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Tax Preparation 101

Taxday_pulse

Tax Preparation 101

Students at this Texas high school have generated $24 million in tax refunds—and counting. By Kim Greene

Students at University High School in Waco, Texas, have been burning the midnight oil for the past few weeks. They’re not cramming for tests or rehearsing a school musical, though—they’re preparing income tax returns free of charge for residents in their community.  

The students are part of the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program designed to help low- and moderate-income taxpayers file their returns. For the past 10 years, University students have completed roughly 15,000 electronic tax returns and generated $24 million in refunds. In 2005, the program’s first year, students filed 329 returns. As of April 8, the students had completed 2,400 returns for the 2014 tax year.

Prepping for Tax Prep

The 82 University students who are part of the tax program this year are all enrolled in the school’s Academy of Business and Finance, according to Angela Reiher, dean of academies at University High School. During their high school careers, the students in this academy take comprehensive classes that sound more like college courses: banking and financial services, income tax accounting, security and investment, and human resource management, to name just a few.

Students learn about tax preparation as early as ninth grade as part of their coursework. On top of that, both students and teachers must pass exams and be certified by the IRS to become official VITA volunteers.

“The students do not only 1040s—a lot of people don’t think the kids can do anything more than that—they do schedule A, schedule B, schedule C, schedule D,” says Reiher. “They have done taxes for foreign exchange students at Baylor [University]. They’ve really gotten well versed in many layers of the income tax code.”

University High School’s tax preparation clinic is open three nights a week beginning in mid-January and running through April 15. “Everyone in this area knows about us,” Reiher says, adding that some clients come from as far as Austin (an hour and a half away) because the cost of gas is cheaper than the cost of tax preparation with companies like Jackson Hewitt and H&R Block.

When clients arrive, freshmen act as greeters and start the interview process with a series of questions. By sophomore year, students typically start preparing simpler tax returns.

“The more experienced they get, the more complicated the returns become,” explains Reiher. “Seniors act as student managers and make sure the [other] students are doing what they’re supposed to. They do the quality control as well.”

The Payoff

Reiher first learned of a similar program at a high school in Florida when she attended a National Academy Foundation conference. (NAF is a network of career-themed academies that expose underserved high schoolers to career opportunities. Reiher's school is one of its 667 members.) She immediately thought a tax program could be a wonderful service to the community. “We knew that, in Waco, there was $3 million to 4 million left on the table that clients in this area could get for earned income tax credit, but they didn’t know about it or how to access it," she says.

Local residents are grateful for the assistance to access that money. Plus, the refunds bolster the local economy because the clients—like many other taxpayers—spend their refunds at nearby businesses. “The return to the community is great,” Reiher notes.

And it’s not just the clients who benefit. The students do, too. “They feel that sense that they’re really helping somebody else,” Reiher says. “Their self-esteem is out the roof.”

Of course, students also learn real-world financial literacy skills in addition to gaining experience that will help them decide on a career path. Many students have graduated from the academy and gone on to work for national accounting firms. Reiher believes it’s because they got their start doing income taxes.

That will likely be the case for current seniors Yanley Duarte and Miguel Jaramillo. Duarte plans to pursue a business degree after high school, while Jaramillo hopes to become an accountant. Both have volunteered at the clinic every night it has been open throughout their four-year high school careers. “That’s how dedicated they are,” says Reiher.

 “When we’re busy, there are nights that kids are here until midnight along with the teachers,” she says. “The last person in is the last person served. We don’t turn anybody away.”

Image: Jamal Wilson/Courtesy of University High School's AJ Moore Academy of Finance

The Science of Hiring

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The Science of Hiring

How to hire the right teacher (almost) every time. By Wayne D’Orio

Maybe it’s happened to you, too, even if you don’t want to admit it. You’re watching TV, some infomercial comes on, and despite all your intelligence and resistance, the sales pitch starts to work on you. I’m sucked in when products promise to solve a bevy of problems, whether it’s a set of knives that can cut through everything from tomatoes to pennies (?!), or some rubber sealant that can fix objects as disparate as broken flowerpots and leaky gutters. 

I don’t actually buy those products, and I’m guessing you don’t either. But for the 60-second vacation they offer, you start thinking of how much better your life would be if only you had those things.

As school leaders, you certainly have a multitude of problems with which to grapple. How to improve student learning is the top one, of course. But on any given day, your list could include teacher evaluations, the struggle to successfully implement a new technology, and whether you finally want to deal with that ineffective teacher who’s not improving.

Instead of tackling each of these tasks individually, what if you had a “magic” solution, sort of like an educational version of an infomercial? Your magic solution could be as straightforward as improving your hiring practices. And it’s not magic at all, really, but rooted in cold, hard data.

Now, you might feel there’s nothing terribly flawed about your current hiring practices. But what if a few key improvements could lead your district to make consistently better hires? What would happen if those better teachers started to spread throughout your district? Student learning outcomes would certainly rise. But think longer term. With a stronger cadre of teachers, decisions about tenure would be easier. Implementing new programs, and new technologies, would also be simpler with a motivated workforce. And that drawn-out process of firing an ineffectual teacher that you’ve been dreading? Well, the better your teachers are, the fewer times you’ll face this disheartening process. There’s one more benefit: With less of your time devoted to problems, you can actually brainstorm more ways to improve teaching and learning in your schools instead of constantly putting out fires.

How hard is it to change your hiring practices? And could your district really see the benefits described above?

Don’t take it from me, the salesman of this story. Listen to your peers talk about how they made the needed changes, and what benefits they are seeing.

The Importance of Each Decision
“If you make better hires up front, you can avoid a lot of trouble down the line,” says Dan Goldhaber, vice president of the American Institutes for Research at the University of Washington. “Interventions don’t work, [and nobody wants to deal with] the politics around teacher dismissals.”

Dale S. Rose is even more blunt. “If you believe better teachers make for better student outcomes, then why not do everything you can to improve hiring?” asks the president of 3D Group, a consulting firm dealing in human resources assessment. Rose is also the coauthor of Hire Better Teachers Now.

Research, says Rose, has proved that students with a good teacher will see gains of 1.5 grade level equivalents per year; those with a bad teacher, only 0.5.

“Better teacher selection not only has the potential to improve the quality of the teacher workforce, it is likely to be far more cost-effective than other avenues of reform,” writes Goldhaber in Screen Twice, Cut Once: Assessing the Predictive Validity of Teacher Selection Tools, a report on Spokane (Washington) Public Schools’ hiring practices that he coauthored.

How costly can a bad hire be? Gold­haber’s conservative estimate is that for every teacher hired and tenured, a district is making a potential investment of about $2 million. If you’ve forgotten how hard it is to get rid of a tenured teacher, consider these examples: Chicago Public Schools mandates 27 steps before firing, while in New York City it costs about $250,000 to fire a teacher.

Of course, choice is a big factor in hiring. In Spokane, a district with 45 schools and 1,750 teachers, human resources gets about six applicants for each job. Nationally, studies have shown that there are just over two applicants for every teacher hired. Variances can be large; in Pennsylvania, 75 percent of the districts have at least three applicants for each job. But for popular jobs, such as elementary, math, and English spots, there were 10 applicants for each hire.

Rule One: Formalize Your Process
If there’s one rule everyone interviewed for this story agreed on, it was this: Formalize your hiring process. While it’s standard for many large districts to have a process they follow for each hire, this isn’t always so. “In a lot of school systems, especially small ones, a principal may hear about a person, interview two people, and hire someone,” Goldhaber says.

Even if your district has a process, it might be too informal, warns Rose. “A huge majority of schools are using processes that are not grounded in the science of what works best.”

Simply rating every applicant on the same scale, from an out-of-town candidate to the best friend of your top ­teacher, goes a long way toward making better hires. In Spokane, where Goldhaber’s study evaluated the district’s hiring practices over four years, starting in 2008, the HR department rates each applicant on a 21-point scale. Then principals can request certain candidates, say everyone scoring above a 14. School personnel re-rate each candidate on a more rigorous 60-point scale and decide whom to interview.

“The actual structure of the system helps to prevent the ad hoc-ness of hiring,” says Goldhaber, who is continuing to analyze Spokane’s hiring practices. “When you put people through the same process, there’s a certain degree of fairness and some independence.”  

Pick the Right Factors
If it’s relatively easy to set up a formal hiring system, the real work is assessing what traits are most important in new hires while de-­emphasizing those skills that do little to boost student achievement.

“Use the same indicators that you will evaluate them on” when they are teachers, suggests Sid Camp, executive director of human resources for Gwinnett County Public Schools.

Too often, says Rose, the hiring process is “driven by individuals rather than what predicts results in classrooms.” Rose sets up a list of 49 key skills in his book, but he knows that each district, and sometimes each school, will have its own criteria. “Take a careful, thoughtful look at your school,” he says. “Classroom management is a standard skill, but in a large urban district that’s overcrowded, management is even more important.”

If you’re just starting the process, ask your top teachers to help identify what skills are the most valuable. After you’ve created a system, Rose adds, collect data on your hires and review their interview scores to see if the numbers correlate with who the best teachers are.

In Spokane, this work led Superin­tendent Shelley Redinger and chief HR officer Tennille Jeffries-Simmons to recognize that classroom management, collegiality, and a professional manner were three important characteristics of good teachers.

What isn’t as important as you think? Grade point average and where a candidate went to school. Google famously used to refuse to hire any candidates with a GPA below 3.0, but now the company doesn’t even consider GPA when screening for jobs. “Research has shown that GPA isn’t that predictive of performance,” Rose says.

Spokane also changed its policy to make letters of recommendation confidential. “That changed the content,” Redinger says. While candidates choose who writes a recommendation, often this includes a supervisor, and getting an honest assessment can be revealing, she adds.

“I know people are skeptical about references,” says Jennifer L. Hindman, assistant director of the School Leadership Institute in the College of William and Mary’s School of Education and the author of Effective Teacher Interviews. “They feel people may not disclose all they know.” She recommends making phone calls to further vet your group of finalists.

Changing your interview questions to delve into scenario-based queries can also help reveal key differences among candidates, says Camp. Gwinnett has stopped asking applicants about their philosophy of education and now asks: What type of students do you like to work with? The district also hands candidates a set of student data and asks them to design an instructional plan that’s differentiated based on the data. “It’s a scientific approach,” Camp says. “We have very structured interview questions.”

Another suggestion is to ask candidates to respond to revealing questions, such as how they would handle a parent’s complaint about their child’s grade, says Hindman.

Actively Recruit and Act Early
“One of the key things people conflate is the difference between recruiting and selecting,” says Rose. “Recruiting is extraordinarily important.”

Both Spokane and Gwinnett heavily emphasize the importance of recruiting.

“You can’t just post a job on your website or the Internet and pray that someone qualified applies,” Camp says. “You have to build talent pipelines.” Gwinnett, a district of 134 schools that hired more than 1,700 teachers this school year, has a variety of initiatives designed to improve the number and skill of applicants. Officials work closely with local college deans, branding the organization to education students while making sure graduates are ready to be solid teachers. “In 2004, we had 250 student teachers. This past year, we had over 1,800,” Camp adds.

A microcosm of this work is reflected in the district’s ties to Georgia Gwinnett College, a liberal arts school created nine years ago as part of Georgia’s university system. Camp says the district was involved before the school even opened. “We helped them put together a conceptual framework of teaching,” he says.  

Spokane’s path was similar. It reached out to colleges to let candidates know about the district. While it has done a good job of getting applicants, the district was losing many top candidates because it took too long to make job offers.

Spokane revamped its process to get applicants out to principals more ­quickly, allowing for faster job offers. But Redinger decided to go further. When the district identifies top teaching candidates who are juniors in college, it offers them teaching contracts that became effective once they graduate.

Gwinnett does something similar, putting teachers under contract in March for the following fall. The best teacher candidates are available in March, Camp says. “The bell curve declines [as we move] into June and July. If we hire earlier, we get a better share of teachers.”

No matter how hard you work to fill a spot, sometimes the best choice is not to hire someone. “The most courageous decision is to list your teacher as ‘TBA,’ ” Hindman says. She recommends filling a classroom with a strong sub and recruiting more, or waiting for ­additional graduates in December.

After the Hire
No matter how excellent your hiring process, sometimes a bad fit occurs. Both Gwinnett and Spokane try to quickly weed out hires who aren’t working out.

“The number of nonrenewals has gone up,” says Jeffries-Simmons. “We want to continue to make sure that if somebody is not a match, we [enact] nonrenewal swiftly but fairly.” Washington state recently revised its rules, requiring certified hires to work provisionally for three years before granting tenure.
Since Georgia is a right-to-work state, Gwinnett doesn’t have tenure. While Camp emphasized that the district worked hard during the recent recession to avoid layoffs, he says teachers are faced with nonrenewal if they aren’t working out.

The work in these two districts appears to be paying off. Spokane has increased its graduation rate from 60 percent to 83 percent in the past five years. And Gwinnett took home its second Broad Prize last year as the outstanding urban district in the country.

“I’ve seen this play out over and over again,” Redinger says. “You’re only as good as your people. We’re not shy about it. We’re looking for continuous improvement.”    

The $$ Factor
Pay has a role to play when hiring the best staff but it’s not the most important factor. When it comes to attracting the best teachers—and keeping them once they are hired—how important is pay?

Though both Camp and Redinger say it’s not the top factor, it is important. Camp says that Gwinnett, which has one of the top pay scales in Georgia for veteran teachers, is looking for ways to increase starting salaries. And Spokane is just beginning a study to compare its salaries with those of nearby districts.

Across the country, districts have tried financial rewards to make jobs more attractive.

Urban districts typically have a tougher time attracting candidates than suburban counterparts, due in part to lower salaries. Oakland’s new superintendent, Antwan Wilson, is trying to face this problem head-on by proposing to raise salaries by 10 percent over three years. Rural districts can sometimes face the same problems as their urban counterparts, typically paying less and offering fewer social perks than a metropolitan area. In South Carolina, the state government will knock $5,000 off a federal Stafford loan if a teacher spends five years in a low-income school. In-state loans can be forgiven, too, if the recipient fills a high-need position.

And in maybe the most extreme pay experiment in the country, teachers at one charter middle school in Manhattan make $125,000 a year.

A recent study of the Equity Project school shows that achievement was higher for students who attended for four years than for students at similar New York City schools. But the teacher attrition rate was a whopping 47 percent after one year, almost twice that of nearby public schools.

The generous pay teachers receive at schools like Equity also bring extra responsibilities. These demands can cause burnout. Teaching is a delicate balance of skills, and while pay is a key component, it’s
certainly not the most important factor.

Image: Science Museum, SSPL via Getty Images (beaker); Juanmonino/istockphoto (figure)

Creating College- and Career-Ready Students

Career_pulse
Creating College- and Career-Ready Students

Use these five practices to help teachers help students. By Michael Moody

There’s great potential in College- and Career-Readiness Standards (CCRS) to significantly increase our students’ academic performance, and also their chances of success beyond graduation. But none of it can happen unless our teachers are prepared and supported.

In the past, professional development for teaching with new standards was often based on building awareness of the standards and implementing aligned instructional practices. For CCRS, however, that is simply not enough.

New Standards Require a New Approach

As district and school leaders, the first step you should take in successful implementation of the standards is to ensure a common understanding among teachers of the characteristics of a college- and career-ready student and to recognize what mastery really looks like at all levels. Only then can teachers make sound instructional decisions and apply appropriate strategies.

While that sounds simple enough, there are few relevant resources currently available to educators that provide clear indicators of aligned instructional practices and student behaviors.

What to Look for in Every Classroom

Based on more than a decade of experience and the Insight Core Framework, we’ve developed five Core Practices, which outline distinct, observable teacher and student actions and help you gauge the effectiveness of CCRS-implementation classrooms.

Core Practice 1: Know the discipline well

Observable student actions:

  • Demonstrates precise content knowledge
  • Uses academic vocabulary
  • Uses resources that are high quality and appropriately complex

Observable instructional practices: The teacher has a deep understanding of the content he or she is teaching and is able to communicate it in a way students can understand.

Core Practice 2: Prioritize evidence over opinion

Observable student actions:

  • Responds to questions with evidence-based answers
  • Uses evidence when building arguments, making claims, or explaining thinking

Observable teacher practices: Not only does the instructor need to give students opportunities to find and use evidence to support answers—she or he needs to challenge students to go beyond weak arguments and basic opinions.

Core Practice 3: Grow and improve students’ knowledge base

Observable student actions:

  • Makes connections within and across disciplines
  • Applies acquired knowledge in real-world situations
  • Exchanges and analyzes multiple perspectives

Observable teacher practices: The teacher facilitates connections across disciplines and provides students with the opportunity to practice applying their knowledge in authentic situations with real purposes.

Core Practice 4: Assess progress toward mastery

Observable student actions:

  • Demonstrates understanding in various contexts
  • Receives, acknowledges, and incorporates teacher feedback

Observable teacher practices: Mastery is more than just tracking grades. The teacher provides timely feedback to students and structures learning activities toward relevant data.

Core Practice 5: Promote intellectual risk-taking and persistence

Observable student actions:

  • Feels part of a supportive and challenging learning environment
  • Demonstrates academic curiosity

Observable teacher practices: The teacher gives students multiple opportunities to persist through challenges and learn from mistakes by celebrating perseverance. With the CCRS, it’s not only about getting the “right” answer—it’s about persisting and developing skills for solving challenges for later in life.

Putting It All Together

The CCRS are drastically different from standards in place even a few years ago and are unique in their focus on the student—as opposed to simply the content.

While this is an exciting and worthy vision for K-12 education, it will require a great deal of preparation, a long-term vision, and relevant supports in order to be successful. In particular, districts and schools must have a succinct, clear-cut approach to not only identifying indicators of college and career readiness in students, but also illustrating the real link between teachers’ practices and student mastery.

Michael Moody, @DrMichaelMoody, is the founder and CEO of Insight Education Group. His experiences as a classroom teacher, school and district administrator, and consultant have given him a unique perspective on the challenges and opportunities in education today. The complete Insight Core Framework is available for free download, including the rubric and meta-analysis research data for each practice.

Image: MediaBakery

Doug Lemov Shares His Secrets

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Doug Lemov Shares His Secrets

What readers can expect from Teach Like A Champion 2.0. By Chris Borris

In Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College, the follow-up to his enormously popular first book, Doug Lemov, managing director of Uncommon Schools, provides even more techniques “champion” teachers use—all based on hours of observing and video­taping teachers in their classrooms. The result is an engaging narrative that suggests how educators everywhere can adapt these techniques.

Q | Is there a philosophy or attitude that helps someone “teach like a champion”?
A | You have to want results for your teaching to be about student outcomes. And you have to be the kind of person who likes thinking about refining your craft. That’s the mind-set of any effective teacher. But it’s important to view Teach Like a Champion as a set of tools, not a “system.” Any teacher who wants to get better should be able to find a way to use or adapt some of the tools. There’s synergy among them, but they are designed to serve teachers in becoming the best version of themselves they can be.

Q | Why should elementary teachers or principals read a book about helping to “put students on the path to college”? Is that premature? And where do schools start?
A | You might also ask if it’s too late. There’s pretty compelling evidence that the achievement gap already exists by the time kids enroll in kindergarten. In terms of vocabulary and reading and other skills, the path to college is being blazed from day one.

As to where to start, I would suggest teachers or schools choose a few things and implement them well—trying to do 10 things at once is a recipe for doing nothing well. Many are tempted to start with the behavioral techniques exclusively. There’s logic to that—you want to shape the classroom culture right away. But if you focus exclusively on behavioral aspects, it’s easy to distort what classrooms are about and to tacitly encourage people to forget the connection between classroom behavior or culture and rigor. Strong classroom culture ultimately serves academic rigor. If it doesn’t, it is an empty exercise.

Q | In the Plan for Error technique, one of the questions a teacher can ask a student is “Which of these options do you think is my favorite wrong answer?” What’s a “culture of error,” and why is it so important?
A | The most important skill of a great teacher is the ability to differentiate “They learned it” from “I taught it.” The process of understanding what students know is 10 times harder if they are trying to hide their errors. As we watched great teachers at work, we saw they were constantly socializing students to be unafraid to reveal their errors to their teachers and classmates. Good schools make it safe for teachers to reveal errors by treating them as a normal part of the growth process, and by studying unsuccessful lessons rather than punishing them.

Q | What are the hallmarks of the best professional development for teachers, and what are some PD pitfalls?
A | The best professional development addresses real challenges teachers are facing in their classrooms. It solves problems or seizes opportunities. It also draws on the knowledge of successful teachers to frame the solutions. And it involves practice and reflection. A common pitfall is trying to make PD “one and done.” We know from teaching students that it takes time to master skills. You have to study and practice and get feedback and reflect and apply your skills in new ways. You have to discuss what works and what doesn’t with others. So good PD should happen over multiple sessions and be tied to the other conversations about teaching.

Q | Do you envision a Teach Like a Champion 3.0 with, say, 120 techniques?
A | I’ve already started on 3.0. Honestly. About two days after the manuscript was final and my editors told me I could not under any circumstances make any more changes, I was watching classes and I had two or three really useful insights. So 3.0 is under way. In the meantime, I try to blog as I learn (teachlikeachampion.com/blog). But as for 120 techniques, no way. One of the big challenges is keeping the number of techniques small enough to manage. 

Image: Timothy Raab & Northern Photo

Creating a Visitor Management System

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Creating a Visitor Management System

5 steps to fortify your schools’ safety. By Jim Vesterman

In America today, more than 80 percent of schools use pencil and paper to track visitors entering school buildings. In practice, this is the equivalent of leaving the back door open to the public.

Pencil-and-paper tracking has several inherent flaws. At the most basic level, nothing compels an individual to write down his or her real name.  Even if the person does write the correct name (and you can read it), that doesn’t tell you anything else about that individual and his or her suitability for entering the building. Pencil-and-paper sign-in sheets are also nearly useless in emergency evacuations and they don’t allow for reporting at the district level. 

Schools and districts are realizing that in today’s environment, enhanced security measures are a necessity. In response to the need to track and screen visitors, a growing number of schools are using visitor management systems. These systems provide an easy way to track visitors and identify potential threats, contributing to a safe learning environment for students, faculty, and staff. Some systems even have the ability to instantly screen entrants against a national database of sex offenders, as well as against a custom alert database for child custody issues.

Consider the following tips when selecting and implementing a visitor management system.

Create a Single Public Entrance

Establishing a single point of entry ensures that all visitors check in before going any further into the school building. Maintain a uniform check-in process in all district buildings and ensure that staff, as well as the school community, are aware of proper procedures.

Have Visitors Produce a Valid Photo ID

Your visitor management system should require visitors to present a valid photo ID. This ID will allow the school to confirm identity. For privacy purposes, schools should use systems whose scanners collect only the data necessary for screening and do not keep a photocopy of the ID. This scanning is quicker than manually entering the information and reduces the risk that information will be entered incorrectly. If the system is web-based, it will allow users and emergency personnel the ability to see who is in the building even in the event of an evacuation or other emergency that cuts off physical access.

Print Badges

Districts that utilize pencil-and-paper sign-in sheets usually present visitors with badges to show they have been granted access to the school. However, those badges are often lost or simply not returned, and they generally don’t contain proper visitor information. Printed badges should include the individual’s photo (so that the badge can’t be used by another person), and the name, date, and destination/purpose for the visit, all of which help school officials confirm identities and spot potential threats if visitors are not in their designated area.

Instant and Automatic Screening

An important requirement when selecting a visitor management system is that it be able to check instantly and automatically against the sex offender databases for all 50 states. If the check is not instant and automatic, it more likely than not will be skipped. Beyond that, look for systems that let users develop custom alert lists. This is especially beneficial when there are custody issues involving a student. Custody issues can have huge financial implications for schools. For example, a California district was held responsible for releasing a student to a non-custodial adult who subsequently kidnapped the student. The district was required to pay $2.8 million in damages.

Communicate With the School Community

Changes in procedure or policy are often met with resistance. Take time to introduce your staff to the system and be sure that they understand the proper procedure for admitting visitors. Involve parents in the process from the beginning by sending out parent communications, and listen to any concerns that parents may have. Send a letter letting the school community know that a new process is being implemented, when they can expect it to begin, and what they will now need to do when visiting the school. Posting signage around school entrances is another good way to inform visitors of proper procedures. This creates an atmosphere that deters potential threats from even attempting to enter school buildings.

Jim Vesterman is the CEO of Raptor Technologies, which provides visitor management technologies to over 12,000 K-12 schools. You can learn more about the benefits of visitor management systems in this free whitepaper.

Image: JLP/Jose Luis Pelaez/Corbis/Media Bakery

Remembering the Holocaust

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Remembering the Holocaust

Teachers visit Auschwitz, bring back messages from survivors.
By Soljane Martinez-Quiles

On January 27, exactly 70 years to the day of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, I sat outside the Death Gate of Auschwitz-Birkenau, along with 23 fellow educators from across the globe, 300 Holocaust survivors, and thousands of guests and world leaders. We were commemorating the resilience and strength of the men and women who beat the odds and purpose of the camp by living—and who want to ensure that the world never sees another Holocaust.

Roman Kent, now 86, was just 10 years old in 1939 when the Nazis invaded his birth country of Poland. Kent was sent to Auschwitz and survived. His remarks at the commemoration resonated with the teachers in attendance.

“We the survivors share a common bond with the current generation ... and hopefully with our future generation. We do not want our past to be our children’s future. I hope and believe that this generation will build in mankind’s great traditions, tempered by understanding that these traditions must embrace pluralism and tolerance, decency and human rights for all people.”

The 24 teachers present at the commemoration were there as part of Auschwitz: The Past Is Present, a program funded by the USC Shoah Foundation and Discovery Education. We were chosen for our teachings on the Holocaust but also for our commitment to bring what we learned from this experience back to our students, our schools, and our communities.

When we arrived, I almost expected the tower and gate to be in black and white. However, the commemoration celebrated the light, the survival, and the rebuilding of lives that came from it, despite its original intention.

Most of the living survivors are now quite frail, in their late 80s and early 90s. Ten years ago, there were about 1,500 survivors present for the commemoration. This year, just 300 attended. Each year, the number of Holocaust survivors diminishes.

One of these survivors, who managed to make the trip from Newark, New Jersey, along with his wife and granddaughter, was Manny Buchman. When I asked him what message he would like teachers to bring back to their students, he said, “Love everyone.”

Buchman and his wife, Irene, were born in Hungary, kindergarten classmates and childhood friends. They were in their teens when war broke out and lost touch with each other. Buchman ended up in Mauthausen labor camp and Irene was a prisoner at Auschwitz.

The day before the commemoration, they returned to Auschwitz. Irene could not bear to walk into the barracks where the Nazis had once enslaved her. Manny went in for her. He bit his trembling lip remembering the experience and said revisiting that place was “not good.”

Although it’s been several weeks since our return from Poland, I’m still processing the experience—the people I met, the places I visited, and the history I learned firsthand. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed with emotion when remembering parts of our trip, like our walk through Auschwitz—the rooms filled with the suitcases and shoes of those who did not make it out of the gates or spending a solitary moment at the bunker that still holds the remains of the brave resistance fighters of the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

The teachers who participated in Auschwitz: The Past Is Present took part in workshops and museum and memorial site visits to promote a deeper understanding of 20th century history and its continuing relevance. The program helped hone our digital literacy and critical thinking skills using real-world applications and audiovisual testimony, which we will use in our own classrooms to inspire action against racism, intolerance, and prejudice and the suffering they cause.

Soljane Martinez-Quiles teaches social studies at Highlander Charter Middle/High School in Warren, Rhode Island. She has captured how this journey impacted her through her blog, SolinPoland.blogspot.com.

Image: ANDRZEJ GRYGIEL/PAP Photos/Photoshot/Newscom
Unidentified former prisoners at the former Nazi-German concentration camp Auschwitz I, before laying flowers at the so-called Death Wall as part of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the former Nazi-German concentration and extermination camp KL Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Oswiecim, Poland, 27 January 2015.

Interview with Carmen Fariña

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Interview with Carmen Fariña

The NYC schools chancellor on testing, recentralizing control, and tech initiatives. By Alexander Russo

It’s been a little more than a year since Chancellor Carmen Fariña took over as head of the New York City Public Schools. Appointed by incoming mayor Bill de Blasio, the longtime educator came out of retirement to accept the job and has thus far avoided stepping into one of the many political and logistical sinkholes that make district leadership so challenging.

Looking back on a frenetic first year, Fariña talks about recentralizing control under regional superintendents, addressing parents’ concerns about overtesting, encouraging more sharing of ideas among teachers and schools, and avoiding ed-tech mishaps like Los Angeles Unified School District’s iPad debacle.

Q | What’s your favorite part of the job, besides visiting schools?
A | This is my 49th year as an educator in this system, and I love being able to take everything I’ve learned—from my own experiences as well as my interactions with other educators, parents, and students—and turn it into priorities and policies that serve our students. Another favorite part of my job is meeting with stakeholders. I deeply value my parent meetings, teacher meetings, principal meetings, and superintendent meetings.

Q | What changes have you implemented since you took over a year ago—and what else are you planning?
A | There’s a renewed emphasis on collaboration over competition; a real mutual respect and positive working relationship with the principals and teachers who are educating our students; and a focus on understanding and meeting the whole needs of students and families, both in and out of the classroom.

| What specific district successes and accomplishments have occurred in recent months?
A | We have more than 53,000 students in full-day, high-quality PreK—more than double last year. We launched the largest expansion of after-school programs for sixth to eighth graders in New York City’s history. We also established a separate Department of English Language Learners and Student Support, and I recently announced that 40 new dual-language programs will open across the city in September 2015. Our new Learning Partners Program and Showcase Schools initiatives are bringing together teachers and schools from across the city to work with, and learn from, one another—these are programs that really underscore the importance of collaboration and innovation in our system.

Q | How have you addressed parent and teacher concerns about overtesting and too much class time spent on test preparation during the year?
| We have stressed that good, rigorous teaching is the best test preparation for our students. We have encouraged additional vocabulary work in every academic area to prepare for tests, and we changed the promotional criteria from being solely based on a test score to a more balanced approach. Life is full of challenges, and I think this commonsense approach works best.

Q | What’s the new division of responsibilities among school principals and district superintendents that you are moving toward, in terms of budgets, programs, and hiring?
A | I recently announced a new structure streamlining support and supervision, which will heighten accountability, especially for our most struggling schools. Beginning in the fall of 2015, superintendents will support and supervise schools, period. However, principals will retain control over their budgets, curriculum, and hires. These are the crucial levers of management.

Q | How has New York City thus far avoided the ed-tech deployment mishaps that have plagued other big-city school systems like LAUSD?
A | Our approach to technology is the same as it is for everything else: Does this benefit the students? Does it improve learning? That’s how we make our decisions, and I think it’s going to help us continue to use technology in positive, educationally beneficial ways.

Q | Can you change the pattern of some schools having all-star faculties of experienced, highly credentialed (and more expensive) teachers, and other schools having lots of rookies and subs?
A | We now have 80 additional minutes of professional development each week for every teacher in the city, plus numerous trainings and sessions that hardworking teachers are signing up for because they want to improve their craft. I also believe that the spirit of collaboration over competition can take us a long way, as teachers have so much to learn from one another, whether it’s speaking with colleagues at their own school or visiting other schools with strong practices through our Learning Partners and Showcase Schools programs. I am also amazed by the work teachers are doing—whether serving students with high needs or lower needs—at schools where there is a high level of trust.

| How much further can New York City schools go toward reducing out-of-school suspensions and other disciplinary measures without eroding school safety?
| We have a ways to go to preserve school safety while being fairer about school discipline. We can reduce ineffective suspensions and keep schools safe. But this is something we want to do right—that’s why we’re developing discipline policy reforms that work better for our students and families. We are also investing in many restorative approaches that teachers can use to increase positive classroom management and de-escalate [tense] situations.

Q | What myths or misunderstandings do parents and the public have about New York City public schools?
A | My goal is to make sure that all families in our system feel welcome and invited into their school buildings. And for parents who may not speak English as their first language, I want to make sure that they are directly encouraged to become involved in their child’s education and make a difference in their school district.    

6 Fast Facts About Chancellor Fariña

• Generally perceived as a friend to teachers, Fariña replaced 80 percent of the teachers at P.S. 6 in Manhattan when she was principal there.

• Fariña retired from the DOE in 2006: initially she said she wasn’t interested in being chancellor.

• She's from Spain—not Puerto Rico or Mexico, as many assume.

• Fariña met Mayor de Blasio when he was serving on a community school board and she was a principal.

• While many big-city systems are now run by non-educators (like her predecessor, Joel Klein), Fariña is a career teacher and administrator.

• The new standards and tests have been controversial in New York, but Fariña is a Common Core supporter.

Source: Adapted from "9 Things You Should Know About Carmen Fariña" (Huffington Post)

Image: Bryan Thomas/The New York Times/Redux

Working Together: A Recipe for PARCC Success

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Working Together: A Recipe for PARCC Success

Illinois school district approaches new testing system with an “all skills on deck” approach. By R.J. Gravel

This spring, districts throughout the nation will embark on the first major wave of revised high-stakes assessments. Our industry is seeing a drastic shift from traditional testing to significantly enhanced, interactive assessments that leverage technology.

As schools prepare to implement these new digital assessments and testing platforms, there are many questions about the roles and responsibilities of staff members. With traditional testing, a small group of building leaders and assessment coordinators oversaw the exams; however, today’s testing system requires a much larger group of individuals to collaborate to ensure a successful experience.

Educating Your School Community

To successfully implement a system, it is important to understand the structure of the assessment. However, many of the rules and conditions that govern a student’s testing experience are still being defined. This is further complicated by the reality that many state education boards have joined to create two sets of rules: nationwide norms and state-specific addendums.

To ensure each school understands testing protocol, assessment consortiums, software developers, and state education boards have established a series of communication channels via e-mail and website postings. As new information is released, notices are transmitted to district superintendents and should be reviewed by all individuals responsible for coordinating the assessment process, including building technology coordinators and student information system managers. It is also important to provide a summary of relevant information to educators who will be serving as test administrators. At Johnsburg School District 12 in Illinois, we are implementing the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests. We provide assessment updates at school board presentations and in bi-weekly newsletters to teachers. 

It is important to remember that while publishers and state agencies provide information on the assessments, the best communication comes straight from local school leaders. Use these assessments as an opportunity to develop a communication plan that balances electronic messages with face-to-face dialogue and training sessions. At Johnsburg, we developed a PARCC planning and preparation series that includes a test administrator training session.

Preparing for Students of All Abilities

Identifying and providing accommodations to ensure each student has an equal opportunity on state assessments is not a new concept. As the roster of accommodations is substantially updated, it is important that all faculty members—not just those working in support settings—understand available accommodations. Members of the special education and student services team need to work closely with building and teacher leaders to guarantee that individual student plans are updated to reflect the support available to students.

Continuous Communication

As we transition to a computer-based testing environment, a substantial amount of the responsibility resides in the domain of technology support personnel. The role of technology professionals is crucial to ensuring a successful testing experience, including safeguarding the local area network, designating testing rooms, and providing a sufficient number of devices (and back-up devices) for each student.

It is crucial that school technology teams be included in all of the communication related to test procedures, local testing schedules, and student groupings. For instance, if a student with a visual impairment requires screen magnification software, the testing room must be supplied with this tool. For this, technology support personnel should review the roster of students to ensure they have provided all necessary accommodations. Additionally, advanced technology support staff should be available to assist with issues that arise during the test administration. In our district, we will have up to three schools and 18 classrooms testing at a single time. Continuous communication between technology support personnel and building leaders will ensure that everything is ready to go on testing day.

Moving Forward

As districts move forward with implementing the Common Core State Standards, we know that challenges are inevitable. However, creating a culture of collaboration among school leaders, technology professionals, and student information system software providers, such as Skyward, will put us in the best position to support our students as we embark on this new challenge. The face of state assessment is changing, and we have the opportunity to affect its outcome. Let’s work together, share our experiences, and be part of the future.

R. J. Gravel, @rjgravel, is the director of instructional technology for Johnsburg School District 12 in Illinois. He is a nominee for the 2015 Illinois Computing Educators’ Educator of the Year award.

Image: Jose Pelaez/Corbis/Media Bakery

Here Come the Chromebooks

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Tablets used to reign as schools’ top hardware choice. But Google’s low-cost laptops are cutting into Apple’s share of the education market.
By Michelle R. Davis

The iPad implosion in the Los Angeles Unified School District may have been the first sign of real rouble. But there had long been grumblings about the Apple table not playing nicely with other software and costing nearly twice as much as some alternatives.

Enter the keyboard-based Chromebook as challenger in the race for dominant digital device in K-12 schools. With its simplified technology management and a suite of Google tools and apps designed for students and teachers, the Chromebook is starting to draw market share away from the iPad.

Chromebooks can sell for as little as $150, while iPads can be several hundred dollars more. The Chromebook also has a keyboard, crucial for meeting Common Core testing requirements,and provides automatic operating system updates.

All of these factors combine to make Chromebooks attractive to schools and districts, says Douglas Levin, former executive director for the State Educational Technology Directors Association. “Apple was a little bit challenged in providing those types of tools because the iPad was built first for personal use and not for enterprise use—either business or school,” he says. “Apple has since developed powerful tools, but Chromebooks were built for that type of use from the ground up.”

Despite its benefits, the Chromebook does face obstacles, including the perception that the iPad and other touch-screen tablets do a better job of encouraging students' creativity and curiosity. Additional issues are student data privacy concerns with Google software and districts’ disappointing experiences with a previous round of low-cost laptops known as netbooks.

Catching Up to the iPad

As of 2013, Chromebooks had 20 percent of education’s mobile computing device market, compared to iPad's 40 percent. But Chromebook sales have increased sharply since then, creating competition for iPads, which previously competed mainly with traditional laptops that cost more or lacked necessary computing power.

Apple claimed 85 percent of the U.S. education market for tablets last summer, but during the third quarter of 2014, about 715,500 Chromebooks were shipped to K12 schools, compared with 702,000 iPads, says Rajani Singh, a senior research analyst for the International Data Corporation, a market analysis company. “Chromebooks as a product category have become the hottest-selling device [for schools],” a first for the Google-centered technologies, she says.

It’s hard to compare school sales of the devices, since iPads are made only by Apple, while Chromebooks are produced and sold by a variety of companies, including Samsung, HP, Dell, and Acer. And iPads are much more popular than Chromebooks outside of education settings. Only about 20 percent of iPads are sold to schools, while 75 percent of Chromebooks sold wind up in classrooms, Singh said.

A “One-Stop Shop”

In the spacious cyber café at Kennedy Middle School in Charlotte, North Carolina, students might sit on wooden benches hunched over their Chromebooks or balance on inflatable blue exercise balls as they tap away on keyboards. The low-income school launched a one-to-one Chromebook initiative this year.

Those same students might also experiment with iPads mounted on tables in the cyber café, or use a PC or a different tablet in class.

Like many schools, Kennedy, which is part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District, has a variety of devices for students to use, but the Chromebook is dominant: The school has 720 Chromebooks, about 50 iPads, and a scattering of personal computers and Samsung tablets.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg is in the process of implementing a district-wide middle school one-to-one Chromebook initiative with nearly 33,000 devices. Price—each Chromebook cost about $220—was important, says Valerie Truesdale, the district’s chief of technology, personalization, and engagement. “It was a huge factor,” she says, noting that iPads cost $369 per device.

For Kennedy principal Kevin Sudimack, there are other benefits to Chromebooks, which run on Google’s Chrome operating system and host apps and data storage in the cloud. The whole system, which updates automatically, creates a “kind of one-stop shop,” he says. Students get access to Gmail, Google Drive, Google Calendar, Google Docs, and a host of other free tools and apps. Last year, Google began offering unlimited storage for students and educators, and in 2013, the company introduced Google Play for Education to give students better access to Chrome and Android educational games and apps. The cloud-based platform allows students to access their work from home, even though they are not yet permitted to take their devices out of school, Sudimack says.

Kyle Pace, an instructional technology specialist at Lee's Summit R-7 School District in Missouri, says his district, which has purchased 7,000 Chromebooks, likes the machine for many of the same reasons. “The biggest thing is the seamless integration with all of the Google applications. The management of them is just so easy.”

Integration Versus Creativity

From an IT perspective, Chromebooks are easy to manage, says Bob Jensen, the director of assessment, technology, and information services at Sioux Falls School District. The South Dakota district runs a one-to-one Chromebook initiative in grades 3-12, with about 24,000 devices. For younger students, the district offers iPads—about 3,000 of them, says Jensen.

From his office, Jensen can do things like push out specific apps soley to seventh graders (although that feature costs extra, a one-time license of $30 per device). For similar iPad management, Jensen had to purchase outside software, and it doesn’t always work seamlessly, he notes. Jensen also likes the automatic operating system updates from Google; during district and state testing time, he has the ability to freeze the updates.

But Jensen and others say there are things that iPads just do better. Until recently, for example, Chromebooks had no touch screen, a feature that's particularly important at lower grade levels, where most students aren’t adept with a keyboard.

Other educators point to increased creativity with iPads, particularly with video. Eric J. Chagala, principal at Vista Innovation and Design Academy, a grade 6-8 magnet school in California’s Vista Unified School District, says that unlike Chromebook cameras, the iPad camera can face toward or away from the user to shoot video, and the tablets are more portable. And editing apps like iMovie allow students to be more imaginative. For now, most of the Google apps “are not as creative and there are not as many options,” he says.

Security and Privacy Concerns

Google has had to face hard questions about the privacy and security of student data collected through its Apps for Education. Just this month, Google belatedly signed on to President Barack Obama’s “Student Privacy Pledge” to safeguard student information, after initially declining to officially support it. Apple and Microsoft signed up immediately.

Privacy and student data issues continue to be a concern for educators. Last year, Google’s admission that it data-mined student e-mails in a way that could be used for targeted advertising gave some educators pause. The company has since discontinued that practice and created an Education Trust website detailing company policies on education data protection, data ownership, and advertising.

The Chromebook’s reliance on the cloud is also a concern, Jensen says. Educators in the Sioux Falls district are barred from saving sensitive student information in the cloud. “If you’re using Google Docs and trying to store student names and I.D. numbers, that’s a no-no,” he says.

Even as Chromebooks increase their school market share, then, more traditional laptops, tablets, or even PCs will continue to capture a good portion of the market, says Sudimack, the Kennedy Middle School principal. Despite the one-to-one Chromebook initiative at his school, he’s made it a priority for students to access a wide range of devices and technologies.

“We’ve got to expose children to multiple platforms, so they’ll know how to use the iPad or iOS,” he explains. “We’re being intentional about using different platforms so we’re not so Google-heavy.”

Playing Nice

Where is the iPad situated among tablets in the education market? Five years after they were introduced, iPads are no longer as distinctive as they once were when it comes to what they can do or how well they can do it—especially when compared with hybrid laptop/tablets like Microsoft’s Surface Pro, e-readers like Amazon’s Fire HD Kids Edition, or even smartphones like the iPhone 6 or Samsung Galaxy S5.

And then there are the touch-screen Chromebooks that are in the works. In January, HP unveiled a touch-screen Chromebook that retails for under $450, and Acer has said it has one coming out, too.

In the meantime, the iPad and Chromebook are starting to interact a bit more effortlessly, says Patrick Larkin, assistant superintendent of Burlington Public Schools in Massachusetts, which has a one-to-one iPad initiative. Burlington is a Google Apps for Education district, using Google apps offered through the iPad. “The Google environment plays a lot nicer with the iPad environment now,” he says.

Image: Tom Wang/Shutterstock

CoSN’s 2015 Team Winner: Henrico County Public Schools

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CoSN’s 2015 Team Winner: Henrico County Public Schools

Fourteen years after first handing out laptops to students, this district continues to lead. By Caralee Adams

The fifth graders in Ellen Beane’s class at Sandston Elementary School in Virginia are scattered throughout the room, on the floor and at desks, working with an iPad in pairs to do a math activity about elapsed time.

“Focus, focus,” says Louis to his partner, D’Anthony, as both boys giggle. While one uses an app with the word problem, the other toggles between an app with an interactive clock and an app with a whiteboard to do his work. D’Anthony solves the problem and Louis enters the answer. On the iPad screen good work and a check mark reward the duo.

This scene is typical of how kids learn in Beane’s classroom. She spends less than an hour a day in whole-group instruction, preferring instead to customize activities for students to do in small, fluid groups. This past fall, Beane’s students used their devices to create digital portfolios for student-led conferences with parents.

“It’s like a magician’s briefcase that keeps opening up new opportunities. It’s their dictionary, atlas, encyclopedia,” Beane says of the tablets issued to the students as a pilot last year. “It opens up opportunities for these children that would otherwise be impossible.”

Sandston Elementary is part of Henrico County Public Schools, winner of the 2015 Team Award to be presented in March by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

Henrico was the one of the first districts in the country to launch a major one-to-one initiative in 2001. Each student in grades 6–12 receives a laptop; last year, the district began to experiment with giving PCs to some students in third to fifth grades at Sandston. The 50,000-student district curves around the city of Richmond. It has a diverse population—40 percent of which is low-income—and technology is viewed as a tool to help level the playing field.

Now, the district is being recognized for continuing to innovate and build out a system that put students at the center of learning to prepare them for the increasingly digitally connected world.

“Henrico has been intently focused on identifying rubrics for defining 21st-century skills, implementing it countywide, and developing an accountability process to change instruction in the classroom,” says Keith Krueger, CoSN’s chief executive officer.

It was 14 years ago that then-superintendent Mark Edwards led the district in its big splash with devices for secondary students. The well-respected technology leader has since moved to Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina, where he has garnered numerous awards, including the CoSN Team Award in 2013.

The remaining technology team in Henrico continues to push forward, they say, because students, teachers, and parents have come to expect it.

There is no turning back, says Debra Adams Roethke, assistant director of Instructional technology, who has been with the district for 27 years and was part of the original 1:1 rollout. While some in the district didn’t know what a laptop was 14 years ago, cell phones and computers are now ubiquitous at Henrico.

“Everything keeps progressing at such a rapid pace,” says Roethke. “It’s the world of kids, so we have to go where they are.”

Using technology in the district is connecting teachers and students, and making the world one big classroom, says Kourtney Bostain, educational specialist for instructional technology in the district’s high schools.

“[W]e are doing a disservice to [students] if we are not leveraging modern tools in the classroom and really equipping [them] with the skills they are going to need to be successful outside of school,” Bostain says. The district is committed to integrating technology in the schools for the long term and that has helped keep the momentum going and empowered a diverse group to own the teaching process.

Developing a Common Language

Henrico’s laser focus on developing 21st-century skills provided a framework for teaching and technology. To prepare students in four areas—research and information fluency, critical thinking and problem solving, communication and collaboration, and creativity and innovation—the district adopted a common instructional vision called TIPC, or Teaching Innovation/Integration Progression Chart.

A year in the making, TIPC has categories that include an overview of skills covered and expectations of students and teachers in each area. The rubric ranges from “entry” (student-driven instruction) to “ideal” (student-centered, teacher-facilitated) with the aim of becoming a 21st-century classroom with engaged, student-led learning.

“It’s been the introduction of the common language around TIPC that’s really allowed us to sustain over time,” says Katie Owens, educational specialist for instructional technology at the middle school level in Henrico. Through new initiatives and changes in superintendents, TIPC has been the fallback and document that guides all district activities, she says.

Building Community and Highlighting Success

Along with the instructional rubric, the county launched an online repository to swap best practices. Henrico 21 has 1,200 teacher-created projects and lessons that span all content areas and grades. Through this portal, the district is both honoring teachers’ work and providing a useful exchange platform for ideas, says Roethke.

The instructional technology team launched Student 21 in 2010 so students could post and share their work with one another, their parents, and the community. Going beyond the 1,000 items on the website, the country developed a competition to recognize the most innovative work. Each spring, winners are honored at a ceremony and the best student work displayed. The event has featured 3D printing and robotics demonstrations, gaming displays, and even a photo booth.

“That was an attempt to build community and raises awareness,” says Bostain. “It celebrates and helps everyone involved to see why we are doing this. The kids really shine at that event. It’s another outlet. We have sports and awards…this is another opportunity reach students.”

Keeping Everyone Up to Speed

Over time, the technology team says there have been lessons learned with professional development. Among them: “Lead with the skill, not the tool,” says Bostain. Although the equipment can be exciting, the real impact cannot be realized unless the focus is on quality instruction and training that accompanies the device.

Considerable staff turnover in the past two years has provided “fresh blood” and reenergized the technology team with new ideas, says Jon Wirsing, who works with the elementary schools as an educational specialist for instructional technology. “It’s not all been a bed of roses. We’ve had failures,” he says, noting that the team has collectively reviewed missteps but adapted and recovered.

Initially, it was all about the technology and computers, Roethke says. The team revamped its approach to training to revolve around creating a 21st-century classroom. At one point, they tried to take technology out of the framework for teaching, but that was a mistake, Roethke admits. Finally, a balanced approach of student-centered learning, technology, and content knowledge skills emerged and became the foundation for their model.

While there are still some large whole-group training sessions, smaller group PD and individual coaching have become more common. Job-embedded and consistent PD customized to the teachers’ needs has worked best, says Bostain.

Henrico technology experts help teachers work through new processes in small, scaffolded steps, notes Owens. The key: “Being patient,” she says. “Understanding what they want to accomplish…and build on success after each accomplishment.”

Leveraging Technology to Build Achievement

Henrico is continually working to improve instruction and innovative classroom practices, yet it has been difficult to show connections between the district’s progress with technology and student achievement.

While there was variation by school, overall, students’ scores dropped on the recent round of testing on the Virginia Standards of Learning. Henrico was not alone, however, as the commonwealth has changed its standards and made the test more rigorous, district officials note.

CoSN’s Krueger raises the question of whether the tests are measuring the 21st-century skills, such as creativity and collaboration, which Henrico is emphasizing. “Those are unlikely to be reflected in traditional, high-stakes tests,” he says.

Even if the scores don’t demonstrate it, Roethke says, students are learning more and the excitement in the classroom is apparent. Teachers have green signs on their doors when visitors are welcome for peer observation, and the culture of sharing best practices is spreading.

Using the testing data on specific areas where students are falling short, the district is trying to zero in on PD for teachers to address those deficits.

Student-centered learning is taking hold and each day kids are aware of their individual goals. In the elementary school, there are statements that start with “I can…” posted in the classrooms as a daily reminder of the academic expectations.

In a seventh-grade Spanish class at Short Pump Middle School in Glen Allen, teacher Patrick Wininger moves through the classroom checking in on students as they work through a lesson on their laptops at their own pace. Contemporary Latin music provides soft background noise.

Wininger says the technology allows the students to be more creative, for instance, allowing them to create a digital storybook using a website about the things they do and don’t like to do.

“We can get a lot more specific. It is a lot more real-world solutions than just a simple test,” Wininger says. “I want them to be able to use what they are learning, not just learn stuff. The computers enable us to do that and everyone is equal in that regard—everybody has the same resources and opportunity.”

2015 CoSN Team Award
Merit Award: District of Columbia Public Schools, Washington D.C.: Given in recognition of DCPS’ successes as a large, urban district that is working to overcome significant socioeconomic barriers.

Merit Award: Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, Texas: Honored for demonstrating an exceptional commitment to district infrastructure.

CoSN’s 2015 Withrow Award: Vince Scheivert

The chief information officer in Albemarle County PS aims to bring connectivity to each student’s home. 

As a teacher turned technology guru, Vince Scheivert is combining his expertise in the classroom with his passion for technology as chief information officer in the 14,000-student district in central Virginia.

His goal is to empower all students to have access to the latest tools they need to be successful—both at home and at school. To that end, Scheivert has advocated for a broadband, wireless network that will make high-speed Internet access available for free to students at home in his 768-square-mile county. The equipment has been field-tested and the rollout began this year.

“We always talk about providing a 21st-century learning environment. Well, it’s 15 years into the 21st century, I think our aspirations should be a little bit further. That’s what drives me,” says Scheivert, who has been with the district for 12 years and CIO for four. “If we know there is a better way, we should be pushing for it.”

In addition to universal online access, Scheivert is also overseeing a new 1:1 initiative where all students in grades 6–12 will receive a learning device to use at school and at home next year.

“You have to be willing to do something different,” says Scheivert. “You have to know you are making the right decision, and when you are making a decision that’s in the best interest of kids, you are doing it.”

Through his efforts, Scheivert is trying to eliminate the digital divide and live up to the plaque on his superintendent’s desk that reads all means all.

Image: Chris Adams 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in edu Pulse are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.