Thursday, November 19, 2009

List of 'turnaround schools' released, includes Kennedy & Trotter

BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson released the list of 14 "turnaround schools", which have consistently low MCAS scores. Among them are the West Zone's Kennedy school in Jamaica Plain and the Trotter school in Dorchester.  JP's English High was also on the list. The schools are generally concentrated in an area of the city Johnson called, the "Circle of Promise." Here are the types of change proposed for these schools:
  • Transformational change - build on existing staff and programs at the school
  • Comprehensive change - major staffing and program changes
  • Fresh start - all staff reapply for their jobs, greater flexibility in hiring and support. This sounds like an in-district charter school. This depends upon Beacon Hill passing the charter school legislation when they return to session in January.
  • School closure - last resort
Each affected school will have a community meeting to learn about proposed changes (Trotter, Dec. 1; Kennedy, Dec. 7, 6-7:30 p.m.).

Turning around these schools is the first step in a five-year plan presented at last night's Boston School Committee meeting.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Superintendent to reveal plan to turn around underperforming schools tonight

The Globe has a preview of tonight’s School Committee meeting in which the superintendent will unveil a plan to improve ailing schools. Some may be overhauled, others closed. The dozen or so schools targeted will be announced tonight. Roughly two-thirds lie in Roxbury and Dorchester. According to the article:
The range of options under consideration in [Superintendent Carol] Johnson’s plan include major shakeups in a school’s administrative team and teaching staff, extending the school day, or closing a failing school and reopening a new school in its building, a measure that the district imposed on at least two schools earlier this year. That is a way the district can expand successful programs and make wholesale changes to teaching staffs.

It could also involve conversion to charter-like schools, which would be overseen by the district and have reduced union rules. Johnson said she might even recommend shutting down a school and vacating the building to reduce the operating budget. The district has 6,000 to 7,000 empty classroom seats because of a notable decline in enrollment over the past decade.
The School Committee is expected to vote on the matter in December and have some of the changes in place by next school year.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sumner school preview – Nov. 13

The Sumner school (K1-5) is kind of tucked away behind the post office in Roslindale Square. I’d never seen it before, although we spend a lot of time in the square. This is one of our walk zone schools, so I definitely wanted to check it out.

The first thing I will say about the Sumner is that they have a lot of kindergarten classrooms. There is one K1 classes for regular ed students. At K2, there are two regular ed, one integrated classroom, one special needs class, and one sheltered English immersion. Feel free to correct me if I got that wrong. Overall, half of the student body is in regular ed, 28% are in special ed, and 20% are in bilingual ed.

K1 students were singing and doing their morning stretches when we visited.

The kindergartners are on the building’s lowest level so they can be closest to the bathrooms. There is only one set of bathrooms in the building for 500 students. So this requires a lot of coordination and structure. Did school designers in 1931 not consider the tiny bladders of tiny people?

There is no official library, but their after-school program partners with the Roslindale branch library; it’s just a few blocks away. ReadBoston also lends books to students.

Among their specialty subjects: science, gym, computers, art, drama, and music. All students don’t get all of the special classes every week. They rotate. Their gym isn’t full-size, but they had soccer nets and other gear. Older students take instrumental music. I think the band has to practice around the corner at the Roslindale Community Center because of space issues.

Science teachers come to each classroom rather than pull students out to a separate science classroom. Hallways were lined with tables of beans sprouting and aquariums with crayfish. The computer lab had a container of mealworms.

They seem to have a strong focus on integrating arts into the curriculum and the before- and after-school programs. Some of the artwork was quite amazing.

The Sumner runs its own before-school program. After-school is run by the Boys & Girls Club. I wasn’t clear whether K1 students were eligible. However, the nearby Roslindale Community Center does have an after-school program for K1.

Uniforms are mandatory. A nurse is there in the mornings.

In sum, the Sumner was ok. My son’s interests lean a little more toward science than arts, so the Sumner probably won’t be at the top of my list. But it will definitely be on the list somewhere.

[Edited to add: I learned at a West Zone Parents Group meeting that movement, in addition to art, is integrated into the curriculum. For my high-energy 3-year-old, who runs the occasional kiddie road race to burn off steam, this would be a very good thing.]

Haley school preview - Nov. 10

I confess. I’ve had a tiny crush on the Haley school since reading Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorders, a book about how kids today are underexposed to the natural world. The author kind of beats the thesis to death (to the point where you might want to chuck the book and just go live deliberately in the woods), but it’s still worth a read. For a synopsis, check out this Boston Globe article from 2007 about the Haley and the back-to-nature movement.

The Haley has a thematic curriculum (three themes/year) with a strong focus on the environment and community. They partner with the Boston Nature Center, which is right across the street on Walk Hill Avenue. Their activities there are tied into the theme. This fall, for instance, kindergartners study the five senses, and they go on a sensory walk of the Nature Center. In third grade, one of the themes is Wampanoag and Pilgrim life. Students collect seeds at the Nature Center to learn what early Americans might have used. They also travel to Plimoth Plantation.

Fifth grades build their own boats. Real boats. Not bathtub boats. Their winter unit includes African American maritime history. They also study the ecology of the Charles River.

Students go on a lot of field trips called “spark experiences,” meaning they go places with questions and projects in mind. For instance, the second grade goes on a mapping trip to the Arnold Arboretum.

The Haley is a pilot school. They are K1 to grade 5. They only have one K1 classroom, and expand to two classes per grade in K2. The Haley is a full inclusion school, so children with special needs are fully integrated into the classrooms.

They have onsite before-school and after-school programs for all grades, including for K1. City Year helps with the after-school program. After-school enrichment includes chorus and yoga.

The Haley is designated a Peace Zone school. Younger children walk the halls with their arms crossed over their chest to avoid jostling each other. Overall, it’s about respecting each others differences.

Specialties are art, music, computers, and gym. I don’t recall seeing a gymnasium, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It just means I’m foggy in the evenings. All children have exposure to instrumental music, but formal band and chorus doesn’t begin until fourth grade. They recently received a VH1 grant for musical instruments.

 Other features:
  • They have an outdoor classroom with a garden.
  • Mandatory uniforms, but the “uniform” seems pretty flexible.
  • They’re trying to get funding for a green roof.
The tour I went on was in the evening. It’s a bit harder to get a feel for the school without the regular activity of students and teachers.

I think my son would like this school, especially the nature-related themes. In addition, kindergarteners at the Haley work on robotic LEGOS. That would blow his mind.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Student mobility rates & suspensions in the West Zone

Instead of writing up notes from school previews or doing practice run-throughs of Thanksgiving pies (poached pear tart with chocolate ganache, anyone?), I thought I’d spend some time this rainy Saturday morning culling student mobility rates for all West Zone schools from each school's report card. The mobility rate is the transfers in and out as a percentage of total enrollment.

I guess the mobility rate could be considered an imperfect measure of parent satisfaction -- if the rate is low, parents aren’t pulling their kids out of school to send them to another school. The mobility rate could also just be a reflection of a school’s population as some families may move around a lot. A lower mobility rate could make for a more stable school community.  Then again, you also have to consider students transferring to Advanced Work schools in the fourth grade. It's tough to know what, exactly, to make of this.

The Kilmer and the Lyndon have the lowest mobility rates, followed by citywide (or former citywide) schools.

The second number I’ve included is the number of suspensions for the 2008-9 school year. I thought about creating a separate table, but it didn’t seem fair because the suspensions aren’t presented as rates. And even if they were, it would probably be a skewed statistic, a bit like the divorce rate, because I’d imagine there are students who have more than one suspension. In general, the number of suspensions seems to be higher in schools with higher grades. Not too surprising, I guess. The Irving middle school had 156 suspensions last year. Good luck to the new principal and the group of parents working hard to improve the school.

Student mobility rates/suspensions for 2008-9:
Kilmer K-8: 4.1%, 1
Lyndon K-8: 4.6%, 6
Mission Hill K-8 (now a North Zone school. I’m including it just in case some of you are in the Walk Zone): 4.7%, 1
Hernandez: 4.9%, 7
Mozart: 11.8%, N/A
Philbrick: 12.3%, 6
West Zone ELC: 12.3%, N/A
Haley: 12.5%, 9
Haynes EEC: 12.6%, 2
Ohrenberger: 13.8%, 22
Hennigan: 14.0%, 2
Sumner: 14.0%, 35
Conley: 14.8%, 12
Manning: 15.0%, 16
Irving Middle School: 15.5%, 156
Kennedy: 15.9%, 27
Hale: 16.6%, N/A
Trotter: 16.6%, 21
Bates: 16.9%, 2
Beethoven: 16.9%, 3
Curley K-8: 17.8%, 94
Agassiz: 22.3%, 70
Mendell: 24.3%, 5
Ellis: 29.9%, 30
King K-8: 34.0%, 71

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

New 5-year plan and helping underperforming schools

I just got word that BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson will present her new 5-year plan, including a strategy for turning around underperforming schools at the Boston School Committee meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 18 at 6 p.m. The meeting will be at Orchard Gardens K-8 school in Roxbury.

Boston Teachers Union pilot school preview – Nov. 10

When we toured the Parkman building last year, it was still in use by the Young Achievers school, which has since moved to Mattapan. The Boston Teachers Union school hadn’t hired any teachers and still didn’t have a curriculum. It seemed like a big question mark. So seeing the school in action today felt a lot more concrete and less like a concept for an interesting school.

As a pilot school, the BTU school is still part of Boston Public Schools, but it has more freedom when it comes to curriculum and budget matters. Among the biggest differences between the Union school (as I saw it referred to in school literature) and standard BPS schools:
  • The school day is 30 minutes longer (8:30-3:00).  
  • Instead of principals, they have co-lead teachers. These teachers will probably teach about one period a day and spent the rest of their time on administrative tasks.
  •  Instead of TERC Investigations, BTU uses the Think Math curriculum in the lower grades. The co-teachers said that TERC is good at teaching math concepts, but perhaps not so great at teaching math skills. I’ve heard other BPS parents say that some kids pick up TERC concepts just fine – it’s the parents that have the most trouble.
  • They plan to use an advanced work curriculum for all students in grades 3 and up, but this won’t be an official advanced work school in which students from other schools transfer in for AWC.
  • The reading curriculum is based on authentic literature. Tolstoy, here we come.
The BTU school has one regular ed classroom each for K1 through grade 3, plus a primary transition classroom. The upper grades (6-8) will have two strands. Eventually, the school will fill in (K-8) as more students move up to higher grades.

All students have Spanish three times a week. For K1 kids, those are just 20-minute sessions. When we went into the K1 classroom, the Spanish teacher was leading them in a silly song about body parts. The students knew the words and were really getting into it. Many students come from Spanish-speaking homes, but the teachers said that those parents were also eager for their children to have more formal Spanish instruction.

Students also have music every day.

Science and social studies are integrated into the curriculum, rather than having special teachers assigned to those subjects. History lessons start at the K1 level. I feel like social studies and science often get left behind in this age of testing.

The building has a beautiful auditorium/gym. There is no gym teacher, per se, but they do have a full-time Playworks coach who provides guided activities. K1 has Playworks once a week.

Later in our tour, the K1 students came outside for recess. I know I shouldn’t be, but I was so surprised that 4-year-olds could possibly have recess that’s not crammed into their lunch hour.

They have an apple tree in the school yard, as well as two raised garden beds. They hope to add more beds. Students recently picked radishes that were planted by their predecessors. The compost bin did not make the move to Mattapan with Young Achievers, but it looked like it could use a good turning. Say the word, and I’ll be over there with my pitchfork. They hope to have people from the nearby community gardens help with this underutilized area.

Their library is definitely a work in progress. They had a few books on the shelves and were planning on fund-raising to get more. They don’t have a librarian.

There is no art teacher, and I wasn't clear on whether they would be hiring one later. Art is currently integrated into the curriculum. The K2 classroom had a puppet theater set up. Although school had only been in session for nine weeks, there were many student projects hanging in the hallways.

Several classes have already been on field trips to the arboretum and Spectacle Island.

One thing that sets this school apart from most other BPS schools is that it has on-site after-school care for K1. This is a major draw. Schools have to have a separate license for four-year-olds, so K1 kids are usually bussed to separate after-school programs, even if the school offers after-school care for older students. The Union school has on-site after-school care for older children as well, all run by the YMCA.

They also have a half-time nurse. Lunches are trucked in to their cafeteria.

It occurs to me that it might be slightly easier to get into this school than some other popular schools (provided you get a decent lottery number, of course). Because the school still has empty grades, there won’t be as many siblings filling kindergarten seats next year. (Siblings get priority in the lottery.)

In summary, there’s still work to be done, but it seems they have a decent foundation for a school.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Curley school preview - Nov. 6

While the King school felt new and clean, the Curley school felt lived-in and comfortable. There was student art all along the hallways and in the classrooms. It gave me a little warm, fuzzy feeling.

Perhaps I was also feeling warm and fuzzy because my son behaved himself quite well on this tour. Last year, we had to leave the Curley tour before it started because, well, he just wasn’t feeling it and he was 2. Enough said. I think that experience last year left me with kind of an “eh” feeling about the Curley. I feel very differently this year. (About taking kids on tours, I try not to, but if a school only offers Friday tours, I’m stuck.)

First of all, the Curley has a great outdoor play area. They recently had their play yard renovated by the Boston Schoolyard Initiative. There’s an outdoor classroom, a performance area, and active and passive play areas. This is my favorite part -- the K1 classrooms each have doors that go directly outside. There’s no playground equipment there, but it’s a great space to run around.

They have a K1 classroom plus one integrated K1 classroom . Every grade also has a structured English immersion class.

The K1 classes really impressed me because children were playing independently in a lot of different areas. Some were putting together a puzzle of a map of the U.S. (My son was exerting extreme willpower in not joining in. He’s a puzzle fiend.) Some were reading in a corner with the teacher. And others looked like they were doing some imaginative play.
The Curley is a K-8 school, but the Lower (K0-2) and Upper (3-8) Schools have separate entrances and are connected by a ramp, so there’s a bit of separation.

The special classes include theater arts, gym, science, and art throughout the year and music for half the year. In the lower grades, children get vocal music with some rhythm instruments. In fourth and fifth grade, they learn recorders, and in the sixth grade, they can start playing other instruments. The school recently received a grant for 30 instruments. Social studies is embedded within the curriculum.

The K1 curriculum says that every child at the Curley School is “required to read or be read to for 20-30 minutes each night at home.” Love it. There is homework for K1, but it usually involves reviewing poems or songs learned in class. A weekly math newsletter suggests activities to be done at home.

The school has a writing/computer lab, and the K1 classrooms had their own computers. No one was on them when we visited.

We watched an older grade, perhaps 2nd, do a reading lesson. As the students were sitting on a rug, the teacher read them a short story and then asked them to turn to their partners and describe what they just heard. Even though there were visitors in the room, all the students were very attentive and turned to their partners on cue to relate their version of the story.

Lunch is prepared in the Upper School kitchen and then wheeled down to the Lower School cafeteria.

I didn’t tour the Upper School (We left before the entire tour was completed. I didn’t want to push my luck.) The Upper School has several computer labs, as well as a newsroom for a journalism class. As a recovering journalist, the idea of a middle school journalism class warms my cynical heart. Advanced work classes begin in the fourth grade.

The school seems to have a very active group of parents, evidenced by the number of current parents who helped with the tours.

School starts at 8:30, and they have an after-school program run by the YMCA. Like most schools, they aren’t licensed to take K1 students in after-school.

There is a uniform requirement.

I believe I expressed reservations last year about the distance from western Roslindale to the Curley. I'm over it. It's not much farther than our preschool, so if we got assigned here, we'd deal.

My son and I both give the Curley enthusiastic thumbs up.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Helpful publication

BPS has published its annual Introducing the Boston Public Schools guide. I'm linking to the PDF, but you should be able to get a hard copy at school previews and at the West Zone Family Resource Center. It has a quick rundown of all the schools in the zone, how to apply for schools, and a handy table on page 19 showing who has after-school programs, start/end times, uniform policy, advanced work, etc.

King school preview - Nov. 4

I was the only parent on the tour of the King school. That’s a first for me. In other schools I’ve toured, there have usually been at least 20 parents. This was the first school preview for the West Zone, so that might have something to do with it. Perhaps the location was also a factor. The King is on the border between Roxbury and Dorchester. I knew nothing about the school and I had a child-free morning, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to check it out.

The King has one K1 classroom and two K2 classes. They also have special education and autism classrooms for grades K0-K1.

The plusses:
  • The school was very clean, new looking, and spacious. They just underwent a renovation over the summer and merged with the Dickerman elementary school. So now they’re K-8 (another plus, I guess). The walls are a little bare and feel a little sanitary, but the principal seemed eager to get some artwork up.
  • They have a huge gorgeous assembly hall.
  • The teachers and staff were all very courteous and helpful.
  • They have an in-house kitchen, and they have a professional chef make lunch every Thursday.
  • They received a grant from VH1’s Save the Music program, so they will be getting keyboards for older students and recorders for younger students.
  • The special subjects for K1 include library, art, music, computers, and Playworks (an adult guides non-competitive activities at recess).
  • They have an advanced work class in grade 6, but not grades 4 and 5. The principal said she is advocating for more advanced work.
  • They have a full-time nurse.
  • They also have a staff librarian and a library. They were still unpacking books from the move from the Dickerman when I went in. 
  • Kindergarteners have their own lunch shift separate from the bigger kids.
  • They have an on-site after-school program run by the YMCA for K2 and up. For the older students, the first hour is devoted to homework. Then they play games. K1ers need to have other after-school care.
  • They have a primary transition class for students who’ve finished kindergarten but may not be quite ready for first grade.
Now for the minuses: In Roslindale, we’re closer to the western side of the assignment zone. The King is over on the eastern side of the zone -- 5 miles from my house. That’s further than I would prefer to go for school.

I did a very unscientific look at crime in the area. My barometer for crime is how it compares to my neighborhood. (Just fyi, we live close to Washington Street, not in some gated community, so we’re not immune.) Looking at crime reports for the past 6 months, there’s a lot more crime in the school’s neighborhood than mine. I want my child to feel safe in school and getting to and from school, so that’s a significant minus.

I also saw some minor discipline issues at the school. Nothing major, just maybe more little things than I’ve seen at other schools. Part of this (like the occasional yelling in the halls) could be a product of having middle school students in the same building. The teachers and staff handled it all very well. But I wonder how much all of that detracts from academics.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

What are my schools?

I just noticed that BPS has updated the What Are My Schools? tool so that you can search for the 2010-11 school year. I think they usually update it for the Citywide Showcase of Schools, which was a week ago.

This tool gives you a list of schools in the zone for the grade you're interested in (K0, K1, K2). It also tells you which schools are your walk schools (those within 1 mile of your home). You can also determine the schools for which you are eligible for bussing.

My walk zone schools stayed the same. (I thought for a while there was some discussion of tweaking the walk zones a tad. Maybe not. Maybe school choice has just invaded my dreams.)

Washington Times article on BPS assignment zones

The Washington Times, of all places, has an article on Boston's repeated attempts to redraw the assignment zones.

They give a little more detail on the $240,000 grant BPS received from the U.S. Department of Education. The district has 12-24 months to use the grant to study school assignment procedures nationwide and speak with school-assignment experts and civil rights advocates. Boston scrapped its most recent attempt to redraw the assignment zones (from three to five) this year.

The article says BPS is facing a projected $100 million shortfall. This is the first I've heard of this. I really hope we're not about to see a repeat of last year's budget battle.