The Learning Supports Pathway: An Integrated Model of School Improvement

As the last bell rings on the school year, principals and district leaders are in the midst of collecting summative data and celebrating academic achievement and growth. However, it is likely that some students who come from environments of dysfunction and trauma will lag behind their more affluent and supported peers. In fact, the Scholastic Teacher & Principal School Report found that of the educators surveyed, 87% said that they have students who face barriers to learning that come from outside the school environment, and these barriers to learning are even more prevalent in high-poverty schools.

As school leaders approach improvement planning for the upcoming year, what strategies can be employed to address the pervasive barriers that many students face?

A new approach to School Improvement Planning has emerged that addresses the challenges that some students have toward accessing instruction and demonstrating achievement. Based on the foundational work of Dr. Howard Adelman and Dr. Linda Taylor of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), the Learning Supports Pathway approaches how one looks at school improvement in a wholly different way.

Learning Supports Pathway

Drs. Adelman and Taylor explain that students who are “motivated, engaged, and able to learn” respond to good instruction in a well-managed school by demonstrating growth and achievement. However, some students experience minor or major challenges in their lives that prevent them from benefiting from instruction. These barriers to learning take many forms, such as social-emotional or behavioral challenges, as well as factors related to poverty, lack of family support, school climate, safety, substance abuse, mental health, community issues and attendance.  Adelman and Taylor found that good instruction alone is not enough to address these challenges. They assert that traditional school improvement models focus on two components of improvement: instruction and management. Therefore, what is missing from our current models is planning for learning supports along with instruction and management. By including learning supports as a third component in planning and implementation, school leaders can address the factors that keep children from learning.

The Learning Support Pathway offers a way to organize and deliver the supports—resources, strategies, practices, and policy—in an aligned and systemic manner. This includes family and community engagement and partnerships that are leveraged with the school to boost engagement and academic improvement.

Taking Stock

As a district school superintendent who led the use of the Learning Supports Pathway in school improvement, I found the approach to be the first opportunity for us to collectively and collaboratively address the challenges our students faced outside of school that resulted in low achievement. Dr. Rhonda Waltman, our Learning Supports Coach, first led us in a resource-mapping activity to “take stock” of the programs and initiatives offered by our schools and the district office. We were surprised to find redundancies as well as gaps in our services. Furthermore, we found that the people who worked in support areas, like counselors and social workers, rarely met together to discuss how to prevent problems that children and families face.

Through the guidance of our coach, we re-structured our meetings and work groups to include three working teams: Instruction, Learning Supports, and Management. The leader from each team served on the Superintendent’s Cabinet. From there, we applied a systemic approach: we first examined our data, then clarified our areas of need, and finally identified the root cause of the underperformance. Then, the Instructional Team worked with the Learning Supports team to collaboratively identify strategies to address the barriers to learning. The Management Team then made decisions to set up structures to ensure that the strategies were carried out effectively. 

The Impact

This change in our organizational process unified our work, shifted our response to prevention and intervention, and resulted in improved engagement as well as achievement. We began to see the impact as attendance improved, discipline referrals declined, and families connected with our schools in a way that supported their children’s learning.

For all students to have the opportunity to succeed, the Learning Supports Pathway approach to school improvement offers a way.  It has the power to turn hopelessness into possibility and positively impact the lives of children who need us the most.

This post is the first in a series on integrated learning supports exploring how districts and schools can support students who face barriers to learning.

Why Literacy and Families Go Together

Dr. Steve Constantino will be speaking at the Literacy Leaders' Institute (Chicago, IL, August 6-8, 2017), presented by Scholastic and ASCD.

Consider the following truths about family engagement and academic achievement, each of which is robustly supported by research:

  1. Families, defined differently in different cultures, are the first and most influential teachers of their children. We know that their influence is profound.

  2. All families desire that their children exceed them in their quality of life. 

  3. When families are truly engaged, student performance and academic performance behaviors improve.

  4. Many decades of research, which continues today, clearly supports family engagement as an effective conduit to improved school outcomes, in particular the academic, behavioral and social-emotional lives of students.

I think when you consider that the efficacy of family engagement is supported by research and quantifiable results, a compelling case is made for every school to embrace family engagement as a core component of school culture.

Let’s be clear though: there are many definitions of family engagement, from making sure homework is completed and turned in, to supporting the latest fundraiser. I view effective family engagement as the degree to which families are engaged in the learning lives of their children and the degree to which schools support families’ ability to do so. 

Interestingly, even though the research and the stories of practical application in schools all over the world are compelling, many schools, dare I say the majority, do not place among their priorities effective family engagement practice. Or, if they do, it is in a rather obligatory manner.  

The question, then, becomes why? Why, when we know this to be effective, do many school and district leaders not prioritize family engagement practice among the major goals driving school district improvement? As the saying goes, “ah, therein lies the rub."

The answer is that many administrators don’t know how. There is a fundamental understanding that family engagement is a good thing, and in most cases there is a desire to implement effective practice, but the results, in many cases, are either lackluster or disappointing. Teachers may see it as yet another initiative with which they must comply, and school leaders may not think beyond meetings and conferences. Of late, social media and its ability to communicate are often substituted for engagement. (To be meaningful and effective, family engagement must go beyond tweeting homework reminders.) 

Can an effective approach to engaging families in the learning lives of their children improve outcomes, specifically those important literacy outcomes? Absolutely. The first step is to understand that family engagement is a learned practice for most school staff, and time and energy need to be devoted to building the capacity of schools to truly engage every family. The second step is to understand that with this investment, there will follow improved student achievement.

Family engagement is a defined process of knowledge, skills and dispositions that lead to trusting relationships between schools and homes and ultimately, the empowerment of families to have a hand in the education of their children, regardless of who they are. The results are always tangible and measurable.

Engaging every family is a contextual process that can be implemented in any school or district, anywhere.

Let us show you how. 

 

 

Year-Round (and that includes summer!) Reading Routines

We’ve learned a great deal about summer setback (Allington, et. al., 2010) and we know children who don’t read during the almost-three-month vacation will lose ground. We also know from the Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report that 80% of kids ages 6–17 and 96% of parents agree that reading books during the summer helps kids during the school year.

So why aren’t kids reading during the summer?

For some it may be limited access to text (Neuman & Celano, 2001), others may perceive the task as too hard, and for others it may be that a reading routine is not established. Some communities have tried to solve the first challenge, access to text, by implementing summer book floods, making sure kids have something to read June, July, and August. While this helps, if reading is perceived as hard, putting books in children’s hands may not be an effective solution. Further, summer often lacks structure, and if there is no routine around reading, it may get overlooked for other activities. Obviously the challenges around summer reading are like peeling an onion. The many layers make supporting children in the summer complex and may leave teachers feeling overwhelmed and unsure of how to proceed.

Community Partners in Reading

This summer, 1,200 children who participated in Reading Recovery®, an early intervention for 1st-grade students, received reading material through a partnership with Scholastic, Dabo’s All in Team Foundation, and the Clemson University Reading Recovery and Early Literacy Training Center. The partnership, Tigers Read!, set a goal to address the above challenges by:

  1. providing access to text 

  2. making sure students who were identified as having difficulty were reading on grade level 

  3. developing a reading routine.

Focusing on all three components allowed a shift in our thinking about summer reading. In other words, instead of thinking about summer as a separate time, we thought about is as an extension of the school year.  

So what are the implications for children across the country? 

To begin, teachers can implement an independent reading time. Independent reading contributes to reading growth, and for children who are having difficulty, reading volumes of text is essential to accelerated progress. Further, independent reading should be an everyday routine. During this time, teachers can assist children in selecting texts that support them as readers, and can also talk with their students about how to do this on their own. These conversations are critical, and without them many children will select texts that are too difficult, which can contribute to feelings of frustration.

Healthy classroom libraries assist these efforts. A healthy library is like a healthy diet, it should include variety: a variety of genres, text types, and levels that will ensure children select the just-right text. When children have materials they can and want to read, the next step is intentionally creating time to read outside of school, which extends the idea of everyday routine. Reading routines start in the classroom, should become part of children’s nightly expectations during the school year, and are ultimately integrated into the summer.

Last week, college football players from the 2016 National Championship team read to some of the children participating in the Tigers Read initiative. The players shared how they train all year long preparing for the football season. They develop routines and stick with them even when they are on a break; exercising and eating right. The children also developed routines and were encouraged by the players to stick with them and keep reading every day.

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Allington, R. L., McGill-Franzen, A., Camilli, G., Williams, L., Graff, J., Zeig, J., Zmach, C., & Nowak, R. (2010). Addressing summer reading setback among economically disadvantaged elementary students. Reading Psychology, 31(5), 411-427.

Neuman, S. B., & Celano, D. (2001). Access to print in low‐income and middle‐income communities: An ecological study of four neighborhoods. Reading Research Quarterly, 36(1), 8-26.

 

 

Six Truths I Know For Sure About Writing

After teaching writing for over 20 years, I’ve seen the benefits of having students write regularly, genuinely, and with ownership. Of course, they perform better academically, in every subject and on standardized tests, since consistent writing practice trains students to easily access their thoughts and skillfully express them. But by writing often and with purpose, students also grow as thinkers and as human beings. They discover not only their thoughts, but themselves. Here are six truths about teaching writing that I believe from my heart:

Strong writing is powerful, and can be learned.

Although modern-day writing continues to morph into many forms, the written word persists and is more powerful than ever. The strength of a clear, engaging, meaningful message cannot be underestimated. The good news is that with practice, effective writing can be learned. I try to dispel the myth that some people are born talented writers and everyone else is not. I strive to convince students that the stuff of their lives can be a basis for powerful writing, and that they can learn to write well if they commit to it.

Writing is an extension of thought, not just a record of it.

The act of writing always yields new insights. Often, learners don’t know what they think about a topic until they start writing about it. When students begin to experience this truth they gain confidence and excitement—writing becomes an adventure. The brain and the heart reveal themselves through writing, if it is practiced. The learner must show up for it, though: like a sport or hobby, one must show up for practice. One must be present.

Writing helps the writer be present and notice.

As with any task, it is possible to become absorbed when writing and experience full presence. One must turn inward; one must be silent. What a beautiful gift to give to students in a world full of loud, shallow distractions. And writing can give students even more than that—in order to write well in any genre, students must look deeply into their own daily lives and memories, at the colors, smells, and sunlight, at eyes, hands, and words. With practice, this persistent looking can expand into a way of being, a way of living more in the present at all times, a constant noticing. This is the true grace of the writing life. If we can give even a fraction of that to our students through the work of writing practice, we will have succeeded.

Writers become better by writing.

A coach would never teach an athlete a technique once or twice and expect her to be able to perform it perfectly from that point on. Free throws, flip turns, serves and spins are practiced thousands of times each year; so it is with writing. A goal of my new book 50 Writing Activities for Meeting Higher Standards is to give teachers plenty of writing assignments to choose from, to keep students constantly writing. Although rubrics are included with each activity, not everything has to be graded with a formal rubric. Plenty of writing in my class goes formally ungraded but verbally conferenced. It all helps.

Writing makes students read like writers.

When students practice real writing in several genres, they begin to read not as passive spectators but as knowledgeable apprentices. They begin to internalize the tenets of strong writing, and they can sense its presence. Instead of simply saying a text is “good” or “bad,” they can identify the skills employed or the ones lacking. They learn to read from the inside-out, like writers, simultaneously seeing the finished product and its working parts.

Writing as a practice develops one’s voice.

Regular writing about one’s life, observations, reflections, and opinions leads to a strong sense of voice. The writer comes to realize her unique style and outlook. Ideally, the writer also comes to believe that this individual perspective has value, that he has something to contribute to the world. Though each of us is only one voice, we are all important notes in the chorus of humanity. As educators, we must convince students of this by helping them write about their lives and opinions honestly and clearly, and by encouraging them to participate in the larger conversation of our shared existence.

What Happened at #EWA17? Some Twitter Highlights

Last week from May 31–June 2, 2017, the Education Writers Association held its 70th annual national seminar in Washington, DC, inviting the nation's education reporters for a timely dialogue about "A New Era for Education and the Press."

Below is but a sampling of the conversations I picked up on #EWA17, including reaction to the absence of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the declaration by Marty Baron (Executive Editor, The Washington Post) that "education reporting is sexy," ESSA, the achievement gap, diversity and school integration, philanthropy, public and charter schools in DC, and more.

Here's what caught my eye:

The Writing Classroom: Lighting the Spark

I have a brother-in-law who makes a spreadsheet whenever he has a project: “It’s how I think." Interesting, though I confess that doesn’t work for me. I find that ideas are best grasped through metaphors, so here goes:

Teaching writing is like making a fire. You can add all the firewood you want, but unless you leave space for air, the fire will sputter and go out. In the writing classroom the “air” consists of choice, voice, pleasure and play. Those essential conditions make the fire crackle.

What does that look like in practice?

When my youngest son was in fourth grade he had two teachers: Steve Tullar and Pete Schiat. Pete was a retired merchant marine sailor who had come to teaching as a second career. Steve and Pete invented a genre they called Nature’s Eye, where kids could write about the natural world using prose poetry. Using this form, the kids really took off (especially the boys) and got jazzed about writing. Parents were invited to numerous events to hear the kids share what they had written. As soon as you walked in you could feel the energy and passion in that classroom. The kids were invested. 

How did Steve and Pete do it? I think it was a combination of factors:

  • Passionate teachers who were genuinely interested in what the kids had to say. Having male teachers signaled to the boys that writing could be for girls and boys. 

  • A genre that was accessible.

  • A supportive audience.

In a larger sense, the conditions in that classroom embody the elements highlighted in the subtitle of my new book The Writing Teacher’s Companion: Embracing Choice, Voice, Purpose & Play.

Let’s briefly explore them, one by one. 

Choice

Don Graves encouraged teachers to let kids bring their obsessions into their writing. Amen. Kids need to feel empowered to write about what matters to them. And they have to know deep down that they will be received and accepted.

It’s no secret that choice is getting squeezed out of today’s writing classroom. Too often, young writers get funneled into a particular genre (often a persuasive essay), told what to write about, and what elements the writing must include. Where’s the choice?

Don’t despair if the energy in your writing classroom feels lethargic. The best single way I know to energize it is to encourage your students to write about what matters to them. Give them real choice, and get out of the way.

Voice

Voice is the quality in writing that reflects that author’s personality, character, or attitude. All of us are different, so voice in writing is as unique as fingerprints

Is voice related to choice? Most certainly! We need to create classrooms where young writers have the time, space, and support to find their individual voices as writers. 

Purpose

We write for many different reasons: to remember, react, ruminate (perhaps in a writer’s notebook), communicate, goof around, create literature, tell a story, and so on. The classroom should be a place where kids can experience these various purposes. In a writing conference we can ask—“What are you trying to do in this piece of writing?”—not in a skeptical way, but as curious readers. 

Play

Play is an essential part of what writers do when they sit down to write. An essay about fracking might begin with a dash of wordplay: “Fracking is controversial topic that has been drilling into people’s consciousness in recent years..." We must encourage kids to play when they write, and try to be generous when their playful attempts don’t always work (as they often do not).

I would add one more essential condition:

Pleasure

I write because it’s fun. I enjoy it. If I didn’t enjoy writing (at least most of the time), I wouldn’t be a writer. Let’s do whatever we can to create classrooms, like the one created by Steve and Pete, where kids can say: “Writing is a blast. I can’t wait for our next chance to write.” 

2017 National Advisory Council: Equity in Education—Engaging and Empowering Students, Families & Educators

On May 4, 2017 Scholastic convened its National Advisory Council (NAC)—an esteemed group of educational thought leaders—to participate in a day-long dialogue about equity in education through the lens of engaging and empowering students, families and educators

The 2017 National Advisory Council includes:

  • Brandon Dixon (Sophomore, Harvard University)

  • Dr. Josh Garcia (Deputy Superintendent, Tacoma Public Schools)

  • Dr. Walter Gilliam, PhD (Director of The Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy; Associate Professor of Child Psychiatry and Psychology at the Child Study Center, Yale School of Medicine)

  • Jahana Hayes (2016 National Teacher of the Year)

  • Chris Lehmann (Founding Principal, Science Leadership Academy; Assistant Superintendent, Innovation Network, School District of Philadelphia)

  • Dr. Karen Mapp (Senior Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Faculty Director of the Education Policy and Management Masters Program)

Dick Robinson, Scholastic CEO, opened the meeting with remarks on Scholastic’s long history of inviting leaders in education and learning to join the company’s National Advisory Council. The first meeting of the NAC in the 1930s comprised primarily school superintendents (as well as the poet Robert Frost). Today, our diverse Council represents a wide spectrum of educational leadership.

Robinson emphasized that a deep understanding of the full scope of education necessarily includes knowledge of how schools are organized, what is important to local school leaders, and how the life of the school affects teaching and learning, and kids’ social-emotional and academic growth: 

"We are in the life of the school to help teachers support the child’s learning, and to help engage children in what they’re reading and discussing, to help them understand who they are, who they can be; to touch their hearts, as well as their minds. And how to help them develop the resilience, perseverance, and hope that will encourage them to learn and to grow."

In a panel discussion that followed, the National Advisory Council emphasized the need for policy and infrastructure that supports equity in education; the importance of a student-centered approach for meaningful engagement and deep learning; and the critical importance of building and nurturing relationships between kids, schools, families and communities. 

Q: Please share how your work focuses on equity and enabling every child to reach the stars.

Josh Garcia: Equity is not an episodic conversation, but a relentless fight on behalf of the invisible. Our opportunity to lead will come through teaching students how to think. When you heard Robert Frost’s name earlier this morning, you sighed. But when you heard “superintendent” you didn’t do anything. You have to remember your passion: your passion for literature can be part of a social revolution. Don’t let today be episodic, but let it be the way of your work.

Chris Lehmann: Most kids view school as something to endure, and if they’re lucky, they get one teacher that inspires them. I think we should dare children to do real work in school that matters to them in their world, and in their neighborhoods. Our job is not to empower kids but to help them unlock their own agency. Every child has the right to walk into a school and know that they are cared for. Every child deserves the kind of education that is meaningful and real, and allows them to see themselves as fully active and fully realized citizens of the world.

Karen Mapp: My work is about putting the public back in public education. So I focus on making sure families and communities are co-producers and co-creators of the kind of excellent educational outcomes we want for all of our kids. If we put the public back in public education I think we can reach the equity goals that we all want a lot faster if we keep them on the outside. I have been very inspired to find that there are more superintendents and practitioners who feel strongly that without partnerships with families and communities, they can’t succeed in the work of student achievement and school improvement. 

Walter Gilliam: At the Yale Child Study Center, our work is about asking how we take research around helping children and families, and put it into actionable policy. How do you move that forward? In the process of doing that work, certain things become impossible to ignore, and one is the stark inequities that many children have from the very minute that a child first draws a breath. People refer to education as the great equalizer. But the reality is that the great equalizer is inequitably distributed. How can it fulfill its promise if it’s another place for social injustice to rear its head? 

Brandon Dixon: All of these issues start with conversation and student input. Without that, we won’t be able to move anywhere. So I tell stories; I report for The Harvard Crimson. I think a big part of the effort is telling the stories of education, and helping people understand the value of it.

Jahana Hayes: I have kids who come in to my classroom and oftentimes I am the only one who sees their potential. My job is to help them to believe it, to give them the audacity to believe that they are somebody. That is heartbreaking as an educator, to have to convince children that they are important, that they don’t come in with that already. This is draped in the framework of equity. I have students who come in with a deficit and have to meet the same expectations. As classroom teachers, we get what we get. We have to meet kids where they are. I might have in one classroom a student who has been given all the resources they need, and comes to me ready to learn. And I may have a kid who really doesn’t even understand why they’re there. My job is to deliver instruction to both of those students in a language that they can both understand.  

Q: In the Scholastic Teacher & Principal School Report, many principals reported seeing an increase in the population of students experiencing barriers to learning in the past three years. What has happened since we had this meeting last year, or over the last few years? Have we moved backwards? Are there new challenges?

CL: Equity requires more resources. To achieve equitable outcomes we have to spend money. As a nation we don’t understand that. And in the last year there’s also been a shift, a feeling of repudiation of who people are as people. And kids feel that. And so we have to teach them, and say to them: Within these walls, you’re cared for, you’re loved, and you can make a difference. You matter. 

JH: I have a unique perspective as a classroom teacher, and I don’t accept that we’ve moved backwards. We can get discouraged by policy and the news, but if kids don’t see someone in front of them who believes in them, then nothing else matters. So as teachers, we have a choice: we can get wrapped up in policy, or we can go in there and teach like our hair is on fire. All that matters is these kids in my classroom. For that small time they’re in front of me, I want to create a space where the kids own that space.

KM: We have to ask what we’re willing to do to make a more equitable world. What are we willing to give up so someone else is able to have more? I think we need to bring this from a 40,000-foot conversation back down to the ground and ask ourselves: Are we willing to step up and not just see this as someone else’s job?

Q: OK, so let’s bring it to the ground. One of our themes is engagement. What does that look like in the classroom?

BD: I think engagement starts within the school context, but outside the classroom. The times when I’ve felt I had a higher stake in my education came as a result of extracurricular work with teachers. Those experiences made me feel like I had buy-in into my education. 

JG: There is a fatal assumption that the equity has to come between 7:00 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. But if we’re thinking about the whole child, we need to be thinking about it 24/7. We need to engage and honor the education that takes place outside the classroom. Supporting the whole child is thinking 24/7, 365 days a year. And so we need to align our support of kids to this, and honor it not as a classroom credit but as a truly meaningful, authentic learning experience. That’s how you’ll engage a kid.

CL: It bothers me that it’s the extracurricular that inspires us. I want the curricular to inspire us. There’s a difference when we let students have a voice and choice in their education. Teachers can ask three powerful questions every day: What do you think? How do you feel? What do you need? then listen and take action on the answers. That will make the curricular every bit as rich as the extracurricular. 

WG: Learning happens within relationships. When a baby is born, it wants to look at nothing more than a face—that is the beginning of learning and engagement. And later when the child goes to preschool and meets new adults, the child will look at the parent for cues on how to engage with the new adults. If that relationship exists, the child will be ready to learn; and if it doesn’t, it will be rocky. From the beginning of learning, it is all about engagement. 

KM: I am very excited about the Parent-Teacher Home Visit project, where teachers go to the families’ homes, not to check up on them, but to build relationships, and to learn from them about their children. Not only do families feel honored and connected to the school, but biases teachers may have had about families are challenged when they go to the home. When we engage with families, they tell us things about their kids that helps us be the best practitioners we can be. 

JH: This works in high school as well. All my life, I wanted to be a teacher but I struggled a lot in the beginning and realized that the responsibility to educate children does not fall to teachers alone. So I went to businesses, churches and civic organizations and I said, help me educate the children in this community. We have to start looking at it not as what happens in the four walls of the classroom, but in the context of community. We need to look differently at roles and responsibilities. 

Q: Does it make sense for the equity issue that one of the end goals is empowering?

WG: Absolutely. When the curriculum works best, it flows right out of the children’s own interests, creativity, and curiosity. That’s empowering. When children of any age get to help shape the curriculum based on what’s important to them, their families, their communities, and there’s an adult in the classroom who cares about that, and knows that the real engine of learning is not in the curriculum, it’s in the heart of the child—that’s empowerment.

JG: Educators need to learn how to build trust. We have an opportunity to build connections in a thematic way: around social-emotional learning and social awareness. The students are the ones we need to empower, and right now it’s not done in a connected manner. There are just spotlights here and there. I think the opportunity is to enhance the empowerment of our students through trust, and through building trust with families. That furthers the learning on a whole other level. 

CL: That’s where we have to think systemically. We need to create healthier systems and structures in our schools to guarantee that every kid knows they are cared for, and every family knows who their child’s advocate is. So adults have long-term relationships with kids, and educators understand that their professional responsibility is to help take care of these kids over a four-year journey. We can create systems where communities come together, and do it thoughtfully, and devote the time and resources to make it easier for us to care for one another. 

To read more about the 2016 National Advisory Council meeting on equity in education, go here.

Orange Public Schools: Want to Get Kids Reading? Get Everyone Reading!

This academic year in my district, Orange Public Schools, in Orange, NJ—I had a big challenge: I needed a way to get students reading independently. Independent reading can have a powerful effect on literacy achievement, and I knew that this was an important practice that we needed to do regularly in Orange schools. But how to make independent reading part of our district’s literacy culture?

I decided to focus on the concept of modeling: I thought that if students saw adults reading, they would be more inclined to do it themselves. I wanted kids to see adults across the community reading and discussing books, articles, blogs—anything they wanted to read. I pitched my initial idea—which was to involve teachers, and call on the resources of our partners—to the Orange Board of Education Cabinet. The Superintendent, Ronald Lee, loved the idea but challenged me to go bigger. He approached the Mayor and invited him to our next Cabinet meeting.

Before the meeting with the Mayor, the Orange ELA team brainstormed about every aspect of this initiative, from the name to strategies for making it operational. By the time the Cabinet met with Mayor Warren, the team had named the initiative and developed a strong plan for how to promote it internally. The Mayor supported us with ideas on how to engage the rest of the community.

The Orange Public Library Director Timur Davis took over the reins, working with me and Barry Devone, Orange Public Schools Community Engagement Officer, to arrange other signpost events to promote the reading challenge and get community buy-in, such as presenting to the religious leaders at the Interfaith Coalition of Churches meetings.

In an effort to promote reading and increase the capacity and fluency of our students, the Orange Board of Education, in partnership with the City of Orange Township, launched The Orange Page Turners' Reading Challenge on November 17, 2016, with a kick-off event at the Orange Public Library.

The goal of the reading challenge was for the entire community to read one million pages between November 25, 2016 and May 1, 2017. Each Orange Township resident and business owner was challenged to promote reading by participating in one of the online reading platforms. The community embraced the challenge head-on. In December a few of our senior high school students created a catchy theme song to a contemporary hit, which played in all schools to help promote the challenge. “Don't Stop the READING,” was played for all at the January Board of Education meeting.

Stakeholders were updated monthly on our progress and encouraged to participate at local school events where our partners donated books and Clifford the Big Red Dog read to lucky young residents. In the month of March, Scholastic treated Ms. Jones’s 6th grade class to a visit from Tony Brown, NBA Referee, for collectively logging in the most pages of independent reading into one of our tracking systems. One of Orange’s Assistant Principals told me:

“This was just awesome! All of the guests were very nice and genuinely interacted with the children. They got to listen to Mr. Brown read and then he invited some students to read. He complimented the students on how respectful and helpful they were of one another. Then they got into a great question-and-answer session. He autographed everyone's book, and what was most special was that he said he would only do it under one condition: if they would autograph his book, because this was just as much a treat for him as it was for them!"

Top readers were also treated to a NJ Devils hockey game and received drawstring bags to acknowledge their accomplishment and encourage them to continue reading. I am happy to announce that on May 2nd the community of Orange, NJ has logged in 1,029,591 pages, which surpassed our goal! Winners will be announced and awarded at our Literacy Block Party in June. 

With the continued support of the Deputy Superintendent Dr. Paula Howard the initiative was successful. Over the last few months, I learned that my initial hunch was correct: that in order to get kids to read, they need to belong to a community of readers. By creating a shared goal across Orange, we were able to do just that.

Meet the Kids Press Corps

“I’m very nitpicky,” I tell Titus Smith III in the latest Scholastic Reads podcast episode.

Titus is a Scholastic News Kid Reporter, and I am his editor. Editors are nitpicky. So, one hopes, are surgeons. No detail is too small, Kid Reporters learn early. What is the full name of the person you interviewed? What exactly did he or she say? Why does it matter? 

This year, 39 students from around the world have served as members of the Scholastic News Kids Press Corps. They have filed stories about athletes, authors, musicians, and scientists

One young reporter told his peers about Lunar New Year celebrations in Guangzhou, China. Another explained what it’s like to live on a floating hospital off the coast of Africa

Our reporters have spoken with President Donald Trump, former First Lady Michelle Obama, and State Senator Cathy Breen of Maine. They’ve even gone to the circus!

Along the way, these young journalists have honed their writing skills, become more confident, and, in some cases, gotten lessons in punctuation. They have begun to read more voraciously, listen to others more intently, and assess information more critically. They know the difference between fact and opinion.

Kid Reporters also recognize the power of their own words. They are telling the stories of their generation—whether it’s how kids their age are raising awareness about environmental issues or giving back to the community. They are learning that everyone can make a difference!

See Our Reporters in Action

What is it like to be a Kid Reporter? Watch our reporters in action. If you know a 10- to 14-year-old who would like to apply to the program, here’s a link to our application form.

 

What I Learned: My School's Eye-Opening Family Engagement Assessment

My superintendent’s favorite quote is “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” His next favorite? “Relationships, relationships, relationships. Everything’s about relationships.” And he is right: I have spent the last three years working alongside our staff to build a school culture of joyful learning, whether that learner is a teacher or a student.

The work has paid off in many ways. Our teacher turnover has decreased significantly. Staff members feel appreciated and heard, and our sense of purpose and joy has been renewed, at least on most days!

So when our relationship-driven superintendent called to ask if I would be interested in participating in an assessment to gauge our family and community engagement practices, I was all in! Most of our measures of family and community engagement had revolved around yearly surveys required by our state, and tracking the attendance at various events. While those provided interesting information, I would not say that information moved us forward in any meaningful way.

Although things were going well inside the building, I knew it was time to work on the perception outside the building. Our school is a large Title I elementary school. In fact, 93% of our 830 students receive free and reduced-price lunch, and 52% of our students are from native Spanish-speaking homes. We consider our diversity our strength, but that strength is not without its challenges.

An eye-opening beginning

At the onset of our assessment, our staff and parents were given surveys to complete, but before the results were even in, Jenni Brasington, Scholastic Director of Consultative Services, arrived for the site visit. I had told no one she was coming, but I confess, I did put some mints on the front counter with a sign that said “Thanks for your commitMINT to your child’s education!” To be honest, I was not sure what the building had to do with family engagement. I figured the mints would earn us a few points! Right? Umm…not really. I do not think she was fooled. As we met each other for the first time, Jenni began to walk back through the front doors. “This assessment begins in the parking lot.” she said. “Think about a new parent driving up, parking, and walking up to the front doors. Do you have that image in your mind? Now…turn around.” 

Immediately, my heart sank. I saw it. And it was not good. In fact, it was bad. Really bad. Every single sign on the door was negative. NO Smoking! NO student may enter the building until 8:05. NO loitering. No, No, No. I groaned. Seriously? Why had I never noticed these signs before today? Truly, it was embarrassing! I sure hoped she noticed my mints, because this was not going well. 

I would love to say things got better on the front hall. They did not. As I proudly showed off our displays of parent information brochures, Jenni asked how parents would know the brochures were for them. While the door had a plethora of signs, our brochure display had none. And the brochures were dusty, because no one knew they were free. (No wonder I never needed to replace them.) While these oversights were cosmetic and fairly easy things to fix, the significance of such oversights was not lost on me. We spent the next hour walking our building and talking about how the environment could assist in our efforts to engage parents in student learning.

So, what does family engagement mean in our school?

With surveys and the school visit behind us, Jenni’s final interaction was a professional development day designed to meet the needs of our school. One of the most powerful aspects of the day was an exercise that revealed our beliefs around family engagement. In a high-poverty school, blaming low academic achievement on a child’s home environment is all too easy and can lead to lowered expectations and excuses from staff. I have fought that mindset and felt confident we were winning.

As a result of the training, I realized that our deep belief in our students did not necessarily extend to our families. The survey revealed that we did not give our families enough credit. Including me.

Our beliefs were limiting our results. And our beliefs were a very slippery slope. If we did not believe our parents had the ability to help their children academically, how quickly could we accept that, by extension, our students do not have the ability to achieve? As I asked that question aloud to our staff, I think we all internally acknowledged our conflicting emotions. What better place to start the change process than acknowledging our biases? Jenni gently challenged those biases and beliefs while guiding us to see new possibilities. “Isn’t the very act of getting a child to school every day a form of engagement?” Jenni asked. Well…yes.

As we began to see engagement in a different light, one not focused solely on family attendance at events, but engagement in their child’s learning, we were ready explore and define family engagement in our school.

While we did not end the day with a completely nailed-down definition, we did have some solid takeaways. We circled common words that emerged from each group’s conversation, clarified that family meant any significant adult in our students’ lives, and decided that our definition would be a declaration which started with the words “At Selma Elementary, we believe…" We are in the process of getting parent, family, and community input to ensure that our mission statement is a collective one that represents the beliefs of our entire community.   

Selma Elementary today

Walking into our school today, visitors comment on our multilingual “welcome” word cloud at the entrance that once shouted NO! and the parent brochure display has signs in English and Spanish. Perhaps the quickest change were the bulletin boards that now showcase student work with standards and objectives displayed. While these may seem like simple cosmetic changes, the intent behind each change has been purposeful. We want our community to feel welcome, we want parents to feel supported and valued, and we want our walls to share our greatest priority: student learning.

We have increased the number of pictures and videos that highlight student learning on our Facebook page and Twitter account, and we ask questions in our posts to open up the dialogue between home and school. We are planning student-led conferences—both in real-time and virtually—for parents who cannot attend in person, because as one teacher said recently, “a lack of presence on campus does not equate to lack of engagement.”

And just this past weekend, over 1,100 people attended our first ever Community Day, hosted by the seven schools in our area. Families visited booths about coding, fire safety, plant growth, and a host of other things. The three local town councils and the chamber of commerce partnered with us to make the event a success. New connections were made and commitments for support were offered as we made visible the wonderful things happening in our schools.

With the help of Scholastic, the landscape of family and community engagement within Selma Elementary and our community is shifting.

Click to learn more about the role of welcoming, information and communication in family engagement. 

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