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October 31, 2011 standard

Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Star

Few failure mills and dropout factories have ever been transformed into cultures of genius. And small corps of men and women who have had success in doing so rarely keep their jobs. As this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast on school leadership points out, abysmal school leaders in central offices — including, in many cases, the superintendents themselves — are far too unwilling to challenge mindsets of failure. Reform-minded superintendents rarely lack the political constituencies needed (and almost never stay around long enough) to support their change-agent principals. National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers locals, uninterested in losing influence or bodies regardless of their performance, will push hard against any turnaround. And the poisonous cultures fostered by laggards tends to all but ensure that failure persists.

Yet, as longtime school principal Jeffery White can attest, the work is worth doing for the futures as our children. In this Voices of the Dropout Nation, White — who found himself battling both teachers’ and superintendents (including the notorious Eugene White) during his tenures overhauling John Marshall Middle School in Indianapolis and East Chicago High School in the Hoosier State’s northern areas near Chicago — White explains the challenges of reforming failure factories, especially in our nation’s big cities, and why it must be done. Read, consider, and think about what you can do to spur much-needed school reform.

As a father, husband, and educator I have experienced on several occasions the tests of family, faith, and my willingness to continue being an urban school reformer. My reasons for writing this article are to provide aspiring urban school reformers examples of lived experiences on the road to urban school reform. Moreover, after reading this article I would like to know are you willing to always do “what is in the best interest of students?”

As an urban school principal, I’m very proud of my immediate success at transforming John Marshall Middle School and East Chicago Central High School into schools that are safe, orderly, and conducive to academic achievement.  There is an array of data and news stories to illustrate my creation of student centered schools fostered an increase in academic achievement, faculty/student attendance, and a decrease in disruptive behavior. The instantaneous success at each school evolves from providing an open line of communication for students, parents, faculty members, and community partners.

Consequently, during my tenure as Principal of two urban schools, I’ve never had any student protests, gang fights, or community boycotts because of the open line of communication. My experiences as a successful Director of Curriculum and School Partnerships encompassed implementing standards based instruction, recruiting and hiring highly qualified teachers, grant writing, creating community partnerships, and instilling high expectations improve academic achievement.  Without arrogance, I’m proud of the numerous awards I’ve received for “doing what is in the best interest of students.”

As the father of two beautiful daughters who attend Indianapolis Public Schools Center for Inquiry, I’m very pleased with the safe, caring, and nurturing learning environment my children love attending.  As a disclaimer, my wife Samantha Adair-White is a very vocal member of the Indianapolis Public Schools Board of Commissioners and drives by at least three public, charter, and private schools to take our daughters to and from school.  Consequently, my daughters have benefited academically and socially from school choice and having two VERY outspoken parents who do “what is in the best interest of students.

Just as I pronounce the good days of being actively involved in urban school reform, there have been voluminous bad days.   There has been countless times of which my family has faced the reality of the bread winner being either reprimanded, demoted, or terminated for doing “what is in the best interest of students.”

For example, in 2007, I received a verbal reprimand from IPS Superintendent Dr. Eugene White for criticizing community and faith-based leaders for not being actively involved in the police investigation of a fourteen year old girl who was raped, sodomized, beaten, and made run through the public streets naked screaming for help. A later, in 2008, year I received a three day PAID suspension for questioning the proposed removal of more than half my school’s teachers and staff members. They were the same faculty and staff members who just celebrated increasing the state standardized test scores the highest John Marshall Middle School had obtained in over a decade. They also faithfully assisted students and parents who were left homeless and hungry after a violent tornado destroyed over 100 homes within the John Marshall Community. In other words, the faculty and staff members demonstrated their intestinal fortitude to do what was “in the best interest of students.”

Then in 2009, I faced additional sanctions for allegedly failing to follow the directives of my supervisor when I proudly suspended several unruly students for disrupting the learning environment, theft, and assaulting faculty members.  I experienced anger and sadness when a math teacher, who was hired by another IPS principal, but was assigned to John Marshall Community High School, sexually assaulted two of my students. The former math teacher is currently serving a fifty-five year prison sentence.  It’s important to illuminate I tried to fire the teacher but the school district and the teachers union supported the teacher. Another example of archaic policies and employment practices I perceive as not being “in the best interest of students.”

Last year, I tested my faith and family by accepting the position of Principal of East Chicago Central High School.  East Chicago Central High School is a two hour drive from Indianapolis, has one of the strongest teacher unions in the state of Indiana, and I was going to be the sixth principal in five years. Furthermore, if Central High School failed to meet the 2010-2011 state proposed academic benchmarks, the Indiana Department of Education would take over the daily operations of the high school. Two prominent state politicians gave me marching orders to fix the school and fast.

“In the best interest of students,” we implemented standard based bell-to-bell instruction, a strict dress code policy, credit recovery, hall sweeps, a community supported strategic action plan, and required all teachers to complete Academic Failure Prevention Plans for all students who were failing at least one subject.  I received an abundance of resistance from union officials, ineffective veteran teachers, and supporters of the status quo. However, with the assistance of several caring teachers, concerned parents, and academically talented students, our unconditional commitment to do what is “in the best interest of students” saved the high school. The end results were improved academic outcomes which deterred the Indiana Department of Education from taking over the only high school in East Chicago. A big victory for a small community.

Nevertheless, I was told by the superintendent hit the road for not having a cozy relationship with supporters of the status quo.  Again, another example of my faith, family, and commitment to urban school reform being tested for doing what is “in the best interest of students.”

In conclusion, it is not a secret there is a shortage of urban school reformers who are willing to pass a “test of fire” from superintendents, school board members, parents, community members, faculty members, and the students. While many urban school reformers, including myself, value the extent to which we are able to influence educational policies and practices through our positions, we are aware of the greater breadth and power that reside in the superintendent’s chair.

My lived experiences lead me to believe the real test of one’s unconditional commitment to urban school reform involves answering the question “ as an urban school reformer, are you willing to question the policies and practices that impede academic achievement knowing the superintendent holds the power and the support of the school board to remove you?”  While it feels good earning a salary by improving high school graduation rates, decreasing expulsion rates of at-risk students, and receiving notes from former students thanking you for believing in their abilities; it only takes a recommendation from the superintendent and a majority vote from the school board to take you from a bread winner to a crumb snatcher.

Before emailing me your replies, questions, and answers, think long and hard about your willingness to do “what is in the best interest of students?”

May 16, 2010 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I discuss how poor-performing teachers damage the educational destinies of students, bring down the morale of their colleagues and foster the nation’s dropout crisis. The damage wrecked by ineffective teaching — and the culture of mediocrity they foster — is promoted and sustained by schools of education, collective bargaining agreements, state laws and cultures within districts.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle’s radio page or download directly to your iPod, MP3 player or smartphone. Also, subscribe to the podcast series. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, Podcast Alley, the Education Podcast Network and Zune Marketplace.

May 4, 2010 standard

A book a day keeps kids on good math progress. Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

If you want to understand the underlying reason why 150 high school students drop out every hour, simply consider the math performance of Atlanta Public Schools’ 4th-graders on the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress and their likely performance as 8th graders four years later.

Back in 2005, 43 percent of Atlanta 4th-graders performed Below Basic on the math portion of the NAEP, with students averaging a scale score of  221, seven points below the average for their peers in other large cities (and 16 points below the average for all public school students nationwide). While just four percent of white 4th-graders scored Below Basic, 49 percent of black students scored Below Basic. Sixty-six percent of learning disabled students and 34 of regular classroom students also scored Below Basic.

Four years later, the students — now 8th graders — have gotten taller. Their academic performance, on the other hand, hasn’t gotten better. Fifty-four percent of 8th graders scored Below Basic on NAEP — a full 12 percentage points increase over the past four years; the average scale score of 259 was better than the scores four years ago, but it still trailed the average of 271 for their peers in other large cities and 282 for all public school students). The academic failure is even more pronounced: Eighty-four percent of learning-disabled students and 51 percent of regular classroom students scored Below Basic on the assessment.

Certainly the low quality of math instruction is a major problem for Atlanta students. So are the standards under which they are taught; back in 2005, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute complained that Georgia’s math standards placed “too much emphasis on calculator use and manipulatives throughout” (although middle-school algebra and geometry was considered grade appropriate).

But the biggest problem may be the simplest: The kids can’t read.

There has long been evidence that the stronger one’s reading comprehension, the more likely they are able to handle the rigors of math. A team led by University of Arizona researcher Carole R. Beale, for example, determined that the math performance of English Language Learners progressed as their reading proficiency increased. This is especially true as students reach latter grades, as simple math computations give way to word problems and abstract math concepts such as algebra and trigonometry. If an 8th-grader struggles to read a passage in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, then  figuring out the answer to “This year, your brother Jack will be 2 years from being twice as old as your sister Jen” will be a gargantuan challenge.

This is evidently true in the case of Atlanta students. Fifty-nine percent of Atlanta 4th-graders scored Below Basic on the 2005 NAEP. Low reading proficiency may also explain why so many Atlanta students are labeled learning disabled in the first place. Poor reading skills can be mistaken for developmental delays, landing students into special ed classes where the chances of improving academically go to die.

Intensive reading remediation is probably the key solution for improving math skills in the long run. Bolstering reading instruction, especially at the early grades, is crucial. A community effort to read to kids (especially in poor neighborhoods home to dropout factories) would help too. The better a child reads, the better he will do in math. And vice versa.

The good news — if you can call it that — is that just 37 percent of Atlanta 4th-graders taking the 2009 NAEP scored Below Basic. It’s time for Atlanta Public Schools to get going on the intensive reading remediation these kids need.

May 2, 2010 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I offer a few reasons — and statistics — for why American public education must be reformed. Far too many children are either dropping out or leaving school unprepared for life in the real world. The numbers may shock you — and hopefully, will spur you into action.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle’s radio page or download directly to your iPod, MP3 player or smartphone. Also, subscribe to the podcast series. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, Podcast Alley, the Education Podcast Network and Zune Marketplace.

April 1, 2010 standard

At Quintanilla Middle School, ambitions (and graduation) get protected from the dropout crisis.

As a former social worker-turned-teacher, Bill Betzen understands the importance of dealing with the underlying problems that cause children to drop out. For the past five years, at Quintanilla Middle School in Dallas, he is working with two of the Dallas Independent School District’s high schools on boosting their graduation rates through the School Archive Project. In this brief, he describes how he and his colleagues work to concentrate middle-schoolers on graduating from school and taking control of their own futures.

In the past dropout prevention projects did not look beyond getting a student out of high school and into college. A longer focus into the future, starting in middle school, is increasingly recognized in the educational community as being needed. The planning and success of the Washington University based Freshman Transition Initiative, http://www.freshmantransition.org/, is one verification of the need for our students to plan 10 years into the future. Another is the School Archive Project , http://www.studentmotivation.org, that is now almost 5 years old in Dallas.

The Archive Project only takes two steps: The first step is to know and closely follow current dropout rates so as to monitor progress. Too often official numbers are less than reliable. An annually updated 10+ year enrollment by grade spreadsheet on every school and school district web site, with graduation numbers included, does that. From this spreadsheet a minimum of four separate dropout rate measurements can be calculated showing the current dropout situation in a manner anyone can understand. Auditing enrollment numbers can easily be done. No magical “coding” for “valid transfers” is allowed such as those that allowed the Houston Independent School District to officially claim fantasy dropout rates in the previous decade.

The second step is to bolt a 500-pound gun vault to the floor in every secondary school lobby to function as a 10-year time-capsule. This can happen both at the middle school and high school level. Each new class writes letters to themselves for the vault as they enter the school. They write about their life history and plans for the future. Their parents are invited to also write a letter to their child to place in the same self-addressed envelope with their child’s letter. Then, as the years pass at the school and they walk past the vault every day they know that their letter is already with the thousands of others inside the vault. Hopefully they will think more often of their futures.

As they are about to graduate from that school, students receive back that initial self addressed envelope and use it to another letter to themselves with a clearer focus  ten years into their future. Parents are again invited to write a letter to their child, this time with a 10 year focus in their dreams for their child. The student places the new letters inside another self-addressed envelope and then into the vault. They plan for the ten-year class reunion to retrieve it at which they know they will be invited to speak to then current students in the school about their recommendations for success. They are warned to prepare for questions from those decade younger students such as: “What would you do differently if you were 13 again?”

The first School Archive Project started in 2005 in a Dallas middle school with an 8th grade class that was the Graduation Class of 2009. Both high schools who received these students had the largest graduation class ever with their Class of 2009. This has effects on the entire Dallas school district as well. Thanks to the gains at these two districts, 11th- and  12th-grade enrollments in Dallas are the highest  on record. Enrollment has increased five percent since the 2005-2006 school year for a total increase of 758 students in these upper grades — even as overall enrollment declined by 2.5-percent during the same time.

Realistically focusing students onto their own futures makes a big difference. Best of all, this simple project costs less than $2 per 8th grade student to run. It also reinforces what teachers are already saying to their students: Plan for the future.

One of the Archive Project’s two high schools, Sunset High, was one of the original Dropout Factories in the original study involving 12th grade enrollment data from 2004-2006. It is no longer a “Dropout Factory” today. As more students in the School Archive Project enters it school, its promoting power has increased, from 38.7 percent in 2005-2006 to 64 percent for 2009-2010.

This summer Sunset saw the value of the Archive Project and started it’s own Archive Project at the high school level. The other middle school feeding into Sunset has also started an Archive Project. Now all students entering Sunset High School will have been involved in the Archive Project in middle school, and the future focus will be reinforced at Sunset with its own 500-pound time-capsule vault present that students will walk past several times each day. The Sunset promotion rate will continue to rise, now even faster than it has these last 4 years.

For other dropout factories, a project such as this can mean higher graduation numbers. For students, it also means graduation — and a more-intensified focus on their own futures.  Everybody wins!

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Want to offer your voice on what is happening in the dropout nation? Working on solutions to improve the lives of children? E-mail your thoughts to editor-at-dropoutnation.net. Dropout Nation holds the right to edit for space and accuracy.

[Oh yeah, the pesky disclaimer (as if you didn't already know): All Voices are solely opinions of the author, not of Dropout Nation, RiShawn Biddle or the RiShawn Biddle Consultancy. ]

March 31, 2010 standard

Photo courtesy of the Press-Enterprise

As a filmmaker, Saul Williams is responsible for one of the best visual lessons on staying in school and avoiding crime with Slam, his 1998 masterpiece about a young man who managed to make a way out of no way. But in his main role as hip-hop poet, Saul Williams has crafted more commentary on improving the lives of youth with his poem, Children of the Night. Watch this video, listen to his messages, and think about what you can do to save “the little girls of fire wearing pigtails of braided smoke” and the other children like them.