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Students can come to school with a lot of baggage. They may be feeling the stress of financial pressure at home. They may be dealing with a death or illness in their family. But as school counselor Barbara Micucci puts it, “Ultimately it does not matter the issues that kids bring to school. Schools are charged with educating the kids.”

This is where she and other counselors come in. We recently spoke with Micucci about the counseling profession—why it is important, how it has changed over the years and the challenges it faces. She also told us about her own work and some of the strategies that led her to be named the 2010 School Counselor of the Year by Naviance and the American School Counselor Association. Key to her success: visibility, and a desire to engage parents as partners in the educational process.

Micucci has been a counselor for over 20 years and is currently working at Caley Elementary School in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. She was selected from a field of extraordinary school counselors across the country and plans to use her new role to call for strategies to ensure that every elementary school across the United States has a school counselor.

Why Have School Counselors?

Public School Insights: Let’s start with a very general question. Why is it important for schools to have counselors?

Micucci: It is so important for a number of reasons. I think kids today are under a lot more stress and family pressure than they have been in the past. There are many reasons. Families themselves are very stressed. A lot of it comes from economic conditions. And aside from that, when I think of my school—and I am in a middle-class school in a suburban district—there are a lot of families where parents are divorced. There are single parent families. There are parents who have adopted children. I have a couple families where there's terminal illness. More families are coming with limited English proficiency. There are families living with other families because of ...

Another study of charter schools has dealt a big blow to the most die-hard supporters of the free market in schooling. It seems a charter school's popularity is no guarantee of its success. The invisible hand will not deliver better results.

The Department of Education just released the new study (PDF), which focuses on charters at the middle school level. The study examines schools that had more applicants than they could accommodate and compares students who were randomly selected to attend those schools with those who were not. It concludes that, on average, the schools "are neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement, behavior and school progress."

Charters, it seems, helped some students but hurt others. Like other studies before it, this report supports a far more cautious charter strategy than we're hearing from politicians and pundits these days. Here are some of the big lessons I drew from the study:

Even the Most Popular Charters Did Not Outshine Traditional Public Schools
First, let's not forget that this study did not review a representative sample of charter schools. It examined the small share of charters that had many more applicants than they could take. These are the charter schools parents are most likely to choose, so we would expect them to be the high fliers.

And that's a pretty select group. Of the almost 500 charters that had been been around long enough to meet the study's criteria, only 36 made the final cut. Some declined to participate, but the vast majority were not sufficiently oversubscribed to take part in the study. Would the less popular charter schools--or those that ...

An innovative program out of Boston College is making a big difference for children in 11 Boston elementary schools. City Connects (CCNX) works with the schools to link each child to a "tailored set of intervention, prevention and enrichment services located in the community."

Its efforts have gone a good distance towards closing achievement gaps between the low-income children in the program and children who meet state averages. CCNX's results offer powerful support for what should be common sense: When we address the challenges poor students face both within and beyond schools, they flourish.

A rigorous study (PDF) of the program's outcomes tells a pretty stunning story:

  • The beneficial impact of BCNX [the former name of CCNX] on student growth in academic achievement (across grades 1 to 5) was, on average, approximately three times the harmful impact of poverty.
  • By the end of grade 5, achievement differences between BCNX and comparison students indicated that the BCNX intervention moves students at the 50th percentile up to or near the 75th percentile, and the students at the 25th percentile up to or near the 50th.
  • For multiple outcomes, the treatment effects were largest for students at greatest risk for academic failure. For example, English language learners experienced the largest treatment benefits on literacy outcomes, by third grade demonstrating similar report card scores to those proficient in English in comparison schools. In fact,as a result of BCNX, there was no longer an achievement gap between these students.
  • After grade 5, the lasting positive effects ofthe BCNX intervention can be seen in middle-school MCAS scores. The size ofthe positive effect of BCNX ranged from approximately 50% to 130% as large as the negative effects of poverty on these scores.1

We recently caught up with two of the program's leaders: Dr. Mary Walsh, its Executive Director, and Patrice DiNatale, its Director of Practice.

Public School Insights: What is City Connects?

Walsh: City Connects is a systemic, evidence-based approach to school-based student support. It involves assessing, in conversation with teachers and other school staff, each child in the school at the beginning of the school year and then developing a tailored student support plan based on that student's strengths and needs in four areas: academic, social emotional/behavioral, health and family.

That support plan involves accessing services, supports, resources and enrichment for the child, both school-based resources as well as, and importantly, community resources. A trained professional with a Master’s degree—either ...

Can the mere presence of books in a child's home make that child a better reader? If we're to believe recent research, that might just be the case. If so, a small investment in books for poor children might pay off.

That idea still meets with a great deal of resistance, even (or perhaps especially) among those who prize reading. Maybe we believe we cheapen books if we objectify them in that way.

But a trio of recent studies offers food for thought. First, there was the study Roland Fryer released a few months ago. He found that young children improved their reading ability when they were paid for every book they read. The children in his study even maintained their reading habits after the payments stopped. I'll admit that I recoiled a bit at this finding, because I hate to see reading become such a mercantile enterprise.

A more recent study out of the University of Nevada suggested that the number of books in a child's home has a greater bearing on that child's academic prospects than does the parents' education level. The study's author speculates that ...

When the President's Blueprint for Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act appeared last month, Chuck Saylors was struck by what he didn't see: much attention to parent engagement. The President's budget proposal had already seemed to eliminate the Parent Information and Resource Centers (PIRCs), the only federal program devoted solely to parent engagement in schools. (The Learning First Alliance just released a statement urging a much stronger federal focus on parent engagement.)

Saylors recently told us about the National PTA's work to make parent and family enagement a national priority. Despite his disappointment with the Blueprint, Saylors is optimistic. The administration seems ready to listen, he told us, and the PTA is not about to let up on its fight for parents.

Public School Insights: What are the biggest legislative priorities this year at PTA?

Saylors: There are several things on the agenda, but I am going to say that the reauthorization of ESEA is probably the issue of the day for us. We want to make sure that ESEA is reauthorized in a timely manner and we want to do everything that we can to get parents involved in the process. There are a lot of components to the legislation that need to be addressed, and we want to make sure that a parent voice is at the table.

Public School Insights: Is your sense that the blueprint the Obama administration offered for this reauthorization included the parent voice?

Saylors: I have to admit that I'm very disappointed that it was not more direct in including parental engagement. There are some brief references, but as the leader of the PTA I can tell you that I am very disappointed in the fact that there's not more concrete reference to parental engagement in the blueprint.

That being said, I have to publicly admit that PTA does have a good working relationship with the administration and we are very thankful for that. But this is ...

Today, the Learning First Alliance, a partnership of 17 national education associations representing over ten million parents, educators and policymakers, released the following statement:

“The Elementary and Secondary Education Act should make family engagement a stronger priority. Research consistently demonstrates the importance of family engagement to children’s success in school, and the President has strongly and repeatedly endorsed the thrust of this research in his speeches. Yet the President’s blueprint for ESEA reauthorization contains only glancing references to the importance of parents and lacks a compelling vision for how the federal government can support family engagement. The President’s budget even proposes the elimination of the Parent Information Resource Centers, the only federal program currently dedicated to family engagement. The Learning First Alliance believes the Reauthorization of ESEA should much more strongly support family engagement as a critical priority.” ...

No one disputes the powerful role that schools play in children’s lives. But schools shouldn’t go it alone in eliminating poverty and inequity in America.

Recent years have witnessed a surge of interest in efforts to create much stronger ties between schools and other providers of services for children. The Harlem Children’s Zone has captured the nation’s attention for its “cradle to career” focus on children’s well being. President Obama has pledged to support similar models to bring schools and communities together around the needs of young people.

One such model is Ready by 21, an effort to build community partnerships that support children from birth to adulthood, in school and out of school. The goal of this initiative? Prepare young people for college, work and life by the age of 21.

We recently spoke with three people who gave us a closer look at this project. Dan Domenech is the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, a member of the Ready by 21 ® National Partnership. Shelley Berman is superintendent of Kentucky’s Jefferson County Public Schools (Louisville), which recently began a Ready by 21 effort to enhance its longstanding work to strengthen relationships between schools and communities. Rob Schamberg implemented a Ready by 21 effort when he was superintendent of California’s Black Oak Mine Unified School District. He is now an executive with the Forum for Youth Investment, which is the lead national partner in the Ready by 21 approach.

All three delivered a common message: As local budgets shrink and youth investments dry up, better coordination of local resources has become more important than ever.

What Exactly is Ready by 21?

Domenech described it well:

[Ready by 21] is a community-based approach that recognizes that, as important as the schools are—and as important as an education is—they are not the only elements ... of the ability of the child to succeed. There are other very significant factors, such as the ability of a family to have proper healthcare and live in an environment that is conducive for a child to learn. Nutrition, childcare, early childhood education…. Ready by 21 recognizes that all of these factors must come together in ...

When Principal Theresa Mattison came to Carstens Elementary in 1997 “achievement was zero.” Student behavior was a problem. Some staff seemed uncommitted. As parent liaison Abby Phelps puts it, “This school was in the middle of chaos.”

Today Carstens is a beacon of light for the surrounding community. It is one of the top-performing schools in Detroit. In 2009 third graders at this school—where 98% of students are from high poverty homes—outscored the state as a whole on all tested subjects.

How did the school turn itself around? School staff points to the leadership of Dr. Mattison. Dr. Mattison points back to her incredible staff. And everyone recognizes the importance of meeting more than just the academic needs of students.

Members of the Carstens community recently told us the school’s story. In on the conversation were Principal Theresa Mattison, parent liaison Abby Phelps, school social worker Gail Nawrock, and teachers Barbara Haug, Vannessa Jones, Rebecca Kelly and Violet Kiricovski.

Public School Insights: How would you describe Carstens Elementary?

Violet Kiricovski: Carstens shares the Comer philosophy. And we all work together. Teamwork really is our strong point.

Rebecca Kelly: The way I would describe Carstens is that it is actually more than a school. I just saw a presentation in which they described it as a “beacon of light.” And the parents, the families, the students and the businesses are all working together.

Abby Phelps: Carstens incorporates a city philosophy. We offer all services. We have it all.

Public School Insights: What kind of a population does the school serve?

Barbara Haug: We serve a deserving population. Statistically, they are considered high poverty—98% of them come from high poverty homes. And our population is about 98% African-American. But we do not think that statistics are something that describes somebody’s potential. It just describes the situation that needs to be considered when you look at the needs of the individual child or the children. What it boils down to is that they are children who deserve a good education.

Public School Insights: What was student achievement like back in the 1990s?

Theresa Mattison: Achievement was zero…We had people who did not care and it was very, very, very hard. But it is not hard anymore, because everyone cares and everyone shares leadership and responsibility.

Abby Phelps: Having been affiliated with Carstens before Dr. Mattison got here, I can tell you that this school was in the middle of chaos. And I am not exaggerating. I have been here since 1989. The capacity of the teachers and their concern ...

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: ...

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