How Pinellas County (FL) is Creating a Literacy Movement in its Community

The ability to read is something many of us take for granted. It is something we learned long ago and practice so often that it seems almost an innate human function. And how could we live without it? It provides a bridge to opportunities in education, careers, and in our everyday lives. Unfortunately, we often forget about the complicated and challenging process of actually teaching that skill to young learners.

Foundational skills that support literacy are developed well before a child enters kindergarten. We are familiar with images of a teacher at the head of a classroom reading stories and parents cuddling up with a toddler and a book at bedtime. These are powerful and important moments that are equally important for a developing child. Teachers can’t do it alone, parents can’t do it alone, and classroom reading instruction is not enough to ensure children are reading on grade level. Literacy skills are sharpened well beyond the classroom and the bedtime story. Anyone who reads can help to instill a love of reading in young children.

In Pinellas County, Florida we are challenging our entire community to support teachers and parents and find new ways to promote literacy.

We have all seen the billboards saying that young children benefit from shared reading experiences; just “15 minutes a day” can make all the difference. That is, of course, if parents and other caring adults have the books to read. Many homes, particularly in low income areas, do not have a library of children’s books. Ready to Read Pinellas shares the joy of reading by putting high quality age appropriate books in the hands of young children from low income families. Every child who walks through our doors receives a book of their choice from our Ready to Read shelves!

Adventure in Tote Bags is a literacy program where children in Family Child Care Homes are provided with a tote bag to take home which includes age appropriate books and activities to be enjoyed by the family. Parents and family members are encouraged to read and participate in the activities with their children, fostering a love of reading in the entire family.

Officer Friendly’s Book Club pairs local law enforcement officers and early learning centers to promote a love of reading and build positive relationships between little citizens and law enforcement. Our Officer Friendly partners read to the children and donate a book to the center at the end of the visit. The Coalition’s literacy specialists select the books and provide support activities and materials for the center.

Each year at the end of January, we engage the wider community through a series of events known as “Celebrate Literacy Week,” which is this week! The Early Learning Coalition hosts special guest readers throughout the week at early learning sites all around the community. Guest readers included local business and nonprofit executives, elected officials, professional athletes and police and fire chiefs. 

Through these efforts, we seek to raise awareness and create a community full of advocates for literacy.

How are you supporting literacy in your community?

Asking Our Way to Education Solutions

These are challenging times and I think we can all agree that there should be more hours in the day. Work, commuting, errands, cooking, staying on top of the household chores, eating, spending time with family and being informed about what’s happening in our communities and in the world are just some of the things that occupy my time. Our children’s future and their education should be a top priority for everyone in our community, not just parents. There are so many ways we can all be more involved in our country’s next generation, but I like to tell people that the best way to get involved and advocate is to ask questions. Ensuring we have an educated citizenry and bright future is a shared and collective responsibility that falls upon each of us. Here are some questions we can all ask:

Ask adults how the child in your life is doing. Asking the child’s family about their education is always important; you can not only get some important answers, but also a roadmap to how you can become a more helpful ally in building a great next generation. Find out what their strengths and challenges are and make a plan to improve things from where you are. Can you ask the child’s teacher about their performance and how the child compares to other children in their class? Or about what teaching and education methods they’re using? Or, best of all, ask what questions you should be asking or what information they want to share with you. Like adults, children are not the same, even those growing up in the same household which makes each of us uniquely great. Abilities differ widely, but we should always ask about them and identify ways to involve yourself in solutions.

Ask a child about specifics. How easily we forget what our own school experiences were like! Perhaps you don’t remember what it was like to have every adult asking, “how was your day at school?,” but the answers you’ll get (or won’t get) are a pretty clear sign that it’s not the most effective question to ask. Instead, you have to ask very specific questions. If you aren’t the most knowledgeable about the child’s day, ask general questions about what the best thing about the day was, ask about specific school subjects and what they’re learning about there, if they found anything particularly difficult or annoying, what their friends are like. Like with anything else, asking a question that really only allows for one word answers will get just that. Even though my nephew is a college senior, he knows that “good” is never a sufficient answer.  While you don’t need to probe like a detective you do need to ask your child to elaborate on the information they are sharing and remember to be fully present during the conversation. Children know when they have your undivided attention and when they do not. We have to be thoughtful with our children and give them opportunities to give full and meaningful responses about what they are doing and how it makes them feel. 

Ask what you can do. We can always use a little help in all areas of our lives- and sometimes even asking people if you can help is a huge motivator. If you want the special young person in your life to succeed at school and beyond, try asking them what you can do to help them find more time or interest to study or read more. Maybe you can ask the parents in your life what support you can give them to help give young people more focus in their studies. And have you asked the teachers in your life how you can help make their classrooms even more effective at churning out the leaders of tomorrow? Most families could use some support, many teachers need help purchasing school supplies and every student could benefit from an encouraging word. Let’s not be afraid to make some offers.

Recently, I visited a 5th grade class in the Watts area of Los Angeles. I left inspired and encouraged by the wisdom, character and intellect displayed by each student in the class.   Instead of learning of the latest crisis on the news, actually make a point to visit a school and spend quality time with students.  Not only does it take a village to raise children, more importantly it takes a great society to turn out future leaders. I spend a lot of time at education conferences, which means I get a lot of time with parents and educators, but I also spend a lot of time listening to what speakers have to say. I also spend a lot of time writing about ways we can instill lessons in young people, for which I find myself doing a pretty good amount of research. I’ve also learned that young people will rise or fall to the expectations set for them. But at the end of the day, there are no silver bullet solutions. If there were a sure-fire way to make all students great, we’d have done it long ago. The reality is the best way to make change is to ask how we can build it. I’m always surprised at how some empathy, an offer of help and some genuine interest in each other is often the biggest step to success. 

Being a man or woman is a matter of birth, but being a man or woman who makes a difference is a matter of choice. Choose to be a difference maker!

Seven Leadership Ideals to Pursue in 2016

The author is the Community Superintendent for District 15 in Brooklyn, NY.

The start of a new year is a time when traditionally we take the opportunity to start fresh and set new goals. It is a chance to say “do-over,” and to start anew. We reimagine ourselves as we can be, and set lofty resolutions that exemplify our belief that we can “do it better.” I am no exception to this tradition. Like millions of people, I have begun to work towards the most popular personal goal. I am trying to lose weight. It is a goal that historically we usually abandon within two weeks. (It is one week of low carbs and counting…I will keep you posted.)

This same optimism is true professionally as well. We come back from the holidays (somewhat) recharged but definitely more hopeful, more optimistic that we can truly accomplish all that we set out to do. We take the time not only to think about the myriad of things piled on our desks, but on the skills that will help us to be more successful at helping educators so that we can all best serve our children; and so we list our resolutions, maybe not with pencil or computer but somewhere in our minds and in our hearts. 

As the leader of a large urban district that I consider to be a microcosm of our city, I am no exception. I too have a list of professional resolutions that capture what I believe and hopefully, are the kind of ideals that help to make us our “best selves:”

1. Lead by Inspiring - I am a Pollyanna and have long held the belief that people go into education not merely to have a career, but because they want to make a difference in the world, and they want to share with their students the magic of learning. They enter the profession with passion and commitment. I see my role to remind them of that passion, to inspire them, to make them understand that their dream is still a real possibility and that I share it. I want them to know that I will walk that road with them and help them, not browbeat them into submission to a set of protocols and accountabilities they do not believe in. Do not misunderstand me. I believe we are all accountable and that we should be. We hold children’s lives in our hands just as surely as do medical professionals. It is just that we have seen that accountability without inspiration and a focus on true learning brings out the worst in us all and is ultimately unsuccessful. I want to be honest and honorable, a truly inspirational leader because I know that people give their all when they are inspired by someone they believe in.

2. Be Emotionally Intelligent - We are coming out of a time when education was moving towards a very business-like model. It was all protocols and percentages. I remember people being somewhat taken aback when I wished a senior colleague a happy birthday or offered a small token when a child was born. Recent research, however, has shown us that if we want to make meaningful, sustainable changes in the world, then we must consider the emotional underpinnings that define who we are and that do not vanish as we cross the office threshold. The work of Dr. Lisa Lahey at Harvard and Dr. Marc Brackett at Yale serve to reinforce this understanding. It behooves us as educational leaders to be constantly aware of the “temperature” of those we are leading so that we can persuade them to attempt change and move toward that shared vision in a low risk environment. Just as teachers must be cognizant of the needs of the whole child, we must be cognizant of the needs of our educators, not just because we wish to be warm, fuzzy and well-liked, but because these understandings inspire people to become more innovative and encourage collaboration. We are a service industry. We make learners, not shoes, and we have to think about the needs of people in order to succeed.

3. Learn Together - There was a time when teachers were told, “Just close your doors and teach,” and principals zealously hid best practices so that their colleagues would not copy them and steal the thunder of their successes. Thankfully, that time is gone. We are all learners and as such, what better way can we work than as partners with a goal of outstanding student success for all children. This is not a goal that is easily achieved, and for this reason one of my resolutions is to enhance Collaborative Inquiry. While I can have an understanding of the strengths and needs at my thirty five schools, I cannot have that understanding at the granular level that my principals can have and at the even finer level that my teachers can have. It is for this reason that top down models do not work, and grassroots understanding of needs is essential. Therefore, it behooves me as a leader to promote this level of learning. It is both empowering and inspiring. It shows educators that they are trusted professionals and gives them a level of personal accountability to both their colleagues and their students that is more powerful than an external standard because they themselves connect their actions with outcomes. These shared learning opportunities can and should occur at every rung of the ladder. Just as teachers meet to dissect class and grade needs, strong principals work in teams to look at school and district needs. Additionally, superintendents work to share with their colleagues. In short, we need to consistently learn together.

4. Teach Don’t Tell - I was reminded two weeks ago of the value of that old Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” I am a packrat with emails. I archive every email I receive, no matter how ridiculous. Consequently, I am constantly running out of space in my archives and routinely have to call the tech people to fix this issue. Two weeks ago, the gentleman who magically solved the problem did something differently.  He showed me the steps I needed to take in order to increase my storage myself. It was enlightening to say the least. I have since created numerous folders that enable me to archive more strategically.  He did not just solve the problem; he taught me how to solve the problem. This is the whole theory behind building capacity. We need to bear in mind that we are all still teachers and staff developers. A change in our title did not change the philosophy behind the role. Remember principals are called principals because they were originally the Principal (Lead) Teacher. When we model a skill for our teachers and fellow educational leaders, we empower them. They now have a skill that they can use strategically to problem solve at the school and classroom level. Isn’t this what we truly want for our children?  Isn’t this the ideal goal of the Common Core?

5. Evaluate Learning not Teaching - As a trained Quality Reviewer for eight years and the person charged with conducting Principal Performance Observations, I have spent a good deal of time in classrooms observing instruction. When I go into a class I always ask children if I may sit next to them and then I try to observe the lesson through the child’s eye. I ask what they are doing and why they are doing it. I ask to see their work and I listen in carefully to group discussions to ascertain their ability to think at a critical level. This is how I gauge the reality of the lesson, because what I really want to assess is not just what the teacher is doing but what the students are actually getting out of the experience. In short, what is being learned? As administrators, it is all too easy to focus on the lesson itself, the preparation and the delivery, but what really matters is that the lesson actually resulted in targeted student learning. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that you have to plan well to be able to effectuate this kind of learning, but we have all seen well planned and delivered lessons where the students simply did not get it. We as educational leaders have to share this message. We have to keep our “eyes on the prize” and the prize is student learning, not just teacher performance. If the kids are not learning, the delivery was not successful.

6. Be a Reflective Problem Solver - Any administrator can tell you that their best laid plans are often sidetracked by the plethora of problems and “fires” that we are called upon to address on a daily basis. It is one of the most frustrating aspects of our work. It is very easy to jump on an answer and quickly “put out” the problem. However, it is the very nature of this process that prevents us from being reflective leaders. When we are “fire extinguishers,” we do not take into consideration the consequences. We do not take the time to think systemically. Whenever this happens, I am constantly reminded of the parable of the penguins and the walruses in a small book called The Tip of the Iceberg by David Hutchens. It speaks to the unseen consequences of quick problem solving.  This is one of my hardest resolutions and one that I know is shared. Being a true problem solver requires both time for reflection and critical friends to collaborate with on solutions. (Like the weight loss issue, I will keep you posted on this one.)

7. Love What You Do - When you get up there in years and experiences, people start to mumble the “R” word around you, and to be honest on bad days you think about retirement as well. A wise woman once grounded me by telling me it was the work that mattered, not the title or the office. If you love the work then that is what sustains you in what is an extremely difficult, stressful and yet enormously fulfilling position. I love the work that I do and though I often feel overwhelmed and harried, I am hopeful, because being an administrator and an educator is such powerful and meaningful work. There is a corny teacher mug that says, “To teach is to touch the future.” Multiply this idea exponentially to understand your impact as an administrator. It is for this reason that you have to love the work. It will take all you can give and ask for more, but in the end you will see your success in the achievement of the thousands of children you serve over the course of your career. You touch lives every day. No work can be more meaningful, more valuable than that.

(Please note that these views are my personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the New York City Department of Education.)

One Principal’s Resolution for 2016: ‘Ask the Children’

The author is Principal of Innovations Early College High School in Salt Lake City.

As a new year begins and I, like many, take a fresh look at what’s important in my role as a principal, I come back to a simple mantra: “Ask the children.”

At the root of our human experience is our individuality -- a uniqueness that allows for great diversity in thought, creativity, and the experience of beauty in our society. At the same time, we are all driven by an innate pursuit of happiness. I believe that recognizing that drive is key to preparing our future generations for success. It’s something we must cultivate for children through our positions of leadership and trust.

True leadership demands that we must serve those whom we lead. And it is especially important in a school setting that we, as educators, serve our students. To serve them truthfully, we must understand the needs and concerns of each student and then commit to meeting that need, whatever it takes.

Whatever it takes means just that. We must ask those whom we serve how to be better. But how often have we made significant change in our schools based solely upon the opinion of our students?

Where is their voice when we create and design school buildings? Where is their voice when we create master schedules that confine them and curriculum that bores them? Where is their voice when we set the operating time of a school? When have we created learning opportunities and made them available when students are ready to learn?

The answers to these questions remain the same: Unfortunately, students’ voices are silent.

Why?

Ask the children what they like about their school. Ask them what causes them pain and distress. Ask them what they don’t like about school. If you have the courage, ask them what type of school they would create if they had the power to influence and impact decisions.

Remove the barriers. In our efforts to control behaviors of students, we have ironically created a system that encourages misbehavior, negatively reinforces behaviors, and disenfranchises the minds and creativity of our future.

However, when we free the minds and cease to control every facet of the educational experience for students, we will discover that they become once again individuals with in a system rather than a system that strips them of individuality.

So what are you waiting for? Ask the questions. Ask the children.

To learn more about Ken Grover and Innovations Early College High School, check out Scholastic Administr@tor magazine's December 2014 article.

Behind My Scholastic News Cover Story About a Nine-Year-Old Syrian Refugee

At Scholastic News, one of our goals is to cover complex news topics for kids in a way they can understand without feeling overwhelmed. I’ve covered a lot of difficult topics in four-plus years as an editor at the magazine—from immigration to the war in Afghanistan—but none has felt as timely, complex, and important as the cover story I wrote for our January 4 grade 5/6 issue.

Back in October, when the refugee crisis in Europe really started making headlines, we had decided that we wanted to cover the topic for fifth and sixth grade students.

Whenever we write stories about complicated issues, we try to feature a kid who is about our readers’ age to make the story more relatable. After pursuing a few different leads with organizations overseas, I reached out to an organization in Texas that helps refugees resettle in the U.S. The people there helped us set up an interview with a family who had arrived in the U.S. from Syria only a few weeks earlier. We planned a pretty straightforward article that would compare that family’s journey to the U.S to that of the millions of refugees traveling to Europe.

On the morning of November 13, I had a phone interview with a 12-year girl named Reem, her father, and her younger brother. I conducted the interview through a translator because the family spoke only Arabic. Reem seemed sad and a bit hesitant as she talked about leaving her home city that had been destroyed by war, traveling for 23 days to Jordan, and spending a night in a refugee camp. But by the end of the interview, she seemed truly excited to speak about her new life in the U.S.

And then, later that day, the news broke of the terrorist attacks in Paris. Within days of the attacks, many politicians in the U.S were calling for a ban on Syrian refugees. The story I was writing was getting more complex by the day. And yet, it also seemed to grow more significant.

Like all good journalists, at Scholastic News we feel it’s important to present all sides of an issue. The January 4 cover story does just that. It also gives students the opportunity to read about a kid their age who overcame great odds. I hope it will spark some passionate class discussions.

Ten Surefire Tips for Maximizing Student Reading Stamina

I have just invited eighth grade students to select books and find comfortable places to read them. During the first ten minutes, Adam does everything in his power to avoid my request.  He goes to the bathroom, gets water from the fountain in the hall twice, sharpens a pencil, considers three books, chooses none, and instead, hastily leafs through a magazine. Clearly, Adam has a lot of energy. He also has the ability to concentrate while playing sports and talking to friends. But invite Adam to read, and he becomes exhausted after ten minutes, often complaining that his eyes and head hurt. These are all common symptoms of students who lack the stamina to read for extended periods of time.

Reading stamina is having the energy and the concentration to focus on reading for at least thirty continuous minutes a day. For students who lack stamina, reading is a frustrating and unpleasant experience, so they tend to read as little as possible. However, today, reading is a life skill needed for college and career success, as well as for the joy that a personal reading life brings. The good news is that you can help students boost their reading stamina at school and at home by using the ten tips that follow.

Have students start small. Have them gradually build stamina by reading self-selected books in five-minute intervals--then ten minutes, and so on, until thy reach one hour. Remind students that developing reading stamina is like training to run a mile in less than eight minutes. Both require regular practice to increase energy and concentration.

The Ten Surefire Tips for Maximizing Reading Stamina

1. Value Independent Reading. At school, this means setting aside twenty to thirty minutes at least three times a week for students to read self-selected books. Teach students how to choose books that they can read with ease by showing them the two- finger method.  Students read a page in a text. If they encounter more than two words they can’t pronounce or whose meaning they can’t figure out from context, they save the book for another time and choose a different one. Teaching students to choose books that are accessible and enjoyable will also motivate them to read at home.

2. Use Classroom and School Libraries.  Students of all ages need access to books. Seventh-grader, Lucas, put it this way, “ Having a classroom library means I can find a book when I need one right away.”  Continually work on enlarging your classroom library: Shoot for 1,000 to 2,000 books at a variety of levels, on a range of topics, and in multiple genres.

Schedule a weekly school library visit for your students—and be sure to accompany them so you and your librarian can suggest great reads.  If your classroom library is still a work-in-progress, encourage students to check out several books whenever they visit the school library and store them in their class cubbies or lockers, so they have enough to read until their next library visit.

3. Read Self-Selected Books. Educators such as Donalyn Miller, Richard Allington, and Steve Krashen agree that choosing their own books is the key for students to become motivated to read at home and in school.

4. Diminish Distractions.  Reading is social. There will be times that a student wants to share something he or she just read which is terrific because it shows engagement with the text. But it can also be distracting to classmates. So encourage students to use a soft voice while sharing with a classmate. Keep the door to your room closed to diminish noise from the hallway.  The fewer distractions, the easier it will be for students to concentrate.

5. Create Comfortable Reading Spaces. Think about the places at home where you read. Most likely it’s in a comfortable chair, on an oversized pillow, or in bed. Visit a carpet store and ask the owner to donate small remnants that students can sit on while reading. Carpet remnants are easy to store; they can be stacked in a corner or closet. Avoid requiring students to read for pleasure sitting at their desks. Instead, invite them to find a comfortable space in the classroom. Some will sit under desks or lean against the wall. If you have a limited number of beanbag chairs and large pillows, create a rotation system so students take turns reading on them. 

6. Advertise Great Reads. Students respect and value suggestions from peers. So set up systems that foster sharing book suggestions. Here are three:

  • Teach students to book talk and have them present a talk each month. The benefit of consistent book talking is huge! Over ten months, a class of twenty five students will hear about 250 books from peers.
  • Set up a graffiti wall by posting a large piece of construction paper on a bulletin board.  After completing a book that they enjoyed, have students write the title and author on the graffiti wall and one sentence explaining why they enjoyed the book so much. Then, a few times a week give students several minutes to browse the graffiti wall to discover peer-recommended books.
  • Teach students to give a 60 second elevator talk about a book they enjoyed reading. Their goal is to convince peers to read it. When a student’s desire to present an elevator talk strikes, schedule it during that class or as soon as possible.

7.  Set Monthly Goals. Share with students the research findings by Donalyn Miller and Steve Krashen--that reading 40 books a year independently can ramp up their reading achievement by enlarging their vocabularies and expanding their knowledge base. Negotiate monthly reading goals with students to help them meet the 40-book challenge. Books of 500 or more pages should count as two to three books. Students who can read books of that length presumably have stamina, and you want to encourage them to continue reading long and complex texts.

8. Take Brain Breaks. A seventh grade class lobbied their teacher for “brain breaks”-- time to chat and stretch after they had been reading deeply for thirty minutes. Brain breaks offer students a few minutes of down time to relax, re-energize, and yes, gain stamina. Tell students that when they plan to read at home for an hour or more, they should take a break, walk around, have a snack, and then return to reading.

9. Hold Small-Group Discussions. Organize into small groups students who have completed different books that are in the same genre. Students discuss such things as literary elements in fiction or text features and structures in informational materials. As such, they not only expose their peers to a range of reading materials within a genre, but they also tend to become better at clarifying their thoughts and become more reflective when they share their thinking.

10. Have Students Self-Evaluate. Four times throughout the year ask students to review their reading logs and reflect on the number of books they completed, favorite books, books they reread, and the amount of reading they completed at home. Then, ask students to use their self-evaluations to set reasonable independent reading goals which might include: extend reading time at home by fifteen minutes, read longer books, try a different genre, add a book to the graffiti wall, or read other books by a favorite author.

You can also give students a checklist to measure their reading stamina as part of their self-evaluation.

My Reading Stamina Cheklist

Name_______________________________Date___________________

Checklist for Evaluating Reading Stamina: check items that apply to your reading.

____I quickly found a comfortable space to read.

____I concentrated on my reading and met my goal of _____minutes.

____I read for_____minutes beyond my goal.

____I can read and concentrated for all of silent reading time.

____I read without jumping up, getting a drink, or moving around the room.

____If I was distracted, I worked hard to avoid distracting others.

____I recognized I was distracted and was able to return to my reading on my own.

____I have a reading stamina goal and use it to increase the amount of time I read deeply at school and at home.  [end checklist]

Final Thoughts

Showing students how to self-select “just right’ books is a giant step toward improving students’ reading stamina. Choice creates engagement and engagement nurtures students’ desire to read. As they improve their stamina, commend students. Celebrate small but consistent improvement as well as big improvement. Keep in mind that all students will not improve their reading stamina at the same rate. In fact, some students might need more than one school year to be able to read for long periods of time. That’s okay. Coordinate your efforts with other teachers, celebrate progress, and give students the gift of time.

Learn more about building students' reading stamina in Laura Robb’s book, Unlocking Complex Texts.

Five Inspiring School Leaders I Met This Year

As editor of Scholastic Administr@tor magazine, one of the best parts of my job is meeting inspiring educators and learning about what they are doing and how it is working for children. Over the past 12 months, I’ve had the pleasure of touring numerous schools including High Tech High in San Diego, Innovations Early College High School in Salt Lake City, Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina, Cesar E. Chavez Multicultural Academic Center in Chicago, and Williamsfield High School in Illinois.

Getting inside schools, seeing children work, talking with teachers and students, makes it clear how important—and hard—the work of education is. Here are five of the most interesting leaders we had the pleasure of spending time with in 2016.

Tim Farquer (Superintendent, Williamsfield Community Unit School District #210, Illinois) – It’s not everyday that a district of 300 students gets to host the U.S. Secretary of Education, but when Arne Duncan’s back-to-school bus tour pulled up to this one-building K-12 district, Williamsfield was ready. Nestled within acres of cornfields, Farquer has transformed his district by eschewing textbooks and embracing open educational resources. The superintendent figured that by spending the district’s money on computers, he could push his schools to one-to-one. Finding the right materials and getting teachers to enthusiastically buy-in has helped his students feel a part of the larger world. “This is remarkable to see a town of 600 literally leading the country where [it needs] to go,” Duncan said. “This is a really big deal.”

Kenneth Grover (Principal, Innovations Early College High School, Salt Lake City) – As the director of secondary schools in Salt Lake City, Grover kept seeing firsthand how some students just didn’t fit into the district’s range of high schools. He knew that a different model would help these students, something that was more molded to their individual needs. Grover went in search of a model, but couldn’t find what he wanted, so he set out to create what he knew was needed from scratch. A few years later, Innovations was born. Today, students in the public high school are firmly in charge of their learning, controlling the time, path, and pace of their education. “We wanted to take personalized education to its fullest,” Grover said.

Mark Benigni (Superintendent, Meriden (CT) Public Schools) – It would be easy for Mark Benigni to complain about what he doesn’t have in his school district. In the five years he has led Meriden, the small urban district hasn’t gotten a single budget increase, while its percentage of free and reduced-lunch students and English-language learners has continued to increase. Still, Benigni knew he needed a new program to shake up the district and reinvigorate teachers and students alike. Working closely with his teachers union, the superintendent was able to create an extended learning program at two of his elementary schools. This program brings children into school early for fun (and educational) tasks, while allowing his staff ample leeway in creating the content that stretches each day an additional 90 minutes. Absences are down, student engagement is up, and Benigni is hoping to continue to expand the program to more schools.   

Brad Rumble (Principal, Esperanza Elementary School, Los Angeles) -- When most people look out at this stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, they look right past the section that grabbed principal Brad Rumble’s attention. That’s understandable, for on the road that stretches 15 miles from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles, the portion that jumped out at Rumble is just a 100-foot-long space filled with debris and barbed wire. But it wasn’t the clutter that grabbed Rumble’s attention, it was the possibility. The principal of Esperanza Elementary School, who’s also a Los Angeles Audubon Society board member, eyed the spot as a perfect place to restore a little nature in the middle of L.A.’s urban jungle. “We are embarking on the re-wilding of Wilshire Boulevard,” Rumble said, harkening back to the 1890s when Henry Wilshire first created a path on his barley field. Rumble is creating an outdoor classroom where students will be able to study native plants, and pretty soon, birding. “Birding works for students on so many levels,” Rumble added. Birding strengthens students’ power of observation and the social skills it takes them to interact with each other is a perfect complement for today’s more rigorous standards, he said.

Mike Oliver (Principal, Zaharis Elementary School, Mesa, Arizona) – Just one step into Mike Oliver’s office at Zaharis and you get the sense that something different is happening. Oliver’s office could be confused for an adjunct library as he’s used rain gutters to hold books from the ceiling to the floor. “We’ve decided to flood our school and our classrooms with real books,” the principal said. Classrooms are well stocked with a variety of books and comfortable reading spaces, ranging from couches to a refashioned bathtub. While students are encouraged to read and share their discoveries, so are Zaharis’s teachers. Staff frequently share what they are reading with children, all in the hope of creating lifelong readers who are also critical thinkers.

How to Take a Mid-Year Checkup of Student Mastery in Your School Or District

The mid-point in the school year is a great opportunity for school and district leaders to step back and do an evaluation of standards that may not have been mastered by students from the first half of the year. It is not enough to raise reading levels of students or to get them to their reading level if they were previously behind, educators have to also make sure students understand and have mastered the standards that will be covered on the state tests. More and more teachers are tracking the standards taught and recording if the student mastered it or recording what level of understanding the student has for the standard.

If you find that a few students have not mastered the same standard, you can place them in a small group for the re-teaching of that standard. If the majority of the class did not master a standard or multiple standards, then that standard should be retaught to the class with the understanding that they (teacher and class) did not previously master it. Look at creating a document at least school-wide, but preferably district-wide, that records the students who are present, the teacher, the standard or grade level expectation, re-teaching strategies/work done (One to one, small group, guided reading, engaging activity…), a record of original score(s) from the assessment of the standard, and new assessment score(s). Leave room to write notes about individual students as evidence of what you did to support the student or need to do to give more support. We don’t want teachers teaching the standard the same way it wasn’t received successfully the first time.

This data could be used year-to-year to identify strategies that worked best for teaching standards that students traditionally struggle with or may not have mastered at high levels. Students can and should understand what mastering a standard means and when it is appropriate to re-teach or move forward.

One great idea I saw in a class was this: Students made a folder with one side a list of the standards they mastered with at least 80 percent proficiency and the other side had standards not mastered by at least 80 percent proficiency. The students voted if they thought the teacher should do a whole class re-teaching of the standard or students should form small groups. The students were proud to have ownership of their learning and understanding of what was expected of them. Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.

Five Big Stories in Education in 2015

We've had plenty to talk about in 2015 -- from testing to read alouds to ESSA, our new federal education law.

Here are five big education stories that kept my attention this year.

What's on your list?

ESSA is the law of the land

After years of starts, stalls and stops, the era of No Child Left Behind is finally on its way out. On December 10th, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law. Only time will tell how the law plays out in practice, but shifts are clear: more flexibility on spending and assessments for states and districts, more restrictions on the power of the Secretary of Education, new systems for accountability, and perhaps an easing of focus on standardized tests.

  1. Associated Press: Obama signs education law rewrite shifting power to states
  2. Morning Consult: How Old-School Legislating Brought an Education Bill to the Finish Line
  3. Vox: How schools will be different without No Child Left Behind

The soon-to-end era of Arne Duncan

One of the longest-serving members of President Obama’s cabinet, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced earlier this year that he would leave the post. His signature initiatives, including Race to the Top and federal School Improvement Grants, drove much of the conversation in education since 2009. Some see the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act as a culminating moment for him – while others see it as a defeat of many of his priorities. Whatever your thoughts are about the administration’s education agenda, there’s no denying that Duncan’s impact was huge.

  1. Washington Post: U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to step down at end of year
  2. The Hechinger Report: Arne Duncan’s legacy – the top-down approach to education
  3. Education Week: ESSA Cements the K-12 Obama-Duncan Legacy

The growing interest in family engagement initiatives

Recognizing the impact that out-of-school circumstances and barriers can have on a student’s readiness to learn in the classroom, schools and districts are increasingly investing in efforts to improve outreach to families and caregivers to give them supports and tools to boost learning at home. In New York City, an ambitious effort to improve family engagement initiatives in struggling schools kicked off this year. We expect more growth in this area in 2016.

  1. Education Week: Parent Engagement on Rise as Priority for Schools, Districts
  2. The New York Times: A Door-to-Door Push to Get Parents Involved at Struggling Schools

The role of testing and test scores are hotly debated

The debate over the role standardized tests should play in public schools appeared to reach a crescendo in 2015, capped off by the rewrite of NCLB and new calls from President Obama to limit the time students spend taking high stakes tests. Still, test results made big news: For the first time in years, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed a drop in reading and math scores.

  1. The Hechinger Report: Will a decline on the Nation’s Report Card hurt Common Core?
  2. Slate: Can the Obama Administration Really Pare Back Standardized Testing?
  3. Education Week: Students Take Too Many Redundant Tests, Study Finds

A spotlight shines on read alouds

As more cities and states invest in early learning initiatives and as research continues to show how crucial the early years are for brain and language development, the read aloud seems to be having a well-deserved moment in the sun. Parents are getting the message that reading to children from birth is important, and communities are investing in providing books to families to read at home. Yes, read alouds make for special moments of bonding and comfort between parent and child; they also introduce students to early vocabulary, life lessons and, hopefully, a lifelong love of books.

  1. The New York Times: Long Line at the Library? It’s Story Time Again
  2. The New York Times: Study Finds Reading to Children of All Ages Grooms Them to Read More on Their Own
  3. NY1: City’s First Lady Promotes ‘Talk to Your Baby’

Four Things Educators Should Know About ESSA, the New Federal Education Law

Today President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA); the reauthorization of President Johnson’s 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This landmark education legislation was part of the “War on Poverty” and the quest to bring equity in education to disadvantaged children.

The passage of this legislation is being celebrated far and wide. At the most basic level, people are simply celebrating that Congress acted in a bi-partisan manner and re-authorized a law that was nine years overdue.  Beyond rejoicing for sheer movement, many people are delighting in the legislation’s flexibility and the return of local control.

Let’s discuss briefly what that means from a somewhat practical – this is policy not implementation after all – standpoint.

  • Assessments – Tests are still required but there is flexibility and funding to develop alternative approaches to assessments. 
  • Accountability –Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) is gone and replaced with statewide accountability giving states more discretion in setting goals and figuring out how to intervene in low-performing schools. As states design their systems for measuring schools’ progress they will now need to use a student’s opportunity to learn, such as school climate or student engagement, as an indicator of progress.
  • Supporting teachers – The law ends the federal mandate tying high-stakes testing to teacher evaluation. With less teaching to the test, perhaps teachers can find even more joy in teaching and thinking through creative ways to meet individual student’s needs. Coupled with the flexibility states now have in turning around low performing schools, many hope this will be the right combination to helpsolve teacher recruitment and retention problems in some of the hardest to staff schools.
  • Fiscal Flexibility – This legislation consolidates more than 80 federal education programs down to 50 and in doing so creates a new $1.7 billion dollar Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant. Guiding parameters of this grant include funds being directed towards ensuring a well-rounded educational program and safety and health programs for students.  

As the vast majority of education audiences to varying degrees celebrate the passage of ESSA and the increased flexibility it affords, many of us are left wondering what implementation will look like in two or three years.

Will states and districts reflect on the lessons learned from years of prescriptive mandates and federal approaches to intervention? Will they partner to determine the most effective practices that integrate services and truly address the whole-child so our most disadvantaged students come to the classroom on a level-playing field ready to learn and benefit from the well-rounded education ESSA strives to achieve?

I remain optimistic from conversations I’ve had with State Chiefs, district leaders, and policy makers that if we keep our focus on the students, our determination on achieving equity, and use the momentum and excitement leaders feel at this moment with the passage of ESSA that we can at least get closer.

To learn more about the ESSA law, you can join a special Q & A with The White House and the U.S. Department of Education on the Scholastic Teachers Facebook page scheduled to begin today at 5:45 p.m. EST.

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