The Official Blog of the Youth Transition Funders Group

Hosted by Chris Sturgis, Strategic Advisor to YTFG

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Schools for the Future Blasts Off in Jacksonville

From Bridges website
We know we have an innovation challenge.  How do we educate students that are over-age and undercredited, especially if they are aging out of the K-12 system with 6th grade skills?  It’s mind-blowing to think about how to do this within the current policy environment that values college-readiness as the primary outcome.

Yet there are a few people taking up that challenge. Ephraim Weisstein and his colleagues at Schools for the Future (SFF)  are heroically designing around young people’s needs rather than expecting them to fit into a traditional school design.  In partnership with the Bridge of Northeast Florida, SFF opened this fall in Jacksonville Florida.  Local donors such as Wayne and Delores Barr Weaver and
The Henry and Lucy Gooding Foundation along with support from Mott, Carnegie and Noyce are providing the financial support. This is philanthropy at its best  -- local and national foundations co-investing in breakthrough models.

The first cohort of 103 students entering in 8th or 9th grade has only one student reading at grade level. On average they are 2.5 years behind.  They are already over-age for their grades and not as emotionally mature as other students in their grades. (I’m having a hard time writing this, as I’m aware that one of the SFF students might read this – and who would want to be described this way.  For them to go to SFF means that they value education, possess courage, can persevere in the face of hurdle after hurdle, and are willing to give us a second chance to get it right).  

In an interview last month, Ephraim explained the design principles of the school:

Accelerate Maturation:  We talk about accelerated learning but this was the first time I’ve heard the phrase accelerated maturation.  Starting with the application and orientation process, SFF communicates the expectations for students.  Of the 150 students participating in the four-day orientation a little more than 100 made it through. This isn’t screening or creaming. This is part of the educational process. SFF simply says come on back when you are ready and try again.

The next step is intensive response to behaviors.  Students are suspended or expelled. Instead there is individual and group counseling.  SFF is seeing tremendous growth of students in 4-5 weeks with the goal of having them managing themselves and their studies by 6 months.  Bottom line: SFF is paying attention to social-emotional growth as a key to academic success.

Straight Talk:  Ephraim described that a key to their schools is taking to students about their past educational experiences.  SFF staff helps students understand that they have been caught in a conspiracy in which educators have told them for a long time that they couldn’t do it.  Then they flip the conversation to be straight about where students are and what they are going to have to do to succeed.   And they commit to doing everything they can to help the student get to where they want to go.

Stretch into Middle School:  The first SFF in Jacksonville Florida is designed for grades 8-12.  This creates more flexibility and more time for students to catch up.  Taking into consideration the policy context it also gives SFF more time to help students prepare for the state assessments.

Design for Short-term and Long-term Simultaneously:  SFF is focused on helping Jacksonville students prepare for the FCAT in the short term as it is somewhere around 8th-10th grade function while also focused on college prep.  They are helping students to fill gaps with tutoring and adaptive software while also engaging them in college prep curriculum. SFF knows that college prep is much more than just the right curriculum. They are helping students to stretch their horizons.

Providing Students What They Need When They Need It:  SFF is pragmatic, keeping students at the heart of their decision-making. They are collecting a diverse set of resources to help students. Blended learning, adaptive software, digital tools, 8-week, engaging thematic courses using hip-hop, memoirs and other high interest contexts. SFF is working with the Concord Consortium to integrate STEM into the curriculum with simulation and probeware for students to do all those really cool things.  They are creating the opportunity for students to get A+ certified. With a bit of soft money they are offering work study right at the school.

It’s not School of One….but the idea of bringing together as many options for students is at the heart of SFF.

Competency-Based:  Students and teachers stay focused on specific competencies. Everything students do is about learning and demonstrating what they have learned.  This allows them to accelerate their pace or slow down to really understand more complex tasks. 
SFF is just completing its first semester. So we need to be patient to really learn from their experience.  There are plans to open the second school in Detroit next year. So stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Adaptable Brain: IQ Increases in Adolescence

laszlo-photo LASZLO ILYES
IQ can grow during adolescence.  That's what Cathy Price, professor at University College London, found in her study of 33 teens. Equally important she found that young people had variations in their trajectories. According to the article IQ "can change in teenage years" one of the young people in the survey was a late bloomer, taking remedial courses in his early teens and now in his early 20's is on the path to a PhD in engineering

This is a profound finding for our thinking about vulnerable young people.  It's just the tip of the iceberg. We need to find out what contributes to helping the IQ grow rather than shrink during adolescence.  Good food? Exercise? Rigorous classes? Caring relationships? Drugs? Lots of sleep? The article suggests it might be engagement, finding something that is really interesting to the student. Sounds a lot like Big Picture Learning.

We need to pay attention to the progress of neuroscience in understanding brain development in early childhood as well as in late adolescence.  When foundations collaborate we can share our intellectual capital and the cost of staying up to date on trends and research.  It's going to be important for us over the next decade to find a way to understand the direction of research (or even shape it) and make sure we are taking the new insights into consideration in our programs and policies. 

This is a wonderful opportunity for foundations to work together.  Neuroscience is going to have implications for each and every public system and organization that serves children and youth. We need to make sure we use this knowledge to benefit those that need the most help making the transition to adulthood.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Chronic Truancy or Chronic Apathy

Although awkward, the phrase over-age and undercredited is powerful as it shifts the blame of our nation's graduation crisis from students to the dynamic interplay between students and schools.  As much as possible I try to avoid the phrase "drop-out" as it places all the responsibility for not completing high school squarely on the shoulders of students.  "Drop-out" allows us to turn our backs to the experience of students we have failed to teach to read.  "Drop-out" allows us to close our ears to the fears of students as they fall farther and farther behind. "Drop-out" allows us to close our minds to the institutional racism that pushes young people out of school and onto the streets or into jail.

Over-age and undercredited is never going to just slip off the tongue.  Maybe that's okay. In the seconds it takes to say it we have to pause and recognize that we need to pay attention to both schools and students if we are going to renew our nation's economic strength.  Sure students are responsible if they just give up and walk away from school.  But schools are responsible if they give up on students without creating ways for them to get the help they need to succeed or provide on-ramps to get their diplomas. Students and schools both have to commit to finding pathways to success.

I raise this, as there has been increasing attention to attendance and truancy. I just reviewed a great report by the University of New Mexico'sCenter for Education Policy Research on the landscape of educational outcomesin Albuquerque -- and there were maps with splashes of bright red highlighting neighborhoods with "habitual truancy". I've noticed the phrase "chronic truancy" finding its way into policy conversation. Once again, it feels like students and families are shouldering the blame.  Is there some way we can talk about the lost opportunity when students are not in school as a both/and?  Is there some way we can recognize that some students miss the first class because they have to take their siblings to school first and need to have greater flexibility about when they start? Can we create the online capacity that was established across the country in face of the H1N1 flu to support students that miss school because their employer insists they fill a gap in the day shift? Can we use suspension and expulsion rates as an early warning system about school culture as much as we use it to indicate that students are disengaging from school? 

I've waited in line with students in howling winter winds as they enter the school through metal detectors.  I've been bumped and pushed in overcrowded school halls. I've been in classrooms where the teachers spent the entire day reading from the textbook.  I've waited at locked schools for 45 minutes with students who were late to school and told to wait outside until 2nd period. Yes students should come to school. But in the face of chronic institutional apathy, we may simply be creating that Catch-22.  Either way, they may not get the education they need.

Language can be our friend or our foe.  As we push to make sure our students are in school we need to have complementary language. There may be students that drop-outs that need drop-in schools. There may be students that are chronically truant that need "sticky" schools that won't let them slip away.

Let's make sure we aren't chronically apathetic. Let's care enough to find language that empowers schools and students. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Rejoice: The New Regs Are Here

Whether you work in policy or in programs, there are two policies that are only discussed by acronym --  HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act).

FERPA is a great example of the tension between policies that share a common interest of children's well-being. Designed to protect the privacy of children, FERPA is also  a hurdle (not a barrier) to cross-sector collaboration including wrap-around services, community school models, and helping young people get the help they need right when they need it.  Sure you can always do work-arounds --  but there are costs, sometimes substantial, to ensuring privacy is maintained.

After a thorough review and lots of public comment, the US Department of Education just released the new FERPA regulations. Among many of the national organizations interpreting the regulations is the Forum for Youth Investment's new report First Look: New FERPA Regulations.

There are some small but powerful changes, thanks to the Department of Education's support of collaboration as a meaningful approach to helping children and youth. According to FYI:

"...State education authorities are now allowed to share data with other government agencies who are not under their direct control, as long as those other agencies are involved in Federal or State-supported education program."
In addition, there is a clarification that "education program" doesn't mean just the traditional school -- and specifically references job training.  Perhaps this means we can figure out better and more cost-efficient ways to help students access jobs?

Below is a quick overview of some of the changes in FERPA as outlined by FYI.  Or take a look at the Data Quality Campaign briefing that provides a complete overview.