Future of Schools

Kids get to keep their business profits under winning school plan

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jeffrey Berry, Tiffany Thomas and Darius Sawyers receive applause after being named as winners at Teach Plus' InnovatEd conference.

A charter school that would let students create their own businesses and keep the profits was a money-winning idea at an innovation fair Sunday that three teachers hope will become a reality next fall.

The idea for the school, created by teachers Tiffany Thomas, Darius Sawyers and Jeffrey Berry, won at InnovatED, an event put on by the Indianapolis chapter of the national teacher advocacy group Teach Plus and education reform group The Mind Trust last weekend aimed at designing new schools. The group will split a $5,000 prize, and two of its members hope to bring the idea to the mayor’s charter school board this spring.

The teachers based their school on the biggest problem they see in education today, nationally and across Indianapolis: kids just aren’t connected to what they’re learning, and they can’t see how what they’re doing is relevant to their lives beyond high school.

“I think our idea is so innovative because it solves so many secondary issues that don’t necessarily have anything to do with school,” Sawyers, a high school science teacher at Fall Creek Academy, said.

The school’s design incorporates a few key programs that try to address the needs of high-poverty students. First, an Illinois company called Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities pairs eligible students with mentors from the business community to design original businesses then launch and showcase them at a trade show at the end of the year. Students keep what they earn, which offers their families some financial support.

Although the school pays a fee to participate with CEO, the company raises money locally and pays its own way. Students can see a real-world application of what they’re learning, and the school doesn’t bear an additional cost.

Following an early college academy model

The school also models part of its structure off Dayton Early College Academy, a charter high school in Ohio that establishes six “milestones” students must complete during high school, including community service hours, research projects, job shadow opportunities, internships and other academic requirements. To pass each step,  students must present to and be approved by a panel of educators and community members. As a result, students do not follow traditional grade levels.

Finally, the school connects each student to a network of teachers, adults and other community members through the job shadows and internships. This advisory group would give students support in and out of school, which makes it more likely that they succeed, Thomas, a French teacher at Broad Ripple High School, said.

Her idea to blend these different programs came from presentations she saw at an education conference at the University of Indianapolis.

“I saw the DECA program present and the CEO program present and listening to them got me reinvigorated, got me excited again,” Thomas said. “Hearing from the (DECA) kids themselves really was everything. I was looking at those kids and thinking, ‘Those are our kids … they’re dealing with the same population and the same problems, but they’re having great success.'”

The school in Dayton looks similar to many in Indianapolis: Of its 436 students, about 90 percent are black or Hispanic and 80 percent come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. For a family of four, that means an annual income of $43,500 or less. But data from Ohio’s state tests last year showed 100 percent of juniors passed in every subject on a state test, and more than 95 percent of sophomores passed.

To gain traction in Indianapolis, Thomas has been forging partnerships with local K-8 charter schools that don’t have direct feeder high schools. The goal is to locate the school on the city’s east side, where Thomas plans to visit apartment complexes to share information about the concept with families.

Casey Patterson, an InnovatED judge, said the winning group showed a level of research, commitment to academic rigor and fundraising know-how that put it above the others.

“I think they had a better idea of where they are heading and what students need,” said Patterson, a former Teach Plus executive director and principal from Brownsburg. “Yes, they need to be engaged. Yes, they need to like school. But they had an understanding that you need to hold kids to high academic achievement.”

Bringing community resources to needy children

Participants at the conference also chose a second winning idea, a community resource center in Avon, that received $3,000. Katie Mitchell, a special education teacher at White Oak Elementary School, said her group’s idea was born out of the demographic shifts happening in her community.

More students are coming from low-income families, she said, and the community doesn’t have the resources to fully to support them, in and out of school. Although she acknowledged that her school isn’t facing the same challenges as schools in Indianapolis, she said that the community has virtually no support services available, so they want to be proactive in addressing problems as they occur.

“It’s not a topic that people are talking a whole lot about yet,” Mitchell said. “As teachers, we see it coming, we’re starting to see those students. Our idea isn’t innovative for the nation, but it is for our area and the population we’re serving.”

Mitchell said she and her colleagues will use the money to develop a pilot for the center in one of the district’s unused trailers. At the center families can learn how to help their kids with homework and receive other services, such as food, clothing, counseling and access computers and Internet. The center will also host workshops for parents on new academic standards, CPR training, GED classes or English-language classes.

Last year, the school created a neighborhood initiative called Traveling Teachers, which sent teachers out into the community to form relationships with families. The center would be a way to expand on those efforts.


Knock knock

House call: One struggling Aurora high school has moved parent-teacher conferences to family homes

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.

This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.

“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”

The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.

Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.

“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”

A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”

Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.

Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.

The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.

As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.

As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.

Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.

That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.

The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.

De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.

Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.

Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.

Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.

Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.

Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.

“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”

Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.

“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”

How I Teach

How this Colorado drama teacher gets to know her students with a 20-second exercise

One of Kelly Jo Smith's students with her project on theater design.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Kelly Jo Smith, an English, speech, and drama teacher at La Junta Junior/Senior High School in southeastern Colorado, got her start in the arts with a directing gig in fifth grade.

Today, she hopes to spark her students’ creativity the way her own teachers did when she was in school.

Smith talked to Chalkbeat about why she loves teaching her gifted and talented theater class, what she’s learned from watching colleagues teach, and how one mother’s words stayed with her.

Smith is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state’s Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I grew up playing school, helping others with projects, and directing shows, so I think it was instinctual. I was allowed to write and direct my first play in fifth grade, so my love of theater has been lifelong.

I attended Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, and received my bachelor’s degree in theater and communication with a minor in English. But I really think it was my high school teachers that had the biggest effect on my life. In everything from drama to band, I thrived and got to test and hone my creative side.

What does your classroom look like?
I decided a long time ago that if I was going to spend so much time at school (and what teacher doesn’t) I wanted my classroom to be cheerful and comfortable. My classroom has posters, student work, pictures — almost every inch of it is covered. I have a portfolio section where students keep their written work to show during conferences and “Student Center” where students can turn in work and pick up makeup work. The carpeted floor makes it easy to move groups to the floor as a way to meet several learning needs.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite classes to teach — or I should say mentor — is the gifted and talented theater course. I designed this when I was getting my master’s degree from Adams State University. Students can begin with an examination of theater history, or an acting or directing project. I have had students create Greek masks, one-man shows, film projects, and currently have one student studying theater design. Students start with the standards, design their project, read articles and text, and blog and journal. Finally, they have a public showing or juried presentation. I love working with students who are fired up and inspired to test their own creative ideas. Teaching kids to explore and how to shape that exploration is key.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
Presenting oral and written instructions are important. That way, students can listen in the moment, but have clarification to refer to at home. I encourage students to ask for clarification and that may come in conferences, emails or thumbs up or down, pairing off and explaining the lesson to their peer. I also have a class Facebook page, where I post updates and assignment links so that parents can get the information as well.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I like using the “catch and release” strategy from Penny Kittle’s book, “The Greatest Catch: A Life in Teaching.” It comes from her experience fishing with her dad. In the classroom, we provide directions and then release students to work, but sometimes we need to catch them again to explain a detail or celebrate an accomplishment. Other times just walking by and making my presence known is all that is needed. I like to have several tricks because no one class is the same.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I like to learn about my students’ history. I share my story: “How did I get to where I am?” My first assignment in my speech class is called the “20/20 Speech.” Twenty slides in 20 seconds — students will include pictures of themselves at different ages, pictures of family, activities, schools they want to attend, future plans, books, movies and music. They begin and end with a quote that represents their essence. It is a great way to learn about students.

I watched a teacher (going to visit other classrooms is the best way to perfect your craft) start the class by opening it up to anything that happened since they last met that needed to be discussed. I like doing that because it gives students a voice in the classroom and then clears the way for focus on lessons.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _________. Why?
My creativity. Kids are kids! If you teach long enough you see cycles come and go and you have probably heard it all. If you approach the class with creativity, a good attitude, and a sense of humor … failures are not the end, just opportunity for a different approach.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I had a great mom of a student and each time we would leave for a (field) trip, she would tell me, “Drive careful. You have precious cargo.” All our students are precious cargo and the journey we take them on can change their lives.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
I had a principal once tell me, “Kelly, make sure they treat you like a professional.” Teaching is a profession. It is not easy and not for the faint of heart. It is personal and hard, time-consuming and, much of the time, thankless. I am a professional and not all of my attempts in the classroom have been successful, but they have been learning experiences. When I see the light of creativity spark in a student, I know that I am making a difference.