Property development has a direct link to student test scores in public schools, according to a new study by the Brookings Institution.
The report says areas with restrictive zoning laws about the type and cost of housing—have wider gaps in school performance. It also means gaps in educational opportunities that can impact a student’s economic future.
Here are a few specific findings from the study called Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools:
• Housing costs an average of 2.4 times as much, or nearly $11,000 more per year, near a high-scoring public school than near a low-scoring public school
• Students from middle and high-income families attend better-performing schools than low-income students
• The less restrictive the zoning, the smaller the gaps
Out of the 100 largest metropolitan areas, the study ranks Nashville-Middle Tennessee in the top third at 27th for gaps in test scores that are linked to housing. The average middle to high income student here attends a school where test scores are 26-percent higher than a school attended by the average low income student.
Some researchers say it’s a form of economic segregation in schools– prompting some districts to look at removing residential barriers to school integration.
“We see a potential there—for changing the mechanism for this transfer option from within school systems or intra-district choice to inter-district choice,” says Dr. Claire Smrekar of the National Center on School Choice and professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. “But there must be, there has to be some federal incentives, some federal supports that go along with that kind of option to provide transportation… and thinking very deeply about what school district lines might be transferrable, what school districts lines would provide a pathway from moving kids from failing schools into schools that are thriving.”
Metro Nashville schools are already moving toward a more open choice enrollment plan—working with city officials to address issues around public transportation for students. And if education is considered a solution to bridging the gap between rich and poor in this country, other schools districts might be compelled to look at ways to open up opportunities for students across district lines.
Nashville’s Cameron School is actually two schools in one building. One part of the building is a traditional public school (Cameron Middle School), whose staff is aggressively working to get rid of the label it acquired in recent years as a “failing school.” The other part (Cameron College Prep) is a charter school run by LEAD Academy, which believes its college-focused approach will improve performance and the graduation rate. Which plan is working might be evident after state achievement test scores are released. Meanwhile, officials with both programs are claiming success.
“Two years ago we only had four eighth-graders pass the TCAP (Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program), and now we’re at half of our eighth grade,” says Chris Hames, principal of Cameron Middle School.
And this opinion from a spokesperson with Cameron College Prep: “We have taken an interim assessments that indicates our students are well on their way to having full proficiency and even advanced levels in their academic subjects,” says Shaka Mitchell.
This healthy competition by schools within a school is something Nashville education officials plan to replicate. Cameron school is in the process of being converted from traditional to charter—one grade at a time beginning this year with fifth grade classes. It will have company next school year, as Nashville implements the same process at Brick Church Middle School.
It’s all part of the district’s ambitious plan to turn around the worst five percent of low-performing schools. State education officials gave a public endorsement to the unique idea at a recent news conference.
“Working together over the next 5 years we can ensure that all 9 priority schools here in Metro Nashville are performing at the top 25%,” says Chris Barbic, Achievement School District Superintendent.
Most agree the plan might not be possible without the recent federal waiver of No Child Left Behind—and without an open-minded approach.
“To me, it’s not about charter schools, it’s not about private schools, it’s not about public schools,” says Dr. Jesse Register, MNPS Director of Schools. “It is about good schools for all children and that’s what we have to be about in this school system.”
It’s an approach that is so far unproven, admits Register, who says LEAD Academy was one of few charter programs that responded to Nashville’s request for proposals to manage a conversion school. LEAD already runs 2 schools (middle and high schools) in Nashville that are full charter programs.
“We’ve got some scores at Lead Academy that rival some of the best selective schools in the city,” says Mitchell. “We think we’ve got some structures in place that really set our students and our teachers up well for success. We’re a nimble organization and that helps us get into schools maybe faster than some of these other reform sort of packages.”
Until official proof of the program’s impact on student achievement, Mitchell points to students like Basel Melek, an 11-year-old fifth grader.
“ I couldn’t believe I like Cameron college prep and I learned that much. I thought that I like, I was going not to reach this level that I’m on right now,” says Melek.
While the charter program is only for fifth grade this year, it will follow Basel and his classmates each year until the entire school—fifth through eighth grade—is converted. Yet, students currently in the grades that have not been converted are also making progress, especially in the area of discipline, with one-fifth the number of student suspensions as a few years ago.
“Our suspensions have gone down 500-percent… We’ve really drastically cut our out-of-school suspensions, our time away from instruction,” says Hames. “So our kids are bought in, our kids are doing what they can you know for their reputation and for Cameron’s reputation. They want to leave it better than they found it.”
You can see visible differences in the hallways of Cameron Middle compared to the hallways of Cameron College Prep. But administrators with both programs say that view is too superficial to guage something as important as how to turn around a school’s performance.
“ I hope they’re learning from us I hope we’re learning from them,” says Mitchell. “And you can really do that when you’re sharing a space with another school. And that’s what we’re doing here.”
“They have one way of attacking it we have a different way of attacking it and we’re hoping we’re both right because if we’re both right then all kids succeed, and that’s what we want in the end,” says Hames.
At Nashville’s Overton High School, 9th grade students spent a lot of time this school year planning for graduation—four years from now. Every freshman had to write down specific steps to reach the goal of graduating with the class in 2015. They also had to name 3 people who can help support them in the process, and sign a certificate as sort of an oath to stay on track.
Those steps are part of a unique program at Overton called “Commitment to Graduate,” or C2G. On the day that high school juniors in Tennessee were taking the ACT, and Overton seniors were allowed time for college-visitations—the freshmen spent a day reflecting on their graduation goals, participating in team-building activities, and signing a huge banner that says “Commitment to Graduate: Class of 2015.”
Ninth-grader D’Anthony Wilson says banner-signing and goal-writing can make a difference for some students.
“It could be a contract; you could call it that—(a contract) to commit to graduate,” says Wilson.
As Katie Harton signs her name to the banner, she points out that C2G makes it okay for students who are easily influenced by peer pressure.
“It’s high school, so everybody does like what everybody else is doing. Since everybody… signed it, I think it helps,” says Harton.
C2G does rely a bit on peer influence and gimmicks; the students also receive green arm bracelets that say “Commitment to Graduate” and t-shirts printed with Class of 2015. But the program is more complex than it seems, according to the Freshman Academy Principal.
“The freshman year really is the most important year for kids,” says Dr. Jill Pittman, Freshman Academy Principal. “What we know is if they decide that they’re not going to graduate, they pretty much have decided that by the time they’re in 9th grade.”
“The commitment is to evaluate their own progress and to be responsible for their own success. So we did that through looking at student data.”
Using statistics provided by the Data Warehouse of Metro Nashville Public Schools, students study spreadsheets reflecting their specific numbers – attendance record, disciplinary actions, grades and test scores.
“They’re not always grounded in reality, so this serves as a great reality-check for kids,” says Pittman. “When you talk to kids and say ‘What did you learn today about yourself that you didn’t know before?’ Just to have kids say ‘Wow, I’ve been tardy a lot for school this year.’ Or to say ‘I thought I wanted to go to medical school, but when I look at my grades I realize they aren’t that strong– so I have a lot of work to do.’ Or for kids to say ‘I think I’ve got it going on—I’m in good shape!’ is really reaffirming. “
Pittman says C2G is not all self-centered for the freshmen. During group sessions, students are encouraged to map out strategies and collaborate on their individual goals toward graduations, as well as how they can support each other.
“There’s a lot of power in kids trusting each other enough to say ‘Here’s what I’m doing and I can help you along the way.’
“I have faith in myself that I’ll be able to graduate. But for others who don’t have so much faith in themselves, I can help them,” says Wilson. “We’re trying to start a new trend I guess, and we’re going to start helping other students so they can become successful because we’re going to get as many people to do it as possible.”
Overton school officials say the current school graduation rate is a bit more than 77%- higher than the state average, but not where they’d like it to be. And while C2G has much symbolism and meaning, Pittman admits it must be constant and repetitive—for the next 3 years.
“If we were to get 90% of these kids—so 9 out of 10—to follow through on their commitment and do it in 4 years, then we would feel like that was a good step in the right direction.”
They’ll have a very visible reminder: the huge banner with all their signatures will be hung in the lobby of the school.
“And there it shall hang until these kids graduate!” says Pittman.
Robert Drake teaches Algebra 2 to a classroom full of English Language Learners at Smyrna High School, and he knows it will take more than chalkboards and calculators. He jumps, waves and moves around the classroom while animatedly explaining math concepts. When his students still look puzzled about a lesson on factoring, Drake turns to his secret weapon: the I-Pod docked near his desk.
Music begins to play the song “I Like to Move It” from the movie “Madagascar.” Drake starts singing and dancing, trying to get the students to join in, before turning to the chalkboard to demonstrate the algebra concept of moving numbers from one side of the equation to the other.
“I use a lot of music; I use movement with hands,” says Drake. “They don’t necessarily have to know the song. But it’s so surprising how much it will resonate and they’ll remember it with songs. “
Drake admits that he’s a very physical math teacher—no matter who are his students. But when he began teaching ELL students a few years ago, Drake realized his teaching style could help bridge the language and cultural gap. That was especially important as Smyrna High School faced a sudden influx during the last 4 years of refugee students from Burma— a population known as the Karen. The students spoke little if any English, and most had not attended school until being resettled in the United States.
“Some of these people can do the math concept. Some of these are struggling because they haven’t been in school since 4th grade. They’ve lived in a refugee camp,” explains Drake. “Some, when they get here, never held a calculator. Math that (U.S.) students have done since 5th grade, they may have not seen– adding, subtracting.”
The arrival of Karen students prompted Smyrna High officials to re-think its English as a Second Language (ESL) program. Before, the challenge had been simply teaching English to students who speak a different language—but who had schooling in their native language. That isn’t usually the case with the Karen, according to Collin Olsen, an ESL teacher at Smyrna High.
“Almost all of the students—over 90% of our students—were born in refugee camps. Until they came to Smyrna, they never participated in an economy. They don’t understand what a king is or president or congress,” explains Olsen. “ If they’re 15, they go straight into 9th grade. Because even if they have the educational background of a first-grader, we can’t place a 15-year- old in the first grade.”
Smyrna High decided to try something different: it placed the Karen students in so-called “sheltered” classes, which group together students who are learning English and have little formal education—especially in core subjects that are required for graduation.
“We don’t want them to go to the standard classrooms and just fail,” says Olsen. “So I think we feel that this is the best way with the large number of students that we have to give them the best education that they can get.
“We’ve either found teachers who are willing to try something different and maybe accept poor test scores—which are somewhat inevitable– or we’ve gone and gotten the [certifications] ourselves.”
And that’s how Robert Drake, the algebra teacher, volunteered to become Drake, the ESL algebra teacher.
“I enjoy teaching those that are a little bit different. I taught special ed. And then as the Karen students started coming about 5 years ago, I had some of those first few and some of them did real well. They’re very hard workers. Most of them understand the opportunity they have here and they will work.
Smaller class size is a big factor in improving student performance– one of many revealing comments from teachers who gathered for a town hall style discussion at Nashville Public Television. The Teacher Town Hall drew more than 100 teachers from several different school districts in middle Tennessee. Here is a preview of the broadcast that will air in its entirety on February 29.
To review some results from the NPT teacher survey that preceded the studio taping, click here: Nashville Teacher Town Hall Survey
Tennessee is leaving behind No Child Left Behind with approval from the Obama Administration. Governor Haslam says the federal standards have become impossible to meet. But Tennessee will continue to work hard at education reform in a way that is effective yet realistic.
Tennessee is one of 10 states that will receive waivers under the federal No Child Left Behind Law, according to an announcement by President Barack Obama on Thursday. The President will release details of the waivers later today. For more on this developing story, click here for the Associated Press.
Every high school diploma does not count when it comes to the graduation rate in Tennessee. Beginning last year with the Class of 2011, students are required to finish high school in 4 years by age 18 in order to count in the state graduation rate ( see “Calculating and Reporting High School Graduation Rates“).
That means Bathashee Bar, who just graduated from high school, has a diploma that will not show up in Nashville’s graduation rate—despite the hardships she endured to earn it. Bathashee (Cee-Cee to her friends) spent her childhood in refugee camps of Southeast Asia after her family escaped persecution and possible death in their native Burma.
“My daddy thought if the family come here, we could go to school and one day we can help the people that are poor, and we can help our family get better,” Cee-Cee says in heavily accented English.
By the time Cee-Cee’s family settled in Nashville, she was almost 19 and could speak very little English—both reasons that disqualified her from enrolling in traditional high schools. A refugee counselor helped her enroll in The Academy at Old Cockrill, a high school for students who are over-age but need more credits to earn a diploma.
“It’s hard, yeah,” says Cee-Cee. “ I learn English, but it’s hard for me.”
Cee-Cee’s story is common in Nashville public schools. The district is one of the most diverse in Tennessee, with more than 120 languages spoken by students.
“We have students coming from all over the world relocating here and many of those students don’t speak English,” says Jay Steele, assistant superintendent of high schools for Nashville Public Schools. “Some of them have never been in a school. So it’s a real challenge to educate those students and graduate them in 4 years.”
According to the Tennessee Department of Education Report Card 2011, English-language learners or E.L.L. students have one of the lowestgraduation rates in Nashville public schools at 64%, surpassing only homeless students (61%) and special education students (55%).
Even so, Nashville schools had been making progress toward improving the graduation rate for ALL students through a variety of approaches like freshman academies and the Newcomer Academy for E.L.L. students. Then last year, the Tennessee Department of Education changed how graduation rates are calculated— to meet federal guidelines. That lowered the time allowed to graduate from 5 years, and up to age 22, to 4 years, up to age 18. In the first year under the new rules– the class of 2011—Nashville’s graduation rate dropped from more than 82% to 76%.
“That’s wrong. They aren’t in this country for 2 years and they expect them to get through everything at the same rate as someone who was born here,” says Elaine Fahrner, the principal at Cee- Cee’s high school . She and many educators are frustrated by a process that discounts diplomas earned by E.L.L. students and others with special needs—just because they take a bit more time.
“To me, a graduate is a graduate. They’re less likely to need government assistance; they’re less likely to have relationships with the police; they are consumers and not takers– so I don’t understand why when somebody graduates it doesn’t count as a graduate.”
Ultimately, the debate about graduation rates doesn’t matter much to Cee-Cee and her parents, who feel a diploma – even if not counted by policymakers—is a dream come true. With the help of a translator, Cee-Cee’s father tells us how he feels.
“Until now our heart broken, our tears come out. We never thought that our child go to the graduation and get good grades, and so we are really excited for God’s plan for our future in the United States.”
If educators could spot drop-out indicators every day for each student, they would have a powerful tool for improving the graduation rate. Nashville School officials think they have that tool in what’s known as the Data Warehouse Dashboard.
The word “warehouse” is a bit misleading. It’s really a sophisticated online database software that allows almost every piece of information on MNPS’ 80,000 students to be entered, accessed and updated every 24 hours. Laura Hansen, director of information management for Metro Nashville Public Schools, demonstrates how it works.
“I can click on the student’s name and it opens up their student profile Dashboard and it gives us information at a glance– a lot of information consolidated in one place– about the student,” explains Hansen.”
The official name of the program is Longitudinal Educational Analytics and Decision Support System (LEADS). Nashville is the only Tennessee school district to have this technology, which is funded by Race to the Top dollars.
A staggering amount of information is made almost instantly available through LEADS. Much of it is information that has always been maintained by school districts. But LEADS provides a high-tech, reliable way for student data to be tracked, monitored, and rapidly accessed. MNPS officials are most interested in the warning signs for dropouts as identified by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.
The top 3 warning signs or “flags” are: attendance problems, out of school suspensions and academic failures. Hansen makes a few clicks on her mouse to pull up a computer screen that tallies those indicators for MNPS high schools.
“So, this indicates there are 478 students who have tripped one of those 3 flags. Students who have 2 of those flags there are 76. And then we have 17 students who have tripped all 3 of those at-risk indicators,” explains Hansen.
“When a student starts hitting the flags, our schools are really on top of those students. You can see what supports and interventions have been done on the Student Profile Dashboard. You can click on the number of supports and interventions. This student has 31 that have been logged.”
Being able to spot warning signs of a dropout as soon as they pop up helps school officials to intervene. The student might need extra academic support; counseling to find out if there are issues at home; or a different type of school.
The LEADS Data Dashboard has been available to school officials and principals for a couple of years. In 2011, teachers have been allowed access to some of the student data. Many, like Joy Pillow-Jones of Maplewood High School, say the system is very useful in the classroom and helping to determine if a student needs additional support and what kind.
“If I get a child blindly, not knowing them, they may tell me something (to help with), and I may help with that issue—not knowing that based on some of these other things the situation is deeper. “With LEADS, you can see a pattern, maybe, when they started having problems,” says Pillow-Jones. “And when you talk to them, they can tell you at this time we lost our home; at this time my mom and dad divorced; at this time, this happened.”
LEADS is not a tool only for high school students. The Data Dashboard also helps teachers provide targeted instruction for students in middle and elementary school—so they don’t develop warning flags in the future. And on a larger scale, officials can look at the entire school system for areas of concern or success.
“Best practice is that all of our decisions are data-driven decisions,” says Hansen. “And there is so much data out there, to be able to leverage that and to bring that kind of power to people’s fingertips, so that when they say ‘We need to focus on this,’ they can show ‘And here’s the reason why.’ Anecdotal information isn’t what we’ll rely on any more. It’ll be solid evidence that here’s where we need to go. And research shows that when you’re able to do that, you’ll get better results.”
The MNPS LEADS program is now being considered by a few other Tennessee school districts, and even the state Department of Education for managing school data. Meanwhile, MNPS is looking at ways to expand LEADS for use in tracking student progress through college; reviewing teacher performance to help determine best sources for recruitment; analyzing data to tap community resources to help with a particular school problem, like bullying; and monitoring information that might be useful to public health officials.
Hansen admits some of these plans are sensitive and might raise privacy concerns.
“The sharing of that (data) and even the collection of that is a sensitive area that we’re going to navigate carefully,” says Hansen. “It is one of those very sensitive issues and it’s one of those roadblocks that has stopped other cities from being able to move even as far as we’ve moved. So I think with some understanding and some partnerships and being very careful and cautious, we do have the ability to move forward with this. And I can’t over-emphasize enough the fact that it is going to take a community effort to get a good picture of the whole child. School isn’t the only group of folks that own that. We’re also not the only folks that own the responsibility for making sure our students succeed.”
Teens learn much about sexuality from their peers. But the information isn’t always accurate or even well-intended—unless the teens delivering the messages know the facts about sexuality and how to effectively communicate them.
That’s the idea behind a student group in Middle Tennessee known as PG-13 Players. “PG” stands for Peer Guided, the method used by the program to make sure teens receive accurate information about sexuality from sources with whom they feel comfortable—their peers.
“A lot of people feel uncomfortable with talking with their parents or their school counselors because with parents, it’s just awkward. And teachers, counselors, doctors– you really don’t know those people that well,” says Ana, a high school student in Nashville.
Another teen, Madde, explains it this way: “There are a lot of things that go unsaid, and there isn’t enough time to teach some things to kids in the classroom or you don’t feel comfortable teaching kids in a classroom, or a school won’t let you teach kids. “I tell my friends everything… So why shouldn’t I be the friend to tell them how to be safe?”
Madde is doing just that as a member of the PG-13 Players, all teen performers who deliver messages in the form of skits, portraying real-life situations and tackling tough issues about sexuality. The PG-13 Players write their own scripts and perform for audiences at high schools, churches, and community centers. Topics include sexually transmitted infections, teen pregnancy, healthy relationships, and other issues like assault and drug abuse.
“The original idea behind the players was to create something that started conversations. Not a ‘Here’s a morality play with what you should do and the answer within it’ but to start the conversation and to push people to think,” explains Lindsey Goodwin, Manager of Education for Planned Parenthood of Middle Tennessee, whose education outreach includes PG-13 Players.
But the teens can not properly educate their peers until after receiving their own education and training. Before becoming a PG-13 Player, students undergo an extensive summer program so that they have the necessary skills and knowledge to do successfully do the work—especially the challenge of answering audience questions while still in character, which happens at the end of each performance ends.
“When they start interacting with the character and the character pushes back or doesn’t change or doesn’t do what they expect the character to do, then the audience is like ‘Wait, what? Why aren’t you doing that? What are you thinking?’ And the audience starts doing the work that we hope they do in their own lives,” says Goodwin.
That is instant affirmation for some of the teen performers.
“You can see that little light in their eyes when they find out something and they think ‘Really? I never knew that.’ It helps them be safer and better protected, and it’s really a great feeling.”
Equally important are the results that do not result from the stage performances; that happen in school hallways or community hang-outs, explains Jalessa, another PG-13 Player.
“I recently had a friend [who] got pregnant, and she didn’t know what to do. I was trying to help her– like find places she could go for help, find some counseling, stuff like that…. Just not stopping here, but trying to go beyond that. I think I’ve become more important to my friends now. I can explain things and even help them further in their sexual decisions.”