Author Archives: Beth Hawkins

Woodward Avenue

The Other Detroit Comeback Story

A Cross-Section of Education Advocates Set Aside Their Differences to Create a Blueprint for Reshaping the City’s Education Landscape. It Almost Happened.

 

The morning John Rakolta Jr. rode the bus to school with Mrs. Robinson and her two kids it was 7 degrees in Detroit. The four stepped outside the Robinsons’ apartment building exactly at 6:15 a.m. Rakolta’s bodyguard and driver trailed at a discreet distance.

Kids bundled against a wind chill that made the trek even more frigid, they walked to the bus stop and waited. And waited. What time was the bus expected to arrive, Rakolta asked, shivering. 6:50. So why get to the stop half an hour early? Because buses are few and schedules erratic; if the 6:50 came early and they missed it there wouldn’t be another for two hours.

The panoramic windows in Rakolta’s downtown Detroit office look out over the city’s main thoroughfare. Buses go up and down Woodward Avenue, but the reality of relying on them was a rude surprise to him.

The CEO of a privately held company that builds auto assembly plants all over the world, Rakolta’s sideline avocation is race relations. He’d been part of two decades of purposeful efforts to understand his own white privilege and to build relationships between black and white Detroiters. He’s both a conservative and a booster of a black, Democratic city.

John Rakolta Jr.

John Rakolta Jr.

A major fundraiser for the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney in 2012 and Marco Rubio in 2015, Rakolta was riding the bus with the Robinsons because a few months earlier a friend had asked him to join an effort to create some stability in the city’s crumbling school system, often described as the worst in the nation. Continue reading

VPK, WTF?

When Mark Dayton first ran for governor, I wrote a wonky little story about a new kind of assessment. When a Minneapolis principal I’d interviewed called after it appeared I flinched a little before picking up. Had I double-checked my notes? Had I gotten something wrong?

Nope. Turned out Dayton, who was running in a crowded field of DFLers who all had remarkably similar—and shallow—things to say about K-12 education, had called the principal and asked if he could stop by.

It can’t have been the only impromptu cold-call. Unlike his challengers, Dayton’s stump remarks on education were peppered with real-life examples of needs his policies would address. His vignettes were rich with the kind of detail that suggested he did more listening than flesh-pressing.

With the Legislature headed toward adjournment and a hailstorm of vetoes coming out of the governor’s office, I wonder where that man went. Particularly since his re-election, on education policy Dayton seems increasingly like a guy who is listening to one set of voices: Education Minnesota.

Thursday Dayton vetoed a bill to overhaul the way Minnesota teachers are licensed that had broad, bipartisan support. And he appears willing to go to the mat over his much less popular universal school-based pre-kindergarten plan known in Capitol shorthand as VPK—voluntary Pre-K. Continue reading

The Toothpaste Isn’t Going Back in the Tube

I realize there are some major, major things going wrong in the world right now, but I am on Cloud Nine. A young woman I wrote about last year is being featured on Sheryl Sandberg’s website on resilience. Niante Ricks ended up homeless after coming out to her family, but found an amazing school in New Orleans, where she lives, that took her in and got her to college. Her teachers sent my story to Sandberg, who loved it.
 
The photo on this post is of Niante and a classmate giving their presentation a year and a half ago. Click on the new story to see a new portrait that’s 150 percent poise and confidence.
 
Cute backstory: In New Orleans an unexpected treasure found on the quest for something else is called Lagniappe. Niante wasn’t even the reason I was at Collegiate Academies. I went to write about the schools’ groundbreaking work on discipline and in special ed services for older students. My host, the most excellent Zoey Reed, had arranged for me to see some student presentations, including one advocating overturning a law that says Louisiana teachers may not say anything affirming to students about gays and lesbians.

Continue reading

Minneapolis’ School Board: Hoisted with its Own Petard?

Why I think the New School Board Will Address the Little-i Inequities But Stop at Trying to Solve the Big Ones

 

Ah, how quickly the bloom goes off the rose.

A Minneapolis School Board with a new political majority has been feeling its oats since the first of the year. It didn’t take long for things to get rocky.

In the new board’s most dramatic chapter yet, a couple of weeks ago about 150 community members organized by a faction of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers showed up to protest what they said were the forced resignations of seven district employees who are people of color. With just Don Samuels voting no, the board supermajority could not move swiftly enough to reverse the decisions.

And so the next week it was forced to convene a special meeting to hear from principals and others who deplored the board’s intercession, insisting that there were more clear-headed ways to make personnel decisions and noting that the board overruled school leaders without so much as requesting information about the cases at hand.

The board insisted it was acting out of a concern for equity. And indeed a pattern of forcing people of color out of jobs in schools, where they are desperately needed, would be a very bad—and sadly not surprising–thing.

But let’s pause, because in short order the universe has served the board an opportunity to address equity on a much larger and more impactful scale. Dollars to doughnuts the new board walks—nay, sprints—away from this one. Continue reading

A Voucher is a Voucher is a Voucher–And They’re All Wrong

This is a rant about school vouchers—which I oppose. And it’s a shaggy dog story of sorts. It ties together in my mind, so if you care at all about the former, I hope you will stick with the latter. Because Minnesota, in the Crazy Mixed Up World that is 2017, is actually entertaining the notion of sending tax dollars to private schools.

Calling them tax credits, or scholarships, doesn’t change the basic calculus. We are talking about sending public money—which people of myriad creeds contribute, because way back when we decided we were one nation, indivisible—to institutions that may decide to flaunt civil rights.

Not long ago, I was in Texas interviewing parents at, among other events, a school choice fair. I stopped at the booth of a school serving students on the autism spectrum that claimed to get great results via novel methods. After chatting with the school’s founder for a little while, I arranged a visit.

The school was private, not a public charter. Special ed is a notoriously bureaucratic corner of education. The decision to open a private school, he said, was driven by his and his colleagues’ desire to be free to adhere, unfettered, to their approach.

When I got to the school, all I could see were red flags. Texas-sized, fire-engine-red flags. Flags Christos could unfurl across a cattle barony big enough to encircle Delaware. I left. I hit one last taqueria. I flew home. Continue reading

Shooting Every Single Messenger—and Expecting the News to Change

Comes now the news that Minneapolis Public Schools’ communications chief has resigned some three months after her appointment.

Is this good news? Bad?

Who knows. Seriously.

When the news rolled in Monday I was in the process of wading through all 123 pages of the PowerPoint presented at the Minneapolis School Board’s March 28 meeting. I was in search of a particular factoid, and I was falling into a familiar rabbit hole.

The presentation had pages of graphs and charts showing increases in Minneapolis Public Schools graduation rates, including a long dissection of how better record-keeping contributed to the rise–but no actual numbers showing how much of the increase was the result of improved tracking.

There were also charts outlining the results of a survey that found—unbelievably and in total contradiction even to other data in the same presentation—that almost all families are thrilled with their children’s experiences with MPS, that they feel affirmed culturally and are asked for their feedback on the school’s operations on a regular basis.

Not surveyed: The third of Minneapolis families using public education who enroll their school-aged kids somewhere other than MPS—a percentage that rises to half on the north side.

And, the piece de resistance: a communications plan including the sharing of positive stories about MPS, “proactive communications and issues management” and an “eventual” marketing campaign aimed at retaining and recruiting families to district schools. Because none of that EVER occurred to communications regimes past. Continue reading

 To be a Woman in the Age of Trump

 

Did you wear a pink hat? Stay home? Help a girl make sense? Reactions to the post-inaugural marches were as varied as womankind

 

After pretty much everyone I knew marked #45’s inauguration by marching in St. Paul, I reached out to a list of women I know who all write about education to start a dialogue about our varied perspectives and our shared passion–equity for kids. I had no idea the reaction it would get. Hard truths, spoken word? We’ve got it.

After a long series of emails, we decided to edit the best parts of the conversation into a blog post to share. My colleague Kerry-Ann Royes in Florida–helpful context: Jamaican by birth–hosted the effort at her blog Faces of Education, which is hyperlinked below. My friend Vesia Hawkins in Nashville has added to the project by making a short, shareable video. The woman in the photo above on the right is my friend Maureen Kelleher; the moppet next to her is her daughter.

It’s our collective hope you’ll want to contribute by commenting. Read on, and you’ll know why I love this group.

***

Fellow women writers, education advocates and mama bears: I didn’t go to the Women’s March the day after the presidential election–I’m too much of a journalist at heart to participate in protests–but I followed all of your Facebook posts and tweets as closely as if I’d been there.

I was astonished to realize that in the incredible diversity of opinions we had about the event and about the need to keep showing up for children. Some of you took your children to introduce them to a kind of civic activism that fuels you. Some of you support our kids just as fiercely, yet did not find the same meaning in the march.

I’m moved, in the wake of the largest peaceful protest in U.S. history, to open a dialogue. What does it mean to be, raise and educate women in the age of Trump? Let’s share with each other and then with our readers. I’ll kick it off:

Schools are full of girls learning to be women. They are full of women trying to have an impact on the dreams of the girls coming up behind them. This is no trifling thing. Did you know that when I was a schoolgirl there literally was no such thing as a woman’s athletic shoe? We wore smaller men’s shoes. My mother could not get a credit card or buy a house. I could go on. Continue reading

How Parents Benefit from School Accountability

How many of you remember the late, great Gil Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America”? It’s been the soundtrack in my ur-brain over the last few weeks as a new and challenging project has kept me from this blog. The winter in question back when I got to hear Scott-Heron play that song at First Avenue was the start of the Reagan Administration. Bleak as that time was, January 2017 feels darker.

Those national headlines are squeezing out important local news. All anyone can think about in education circles at the moment is Trump’s nominee to head the U.S. Education Department, Betsy DeVos. I took a look at her influence on my beloved Detroit last spring, and I have nothing optimistic to say to you about her–except that at least in the near future her potential influence on local schools is not likely to be as big as that of Minnesota education officials.

Among those local headlines not being generated are any comprehensive looks at how Minnesota will among other things, collect and use information on how well schools are serving our kids. Discussions on this really important issue are underway in St. Paul right now.

My colleague and friend Laura Waters, who serves on the Lawrence Township Board of Education and blogs at New Jersey Left Behind, has written something clear and smart about why the topic matters to parents. I love her “inputs and outputs” approach, so I’ve borrowed her post and offer it to you here:

Beyond Staples: How Parents Benefit from School Accountability

By Laura Waters

If you’re a parent like me, at the start of each school year you eagerly learn all about the course content your child will study, the enrichment opportunities available, the field trips your child will take and the school supplies your child will need as you brace yourself for that evening’s trip to Staples.

If you’re a taxpayer like me, you know how much of your money goes to public education. In other words, you are well-informed about everything that goes into your child’s educational experience, which we can call “input.” But what about the output? How much do you really know, outside of parent-teacher conferences and the quarterly report card, about your child’s learning outcomes?

The answer is likely “not much,” and that’s true across America, both at the micro-level of your specific child and at the macro-level of schools, districts and historically under-served subgroups like English-language learners, students with disabilities, students of color, and students from economically-disadvantaged homes.

Yet, according to federal law—once called No Child Left Behind (NCLB), now called Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—schools and states are responsible for both inputs and outputs in order to ensure adequate school quality and equity.

Another word for this sort of responsibility is “accountability,” a much-maligned word in the education arena, often clustered with other imprecations like “No Child Left Behind,” “Race to the Top,” “standardized tests,” and “value-added teacher evaluations.”

But accountability simply means that states are responsible not only for adequate inputs like sufficient funding, ambitious course content standard and high-quality instruction, but also for outputs like accurate measures of student learning and teacher effectiveness. They are also responsible for intervening in the lowest-performing schools through extra funding, new leadership and other turnaround strategies.

These strategies, of course, are mere inputs. If student achievement—the ultimate output—remains stagnant then those initiatives represent wasted resources and, more urgently, wasted time for that school’s students.

Over the last several years federal and state accountability legislation has come under attack from a duo of strange bedfellows: Tea Party/Trump-ish acolytes who wave the banner of local control and teacher union leaders who disdain objective measurements of student learning, at least when they’re tied to teacher evaluations and job security.

ESSA, America’s new federal education law, provides wiggle room to accommodate this political pressure, a kind of NCLB-lite, extracting federal teeth to gum onto the cachet of hands-off government.

Yet states still must, like under NCLB, administer annual standardized tests to students in grades three through eight, intervene in the lowest-performing schools, report progress for historically under-served subgroups, and submit accountability plans to the U.S. Department of Education.

But states can also play limbo (how low can you go?) with tying student outcomes to teacher evaluations and with how they measure school quality.

Daria Hall of Education Trust warns:

We have to be really cautious because we know that states have a long track record of not making tough decisions when it comes to the interest of low-income students, students of color, English-language learners. If states are going to walk away from those students, we are going to lose whatever progress we’ve made with those students, who now make up the majority of our public school population.

Clear and sober data can help parents make informed school choices and learn more than what goes on that Staples shopping list. That’s a key goal of accountability systems. Now if only states could accept responsibility for the elements necessary to ensure that all students have access to the input of effective instructional services and the output of developmentally-appropriate proficiency.

At Toasty’s Coffee Shop, They Just Want to Warm You Up

Inside a New Orleans School That’s Found a New Way to Help Graduates with Disabilities Work Toward Independence

There are two really good reasons why you should read my latest story:

  1. Because Duong and Torian, who served me a mighty fine cup of coffee at their school’s coffeeshop, are heartwarming charmers. That’s Torian in the photo above, and he is just that smiley!
  2. Because the way that New Orleans has restructured services for students with disabilities has game-changing potential. In short, schools can now concentrate on what each individual young person needs to reach their highest potential without worrying that meeting those needs will drain the budget.

 

St. Paul School Board Shores up Public Trust… by Meeting in Secret

Did you hear the one about the school board members who, realizing they had a public trust problem, decided to fix it by meeting in private?

State officials have advised St. Paul Public Schools that board members may conduct closed-door meetings with school administrators and teachers union leaders to work on “trust, relationships, communication and collaborative problem solving.”

According to its petition to the state, after a year of tension and chaos the district wants to “strengthen community engagement and commitment among [the Board], district administrators, the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT), parent advisory councils (PACs), students, and other stakeholders.”

They’re calling it—wait for it—the Collaborative Public Engagement Project.

The notion that these private confabs don’t violate the state’s Open Meetings Law is astonishing—and debatable. But it’s positively gobsmacking that the school board, whose leadership is all in favor of the meetings, thinks that more secrecy will strengthen community buy-in. Continue reading