September 26, 2018

“Ambicultural” Latinx Students and Educational Equity: A Q&A With Tina Fernandez

When I think of someone who exemplifies the Bellwether mission, Tina Fernandez is an obvious choice. She’s been part of the Bellwether family, in many different capacities, since our founding.

A long-time friend (we were college roommates) and one of the only lawyers I knew, I reached out to Tina for advice when Bellwether filed for its nonprofit status back in 2007. She helped with our filing and served as a founding member, and later as chair, of Bellwether’s board of directors. In 2014 she left the board to join Bellwether full-time as a partner, where she co-led the launch of Bellwether’s talent management and organizational effectiveness services. (These services have since spun off into a new organization, Promise54.)

It was a bittersweet moment when Tina left Bellwether’s staff in 2015 to lead Achieve Atlanta, where she’s been serving as Executive Director ever since. In her role, she works to dramatically increase the number of Atlanta students completing post-secondary education. Luckily, she’s back on our board, and brings an invaluable perspective on the advisory work we do, the leaders we serve, and the problems in urban education we are trying to help solve. (She’s held a number of other impressive roles in the past, including law professor and classroom teacher — you can read more here.)

September is Hispanic Heritage Month, so the interview below touches on education efforts specific to Latinx communities, as well as broader lessons from her current role. I’m so glad I haven’t let Tina lose touch after all these years.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

When we were college roommates, I had not yet landed on education as my likely career. When did you know that you’d pursue a career in education? Can you remember a concrete moment or experience that showed you your future path?

I grew up in the wonderful Rio Grande Valley of Texas and attended a public school where over 90% of the student body was Latino/a. When I went away to college, I realized how inequitable our high school education had been; I was one of only a few Latino/a students on my campus.

So I knew from early on that I wanted to work with low-income youth. At college, I quickly sought out opportunities to work with kids who had similar backgrounds to mine. I joined CityStep my freshman year, an organization whose mission is to promote creative self-expression and mutual understanding through dance. I served as the executive director my last two years in college. For four years at CityStep, I also spent a substantial amount of time teaching dance and self-expression in 4th and 5th grade public school classrooms. Through this, I really developed a passion for youth development.

During my sophomore and junior year summers, I worked with an organization called Keylatch, a summer urban camp serving youth in Boston’s South End and Lower Roxbury. These experiences allowed me to develop relationships with the most wonderful, intelligent, and promise-filled kids and solidified my commitment to fighting for educational justice.

By my senior year, I decided to apply to Teach For America, an organization which was only two years old at the time. And the rest, as they say, is history. I’ve taken a couple of detours in my career, but I’ve always stayed connected to education and children’s rights.

Tell us a little bit about your work at Achieve Atlanta, and the biggest hurdles and most exciting opportunities your organization faces in achieving its mission. Continue reading


September 24, 2018

Hamilton Education Program Gives D.C. Students a Shot at Performing While Honoring Kennedy’s Dream

Photo courtesy Caity Schneeman, KIPP DC College Preparatory School

Jacqueline Kennedy was a well-known patron of the arts. As first lady, she turned the White House into an “epicenter for artistic performance and expression.” In the East Room, she requested a portable stage be built to host performances, including a series of concerts for young people. According to the JFK Library website: “She understood that to a child, American history can often be a dry and dull affair, and she saw a visit to the President’s House as a chance to spark each child’s interest in the people who made the country what it is today.” The Kennedys’ love of history and the arts was one of the main reasons the proposed National Cultural Center authorized by President Eisenhower in 1958 changed its name to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts after his assassination.

One can imagine First Lady Kennedy smiling down on that very center the morning of September 12, 2018, as dozens of students and chaperones from twenty of Washington, D.C.’s Title 1 high schools enthusiastically participated in a day-long event centered on the life of Alexander Hamilton. (Title 1 public schools serve high percentages of high-poverty children.) She’d probably be pleased to know that a musical based on the life of the “bastard, orphan, son-of-a-whore and a Scotsman,” who grew up to be “the ten-dollar founding father without a father,” has become a national phenomenon.

Her own education involved the kind of well-rounded experiences with the arts that many low-income kids and children of color lack in America today. But the day’s performances highlighted D.C. schools who work to provide theatre arts opportunities for their students.

Before the main performance of Hamilton by the touring cast, students got their shot at performing original works inspired by the musical thanks to the Hamilton Education Program (HEP). Schools with students interested in performing must select one entrant (single or group) to submit a performance tape for HEP to review. In this case, ten student groups from the 20 schools in attendance were selected to perform. Participating schools are expected to spend several weeks preparing using curriculum materials provided by HEP. Sasha Rolon Pereira, Director of HEP, recalls many late-night email exchanges with teachers and her office in advance of this month’s event.

Danielle Benson, J’niya White, and Lorenzo Johnson represented the KIPP DC College Preparatory School, performing “Valley Forge Song.” Check out this video of their performance from Theater Arts teacher Caity Schneeman:

 

American troops spent the winter of 1777-1778 during the American Revolutionary War at Valley Forge, known as a winter of suffering and rebuilding in brutal conditions. Benson outlined her team’s creative process, including reading about Valley Forge, collecting significant facts about it, and writing an original song lyric: “It’s the winter Valley Forge systematic training regimen, transformed ragged soldiers into better men.” The strong beat of their rap quickly got the crowd involved as students in the audience clapped, cheered, and held up their illuminated phones to encourage the performance. Continue reading


September 20, 2018

Can You Survive When the System Is “Rigged” Against You?

“Make good choices!” We’ve all said it, heard someone say it, or had someone say it to us. And when there’s a clear right and wrong or a better and worse option, making “good” choices can be decent advice. But for the millions of young people navigating tough life circumstances, too often these decisions aren’t so clear. There often isn’t a definitively “good” or “right” choice. So what then?

How do you choose between going to first-period science class and meeting with your court-ordered social worker? Or between meeting your probation officer and going to work your assigned shift? Or studying for that test and caring for your younger siblings? These choices are the reality for far too many young people today.

The more than five million young people who interact with social service agencies for any reason — homelessness, incarceration, foster care placement, etc. — are met with a barrage of adults who demand meetings, phone calls, appointments, and paperwork.

This myriad of adults, caseworkers, social workers, teachers, probation officers, mentors, therapists, judges, and lawyers are all working on behalf of an individual child simultaneously, but likely without coordination. A child’s social worker may not know that the appointment she just rescheduled conflicts with an existing therapy appointment. But the child does, and now must make the choice between seeing his social worker or his therapist.

As the system currently exists, we expect youth to simply figure it out: to hold steady jobs and manage their responsibilities, their relationships, and their health, all while staying focused on graduating from high school.

Can you make good choices that lead you to graduation? Find out in our new game, Rigged, which lets you step into the shoes of a 17-year-old high school student navigating these very demands.

Want to learn more about our work on social service agency coordination? Check out our issue page.


September 18, 2018

How Do We Incentivize Charter Authorizers to Approve More High-Quality Alternative Schools? A Q&A With Colorado’s Antonio Parés.

Antonio Parés headshot via Twitter

Antonio Parés via Twitter

“Alternative education” is a catch-all term used to describe education programs for students who have not been well-served by traditional classroom environments. It can refer to computer-based rapid credit accrual opportunities, supportive programs for students who are pregnant or parenting, intensive English-language programs for students who have come to the United States with substantial education histories in another language, “second chance” placements for students expelled from traditional public schools, and everything in between. Precise definitions vary by state and school district.

While traditional public school districts have historically offered these alternative programs for their students, more and more state or local charter schools are beginning to offer similar programs. Charter statutes often allow the flexibility that makes room for innovation, which is needed to operate programs that meet the specific needs of some of our most vulnerable students. Yet ensuring appropriate accountability for alternative charter schools — crucial to fulfilling the other side of the autonomy-for-accountability bargain — has proven challenging.

Forward-thinking charter authorizers are contemplating the policies and institutional practices that create strong authorizing and accountability incentives for alternative programs. The right mix of flexibility, autonomy, rigor, and relevance can both ensure that authorizers do not just enable the existence of more alternative schools but that the schools they authorize provide the highest quality programs that best meet the needs of the students they serve. Good authorizing practices can also prevent schools that provide alternative programs from simply relaxing their standards and becoming a catch basin for low performing students.

A primary challenge for authorizers is that accountability metrics typically used to measure the performance of charter schools — such as student achievement or growth on state standardized assessments, student attendance, and four-year graduation rates — may not accurately apply. Alternative charter schools often serve students who enter with unique educational and life challenges or who are already far below grade level because of gaps in their prior schooling. Applying these measures rigidly can create disincentives for operators to open, or authorizers to approve, alternative school models. Conversely, some states create loopholes that allow alternative schools and their authorizers to evade accountability altogether. Some intrepid authorizers have invested significant time and resources in developing fair and accurate ways to measure the performance of diverse alternative schools, however, state laws and regulations do not always align with such approaches.

Colorado has begun a process of convening a cross-agency task force of leaders, experts, and policymakers to modify its authorizing system by improving the rigor and relevance of performance metrics for the state’s alternative education campuses (AECs). 

Antonio Parés, a partner at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, is a board member of the Colorado Charter School Institute (CSI), which convened the AEC task force. CSI is Colorado’s only statewide charter school authorizer, and it currently authorizes 39 schools serving over 17,500 PK-12 students across the state. We recently caught up with Antonio to talk about the unique needs of AECs and what that means for authorizers and state education policy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been working with a task force in Colorado to improve the ways that the state holds charter authorizers accountable for the success of their alternative education campuses. Can you tell us about that process and the challenges you’re facing?

Every year or two, CSI works with our alternative education campuses to identify “alternative measurements” for each or all of the schools. Alternative measurements include student perception surveys, in-house assessments such as NWEA or MAPS, or alternative post-secondary paths. CSI convened a statewide taskforce to review and collaborate on best practices when it comes to accountability measurements and outcomes for our alternative education campuses, schools typically serving under-credited and at-risk students. We were trying — and continue to try — to balance both the unique nature of each campus and their student population with the need for consistent, longitudinal, and comparable data points. Our goal was — and continues to be — to develop the best performance metrics and frameworks for every school. Continue reading


September 17, 2018

Civics Education Isn’t About Content or Activism — It’s Both.

Today is Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, observed each year to commemorate the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787 and “recognize all who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become citizens,” according to the Library of Congress. It makes for a good occasion to reflect on the state of civics education in America, a topic that has received renewed focus since the 2016 presidential election.

One question that is often debated in this conversation is whether civics education should focus on teaching content and critical thinking skills, or encouraging civic engagement and activism. This presents a false choice, as schools should be responsible for ensuring that students are both adequately informed and sufficiently engaged — not one or the other.

One side of this debate contends that civics education should first and foremost provide students with a basic understanding of how the American political system works and teach them how to think about political issues. Under this approach, students should develop a well-informed understanding of all sides of an issue, including the underlying facts and proposed solutions, only venturing into political activism once they have mastered the necessary knowledge and skills.

This approach is well intended: it is important to cultivate a citizenry capable of robust debate that honestly grapples with the benefits and tradeoffs associated with each issue. And improvement is certainly needed, based on students’ poor performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics assessment, which measures “the civics knowledge, skills, and dispositions that are critical to the responsibilities of citizenship in America’s constitutional democracy.” According to the most recent civics assessment, last administered in 2014, only 23 percent of eighth grade students scored at or above the proficient level. In 2010, when NAEP last tested high school seniors in civics, only 24 percent scored at or above the proficient level.

However, neither of these results has changed significantly since 1998, and it’s not as if older voters — who vote at much higher rates than younger voters — are necessarily bastions of civic knowledge. For example, according to the most recent results from the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s annual civics survey, released last week, fewer than one third of Americans can correctly name all three branches of government, and many also lack important knowledge about how each branch functions.

Source: Annenberg Public Policy Center

Additionally, civic engagement, particularly voting, is not just about making a well-reasoned choice between two or more options. It’s also a way of demonstrating political power. When young people aren’t engaged, they are leaving their figurative voice out of the political conversation, meaning the issues they care about may receive less attention, and policies that affect young people may be enacted without their input. Our education system should have a strong interest in empowering young people and starting them on a path of self-advocacy.

Source: United States Elections Project

While the goal of civics education should be to both adequately inform students and get them engaged in the political process, it’s clear that we aren’t doing a good enough job on either front. This isn’t surprising when you consider how little time is spent on civics education. Based on a recent analysis from the Center for American Progress, 40 states require coursework in U.S. government or civics. While nine states require one year of such coursework, 31 only require a half-year, and 10 states have no requirement at all.

If we want to ensure that the next generation of citizens is sufficiently prepared for civic life, we need to commit the necessary time and resources — certainly more than one semester. We should view this Constitution Day and Citizenship Day as an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the civic mission of schools.