Finding the Good: Spotlight on ACTIONS and Novak Academy

In the comments of the previous post, there was an unspoken but implicit challenge to find the good in the things around us. So I am kicking off a series of blog posts. They will be scattered as I find good examples to highlight. I am calling the series “Finding the Good”, and I fully believe it is not hard to find as long as we have open eyes and minds.

 

Today I am shining the spotlight on ACTIONS and the Novak Academy. I had an opportunity to visit both of these amazing places last week, and I extend my warm thanks to both Katie Ahsell of ACTIONS and Tony Maltbia of Novak Academy for making the time and opening the doors. Both initiatives are completely different, but they do share some similarities in that they offer alternative support for students who need that little something “more” than what the normal classroom offers.

 

ACTIONS

The Alternative Center for Targeted Instruction and ONgoing Support (website) actually serves the district in two distinct ways. The first is more obvious, taking in kids who are in some kind of suspension. The second floor of the Family Information Center (FIC) is reserved for a couple classrooms, which typically are split up between the older kids and the younger kids. But it changes all the time, as you never know who is going to show up. The other function provided by ACTIONS is more of an outreach program, whereby ACTIONS staff go out to other schools to offer support in classrooms, to provide adhoc on-site training or just to actively observe.

There is a lot that I really like about the underlying framework at ACTIONS. One piece is a weighty phrase that needs a little explaining, restorative justice. To borrow from Howard Zehr, “Crime is a wound. Justice should be healing.” My understanding of restorative justice (RJ) is that is seeks to mend what was broken contrasted with a penal system that segregates broken parties into victims and offenders, creating two separate and opposed societies. Since I am a big fan of couching life around the significance of relationships (which can be messy, hard, time-consuming and definitely NOT efficient), I personally see a lot of value in a RJ type of philosophy which also prioritizes relationships.

Another aspect of ACTIONS that tickled me pink is that there is an infusion of (in my opinion) critical social skills; conflict resolution, identifying and expressing feelings, and seeing from another point of view, just to name a few. Ironically, at one point I told Ms. Ahsell that I wish my daughter could go to a school like this. *grin* I hold that the purpose of education is to equip people to succeed at life, and I really like how MLK Jr. stated that schools are to prepare students to function in society. I cannot see that happening without the development of such social skills.

The last characteristic of ACTIONS I wish to bring forward is that of the focus on what they call “parent empowerment”. This is a six-week afterschool series that focuses on family bonding and building trust between student, parents, teachers and staff. Based on anonymized comments I read from participants, it seems to be a big hit. Parents also learn about advocating for their child, in addition to forming a team relationship with the teachers. I wonder what would happen if thousands of families had this opportunity….

I was exceptionally impressed with the dynamic nature of the work carried out at ACTIONS; this is certainly not for the faint of heart. Imagine going to work and not knowing if you were going to spend time with a 7-year-old or 17-year old who started a fight, or traveling to a school for the day.

As we were observing one classroom, the staff person displayed a video of a fight and facilitated a very candid discussion that honored honest, concluding with a reminder that even the students in the video who were standing around, laughing, or recording with their iPhones, were complicit as well, for they did not fulfil their moral obligation to step in and stop the fight. This is the essence of the anti-bullying message, I believe; standing up for what is right does not imply passivity in the face oppression.

 

Novak Academy

The Novak Academy (website) is just down the street from the FIC. Mr. Maltbia makes it clear that even though Novak Academy is an alternative setting for learning, it by no means is easy in any sense of the word; every day at Novak is like two days in “regular” school.

The heightened pace is due in part to the Apex Online learning environment, a classroom packed with computers, students and one facilitator. The other factor is well-trained staff in smaller classrooms. And by smaller classrooms, some felt almost as cramped as a closet. :) It is my understanding that this approach allows the staff to offer an environment that is highly responsive to different styles of learning; one classroom was very hands-on, another was lecture-based supplemented with video, while Apex allows a kind of “go as fast as you can” opportunity.

One of the ramifications of the warp speed velocity is that attendance becomes much more significant, which is reflected in the consequences and occasional rewards. Students actually sign an attendance commitment, and if I recall correctly, missing a few days could get you dropped from the program (I need to look up the specifics when I find the brochure…..).

Mr. Maltbia also laid out some plans they have to utilize more of a project-based learning approach. Their ideas are still in draft form, yet I found them exciting none-the-less purely because I am a big fan of PBL. It will be interesting to see PBL mature at Novak Academy.

One of the things I loved about my visit is an emphasis on understanding the child, trying to figure out what works best for each student; one child may be quiet, another loud, do they both need the same thing?

 

Wrapping up

After visiting ACTIONS and Novak Academy, I had a visit with Dr. Wiegand. I offered praise for these wonderful programs, and thought it was a shame that too few people know about them. So that planted the seed for this article, the discussion on the previous post fertilized that seed.

I will point out that both have been covered in the News-Gazette; Meg Dickinson wrote about ACTIONS in August 2013, and Jodi Heckel covered what was then the Academic Academy in 2008 and 2009.

 

Where have you found good?

 

New blog on equity and race

A good friend has started her own blog, hitting it hard with equity and race:

https://cherylnnekacamacho.wordpress.com/

 

Her first post is a heartfelt message and a strong challenge: “How are you pushing for racial equity in your corner of the community?” I wonder what would happen if our sole justification for what we do is “(b)ecause it’s the right thing to do.”

More FOIA documents: Park District and School district

Rochf has provided a number of FOIA documents to be posted – there is a lot to read:

UPDATE (02 March):

FOIA responses from Unit 4:

Current thoughts on the PARCC

After my last post, I have had a number of conversations that have made it harder for me to decide where I fall on PARCC testing; so I thought, why not just dump all that into a blog post.

Summary

PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) has a lot of both good and bad things tied up with it. What makes it challenging for me is that there is also a lot of emotion getting thrown into the mix. When I look at where Illinois is headed in terms of assessments, some of my concerns are alleviated but I still have issues with the current implementation. In the end, I have to ask myself “What really is the root concern here?” For me, I would like teachers to know that I support them in their hard work. How can I help?


Just to get my subjectivity (emotion) out in the open and out of the way, let me state that I personally hate the way we do standardized tests; my own experience has taught me that the way we have been doing standardized tests for the past few decades add zero value to the student or the teacher, and creates a strictly synthetic environment that does not reflect real life in the least. But these types of “assessments”, having been around for so long and as ubiquitous across different industries as they are, are not going away any time soon.

During my inquiry of PARCC, I came across some jargon that would be helpful to spell out a little. These are not perfect by any means, so corrections are welcome.

Apparently in the world of Education, there are many different forms of assessment. However the two most common seem to be “formative assessments” and “summative assessments”.

Formative Assessments: this is like checking your compass every once in a while to make sure you are still heading in the right direction; these are typically “low-stakes” (low point value) evaluations to see if the student is progressing along at an expected rate, and if any intervention or augmentation is needed to help realign the student.

Summative Assessments: The “final exam”. Did the student reach the final goal, did the student meet the objectives? Did you do what you said you were going to do? These are typically the “high-stakes” testing (high point values).

Student Learning Objectives (SLO): no clear cut definition, but in general this seems to be a way to measure what a student has learned. According to edGlossary, there are several synonyms: “benchmark, grade-level indicatorlearning target, performance indicator, and learning standard“.

My duality towards PARCC is formed by several different factors. I will start with the negative and end with the positive.

Cons

It is easy to get sucked into the emotional vortex of other people’s opinions; not to disregard any of these parents and adults, for they have very passionate and strong beliefs for their point of view. If you want to, there are plenty of recorded board meetings where parents and teachers address administrative bodies around the country. Finding that here in Champaign is a bit trickier. *grin*

For my own “ground-level” perspective, I had the opportunity to sit in a real class for a “practice” test. To paint a little historical picture, keep in mind that this school year is the first year any school will be administering the PARCC, which replaces the ISAT tests a bulk majority of us are familiar with. I am told that teachers in Champaign did not receive training on PARCC until after December 15th, 2014. That was just two months ago. In addition to a totally new test, PARCC is now online and the software takes a bit getting used to. In a sense, the teachers are forced to teach students how to use the software. From my own observation, there was a wide range of ability to grasp and navigate the interface; yet even the “fastest” students were not halfway through after 40 minutes, and few of them were utilizing the “extra features” included in the software.

I also took the sample ELA test. You can read that blog post if you like, but in general I was quite agitated – the software itself makes the test more challenging despite the content.

This leads me to conclude that if all schools started with the paper-and-pencil test this year, the transition might have been a lot smoother. But we didn’t.

There is also the threat that high-stakes testing (like PARCC) will be used in the future as a primary tool to evaluate teachers. I will cover this in the “Pros” section below as well- Brian Minsker gives a good example of how this could be abused. Or rather, how such testing offers an incomplete evaluation of what a teacher has accomplished.

In passing I will say that I have heard others say that PARCC is harder or better than the ISATs. I can’t really say for sure; I have not found a sample ISAT from 2014 to make a good comparison.

Pros

A few weeks ago, I had an excellent conversation with some fine folks over at ISBE (you can read about it, if you have the time). I asked Ms. Chamness for a follow-up conversation, and invited Dr. George Reese to join us. He also happened to bring along Dr. Kathleen Smith, so it was a rather impressive group. :) Additionally, I had a very enlightening exchange on the PTA Council email list in which Brian Minsker provided a bit of background information and broader perspective (you can find a copy of our discussion on the PTA Council listserve public archive).

I am going to glob much of what I learned under this “Pro” section because they do a good job at diffusing much of the drama sprouting up around PARCC.

For better or worse, we live under the law of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). According to the government’s website, Champaign Unit 4 receives a little over $1.2 million in Title 1 funds (where “Title 1″ is directly from the ESEA). According to that same law, all schools that receive Title 1 funding must meet a 95% participation rate in standardized testing, with the threat of possible sanctions should that participation rate not be met. Ms. Chamness explained that the rate applies at all levels; state, district and even the school. She also explained that there are many codes used to demark non-participation (ie, sick, snow day, death, etc).

Another point that Ms. Chamness made is seeded in the quirky “Race to the Top” waivers many states have been applying for. According to Ms. Chamness, one of the reasons why Illinois has not yet been granted a waiver is that Illinois is unique in specifying that high-stakes testing NOT be used as a significant basis for teacher evaluations; instead, ISBE is pushing for the involvement of local bargaining units (ie, teacher unions) to come up with measurements of student growth. I will quote Brian Minsker’s synopsis. “What that means is that students who come into 4th grade reading at a 2nd grade level, for example, but leave 4th grade reading at a mid-3rd grade level would be recognized for their improvement (1.5 years of reading skills in a single year) rather than their failure to meet the 4th grade reading standard. Labeling students showing such tremendous growth and hard work as ‘failing’ is a disservice both the them and the teachers who achieve those results.”

Dr. Kathleen Smith asked Ms. Chamness if ISBE and Pearson will release data such that schools and teachers can perform formative assessments. Ms. Chamness replied that this is in fact part of their agreement with Pearson, but not much has been done about it, yet.

Conclusion

Everyone I have talked to so far agrees that assessments are necessary. There are a lot of good intentions at play, and also a significant amount of change; the latter sometimes makes the former harder to see. But I think it is important to realize that change in and of itself is not necessarily “good” or “bad”. And there is most likely going to be both involved. :)

I have expressed to Ms. Chamness that an easy-to-read overview of why we have PARCC would be very helpful. I hope to provide a link to that in the near future.

It makes sense to me when I hear people say that PARCC is being rolled out way too fast – this is apparent when I read about the technical issues and how Pearson is responding, not to mention the obvious shortcomings in the software itself. However, it also seems to me that people are afraid of the changes.

So here is a news flash – I am not a certified teacher. I have never taken any class in how to be a teacher. This means I don’t know all the theory about teaching, nor do I know what works best in a classroom. But I want to invest in and support the teachers in our school district. Our teachers are going to have to speak up and say what they think about the PARCC (and TestNav and Common Core, etc). In the end, I want to make sure that public education is fulfilling its moral obligation to crank out successful and engaged members of society. What would a formative assessment of “public education” look like?

PS – Ms. Kelly Youngblood is working on a chambanamoms.com story regarding PARCC and has asked me a few questions. When her story is published, I will provide a link to it.

UPDATE

Here is Ms. Youngblood’s Chambanamoms well written article – I encourage you to read it:

http://www.chambanamoms.com/2015/02/22/parcctestingchampaignurbana/

 

UPDATE 2

Mr. Nate Rodgers of WICD reported on parents opting out tonight (Feb 25th):

http://www.wicd15.com/news/top-stories/stories/parents-opting-out-parcc-test-11817.shtml

My child has opted out of PARCC testing

This morning, I sent the following email to my child’s teacher and principal:


Good morning,

[my child] and I had a discussion about the PARCC test (and associated prep), and we have come to the conclusion that she will not be participating in the PARCC. I gave [my child] the choice, as is my right as a parent and protected under the Constitution, but I did not want to force my desires on her choice; I am merely supporting her choice. Of course, if she should decide to take the PARCC, that is her choice, but I will not suffer being bullied into that choice; I say that more to ISBE and the federal government, NOT to anyone in Unit 4, because I do not believe Unit 4 will bully my child in any way.

Please note, this is nothing against [my child’s teacher], [my child’s principal], [my child’s school], or Unit 4; I personally think the implementation of the test, particularly the interface, totally sucks. [my child’s teacher] already has superior methods of assessing my child, and the PARCC does not add any value to my child’s education.

Also note that I will be informing other parents they have a right to make this choice as well. [my child] was worried that there would be negative repercussions to not taking the test, and I have convinced her that there will be none.

[my child] and I also talked about what she could do while “not taking the test”, and I reminded her that she will have a chromebook (or at least a netbook) and can work quietly on normal school work, like Scratch, eToys, code.org, etc.

You know me, I am always up for further discussion if you want to talk more. *grin* Having said that, I do not hold any obligation over you (plural, including the entire school and the school district) to respond – no response necessary. But certainly welcome. *grin*


I followed up with a link to a document I used as legal reference:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1RDSfPJEo9HUnlKIA_jdy0Oy5JU5T_–_pDKRgGI_zrw/mobilebasic?pli=1

 

Since sending that email and forwarding it to various individuals (PTA, friends, etc), I have had some interesting feedback. Some are concerned about whether this will hurt the school or the school district. It is my understanding, as the document above mentions, that school districts have a mandate to offer the test, but there is no mandate that a child must take the test. Splitting hairs? Maybe. But a quick google search will show you plenty of folks up in arms about PARCC. Others have chimed in with their own apprehensions.

 

Finally, I also have submitted a over-simplified question to the school district administration and board of education – still waiting for an answer:

“Do parents have the right to opt their child out of PARCC testing?”

 

Obviously, I believe the answer is “yes”. However I would like the district to have a formal response in black and white.

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Unit 4 earns “Sunshine Award”

sunshine11

Board Member John Bambenek and I have been working with the Illinois Policy Institute to audit the Champaign school district’s website as part of the IPI’s Transparency Project. Mr. Bambanek had contacted the IPI earlier in 2014, and then I followed up with both the IPI and Mr. Bambenek in September of 2014. At that time, Unit 4 scored 46.8% on the audit. In the months since, Bambenek has worked with the Unit 4 administration to augment the website’s transparency, and today the IPI has officially granted a “Sunshine Award” to Unit 4 with a score of 81.5%:

https://www.illinoispolicy.org/illinois-sunshine-award-winners/

 

Of course, it would be nice to finish the last leg of the marathon and go for a complete 100%, but I am very pleased with the progress so far.

 

Here is a google spreadsheet showing the audit findings:

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0Ak_TSIBSwGn6dHRSS3VBMkJJV3VhRDVuY2trMVdweFE#gid=119

 

Kudos to Bambenek and the IT staff at Unit 4.

Thanks to Mr. Brian Coskin and Ms. Jonelle Lesniak at the IPI.

#ctrl-shift: small recap of 17-Feb gathering

This post is an attempt to summarize some of the discussions held over drinks at the Blind Pig on Tuesday evening, 17-Feb. I will only scratch the surface, so I ask that others who attended fill in the many blank spots.

 

First, the CTRL-Shift email list now has a public archive (woot!!):

https://lists.mste.illinois.edu/pipermail/ctrl-shift/

For those not familiar with the pipermail interface, I recommend you start with picking the latest month (in the second row, eg, February) and choosing the “Date” format (last option in the second column). You can play with different formats as you wish. Basically, this is an archive of all emails sent to the CTRL-Shift email list. If you hunt around, you can even find a list of all email recipients.

 

Also, for record, here is the CTRL-Shift website:

http://ctrlshift.mste.illinois.edu/

 

The first major discussion, a topic we would return to many times last night, was about the PARCC test (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). It seems the general consensus is that Common Core itself is a good thing, but PARCC is not serving our students, teachers or parents well. One person did raise the point that PARCC might actually be reinforcing the “good feelings” and confidence of those who take tests well in the first place, and for them PARCC might have some glimmer of benefit. But for everyone else, PARCC seems to do more harm than good. As tossed around in CTRL-Shift emails (for example), there is a fair amount of controversy surrounding the rapid Pearson-based implementation of PARCC, and so far we have not heard anyone who is really gung-ho for it. It is telling that so many states that initially supported the PARCC project have dropped out.

 

One of the many tangents/sidebars we explored was that of school board candidates and the leadership’s support of CTRL-Shift’s work at Kenwood. Obviously, those heavily involved in the programs at Kenwood are quite invested and want to see the fruit of their labor be sustainable going forward. There was talk of what various board candidates support, including the upcoming forums as an opportunity to learn more about the various platforms of each candidate.

 

Another related topic dealt with the work of curriculum development. As a parent and observer, I don’t really have any direct experience with such work, but one thing that was repeated is that this is very difficult, on top of the fact that there is no panacea, no “one-stop-shop”, no short-cuts to producing a curriculum; moreover, it is a process, as opposed to a product. Thus what CTRL-Shift is is not so much measured in physical output, but rather in how mindsets and learning environments are altered. Don’t be misled into thinking there is no output – check out the amazing TechTime @Kenwood blog to see what students are actually doing:

http://kenwoodtechtime.blogspot.com/

 

One very exciting report was that 15 Kenwood students are going to a SIT conference this weekend; what I personally find amazing about this whole experience is that, first, it is very project-based (which I absolutely LOVE), and second, to hear how students encounter and overcome challenges implicit in this endeavor; they have to not only come up with a topic, but figure out how to make it work and how to present it. From what I have heard, the actual presentation is just a small side-show compared to the bulk of the work these students and staff have been throwing themselves into at many after-school bi-weekly sessions.

 

Hopefully that gets your appetite going for what school can be. :) It certainly made me want more.

 

I’m looking at you others that attended last night to fill in more details in the comments below.

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