Tag Archives: eightcities

“I Didn’t Realize How Much Work It Takes to Find a School for Your Child”: Q&A With Shaniola Arowolaju of Washington, D.C

This post is part of a series of interviews conducted for our Eight Cities project. Read all related posts here.

Families with children in the Washington, DC school system are currently on the edge of their seats: Open enrollment through the MySchoolDC lottery closed earlier this month, and results will be released in late March.

As discussed in our Eight Cities profile of D.C., one of the most unique features of D.C.’s education system is its emphasis on parent choice, within the traditional public school system (DC Public Schools, or DCPS) and the city’s large charter school sector.

Shaniola Arowolaju, a D.C. native with three children enrolled in a charter school*, is a parent leader with D.C. Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE). In this conversation, she talks about the barriers that she and other parents face when choosing a school and offers advice for parents and district leaders to make the enrollment and choice system more equitable for D.C.’s most vulnerable students.

quote card from DC parent Shaniola Arowolaju: I’d suggest that general resources about school choice and quality are placed inside each and every school, recreational center, and library. I believe that we need to give parents whatever resources they need — they shouldn’t have to fight for them.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You grew up in the District and attended public schools here. Can you talk more about the process of finding a school that was the right fit for you?

When I was in school, you had to go to your neighborhood school. If you wanted to go school outside of those boundaries, then you’d have to get special permission and request a change. As a student, I attended my neighborhood elementary and middle schools that were no further than a short bus ride. When I got to high school, I requested and received special permission from the district to attend another high school which had a legal services academy and a marching band. It was also located on the other side of town. So I had some choice as a student, but it required a long commute. Continue reading

What Do Toxic Charter School Politics Mean for Newark Students?

A few weeks ago, as National School Choice Week came to a close, Bellwether Co-founder and Partner Andy Rotherham wrote in the Hill about the toxic state of politics around charter schools, and the blind spots of both charter opponents and advocates: 

Any effort to curtail charter schooling must deal forthrightly with how that would limit access to good schools for families that historically have been denied good educational options. Proposals to expand charters must ensure that charters are partners in meeting all the educational challenges in different communities. The current national debate lets everyone off the hook on the hard questions. 

Too often in the debates over charter schools, nuanced points about how to best create and sustain high-quality schools get buried by adversarial talking points from charter opponents and supporters. 

Right now, there’s no better place to watch those frustrating debates in action than Newark, NJ. Last month, in a surprisingly aggressive move against the city’s charter sector, Superintendent Roger Léon urged the state to halt to charter school expansion and close four charter schools up for renewal, citing the budgetary impact of charter schools on the district, mediocre test results, and low enrollment of English learners and students with disabilities at some of the schools up for renewal.  

school bus driving down the street in Newark, NJ

Via flickr user Paul Sableman: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pasa/13682552433

Charter parents, schools, and advocates struck back, with official public statements and refutations of Léon’s claims. At the same time, shady anonymous flyers attacking Léon sprang up across the city, warning parents “your school could be next!” 

As this latest district-versus-charter skirmish played out, a lot got lost in the noise.  Continue reading

“I’m So Thankful I Had a Choice”: Q&A With LaVonia Abavana on Camden Schools

When we launched Eight Cities in 2018, a multimedia storytelling website which became our most popular project of the year, readers loved the close look at system leaders who oversaw dramatic changes in their districts. But we also heard a desire for more local voices — including parents, principals, and educators — to better understand how system-wide reforms were experienced by those on the ground. This conversation with Camden parent LaVonia Abavana launches a series that explores school reform and choice from a variety of perspectives in advance of the 2020 relaunch of Eight Cities.

When the state of New Jersey took control of Camden Public Schools in 2013, Camden community members had plenty of reasons to be skeptical given the district’s long history of corruption and financial and academic struggles. As our profile of Camden in EightCities.org explains, state control also introduced Renaissance Schools, a model where nonprofit partners take over schools on the verge of closure. These schools retain the existing student body and must serve students in their neighborhood.

LaVonia Abavana, a Camden native with three children of her own, had never heard of Renaissance Schools when she was faced with a tough choice for her youngest son. 

In this conversation, she tells us about navigating school options with a special-needs child and offers advice for parents.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I had a chance to read a moving piece you wrote about your son KingSebastian. Can you share more of his education story?

When [KingSebastian] was going to his old school, in Camden Public Schools, we had a really, really hard time with bullying because of his Tourette Syndrome. We dealt with bullying from every level of leadership. Nobody understood what it was, and he was getting sanctioned for it and punished for it. His confidence was really, really low. Even though I tried to give him positive talks and everything, he just did not want to go to school.

After two years of trying to work things out with no success, I did a vigorous search for a different school. I talked to my neighbors and the community members I see every day, I went on Camden Enrollment, I looked at the Camden Enrollment booklet that shows you all of the schools’ growth rates and academics, and so forth. I’d never heard of a Renaissance School before, and I was kind of scared. But after calling [a Renaissance School network in Camden],* I felt kind of confident. So I put him in [a Renaissance School in Camden].  Continue reading

Should an Ivy League Business School Train Education Leaders? Why Not?

Leading a large school district is a complex endeavor. Your days are spent managing thousands of employees charged with educating tens or hundreds of thousands of students, overseeing budgets that can easily reach nine figures, and navigating a complex legal and political environment. It’s not unreasonable to think that given the skill set needed to tackle those challenges, a business school training could be a great complement to traditional education leadership pipelines — which usually involve experience as a teacher, principal, and central office administrator, accompanied by training at schools of education, before taking on the superintendent role.

In fact, Bellwether’s Eight Cities project includes several examples where leaders with business backgrounds have overseen reforms that led to better outcomes for kids, including Joel Klein in New York City, Michael Bennet in Denver, and Paymon Rouhanifard in Camden. (Our site also includes examples of districts led by superintendents with more traditional backgrounds as teachers and school administrators, like Henderson Lewis in New Orleans.)

But efforts to infuse business skills into the superintendent role are still met with fierce criticism. Take for example the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation,* which recently gave Yale’s School of Management $100 million to house the Foundation’s efforts to develop a pipeline of public school leaders. Diane Ravitch and like-minded folks on Twitter are describing this as another step towards the “privatization” of public education. 

Edward P. Evans Hall, Yale School of Management, New Haven, CT. Via Wikimedia user Nick Allen.

Broad’s expansion and move to Yale is but the latest in an ongoing debate about the ideal skill sets for transformative district leaders. Should they be well-versed in pedagogical theory, curriculum design, and classroom management practices, or should their expertise be grounded in the leadership of large organizations and management of multi-million dollar budgets? 

A better question would be: why should a large district have to choose? The Broad-Yale partnership could help strengthen public school leadership by adding new and complementary skill sets so that superintendents can benefit from the best of both worlds.  Continue reading

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.