Monday, November 26, 2007
The Brighton School District was the first district in Colorado to authorize a charter school to serve as a neighborhood school. Both the Bromley East and Belle Creek charter schools serve a geographical region--a new subdivision. The developer provided land to these charter schools, which allowed them to bond to finance a new facility. In each situation the charter school shares a community recreation center facility. The Brighton School District was unable to get a bond approved a few years ago and yet is faced with tremendous growth. The Denver International Airport is in their district along with all the new related growth in that area.
Last year when the Brighton Charter School was in the news due to a teacher who was charged with inappropriate contact with a student, Superintendent Rod Blunck modeled the right way to act as an authorizer: holding the charter school accountable, making sure they were complying with laws and allowing the charter school governing board to rectify the situation. Further, the district has a charter school liaison, Sam Sakurada, who has a good working relationship with charter school representatives. This year the district's new Landmark Academy opened in the Reunion area. Landmark's charter was the first time the district negotiated a charter with a for-profit management company (National Heritage Academies). All parties agree that because of patience and desire to work out what's best for the students, the outcome was successful.
Saturday, November 24, 2007
Through our quest to address the boys' learning needs, the teacher who worked with them at Jefferson Academy noticed they had tracking problems. This was demonstrated in their difficulty in copying problems from the board. Their eyes didn't follow the line and then go to the next line of text. This was addressed by having them do eye exercises and finding sequential letters in random letters representing "words." One of the eye exercises involved my son laying on his back and me standing above him with a tennis ball suspended on a string. I'd move the ball in a circle and watch his eyes track it. His eyes would jump around rather than making a smooth circle. This meant I'd have to slow the ball until his eyes followed it smoothly. We did this every day for a long time and it, along with everything else we were doing at home and at school, made a difference. Additionally, the eye doctor prescribed reading glasses for my son so his brain wouldn't have to strain as much to read/see text and could instead focus on comprehension.
Years later several charter schools starting purchasing and using a Visograph. The Visograph is a computer with "goggles" attached. I did the examination myself to see what it was like. I read a paragraph, with the goggles on. The computer got data from the movement of my eyes to show how many regressions I had (didn't track to the end of a line before jumping to the next line), how fast I read, and numeorus other data. After reading the paragraph I answered 10 comprehension questions on the computer. After analysis and diagnosis, the Visograph programs offers computer-based therapies. For example, the text on the screen may be in different colors for students who find they can read better with a yellow overlay. Another program only shows one word, or phrase, at a time to teach the student to read every word in the line before going to the next line.
Oftentimes students have a physiological reason for an inability to read. Whether it's their eyes, how they process auditory information, how their brain receives and transmits oral/auditory information or some other reason, this physiological barrier--if not addressed--changes their lives forever.
Friday, November 23, 2007
A family friend has a son, Jay (fictitious name), whom I got to know when he was in 10th grade and started attending Jefferson Academy. Jay has a very kind spirit and is a good kid. But in elementary school he'd fallen through the cracks because he didn't easily pick up learning through methods commonly used in the classroom. The school system didn't catch, diagnose and address his learning needs and so he began to think he just couldn't learn. Jay is a very bright boy who is ingenious in many regards. He has a caring family with parents who tried to advocate for him many times. But the beliefs that he began to believe when his academic struggles weren't addressed, impacted him. Like many students, Jay's needs weren't so severe that he was labeled special ed or became a discipline problem. The gap that started out as a small gap in the primary grades just grew each year Jay progressed in school. Jay is the reason I'm passionate about not letting kids fall through the cracks. It's a disservice to the students and families involved, but how it affects an individual's life is just plain WRONG!
For most students, the learning gap is about reading. Not being able to read, or read well, eventually impacts every subject. The gap increases until the student drops out of school. In first grade, 30 minutes of reading intervention is equivalent to two hours of intervention in fourth grade. Closing the achievement gap begins in the primary grades.
Thursday, November 22, 2007
Further, when a student is having difficulty in learning to read through the curriculum used for the general student population, teachers often don't know how to diagnose what type of intervention the student needs.
Last year when the Douglas County School District sought waivers from the State Board of Education in order to train their own teachers, they cited a high percentage of students probably mislabeled as "special education" students when they simply hadn't learned to read through the curriculum routinely offered in the classroom. The Douglas County School District sought the means to address this head-on by training professionals to teach students to read through a variety of methods, rather than putting them in the special ed track.
This means that most elementary school teachers won't know how to address the nontraditional learner unless the school provides professional development which specifically addresses this deficit.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
There are specific steps to learning how to read. First, learning letter recognition and the letter's sound, then learning words, then phrases, etc. Each of these steps require numerous repetitions (practice) so that the information becomes automated. When automation is achieved, the student no longer requires as much brain power to read certain words. This frees up the brain to better comprehend what is read.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
These are the non-negotiable skills students need in order to read:
* Phonemic Awareness: awareness and manipulation of speech sounds
* Phonics: letter/sound correspondences for decoding
* Advanced decoding skill instruction: word analysis skills beyond one syllable words
* Fluency: in decoding and contextual reading
* Sight word memory for irregular words
* Strong oral language background
* Vocabulary knowledge: word conciousness
* Background knowledge: use of accurate, rich background knowledge to help construct meaning
* Meta-cognitive strategies to adjust comprehension as you read
* Motivation: to pursue increased skills and comprehension
Fluency is the bridge to comprehension. Fluency is not the rate of reading--it is being able to read for comprehension.
Schools should have a core reading program, based on scientifically-based reading research (SBRR). For students who are not able to learn with the core reading program, an intervention curriculum should address atypical student needs (e.g. students needing auditory learning or phonemic awareness). A third level of intervention may also be necessary. Students should not be considered "special ed" simply because they don't learn to read with the core reading program or an intervention program. Each segment of learning to read should be firmly established with repetition before moving to the next skill. For some students, this takes additional repetitions.
Monday, November 19, 2007
Apparently the Governor has told the CSI Board that he won't be making any appointments and so current board members will continue to serve. This is good news for continuity in the philosophy established by the CSI Board.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
Friday, November 16, 2007
According to the Rapid City Journal, "The graduation rate for the district as a whole was 78 percent last year. Native students make up 17 percent of the student population."
It'll be interesting to see what happens to the legislation as it makes its way through the South Dakota General Assembly.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
The debate in Florida mirrors Colorado. In fact, it's kind of humorous that the attorneys don't find new arguments, they just recycle what's already been used. In Colorado, the Boulder Valley School District, the Westminster 50 School District and the Poudre School District filed suit against the Charter School Institute, saying the Institute's statutory right to charter within their district boundaries was unconstitutional. (Recently both Poudre and Westminster withdrew from the CSI lawsuit, leaving Boulder as the sole claimant.) Same thing in Florida -- the Broward County School District has filed a suit against the Commission for the very same grounds.
About a dozen states have a state-level authorizer for charter schools. These states are given priority preference points in the federal Charter School Grant Program because of this provision. Most everyone agrees that an authorizer with only one job -- sponsoring charter schools -- is better at it. School districts have multiple responsibilities and competing schools. They only occasionally have to consider a charter application. The CSI is regarded as having a quality application process and upholding high quality standards. It's clear they're doing a good job.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
The Principal, Elizabeth Berg, and the Instructional Coach, Cindee Will, gave me a tour of the school. We visited every classroom at least once, some twice. Being a parent who has heard educational professionals say, "we think" or "we're hoping" while they experiment with my children, I was especially impressed by hearing several times, "the research says..." Prior learning is reinforced before new learning is introduced. Small groups are used for Reading and Math and students have both of these subjects for 50 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon. Students plot their own progress in subjects, such as Reading, by graphing their fluency rate or other data.
JICES uses Direct Instruction. DI is popular in schools with a high number of at-risk students. Both Berg and Will were previously at Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy where DI is also used successfully. CMCA is a Title I school. DI is an auditory method of cementing learning by the students and teacher rhythmically reciting information.
JICES is great at increasing individual student academic achievement through positive reinforcement. "The research says students need to hear their name and what, specifically, they're doing right for it to positively impact their learning, " I was told. Teachers use data on how many times they are both positive or negative with students in order to increase their positives to 4-7 to one. To be clear, JICES' "negatives" are redirects, not actual negative statements. A "redirect" is saying, "I need your eyes up here." When teachers struggle with certain students, they or someone else calculates their =/- data and the teacher intentionally increases her positives with that student. Typically within a couple of days the student is performing better.
This same philosophy about the importance of authentic praise is used by administration with the staff. Staff members receive side-by-side coaching to improve (implementing DI for new teachers is really tough!) and praise is readily given.
I've been in a district-operated school where the school's leadership led a concerted effort to "raise self-esteem." It was fluff without any substance -- it wasn't real. What's happening at JICES is real. I learned of a student who soaked up the JICES environment for three years before it penetrated and impacted his learning. For other students, it happens within weeks or months. One of my pet peeves is teachers who say hurtful things to students or students who "fall through the cracks." JICES exemplifies a school where students thrive because they work hard, self-monitor and see their own progress. If the student isn't learning, it's the teacher who adjusts so that every student is successful.
I have to mention the awesome fifth grade class that recited the first 25 elements of the Periodic Chart (in order) and the four stages of photosynthesis. Last year this class learned five pages of the story of Paul Revere, which they assured us they could still recite!
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
More charter school startup grant applications will be reviewed in March in the second tier. It's anticipated that another 8-10 will be awarded in the spring.
Congratulations to everyone who was funded today!
Monday, November 12, 2007
This is one of the coolest charter school facilities in Colorado. The old part of the building, primarily the gymnasium, was constructed by the WPA in 1939. Bricks are handmade. The entire building is rich in character.
The heart of this charter school is the strong community support. Not just parents! The entire community of Georgetown is involved in this school. Today a Navy seal spoke at the assembly. Every day starts with an assembly. The principal, Rick Winter, talks about the word of the day and the quote of the day (tied in to the character education program). This is a close-knit group of staff members, parents and students.
It's encouraging to visit a school like Georgetown Community School where everyone's focus is on educating students; where people show they care about each other; where the principal respects his staff and their expertise; and where the governing board has thoughtfully made good decisions on behalf of the students.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
It's hard for many principals to raise up other leaders, but research on school reform indicates having a leadership "team" is essential. It shouldn't be the principal alone who carries the vision of the school, he should involve key leaders such as an assistant principal, curriculum and instructional leaders and lead teachers.
It's also good for principals to create an atmosphere where individual staff members are encouraged to pursue their dreams. If someone wants to be a principal, the current principal is the one to help make that happen. Even if that means allowing that staff member to go to another school after the training period.
Every principal should be expected to create a leadership team. The governing board should expect that someone else on staff is prepared to step in should something happen to the principal. Doing anything less is simply not properly planning for the school's sustainability.
Saturday, November 10, 2007
I spoke to someone from the CK Foundation about how poorly organized the conference was. She said they'd anticipated 700 people and instead had 1700 register. I said that projection didn't make sense since the last state CK conference had over 1,000 participants (about 75 schools in Colorado use Core Knowledge). People from all over the U.S. were at this conference.
I wasn't the only one who complained. I was told whole schools asked for a refund and left the conference. During each of the workshop slots there were several hundred people hanging around in the lobby because they couldn't get into any of the workshops. One person told me that she'd tried three different workshops during one time slot and all were over-filled with people standing in the hallway.
It was great to see different charter school principals and teachers whom I know, but other than that, it was a wasted day I'll never get back.
Friday, November 9, 2007
I'm off to the Western Regional Core Knowledge Conference being held in Colorado Springs today. I'll report later.
Thursday, November 8, 2007
One of the pillars of the charter school philosophy is that if charter schools don't succeed, they close. This same "perform or close" notion is embodied in the No Child Left Behind Act requirement to convert failing Title I schools to charter schools or else completely reconstitute them.
Last week the League of Charter Schools unveiled their new Quality Standards and notified charter schools the League supports closing charter schools that don't perform academically. This is controversial even amongst the League's board. In fact, one board member is the principal of a school possibly facing closure/reconsitution by both federal and League standards. Does the League board have the commitment to these Quality Standards ideals if it means closing one of their own?
Approximately ten charter schools have already closed in Colorado. All but one of these closed for financial reasons. The Center for Discovery Learning in Jeffco had its charter revoked for academic reasons and then was taken over by the district and currently operates as a district option school.
Where should the line be drawn? When should a charter school be closed? I've seen poor-performing charter schools that with some guidance have overcome dismal test scores and I've seen others that refuse assistance. What if an authorizer wants to close a charter school that is doing everything possible with a challenging student population, but doesn't get enough time to show it's efforts will be successful over time?
This is an issue in Colorado. We're sure to hear more about this dilemma as both charter and noncharter schools face sanctions or get their charters revoked for failing to educate students.
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
One way for the board to define its vision is by creating and using a strategic plan. The process involves first discussing the vision and mission of the school to make sure everyone fully understands it and agrees with it. Then the board delineates the school's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. These are both external and internal. The board defines the various functional areas of the school system and creates annual objectives in line with their long-term goals. Here's an example of the Woodrow Wilson Academy Strategic Plan--an excellent model.
There's also a training module available for strategic planning at: http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdechart/guidebook/gov/index.htm
Every charter school should have a strategic plan because it's how the governing board speaks with one voice rather than individual priorities. The plan clearly communicates to administration and staff what should be accomplished within each school year, without being overly burdensome. The principal evaluation should be tied to objectives in the strategic plan. The plan is also an effective means of communicating to parents and stakeholders what the board is working on and what they intend to accomplish.
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
The older charter schools deal with stagnant enrollment and yet a desire to continue to fund new academic programs, such as Gifted and Talented services. Further, new board members may not understand the financial picture of the charter school, nor the impact of their decisions and priorities.
Several people discussed the recent trend to have non-parents on charter school boards. Because Colorado's charter school movement began with grassroots parent startups, it's only been the last few years when management company-operated charter schools have become more prevalent, that an increased number community members and professionals sit on charter school boards.
The importance of having board policies and administrative procedures for finance-related issues was stressed. A good example of these policies is at: http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdechart/guidebook/gov/pdf/WWABdMan2004.pdf One policy of particular interest is the document retention policy, #12.1.
Monday, November 5, 2007
In private business, if someone hasn't performed his job satisfactorily he is asked to leave. This principle makes sense to pretty much everyone in the United States -- except those in public education.
Naturally, the success of at-will employment lies in people being reasonable and fair. An educator shouldn't be terminated the first time he makes a mistake. And there are two sides to the at-will employment agreement. A teacher can resign and leave a classroom without a prepared substitute.
About 45 school districts in Colorado have collective bargaining agreements with their teachers. Because charter school employees are employees of the charter school and not the school district, charter schools can use at-will agreements. This right to use only qualified, high-performing staff is central to why charter schools often outperform non-charter public schools. It's also a reason to vigorously oppose any actions that would require charter schools to, in any manner, submit to collective bargaining agreements.
Model at-will agreements for principals and teachers are online at http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdechart/guidebook/adm/pdf/JA_Admin_Contract.pdf and http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdechart/guidebook/adm/pdf/WWATeachingAgreement.pdf. Every charter school leader should examine their employment agreements, board policies and employee handbook to make sure nothing invalidates the at-will nature of employment at their school.
Sunday, November 4, 2007
Principals typically seek new employment January through March. This means it's good to have the pricipal evaluation in January to make sure that the conversations are early enough for both parties.
Of course this results in the obvious difficult situation of the principal needing to finish out the school year with integrity. I don't know any "magic pill" to make this scenario any easier, but I do believe that everyone involved should be totally honest with each other and "take the high road" even if that's the most difficult road to take.
Part of the role of the board president is to be the primary communication link with the principal. This is where the conversation to change administrators begins. Usually things happen leading to a princpial seeking a different position and so often the discussion can be anticipated.
A principal leaving before the end of the school year is almost never good for a school. I tell charter school board members, hesitant to finish out the school year with a principal they're anxious to see leave, that unless the principal has done something illegal or they have reason to believe the principal will attempt to destroy the school, don't terminate someone early.
Saturday, November 3, 2007
In his speech to about 300 charter school leaders from across Colorado, Governor Bill Ritter spoke about charter schools, the drop out rate, the achievement gap, capital construction and full-day Kindergarten.
In his prepared remarks, Gov. Ritter said 1/4 to 1/3 of Colorado students drop out before graduation. He said his goal was to cut that drop out rate in half and cut the achievement gap by half within 10 years. He encouraged charter school leaders to join him in meeting these goals. Gov. Ritter also related a lack of adequate preparation for students entering first grade as a causal link to increased incarceration, referencing his experience as Denver District Attorney.
When asked if he would support restoring the $3 million dollars cut for charter school capital construction in the last legislative session, Gov. Ritter said he had supported keeping $5 million in the fund rather than eliminating it completely as was proposed by certain legislators. He also talked about the statewide need for better funding for capital construction for all public schools, including charter schools.
One charter school board member asked the Governor if he could promise that charter schools would not be forced into collective bargaining agreements. The Governor's response was to say that he didn't agree with the term "collective bargaining" agreements, he called them "partnerships." Gov. Ritter also vaguely referenced the Employee Partnership agreement that he later in the afternoon enacted for state employees via Executive Order.
This year's recipients were (left to right):
Tony Fontana, Executive Principal at Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette received the Charter Friend Award for Schools. Tony believes education should be all about getting kids smarter. He's also known for raising up strong instructional leaders in schools.
State Senator Nancy Spence received the Charter Friend Award for Policy. Sen. Spence is a member of the Senate Education committee and was a strong advocate for charter school, particularly during the last legislative session when there were several anti-charter school bills.
Randy DeHoff, Executive Director of the Charter School Institute and also State Board of Education (7th CD), received the award on behalf of the Charter School Institute. The award was the Charter Friend Award for Authorizers.
Friday, November 2, 2007
The Colorado Charter School Institute today was honored with the "Authorizer Leadership Award" by the Colorado League of Charter Schools.
The institute was given the award for employing the best practices, for the commitment of its board members, and for encouraging the growth of high-quality charter schools. The award was given during the 14 th Annual Colorado Charter Schools Conference today (Friday, Nov. 2) at the Sheraton Denver West Hotel in Lakewood.
The Charter School Institute was created by the state legislature in 2004 as an independent agency within the state department of education. The institute is governed by a nine-member board. Seven of the board members are appointed by the governor and two members by the commissioner of education.
"Since the charter statute passed in 1993, the most profound change to Colorado's charter school landscape came with passage of the Charter School Institute legislation in 2004," said Jim Griffin, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. "The institute's presence has turned a bright light on what it means to be a charter school authorizer and why that role is central to the idea of quality charter schools."
The institute may authorize the creation of charter schools in any school district in the state, as long as that district has not been granted "exclusive" chartering authority by the Colorado Board of Education. To date, the institute has authorized 12 schools and oversees about 4,100 students in Aurora, Avon, Carbondale, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Grand Junction and Westminster.
"The Charter School Institute has demonstrated exemplary leadership in charter school authorizing," said Denise Mund, senior consultant with the schools of choice office at the state department of education. "They have instituted numerous best practices, which include interviewing charter school applicants, retaining outside application reviewers, negotiating effective charter school contracts and conducting monitoring and oversight in a reasonable manner. Board members have spent hundreds of hours reviewing charter school applications and honoring the mission of the CSI, which is to serve high-risk populations."
Speaking Thursday (Nov. 1) at the same League of Charter Schools conference, Commissioner Dwight Jones said charter schools clearly meet the needs of parents and students.
"The debate about choice in Colorado is over," said Commissioner Jones. "Parents have already made that choice . . . and I believe we ought to move on. We ought to shift our focus to creating the best schools that parents can send their kids to."
Commissioner Jones called for a partnership between charter schools and the department of education.
"The department of education will support and serve charter schools—you have my word on that," he said.
Whether a poor-performing school is a charter school or a non-charter school, "the first objective is not to punish and close [the school]; our first objective should be to say, 'How can we fix it?'"
Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien spoke to the group during a reception at the end of the day. She spoke about lobbying for the Charter Schools Act in 1993 while she served as President of the Colorado Children's Campaign.
Rep. Mike May, Sen. Mike Kopp, and Rep. Judy Solano, participated in a panel discussion about upcoming legislation regarding charter schools. Most of the interest was in "thorough and uniform" funding for charter school facilities.
Some of the "hot topics" discussed at the conference were:
* Academic stipulations in the charter contract that raise the bar for performance above the neighborhood public school in the district.
* How to access facility financing options and how to deal with the $3 million cut in charter school capital construction funds made in the 2007 legislative session.
* Diversity clauses in charter contracts that have consequences for not meeting a particular Free/Reduced Lunch qualifying number of students.
* Exclusive chartering authority requirements and the lawsuit against the Charter School Institute.