National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Rigorous Expectations in a Supportive Environment University High School, Fresno, California

University High School Building

University High School, Fresno, California.
Credit: University High School Permission: University High School

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

University High School in Fresno, California, is a grade 9–12 college-prep public charter school. The school focuses on liberal arts and music and is located on the campus of California State University, Fresno. The high school has about 500 students, and all of them graduate having earned as much as two years of college credits. The school draws students who want a college-prep education from 35 zip codes in 9 cities.

In school year (SY) 2012–2013, the school earned the seventh best score in the State on the California Academic Performance Index. Ninety-seven percent of students scored proficient or advanced in reading on the State test.

Q. What strategies do you use to promote high performance among students?

James Bushman, principal: It starts with our belief that kids can do rigorous work. We are a college prep school, requiring students to take four years of English, with Advanced Placement (AP) both junior and senior years; three to four years of a foreign language, including two years of Latin; four years of science, including college courses in biology and environmental science; and four years of math, including Algebra II freshman year and AP Calculus and Statistics in junior or senior years. We also require students to take music all four years. And all of our students graduate having taken at least one year of college courses.

We also have a required elective session at the end of each semester. These elective sessions vary from seven to ten days but all students sign up for one or two intensive classes during this period. These classes provide students a unique experience separate from the academic work they take during the regular semester.

Because all students are required to take Algebra II freshman year, everyone must have passed Algebra I with a grade of B or better to be admitted. But Algebra I preparation varies a lot depending on what school our students attended previously, so we are looking at ways to make learning more personalized and student centered.

Jim Torrance, teacher: Another thing we do to promote high performance is our 48 Books initiative, which has contributed to our success in English language arts. We require continuous reading outside of class every year of high school, so we buy a book a month and give a copy to every student for all four years. All of these books are integrated into the English language arts classroom. It becomes a shared library, and we choose books that help them become better adults.

It’s amazing what students can do when they have support and everybody is having the same experience. In my English class, everybody turns in every paper. We aren’t forcing students to be in class.

Bushman: We have an obligation to make sure no child is left behind.

One strategy we use is to focus on character education. Character really does matter. Students treat each other better and are more motivated than in a traditional high school. Five years ago, we wrote a code of character with three pillars: being understanding, being honorable and being studious. It was a joint effort with students and the faculty.

We do a lot to promote the code of character, even before students come to the school. On orientation day, we discuss it and teachers talk about it in the first week. We do surveys and teachers model behavior. You can push hard, but students need a lot of nurturing, and teachers have to respect the students. We have a teaching staff that cares and creates an environment of acceptance and tolerance.

Q. What other strategies do you use?

 Bushman: For the past five years, we also have had students fill out feedback forms for each class they take, which has made our teachers much more responsive. Students will say things to teachers such as “no more pop quizzes, just be clear about expectations.” And teachers are responding to this feedback—the students don’t say the same things about teachers that they did five years ago. In fact, we used to do the survey at the end of the year, but now we do it in December, so we can incorporate the feedback from students into classrooms right away.

 One of things we are proudest of is the environment we created at our school. Parents love it, and students drive an hour each way every day to get there because they couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. Teachers say it is the best place to work because they have the autonomy to teach what they want and students love to learn.

You can learn more about University High School’s efforts and success at the here.

Tennessee Principals Receive Coaching on Observing Teachers and Providing Feedback

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Accurate observations pinpoint strengths and weaknesses, and specific feedback helps teachers improve instruction, leading to increases in student learning.

At the end of school year (SY) 2011–2012, the principal at Erin Elementary School in Houston County, Tennessee judged nearly 90 percent of the school’s teachers to be exceeding expectations based on observations of their classroom performances.

But, according to results of the State’s assessment system, their students weren’t doing nearly so well.

How could this be?

The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) discovered the mismatch at Erin and many others when it analyzed results from the first year schools used a new teacher evaluation system that includes multiple measures such as test scores, observations, student surveys and other elements to help identify teachers strengths and areas for improvement.

Many States have introduced such evaluation systems over the past several years, responding to strong evidence that teaching is the single biggest in-school influence on student learning. However, if principals cannot accurately discern differences in the performances they observe, they cannot provide teachers constructive feedback on how they can do more to increase student achievement.

After its analysis, the State identified schools with the biggest gaps between principals’ observations and student achievement. It then hired eight coaches over the next two years to work with the principals at 116 schools.

Improved Feedback, Improved Teaching, Improved Student Achievement

After the coaching, principals were able to give teachers better feedback, teachers’ performance improved and student learning accelerated, according to a State analysis. Luke Kohlmoos, the former director of evaluation at the TDOE, said observation scores changed immediately after coaching. But, he said, that was not the goal.

“The change is what happens after you score accurately,” Kohlmoos said.  “This is about feedback and development of teachers; it’s not necessarily about the number of teachers getting high observation scores.”

Kohlmoos said the coaching “was way more effective than anticipated” in terms of the improvements in teaching that resulted.

Student achievement across the schools that received coaching in the first year rose, on average, faster than the gains made statewide. The same thing happened during the second year of coaching at other schools in SY 2013-2014. “We are very optimistic that these gains are real,” Kohlmoos said.

But he said the State won’t know for sure until the results have been reviewed independently. He said the State is doing a formal evaluation to determine if the changes in student achievement were due to the coaching, resulted from other factors or occurred by chance.

Meanwhile, the State is continuing the coaching in SY 2014–2015, using a combination of State funds and foundation grants. For the current school year, in addition to working with schools with large disparities in ratings, coaches will work with principals’ supervisors to help them.

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Ohio Teachers Leading Transition to New Standards

Elizabeth Johnson (standing), a teacher at Ironton High School and a member of the Ohio Network of Regional Leaders for mathematics, reports to her District Leadership Team on students’ progress toward mastering Ohio’s New Learning Standards for mathematics. To her right is Bill Dressel, the Curriculum and Federal Programs Director of the Ironton City Schools. She is looking over the shoulder of Lee Anne Mullens, from the high school’s English Department. On her left around the table are Joe Rowe, principal; Travis Kleinman, high school guidance counselor; and Nancy Sutton, intervention specialist. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Johnson

Elizabeth Johnson (standing), a teacher at Ironton High School and a member of the Ohio Network of Regional Leaders, reports to her District Leadership Team on students’ progress toward mastering Ohio’s New Learning Standards for mathematics. To her right is Bill Dressel, Curriculum and Federal Programs Director of the Ironton City Schools. She is looking over the shoulder of Lee Anne Mullens, from the high school’s English Department. On her left around the table are Joe Rowe, principal; Travis Kleinman, high school guidance counselor; and Nancy Sutton, intervention specialist. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Johnson.

Teachers are advising the State, working with colleagues, and designing a model curriculum aligned with college- and career-ready standards.

Elizabeth Johnson has taught mathematics for 10 years in Ironton, Ohio, a town of about 11,000 people along the Ohio River. She also serves on the teacher leadership team at Ironton High School, as well as the building and district leadership teams.

Given all of her experiences as a leader, it wasn’t surprising that she also was one of about 50 educators who the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) asked in 2013 to join the State’s Network of Regional Leaders (NRL) for mathematics. The mathematics network is one of five in the State that were convened by the ODE to help lead teachers and school districts through the transition to new, more rigorous college- and career-ready standards and new assessments to go along with them.

Like other States, Ohio is using part of its grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top program to support the writing of model curricula for mathematics and English language arts aligned with those standards, develop formative assessments, train teachers and redesign teacher evaluation and feedback systems.

In doing so, the State has made it a priority to ensure that frontline educators such as Johnson—teachers, coaches, mentors and curriculum developers—are taking the lead in these activities. They advise the State on how its policies are affecting their schools and classrooms and also help their colleagues understand and adjust to the changes that lie ahead of them.

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New York State Training Aspiring Teachers in the Classroom

Eric Reisweber, who studied to be an earth science teacher in SUNY Cortland’s Undergraduate Clinically Rich Teacher Preparation program, teaching a lesson during his internship at  Binghamton High School in Binghamton, New York during the spring semester of SY 2013-2014.

Eric Reisweber, who studied to be an earth science teacher in SUNY Cortland’s Undergraduate Clinically Rich Teacher Preparation program, teaching a lesson during his internship at Binghamton High School in Binghamton, New York during the spring semester of SY 2013-2014. Photo Credit: Michael Bersani.

New teachers in New York are becoming better prepared to help students meet college- and career- ready standards.

Nichole Mantas felt her first year as a high school biology teacher at Lansingburgh High School in Troy, New York was far smoother than she had anticipated. “It was like I was already a mile into this yearlong race, whereas other teachers I worked with were entering at the starting line,” she said of her experiences in school year (SY) 2013-1014.

Mantas said she knew just what to expect, and how to set herself up for success because she had already spent a full year as an intern co-teaching science with a seasoned educator. One month into that internship, she had begun leading an Advanced Placement biology course, designing lab experiments and creating lesson plans—all while benefiting from expert guidance and coaching.

The combination of the teaching experience and mentoring during the internship helped her hone her craft quickly, she said.  “My mentor gave me a lot of freedom to try new things, but she was always there to give me feedback and we were constantly bouncing ideas off of each other,” she said.

The internship was a key component of Mantas’ ‘Clinically Rich’ Master’s program at Union Graduate College, one of 12 institutions across New York State awarded pilot grants from the New York State Education Department. Supported through the State’s Race to the Top grant, the program aims to strengthen teacher preparation programs and This chart lists the twelve institutions offering Clinically Rich programs and the degrees offered by those institutions. American Museum of Natural History offers a Master’s Degree in Teaching with a specialization in Earth Science for Grades 7–12. Adelphi University offers a Master’s Degree in Science Education with a Bilingual Extension for Grades 7–12. Fordham University offers a Master’s Degree in Adolescent Education in Mathematics, Science, TESOL and SWD for Grades 7–12. Lehman College (CUNY) offers a Master’s Degree in Childhood Education with a specialization in Mathematics, English Learner/Bilingual and Special Education. SUNY Oswego offers  Bachelor’s Degree in TESOL, Master’s Degree in Childhood Education, and Master of Arts in Teaching in Secondary Special Education and Mathematics/Science or TESOL. Mercy College offers a Master of Science in Mathematics Education and a certificate in Special Education. New York University offers a Master’s Degree in Secondary Science (Biology, Chemistry or Physics). Queens College (CUNY) offers a Master of Arts in Teaching in Adolescent Science Education. SUNY Albany offers a Master’s Degree in Special Education, with residence in Adolescent Education and a concentration in Literacy. SUNY Cortland offers Adolescent Math and Science 7–12 Certification. Syracuse University offers a Master’s Degree in Special Education. Union Graduate College offers a Master’s Degree in Life Sciences, Physical Sciences or Mathematics/Computer Technology.establish partnerships with high- needs schools to help them address perennial shortages of candidates in areas such as mathematics, science, and special education.

The internships offered by the Clinically Rich programs last for an average of 10 months, during which the teacher candidates spend five days a week in classrooms. Research shows that this approach familiarizes novices with the realities of classrooms and makes it less likely that they will leave teaching after only a few years. Research by Richard Ingersoll, Professor of Sociology and Education at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Consortium on Chicago School Research shows that an estimated 50 percent of new teachers in high needs schools leave within the first five years.

Class assignments in the pilot programs are grounded in the internship experiences, strengthening the connection between theory and practice. As a result, it is hoped, new teachers in high-need schools will be more effective and more likely to stay on the job.

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High-Quality and Easy-to-Use Resources Draw Educators from Around the Nation to EngageNY

Through technology, more teachers have the tools and resources they need to help them prepare more students to succeed in college and careers.

Mathematics coach Lori MacDonald has spent a lot of time getting to know the material available on EngageNY, a comprehensive website for New York State’s educators, parents, and other interested stakeholders run by the New York State Education Department. The thing is, MacDonald lives and works in Berkeley, California, 2,922 miles away from Albany, New York’s capital.

“In our district, we are using exactly what schools are using in New York, and we’re using it for free,” MacDonald said. “A lot of what we need is on EngageNY.”

MacDonald is not alone in looking to the New York website for resources she can use to support the kindergarten through fifth grade teachers in her district. Across the country, educators and school leaders are turning to EngageNY as a source for comprehensive classroom materials aligned to new college- and career-ready standards adopted by most States. The website also is home to both free high-quality professional development resources, such as a library of instructional videos for teachers, and practical tools for parents including suggestions for educational activities they can do with their children.

This graphic information related to visits to the EngageNY website. The text of the graphic includes the following.  From launching in August 2011 through October 12, 2014, EngageNY.org had: Total visits: 15,722,855 Total unique visits: 6,692,597 Total page views: 89,794,493 Average weekly visits: 26,000 Average weekly unique visitors: 22,000 Average weekly page views: 142,000

New York State launched the site in 2011 with funding from Race to the Top, as well as other sources. Since then, the site has become a national resource and has attracted more than 6 million unique visitors from every State in the nation, averaging 22,000 each week. Not surprisingly, after New York, the State that had generated the most visitors as of August 2014 was California. Louisiana, which ranks 25th in population, generated the third highest number of visits, followed by Illinois, Washington and Arizona.

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New Jersey Teachers Lead the Way in Expecting More from Students

Teacher Laura Sandy is at the front of her room learning over a table of three male students who are working on a hands-on geometry project. Two other students work in the background, and a Smart Board at the front of the room presents the problem for the students to solve.

Teacher Laura Sandy working with her sixth grade students at West Deptford Middle School. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Laura Sandy.

Teachers helped develop model curriculum aligned to college- and career-ready standards.

When beginning a lesson on area and perimeter earlier this year with her students, third-grade teacher Michele Elliott turned to New Jersey’s model curriculum for guidance on how to teach what students should know and be able to do under new, more-rigorous college- and career-ready standards. Then she set about having some fun.

Elliott, who teaches at Green-Fields Elementary School in West Deptford, New Jersey, and her students, applied masking tape to the tiled floor of their classroom to make rectangles of various sizes. The children then used the rectangles as the starting point for discussions about perimeter and its relationship to area.

This is just one example of how New Jersey teachers are using the State’s model curriculum, which the State’s teachers helped develop.

“The model curriculum guides you by expanding on the standards, but you have a lot of freedom with it in how you teach,” Elliott said. “It gives you a goal, but how you get there is based on whatever you think will work best for your students.”

The State’s Race to the Top grant helped support the development of the model curriculum, which covers English language arts and mathematics. The image is a quote box with text, it quotes teacher Michele Elliott and reads: "The model curriculum guides you by expanding on the standards, but you have a lot of freedom with it in how you teach. It gives you a goal, but how you get there is based on whatever you think will work best or your students." An estimated 300 teachers volunteered to work with the State to create the model curriculum in 2012.

“They were very excited about putting something together that was coherent and made sense, that reflected what they wanted good instruction to look like,” said Meghan Snow, who helped lead the effort in mathematics for the New Jersey Department of Education.

Elliott’s district, which is just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, opted to use the mathematics model curriculum in all five of its schools because of its high quality.

New Jersey’s 75 Priority Schools, which have student outcomes that put them in the bottom five percent of the schools in the State, are required by the State to use the curricula unless they can show they have other alternatives that are also aligned to the new standards.

The State’s Regional Achievement Centers provide teachers at Priority Schools with coaching and professional development opportunities. The Priority Schools also benefit from a technology system provided to them by the State that allows teachers to view and analyze student performance data in real time throughout the school year using formative assessments embedded in the model curriculum.

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Bracken Academy Runs on STEAM Power

A Bracken STEAM Academy teacher, Michelle Wheatfill, stands at the front of her class. presenting a lesson to students seated at tables around the room.

Teacher Michelle Wheatfill introduces a lesson to her 5th grade class. (Photo Credit: Clark County School District)

The Bracken STEAM Academy of Las Vegas is helping students reach higher standards. STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics — an extension of what is commonly known as STEM.  Through the integration of new STEAM technology and opportunities for hands-on learning, the school is enhancing instruction to place a renewed focus on holding all students to rigorous, college and career ready standards.

With the help of an Any Given Child grant from the US Department of Education and federal Title I money, students are being exposed to a wide variety of STEAM opportunities. They had the opportunity to attend out of school events like the Las Vegas Philharmonic and The Science Guy performances, and are now able to access computer labs before and after school. Experiences like these are helping teachers provide students with hands-on learning experiences that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to provide.

“We are re-engineering the way that we teach,” said Principal Kathleen Decker, who has been in her position for 13 years. “I do see the teachers using a lot more hands-on, a lot more project based learning, and a lot more differentiated and individualized instruction than in the past.”

The expanded opportunities and the move to higher standards has led to a change in culture in her school. “Our expectations are much, much higher than they were before [the current standards],” Decker observed. “And the children are accomplishing way more than what we had expected of them five or six years ago.”

Teachers are seeing firsthand the difference teaching with heightened standards makes.

“The students are learning exponentially,” said fifth-grade teacher Michelle Wheatfill, who has been at Bracken for nine years. She notes that with changes happening in her school, her role as a teacher is changing. “Because of the technology we have, [the students] take charge of a lot of their learning. We’re there just to help guide them, instead of teaching every lesson with direct instruction.”

With teachers and leaders raising the bar, students are feeling more engaged and challenged by the new standards. Wynn, a third grade student, said that “Bracken is so good because the teachers don’t stop you at certain levels. They keep pushing you so you can keep going higher and get better.”

To read more about how Bracken STEAM is transitioning to more rigorous, college and career ready standards see the full post on our Homeroom Blog.

New York Puts Spotlight on Teachers Engaging Parents

Teacher leads a workshop for parents during "Parent University" on May 1

With 47 workshops offered at the May 1 “Parent University,” teachers engaged parents in their children’s education. Credit: Steve Bartholomew

South Huntington schools invite parents back to school to learn about new college and career standards

When parents at the Silas Wood Sixth Grade Center in South Huntington, New York, began asking questions about the unfamiliar assignments their children were bringing home last fall, teachers thought they deserved answers. So, the teachers with the support of teacher leaders put together an evening demonstration of how the State’s new college and career ready standards had changed both how they were teaching and what students were expected to do.

On January 8, the night of the demonstration, the notorious polar vortex of the winter of 2014 slammed into Long Island, and the temperature plunged into the single digits. Undeterred, the teachers went ahead with the event and hundreds of parents braved the cold and sat through sample lessons in mathematics and English language arts to learn how to ask their children questions like those they hear in school.

“Instead of just asking their kids how their day went, they might say ‘I’m noticing that your homework is different. I wonder what you can teach me about that,’” said Stephanie Brown, a sixth grade English language arts teacher and “parent academy” organizer. “We taught them how to do a close read of text. So, when they’re home and a child has to read something, they can ask, ‘What’s the gist of the first three paragraphs?’”  

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California Training Partnership Helps New Teachers Bring Innovative Practices to Home Communities

With the help of a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Lupita Prado Machuca has returned to her home community to teach language arts at her former middle school. Once an English language learner, she now teaches students in the community where she grew up and helps them to see the importance of an education that prepares them for college and careers.

Lupita Prado Machuca teaching her 8th Grade Language Arts class in Kern County, California

Machuca is the product of efforts in the central region of California to change the face of teacher preparation by equipping future teachers from local schools with high-quality training. California State University Bakersfield (CSUB), with funding support from a federal Teacher Quality Partnership grant, brings mentor teachers into classrooms of first-year teachers and provides teacher candidates with field experience from day one, increasing their confidence and abilities to take on their own classrooms.

The five year, $10.5 million grant, which began in 2009, supports a partnership among CSUB, California State University Monterey Bay, and California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo, along with K-12 school districts in Kern and Tulare counties. Known as Edvention Partners, their combined efforts address the diverse needs of schools, teachers, and students within a large geographical, primarily rural, area.

The training program emphasizes solutions to individual and community challenges with professional development tools for educators such as differentiated instruction, positive behavioral intervention, and the culturally responsive teaching (CRT) model. By facilitating teaching aspirations in central California communities, Edvention Partners is empowering teachers to integrate personal experience with research-based teaching practices to promote student achievement.

Local school leaders are very excited to have a talented former student return to teach. “She really has some innovative practices and ways to connect to the students,” said Language Arts Department Chair Stacie Rubinol, who taught Machuca in junior high school. “She really inspires them to learn beyond what is just in the textbook.”

Superintendent Ricardo Robles recognizes how important the Edvention Partners program has been to Machuca and his district. By keeping talented teachers in the community, students can witness an example of the importance of an education that prepares them for college and the workforce. “We’ve been very lucky to get her… Cal State has been a huge asset to our school district,” Robles said.

To learn more about Machuca’s experience, watch this video.

 

Cross-posted from the May 22, 2014, edition of The Teacher’s Edition, a weekly e-newsletter of ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach.

Georgia’s Performance Learning Centers Help Students Get Back on Track

A teacher helps a student with an online program.

Students at the Performance Learning Center in Augusta, Georgia, work at their own pace with the help of online programs and their classroom teachers. Photo credit: Natalie Robinson

Last February, 16-year-old Megan enrolled at the Richmond County Performance Learning Center in Augusta, Georgia, with just one high school credit to her name. She had lost ground academically while caring for her ill father and then was thrust into the unstable world of foster care after he died.

This spring, only a year after coming to the alternative high school, Megan is just a little shy of hitting the halfway mark toward graduation. She enjoys writing and literature, and is feeling hopeful about her future. She also thinks her father would have been proud. “What keeps me going is I want to be successful when I grow up,” she said. “If he were here, he would push me to do what was right.”

Performance Learning Centers (PLCs) are designed to help students such as Megan who are far behind accumulate credits quickly so they can graduate. The first one opened in Georgia in 2003 and since then they have been established in a dozen communities in the State. They also operate in North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and other States.

“They’re doing amazing work with the kids all of the time,” said Cayanna Good, Georgia’s Innovative Programs director. Critical to the centers’ success, Good said, is the flexibility they offer students, who can get extra help before or after school, work at their own pace, and even graduate at any time during the year. For example, the center in Augusta has had about 120 students of various ages enrolled this year, and 20 already have graduated. Another 20 are expected to graduate this spring, according to the school’s principal, Natalie Robinson.

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