Author Archives: Lynne Graziano

“Making Sure Every Student is Seen and Heard:” A Q&A with Executive Director/Principal Ayanna Gore

Ayanna Gore is the Executive Director/Principal of Summit Sierra High School in Seattle, Washington. We interviewed her as part of our Promise in the Time of Quarantine: Exploring Schools Responses to COVID-19 case studies, released today. Unlike many schools that hoped to open their doors for hybrid schooling this year, Summit Sierra made the early decision to open fully virtually. I spoke with Ayanna about what they learned from virtual school last year and how they’re improving upon it now.

When did you know you would be fully virtual and how did that shape planning for this school year?

By the third week of June, we shared with our families that we were planning for a fully virtual online experience. If things changed (due to a vaccine or the governor’s recommendation to reopen), we would set up workstations where families could come in and get in-person support, while learning still occurred virtually. But we committed to a 100% virtual model for consistency.

This meant reshaping our entire new-student and all-student orientation. And for onboarding new faculty, we connected with them a little earlier than we normally do. We had conversations about things like computer/Zoom fatigue, so we built in natural breaks for a schedule that still meets our academic goals. 

It’s about community and making sure every student is seen and heard. That’s how we started our new student orientation. We flipped it from the traditional “here is your schedule, these are your teachers.” We started with every student hearing from our leadership team on our mission and our individual journeys and stories. New and returning students all got interviewed and had time to share their journey and their story. 

Can you share more details of that orientation? Continue reading

Will Newark Schools Continue to Beat the Odds Under Local Control?

As a suburban Jersey girl growing up in the 1970s and early 80s, I knew two things about Newark. It was a city with a fine medical university where I had extensive dental work done, and it had a reputation for terrible schools run, at times, by corrupt leadership. Little did I know then that the city where I literally got my smile would one day have education results worth smiling about.

When Bellwether profiled Newark in 2018 for our Eight Cities project, it was because of the city’s approach to school reform and the remarkable gains in student achievement that came as a result. That story ended with a homegrown Superintendent — Roger León — taking the reins of the district as the state promised their return to local control. As of last week, the process of fully returning Newark schools to control of a locally-elected school board is complete. Now that Newarkers have full control over their schools, they have a new challenge: sustaining and building on the success of recent reforms.

Late last week, MarGrady Research confirmed Newark students continue to outperform peers attending similar schools within the state. Researchers define “beat-the-odds” schools as those that produce better state testing results than other schools in New Jersey with similar racial and socioeconomic characteristics. Compared to demographically similar students in urban schools in New Jersey, Newark students beat-the-odds, or exceed expectation, on their exam achievement outcomes.

Echoing similar results three years ago, Newark continues to lead other cities in the percentage of students enrolled in “beat-the-odds” schools. And it’s not even close: Thirty-five percent of Newark students attend beat-the-odds schools; Boston students are second at 20%. Furthermore, nearly 40% of Newark’s African-American students attend beat-the-odds schools – more than double the rate of Boston, where only 19% of African-American students have that opportunity.

One factor which cannot be understated in driving this success is Newark’s implementation of a universal enrollment system. This system allows parents to choose from a diverse set of high-quality public schools, both traditional and charter. Both sectors provide schools where Newark students can succeed: the MarGrady study found 16% of students in traditional district schools were enrolled in beat-the-odds schools. This is about twice the average rate of all 50 cities studied.

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Bellwether’s Parent-Teachers in the Time of COVID-19

Here at Bellwether, we consider our people a big asset (we even made a video about how much we like working together). We fancy ourselves as a fun, smart, and high-achieving group committed to facing the biggest challenges in education. Many of our team members were classroom teachers prior to entering administrative, policy, evaluation, and strategy roles at Bellwether, so overseeing the education of our own children should come naturally — right?

Toddler on a coach with a laptop, tablet, smartphone, and videogame controller

Photo courtesy the author

Not exactly. Even with the benefits of a work-from-home culture, a core value of flexibility, and myriad other forms of access and privilege, my teammates are struggling. Many of us are now juggling being both a parent and a professional within the same limited hours in a day.

When I asked the Bellwether parents of pre-Kindergarten through high-school-age students to share their experiences, I got a number of candid responses. Even these competent, tech-savvy, education professionals identified palpable struggles managing their time, knowing how to prioritize support of their home learners, and meeting the individual needs of each child.

The Bellwether parents who responded live in eight different states (Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia), and collectively, they have 21 students. Most states were still in the early stages of closure when I conducted these polls, so the experiences below may not reflect improvements schools have made or will make.

What I heard around communications, materials, and processes is both scary and encouraging:

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Typing in the 1980’s — and the Decline of Women Choosing Career and Technical Education

Before personal computers, IBM Selectric typewriters represented the cutting edge of desktop technology for modern offices. In the early 1980s, my high school had an entire room filled with shiny Selectrics atop sturdy desks. Many of my peers, mostly females, entered this room to take typing, which was a Career and Technical Education (CTE) course (though we called it a business elective at the time).

photo courtesy the author

Because my guidance office and family believed I was “college material,” I was steered away from typing class. But because I am stubborn and like a challenge, I took it anyway. When I entered Drew University in 1984 (my matriculation was delayed by two years), it was the first liberal arts college to issue a computer to students, the bulky Epson QX-10. Unlike most of my classmates, I knew how to type (or “keyboard,” as it would become known).

What does all this have to do with International Women’s Day, whose 2020 theme is “Each for Equal?” In the United States, women have arguably reached equality in college enrollment and degree attainment. In fact, women today enroll and complete college at higher rates than men. But in studying College- and Career-Readiness (CCR) policies for a forthcoming report, I’ve learned that CTE participation is one area where women are still less than equal. Not only is women’s CTE participation less than half the amount of participants since its peak in the early 1980s, but those females who do enroll are often steered away from the higher-paying career tracks.

In 1982, the year I graduated high school, female graduates earned more CTE credits than male graduates in the United States. While CTE participation has declined for all students since the 1980s, the drop for women is sharper. By 2013, average CTE credits earned by females had dropped by a third over three decades, while CTE credits earned by males dropped by a fifth. In part, this can be explained by a decline in courses such as typing and data entry, as well as the structural changes of the modern business environment with fewer secretarial roles, but it also reflects an increased emphasis on “four-year college for all.”

The gender breakdown of students who do pursue CTE coursework is roughly equal, however differences in the type of coursework reflect gender inequality. Courses known as “New Era CTE” tend to divide along gender lines, with females predominately concentrating in health care and communication while males concentrate in computer science and engineering, fields which generally pay higher salaries. A study conducted in Texas suggested “tracking” exists within CTE, aligning students with “historically gendered occupational roles.

While CTE popularity is declining overall, its importance — for women and men — shouldn’t be overlooked. In the 1980s and 1990s, CTE was viewed as a pathway to postsecondary employment, apprenticeships, or trade school. Recent studies suggest today’s CTE vocational concentrators “are more likely than their peers to enroll in college […] and may also be more likely to persist in college.” Furthermore, a strong CTE curriculum prepares students with key competencies such as critical thinking, communication, and teamwork. These are many of the cross-cutting skills rated by employers as “most important” for long-term career success.

If female students desire careers in health care or communication, they should not be steered away, but they should also be given information on the long-term economic prospects of various fields. As women continue to outpace men in college enrollment, persistence, and degree attainment, they also need to receive equal information on career choices and compensation by field. And they should be given equal opportunity to pursue any postsecondary pathway they choose, just like I was given. Every day when I sit down to write and research, my “rash” decision to take typing pays off!

On National Special Education Day, I Remember My Sister-in-Law Laurie

When I married my husband John in 1987, I said “I do” to three people: John, his mother Sophie, and his sister Laurie. John was the caregiver, household manager, driver, and grocery purveyor for his mother, who had several health issues at the age of 68, and his younger sister, who was born with Marfan Syndrome, a disorder of the connective tissue resulting in a host of physical challenges. Laurie also experienced oxygen deprivation at birth. As a result, she never cognitively developed past the age of 7 or 8.

photo courtesy the author

Neither Laurie or Sophie are with us today, but in honor of National Special Education Day, I want to elevate Laurie’s education story, however fragmented it was. Laurie was provided transportation to an elementary school building starting in kindergarten, but there was no grade designation, no Individualized Education Program (IEP), and no social supports. She learned some very rudimentary skills, like how to count from 1 to 10 and write her first name. We know very little of what she experienced at school, but my husband remembers the taunts of “retard” thrown her way by neighborhood and school bullies. By middle school, she no longer attended school.

Like most parents, neither Sophie nor her husband were prepared for a child with special needs. Sophie was very private, but I gathered a few pieces of her story over the years we lived together. A child of Polish immigrants, Sophie’s education didn’t advance much past middle school. During the Great Depression, kids did whatever they could to keep their families from starving, and while she shared very few Depression-era memories, standing in bread lines was often her job. I regret not knowing her full story — she held many secrets — but the best we could cobble together was that her teen years were akin to sooty Cinderella, providing domestic labor until she met her real-life prince in the form of John’s father, the appliance repairman she married.

The fact that they advocated for any schooling, including transportation services, for Laurie is a tribute to the doggedness of their own backgrounds. The gaps in Laurie’s education were representative of that era, and I am glad we have moved to a point where we recognize National Special Education Day and the importance of serving all students. 

People often tell me how much they admire what John and I did, caring for Laurie and Sophie in our home as we raised our own family. But Sophie deserves the credit for standing up for her daughter in an era when mothers were shamed for having a special needs child. And Laurie faced many of her physical and cognitive challenges as an adult: She eventually learned to read with Hooked on Phonics, and learned to laugh again, thanks to the antics of her two nieces and one nephew. 

So much has improved in the special education field since Laurie’s experience in the 1960s, but there is still more to be done. These experiences tie me closely to Bellwether’s mission, and remind me of our commitment to improving education and life outcomes for underserved students, including those in special education.