only then will we be able to nurture their abstract thinking, the seeds of which should already be apparent, during middle school. To finish the job, all of our high schools must be ready to deliver them the rigor and the freedom to explore new frontiers in STEM.

Last night, President Obama introduced a competition that will challenge educators to develop advanced STEM programs within our nation’s high schools. At first blush, I shook my head. High school is too late. We should be talking middle school. But then I realized…why get these young people all smarted up with nowhere to go?

To be truly ready to join the ranks of scientists and mathematicians in liberal arts or engineering disciplines, students need to have their natural talents for abstract thinking recognized and developed early. College prep should begin in middle school for them. However, too few of our high schools are genuinely ready to offer students the springboard needed for access to the nation’s top university STEM programs.

STEM readiness will mean an exciting combination of academic development within high schools, mentoring from the field, and partnerships with universities for extracurricular enrichment opportunities. And who knows what else? Let the games begin…

February 13, 2013 at 10:34 AM Leave a comment

Child Find as the Catalyst for Success in STEM and PreK

Never watch the State of the Union speech in your cranky pants – not just good advice for John Boehner. As an urban educator, I thought I was looking forward to the President’s address with a positive attitude. But I kept going negative…Universal pre-kindergarten? Wasteful and wrong. STEM competition in high school? Too little too late. Then I realized there was a missing link. Child Find will be the key to success with either initiative.

My preferred approach to pre-kindergarten is to dedicate free public access to children who are at-risk. I truly believe that universal access will dilute the child-find efforts of the program, and that the most-needy children will continue to fall through the cracks. That’s where they live and where their parents are trying to eke out a life for them. Comfortable families already preparing their children for school will get a free ride, less fortunate children will continue to be left behind, and deficit spending will result in a net loss to the system.

That said, the child-find clause in any PreK legislation must have some real teeth in it. Our vulnerable populations must be served first.

Similarly, I worried about the President’s competition for high school STEM programs because so many talented children in troubled schools would have lost their way long before then. Efforts to set up springboards for STEM education in high school would be hamstrung with the need for re-engagement and remediation programs before accelerated STEM instruction could begin.

However, there are many emerging STEM programs that target older elementary and middle school children. In a better world, many more of these children will be found as they enter adolescence. Their interests and abilities will be nurtured through opportunities for exploration and placement in programs that offer appropriate stimulation and challenge. But where, in this new world order, would there be enough seats for all of them in high school? More on that in my next post…

February 13, 2013 at 10:25 AM Leave a comment

Dual Enrollment and Its Promise

My brother taught me a lesson about offering a promise at the end of goal achievement. It may just be the missing link for many high school re-engagement programs. Dual enrollment can take a student from his or her return to high school through access to a college degree. Going back to high school for that diploma is hard, and the reward it offers is limited. But a college degree means forever on a resume…clearing a hurdle for access to the middle class.

A while ago during a failed job interview for a position in student re-engagement, I totally blew it on the HR rubric. I went outside of the box and cited my brother, Tom Wright, as one of my personal heroes. Tom had spent the last 20 years creating and developing a market for home mortgages for Native Americans. My link to work with high school drop-outs must have been a bit too obtuse, but it’s still a story about keeping an eye on a prize.

Tom’s work began in an era when much of the housing stock on Indian reservations was below code, and home ownership eluded many Native Americans due to missing or low credit ratings. However, he recognized that there was a market and a dire need for access to both credit and safe housing. He just needed a method.

Tom developed a two-year course of credit counseling for Native Americans with weak financial backgrounds that promised approval on a home mortgage if they finished the program with a successful payment history. Paying ones bill could lead to 1st time home ownership, a rarity at the time. Possession of a plywood shack on tribal land was all many of his clients could hope for as they dodged their creditors.

The financing of the risk for mortgage lenders was the rub, but Tom saw a solution in money set aside for Native American housing awards through the Wounded Knee Treaty. A clause in the agreement funded a housing lottery that awarded homes to a small number of winners in Indian Nation each year. He went to tribal elders across the Midwest and Western reservations and discussed redeployment of that money to fund a risk pool that would cover a larger number of people. In short, rather than giving ten people houses, they could cover the default risk on mortgages for dozens of people. Eventually, Tom won program adoption, and a housing boom began.

Now, back to education…how can a mortgage plan for a small demographic group relate to the broad population of American drop-outs? I would form a different question…what does a high school diploma offer? It has become a serious hurdle for millions of drop-outs who cannot get access to even low paying jobs. However, a high school diploma no longer ensures access to the middle class. One needs a college degree for that. And I see that college credential to be very much like the mortgage for the highly indebted denizen of substandard housing.

Going back to high school is very difficult. It means returning to a scene of failure and, often, a place that has left students under-served in the past. Just more of the same is small incentive for participation. There has to be more, and that may account for the higher success rates seen with dual enrollment in community college systems for high school drop-outs. The prize for successful effort is an Associate’s Degree, professional certification, and, in many systems, guaranteed access to a four-year state college.

Overcoming inertia to break a failure cycle is not its own reward. The prize needs to be real and change lives. We can do that.

Tom’s story is still in progress, but I asked him a year or so ago what he considered to be his legacy. He stated quite simply that twenty years ago Native Americans had no access to traditional home mortgages, and today they are treated like any other American at the bank. Quite an accomplishment…but there’s icing on the cake. When the real estate market began to collapse a few years ago, his programs were still experiencing a default rate of about 1%. People who earned their way into a new standard of living seem to treasure it.

November 15, 2012 at 9:43 AM Leave a comment

The One Thing I Would Do

Inspired by John Merrow’s blog asking educators to share their absolute 1st step to improve public education…My choice would be to align transition grade levels to mission and benchmarks.

I would reorganize elementary schools into a PreK-3 school and an adjacent school for grades 4-8. The mission of teaching children in a way that reflects their social, emotional, and intellectual development would be better served with this grouping. In addition, the crucial benchmarks for literacy and numeracy would coincide with graduation from a phase of education.

With the younger children, the whole team would work together to ensure every child could read for comprehension, tell a story through writing, reason numerically, and be familiar with patterns and geometric shapes. They would be able to work interdependently with other children and resolve minor conflicts. In addition, they would show independence in managing their own resources for school and have personalized strategies to start solving a problem while waiting for assistance.

A new intermediate school defined as Grades 4-8 would create a safe harbor for kids in puberty that avoids the disruptive grade six transition and still clusters the kids with alignment for intellectual development. Schools need to be adjacent to allow for important mentoring and connectedness across age groups. In addition, facilities could be shared, such as library, cafeteria, PE, and playground.

Related blog entries…

  • My Theory on Math, Puberty, and Emerging Abstract Reasoning…and why Middle School Should Begin with Grade 4 read more…
  • Finding the Best Split for Neighborhood K-8 Schools read more…
  • Middle School Conundrum response read more…
  • 3rd Grade on the Line read more…

November 1, 2012 at 9:23 AM Leave a comment

My Theory on Math, Puberty, and Emerging Abstract Reasoning…and why Middle School Should Begin with Grade 4

Puberty undermines the identity of middle school-aged children and initiates their exploration of a variety of possible adult personas. Paradoxically, it is also a time when their need to fit in seems to hit an all-time high. As a result, the simple act of getting dressed in the morning actually may require students to solve a daunting set of simultaneous equations. Their intellectual development in the years leading up to that time is crucial to their successful academic and psychosocial transition to more sophisticated abstract reasoning. However, the question is when, not if, they can handle the mental gymnastics of exploding possibilities.

The psychosocial exigencies of puberty may be as important as education as a driver of need for abstract thinking in young adolescents. The baffling combination of the search for a new identity and the peer pressure for conformity sets up the conundrum; intellectual strength can be the advantage or the goal. However, the mere act of living in the body of a pubescent child will stimulate cognitive ambition. As educators, we need to give the pre-adolescent as much reasoning ability as possible to face the task. He or she will get to a higher level with or without us…but the less confident student may try to hold off the challenge through social dysfunction and academic avoidance.

The math problem: suppose, in a class of 25 students, each child is trying on three unique personas at any given time. Then the number of possible combinations in that one class is 325. That would be a bit hyperbolic, so the children solve part of their problem by limiting the number of options that qualify as cool. Then, they begin the iterative process of arranging themselves in groups with similar attributes. Leaders will emerge as trend-setters, and controlling behavior will define many friendships. Best friends will become enemies, for example, if a group member forgets to make sure the blouse she promised to wear to school was laundered the night before. (Yes, her mother really *did* ruin her life.)

Students will find temporary comfort in groups that offer options that best match their coping strategies. However, precocious children may be excluded because of their tolerance for ambiguity and may seek adult approval through individual excellence in academics, sports, or the arts. At the other end of the spectrum, insecure children may opt out socially and need safe harbors to protect them from predatory groups, the most extreme being street gangs. Alternately, in the digital age, kids may take solace in virtual worlds.

So, my theory is that the 4th and 5th grade math teachers could help us understand why one child joins a gang while another joins a choir or a study group. Or why middle school friendships can be so fleeting. Or why kids who played computer games in isolation through puberty might emerge more socially adept in high school than the most popular kids in middle school – or at least make better social choices.

And it is not just about the math. Students need the vocabulary to express themselves and journals to document their inner lives, a sense of history and perspective, and methods for exploring cause and effect. And each needs a distinctive competency that becomes the backbone for an emerging identity that transcends the social turmoil. I would go beyond visiting the K-5 faculty to gain insight on behavior to making the 4th and 5th grade teachers a part of the team with shared accountability for readiness for the middle school mission.

I believe middle school should be redefined as grades 4-8. Research suggests that the trauma of the grade 6 transition to middle school has the most negative impact on academic outcomes for children. A grade 4 transition would ease the social and intellectual leaps for the child, who will not enter puberty until later. In addition, it would allow for vertical alignment of curricular and psychosocial goals as well as continuity for faculty members and the children through this tumultuous developmental phase.

In the context of a school system that resolved basic literacy and numeracy needs in a PreK-3 early elementary school, the Grade 4-8 middle school could give students a more solid academic readiness for puberty, safe harbor in a familiar place when it hits, and greater opportunity to develop academic and psychosocial readiness for high school.

October 9, 2012 at 9:45 AM 1 comment

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