Author Archives: Lynne Graziano

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.

Denver Voters Just “Flipped” the School Board

The votes in Denver have been counted. Tuesday’s election of Tay Anderson, Scott Baldermann, and Brad Laurvick to Denver Public School’s board signals a seismic shift away from the education reforms made over the last fourteen years. Long known as one of the country’s most reform-friendly elected school boards, all three of the new members were supported by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), the local teachers’ union.

headshot of newly elected Denver school board member Tay Anderson wearing a bright red tshirt with DCTA, Denver Classroom Teachers Association

photo of Tay Anderson courtesy his Facebook page

For the first time in over a decade, the balance of power on the board has shifted towards people supporting more traditional, union-friendly policies. This may signal that changes to Denver Public Schools (DPS) lacked durable support from the community. DCTA mobilized voters in response to a feeling that “for too long, change in Denver’s school system was done to — instead of in partnership with — local communities,” as my colleague Alex wrote on Monday.

Beginning in 2005, DPS began to grant more autonomy to schools, establish charter-friendly policies, and create a standardized performance management tool for all schools, resulting in student achievement gains and an increased graduation rate. As profiled on our Eight Cities website, DPS offers a mixture of school choices to students, including charter, district, and innovation options — and a unified enrollment system that allows families, at least in theory, to select the best school for their students. 

These policy changes were enabled by the composition of the district’s school board, with at least four of seven members aligned with education reform from 2009 to 2018. Four of those years (2013 – 2017) even saw unanimous support.

Yet reforms included closures of popular neighborhood schools. Newly elected board member Tay Anderson, a 21-year-old DPS graduate, experienced a school closure firsthand, inspiring him to become an advocate for Denver’s students. His platform includes building a teaching force more representative of local student demographics.

Some parents struggled to navigate the school performance management and unified enrollment systems, often defaulting to the neighborhood school based on proximity. Some objected to the expansion of charter schools, which DPS welcomed to meet rising enrollment in the 2000s. Teachers pushed back against the merit-pay system, culminating in a strike earlier this year. Other critics of reform efforts point out that despite the gains, the district has struggled to close achievement gaps between students of color and white students.

With the results of this election, the seven-person board now has five union-aligned members. If Tuesday’s results indicate dramatic changes to come in Denver’s school policies, it’s a district to watch.

This post was inspired by Eight Cities, Bellwether’s 2018 multimedia exploration of large, urban districts achieving significant academic improvement.

Lessons in Managing the Gut-Wrenching Process of School Closures

“I’ve never felt that way before, walking into a room and just being in total knots and also knowing the right thing to do.” That’s how former Denver Public Schools board member Mary Seawell recalls the night she and the majority of the board voted to close Montbello, an academically failing but popular neighborhood high school. As we interviewed district and community leaders for our Eight Cities project, the subject of school closures elicited a nearly universal response: emotionally draining and gut-wrenching angst.

photo of Mary Seawell, former Denver Public Schools board member, by Alexander Drecun — from EightCities.org

Photo of Mary Seawell by Alexander Drecun, via EightCities.org

While the superintendents and community leaders we spoke to acknowledged school closure as a painful but necessary tool, our interviews also reflected a culture shift: Some districts are no longer forcing closures of low-performing schools in the absence of quality alternatives. Instead many districts have started more carefully planning closures to minimize disruption and prioritize student success. Two recently released reports reinforce the need for districts to mitigate the pain of school closures by ensuring better alternatives already exist. Continue reading