Miss Bennett in the Bay

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 23 2008

Landmark Academy

During our much-needed break in Colorado, I was fortunate enough to visit my friend Ms. Cantrell’s 1st grade classroom at a beautiful brand-new charter school in Reunion, CO. I spent the day wandering around, popping in classrooms and getting ideas. What I saw really struck me.

They have larger class sizes than at my school.

They have less technology than we do.

They don’t have big goals posted all over the place.

They don’t have class-wide standards-based tracking all over the place.

And yet, those first graders blow my second graders out of the water.

Why this harsh achievement gap? I thought long and hard about it. It’s not the teachers. I saw those teachers (many of whom are also first-years like me) doing similar things to what I do in my classroom. It’s not the curriculum. They teach the newer version of Open Court, and as near as I could tell there were very few differences. Certainly it could have something to do with the population, given that Reunion, CO is a middle-to-upper class White community, and Alum Rock, CA is a lower-class predominately Latino community. But that can’t be all of it because there is direct evidence that all races, all ages can succeed academically. I’ve seen it in my own classroom (my students have already grown a year in reading- how about that?) No, none of these things can account for the stark differences in these two schools. After much thinking, I identified the two key things that can explain this: 1. A strong, supportive administration that puts its money where its mouth is. 2. Parental investment and involvement in the entire school, not just one classroom.

When Ms. Cantrell introduced me to her principal in the morning, I was immediately struck at how composed, well-spoken, and in-charge she seemed. She immediately made me feel like I was the most important person in the room, and I could sense that she had that way with everyone. She was very interested in my teaching and in Teach for America. At the school’s morning assembly, she introduced me to all of them and let them know that I would be coming around. (Just to be clear- that is something that would never happen at my school. People I don’t know come in all the time without warning.) It was obvious that the kids felt safe around her and the multitude of parents who were at the assembly must have felt the same way. The students rally around each others’ achievements: she talked about the CSAP which is starting for the upper grades this week, and how everyone needs to be super respectful of them so they can do their very best. Again, something that would never happen at my school. There is so much support for those teachers it is incredible. I think the achievement gap would start to seriously close if every principal were like that.

The other thing I mentioned was parental involvement in the entire school. Parents help out in classrooms all the time, but at this school it feels much more like an entire community. There is a special room in this school just for parents to hang out in and talk to administrators or each other. You can’t make this stuff up. The attitude here is that the parents are like our customers, and we are going to do everything we can to accommodate them. Parents that are happy with their child’s school are more likely to work with their children on schoolwork at home. Children whose parents help them at home do far better in school. Therefore, shouldn’t every school in America be striving to involve its parents in the community? And I don’t just mean a few times a year at stupid pageants or awards ceremonies or whatever. I mean, weekly, if not daily, involvement on some level. Even if it’s just coming to the morning assembly (which doesn’t exist at my school- yet) once a week. Even if it’s having coffee with the principal once a month. Seeing the students’ work in the hallways (another thing that doesn’t exist at my school- yet) and feeling like a part of the community will dramatically increase their investment in the school, their kids’ achievement, and hopefully, actually improve that achievement.

Now- the real problem here is that in communities like the one I teach in there is a very large barrier to this kind of involvement. I’m talking about the language barrier. For whatever reason my district has decided that truly involving its parents in the schools is a bad idea, so it is left up to the teachers to get the parents involved. However, most teachers do not speak the language that the parents speak. This is, naturally, a problem. So, can I really explain to my parents how to truly get involved in my school? Of course not! I can barely explain to them why their kid got another citation today, or how they’re doing in my class, much less explain the nuances of school involvement.

So, since the language barrier is somewhat within my control, I am going to make a concerted effort to learn as much Spanish as I can before next year. I’m going to see if my district will fund me to do this. And I’m going to try to get as many other teachers involved in this as possible- because if all teachers could communicate with all parents, what a different place my district would be.

5 Responses

  1. Jerry

    Do you think that part of the problem getting parents involved at your school is that they have to work two or three jobs and cannot participate? It does sound like your school and your district are more invested in status quo or worse but I can’t understand why that would be. I truly hope you can make some changes. Good luck.

  2. Alison

    I visited the 1st grade of the private school I went to for high school (but which is PreK-12) to check it out. Like your comparison, it was not ostensibly better, except the class sizes were a bit smaller. However, like you said, the kids blew most of mine out of the water. I’m not sure in what ways exactly you’re talking about…but what I noticed mostly is that the kids at my old school had much more vivid imaginations, background knowledge about random things (planets, recipes, etc.), and were much much much more articulate in their speech (compared to my English speakers, as well as my ELLs).

    I think having a good school administration is immensely important, and I agree that parental involvement is also extremely influential. I guess I wouldn’t separate parental involvement from “the population” as you describe it, though: “Certainly it could have something to do with the population, given that Reunion, CO is a middle-to-upper class White community, and Alum Rock, CA is a lower-class predominately Latino community. But that can’t be all of it because there is direct evidence that all races, all ages can succeed academically.” First…this isn’t at all a criticism of your account…just a different interpretation of it, which has come from my experience in an almost entirely Hispanic community.

    I think language is part of it, but in my experience, cultural values also come into play. Do I think

  3. Alison

    Oops! I think I submitted a comment before I was done, but I’m not sure if that’s what happened. If so…I’ll just finish up. If not, this will seem sort of out of context…so, sorry, if that’s the case!

    In my experience, parental involvement is related to “the population”. So if parental involvement is part of what contributes to student success, then the population is, too. I am in no way accusing the parents of students at my school of not caring about their children, but they do have different values when it comes to education than the middle/upper-class white communities I’ve lived in. Of course, there are all sorts of causes of that difference, which I’m not going to go into here. I’m just explaining what I’ve actually experienced in my first year of teaching 1st grade.

    When I’ve talked to many parents about how their child is struggling and what specifically can be done at home to help him/her, I’ve mostly gotten a response along the lines of a polite, unworried “oh, okay”. Or I’ve suggested the morning tutoring program or speech services (all at no cost to them) for a child with an obvious speech impediment and get the same thing. It’s interesting that I’ve gotten the same response from parents I’ve told that their kids are excelling and I want to recommend for gifted services.

    The language barrier is definitely a huge issue in my school community, both to parents coming in to be a part of the school, and to their helping their kids improve in schoolwork (which is of course in English). But at the same time, I’m not sure that language is everything, given the attitudes parents demonstrate towards school. I sense that many families would be equally satisfied if their children completed some of high school and then started a family (the guy doing some random job and the girl staying home), as if they went to college.

    I also read an interesting article including an interview with a Columbian woman who is raising her children in a middle-class New Jersey area now. She said that the parental involvement in children’s education that is emphasized in her current community (and across middle/upper-class communities in the U.S., more broadly) was a big adjustment for her. She said that in Columbia, people consider the task of educating children to be totally up to the schools. I feel like that is how a lot of my parents feel. Many parents show me a lot of respect and call me “maestra”, which I’ve learned is deferential (and why a lot of the students do it, though I ask them to call me by name), so it’s not an issue of the parents not valuing their students’ education, in general. It’s also not an issue of time for many of them, from what I can tell, because many of my students have at least one parent who does not work.

    I get the sense that many of them have a very different notion of who is responsible for educating their child, and in my opinion, it’s often too bad, because SO much can be done ESPECIALLY before children are of school-age and, of course, once they are in school. I went into Kindergarten already reading a lot and basically learned everything important in elementary school from my mom a few years ahead of when it came in school…and my public elementary school was quite good.

    This is not to say that meaningful academic support from parents is consistent across middle/upper-class white communities, either, but I have found it to be much more common and generally much more of a community expectation in the places I’ve lived in than in the community in which I teach.

    Anyway, that’s a lot, but your post made me think, and I thought I’d share my perspective. Good luck with the rest of your year!

  4. Thanks for the great blog Chris, I’ve been anxiously awaiting it!

    I have a few ideas of my own to add, as an insider who is here daily:

    3) NHA is big on professional learning communities. We are encouraged (and forced in a good way) as teachers to work with, not against, one another. I could go on about this, but it is a good thing.
    4) We have 3-times-a-year standards-based tests with ample data to help us, with results that we get in 24 hours (not weeks). This really helps to identify student weaknesses and strengths that may not always be apparent, and that has influenced my instruction more than once.
    5) NHA provides awesome, useful (most of the time) professional development. I feel very well supported.
    6) We have banned the “Crayola curriculum” ;)

    But yes, I agree, we have awesome administration and parent involvement. It’s one our our pillars at NHA.

    THANKS! It was great to see you :)

  5. Some more links for you to check out:

    1) Landmark Academy: http://landmark.heritageacademies.com/
    2) National Heritage Academies: http://heritageacademies.com/
    3) NWEA (testing we use): http://www.nwea.org/

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"All that is gold does not glitter, not all who wander are lost." -J. R. R. Tolkien

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Elementary School
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