Saturday, June 14, 2008

Re-assignment in the city schools

Last week, Sara Neufeld, Education Reporter for The Baltimore Sun, reported on the issue of magnet schools not being able to re-assign students anymore. This is an issue near and dear to me, and I was really happy to see it reported.

Ensuing discussion on the InsideEd blog was interesting as well; it's an issue that deserves much discussion because it speaks to huge issues in education, issues that go beyond magnet schools, but also to school choice and even vouchers. And, as it turns out, we really don't know what Dr. Alonso feels about these issues, particularly about magnet schools.

First off, my first reaction to the article was that nothing has really changed. In my years in the system, magnet schools have always had to show intervention strategies before re-assigning students to their neighborhood schools. These intervention strategies included quarterly progress reports, report cards sent home to parents, parental contact logs by teachers, and teachers offering coach class. Once a student failed three or more courses, however, with all these intervention strategies in place, he or she could be re-assigned to a neighborhood year after the school year is finished.

What Dr. Alonso is saying in the article does not seem much different than what these schools have done for years. However, he came into the system after a few years of instability, in both the magnet schools and in the BCPSS overall. He entered the system with long lists of students to be re-assigned from all the magnet schools, without knowing what the intervention strategies had been before they were re-assigned. These intervention records were apparently kept poorly from these magnet schools, and Dr. Alonso, understandably perhaps, issued the decree that intervention strategies must be in place before reassignment occurs. But I think it's important to know that it's really not much different than has been done for at least the last decade or so; intervention strategies have always been in place (at least for the last ten years).

With that being said, what Dr. Alonso is saying to Ms. Neufeld is different than what the folks working in the schools are hearing. On the teacher level, we have heard from sources all around that re-assignment will no longer be happening. Period. A memo just yesterday confirmed this: "As per Dr. Alonso: No reassignment will be occuring. None." I am not sure where the communication breakdown occurs, but it is part of the huge rumor system that the BCPSS has (it includes constant rumors that Dr. Alonso is courting job offers from around the country and isn't expected to be here long, that he fires people on the spot, etc), particularly about the Alonso administration. I think it's probably because there are still a number of formerly secure folks who are still fearful for their jobs. In either case, someone needs to look into the fact why Dr. Alonso is telling the press that reassignments can still occur with intervention, yet the story has totally changed by the time it gets to the teachers; who is changing the story?

Anyhow, I don't have much of a problem with Dr. Alonso's words to the Sun:

"That's (large numbers of students being re-assigned) unacceptable," Alonso said in an interview. "It represents a lack of accountability on the part of the school given the fact that they begin with students who by definition are the most academically able students in the city. ... My expectation is that they succeed with them, that they put in place not only extraordinary educational programs but also the interventions that are necessary."

But herein lies the key. Dr. Alonso's words here are reasonable, but looking closer, you notice that the phrase "interventions that are necessary" is vague and scary. In my experience, "interventions that are necessary" are things like a twilight credit-recovery program that is nearly a complete joke. It's making the minimum grade a student can receive a 50, even though failing is a 60 - this means that a student can earn a 15% (or, heck, a 0, because they never show up) every quarter, but get a 50 every quarter, and can pull up their yearlong grade by acheiving a 70 in the last quarter. It's giving kids way too many chances to continue to lie, or to walk the hall for all their academic lives, or to skip class all the time, because suspension has nearly been elmiinated as an interention tool.

I'm all about giving kids lots of chances. Throughout my career, I have written letters on behalf of students who have been re-assigned; "Bobby" is one of these success stories. But, every year, there are a few students who have (a) failed every course; (b) stopped attending school; or (c) presented huge discipline issues that hindered every other student's education. Yes, trying to re-assign nearly 100 students is obviously a problem. But the magnet schools would be greatly improved if only 20 or so students left.

So, the big question is, who makes the final decision about who is transferred? Why are schools getting the messages that transfers cannot occur? In my experience, a transfer can be a very good thing for students; it gives them a fresh start and can motivate them to work harder and make it back to the school. (A current graduate failed every course in her 9th grade year because she skipped all the time, and was re-assigned. She worked her way back, returned for her Junior year and graduated as a strong student just last week.)

It's also a big issue simply the possibility of re-assignment can be a big motivation factor for students. If students see so-and-so, who skipped most classes in the basement and got zeroes and in-school suspension all year, return to the school, they will see that there is no accountability at all.

I agree there needs to be something that is centralized, but I'm not satisfied with the vague message about re-assignment that Dr. Alonso has presented, nor have I heard enough about what he feels the function of a magnet school should be. One can see from the falling (and falling-off the list altogether) Newsweek rankings that the city's magnet schools have hit some rough times in recent years - what is Dr. Alonso going to do about this? It's partly a function of increasing class size (again, my load has increased from 75 students at once to 160-175; my average class size from 25 to 33-35), plus partly the function of a growing influence of gangs and other poor influences on school climate? To make the entire system better, you have to make all the schools better, and not bring the best ones down in the process.

It's important to know this: students in these magnet schools are at-risk students. They sometimes have family support, and sometimes have a better idea of how to be a student than students in other schools, but they have just as much potential to be brought down by unsavory elements around them as other students. It's important to know that this isn't just about teachers whining about having too many students in classes or too many 'bad kids'. It's about making sure the most at-risk students are not continually brought down by students who get chance after chance but continue to be a jerk and a troublemaker. I've seen it happen, over and over again, and it's sad. These magnet schools should be a refuge where high expectations and standards are held, and the kids are not babied. After all, they're not going to be babied in the real world. Teaching kids responsibility is a good thing, not a bad thing, and I wish I was hearing that from Dr. Alonso.

Data from the last four years reveals that most students complete four years in these schools, and most of those who do not have left the system altogether. Therefore, the schools lose about 10% of students for reasons other than moving out of the system. These 10% could have dropped out, they could have decided the commute was too tough, their parents could have pulled them, etc. I don't see what the problem is. The programs are working for the vast majority of students.

Gregory Kane lit into the debate as well, and he's totally right. I worry about the lack of accountability we're putting on the young people in this situation. It's so frustrating to try to teach responsibility all the time, and to have it superceded by those above you. It feels like it's happening here. I hope I'm wrong. I guess we'll see next year, and see if, say, students Jenita Adams* (who spent a whole semester walking the halls and skipping class, and later turned in her mother's ultrasound scan as her own, feigning pregnancy as the reason) and Antoine Hill* (who never came to school and thus failed everything) are back next year. They've been assigned tutors and mentors; they have had parent conferences requested; they have failed on every progress report and report card. Are these interventions enough? We'll see.

* Not their real names, of course.

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