Posts filed under ‘Design Concepts’

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

Response to Middle School Conundrum

To the Editors of the New York Times:

The Middle School Conundrum debate, published on 6/18/2012 on, left room for another conversation. While each author addressed emerging adolescence, any policy on elementary education must consider younger children as well. I propose a neighborhood campus solution based on adjacent PreK-3 early elementary and grade 4-8 upper elementary schools.

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 building proximity would support inter-age connections and underwrite shared facilities for libraries, cafeterias, and physical education. This plan is superior to either grade 6 transitions, which are disruptive to academic performance, or K-8 schools that are already being overloaded with the addition of pre-kindergarten students from early intervention programs.

Very truly yours,
Kathleen T. Wright
Executive Director

June 25, 2012 at 6:59 AM 1 comment

The Seven-Period High School Day

A creative solution to the short school day and the conflicting biorhythms and agendas among school constituencies could be the seven-period high school day. Some could come early, some could come late, and a few motivated participants could do both.

A consensus is forming about the school day being too short. However, resources are short as well. In addition, there are many conflicting interests to address in school timing. Teenagers stay up late and need to sleep later in the morning. Teachers accustomed to early start times may not wish to move their lives back an hour. Sports, after-school jobs, and family commutes may not allow for an altered school day. As a result, a seven-period, flexible school day may be the best way to solve at least part of the problem.

Some thoughts on the details….

  • A seven-period school day would begin at the usual time but end an hour later.
  • Faculty and staff could express preferences for starting their days with first or second period.
  • Students would be allowed to attend all seven periods, but they would only need to attend six or even five if they had accumulated enough credits.
  • Students could come later, for example, if they wished to sleep later or needed to help siblings get to school before they started their own days.
  • Some special scholastic or extracurricular activities could be planned for first or seventh period, and faculty staying later could support community volunteers offering extended day services.
  • One period for peer study support, virtual courses, or unstructured time could be proctored by ancillary staff for students attending seven periods a day.
  • Many opportunities for electives, dual enrollment, or extracurricular activities would be available for students.
  • Teachers wishing to explore a new course or engage in common planning time would have more flexibility in their schedules.

Of course, there would be the added duty for administrators in the building. However, some of that time could be found by talking less about instructional leadership off site and spending more time engaging in it within the building…might even help cut some of that costly district overhead.

May 16, 2012 at 9:20 AM Leave a comment

Subsidize PreK for Children at Risk

The kinds of practices seen with Early Intervention and PreK programs would probably be good for all children. That does not mean that the government needs to subsidize them for everyone. Good things already happen in most US homes. Save scarce government funding for the children for whom disability, language barriers, or poverty interfere with their early childhood development.

Pre-kindergarten is becoming a feature of elementary education out of necessity in pockets of need across the nation. In the meantime, it has long been a purchased service for many children whose parents choose to give their children a head start in education or to combine education with needed daycare services. The latter cases need not be subsidized by the US government. In fact, doing so would probably add to the achievement gap for children who are at risk.

Adequate nutrition, stimulating play activities, and listening to stories and music would seem to be a birth right for every child; likewise, a warm, safe bed for sleeping. For the fortunate, they are. However, the number of children who are at risk is growing in trying economic times. In addition, a disturbing number of children are demonstrating devastating disabilities that seem to have at least part of their foundation in the language acquisition process. Many continue to be challenged by attention disorders or specific learning issues. Early intervention with food, supportive play, and targeted therapies offer the greatest hope in the long run. Introduction of early education services that cannot happen at home are part of the solution as well.

Services to young children have enormous lifelong benefits, but they are very expensive. Also, the children with the greatest need are the most likely to fall through the cracks. Often their parents are overwhelmed in life and cannot advocate well for them. The delivery system for Early Intervention continues to need to develop in the direction of creating access through awareness for families in dire need. Similarly, PreK offers a lifeline that may be invisible to the most crucial beneficiaries.

Generalizing free public access to PreK programs would distract service providers from the necessary work of finding and enrolling the neediest children. Billions would be spent on children whose parents were savvy users of services, and populations for whom the program was initiated would continue to fall through the cracks. Government subsidies must be based on need. Our mission must be clear: eliminating the achievement gap for at-risk children by finding them early and serving them as often as needed until equal access to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness is theirs, too.

December 16, 2011 at 8:45 AM Leave a comment

Finding the Best Split for Neighborhood K-8 Schools

Early intervention programs have overloaded K-8 schools. But the model for educating children in neighborhood schools through puberty remains a fine idea. Movement to adjacent schools offering PreK-3 and Grades 4-8 seems like a better idea than going back to the old middle school concept.

The K-8 elementary school model created continuity for children as they evolved from concrete learners to more complex thinkers, keeping their core identities intact as they came of age as young adolescents. The milieu provided a wonderful blend of physical and intellectual growth within the context of a nurturing community of educators, families, and other supporters who knew each child well. However, early intervention programs have front-loaded elementary schools with crucial new programs for younger children who are at-risk for developmental and learning disabilities. The schools are straining under the burden of too many missions.

Some have advocated for a retreat to the middle school model for the upper grades. However, new information suggests that grade six may hold too great of a transition challenge for the children. Indeed, a study from Harvard University found that movement into middle school in grade six had a greater negative impact on student outcomes than the transition to high school in grade nine. The middle years clearly need special attention, but existing models no longer fit.

A win-win for elementary children could be a neighborhood-based solution that splits schools in fourth grade. The buildings could be physically adjacent and continue to share resources such as libraries, playgrounds, cafeterias, and athletic facilities. Still, the smaller learning communities could address the unique needs of divergent age groups. Communication across faculty groups would be facilitated, and the children could continue to benefit from interaction through programs such as mentoring between younger and older students.

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 school to an age that is less complicated physically and emotionally. Children could solidify their identities based on emerging intellectual strengths prior to tackling the upheavals with the onset of puberty. By grade six, their introspection and social development could occur in a safer and more familiar place.

December 15, 2011 at 10:18 AM 2 comments

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