Posts Tagged school reform

Without Strong Communities, Schools Will Fail

Published by — Chaotic families can wreck their kids’ lives despite a school’s best efforts.  So what can rescue the family?

(Photo: In the Hive 2012)

In the world of school reform, there are two ways of thinking about kids’ families and backgrounds.  A 2013 movie called In The Hive shows why we need a third.

Approach #1: Focus all possible energy and resources on the kid herself.  Working with families can seem like a black hole, with seriously low return on investment.  Better to concentrate on equipping kids to transcend their backgrounds with a strong academic foundation and disciplined habits.  The KIPP schools and Success Academies are education examples of the save-the-kid strategy.  These strict, so-called “no excuses” schools have long days, demerit systems, and practices that resemble military-school environments.  The students who can stick with it do better than their peers on tests and college enrollment.

Approach #2: Acknowledge that kids can’t really thrive without bringing the family along. Dedicating resources to help families overcome obstacles to their children’s learning not only promotes academics but also builds the kid’s support system.  Unfortunately, programs like home-based visiting serve only “at risk” little kids, sending trained support people into homes to help families develop healthy routines.  Without similar social services help for older kids, schools are left with taking over family support.  Save-the-family schools have a delicious, welcoming school climate and rich family engagement.  The students in these often home-grown and stand-alone charter schools perform better than average, but not as well as “no excuses” schools.

But both these approaches have pitfalls, because they operate in a vacuum. 

Approach #3: Back up and look at the bigger picture.  The community is the field in which these kids and families are growing.  Its modeling, nurture and gifts are the conditions for all its people thriving.  Invest in the community that supports the family that supports the kid.  This approach seems to be creeping back into fashion, as Approaches #1 and #2 are increasingly showing their limitations.

Separating kids from their loved ones is an obnoxious idea no matter how messy the family. But given schools’ limited resources, chaotic families can wreck their kids despite schools’ best efforts.  Social conditions are deteriorating. In 2000, 16% of children under 18 lived in poverty.  Today it’s 22%, with 45% considered “low income.”  And income is only one form of social poverty.

In The Hive shows both the kid and the family isolated from a community context.

The movie’s protagonist is a 16-year-old black youth named Xtra Keys who’s committed a dumb but serious crime. He’s been given a choice between juvie prison or an alternative school for delinquents, called The Hive — a loving portrait of Approach #1. Xtra is so street hard that he might have taken the prison route if he didn’t want a better life for his infant son so badly.

The Hive pulls no punches. In a powerful moment, an administrator, Mr. Hollis, completely loses his cool trying to get the boys to face their plight. He crams all but a few boys into one corner of the room to emphasize how most will fail — drop out, go to prison or die on the streets. He adds more boys to the crowd until just Xtra is left. Hollis hasn’t singled him out for salvation, but constructed a living graph of the odds young boys of color face when already in the judicial system. The Hive can only help to a point.

Xtra’s home is a superb example of why Approach #2 seems futile. His scary dad is in prison. The substance-addled mom can’t hold a job and is mostly useless to her kids. Xtra’s live-in girlfriend feels that he’s growing superior to her with his fancy schooling. Eventually she leaves, taking his precious baby.

At the end, no Hollywood triumph nor tragedy.  It’s just a quagmire.

Whatever Xtra’s learned from the school, his family will drag him back down. He’s seen a better path, but so what? In a final shot, his face shows only a bad feeling about what comes next. The school can’t bring back his son, or deal with his mother, or raise his brothers and sisters.

So where’s his community — the neighbors, church, other functional social network? How’s he supposed to manage, never mind thrive? Public social services could remove all the kids from the dreadful mom, but that would only traumatize them more without denting the source of Xtra’s various problems. Rotting in prison, or even rotting in the Hive, doesn’t help him give back to his community the repair he owes, having committed a crime. He needs to rebuild his place, his neighborhood, while it rebuilds him. A new report makes the same point, but notes that so little thought has gone into bringing whole communities back to health that there are few examples.

What we have here is a failure of imagination. A numbed public can picture a kid or a family. But the public has a far harder time seeing the many children who are growing up in nutrient-free communities that yield a scant harvest of successful adults.

America’s sad performance on international tests is far more an indictment of the quality of our communities than it is of the schools themselves. The Hive, like other schools, doesn’t exist in a vacuum any more than a kid or a family does.

(Photo: In the Hive, 2012)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Michelle Rhee Throws Gas On Ed Reform Hostilities

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The ever-controversial Michelle Rhee and her organization Students First have issued a State Policy Report Card, grading states’ reform policies.  Almost all the states got either a “D” or an “F.”  Dummies.

As the Chancellor of the D.C. schools, Rhee posed for the 2008 cover of Time Magazine looking witchy with a broom, symbolizing her efforts to sweep bad teachers and policies away.  Students First grades states according to their implementation of her take-no-prisoners policies, some of which are good, while others are baseless.  Yes, hire and maintain staff by merit, not seniority.  But tying teacher pay to test scores does not improve achievement.

Curiously, Louisiana and Florida emerge as stars in this report, while Vermont, elsewhere considered a pretty good place to educate a kid, is an embarrassment.

So I examined their system for calculating the grades and lo!  Brownie points go to states that annually grade schools with “A” through “F” letters.  I laughed out loud.  They justify their own right to call states names by applauding those states also engaged in routine “D” and “F” name-calling.  By that measure, if only more states would rush the public to ugly conclusions, the fur could really fly.

Hey kid, you go to a “D-” school, you loser.  How does that make you feel?  Your “D-” so bummed your teachers out, they’re trying to bail out of the building to get away from you.  It’s your fault, so quit whining and do your science work.

Do people seriously think the kids don’t notice?

Report cards have become all the rage among states and ed reformers.  In a convenience society, “A” through “F” offers quick, mindless judgments on schools’ effectiveness.  Ex-Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s group, Foundation for Excellence in Education, released a video arguing that letter grades are the only way to communicate clearly with parents.

Communicate what, exactly?  And for what purpose?

A fine line divides passionate advocacy and flat-out fighting to win.  In the realm of education, the question has to be:  is it good for kids?  Quickie judgments are not.  It’s like calling a kid fat or stupid while ignoring that she’s also sweet, creative and great on the flute.  We punish children for calling each other names, but blare their school’s shame from the news.  It’s bizarre.

Yes, some schools should be rebooted, but grades won’t assist good decisions about such a painful matter.

So, I would ask Mr. Bush, whose video is silent on the matter, what is a good school, one deserving an “A?”

People often ask me which are the best schools.

I ask:  What are your priorities?

They almost invariably respond:  What do you mean?

Start with high achievement.  Sort your state’s schools, high to low, by their students’ median family income.  Now sort them again by test results.  The two lists will come close to matching.  Yes, some of the better charters, magnets and vocational schools break the pattern.  But even then, dig into their specifics — longer days, impressive outside partners, cool academic strategies — to see how they’re breaking the pattern.

Because, according to test scores, which is how most grades get calculated, “A” schools have affluent kids.  Hmmm.

What if your priorities include diversity, which affluent schools rarely offer?  What if you want a warm, fun and helpful atmosphere, which is why parents flock to charter schools, despite their sometimes lackluster academic performance.  How about a school that’s super innovative and steeped in technology?  A focus on social-and-emotional learning?  Uniforms?  Zero-tolerance discipline codes?  Restorative, social-justice-minded discipline?  Hands-on learning?  Traditional instruction?  Themes to engage your disengaged kid, like ecology, STEM or the arts?

Now that you’ve identified your “A” school, or as close as you could get, what sort of grade would Rhee or Bush give to it?  What would the grade mean?

To my mind, the grades are only about fighting.

A certain brand of reformers want that big fat “F” to prod parents into battle.  Grades are incendiary.  Bombs.  Designed to win a war.  Fighting for control has led to inventing new weaponry, such as “parent trigger” laws, whereby parents can band together and insist the district turn their school over to a charter management organization.  (A “win” for the parents and reformers, perhaps, but the jury’s out on whether it’ll help the kids.)  And often the fighting backfires, bringing throngs of families to plead for the life of their struggling school, which may serve them well as a community center, if not as a great place to learn.

I’ve been observing the escalation of this fight for over 20 years.  I assure you that very little good has come of it.  Fighting among the adults has taken root as a horrible habit, injurious to the health of the kids.

High-school kids’ NAEP scores have barely budged since the 1990s.  Thousands of jobs still go begging for lack of a skilled workforce.  But fight on we will.  Grades feed the battles.

Reductio ad absurdum ad nauseam.

I’m not making excuses for wretched schools.  But nuance is necessary.  I hate wretched policies that hurt kids, however inadvertently.  Teach the public what good education can and should look like.  But quit bludgeoning and name calling.  We don’t tolerate such behavior among the kids.  But we model it.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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A Struggling Urban School District Turns to Charters for Help

Published By — In an unusual move, the Providence School District invites charters in to pitch their strategies.

The windowless basement meeting room buzzed with excited, nervous chatter.  Rival schools were about to sit down to get to know one another, rather intimately.

Nine schools in the Providence School District have agreed to consider converting to charter status by partnering with one of Rhode Island’s excellent charter schools.  Together they’ll adapt the charter-school’s educational strategy, write up their co-created new design, and apply for charter status from the state.

The new joint-venture schools will remain district-run and unionized.  These sorts of district-school conversions are not terribly common, but they do exist — mainly because faculties get so frustrated with certain district policies, curriculum or labor-contract provisions that they want the flexibility that comes with charter status.  In Providence’s case, the district itself is encouraging the conversions.

Actually, this was whole point of the charter-school movement from its inception in the early 1990s — to encourage experiments and innovations that could spread back to the regular district schools.  But the way history played out, charters and district schools felt pitted against one another, bitterly competing for resources, students and praise.

True, tiny Central Falls, also in Rhode Island, has a nationally-recognized collaboration among district schools and the charters that serve that city’s children.  But it’s the only collaboration of its kind I’ve ever heard of, until now.

Superintendent Dr. Susan Lusi introduced this highly-unusual meet-and-greet as the “collective brain child” of Providence’s leadership, including the School Board chair and the President of the teachers union.

Surely they’d noticed that almost all of the local charters soared in the recent “Report Card” state rankings.

By contrast, fully half of the Providence Public Schools are “chronically low-performing,” which is ed-speak for failing and coming under state scrutiny.

Even so, it’s bold for any district to welcome a range of ideas with proven track records from the oft-resented charters.

During the first hour of the meeting, each presenter was supposed to make an absurdly short, 2-minute presentation.  Schools sketched out a wide range of successful strategies.  Power-point slides, changing every 8 seconds in the background, presented stats faster than anyone could read.  It was a little nuts.

Also pitching their strategies as potential partners were a few more familiar and non-controversial providers – social services, volunteer organizations.

Then, for the second hour, the presenters occupied tables where district teachers and school staff could ask questions.

Several people called the event “educational speed dating.”

Superintendent Lusi was blunt about what she was hoping her schools would get from collaborating with the charters:  community, capacity and resources.  “First, charters are characterized as being cohesive communities of parents, students and staff.    Secondly, for over a year Providence has been building partnerships to bring more capacity and expertise to our schools.  We’re still looking for more value-added partnerships.”

Lastly, sighs Lusi, “We need the resources.  The RI Department of Education has 3 million dollars that can be used for charter start-ups.”  Regular district schools can get a piece of that pie, but only if they convert to charter status.

Nationally, the public is frustrated with the pace of school reform, creating intense pressure to satisfy the parents’ and public’s demand for better school options.  Either district schools can become the change we all want to see, or they’ll let competition put them out of business.

Ironically, most charter schools nationally are just as academically mediocre as the regular public schools kids are trying to escape.  But since charter schools live or die on their ability to attract and keep students and families, they’re famous for being warm, welcoming places that parents prefer to the often-hidebound, district schools.

So consider this little clash of cultures.  Many of the Providence district attendees expressed a strong desire to improve their relationship with parents.  One charter director conceded that involving urban parents is a super-tough job.  So his teachers all visit their students’ homes before school opens in the fall, to meet or re-connect with the family and talk about their mutual expectations for the year.

A Providence teacher asked, “Who does these visits?”  The Director enthused, “The classroom teachers.  And giving the parents a business card, saying call me any time; this is my cell phone number, that creates a relationship that’s crazy powerful.”

“The teachers give out their cell phone numbers?” asked one.  “Yeah,” said the Director.  And there was an uncomfortable pause.

Charter and district-school cultures are very different.  I asked Superintendent Lusi if she thought her schools would be willing to be flexible.

She shrugged and said, “We’ve got to do something.  We need so much help.  We’re not going to get anywhere without getting out of the box.  This seems promising.”

Even more enthused was Dr. Robert Pilkington, now applying to start his fourth charter school. “This is historic!  This is the crucible.  This is what it was supposed to be all about at the get-go.  There’s no anger here.  Just collegial involvement!”

I’m not sure there wasn’t a smidge of anger.  But hey, everyone there seemed fairly serious about collaborating.  I only wish Congress could also grow up and learn to collaborate in the best interests of all.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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