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People in our business commonly talk about the challenges of teaching students who are still learning English. Not so Ted Appel of Luther Burbank High School in California. He sees these students as an asset.

More than half of his school's students are English language learners. About nine in ten come from low-income families. Though some schools might see such students as a drag on their test scores, Luther Burbank High welcomes them from neighborhoods far from its own. For Appel, such students enrich the school in ways standard school rating systems cannot begin to capture.

Appel recently told us about his school--and about the state and federal  policies that can at times impede its vital work.

Public School Insights: Tell me a little bit about Luther Burbank High School.

Appel: It is a comprehensive high school with about 2100 students. About 90% are on free or reduced lunch. About 35% are Southeast Asian, mostly Hmong. We are about 25% Latino, about 20% African-American, and whatever percentage is left is from everywhere else in the world.

Public School Insights: So you must have a lot of different languages spoken in the school.

Appel: Yes. The predominant languages are Hmong and Spanish. For about 55% of our student population, English is not the primary language spoken at home. They are English learners.

Public School Insights: I would assume this population has a pretty big impact on your school and the teaching strategies you to use. Is that true?

Appel: Absolutely. One of the advantages of having such a large number of English learners is that we in a way do not have an English learner program. We try to foster a sense that all teachers are likely to be teaching English learners, so there is not a sense that English learners are the kids that somebody else ...

Thomas Edison Elementary School in Port Chester, NY has earned its reputation as a success story. A decade ago, only 19% of Edison’s fourth graders were proficient in English language arts. Last year 75% were. Proficiency rates in math and social studies are even higher. Not bad for a school where over 80% of students live in poverty.

If you ask the school’s principal, Dr. Eileen Santiago, the decision over ten years ago to turn Edison into a full-service community school has played a key role in its transformation. Working with strong community partners, the school offers on-site health care, education for parents, counseling for children and their families, and after-school enrichment. Add that community focus to a robust instructional program and close attention to data on how students are doing, and you get a stirring turnaround story.

Dr. Santiago recently told us more.

Public School Insights: Tell me about your school.

Santiago: I have served as principal of this school for 14 years. And I have always felt fortunate that I came into a school with many, many caring people. I did not walk into a school where the adults felt negatively about the children.

However, I was faced with other concerns. One of them was that the school had a pretty significant level of poverty. We were at over 80% free lunch. We continue to have that level of poverty today.

In addition, Edison has always served an immigrant population. The school was constructed in 1872, so you can imagine that the population has changed a lot over the years. Today the population is primarily multi-ethnic Hispanic, coming from different areas of the Hispanic world. And many of our children are undocumented immigrants. That in itself adds several levels of challenge: ...

Long Beach Unified School District in California has long been recognized as a model urban school system. Winner of the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2003, it has been a finalist for that award five times.

The district hasn’t achieved this success by flitting from reform to reform or looking for silver bullets. Rather, it has spent most of the past two decades building on the same educational strategies, focusing on data, community buy-in and staff development. We recently spoke to Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser (who has spent the past 28 years in the district as a teacher, principal, deputy superintendent and, since 2002, superintendent) about the “Long Beach way.”

Public School Insights: What prompted Long Beach to undertake big reforms for its kids in the first place?

Steinhauser: We've been on this long journey since about 1992. What really prompted it at that time was a massive economic meltdown. Our city was closing its naval base. And McDonnell Douglas [a major area employer] was going through a massive shutdown. They laid off 35,000 employees over a two year period. Also, if you remember, those were the days of major civil unrest in the LA area. We were having massive flight from our system, mainly of Caucasian students.

Basically what we did was say, “Okay. We have got to stop this.” So our board adopted several major initiatives. We implemented K-8 uniforms. We were the first district in California to end social promotion. We introduced a program called the 3rd Grade Reading Initiative to help with that goal, and we also developed a policy that eighth-graders who had two or more Fs could not go on to high school. And we launched a major partnership called Seamless Education with our local junior college and ...

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School of Hard Knocks

We often hear that traditional public schools should learn from the successes of the best charter schools. That's true. But they have at least as much to learn from their struggles.

Here are some of the seldom acknowledged lessons we should learn from great charter schools:

You can't just do away with your central office. What a lovely, romantic idea: Thousands of schools homesteading on their own, free from those meddling, fat-cat administrators. Yet reality looks a bit different. Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) have had to expand their central offices as they create more schools. If you want to "scale up" a good model, you'll need something that looks like, well, a district.

The hard stuff costs lots of money. Charters were supposed to be more efficient, and therefore less expensive, than regular public schools. It turns out that many of the best ones have to rely on extra philanthropic dollars to serve their students well. Even when you account for the fact that some get less less from the government, they cost more.

Teachers should not have to be ascetics. Sure, you can run a few hundred schools that depend on teachers who are willing to forego families, sleep and sanity for the sake of their students--until, of course, they leave. But tens of thousands?

Schools have to do more to motivate children and families. The students who leave demanding charter schools don't just disappear. They go to less challenging schools. As long as first-rate charter schools can use their high ...

The book Nurture Shock is making big waves in parenting and education circles. Authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman are not afraid to tip parents' and teachers' sacred cows. They use science to question the received wisdom about issues such as self-esteem, self-control and IQ. Merryman recently told us about her book and its implications for schools.

Public School Insights: Let me begin a little outside your book. One of the things that first prompted my e-mail to you was your comments on the success versus failure of public schools and how the narrative that is being told about public schools right now might actually hurt the prospects for success. Could you explain that a bit?

Merryman: There is this constant drumbeat that American schools are failing our kids—that our schools are a disaster and kids aren’t finishing school. That kids aren’t prepared when they get to college, if they get to college. That they must do remedial level work. That they can’t read or write or anything like that.

It’s not that I think that schools can’t improve. Certainly they can. For kids at the bottom socioeconomically, and kids who we would label perhaps at-risk, schools definitely are a problem. And I ...

Ricardo LeBlanc-Esparza rose to national fame for turning around a classic hard-luck school. A key ingredient of his success? Parent engagement. Yesterday, he told us about his work to bring the parent engagement gospel to schools around the country.

The Current State of Parent Engagement in Public Schools

Public School Insights: As people who've read our website before know, you've gained national prominence by helping turn around Granger High School in Washington State. What lessons did you learn from that experience that you really carry around with you now?

Esparza: There are so many lessons. It's hard to say. Public education is so big when you talk about instruction, curriculum, discipline and motivation. The piece that I really want to talk about is the whole family involvement/engagement piece.

I have traveled across the country, from Pennsylvania to Florida to Iowa to Arizona to Texas. Our public schools truly are lacking true public or parent involvement, engagement—whatever you want to call it when parents are active participants in the whole educational process.

Public School Insights: Exactly problems are you seeing in the schools that lack this engagement?

Esparza: I guess I need to frame that question…Because when I look at public schools, I see they typically meet the needs of the middle class and above population.

My wife is a principal of a K-8 magnet school for gifted and talented students. She told me a story that ...

The PTA is about far more than suburban bake sales and school carnivals. The national organization has been moving aggressively in recent years to bring more urban families into the fold. It has been getting more fathers involved. And it has embraced a robust policy agenda to ensure all children equal opportunities to succeed.

National PTA’s first-ever male president recently spoke with us about these efforts. He also told us about his journey from volunteer hot dog duty at his son’s elementary school to the helm of one of the largest volunteer organizations in the country.

Download the full interview here, or use the audioplayer (~14:22 min).

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You can also read the interview transcript:

A Place for Fathers

Public School Insights: It’s been widely noted that you are the first male president in the National PTA’s history of 113 years. What do you think is the significance of that?

Saylors: For an association that started as the National Congress of Mothers, I’m very proud of the fact that we are moving in the direction that we are. I follow in the footsteps of a number of ...

There is a school turnaround strategy for every taste. At least, that's the impression I get from the National Journal's most recent panel of experts. Asked to name the best strategies for turning around schools, different experts list different ideas. Pair struggling schools with the best teacher training institutions, writes Steve Peha. Create a year-round calendar, writes Phil Quon. Shutter struggling schools and start from scratch, writes Tom Vander Ark.

Each of these ideas has merit in some cases--I myself love the first idea, like the second, and am not fully sold on the third. But none is a necessary ingredient for all or even most schools.

So what do we know about turnarounds? Two big themes stand out in much of the school turnaround literature:

  1. There is no detailed prescription for what works in all cases.
  2. There is, however, abundant evidence that a school will not turn itself around unless it gives teachers the support they need to succeed.

These themes are also clear in the many turnaround stories we profile on this website. Policy makers should take note.

The Reconstitution Myth
It's high time to slay the reconstitution dragon. Despite what you may hear these days, you do not have to kill a school to save it.

Here's what Emily and Bryan Hassel write in Education Next, which is hardly a pro-union rag: “Successful turnaround leaders typically do not replace all or most of the staff at the start, but they often replace some key leaders who help ...

Granger High School in Washington State has garnered national attention for its remarkable journey from bad to great. Most Granger students come from low-income families working on farms in the surrounding Yakima Valley. Many are children of migrant workers. In 2001, Granger was plagued by gang violence, low morale and an astronomical dropout rate. Now more than 95% of Granger students graduate, and almost 90% go on to college or technical school. (See our story about Granger here.)

Granger principal Paul Chartrand recently spoke with me about the critical work of sustaining the trend. The overriding message I took away from our conversation: Forge strong personal connections with students and their families.

Sustaining the Turnaround Trend

Public School Insights: Granger High School has been described by quite a few people as a real turnaround story. Do you think that is a fair description?

Chartrand: I do think it’s a fair description. My predecessor, Richard Esparza, really started the turnaround. I took over last year, and we are trying to continue the trend. We have been successful in a couple of areas, and we are still working on it in ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Starting at Home

Teacher/blogger/Twitterer/
author extraordinaire Larry Ferlazzo recently published a gem of a little article on teacher home visits. He writes about the impact of his own efforts to visit students’ families and calls for much more extensive home visit programs. One story he recounts jumps out at me:

Immigrant parents whom I visited developed the idea of having our school provide computers and home Internet access so that entire families could have more opportunities to study English. I was not only able to learn what these parents thought would help their children and themselves; down the line, I was also able to help other parents who had the same interest connect with each other and help us develop a plan of action.

As a result, the Luther Burbank High School Family Literacy Project has produced dramatic English-assessment gains for students and was the Grand Prize winner of the International Reading Association Presidential Award For Reading and Technology.

I like this story, because it turns a common assumption on its head. Teachers are not coming to parents as missionaries converting the unenlightened. Instead, they are forging strong partnerships with parents, discovering shared aspirations ...

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