The Official Blog of the Youth Transition Funders Group

Hosted by Chris Sturgis, Strategic Advisor to YTFG

Monday, November 22, 2010

Not To Be Missed Opportunity

Hi all --  See Forever Foundation just pass on the information that David Domenici, co-founder of the Maya Angelou Charter school and principal of the Maya Angelou Academy at the New Beginnings Youth Development Center, will be part of an online discussion tomorrow.  There is no way to underplay how important it is to understand the dynamics between the education and juvenile justice system. This is a chance to learn from one of our most innovative leaders.

Information below:
Schooling for Incarcerated Youth: The Link Between Education and Rehabilitation
Date: Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2 p.m. EST

  • David Domenici, principal, Maya Angelou Academy at the New Beginnings Youth Development Center, in Laurel, Md.
  • Laura Abrams, associate professor of social welfare at the School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles.
  • Christina Samuels, staff writer for Education Week, will moderate this chat.

To sign-up to receive an e-Reminder about this event visit click HERE.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Heading Toward the Danger Zone

This week, Jim Shelton called for more early warning systems. The thing is, he’s wrong. What we really need are early response systems, not early warning systems.

At the National Dropout Prevention Network meeting in Philadelphia this week Jim called for every district to have an early warning system. Enough with the warning systems that tell you which children are disengaging from school. What good are they if the districts aren’t actually responding to their students when they need it?

The innovative trend of distilling the segmentation of student populations into early identification systems is deeply disturbing. New products are coming to the market; districts are spending their own dollars on creating the systems. Everywhere I go the conversation is about the indicators: What indicators are useful? Which ones to include? At what point are they too late? Where is the conversation about how to respond to students—especially in these harsh financial times?

More districts should be following the steps of Chicago and Portland. These two cities started to dig deep into how to intervene as students made the transition to high school. But they still have a ways to climb before they conquer the 9th grade transition.

There isn't very much research out there to support districts either. I’ve been looking for research into what types of interventions are making a difference. Sure there are the websites like What Works Clearinghouse that can tell me something about program effectiveness. But a district is looking for the most cost-effective set of responses. Many of them have so many students already academically off-track that a programmatic response is just the proverbial finger in the dike.

So we are in the danger zone. We have to do a mid-course correction before it is too late. There is no way that a student’s risk factor (I’m a 2.3; what are you?) isn’t going to end up in their hands. On a site visit to Louisiana I heard about one district that identifies their potential dropouts as early as 8th grade. They hand the student a slip that says that they are at-risk, and they show them the door. Good luck in your new high school, kid! Seriously, why bother going to school at all?

Here are a few things we can do NOW to get out of this Danger Zone:

  • Distress signals not predictors: We’ve got to stop thinking about early warning indicators as predictors. Ruth Nields, described by one colleague as having the best “emotional intelligence” in the field, says that when students fail courses or miss classes they are waving their hands, asking for help.
  • Keep it simple: Haven Ladd from Parthenon advises using two indicators, failed courses and attendance. Attendance lets schools know when a student is disengaging whether it is in 6th grade or 11th grade. Failed courses are a more complex indicator. Bottom line is that right away, not next year, the student gets help in learning the skills and getting the credit right away.
  •  Talk to the student: Tossing programs at a problem is an expensive way to help students as there is no way of knowing if the right services are getting to the right students. Communities in Schools has gotten it right in their tiered delivery system where students get what they need when they need it. Resources are allocated more heavily to the students that have really challenging life circumstances.

If we really are wedded to the idea of early warning systems then let’s figure out a way to put them to good use – we can use them as early warning systems for schools rather than students. If a school’s disciplinary rate is going up, districts should intervene early before it becomes part of the school-to-prison pipeline. If course failures in 9th grade aren’t decreasing, districts should take a hard look to make sure that the best and most engaging teachers are in those classrooms.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Black Holes in the Education Universe

Hi All -- I feel so lucky that Lisa McGill introduced me to Laura McCargar.  Laura  is currently engaged in research and organizing around the School to Prison Pipeline as a Soros Justice Fellow at A Better Way Foundation.   Prior to her work as a fellow, Laura served as the founding Executive Director of Youth Rights Media,  a youth empowerment organization that engages youth in media production and community organizing.

I have to say my head was spinning after talking with Laura. I couldn't take notes fast enough as she downloaded all that she is learning about young people who have so called "dropped out" but are clawing their way through the bureacratic maze to find a way to complete their diploma.  I really look forward to hearing more from Laura as she helps us all understand the critical ways in which current policies and practices of the education system undermine our efforts to raise our graduation rates. 

Black Holes in the Education Universe
“Where are the kids that are not in high school?” a dear friend and brilliant organizer recently asked me in the midst of an impassioned rant about the gross underreporting of high school graduation rates.   I was frustrated by what seemed to be such an obvious question with such an obvious answer. “Kids that are not in high school are not in high school – they are locked up, on the streets, in the wind,” I snapped back.  My terse retort belied the complexity of his question – and its answer.  As it turns out, a lot of students that are not in high school are, actually, in high school.   Or something like a high school…kind of….

Let me take a step back.  I’ve spent nearly a decade working alongside youth in New Haven, Connecticut to organize for education and juvenile justice reform.  Many of the young people I worked with attended transitional or alternative schools or were enrolled in the high school credit diploma and GED programs at Adult Education.  Many of them actually left mainstream high school at the suggestion of guidance counselors or administrators, sometimes “strongly advised” that they would do better in the “smaller environment” a transitional school would provide, others untruthfully told that they would be “too old” to graduate from high school and would need to attend Adult Ed in order to attain their diploma.

The growing numbers of young people enrolled in Adult Education centers across the state of Connecticut suggest it’s a conversation that’s happening rather often.  In 2010, there were over 6000 Connecticut students enrolled in the Credit Diploma programs operated by 29 school districts.   Although Connecticut state law permits students to remain in high school through the age of 21, nearly one-third of the 31,000 students enrolled in adult education centers across the state are 21 or younger.

While the High School Credit Diploma may have created a valuable pathway to high school completion for some students, the overall attainment rates are abysmal.  In 2010, only 32% of Connecticut students enrolled in the Credit Diploma program actually attained their diploma.

What makes these numbers, and the overall trend, even more disturbing is that these students exist in an educational black hole.  In order to enroll at Adult Education they have to withdraw from school.  Doing so not only makes it virtually impossible to reenroll in regular high school, it also means that they are no longer actually counted as a “student” in their respective district. Somehow, even in the complex matrix of metrics that school districts must track in this era of school “accountability,” these students are thoroughly off the grid.  Though adult education centers are operated by school districts, teenagers who attend credit diploma programs are not reflected in districts’ rosters of “enrolled” students. They are not counted as graduates if they attain their diploma, and they are not counted as dropouts if they don’t.  Oh, and since they are no longer on the official district roster, schools are also conveniently excused from reporting their performance on the state’s standardized test as part of the annual yearly progress reporting required under No Child Left Behind.  Keep in mind we’re not just talking about a handful of students here or there.  In the Waterbury school district, the number of students enrolled in the Credit Diploma program is equivalent to 19% of the regular high school population.

Students enrolled in many of the alternative schools and programs throughout the state are similarly invisible.  In fact, it’s impossible to share how many students are enrolled in alternative schools and programs because that data is not even collected by the Connecticut Department of Education.   Local districts are given discretion to deem alternatives “schools” or “programs.”  “Schools” have to submit a Strategic School Profile, which details enrollment, demographics, testing, discipline, graduation, and dropout data to the state each year.  “Programs” don’t.  Can you guess which label most districts select?  While some districts certainly offer meaningful, high quality alternative programs that truly enable vulnerable students to find both personal worth and academic success in a supportive environment, others operate grossly under-resourced, under-staffed “alternatives” where students are offered sub-par educational opportunities and left to languish.   And in many districts, once students land there, they find themselves stuck.  In New Haven, for example, the Director of High Schools acknowledged that there is no written protocol or policy for how a student at a “transitional” alternative school can return to a mainstream school

All this makes for a nebulous problem indeed.  But there are some clear places to start, and some of the work is already underway.  A new state law has raised the age at which youth can voluntarily withdraw from school from 16 to 17, and the Connecticut state department of education is in the process of reworking how it calculates dropout and graduation rates.  Alternative schools and adult education need to become more transparent and accountable.  The community deserves and needs to know who is being serviced by these nontraditional educational settings and how they're doing. Rather than allowing individuals to make seemingly unilateral decisions and "counsel out" students, districts should be required to go through a series of meaningful steps that students, parents, and members of the school community must take part in before a student can be shuffled off to an alternative school or withdrawn from public school altogether. And, of course, districts would also do well to start investing in effective alternatives that make a deliberate effort to help enable all youth to become star students.

It's Not a Matter of Time: Competency, Attendance, Truancy, and Extended Learning

When Failure Is Not an Option
Hi all -- I've been getting tons of emails since yesterday with questions about competency-based approaches (we are such a shy field -- or perhaps because we share an appreciation for the role of relationships in learning we invest more in personalized communication as compared to the public learning that makes up the Web 2.0 life).  There were a set of comments about how educators and policymakers are approaching attendance, truancy, and need for more "time on task".

Now I think each one of these are really important. But....and it's a big BUT...they need to be approached with a focus on learning, not punitive responses or simple time-based responses.

So let's take attendance.  I read about some research right after the welfare to work reforms to see what was happening to kids (if my aging memory serves me right it was William Julius Wilson). And guess what .... kids were missing a lot of school.  Less access to health care, having to stay at home with siblings who were ill while moms had to go to work.

And there are lots of other reasons students do not attend school. Some students go to the "fun" classes -- where the teachers care, help them when they are challenged, and structure class to be engaging-- and skip the "boring" classes. (I discovered a while ago that young people often use the phrase "boring" when they aren't getting enough support in understanding and learning new concepts and skills).  Teenagers may miss days because their employer asks them to cover shifts, take care of siblings, or need to participate in religious or cultural ceremonies.

Schools use different responses to this problem. Let's look at the punitive ones first as they are truly counter-productive. They can ding or "zap" the student, sending them to detention (gosh I never put that together that we use the same phrase in schools as we do the juvenile justice system!).  They may suspend them, using in-house suspension or sending them home (any district using out of school suspension should be zapped themselves as obviously that doesn't help anyone).  Or after 10 days of absence refuse to give them credits,  a sure way to lower the graduation rates of the district and limit options for students. And I've heard of districts criminalizing students and parents -- sending police after the students or parents, dragging them in front of courts, sending them to disciplinary schools (and my experience at CEP was that calling it jail prep wouldn't be too far off).

Then there are the districts that are working hard to do outreach and help solve the underlying issues. Ed Week did a nice piece on Baltimore's efforts to use outreach workers to bring kids into the classroom. There is Communities in Schools that has learned to have tiered services that get more intensive for students that are juggling more significant challenges in their lives.

(Let me just take a second and make an observation: I don't think I've ever heard of a school using attendance as an indicator of their school performance.  As much as it indicates something is going on with the child and/or family, it is equally an indicator that the school is not designing itself to meet the needs and expectations of the customers.)

And then there is competency-based. Of course attendance is important as students are part of a learning community and being part of a community means showing up.  It's also important for teachers to be able to do formative assessments to see how students are progressing with their learning up. The difference is that with clear learning objectives, especially if they can be supported through online learning, students can begin to stay on top of their work if they miss class (isn't that we tried to do in response to the flu outbreaks last year). They can use other experiences in their lives, through expanded learning opportunities (New Hampshire calls these ELO's), to find opportunities to master content or skills.  And if they really do miss a chunk of school time, they can pick up where they left off rather than having to sit through a full course again.

As for extended idea that is being tossed around in policy circles...if it means enriched learning that responds to the child it is a good thing. But more time on task within the same instructional environment that didn't work for the student the first time around is a pretty questionable policy.  What would you rather do when you are having problems learning something...sit in the same seat for an extra two hours a day doing the same type of worksheets. Or go talk to someone who has learned to do it, can show how they apply it to their lives, or work individually with a teacher in your online course. Perhaps extended learning programs should be performance-based, supported with clear competency-based learning objectives. Just a thought

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

When Failure is Not an Option: Why Competency-Based Pathways Are Important for Vulnerable Youth

Hi all -- INACOL just released When Failure is Not an Option: Designing Competency-Based Pathways.  As one of the co-writers for the paper, I've been digging into competency-based pathways over the past year.  And I am increasingly convinced that it is a critical ingredient for increasing educational outcomes for young people most poorly served by the current educational system:

  • Youth entrapped in the juvenile justice systems;
  • Youth in child welfare;
  • Native American youth with responsibilities to their communities that may have been unable to attend school for periods of time;
  • Youth with high mobility including homeless, migrants or unstable housing (homelessness is on the rise -- districts are reporting twice as many homeless students);
  • Students who are over-age and under credit confronting a ticking clock as they age out of the K-12 system; and;
  • Young people who can't comply with standard school schedules because they need to work or take care of family members. 
There is also an argument that competency-based approaches in fact increase motivation of students as they understand what they are going to learn, what they need to do to demonstrate they have mastered the content or skill, receive just-in-time feedback so they can keep working on it, and have repeated opportunities to succeed. 

I started funding DiplomaPlus when I was at Mott because I thought the competency-based model held vast potential for better serving vulnerable youth.  But there was just very little movement overall in competency-based approaches until recently.  Four things have changed that are bringing it to the forefront of educational reforms:

1) The Common Core of Standards means that we have something that can anchor competency-based learning to academics;
2) The understanding of college and career ready that is now promoted includes a range of essential skills (critical thinking, ability to navigate new institutions, able to monitor and adapt one's approach to learning) that broadens the role of schools beyond preparing students for an exit test or college entrance exam. Test taking is not adequate. Students need to be able to demonstrate proficiency.
3) Technology is now available to manage the enormous data that is generated in competency-based approaches about student progression; and,
4) Budget deficits are forcing policymakers to look beyond the time-based system and the inequities it produces. 

The foster care advocates have introduced the concept of "educational continuity". Competency-based approaches, supported by online and computer-based instruction, are the keys to making it possible.

Imagine if young people who are perceived as trouble-makers (please note the word "perceived" -- there is way, way, way too much racial bias in school disciplinary and juvenile justice policies to consider any level of objectivity) could be working on specific learning objectives as they transition in and out of disciplinary schools, detention, alternatives to detention,  into alternative schools or back to their home school. Imagine if they had their learning plan that they carried with them showing their progress, getting "credit" for their learning through the multiple transfers between facilities and schools, able to "go to school" at a youth program that offered respect, support, and caring when districts did not offer adequate high quality alternative schooling.  Imagine what is possible if we focus on learning rather than having students "doing time" in school.

I'm seeking examples of schools that are using competency-based approaches to serve our vulnerable youth. I'd prefer if you would just comment so that we can share our learning...but feel free to email me at I'll put the info together and post in a couple of weeks.
See other posts on competency-based pathways: It's Not a Matter of Time: Competency, Attendance, Truancy, and Extended Learning. 

Thursday, November 4, 2010

(revised) Something is in the Air: Educational Needs of Youth in Juvenile Justice System

Christopher Powers/Ed Week
Hi all -- During the last few months I've had repeated calls and emails asking what we should be doing and how do we approach meeting the needs of kids in the juvenile justice system.  It seems to me that something is in the air -- and the time is ripening to push hard on system reforms and policies to reduce criminalization of our children and increase access to high quality education.

I'll be starting to write on this topic over the next month in more detail. In the meantime, here is a great article,School Offers Model Lessons for D.C.'s  Jailed Youths in Education Week on Maya Angelou Academy at New Beginnings. The Academy is a charter school serving students in detention with a transition center to support them when they return to their communities.  They are committed to providing the very best education possible to the young people while they are in detention -- whether for a day or for a year.

David Domenici, one of the founders of See Forever wrote about the article:

She (Mary Ann Zehr) paints a pretty accurate picture of a day in the life of a kid at  the Maya Angelou Academy at New Beginnings. I’m really glad she focused on some outcomes.  Most folks don’t believe that kids who are locked up can learn and show measurable growth—but kids at the Maya Angelou Academy are growing almost a year and ½ per 9 months here (1.3 and 1.4 yrs growth in reading and math).  And more than 2xs as many kids who leave here are in school or working than when we first came out here (51% vs 23% after 120 days).

There’s plenty of work to be done—need better transition supports for kids when they leave, need more folks focused on the issues of education for all the kids around the country who are locked up.

The article notes that " Nationwide, experts say top-notch educational services for incarcerated young people are a rarity. Mr. Domenici and other experts estimate that reform of juvenile-corrections education is a decade or more behind reform in regular public schools."  A decade behind! With ESEA on the's high time to ratchet up Part D Prevention and Intervention Programs for Children and Youth who are Neglected, Delinquent, or At-Risk of No Child Left Behind.  Congressional staffers need to go visit Maya Angelou Academy now before they start putting pen to paper on ESEA.

I think it's interesting that Maya Angelou Academy is also on the cutting edge of competency-based learning in which traditional courses are modularized into learning objectives. The article highlights that the "school addresses the student-turnover challege by dividing the curriculum, which is aligned with standards for the District of Columbia schools, into one-month units and awarding one-eighth of a credit for each unit."  For any student with high mobility, this is definitely the way to go so that they can continue progressing regardless of what life is throwing at them.
(Please note: I had to revise this post because Education Week has a policy that their entire articles cannot be shared on blogs. Strikes me as slightly silly when anyone can pass along PDF versions of the entire article ...but hey it's their content and I definitely want to respect their policies. They are doing a good job representing the issues related to our most vulnerable youth and I want to support them).