Category Archives: Education Innovation

What I Learned at a Rocketship “Launch” — and How It Changed My Career Trajectory

Five years ago, on a public school playground in San Jose, California, I joined a school full of students and teachers as they joyfully launched their day, an experience which ended up catapulting me into the elementary and secondary education world in an unforgettable way.

I was visiting a Rocketship Public Schools campus, where they begin every morning with what is known as “launch,” a combination of workout, celebration, information-sharing, and exhilarating warm up for the school day ahead. (Disclosure: Rocketship Public Schools, a national charter management organization, is a Bellwether client.)headshot of Lynne Graziano, Bellwether Education Partners

The students assembled into loosely organized classroom groups, many first stopping to greet, hug, or high-five their school leaders and teachers. Launch that day began with general announcements followed by recognition of teachers and students for various achievements. Next, everyone on the playground moved into a choreographed dance and vocal warm up to the tune of Katy Perry’s “Roar.” The students loved flexing their biceps and roaring at one another, and especially enjoyed shout-singing, “‘Cause I am a champion, and you’re gonna hear me roar.” Concluding with laughter and applause, the students and their teachers launched into the school day with energy and enthusiasm.

I remarked to my Bellwether colleagues that this was the way we should all begin our day: focused on important details, recognizing positive achievements, and getting our adrenaline pumping for the work ahead. I also asked a question that lingered with me: How do we allow some schools to take promising students like these, with a deep hunger to learn and unbridled desire to achieve, and fail them somewhere between the time they enter public education but before they reach the finish line? It was a question I couldn’t shake.

That morning, I witnessed Rocketship’s signature “launch” while working part-time as a contractor for Bellwether Education Partners. At the time, I was pursuing a Ph.D. in history, and while I always enjoyed working with young people, I thought teaching and mentoring at the college level was where I could have the most impact. But the launch experience lingered in my memory even as we completed our project. It followed me back to my dissertation work, and I eventually succumbed to its pull.

Less than a year later, I deferred my dissertation and jumped into the work of Bellwether full-time, with its mission of dramatically changing education and life outcomes for underserved students, many akin to the students I saw at launch that morning.

My career shift was an unexpected bonus of participating in that project. Rocketship has continued to replicate this school tradition as their network of schools has expanded. (I should note that across the country, many schools of varying types do similar morning routines to start their day.) Today Rocketship has 19 schools in four regions. In Washington, D.C. Rocketship Legacy Prep recently posted the highest score ever for a pre-K through eighth grade school on the D.C. Public Charter School Board’s School Quality Report. (They planned to open a second school in DC’s Ward 5 but were not able to, citing a facility/permitting issue.)

While Rocketship has its share of critics, its current students seem to be enthusiastic about attending school.  A colleague of mine recently witnessed this at Rocketship Legacy Prep. He was walking toward the school behind two kids who were maybe 7 or 8 years old — young enough that their backpacks seemed enormous, wider than their shoulders. As they approached the school, one said, “It’s three minutes to launch! We can’t be late!” They looked at each other before breaking into a run, backpacks bouncing in rhythm with their pounding feet.

So many students don’t attend schools worth running toward. I hope those two young learners made it to school on time, sang and danced during launch, and continued to hunger for education in a way will carry them through the years to come. And I hope that those of us in the education space continue to push for enough great public schools to keep students everywhere fueled and focused.

More, Better, Faster: Q&A with the Bellwether Team Behind Eight Cities

Last week, we released Eight Cities, a multimedia website designed to show current and future superintendents, school board members, and state education leaders that it’s possible to go beyond incremental academic improvement even in the largest or most politically charged environments.

The site is visually stunning, and takes a unique story-driven approach to covering education reform in places where leaders are getting more kids into better schools faster than other urban areas. The bulk of the writing and research was done by Bellwether’s own Lynne Graziano, Jason Weeby, and Tanya Paperny. Given the project’s unique approach, I chatted with them to share more about the process of creating Eight Cities.

What was the motivation behind doing this project, and why now?

Jason Weeby: Over the past two decades, multiple cities have been implementing similar strategies to improve their schools. CRPE calls it the “portfolio strategy,” David Osborne calls them “21st century school systems,” and the Texas Education Agency calls them “systems of great schools.” Whatever you call it, the various strategies have common beliefs and pillars, namely that schools should be the unit of change, they need certain freedoms to serve their students, and they should be held accountable for whether their students are learning.

In a lot of the cities where this has been put into practice, student achievement has increased and achievement gaps between low-income students and students of color and their wealthier, whiter counterparts are closing. This project aimed to verify the academic improvements and understand how the strategy evolved by talking to the people who were closest to it. Our goal is to share lessons with current and future superintendents and board members who are interested in the approach that these eight cities took.

You focus on eight big urban districts, all of which have had a flurry of controversy tangled up in their reform and modernization efforts. Why did you choose to explore these cities specifically?

Lynne Graziano: We looked for cities that had several components in place or in the works, things like universal enrollment, a variety of school types with some degree of choice for families, and/or a talent strategy for teachers and school leaders. We also selected cities where research identified strong student achievement gains during the years we studied. While most system leaders would tell you there is more work to be done, we wanted to share stories of dramatic gains made in communities where student gains were previously rare.

JW: Put simply, we were looking for cities that had implemented a citywide improvement strategy based on the beliefs and practices we laid out in our introduction and which have seen more than incremental gains.

This is a really fancy website. Why didn’t you just write a report? Continue reading

Behind the Scenes on Our New Education-Themed Web Game

Last week, we released Rigged, a choose-your-own-adventure-style game designed to represent the experiences of youth trying to navigate school while experiencing challenges like homelessness, foster care placement, or incarceration. The game is a glimpse into the impossible tradeoffs these students face regularly.

We collaborated with the folks at Filament Games, including the project’s sole engineer, Terra Lauterbach, to create this one-of-a-kind game. Terra has been a game engineer at Filament Games since early 2017, and for Rigged, she engineered the unique card-based mechanics and supported with the game’s user experience and sound design. I chatted with Terra to share more about the process of creating the game.

The interview below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What were the objectives in creating Rigged?
Rigged was envisioned as an interactive way to help players develop increased understanding and empathy towards underserved youth who have spent time in juvenile detention, are on parole, or may simply be struggling to navigate the system. Bellwether wanted players to be able to relate to the characters in the story, putting users in the shoes of underserved individuals in order to promote inclusivity and a greater shared perspective.

How did you approach designing a game around these topics?
We always intended for Rigged to be an open-ended experience. Our team wanted to give players a menu of choices and require them to balance the consequences of their decisions. Bellwether chose five in-game domains for the player to balance: money, relationships, health and wellness, academics, and responsibilities — all things that one must manage in day-to-day life. Each binary choice that the player faces has a non-binary effect on those domains, positively affecting some domains while negatively affecting others depending on what path the player chooses to follow. Having Bellwether’s subject matter experts easily available at all times (they created the actual content) was extremely useful throughout development. Continue reading

Can Better Data Infrastructure Prevent School Violence? We Think So.

Some states want to use federal grant money to put more guns in schools in order to prevent another episode of violence like the one that we saw in Parkland, Florida. It’s a controversial idea and one that favors grand drama over real thoughtful solutions. While it won’t grab national headlines, we could actually prevent more violence and protect more students for less money with investments into information-sharing technology.

There’s no way to know with certainty what could have prevented the tragedy in Parkland, but we do know one thing: there was enough information out there to paint a troubling picture of a young person in crisis with a desperate need for supportive services. Nikolas Cruz, who  returned to his high school armed and killed seventeen people in six minutes, was known to adults as a child in need of additional support and services.

Acting on that information is a different story. Alarmingly, we have recently learned that the adults (like psychiatrists, teachers, and law enforcement officials) who held pieces of Cruz’s story weren’t talking to each other, and there was no system in place for them to share information securely, quickly, and accurately.

Part of the problem is legal: health care, education, and child welfare privacy laws constrain the ways in which systems can share personally identifying information about young people in their care. At school safety panels earlier this summer, the Attorney General and other federal leaders suggested that these statutes are interpreted too broadly and that restricted information-sharing impedes the ability of local authorities to quickly deliver services to students in crisis.

But an important — and overlooked — part of the problem is technical. Even where there are data-sharing agreements in place, and high-quality service programs available to meet every need (and enough resources to go around), databases that track services for young people are quite literally disconnected from each other and unable to connect those services to the kids who need them. Legacy data warehouses within care agencies and schools create data silos that are nearly impenetrable. Not only do systems not talk across their bureaucratic borders, they are often incompatible with their counterparts in the next city or a neighboring county.

And even where the technical infrastructures are more modern, they rarely hold all of the information that exists or hold it in a way that is useful for providers. In fact, many systems still keep paper records or require hard copies of requests for information. As a result, direct-care staff, like nurses and school counselors, end up spending much of their days tracking down paperwork, faxing things back and forth, and cold-calling other offices instead of working with young people. Continue reading

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