Springfield, Ohio: ‘We Don’t Let Barriers Get in the Way’

Lincoln Elementary kindergartners enjoy story time with teacher David Wells. Photo courtesy of Springfield City Schools

While Springfield, Ohio schools cope with a growing number of poor families, an achievement gap and a declining population — similar to many other districts nationwide — the community is tackling those challenges head-on.

“We don’t let barriers get in the way of progress,” said Springfield City Schools Superintendent David Estrop.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for External Affairs and Outreach Massie Ritsch and I visited Springfield several weeks ago to learn firsthand how Springfield City Schools are working in innovative ways with the community to meet its challenges and to see how federal funding is supporting its progress.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Massie Ritsch reads the promise board at Lincoln Elementary.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for External Affairs and Outreach Massie Ritsch reads 5th grade math students’ promises to strive towards high goals at Lincoln Elementary, following the school’s motto to “Be the Promise.” Photo courtesy of Springfield City Schools

Like many cities throughout the Midwest, Springfield has lost manufacturing jobs over the past few decades.  Although NCLB data show a significant achievement gap between Springfield’s children from low-income families—76 percent of its students—educators, parents, elected officials, and students, as well as members of the business and higher education communities, have devoted time and resources to identify problems and build solutions. It’s that arduous effort that seems to have generated real improvement in students’ year-to-year achievement growth, despite the district’s designation under NCLB as not meeting adequate yearly progress.

ED funding plays an important role in several ways:

Keifer Academy is an alternative school for K-12th– graders that was once among the lowest-achieving in the state. The school — which serves Springfield students who are not progressing in traditional environments — has undergone a transformation with help from a $1.65 million federal School Improvement Grant. The grant has enabled Keifer to bring in a new principal, add new staff for more customized support, develop new programs through community partnerships, and increase teacher training.  Early results are promising: the percentage of Keifer 10th graders who are proficient in reading jumped from 23 percent in 2010 to more than 41 percent in 2011.

Awarded a special $718,000 Innovation grant from Ohio’s Race to the Top (RTTT) grant, Springfield is developing a Family Academy that will provide learning opportunities for students and parents, as well as meals, childcare and transportation on weekday evenings. For children, activities will include enrichment projects, tutoring and college readiness courses. Adults will have learning options like GED programs and Clark State Community College classes, as well as social activities such as line-dancing.

Through the district-wide Race to the Top Transformation Team — funded with $160,000 of Springfield’s RTTT allocation from Ohio – a committee of district teachers and administrators work together to analyze student performance issues and make changes to improve.  We had the opportunity to join the team’s discussion of the best practices of the district’s most successful teachers.  Subcommittees reported on the schools they’d visited and identified common threads like “teacher collaboration” to develop improvement strategies throughout the district.

Even though the district applied for, but did not receive, a Promise Neighborhood grant from ED, the district has gone ahead on its own to develop the Lincoln Promise Neighborhood initiative. The effort aims to improve Lincoln Elementary, which serves the district’s poorest students and has posted low achievement scores, while simultaneously addressing the needs of its neighborhood. Through this endeavor — supported by private foundations and some RTTT funds — the school has established new mentoring and tutoring partnerships, after school programs and a summer camp.

Most striking, though, is the philosophy to “Be the Promise” that’s reflected in Lincoln’s staff and students.  Fifth-grade teacher Steven Holliday embodies this emerging culture.

Recently hired from a district where 98 percent of his students were proficient in math, Holliday tackled his new charges’ proficiency levels – just 22 percent last year – with determination.  He inspired his students to ask themselves: “Who are you? 22 percent or 90 percent?” The walls of his classroom are lined with student-written promises to achieve the higher goal, and “77 percent posted proficient scores on a recent assessment,” he told us.

Over the past two years, the seeds for many of the district’s innovative programs – such as the Family Academy – were planted through the collaborative community engagement initiative. The consensus-building process can be painstakingly slow, but Estrop believes community-developed plans will have more long-term value than any quick “magical solution.”

“It’s hard work,” he said, “but we’re building community through the investment in our kids.”

Julie Ewart, Office of Communications and Outreach, Great Lakes Region

Working Together Is the Only Way

Assistant Secretary Cunningham tours Aurora's Todd Early Learning Center with Principal Laurie Klomhaus. Built in the 1930s as an elementary school, Todd lacks wheelchair access.

“In these times of limited resources, working together is the only way,” said Aurora, Ill., Mayor Tom Weisner during Assistant Secretary of Communications and Outreach Peter Cunningham’s visit to his city last month.

The President’s proposed American Jobs Act and its potential impact on modernizing Aurora schools was the major focus of the visit, since many of the schools are 90- 120 years old.

The assistant secretary, however, was also impressed with the local partnerships. “The leaders here are targeting resources in forward-thinking ways,” said Cunningham.

Like many school districts, both Aurora West School District 129 and Aurora East School District 131 cope with decreased state and local funding.  They collectively serve about 26,000 pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, who are primarily low-income.

Cunningham fields a question about bilingual education from Deborah Crump -- a bus driver for Aurora West School District 129.

How is collaboration helping Aurora’s students?

  • Four separate local school districts, Aurora University, and Democratic and Republican state legislators collaborated to develop a new jointly-operated Science Technology Engineering Mathematics partnership school that will serve 200 third- through eighth-grade students and provide STEM training for teachers of all four districts.
  • Aurora West School District 129 teachers accepted pay concessions to prevent 127 layoffs in 2010 — an action that Cunningham told teachers “reflects well on you, but not on overall prosperity of the country.”
  • Aurora West and Aurora East communities are working together and with the rest of the community to address achievement gaps between minority students and their white counterparts in progressive ways.   For example, fewer than half of Aurora’s at-risk children ages 3 and 4 are attending preschool.  In response, municipal, business and community leaders have partnered with the school districts to form the Aurora Early Learning Initiative, aimed at ensuring that all of the city’s children can start kindergarten ready to learn.
  • The districts partnered with local business, government and higher education leaders for a summit last month on “How to Prepare Our Workforce For A Global Summit” hosted by the Illinois Math and Science Academy.  The keynote speaker was Andreas Schleicher of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development — coined “the world’s schoolmaster”  — who came from Paris to discuss how American schools compare with those of other nations, and how Aurora and other communities can learn from global examples.

Aurora participants also made it clear that an increased federal investment in local schools would be welcome, with the two districts targeted to collectively receive an estimated $7 million to modernize its facilities under AJA. Unfunded needs include the costly replacement of aging heating and ventilation systems with energy-efficient models.

Cunningham said that his day in Aurora was a valuable learning opportunity that he and other senior ED officials need to emulate often, around the country.

“We’re focusing outside the Beltway as much as possible, because the real innovation in education goes on in classrooms and not in Washington,” he said.  “We look at education as an upside-down pyramid, and you’re at the top.”

Julie Ewart, Office of Communications and Outreach, Great Lakes Region

“We Need Help to Have Better Schools”

“When ceiling tiles need to be changed once a week, it’s hard for students to feel like they’re here for serious business,” said LaTanza Boarden, principal of Lew Wallace Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics Academy, during a visit by Peter Cunningham, ED’s assistant secretary of communications and outreach as he visited Boarden’s school in Gary, Indiana last week.

Picture of buckets catching leaking water

A picture captured with a cell phone during Cunningham's visit shows buckets catching water from a leaky roof

Boarden’s school — a high school –was one of four Gary Community School Corporation facilities that Cunningham toured, each with visibly leaking ceilings. The American Jobs Act proposed by the President would provide an estimated $13 million that Dr. Myrtle Campbell, GCSC’s  superintendent, said is “desperately needed” to help the district begin to address an array of unfunded infrastructure problems:

    • The crumbling roof at Brunswick Elementary School has caused ceiling problems that forced Principal Gloria Terry to relocate kindergartners to a school on the other side of town.
    • The student body president of Westside Leadership Academy — also a high school – told the assistant secretary that she loves school but is frequently absent because of the building’s mold problems, which trigger her asthma.
    • Other Westside students complained that their school locker rooms have no hot water — causing most students to forego showers after PE classes and after-school sports activities.  Their swimming pool has been unusable for three years.
    • Technological infrastructure — critical for preparing students to compete in the global economy — is lacking throughout most Gary schools.  Even educators at schools that have computers and other equipment need to routinely shift them to areas safe from water damage.

Like many school districts throughout the nation, Gary has serious budget problems that have caused it to delay facility needs and to lay off teachers and cut programs, including summer enrichment programs and a Saturday academy. With downtown filled with boarded up storefronts and the once-booming local steel industry mostly gone, local funding for GCSC is dwindling. More than 82 percent of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced rate lunches.

There are some hopeful signs in Gary.  Secretary Duncan recently named Benjamin Banneker Achievement Center – a Gary elementary school — a 2011-2012 Blue Ribbon School.  There has been some upward movement in the district’s overall assessment scores, which GCSC Communications Director Sarita Stevens attributes to a new focus on differentiated learning.   Two Gary schools — including Lew Collins — are implementing dramatic changes through federal School Improvement Grants.

“We do have barriers, but we also have students who are engaged in learning every day and exceeding standards,” said Campbell.

However, Cunningham heard one overwhelming message throughout the day:

 “I hear you saying ‘we need help to have better schools,” he said, inspiring enthusiastic nods and replies from educators, parents and community leaders at the end of the visit.

Click here and here for news coverage of Assistant Secretary Cunningham’s visit to Gary schools.

Julie Ewart, Office of Communications and Outreach, Great Lakes Region

What Inspires Young Teens?

What inspires young teens to do well in school?

The admission from President Obama that he wasn’t always a perfect student really struck a chord with 6th – 9th graders as they watched the President’s  3rd Annual Back-to-School speech on Sept. 28 in Chicago.

“I was really surprised when he said that he wasn’t the best student in middle school,” said Maurice, an 8th grader at Ryerson Elementary School, where he joined a small group of other students and educators from Ryerson and Gage Park High School to watch the address and participate in a follow-up discussion.

Students in Classroom

Dexter Chaney speaks with Ryerson students after watching President Obama's speech

“I always thought that to be President, you’d have to be the smartest student in your school. He wasn’t, but he became the hardest worker,” he said, sparking vigorous nods from students around him.

“My parents are always telling me that they want me to have more opportunities than they had. That inspires me,” said Dyanne, a 6th- grader.

While several teens echoed that positive response, a few others said that drug dealing and other negative influences in their neighborhoods are what drive them to succeed in school.

“I want more for myself. I want to graduate from high school and college. I think that if I put all of my efforts into school, I can be anything I want to be,” said DeAndre, a 6th grader.

The students also had plenty of suggestions for making class time more inspiring:

  • One said that there was no free time in his school day, making him often wish that he could “fast forward” through some classes.
  •  Others wished their teachers would try new ways of teaching material to make classes more interesting, and to better reach kids who don’t all learn at the same pace.
  • Several teens, concerned about plans for a longer school day in Chicago Public Schools, hoped that the extra time would include art and music classes.

Ryerson’s Dexter Chaney II — one of ED’s 2011-2012 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellows (TAF) – urged his students to draw on inspiration from within themselves.

“You need to be committed to being successful,” said Chaney, who was joined by Gage Park teacher Xian Barrett, a 2009-2010 TAF.  “You need to take risks, and you need to be more involved with the world around you.  Most young people don’t believe that their thoughts and ideas can make a difference, but they can.”

Click here to read more about President Obama’s back-to-school speech.

Answering Federal Student Aid Questions in Chicago

CHICAGO – Parents and students voiced questions about federal funding for college, and got some answers in an informal town hall meeting with Assistant Secretary of Postsecondary Education Eduardo Ochoa at Mather High School on Chicago’s north side last Friday. The forum followed Secretary Arne Duncan’s return to his hometown on the final day of his 3-day “Education and the Economy” Back-to-School Bus Tour.

Eduardo Ochoa at Mather High School in Chicago

The discussion was thoughtful and diverse, with topics ranging from the newly simplified Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to President Obama’s strong support for preserving maximum Pell Grant awards at $5,550.  Ochoa was also able to clear up some misconceptions about Federal Student Aid.

In response to a students’ question about funding for Pell Grants, he noted that the discretionary funding that Congress approves each fiscal year is “just an estimate.”

“We will grant a Pell Grant to every eligible applicant,” he said. “There is no cap.  We never shut that window.”

In response to a parent’s complaint that the FAFSA application didn’t realistically reflect his ability to pay for his children’s college education, Ochoa highlighted resources to help parents, including 1-800-4-FED-AID, the Federal Student Aid Information Center.

Rich Blasen, Chicago-based staffer of FSA’s Student Experience Group, also encouraged parents and students with similar issues to consult college financial aid offices, which “can look more in depth at families’ specific situations.”

Ochoa urged students and parents to fill-out the FAFSA, noting that a much higher percentage of students who fill out the form end up going to college than those who don’t.

Ochoa and Blasen were joined by Jim Manning, Chief of Staff for Federal Student Aid, Aarti Dhupelia, Interim Officer of the Office of College and Career Preparation for Chicago Public Schools and several other FSA and CPS officials for the forum.

Teachers ‘Go Bananas’ Over Real-World Connections to STEM

Sparta schools administrator Tom Steward at Kwik Trip's distribution center

Sparta schools administrator Tom Steward views "the banana room" at Kwik Trip's distribution center in La Crosse, Wis.

How can a room full of bananas help teachers get kids excited about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)?

Secretary Duncan and other national leaders say that U.S. students need to complete a rigorous math and science coursework so they’re ready to compete in the global economy. Wisconsin educator Tom Steward was stirred by that call to action but recognized some inherent challenges.

“Students did not see the connection between what was being taught and how they could ever use it,” said Steward, who frequently observes STEM classes as the director of curriculum and instruction for Sparta Area School District.

To help make these connections, 60 teachers from Sparta and eight other rural school districts in western Wisconsin got bunches of inspiration from bananas. As part of a two-week summer academy for STEM teachers, on July 25 Steward led a visit to Kwik Trip’s distribution center in La Crosse, Wisc. to learn strategies to make their lessons come alive. Steward is a founder of the program, which works with regional businesses as well as the University of Wisconsin-Stout, Western Technical College and the U.S. Army at nearby Fort McCoy to help STEM teachers make lessons relevant.

Steward and the consortium’s other founders recognized that teachers — and especially teachers in rural areas — often teach in isolation from each other and from other potential resources that could help them teach more contextually. In response, they produced this “brainchild” that ultimately became the Western Wisconsin STEM Consortium, he said. The program was awarded a competitive Math and Science Partnership grant in 2008 from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which in turn received the federal funding by formula from ED.

Here’s how bananas can make scientific principles come to life: As teachers watched Kwik Trip forklift drivers load boxes of the fruit nearly to the ceiling of a storeroom, they saw a number of scientific principles at work, teachable moments.

“The forklift driver knows that too much weight on the forks going up an incline plane with a steep angle may not be possible,” explained Steward. “That’s due to the push of gravity down on the forks and the way the weight is distributed.”

A lesson plan based on this real-life scenario will soon be posted to the consortium’s website at http://www.uwstout.edu/wwsc/index.cfm, which already includes numerous lessons developed through the program that help students make those lifelong connections between science and the real world.

Julie Ewart
Julie Ewart serves in the Great Lakes Regional Office for ED. She and Cynthia Dorfman, Director of Regional Operations for ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach, participated in the visit to Kwik Trip’s distribution center.

Read the President’s plan for Improving Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education.

Public Gives Input on Race to the Top Assessments

According to Secretary Duncan, the new Race to the Top Assessments (RTTA) are “an absolute game-changer in public education.” Which is why ED is taking the necessary steps to ensure that stakeholders have a voice in the development of the assessments.

At a public forum on June 10 in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois, about 70 educators and stakeholders from across the country had a chance to hear about the new assessment systems currently under development, listen to experts, and voice their ideas. The public forum was the second in a series of meetings ED is holding to gain input from the public on the new assessments being developed by the state-led consortia and how to best develop them in order to improve students’ readiness for college and careers.

“It’s integral that we not only measure results, but how students get there” said Douglas Stein, vice president of the Educational Records Bureau, during the feedback portion of the meeting.

Kent Williamson, executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English said that there “is a confidence problem among educators about testing. This process needs to start including teachers – not just in field testing, but in conceptual design.”

Max McGee, president of the Illinois Math and Science Academy noted that we can learn from the successful models of other countries: “Our international competitors have successfully addressed many of the concerns we have with testing. There are models out there.”

The new tests will be aligned with the Common Core Standards, which the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers created, and have been adopted by 43 states. The standards are designed to prepare students for success in college and careers. A total of 45 states plus the District of Columbia are participating in the two assessment consortia: The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). These consortia were awarded $360 million in RTTA grants. The assessments are expected to be rolled out by states in the 2014-15 school year.

Ann Whalen, Director of in Policy and Program Implementation in ED’s Implementation and Support Unit, and Patrick Rooney, team lead for the RTTA program, led the meeting, which was funded in part by a grant from Hewlett. Representatives from PARCC, SBAC, and other experts participated in a panel discussion about automated scoring in the assessments.

The transcript and other forum materials will be posted on the RTTA page, along with information from previous sessions and registration details for future forums. The next public RTTA meeting takes place in Washington, DC on Aug. 10, and will focus on assessing students with disabilities and English language learners.

Inspiration Overcomes Anxiety for Future Teachers in Rural Illinois

Why teach?

“This may sound like a hippie answer, but I want to change the world,” said future teacher Joelle Schulda, when asked what drew her to education. “If I can reach just one child—who knows?—that child could grow up to be the president of the United States.”

A small group of future educators shared their career inspirations and concerns with Deputy Assistant Secretary of Rural Outreach John White during a recent TEACH campaign town hall at the Illinois Valley Community College in rural Oglesby, Illinois.

Some current and former IVCC education students stand with ED’s John White: (front, from left) Kris Sienza, White, Megan Mikesell and Marissa Vicich; (second row) Cortney Mikesell, Joelle Shulda, Jackie Heim and Aseret Gonzalez; (back) Abby Derix and Chris Tidmore. Photo courtesy of IVCC.

White was joined by Illinois State University Dean of Education Deborah Curtis, IVCC Education Program Coordinator Jill Urban-Bollis and IVCC Early Education Program Coordinator Diane Christianson for the panel, moderated by IVCC Vice President for Learning and Student Development Rick Pearce.

Aseret Gonzalez said she sees a “lack of mentorship” in her community and wants to help fill that void as an educator.  Another student hopes to follow in the footsteps of numerous family members who are current or former teachers. “I’ve always known that I wanted to teach,” said IVCC student Kris Sienza.  “I chose math because I used to love it, but found the classes to be really boring as I got older.  I want to get kids excited about math.”

While the students’ passion for education was clear, several discussed concerns about their chosen career path.  “Everything that’s known about teaching is very much changing,” remarked Christianson, as the dialogue turned to teacher layoffs, labor disputes, and other issues facing present-day educators such as the restrictive demands of NCLB.

White discussed the President’s Blueprint for Reform which would “stop labeling schools as failures” by changing its accountability provision to focus on students’ growth over time rather than “measuring different kids each year on one test on one day.”

Despite their concerns, the IVCC students embraced the goals of the TEACH campaign described by White — recruiting nearly 1 million new teachers over the next 5 years to replace the retiring teachers of the baby boomer generation, and celebrating today’s great educators.

The participants plan to work with ED’s communications and outreach team for the Great Lakes Region, based in Chicago, to serve as TEACH “ambassadors” with local high schools in order to encourage more students to consider the teaching profession.

Julie Ewart is the Senior Public Affairs Specialist in the Chicago Regional Office. She is the mother of three school-aged children.