Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Hidden Gems and Community Cohorts

An announcement, and a reflection.

Thursday, May 15th, from 4-8pm
Meany Middle School's Jaguar Arts Festival
301 21st Ave. E.
Admission free. Catered dinner available.

This event will feature participatory, performing, and visual art of all kinds, including the unveiling of a "long lost" William Cumming painting found in a storage closet last year and retouched by the 90-year-old local artist. For more info: http://www.seattleschools.org/schools/meany/

CPPS has identified Meany Middle School as a hidden gem in the Seattle Public Schools' system. It's a small middle school (450 - 600 students, depending on classroom usage), with an inclusive philosophy, a decent facility, and a strong principal and teaching staff. Its thriving programs include an arts integration model, advanced learning opportunties (ALO), schoolwide literacy, music, advanced math, afterschool sports and activities.

It's also undersubscribed, because although community parents have worked to raise its profile and its funds, aggregate test scores, programs, and events don't stand out in comparison to the bigger schools with more resources, more high-test students, and more dollars. Most unfortunately, plenty of folks never visit the school to find out what has changed in the last several years (scores rising far faster than average; new programs launched, reputations contradicted)

The CPPS hidden gem program is designed to bring more awareness of successful small programs like Meany's to the community, because when parents and students don't look for themselves, old beliefs die hard. A corollary to this truism: old patterns are hard to break. Even when schools drastically improve, many parents fear to choose schools less often named on their friends and neighbors' choice lists. Nobody wants their child to end up alone.

In addition to hidden gem publicity, CPPS is endeavoring to bring parent communities together to build cohorts and provide supports for "unpopular" but educationally strong choices. We're recruiting 4th grade families to check out Meany and southeast families to invest in and become ambassadors for several schools in that cluster (SE Ambassador workshop, 6:30 pm Thursday, May 22nd at Orca K-8). Please attend, and email me, stephaniej@cppsofseattle.org, with questions.

What do you think? Can we get parents to look beyond the safety of traditional choices? Do these strategies have promise? I hope so.


TechyMom said...

I like the idea of calling out schools that people may not know about.

Does anyone have any thoughts on the Montessori program at T.T. Minor?

anonymous said...

If I lived nearby, I would certainly take a look at Meany! You are doing the PR work that the district should be doing - Good for you. I hope the school reaps the rewards of your effort.

Melissa Westbrook said...

I think this is a good strategy. My only comment is a sentence phrase in the text:

"...to the bigger schools with more resources, more high-test students, and more dollars."

By more dollars do you mean from the school, the district or fundraising?

Most of the "bigger" schools have more students than they can truly hold (and not always by choice). They get more dollars per student, true, but they don't get more dollars from the district. Meaning that any middle school over, I think, 800 students gets the same amount as Eckstein at about 1200. The same number of secretaries, the same number of assistant principals but 400 more students.

As to the phrase "high test" students - is that meant to mean Spectrum or APP students? I don't know. But those are successful programs and obviously popular, otherwise people wouldn't be filling those schools.

Every school has a choice to make about what it offers. I absolutely agree that schools can get a reputation that hangs on for years even when undeserved (good or bad). It is hard to gauge whether people turn away from a school because of personnel, programs, or lack of programs.

It might be worth going into the elementary schools and asking parents what middle schools they are considering and why.

anne said...

I would like to hear more about how Meany addresses the needs of kids that are capable of Spectrum/App level work. I considered Meany last year and decided to go to WMS/Spectrum because, while I really would prefer to send my son to a neighborhood school, I have not found it to be the case that the promises that the school/teachers can individualize instruction for all the students in the class bears out in reality.

I do not care specifically about WASL scores, but Meany's WASL scores indicate that they have a population of students that are struggling below grade-level and therefore the majority of the students in each class need remedial, not grade-level of beyond grade-level work.

How can a more advanced student be challenged in a large classroom with that population of students?

At the open house two years ago I asked the Math teacher how many students did ALOs and he said just a couple in the class. I don't want my to have to force him to do the extra-credit. I want the general requirements in the class to go further. I want the general expectations to be set high.

That was my biggest concern and I know there are a lot of parents that have gone to Meany that are very happy there, but I just can't get to the point where I believe my son's needs will be met.

Why would it be any different than elementary school where in math we struggled to get some more challenging work for the more advanced kids? It just didn't happen because the teacher was busy enough with the rest of the class.

anonymous said...

It's so frustrating because this is how a poor performing school stays a poor performing school. What Anne says has merit, and I see her point of view. I would probably make the exact same choice if I were in her shoes. She says, and I agree, that if the majority of students are performing below grade level, then classroom teachers would focus more on the remedial level work, rather than grade level or advanced level work. Parents of high performing students fear that their their kids needs may not be met at the school, and choose not to send their kids there. It's a cycle. How do you change it? How do you begin to attract higher performing students? Is it a neighborhood movement, as Stephanie suggests? If more neighborhood families choose the school, then performance will improve, thus attracting higher performing students? Or does the district have to do something concrete and attractive, such as adding a strong Spectrum program, an immersion, science and math magnet, etc? Or does the district need to close the school down, and start all over again, with a lot of marketing? How do you break the cycle?

anne said...

i wonder the same thing. i would like to help improve the school, but three years isn't a long time, and it is unlikely to improve significantly in that time period.

I might be willing to do it for elementary school, where there are siz years ahead and the academics aren't as important as middle school/high school. By middle school kids need to learn the study skills and foundation subjects to succeed in high school where their grades really matter.

Charlie Mas said...

The District wanted to move the Spectrum program for the Central Region from Washington to Meany. Washington has about 150 more students than would be good for the building while Meany had plenty of space. The Program Placement Committee found it to be the clear, obvious solution, but the principal at Meany rejected it.

So, although this should have been a District-level decision, although it was the choice that served the students and the District best, it was vetoed by the Meany principal.

This is a critical change that is coming for Seattle Public Schools - a centralization of authority. In the future, principals will not retain veto power over program placements in their buildings.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Anne, you hit on many good points. Parents, whatever their child's abilities, want to know how they will be served. If they see what is offered is haphazard or uneven, it makes them wary. As you point out, the middle school part is the shortest section of a student's career and it is hard to make much of an impact especially if the principal isn't on-board or looking for active parents to help propel change.

As well, there are parents/educators who are philosophically against any kind of separation of students. Those parents seek out schools that also have that philosophy (although some elementary schools that say they don't "need" Spectrum have ended up paying for additional tutoring in math because those students need it). However, you can see that most of these schools tend to be smaller and are unable to have wide-ranging programs (including foreign language, music, etc.)

If the district, through the Strategic Plan, is going for more uniformity in what is offered (and note I said "what" not "how"), then you may see more schools having to have real programs for student needs. As well the assignment plan will likely put pressure on schools to match offerings so that a degree of equity can be maintained. Whether principals and teachers are going to want to do this or how they will be compelled to get with the new plan remains to be seen.

Charlie Mas said...

It's pretty clear that people want their middle school children to have access to challenging curricula - whether it be through a Spectrum program or some other model.

Not all of the students who are ready and able to succeed with more challange necessarily fit the Spectrum mold or meet the Spectrum eligibility requirements. Schools must find other ways to deliver that sort of rigorous, complex, ambiguous, and accelerated work outside of any structured program.

The principals and administrators can wax poetic about the inclusive classrooms and differentiated instruction, but I don't know a lot of people who are buying that myth anymore. Differentiated instruction hardly ever happens - maybe once a week - and, when it does, it is usually clumsy and punitive (Mandy is assigned an essay while Billy is asked to make a poster). It's de-motivating - the absolutely worst outcome possible.

I think it might be different if a school could articulately describe their ALO and how - exactly - it delivers a rigorous, accelerated curriculum to select students in an inclusive environment. I think it might be different if the District would review these programs for quality and efficacy (as they promised to do when they created ALOs). I think it would be different if there was data to support the contention that their program works. Right now, there is none of that. Not at Meany, not anywhere.

anonymous said...

I totally agree with Charlie on this one. I think the inclusive environment does not meet the needs of kids at either end of the spectrum. It is a middle ground.

Hale has this inclusive model. They offer students the opportunity to add on AP or honors work within the "inclusive" classroom. What? It does feel punitive. Sure, give me a heap of extra work, that is not the standard, that I don't have to do, and am not expected to do. I wonder how many kids actually do this? I would like to see the numbers. I also wonder how effective it is? They are not getting AP or honors level instruction, just extra work to do on their own.

Then take a school like Meany, which is fighting to keep the inclusive model, and has a majority of students that are struggling. I would think the standard drops below the middle ground in their classrooms. How exactly are the kids that need advanced level work served in that environment?

anonymous said...

Stephanie, can you describe how Meany's ALO program is offered within their inclusive model? Access to advanced level work is a hot topic these days, and it might be good to highlight how Meany's ALO works.

anne said...

Two years ago, at the Meany Open House, I asked the math teacher how he met the needs of the more advanced kids. He said through ALOs. I then asked how many kids in the class did the ALOs. He said just a few. That was enough to convince me that ALOs don't work very well. My son, although very strong in math, is not going to jump at an opportunity to do extra work.

Last year I attended an event for Meany in a parent's house during the enrollment period where several teachers, the principal, and lots of parents promoted Meany as a great school. The teachers and parents all claimed more advanced kids' needs were met, but I remain skeptical. Lots of parents think Salmon Bay is great, but then I hear on this blog that the curriculum is not very challenging at all. How many parents really know what their children should be learning at a given grade level? It's really hard to tell without attending the school and knowing what a challenging curriculum looks like at the grade-level in question.

And then there is another issue. I have never made any mention of the segration at WMS of APP/Spectrum students from the general population. But my son has repeatedly said that his classes that are not Spectrum/App have a much larger number of kids that are disruptive and the teachers have a much more difficult time controlling the classroom.

I attribute this to those classes having a larger number of kids that have already fallen far behind and lost interest in school. My fear is that a school like Meany, where most of those attending did not actively choose the school, but were assigned because they didn't even have the initiative to follow the enrollment process, will likely have more kids that fall into this category.

So, I would love to hear specifics from parents that have attended Meany on how these issues are addressed. For me it has to be more that they are committed to improving their neighborhood school and the school is working hard to bring all kids to a high level. Just like the criticisms of the Strategic Plan, I want specifics....

anonymous said...

My son went to Salmon Bay for 6th grade, and I am one of the parents who found nothing challenging in the curriculum. It was flat. In their case the lack of a challenging curriculum had nothing to do with struggling students, as Salmon Bay attracted very involved parents, with average to high achievers. For Salmon Bay it was simply, low expectations, and focusing on kids having fun - often in lieu of doing their work. For instance their focus on "collaboration and teamwork" tended to cause more chaos, chatting and socializing than anything else. The inclusion model meant that everyone was in one room including special ed students with high level needs which took a great deal of the teachers time away from teaching. It also means no ALO opportunities or Spectrum. Couple all of this with their enormous time spent out of the classroom - camping, skiing on 6 Fridays, school dances held during the school day, roller skating field trips......well you get the picture. Lot's of fun, little work. Is it a bad school? Absolutely not. Many parents love it. It all depends on what you are looking for. It was important for us to our son in a more structured classroom with high academic expectations. We had to go to Shoreline to find that! In Shoreline, they have self elected honors and HE CHOSE to take all 4 honors classes that were offered. It was the right choice for us - he is a straight A student, skipped a year in math, and now has classrooms where kids are focused and serious (as serious as middle schoolers can be anyway). And, he still has fun and enjoys school!

SolvayGirl said...

Meany was our first choice for public school for the 2006-7 school year primarily because of its small size and ALO program. My daughter is very bright, does well in school, but did not perform well on the Spectrum/APP test (and I opted NOT to pay for private testing). However, I had all of the same concerns that Ann voiced so well. We ended up biting the bullet and, with a lot of help from grandparents, enrolling her in a wonderful independent school—Explorer West. She has thrived and is getting very well-prepared for the rigors of high school.
Since we live in the southend, RB would be our reference school, and though I know the school is working hard to attract more neighborhood students, I can't help but apply the same logic to RB as I, and Ann, did to Meany. What happens when my child, who loves school and welcomes rigor, is in a classroom where a number of the students may have a completely different outlook?
I think the District's biggest challenge is to find a way to serve a broad range of students with often extremely different needs in the classroom. This dichotomy is much more prevalent in the southened where socio-economic diversity is great. I am thrilled that RB has made such great strides this year, but my child needs more than "working to pass the WASL." Will she be "ignored" because she is not at risk? Will she be bored? Will she be challenged? I can't waste her high school years on a bunch of questions.
I too would like to see some hard data on Meany's success with ALO...and not just in grades or test figures—what do parents think?

hschinske said...

Didn't Salmon Bay use to let kids work at their own level in math? I seem to remember an article in the Ballard paper about elementary students being allowed to take middle school math. Not sure what they did with middle schoolers who were ready for high school math, but Ballard High is so close that it would have made sense to send them there. Did all that quit happening, was it greatly exaggerated, or what?

I know a kid in a neighboring district who is in middle school and doing precalculus at the high school, so I was thinking about it again.

Helen Schinske

anonymous said...

Helen - I'm honestly not sure how Salmon Bay handles math at the elementary level, as we joined for middle school. In the middle school there is no advanced math or differentiation offered in 6th or 7th grade. Nor is there any advanced level work offered in any other subject. It is truly against their philosophy to separate kids by ability level - or even to offer advanced work within the classroom. Everybody works at the same pace, and in math on the same page, in the same CMP book. In an effort to prepare students for HS, and after much parent persistence, they now offer 8th grade students the opportunity to go into Int I if they would like to. That was a big step for them, and has been very popular. Salmon Bay is one of those schools that attracts average and high level achievers. Those kids will do well even in the face of a poor curriculum, low expectations, and lack of any ALO's. Note their test scores....some of the highest MS scores in the district. That's how they continually slip under the district radar, and stay popular amongst parents who think what I originally thought.....they must be doing something right to receive such high test scores. Not so in my opinion, just the demographics.

Maureen said...

ad hoc, Do you know how Salmon Bay teaches Int I? Is it during the school day with the same teacher that does the Middle School CMP curriculum for the other kids? (Or is it after school with tuition like at TOPS.)

TOPS only has one math teacher to cover 7th and 8th grade (total of 240 students) and we have been told that he can't be expected to teach accelerated math as well (it would mean four 'preps' instead of two). Also that tracking math would lead to all of the accelerated-in-math kids being in all of the same classes together which would be bad.

Salmon Bay is bigger at MS so maybe they have more math teachers and more flexibility in their schedule?

anonymous said...

Maureen - I'm not sure how many math teachers Salmon Bay has in their middle school, but I know there are at least two. Int I is taught during the school day and the teacher, Hien Le, teaches both CMP and IntI.

Int I is only offered to 8th grade students, and any motivated 8th grader can take the class. It is not like other middle schools such as Eckstein, where students have to "test in" or have a teacher recommendation. In keeping with their philosophy, and lack of emphasis on grades Salmon Bay has no grade requirements to enter or stay in Int I.

Stephanie Jones said...

I have only time for a brief check-in, so more later, but I know that the ALO program at Meany is only 2 years old, that they've had both excellent and poor ALO options offered, as different teachers "get it" differently. However, the new principal has set a clearer and more transparent standard for ALO expectations, in responding to parent requests/needs. Next fall, all classes will present their ALO options at the same time; there will be parent support meetings and student support via the librarian, so that nobody (kids or parents) feels isolated in making the honors choice. A parent-supported afterschool math (but free) course is moving capable 6th graders through the 7th grade curricula, to allow them to jump ahead of the curriculum. This is to be fitted into the regular school day next year: CMP ostensibly takes kids through the Int I level math in 8th grade, though some teachers need teaching support or supplements to truly have kids ready for Int II in 9th grade -- at Meany, the math teachers are all quite strong, and kids have gone from 8th CMP to 9th Int. II. This year's 6th grade afterschool cohort will be on track to enter HS at Int. III.

There's a lot more to address in terms of philosophy, parent support, deciding what will work in a diverse, high % of struggling kids environment, but I do believe that parents, working with cooperative teachers and administrators, and working together for a group of kids, not just their own kid, can help facilitate real ALO-style advanced progress. Obviously, that's my line -- More later.

anonymous said...

Just to clarify - in my previous post I mentioned that Salmon Bay students spent an enormous amount of time out of their classrooms - camping, skiing, school dances, roller skating, etc.

I have no problem with time spent out of the classroom if that time is spent doing something to support the learning going on inside the classroom. A camping trip could hold a ton of educational opportunities. Even a school dance could hold educational value - making a budget, advertising, calculating and ordering supplies, allocating any profits, etc.

Unfortunately, Salmon Bay did not use the field trips for this purpose. They were just for fun and entertainment, and resulted in my son being away from his classroom over 1/6 th of the school year. That to me is just irresponsible.

Charlie Mas said...

My comments, about what it would take for an ALO to gain the public's confidence, are not specifically for Meany. They are for any school that claims to offer any sort of program or service, whether it be advanced learning, special ed, bilingual, international, arts, music, vocational, or whathaveyou.

If Meany is taking positive steps along that path, then they should see acceptance and foster a successful program.

But even if Meany - or any other school promoting any other program or service - can and does their part of the effort (accurately and articulately describe their purpose and practice and collect the necessary data to demonstrate quality and efficacy), it will still fall upon the District to do their part (assess for quality and efficacy). Until the district does their part, it is all for naught.

The good news is that the the Superintendent says that the District is going to start doing their part. I look forward to that.

When they do, they will see that many of the program are NOT of high quality and that many of the programs are NOT effective. That's when the telling moment will come. What will they do? If they determine that the Spectrum program at School A is not effective, what will they do?

Melissa Westbrook said...

My son graduated from Hale. My perception of their Honors (which is basically an ALO) is doing extra work (reading, projects, presentations). This is obviously a challenge for a student who has to do all the regular work plus this additional work. The pattern that occurred (for reasons no one, parents included, could discern) was that far more girls would do the Honors than boys.

My problem is that beyond the teacher giving the work, there is no teacher involved. Meaning, your child is doing advanced work/learning without the teacher's input or teaching. Leaving out the element of having a teacher teaching at an advanced level (whether it's pace, sophistication or depth) is not something that worked for my child.

But, as I said, there are parents who like different things and so it's great that schools offer them. However, Spectrum and APP are always full which speaks to how parents like it. I think the ALOs could have been more popular if they were embraced by all teachers or aligned properly. But it just didn't happen. It sounds like its happening at Meany.

Melissa Westbrook said...

By the way, Stephanie, I had asked a couple of questions about your post. I was wondering if you might tell us what you meant by

"...to the bigger schools with more resources, more high-test students, and more dollars."

I'm unclear on more dollars and more high-test students.

Stephanie Jones said...

Melissa's questions about my comment -- "more resources and more dollars" are important. I was generalizing in my posts, but what was driving at was a phenomenon that I've been observing across district middle schools. The larger schools, Washington, Eckstein, Whitman, Madison, have significantly lower proportions of low income kids. Their greater proportions of higher income families makes for, in part, bigger fundraisers, bigger PTA and booster budgets, more signs (to the parents outside looking in) of thriving success. They have more resources (including gross dollars) as a side effect of the weighted student formula and their sheer size. This translates to activities coordinators, multiple foreign languages, successful and well-kitted-out sports teams, multi-layered music programs, etc. and generally speaking, they have bigger advanced learning programs -- APP, alone at Washington, is a dominant group, but there are more Spectrum classes in the all of the bigger schools, because they're bigger.

To a lot of parents, the small schools can't quite compete in terms of show, regardless of what they're doing in classrooms. And 1st choice votes (and numbers of middle class families engaging in the choice process) follow the popularity bandwagons. Educationally and socially speaking, I'm not a fan of the large middle school models, but it is hard to break the cycle of their advantage.

Stephanie Jones said...

I also want to note that I agree with Charlie -- it is not enough for the schools individually to do their things and offer whatever attractive programs they can pull together. There needs to be, as he mentions, district level support and accountability, ongoing evaluations, and maintenance of program consistency, etc.

I also think there needs to be parent and community support for such things. An ALO program that nobody signs up for is not much good, no matter how well-designed or even evaluated.