Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Connecting Kids to Books (the work of school librarians) - November 2014 East Side Monthly

For November's East Side Monthly, I wrote "Connecting Kids to Books: A Closer Look at Our School Librarians," based on a lovely conversation I had with recently retired middle school librarian Sarah Morenon, who happens to look a bit like the lovely librarian in the illustration! Enjoy.

Lovely illustration by Kendrah Smith.
Connecting Kids to Books: A Closer Look at Our School Librarians

I suspect that most of us take school libraries for granted. It’s a given that a school has a library, right? Along with the gym, cafeteria and classrooms there is, of course, a library full of books. This is utterly unremarkable. But of course, the existence and quality of a school library is not at all a given, as I learned in a recent conversation with East Sider Sarah Morenon. She retired in June from her career as a school librarian in the Providence Public Schools, most recently at Nathanael Greene Middle School, where she was part of the faculty for 15 years.

Morenon became a school librarian mid-career, deciding to leave a 20-year career at the Social Security Administration to earn a Masters degree in library science at the University of Rhode Island and follow her passion for books and learning. Morenon’s love for middle school kids and passion for the books that light up their minds is wildly infectious, making it abundantly clear that she chose her second career wisely.

Morenon shared with me what it took for her to build an impressive collection of 15,000 books at Greene, which currently educates 1,000 sixth through eighth graders. In recent years, there has been no predictable budget allocation to buy new books. This is true throughout the Providence Public Schools. Morenon brought books into Greene’s library through donations and fundraising efforts. She made a serious effort to be familiar with every book on the shelves so she could perform what is, in her own view, the essential function of a school librarian’s job: “To match the right book with each kid so they could stay in love with reading.” This means, of course, that good school librarians know not only the books but also the young people who enter their domains. School librarians do more than facilitate the literary lives of students, but that’s the core of their profession, in Morenon’s view. She points out that due to the demands made on classroom teachers, the librarian is often the only person in a school, and sometimes in a child’s life, to inspire and facilitate reading simply for pleasure – an essential part of education and modern human experience.

She worries that in some schools, the lack of full-time school librarians makes it far less likely that kids will connect with books that they love. Several elementary schools in the district, including Vartan Gregorian Elementary School, don’t have full-time librarians. When the librarian isn’t present, the school library is often shut. This also happens when school librarians are pulled away for other responsibilities such as lunch supervision. This is a common practice that reduces the already sparse time during the school day when librarians can connect with students and collaborate with classroom teachers to support their teaching and connect with students to inspire their reading. As Morenon says, “I worry that the district may not be using us wisely.”

In Morenon’s view, when school librarians are seen as “utility players” on a school staff, rather than key personnel with a specific role, Providence may be less likely to attract top candidates for open school library positions. The diminishment of the school librarian’s role also has real consequences for educational equity. According to research gathered by the American Association of School Librarians, the lack of well-trained, dedicated school librarians and high-quality school libraries can significantly reduce student achievement, a loss felt most acutely in urban schools.

Morenon suggested ways that you can help ensure sure that the school libraries in our neighborhood remain vibrant places for learning. Book donations are always welcome, though please remember that, as Morenon says, “It’s the librarian’s decision.” School librarians know what they need and cannot necessarily serve as a dumping ground for all titles. If time permits, you can connect with Inspiring Minds, the nonprofit that organizes school volunteers in Providence, and work with a school librarian directly. If nothing else, you should view school libraries with new appreciation and understanding that every book on the shelves and in a student’s hands is there because of a school librarian’s efforts and dedication.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

High School football: moving from no way to okay

Recently, Slate's parenting podcast "Mom and Dad Are Fighting," aired a segment on kids playing tackle football. As my own kid (oldest, ninth grade) has started doing this very thing for the first time, I listened with interest, and responded to the conversation via email, and am sharing a version of that email here. I'll add that this captures much of what I've found myself saying to people who give me side-eye or offer outright judgment when they learn that my kid plays high school football. It doesn't happen often, but it happens enough to be a real thing. People + football = opinions, it turns out. Read through for an update, of sorts.

Over the years, I've shifted from "no way" to "okay" and perhaps even "yay!" on the subject of football and my oldest kid, who is now a ninth grader and member of the freshman football team at Classical High School in Providence, Rhode Island (go Purple!). 

Though he's been wanting to play football for years, this is his first time on a team. When he was younger, I "no way"-ed his interest. His dad and I didn't particularly share it, and football seemed like a bummer combination: dangerous, time-consuming, and endlessly expensive, necessitating intensive, parent-driven fundraising commitments. Clearly, no way. 

High school approached, and at freshman orientation, he indicated interest in both soccer and football as fall sports. When the time came to choose, he broached the football subject again, and I knew that a flat "no way" wasn't going to cut it. Complex factors drove his interest in football: branching out socially (most of his close friends are soccer players), physical suitability (the kid is big, strong, and quick), and autonomy (football was finally within reach, at school - he didn't need us to help him find a team or make the necessary commitments). 

So we researched. We talked with football families at his high school about the coaching staff's training and responsiveness to head and other injuries. We talked with the coaches themselves about their training and experience and the ways they'd deal with a football novice (the coach's first words to me: "How do YOU feel about this?" Good question, coach). My son interviewed his pediatrician about football injuries. His pediatrician's take: kids get hurt in football and soccer, pretty much in equal numbers in high school. They are injured in other high-intensity contact sports, too. Avoiding football while embracing other sports in the interest of injury prevention is irrational.

After our info gathering, I felt that my son's serious interest in playing for his high school's football team, and all the good that might accrue as a result, outweighed my concerns, which didn't necessarily apply immediately. Worries about the effects of multiple concussions and other impact injuries may matter if he plays in college (highly unlikely) or professionally (vanishingly unlikely). But now, long-terms concerns about injury to his brain, body, and soul aren't rational.

As I listened to the three of you cover this ground, I identified with each of you in some ways, but also suspect that none of you are yet dealing with the specific focus and passion of an adolescent, who can and should have a meaningful say in the matter. Ultimately, had I forbade my son to play football in a carefully-run program, I would have been indulging my own prejudices to the detriment of my son's growing independence. Saying yes to football has strengthened our relationship meaningfully in ways that help him see that we care about his welfare and trust his judgement.

And he loves it. He's playing a lot, as a tight end, defensive end, kicker, and punter. I see him thriving as he masters new skills, makes new friends, and adjusts to high school's challenges and delights While I still don't love football, I love this kid wildly, and am glad that he helped me get to yes on this issue.


Update: At last week's home game, a player from the opposing team was injured onfield at the start of the second half. The game stopped, and as far as I could tell, the coaching staff handled the situation as needed. Eventually, an ambulance arrived. Paramedics put on a neck brace and backboard and carried him off the field on a stretcher. Thank God his family was there, and I dearly hope he is now doing well and not significantly banged up. 

I realize that this could happen in any high-intensity contact sport, but it was still scary. Though we understand that this particular incident didn't actually involve a head injury, it nevertheless prompted us to talk with our kid about concussion symptoms and the urgent need to report them to his coaches if he were to experience any symptoms, a conversation I avidly hope that neither my kid nor any of his teammates (okay, nor any kid, ever, anywhere) ever need to have. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The blog is back.

Hi! The blog is back. Longtime readers are aware that I take this blog in and out of service, depending on what else is going on in my life. You shouldn't see this current reawakening of Providence Schools and Beyond as a sign that I have free time to burn. From that perspective, committing to writing regularly here is a bad idea. Life is as full and engaging as usual. Nevertheless, the blog is back to think through the impact that a new governor and mayor may have on our state and city's educational system and to write about a few other issues that have come up that are demanding to see the light of day.

So who am I? 

I've lived in Providence for nearly 10 years; my family and I moved here from San Francisco at the end of 2004. I have three sons in the Providence Public Schools: a ninth grader at Classical High School, a sixth grader at Nathan Bishop Middle School, and a third grader at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School. I try to get involved with the schools' Parent-Teacher Organizations and in other ways as much as reasonably possible.

I'm the director of publications and communications at Engaging Schools, an education nonprofit based in Cambridge, MA. Engaging Schools (which until recently was known as Educators for Social Responsibility) offers professional development, mostly to middle and high schools, in order to support schools and districts to be come safer, more engaging places for teaching and learning. We work nationwide (and sometimes beyond) and publish resources to support educators' work. I edit and publish those books, and also manage our external communications, writing our blog and newsletter, doing our social media, etc. 

In Providence-related professional work, I also write a monthly education column for East Side Monthly (recent stuff is here) and occasionally contribute on the topic of education to other local publications. 

So this blog is where I share what I think about as a result of the interplay between the personal and the professional. I make no promises to keep it up forever, or perhaps even for long. But for now, I'm back and though I don't mind talking (writing) to myself, I'm grateful for any comments, interaction, or contributions. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Meet Kimberly Luca, Nathan Bishop’s New Principal - October 2013 East Side Monthly

As I mentioned earlier this week, I had a delightful time chatting with the principals of the East Side's public schools. Here's my October 2013 East Side Monthly piece on Kim Luca, Bishop's (not as) new (now) principal. It's online here. 
I'll note that Kim and I talked in August, right after she stepped into the position. Nearly six months later, she's holding strong as a really great force of positive leadership. All of my contact with her is as a involved-ish parent, and I'm repeatedly impressed with her ability to sort out big issues from minor concerns as well as her capacity to address problems with a maximum of competence and minimum of drama. I'll have one kid leaving Bishop this year to go onto high school and another entering it the fall as a sixth grader, and am looking forward to continuing to work with Kim.
Meet Kimberly Luca, Nathan Bishop’s New Principal

Photo by Kate Poor
If you’re feeling a blast of positive energy emanating from Sessions Street, it’s probably coming from Kimberly Luca’s office. “I wouldn’t change working in Providence,” she shares. “If I were offered twice the money to work in another district, I would refuse. I love working as an educator in this city, and feel so lucky to be at this school.”
Luca is the new principal of Nathan Bishop Middle School, our neighborhood’s only public middle school. She’s the second principal of Bishop since the city reopened the school in 2009 with comprehensive renovations and revamped academic and student support programs. Luca started her career as a substitute physical science teacher at, as it happened, Bishop. Luca settled into her teaching career in her chosen subject, social studies, nearby at Hope High School.
At Hope for 14 years, Luca adored her work with students and her fellow educators, for whom she served as representative to the Providence Teachers’ Union. She was also frustrated by constant change at Hope, noting, “We were always stuck in the planning stage with no chance to implement,” and saw an opportunity to create more stability as a principal. Luca joined the Providence Public Schools’ Aspiring Principals Program, which trains district teachers for administrative positions. Upon completing the program in 2006, Luca was offered a position in the Providence Public Schools’ central office as a curriculum supervisor; her role shifted over time and was most recently the district’s Supervisor of Social Sciences, Library Media Services and Civic Engagement. Though she knew that she wanted to be a principal, Luca appreciated her time as a district administrator, which allowed her get to know all of the district’s schools. When Bishop found itself in need of a new principal this summer - the previous principal, Michael Lazzareschi, is now principal of Central High School - Luca believed that her time had come.
The committee of Bishop teachers and parents tasked with selecting the school’s next principal thought so too, and recommended Luca to Superintendent Susan Lusi as their first choice. The Providence School board approved her appointment on August 13, and with two quick weeks to open school, Luca was off to the races. We talked during this ramp-up time and I asked her about her hopes and expectations for her first year at the school. She stressed that she had faith in the work that the school was already doing, and did not intend to disrupt current programs and structures. “I want us to pull together and continue to collaborate as a faculty to make sure that all students are receiving a rigorous education at a safe and caring school. That’s what this school has been able to achieve, and we need to continue that commitment,” she says.
We talked the morning after a reception hosted by the Nathan Bishop Parent-Teacher Organization to welcome Luca that was attended by hundreds of teachers, family members, students, and district staff members. Thrilled by the community’s enthusiasm, Luca was ready to roll, noting, “I have a lot of energy, and I know I am going to need it!” Middle school students need a school that can “lead them down the right path,” she says. “It’s my moral and ethical job to give them the best education and to help them treat each other well.”

With the faculty, Luca believes that her high school background will be an asset in the work of building an academic community. “Middle school teachers don’t want to work in isolation. The teachers here care about kids as if they were their own. I’ve been able to see that now, before the kids even arrive, as I meet teachers coming in to get ready for the school year. I’ve never worked with staff and faculty as passionate as this group, and I think they’re ready for really powerful collaboration.”
Luca added that she invites community members to reach out to help maintain Bishop as a great school serving a diverse range of students. Bishop already enjoys strong neighborhood support and under Luca’s leadership, is likely to continue to build connections with the East Side.
Luca and the Bishop faculty will need to deal with challenges along the way, of course. Facing a population bulge of sixth graders in particular, the city’s middle schools need to find ways to absorb an expanding population in reduced circumstances as a result of recent school closures. As I write this, it’s the third day of the school year, too soon to determine what may be in store. Nevertheless, I’m confident that we have the leadership and other elements in place to produce amazing results. So welcome back, Ms. Luca, to the East Side! We’re thrilled you’re here.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Are snow days for learning (to do nothing)?

As of yesterday, there have been three snow days so far in 2014 for the Providence Public Schools, On such days, my kids' needs are to find entertainment and food. Mine are to find time work from home (make no mistake, I'm grateful that I can do that and know that I'm lucky to be able to do so) and a semblance of sanity. Let's just say that some days have gone better than others.

Yesterday's snow day was mostly successful. No one yelled, no one cried, and we made Bunny the Snow Individual during my lunch hour.
It wasn't perfect. We forgot to feed one kid lunch, which resulted in a 5pm meltdown which was ameliorated by an emergency bowl of Cheerios. And I got enough work done.

What we didn't figure out, and what I'm trying to determine, is whether snow days should be a time for formal learning, which some districts are considering (I have no idea whether PPSD is one of them). The most feasible method is some kind of online learning that kids would need to walk themselves through when bad weather keeps them at home.

Good idea? I am not sure. I'm appreciating the range of opinions in this New York Times Room for Debate feature, in which a few people weigh in on the topic of virtual school on snowy days. Most seem mostly for it (Khan Academy representative, your support for online learning is not the biggest shocker). One, a charter school teacher, pointed out my biggest concern, which is the lack of online access that's a real factor for many families.

I do encourage my kids to use their brains when they're home from school due to weather. They read and write and draw. They also indulge in sleeping late, board games, lolling about, and some screen time. Coming from a place of privilege and with kids who are fairly successful in school, I'm not too worried about learning loss. I just want them to keep their heads in the game a bit.

Is that the motivation for teachers? That kids keep their head in the game? Or is it to try to keep classes on pace - a legitimate concern because for so many, there's so much to cover. I'm intrigued by the idea but suspect that unless there were a much more robust technology initiative, it wouldn't work well. And I am not sure that all parents - including me on a busy work day - would have the capacity to monitor their younger and/or ditzier kids properly to make sure the work actually got done. It seems that there would need to be some meaningful communication, training, and expectations-setting for this to have a chance at doing more than keeping some percentage of kids occupied in putatively studious pursuits.

This weather thing seems likely to continue to be a thing for those of us in snowy and cold regions, so at the very least, it makes sense for all of us to have a snow day plan in place that ideally leaves a time both for family fun, some learning, and the essential work of learning to entertain oneself when school and family aren't right there to make it happen. That, I think, is the biggest lesson of all, probably worth far more than whatever math problems might get done online.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Providence public school principals - four conversations for snow day reading

Hello, snow day! Before the dual demands of the day--productively occupying my kids while staying productive at work--commence, it's time for a much-overdue blog update.

During the fall and winter of 2013-4, I wrote about the East Side's public schools for East Side Monthly, focusing on the principals of each school. Here's the full line-up:

Kim Luca, Nathan Bishop Middle School (October, 2013)
Tamara Sterling, Hope High School (November 2013)
Kristen Mercurio Lussier, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School (January 2013)
Susan Stambler, Vartan Gregorian Elementary School (February 2013)
Here on the blog, I've already featured the interview with Ms. Sterling, and will do so with the other three in the coming days.

My intention for the ESM  pieces is to keep the opportunities and concerns of public education at the forefront of conversation in Providence, and the specific intention of these features was to remind ESM's readers that we have four vibrant public school options close at hand. On a practical basis, with the limited time I have to write these pieces, an interview with the principal allows a schoolwide perspective and insight into the schools' direction. 

These four principals have more than geography in common. All are women, which is consistent with a trend of increasing numbers of female school principals nationwide (though, according to this research from RAND, the rates of promotion to principal are still higher for men (and yes, these data are dated, but I couldn't find a more recent study, at least not at this moment while the snow day clock is ticking)). All are also fairly new on the job, with two or fewer years in their current position--though their experience levels vary widely, ranging from a first-time principal to a principal with many years of administrative experience. This was consistent with principal tenure at schools serving disadvantaged populations, which tend to have high principal turnover; on average, principals serve fewer than three years (Center for Public Education). I hope that all four principals break that trend and choose to/are able to stay on the job so that their school communities can feel the impact of their thoughtful, collaborative leadership.

It was a real pleasure to meet all of these school leaders, and I was grateful for their time. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

Hope High School's New Principal, Tamara Sterling - November 2013 East Side Monthly

This month's East Side Monthly features a chat that I had with Tamara Sterling, the new(ish) principal of Hope High School. The piece is online here, and I've reproduced it below.

I really enjoyed our conversation, which I had to shorten up quite a bit. I appreciated Ms. Sterling's perspective as a newcomer to Providence and think that Hope and PPSD will benefit from her fresh take.

Great Expectations for Hope High's New Principal: Tamara Sterling brings a fresh perspective to a unique set of challenges

Ms. Sterling at Hope High School - photo by Amy Amerantes
Founded in 1898, Hope High School is the oldest public school on the East Side. Recent reforms intended to raise graduation rates and other indicators of student achievement – particularly the most recent major state-initiated restructuring in which the school was divided into three small schools – have shown promise but were interrupted before they could show lasting results. Hope is now reconsolidated into one school with 915 students.

This year, 74% of Hope High School’s students are economically challenged, as indicated by their eligibility for free and reduced lunch. Twenty-six percent receive special education services, and 15% are English language learners. In 2012, Hope’s graduation rate was 73% – not the lowest in Providence, but not nearly where it needs to be, says Hope High School’s recently appointed principal Tamara Sterling. I recently chatted with Ms. Sterling to get her take on what’s next for Hope High School.

What brought you to Providence?
I became interested in Providence in 2011, when the teacher layoffs here became national news. I wanted to come to Providence because as a transformational leader, Providence felt like a place where I could make a difference. I am now in my second year here. Before moving to Providence, I had worked in Houston, which is where I am from, and Chicago, moving from teacher to principal.

What did you notice when you first arrived?
I noticed immediately that while the data told a story, that Providence is one of the lowest-performing districts in the state, there was a desire for adults to do more for children and for children to do more for themselves. No one was sitting back. Everyone was asking themselves what can we do to make this work? Of course, I also noticed that our dropout rate was more than 20%. I have not ever worked at a school that lost kids in double digits. That’s nearly a whole grade. Where did they go? Why is the graduation rate so low?

Tell me about the approach you took with Hope, considering its dramatic history of change.
I spent the first half of last year observing and learning. I met with all of the teachers and asked them to tell me about their experience of Hope High School, the good, the bad and the ugly. I learned that they valued the small learning communities that Hope had, so during the second half of the year, we asked ourselves, “How can we make this work with our new redesign?” We now have four learning communities divided by grade level: a freshman academy with two houses of 192 students each, and then sophomore, junior and senior houses. The freshmen are together in one centralized area and have their own lunch, teachers, electives and everything else. Our focus with them is on personalization, time management and honing skills. We thought a lot about how we would support our students to stay on track, knowing that if they are successful in ninth grade, they will be more likely to graduate. Those teachers in each freshman academy house have autonomy, the ownership of running their academy. So far, I think it is going extremely well.

Why is autonomy important?
It’s important that the teachers feel empowered. When they influence what happens in their academies, when they come to school to do more than teach, their experience changes. This is a culture shift for the school. It’s all about student achievement and support, and the students buying into it. They understand that it’s important to be here, that Hope is their school, that they take ownership and pride – that they have hope. They are not coming late to school, and daily attendance is up 10%. We’re seeing some immediate benefits.

What’s your message to the community?
We want people to come inside. Come walk the halls with us and feel what it’s like to be a Blue Waver. It’s also our job to make sure that the Hope spirit goes out. Students have to do individual community service projects and a grade-level service-learning project, and those will be meaningful. We’ll be out there representing Hope with pride and making an impact. Most importantly, as we’re going through this transformation, we want the community to sit at the table. We want people who are planning to send their kids to Hope to join us as we plan for the future. I love these students. I have never worked with such a diverse population of students who want the best for themselves. I believe that high school can be one of the best times of your life as you prepare for adulthood, and I am grateful and proud to be part of their world.