Raising the bar at neighborhood schools (Guest Question)

April 13, 2011 at 5:25 pm 54 comments

RL Julia wrote asking if I could post this question for the group.  She’s having an LSC meeting tomorrow (Thursday) and is looking for some ideas.  These are many of the same topics I’ve pondered for my local school when I was on the LSC.    I think that involved parents can help a school raise the bar, but it’s often hard to know where to start to what to do.  Some schools welcome input from parents and some are… a bit less welcoming, but I post the question so perhaps all of us can get some ideas to take back to our own schools.  I hope that input from LSC can help continue to push the neighborhood schools to be continuously better….

HELP!  I am looking for your advice and input – I am on the LSC of my neighborhood elementary school (part of a magnet cluster -fine arts). The school’s current ISAT tests indicate that 1/3 of the school is currently working above grade level (not bad given the (stated) 86% poverty rate & 36% ELL kids). What sort of academic interventions would you recommend to meet these kids needs? What sort of things would you like to see?

Keep in mind the following:

-There isn’t much  (or any) extra money for anything new and given the population, there isn’t really the capacity for parental fundraising for more than say 10K per year. 

-The school is already getting a lot of additional dollars through grant writing so writing lots MORE grants isn’t necessarily going to happen.

-Most teachers already are individuating their instruction – esp. in the early grades. Later grades kids are grouped more randomly.

 -Additionally the school just started doing a full inclusion model for kids with IEPs which means that there are practically two teachers and/or aids in every classroom (as needed). This just started last year which means that the regular classroom teachers are still wrapping their heads around a more team teaching model. Don’t want to stress them out totally.

 -Currently there is no (stated) formal gifted programming – however the school does have the higher achieving students tutor the ones who are struggling, give kids extra work (generally only if the child asks or in some way indicates that they want extra work – not always if the parent demands that the extra work be given to the child) and occassionally will either skip a child (but only if the child is academically, socially, emotionally and physically advanced) or do some sort of pull-out instruction/walking to a higher grade. There is a strong focus on the WHOLE child especially in the earlier grades which means that generally if the child is ahead in one subject the teacher will focus on the areas where growth is needed (social or subject).

What I’d like to know from you is: What should the program look like? What interventions do you think work best? How can a child who is strong in one area but not another be encouraged? How can classroom/school continuity be preserved (I don’t want the smart kids getting all the extra stuff or there being a two tiered system that divides everyone) and how would you decide who gets called “gifted”  – just ISAT scores something else? The school is gentrifying and I don’t want a situation where every kid with educated parents is gifted, while the kid who just got off the bus from Mexico and doesn’t speak English is not because that would be really bad for the community.


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Why do we stay in the city? Can Rahm make the longer school day happen?

54 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Hawthorne mom  |  April 13, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    RL Julia,
    I have always enjoyed your posts and your commitment to your neighborhood school.
    Can I recommend a book? I mentioned it in another post. Richard Allington wrote What Really Matters for Struggling Readers. He makes suggestions on how to restructure the school day, share materials and other things that do not cost schools extra money. His ideas are practical and many schools could be implementing his ideas. If I were running a school, I’d use Allington’s books as my educational bible. There are ideas in there for parents too, ways they can help.

  • 2. anyone know about this?  |  April 13, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    Dear ChiArts Family,
    Today Mr. Ochoa , Ms. Milsap, and a couple of Board members met with CPS representatives to discuss the plans for the ChiArts’ facility. The update that we received is that ChiArts will not be moving to Lafayette Elementary School. The new proposal is for ChiArts to co-share Wells Community Academy High School at 936 North Ashland Avenue. Lafayette is located in the Humboldt Park/Ukranian Village area and Wells is about 2 miles East of Lafayette in the Ukranian Village/Wicker Park area.
    In the next few days, Mr. Ochoa and Ms. Milsap will be looking at the floor plans of Wells to be certain that our academic and arts programming will be accommodated by this co-share. We are quite hopeful that this is a good option for ChiArts.
    There is a ChiArts parent meeting scheduled on Thursday, April 21 at 6:00 pm. We hope that your schedule will allow you to attend the meeting to discuss the proposal. Dates will be confirmed soon, but there will also be a community meeting scheduled next week to discuss the co-share. In addition, the proposal will need to be approved at the Wednesday, April 27, 2011 CPS Board meeting.
    Thank you for your patience and unwavering support as we have worked diligently to secure the best option for our students and staff.

    ChiArts Administration

  • 3. Grace  |  April 13, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    With the principal or a.p., if possible, you might consider visiting a number of schools with similar students that are successful. I would suggest visiting CPS, private and suburban schools, as you get an idea of the best practices that might fit well at your school, over time, and the costs involved.

    I would take careful notes, and follow up with Central Office for further information about specific curriculums you are interested in. Office of School Relations, Mr. Alvarez, can coordinate for you.

    You might consider, for example, a primary and middle school IB program. This is a proven curriculum that is designed to be challenging, but it is not exclusive like gifted programs can be.

    Good luck. And don’t forget to let your alderman know of your plans. S/he can be a great resource. Some local businesses might be supportive, esp. real estate offices.

  • 4. RL Julia  |  April 13, 2011 at 9:50 pm

    Thanks for your comments. I am especially interested in hearing what specific things as parents you guys would look for or like. The teachers and administration are fairly well versed on standard teaching practices and what the central office likes – is there anything in particular that you have observed in your own schools or with your own children that seems to be effective or that simply makes sense/makes you feel like your kid’s educational needs are really being met/accommodated?

  • 5. Gayfair Dad  |  April 13, 2011 at 10:52 pm

    ChiArts at Wells is NOT GOOD. How about using the soon-to-be-vacated Jones College Prep building which will be available two years from now? “Glee” anyone? Bait and switch. Get a lawyer.
    You cannot tell me the $$$ folks (Mabies) are tolerating this, pulling the wool over *their* eyes!

  • 6. Bill S  |  April 13, 2011 at 11:38 pm

    If you have gifted and not just higher achieving students, having them help the lower achieving students is not the way to keep them interested in learning. It’s been my experience with my own child as well as everything I’ve heard at CTD and other gifted programs that this is bad practice.

  • 7. Lane Parent  |  April 14, 2011 at 12:56 am

    RL Julia, I’m pretty sure we also attend your local school. I believe it’s a gem of a neighborhood school with some really great teachers and staff, and we’ve really enjoyed our years there. The things we most appreciated were the programs that offered enrichment i.e. the Ravinia partnership. I would have loved to have seen more of these types of programs, and wished they could somehow be offered more in depth than you can provide when the whole class participates. Some ideas for partnerships might be places like North Park Nature Center, Lill Street, some of the local theatre companies or some of the colleges in the area. My younger daughter wishes there was the opportunity to learn a language, since many of her friends in other elementary schools do. It would level the field since so many kids are ELL, if the other kids had to learn a new language too!

    I’m also fascinated with the new Chicago Quest school, with their plans to incorporate digital media and game based theory into their curriculum, and would look to them for ideas for innovation that might set you apart from other schools in the area. Taft offers the EAST program, which in an independent learning program that the kids seem to really enjoy. Maybe with the new computers some of these things would be possible?

    Here’s something from another thread re: what parents at Belding have been doing, maybe you could contact someone from there?

    “When my son went to our neighborhood school (Belding) for PreK, I was amazed at LSC and PTA meetings how much the parents were doing. They set up a type of “gifted programming” with Jr. Great Books, and an upper grade science program where the kids went to a class at NEIU, they also brought in Spanish via satellite TV. Amazing progress for a neighborhood school vying for students in the area to use it. Made me get involved and continue to be involved in my current schools.”

    For my older daughter, who is gifted, our experience in partnering with lower performing kids meant that frequently that she was left with all the work! The other kids quickly figured out that she’d pick up any slack because she really cared about getting the good grade. It often left her frustrated and angry. So it would be helpful to find ways to group the more advanced kids together, and find ways to challenge them whether its in regular or enrichment classes.

    We are regretfully leaving for Taft AC next year even though the school does now continue to 8th grade, mainly because our neighborhood HS is Roosevelt, and my daughter is an IEP student who will most likely not get into a SEHS now that it has gotten so much more competitive. Taft will at least guarantee us a spot a decent high school, even if it’s not our first choice. Moving out of the city is still an option for us, too, but my older daughter is at Lane and loves it, so that complicates matters!

  • 8. Hawthorne mom  |  April 14, 2011 at 6:20 am

    Does your school use Lucy Calkins writing workshop? This has impressed me due to the quality of writing it draws out of students even at a very young age.
    And yes, like #6 says, having higher achieving kids helping lower achieving ones is really, really, really bad education practice. Some of the worst pedagogy around. It isn’t that teachers can never do this. But I wouldn’t put it out there as a strength, because it is a weakness.

  • 9. RL Julia  |  April 14, 2011 at 6:57 am

    I have mixed feelings and experiences about the helping out. I like the fact that has taught my kids an awareness of different kinds of smart and given them some leadership skills but there is the whole being stuck with all the work problem and it can be socially isolating in the end of it all. I mostly listed it because this is one of the (handful of ) things that the school practices. I think it does work well in terms of the social curriculum of the school. I am not sure if anything of the things the school currently does for accelerated kids is necessarily on anyone’s top ten list which is why I am posting here.

    I see this as a real opportunity to help create/inspire something from the ground up. The question is what should that be.

    Hawthorne mom – I have only heard great things about Lucy Caulkins but I don’t know much more than that. Will have to check it out.

    Lane parent – good luck at Taft. My son is at the AC this year and loves it – although he doesn’t thing the work load in the end is any harder/more than it was at his old school.

    P.S. if you used the word gem to describe our school – its gotta be one in the same.

  • 10. cps parent  |  April 14, 2011 at 8:00 am

    I would agree with the earlier posts about partnering high achievers with lower performing students — it’s not an enrichment opportunity. It’s also very unfair to those higher performing students.
    If you want to increase the caliber of your school, I would push for departmentalization of the teachers. That would mean that teachers would teach a particular subject, not a grade level. I would also look at how the subjects are taught. In many neighborhood schools there is an emphasis on worksheets & most work is straight out of the textbook. Personally, I think that social studies is not just a jumble of facts & dates — then take a test on that & move onto the next jumble. It should be a collection of stories where students get an understanding of the atmosphere & framework. Science should be hands on.

    Students who can do more should be given more challenging work. Or they will leave. Give them more advanced topics to work on even if you cannot have break out sessions in the classes.

  • 11. cps Mom  |  April 14, 2011 at 8:09 am

    One thing that Hawthorn Mom has pointed out frequently is the importance of reading. The basis of success in all subject areas is strong reading skills (math and science is easier if you can read and comprehend the text, no?). One thing that our school did do successfully was to split up reading into smaller groups (they had an extra teacher but this could be done with an aid, volunteer or student teacher). In the primary grades the groups were ability based but were merged academically by 4th grade. They did a lot of reading which was naturally accompanied by writing book reports and analysis. They also were part of the AR program allotting points for books read and seriously enforced this. The AR grade was part of their reading grade on the report card. They offered rewards for achieving certain levels – ice cream social, medals etc.

  • 12. cpsobsessed  |  April 14, 2011 at 8:45 am

    I’m pretty sure that the question of how to challenge the kids who are ahead is one that many neighborhood schools are asking (from what I hear.) I have to think with that many kids who can work above grade level, that there could be some serious discussion between the admin, teachers, with input from parents as to how to raise the bar. It must be a common challenge in schools across the country, so you shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel (although it often feels like it.)
    One idea I’d heard at my school was to find a project that the “advanced” kids could work on with little guidance (so they’re off doing some indep learning, maybe with the help of a parent) while the teacher can spend some extra time with the kids who need to be caught up to grade level. It could take some time to figure out, but Montessori methods are geared to independant learning… perhaps those could provide some ideas.
    If you can get a mini “think tank” going at the school – hosting a session for the admin and some teachers who are interested in the topic to constructively discussion options and ideas — I think that getting input and buying from the staff could be beneficial.

  • 13. Lane Parent  |  April 14, 2011 at 9:17 am

    On the partnering lower performing kids with higher ones, I have to say it has been a good thing for my smart IEP kid who is dyslexic. She’s very creative and good and seeing the “big picture” and she is smart enough to delegate the tasks that are not her strengths to other kids, so for her I have to say it has been a win/win situation!

    One other idea to challange smarter kids would be to offer some creative “extra credit” opportunities to all kids with some support from the teacher. The gifted kids will naturally take it further, and the lower performing kids could use it as an option to improve their grades. Maybe create an actual program with rewards at the end of the year for kids completing the most challenges over the course of the year?

    I’m glad to hear that Taft won’t be that much harder than our home school. The IEP staff at our school have been wonderful and I’m hearing there’s minimal support at Taft, so I am worried about how well she’ll do there.

  • 14. edb  |  April 14, 2011 at 9:19 am

    Did you all hear about the education reform legislation that has been agreed to?
    Sounds like a step in the right direction to me…

  • 15. ChicagoGawker  |  April 14, 2011 at 9:30 am

    Back in the stone ages, late 60s, I was pulled out of class in 2nd grade to work 1on 1 with kids who were ‘slow’ readers. The embarassment of the tutorees due to being tutored by another KID IN THEIR OWN GRADE was palpable, and I remember feeling bad for them. (The poor girls face was bright red) How does a program like that protect the self-esteem of the ones helped? How does it prevent the tutor from getting an overinflated notion of their competence?

  • 16. Lane Parent  |  April 14, 2011 at 9:48 am

    I don’t think the better performing kids actually “tutor” the others, I believe it’s more often a partnering of kids to work on lessons or projects together. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

  • 17. Anonymous  |  April 14, 2011 at 10:21 am

    Good for you … and all you’re doing. I have a friend who is trying to do the same for her local school — which neither of her children attend, either.

    I would like to agree with the poster above who said it’s all about the reading — because it is. Focus on reading and the rest will follow. I tutored at 4th Presbyterian Church for 7 years. The biggest stumbling block for these kids (from the former Cabrini) was reading. It stalled them in every area. They couldn’t do math because it involved reading problems. They couldn’t do social studies because it involved reading. Science? Reading.

    A child may be gifted in mathematics or science, but you’ll never know because their reading skills are behind.

    Unfortunately, I wish I could tell you HOW to increase those skills. I don’t think I succeeded too well with my tutoring student, although I am proud to say she went to college to study nursing!!

    However, I could just see, even looking around me at those times, that it was reading which was holding all those kids back, when they could be exploring their interests in all areas.

  • 18. momorama  |  April 14, 2011 at 10:41 am

    Honestly, if I were a parent who found out that my child was tutoring others during class time I’d pull them out of the school. They are not there to teach, they are there to learn. I understand wanting to teach empathy and awareness of others but it puts the child in a terrible position. What about starting an afterschool reading club, where advanced students could be paired with those who need some extra help? It still taeches the right social lessons without causing, resentment, embarrassment, frustration and teasing (for both children involved.) The star quarterback would never be expected to not play in gym or miss recess (ha ha) but instead work with my child on improving their lackluster throwing skills. I don’t want this comment sound harsh, but most teaching experts really disagree with the practice (as pointed out by many above.)

  • 19. Hawthorne mom  |  April 14, 2011 at 10:58 am

    Yes! Reading is key. Allington says that kids, during the school day, should be spending at least 90 minutes a day doing actual reading. This is ON TOP of and addition to the time spent in reading instruction. Having great reading instruction is so important, but even MORE Important is that kids are either spending an hour and half, during the day, reading, being read to, reading with a partner, listening to books on tape, etc…..There are many disputable education ideas, but one that is not in dispute is that there is a direct correlation between the amount of time a child spends reading and their reading achievement.

  • 20. Grace  |  April 14, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    While it’s hard to make good suggestions without knowing your school’s current curriculum, if I remember correctly, last year Hawthorne school PTA had paid for some of its teachers to map its curriculum for continuity and to avoid repetition. I thought it was a fantastic idea. May be a useful tool for you. Btw, I’ve always liked their web site.

  • 21. Grace  |  April 14, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    RL J,
    Wondering if you are familiar with Designs for Change? They provide support and training for LSCs.

    I pulled these studies from their web site, in case you are interested. Valencia Rias is an excellent contact there.

    Multiple Studies Indicate that Local Initiative Is the Key to Improved Student Achievement in Chicago

    Four research reports indicate that Five Essential Supports for Student Learning (which require Local School Councils and schools to take advantage of the opportunities for local initiative granted by the Chicago School Reform Act of 1988) have been critical in schools that were low-achieving in 1990 by subsequently made substantial sustained improvements in educational quality and students’ tested achievement.

    These studies include: What Makes These Schools Stand Out (1998); The Big Picture (1995) (full report, summary) by Designs for Change; and, “The Essential Supports for School Improvement” (1996, Consortium on Chicago School Research), which has now been expanded into a major book called Organizing for School Improvement: Lessons from Chicago—published by The University of Chicago Press.

  • 22. neighbor  |  April 14, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    Does How to Walk to School have solutions?

    Personally, I believe that ensuring all kids who qualify for sped get identified and effevtively served at a school is critical to school improvement.

  • 23. Chicago Gawker-  |  April 14, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    Anyone want to weigh in on the education legislation passed today by the state?

  • 24. cpsobsessed  |  April 14, 2011 at 6:45 pm

    Today legislation… seems to be making a step forward in taking teacher performance into account rather than just seniority, which seems good (although true “excellence” in a teacher seems so hard to measure and so subjective.) But I’m certainly behind the idea of keeping and rewarding people who are good at their jobs versus just showing up every day putting in a minimal effort (although I’m sure minimal effort as a teacher of 30 kids is still quite a task.)
    The rest seemed to be related to union stuff. I did see something about extending the school day (although teachers can ask for more $ or benefits to do so.) I’m still not sure how Chicago justifies a shorted day than in other cities.
    Over, seemed like some good progress.

    @22 Neighbor, I’ve never gotten around to actually reading “How to Walk to School” (story of Nettelhorst’s amazing revitalization that helped blaze the trail for many other north side schools.) Based on the stories I’ve read, I suspect a good portion of the book may be related to how to attract parents to the school, rather than how to improve academics (although the 2 are closely related.) If anyone’s read it, I’d love to hear about it. I want to read it, just have limited time and I felt like maybe during the 2 hours tour I took of Nettelhorst kind of got the gist of it.

  • 25. cpsobsessed  |  April 14, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    I think the programs that promote reading are great. A freind of mine spent a year as the organizer for a program they have in an Oak Park elem school where volunteers come in and read to kids or have the kids read to them. The teachers identify kids who they think need extra time reading and the kids get pulled out for one-on-one time during the day.
    For kids who don’t read at home due to parents who don’t make them or don’t know English, I think the more the better. (Not that I ever had it in me to organize it around here. ) Our principal was not interested in the idea as she worried that people “teaching” kids to read might not do it the wrong way. I don’t know… I still think there’s a benefit to little kids being read to/reading to someone.

  • 26. Grace  |  April 15, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    Re: new legislation
    Rod Estvan — District 299 blog — has read through 111 pages of the legislation and comments there. Also, to get the perspective from the teachers’ union, go to ctu.net.

    I wouldn’t mind a longer day, but I would rather that 5 minutes is not simply added to each class period. I would prefer that our LSC helps to fund and plan a substantial addition to the curriculum, such as a computer curriculum, more foreign language classes, a writing curriculum, etc. And I hope we can organize the fundraising asap.

  • 27. Grace  |  April 15, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    Saw this over on the Catalyst blog:

    By: Concerned CPS teacher

    Curbing tenure, strike rights: analysis of education reform legislation —

    I’m a CPS teacher and based on the Catalyst analysis the two things which bother me most about the proposed bill are the ideas that public opinion should determine something as complex as a teacher collective bargaining agreement, and the assertion that a non-existent evaluation system will be used to determine what teachers are laid off in a “budget crisis”

    What other employee/employer contract is deemed appropriate based on public opinion. Isn’t the side with the best PR going to win that fight? The current CPS union contract is hundreds of pages long and includes requirement such as the one insuring that teachers have access to a copy machine. Who is going to read that as they decide what their opinion is? It sounds like we are setting up a fight between teachers and the mayor of Chicago for access to the media… who will win that fight? This worries me.

    The other point is that the bill calls for hiring and firing to be based on teacher evaluations, but there is no “fair and effective” evaluation system in place… nor is it clear that there is one on the horizon that will actually be fair or effective.

    There is lots of very strong evidence which shows that the “value added” approach of using growth in student test scores is very unreliable and not a valid way to evaluate teachers. If we can’t use test scores what will be used? Some principals work hard to really evaluate teachers to identify how to help them improve, but some have no idea what’s going on in classrooms and only spend the mandated 20 minutes per year in the classes of teachers who they must evaluate based on the CPS contract. There is a long history of teachers being fired for reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to teach. Just look at some of the tenured teachers who were fired when Ron Huberman told principals to “redefine” positions. Some excellent teachers were let go… several I know were the “squeaky wheels” who were fighting for their students, but not favorites of their principals who did not like the implied criticism.

    I would love a longer day and a longer year. My students need it. We also need to start the year earlier so we aren’t at a disadvantage on the ACT and AP exams compared to other districts that start (and end) the year 3 weeks before we do.

    I just think the bill is portraying teachers as the problem which needs to be fixed. Teachers are not the problem with public education. If you control for family income the public schools in the US are some of the best in the world. The main problem with public schools in the US is the extreme poverty that so many of our students endure. If we want all students to improve we must address the needs of the lowest income students. They need consistent medical care, eye glasses, social work and psych services, smaller classes and a curriculum to which they can relate. NCLB, RTT and the current IL bill do nothing to deal with these real problems.
    Posted on April 15, 2011 1:13 PM

    Read more: http://www.chicagonow.com/blogs/district-299/2011/04/am-news-ctu-endorses-deal-to-curb-rights.html#ixzz1JcvCecfc

  • 28. Grace  |  April 15, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    On last point of view on the voucher legislation , courtesy of Rod Estvan.

    default userpic external-auth auth-type-

    I think last night’s vote in the Senate, 100% in favor of the bill shows that it was politically impossible for the CTU, IEA, and IFT to attempt to retain greater seniority based rights in the General Assembly. It was clear to all of us who lobby in Springfield that the House and Senate Democratic leadership were more than willing to support aspects of the Stand for Children Performance Counts bill. Which I publicly opposed in hearings.

    Do I think that this bill will improve the quality of education for children in Chicago, my answer is no. SB 7 is another feel good bill that has no link to funding. Right now the State is rapidly falling behind in general state aide and special education payments to hundreds of school districts in Illinois. We are looking at really very large layoffs across our state in the education sector.

    If the voucher bill passes and is expanded we will likely see charter schools losing more students than traditional public schools and yet a new crisis for CPS as these schools fail. I think one thing becomes very clear from this experience and that is the union movement as a whole has hitched its wagon to the Democratic party and that party under Obama is moving rapidly to the right.

    It is easy to start yelling about labor needing to break from the Democratic party and calling for a labor based party, it is far harder to do it in practice. SB 7 presents that problem clearly, there is little doubt that if the Republicans swept Illinois we would be seeing laws adopted like in Wisconsin and Ohio, so SB 7 relatively speaking looks good. But labor and progressives who are fighting to retain what little is left of human services in our state have to begin somewhere to move away from dependence on the Democratic Party. We are being sold down the drain again and again. I am not wise enough to know how to do this and yet not have virtually all labor rights destroyed while a break from the Democratic party takes place.

    Rod Estvan

    Read more: http://www.chicagonow.com/blogs/district-299/2011/04/reform-tenure-strike-bill-moves-to-house.html#ixzz1JcwLywKF

  • 29. LR  |  April 15, 2011 at 11:06 pm

    It’s interesting that your school has individualization when the kids are young, but older kids grouped more randomly. I would think that differentiated learning is as important, if not more so, when kids get older. I agree with whoever mentioned having teachers who teach subjects, rather than grades, particularly at the jr. high level.
    Also, I’m dying to know what school this is. Do they seriously grade skip some kids? Because honestly…I must have called 100 schools because I felt my October birthday daughter desperately needed this when she was younger and every school responded with a firm NO. My daughter ended up in an RGC program, so all is ok, but she is tall, mature, and 98-99% across the board in BOTH gifted and classical tests. The truth is, even at an RGC, I think the subject material in the next grade up is a better fit for her. I wish all CPS schools were more flexible in this sense, particularly with deadline missers.

  • 30. Jill Wohl  |  April 15, 2011 at 11:53 pm

    Consider thematic units that integrate subject areas with children working in teams. Children learn to work together and appreciate what different members bring to the table, differences which are not always rewarded by (yawn) tests. Have the children choose some aspect of what is studied (as age-appropriate). By exploring subject matter that’s important to them, the school sends a tacit message that their voice, participation and commitment are valued.

  • 31. cps Mom  |  April 16, 2011 at 8:13 am

    Not sure if I agree with differentiation in the older grades. Earlier it’s needed to focus on individual problems and to work on those areas but at some point (4th grade?) those that are behind will have needed to catch up to a given standard. There are always problems with misclassified students and kids that will “work down” given that this is the expectation. How to handle gifted kids in a regular program is another matter that all schools have to deal with. Having different teachers for different subjects in upper grades helps to accomplish this because you can then offer algebra or advanced writing to more advanced students.

  • 32. RL Julia  |  April 21, 2011 at 8:10 am

    Thank you LR, Jill and CPS Mom,
    I am really looking to hear about the (little) things that you feel have worked for your family as opposed to curricular overhauls (which is a bit out of my purview – a given curriculum is only as good as the teacher who teaches it). Thanks!

    LR – In regards to the school being willing to skip kids a grade, yes this school will consider but only very rarely – and in my daughter’s case it was a mid-year thing and the whole process was really organic and sort of a last option. We would have been perfectly happy to have kept her in the grade she was in. In a lot of ways having her skip was a really difficult experience with only a limited term effectiveness in terms of it being a “solution”

    I think that having her skip was an option in part because I already had another child at the school and our family was a known quantity.

    Jill and CPS Mom –
    what you describe is what the school is currently doing. I would have to say the end result is pretty good in that everyone gets a pretty good appreciation of what the other group member’s strengths are. Any other suggestions on how to integrate accelerated students?

    Also – you bring up a good point about the misclassified students (especially girls!) . I suspect that there are a lot more kids who are capable of working at a higher level at this school who just aren’t being engaged – any ideas on how to find them? Also – while I love the idea that students ideally should ask for extra work or somehow communicate with their teachers that they need more I don’t really know if it is realistic and if it is, at what grade?

  • 33. Grace  |  April 21, 2011 at 10:16 am


    Wondering if you had seen this piece in the NY Times on a math curriculum? Every child seems to be able to succeed… erasing any achievement gap, it says.

  • 34. cps Mom  |  April 21, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    RLJ – I think a good teacher can raise the bar for all students and not lose those on the lower end. It’s good for everyone. The problem with differentiation is that some students will unnecessarily fall behind. We had this experience with reading. All 4th graders read Alice in Wonderland – one group wrote a book report, one had a tea party. I had to get my son independently tutored one year.

    Advanced students will rise to the subject matter and take the project further while those working closer to grade level will reach higher levels with the proper support (home and school).

    Once my son became an avid reader, he flourished in all subjects. Read! Read! Read!

    I love the idea of homework clubs that some posters have been talking about. Sounds like a good way to get many kids involved.

  • 35. RL Julia  |  April 22, 2011 at 9:36 am

    CPS Mom – so differentiation is really a double edged sword because it creates different standards (one being lower)? I can see that – I guess the trick is to have reasonably high standards all the way around? Or maybe develop tasks that draw upon multiple intelligences?

    Any suggestions on how to communicate this to parents and keep them engaged and feeling like their kid ‘s learning style/talents etc… are being accommodated? My general impression is that EVERY parent feels that their child is accelerated or gifted (unless they have an IEP – and even then) until about 2nd grade.

  • 36. Hawthorne mom  |  April 22, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    There is a HUGE difference between a teacher who knows how to use skilled differentiation and one who simply uses tracking.
    Differentiation will group kids for skills, the groups should be flexible and change, and will offer higher order thinking skills and opportunities to read and “think” math at deep levels. This means: the low group should not all be stuck doing worksheets while the high group engages in thoughtful literacy discussion. The teacher should be giving evaluations for each kid every 3-4 weeks in reading and math.

    When schools and teachers “track” kids, they are tested, typically, only once at the beginning of the year. Wherever they start out they stay. And typically, the lower level kids are stuck doing lower level, workbook, worksheet type work, and what teachers call “round robin reading” (where kids sit in a circle and the only thing they do is to take turns reading out loud. This is fine in small portions, not fine in large portions).

    Plus, in classrooms where differentiation is done well, there will be many opportunities for all learners to do whole group work. They will not always be grouped by ability.
    Differentiation, when done well, can take the kid who enters first grade barely reading and help them along, while also taking the kid who enters 1st grade reading novels and helping them along. You CAN’T expect to catch the lowest kid up to where that highest kid is, especially if you have a spread in achievement like the one I gave as an example. And many schools have that large of a spread. But if you can get the lowest kids reading at or near grade level by year’s end, and challenge your higher level readers with books and math work that make them stretch, you’ve done your job.

    I will say that differentiation is extremely hard, if not impossible, to do in a classroom of 30+ kids without a TA or some very significant parent help. I’ve had classes that size and found I could really only manage to differentiate in reading, not math too. If I had help, I could have done it. I’ve read a lot of books that talk about differentiation and the class sizes in them hover closer to 20. Maybe someday I will figure out how to offer “at level” instruction with a large class for both reading and math.

    This is one reason why I feel like our city does a terrible disservice to children by sticking so many kids in a classroom.

  • 37. Hawthorne mom  |  April 22, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    RL Julia,
    One way to reassure parents that their child’s needs are being met is for teachers to have a method of:
    1) showing parents where their child is at 3-4 times per year with hard data
    2) showing parents where the teacher would like them to be at the end of the year
    3) showing movement
    Teachers can do this through written narratives, emails, phone calls home, dibels testing, etc….Our school does it by sitting down with each parent, showing them where each kid is at on the Dibels testing, showing writing samples, sight word testing, math testing and then giving parents ideas on how to help at home. They are incredibly specific, have hard data (tests) to back up their recommendations.

    They also use reading programs that give every child at least some time during the day to be reading at their individual levels. Yes, there is group instruction (differentiated for reading….4 groups for 1st grade with 4 teachers sharing 64 kids between them in different rooms), but they differentiate even further by providing book bins, where kids have books at their level in each child’s bin. So some 1st graders are reading, I don’t know, Cat in the Hat? And some are reading Frog and Toad, and some are reading the American Girl doll novels, some are reading non-fiction books on the history of Egypt. It all depends on each kids’ level.

  • 38. cps Mom  |  April 22, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    HM – thanks for such a thoughtful discussion.

    @35 – glad HM chimed in because she is explaining more knowledgeably the whole concept of “differentiation” as it should be done. I guess I was describing a “tracking” situation which can have its pitfalls. I agree – I think having all around high standards will benefit the largest range of students.

    Also agree and was going to mention the parental involvement outlined above. Being a neighborhood school, maybe parents can take turns doing book club or working with the kids somehow (even at home).

  • 39. RL Julia  |  April 24, 2011 at 8:21 am

    Hawthorne Mom –
    Thanks for such a detailed post. I am happy to report that the school is already engaged in this level of work/discussion/teaching – for reading – at least in the earlier grades and with some teachers in the later grades.

    Because of inclusion, there are now LOTS of people in every classroom (even though the class sizes are around 28 -30).

    Any thoughts on how to get this going for math as well? The school is using Everyday Math (which I really like, although I know many people – including my older child who was exposed to a more traditional math curriculum this year- don’t).

    Also, any other thoughts about (any other) techniques aside from/other than differentiation? Your comments have been very helpful – the school is a lot farther along in encouraging accelerated students than I had expected – it might just be a marketing issue – although there is always room for improvement. I also want to see about starting a Spanish reading/writing program for our bi-lingual students. Currently the school does not offer a language – but with a 75% Latino subscription (some who don’t speak Spanish, some bi-lingual and some who only speak Spanish) it seems wasteful not to…. Any ideas there?

  • 40. Hawthorne mom  |  April 24, 2011 at 11:08 am

    Your school could be doing math groups the same way they are doing reading groups. Parents could also offer short term 6-8 week “math clubs” once a week to target different skills, or for enrichment. Plus, with math, I’ve found that there is less of a gap between ESL speakers, and less of a gap between income levels of kids. You could have good opportunities to really be inclusive, even within an accelerated program, of your lower income/immigrant/ESL families (not saying all immigrant families are lower income).
    I’d also try and really put some kind of summer reading program in place. The research I have read indicates that if lower achieving kids living in poverty would read a mere 4-5 books over the summer, they’d be less prone the the typical 3-4 month summer reading loss. Kids lose a third of a year’s progress over the summer if they don’t read at all…..a couple of years of that and it is just too late, they will never catch up.

  • 41. cps Mom  |  April 24, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    One thing to add about math in the upper grades – our HS has noticed that there are a lot of kids jumping into algebra in 7th and 8th grade that really haven’t mastered the everyday math concepts and pre-algebra. Most high schools have their own assessment exams and will not put many students that have had algebra into advanced HS classes. Students will do better later if they have completely mastered the necessary math skills, critical thinking and pre-algebra concepts. Teachers can always introduce algebra towards the end of the year if they need to ramp up the material.

  • 42. RL Julia  |  April 25, 2011 at 10:19 am

    Thanks. Love the math group suggestions. Already have a very extensive summer program – kids earn points for a variety of different educational activities and then can redeem the points at the beginining of the school year for different things (extra gym, friday afternoon movie in the auditorium, lunch with the principal, etc…) but maybe a more structured one grade, one book type program would also be helpful….

  • 43. Hawthorne mom  |  April 25, 2011 at 11:34 am

    Wow. RLJ, gotta say, it really seems like your school is doing so many things right. If you ever want to talk marketing….ways to word things so they give the best impression possible to potential parents, I would be happy to help. But you may already have people to do that. Best of luck to you!

  • 44. RL Julia  |  April 25, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    To quote the school is a gem. Until last year the school only went until 6th grade which was a major disencentive to enrollment and often full day kindergarten was not guranteed. Since making the decision to go up to 8th grade, enrollment has been less of an issue. It was really nice when the announcement to add a 7th grade was made last year in LATE May only about four kids chose to transfer to other schools.

    While there is some space and the school is a magnet cluster, it is still a neighborhood school which makes it pretty hard to figure out how the lotteries work from year to year. I think this year something like 200 people from out of the catchement area applied for kindergarten (I don’t know about the later grades) but I don’t know if any were really accepted since the school doesn’t really have a handle on kindergarten enrollment until later in the spring when the neighborhood enrolls – also since the full day kindergarten option is always a little up in the air- it makes it a tough sell to parents who want to nail things down in March/April. Any advice you have about that would be appreciated. Any marketing advice you have would be appreciated too – although I don’t really know if there is a point to marketing a school that is pretty much already full unless people want to move into the neighborhood or something.

    Ironically, its the type of school that no one would EVER look at twice if they looked at the test scores (getting better but still), mobility rate (used to 20%, now is more like 12-15?), poverty rate (stuck around 75-80%), IEP rate (up to 17-20% what’s with that???) etc…. You have to go and visit it to really get a sense of what the school offers. Its a great school but its not the type of school you apply to if you want validation of your kid’s talents -its more of a send your kid here and whatever they bring to the table will be addressed/accommodated/ highlighted and worked with. I think my kids have gotten a good education in every concievable way – social, emotional and intellectual.

  • 45. Hawthorne mom  |  April 26, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    That is a hard sell. I am not sure what parents could do about the kindergarten issue.
    The mobility rate….wow….just when you get a kid up to speed, they leave. That makes things really hard. Still, sounds like a lot of things are being done well and mobility is not within the school’s control.

  • 46. RL Julia  |  April 26, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    Exactly! I think it is a great school.

    The mobility rate has dropped drastically in the past year or two because the school started rolling up to 8th grade. Before that everyone was at the school looking towards the door because they wanted a K-8 school. However, it wasn’t until the enrollment dropped low enough could the school really consider add back 7th and 8th grades.

    In 2010 , 83.8% of the students met/exceeded in reading, 92.6% met/exceeded in Math and 80.4% met/exceeded in Science. Not bad given the population characteristics or just in general. Additionally, they do very little test prep which I appreciate.

    Mostly the school has managed to secure full day kindergarten but it seems like they can never really count on it. On the other hand, with the addition of the two grades, there isn’t much room for expansion. At this point, there are a handful of spaces available in different grades but that’s about it – so I am honestly not sure what sort of marketing would be worth it. Is Hawthorne a test-in or a neighborhood school? How many slots per grade (or school wide) are really available every year? It seems like it would be sort of mean to raise awareness about the school when the liklihood of getting in from outside the neighborhood was kind of slim. On the other hand, it is relatively cheap to rent in the neighborhood if people want to move….

  • 47. cps Mom  |  April 26, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    Maybe the marketing suggestion was geared more toward encouraging neighborhood families to stick with the neighborhood school instead of traveling to magnets or other programs. Many neighborhood schools may feel that they are losing great kids to outside schools when they have a lot to offer. I remember getting a flier from our school asking us to consider their program – new computer center, new gifted program etc. It would have worked if we weren’t already committed and happy.

  • 48. Hawthorne mom  |  April 26, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    Yes, that’s what I was thinking cps mom. Since rljulia has a school with a very large low income population, it tells me that middle class families in the neighborhood don’t consider it an option for the most part. And neighborhood schools are meant to serve, well, the neighborhood. Plus, I was thinking things would get even better if you could increase your middle class population….economic diversity is good for everyone.
    Hawthorne is a magnet, lottery in school with 2 grades per grade. Since it is a magnet, we don’t really have to market it….it markets itself. But I worked with my neighborhood school for a few years, trying to market it, improve it, bring a more diverse population into it, so I am familiar with that whole scene. (it wasn’t successful back then, but now there is another group working on it, so who knows? our local school has a lot of positives and a lot of negatives….it is kind of a coin toss over whether it will succeed and we were nowhere close to the scores you are talking about)

  • 49. RL Julia  |  April 27, 2011 at 10:04 am

    There are kids in the neighborhood who don’t attend the school – although more attend now than they used to (when test scores were lower and the school stopped at 6th grade). It seems like people are happy once they get there but unless they are committed to sending their kids to a neighborhood school, they aren’t going to be interested- the school has no “brand” recognition, no cache and (hence)no bragging rights.

    As far as economic diversity, its hard to tell what exactly is going on – the free/reduced price lunch subscription is one number but the actual student population looks/acts a lot differently. I would suspect a lot of under-reporting of income going on. There are families who do have food insecurity issues and who are clearly impoverished but most kids are well provided for. We started charging a book fee last year ($30 per kid) and offered a scholarship option (in a way where no one would know who was paying and who was being paid for etc…) and I think only about three people asked for a scholarship. On the other hand, I think that probably 30% of the kids never did pay the fee….Its actually something I need to check up on….

  • 50. Angie  |  April 27, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    @RL Julia – which school are you talking about?

  • 51. magnet mom  |  April 27, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    I guess I’m confused about why you need to attract more families if the school is full. Is the point to get buzz going. Concentrating on the success of who is there where ever they come from seems to be working so far.
    After reading the book about Nettlehorst I was surprised that the real turning point for them seemed to be shutting off the busing so that they could control the population at the school. I admire your school for taking a different tack. A good school is a good school no matter who goes there.

  • 52. Lane Parent  |  April 27, 2011 at 11:38 pm

    My suggestion would be that all the school needs is some good PR and some sort of “branding.” Even a Facebook page (separate from the alumni page) linking to the churches and neighborhood organizations would help. Then promote all the events and celebrate the important happenings (like test scores, visiting artists and athletes) that are going on at the school. The goal being to make other neighborhood families aware of what you have to offer and encouraging them to take another look at their local school.

    I find it really sad that so many of these families are bussing and driving their kids all over the city, when they have a really great option that they could walk to right in their own backyard!

  • 53. wyparent  |  April 30, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    Reading is Key. This really has 2 start b4 grade K. I read to my child everyday (didn’t matter the source, newspaper, manual, whatever) then each child started reading to me after they entered grade K. If a child can’t read, he can’t do anything else. Reading is essential. One child goes to our neighborhood school which is why we moved here…he’ll probably go to WYAC when he is old enough (in a year) like the child’s older sibling. It’s not enough to read, but to have the love of reading and wanting to read as a pasttime activity.

  • 54. RL Julia  |  May 4, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    I can’t thank all of you posters enough. The comments, discussion and feedback on this has been really helpful – and quite validating about the school being on the right track.

    Since I initally posed this question, some last minute money was found to start doing some small group pull outs with the upper grade kids (5,6,7 grades). A retired teacher (with an MA in reading/literature) is doing book groups with higher level readers – I believe the principal referred to it as a “level two intervention” – borrowing inclusion language. Not bad for a month’s work. Math interventions will be tackled next, I have been assured.

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