Five Ways to Reinvent Education

When it comes to education reform, two topics have dominated the debate on Beacon Hill of late–money and MCAS. What’s been lost is much discussion of what education reform was supposed to be about–actual changes in the classroom. So we went looking for some. CommonWealth checked out traditional public schools, charter schools, and private schools and found plenty of folks doing things differently: a school that operates 12 hours a day, 11 months of the year; a school that designs “individual learning plans” for each student; a school with two teachers in every classroom; and more. We present a sampling here. Consider it ammunition for teachers, students, and administrators who might ask, “Why can’t we do this?” Maybe you can.

1. Full service schools
Amelia Woodley was not too excited when her parents told her they wanted her to try a new school for sixth grade. It wasn’t just that she would miss her friends from her public school in Boston. Even worse: She’d have to be there almost twice as long–12 hours a day. But after a year and a half at the Epiphany School, a private, tuition-free Episcopal middle school in Dorchester, Amelia arrives home at 8:30 at night singing songs she learned in class and talking so excitedly her mother has to ask her to quiet down so she can finish a phone conversation.

Her parents are thrilled that Amelia’s academic skills now put her far ahead of her seventh-grade peers in public school. And best of all, they no longer need to worry about how to keep her safe while they’re at work. When classes end at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Epiphany students play sports together, then eat dinner and spend two hours in study hall. Many get rides home.

“So she has a full day and it’s been productive and I don’t have to worry, ‘Am I going to pick her up in time?'” says her mother, Faith Mallory, who works late two nights a week as a substance-abuse counselor. “It really took a lot off of me.”

Epiphany–temporarily housed at All Saints Episcopal Church in Dorchester’s Ashmont section–is one of a growing number of schools across the country that are trying to break away from the long-held notion that schools operate six or seven hours a day and nine months of the year. Epiphany is open 11 months a year, including an overnight program in July on the sylvan campus of the Groton School. Contrary to those who complain that schools are unfairly saddled with responsibility for solving all the social problems of our times, places like Epiphany embrace that challenge.

Schools like Epiphany operate from dawn to dusk.

Known as “full-service schools,” they offer a vast array of social service, health care, and recreation programs. Epiphany’s principal, the Rev. Jennifer Daly, explains the philosophy as “trying to deal with whatever is in the child’s environment that makes it difficult for him or her to learn.” Staff arrange for the kids to have regular medical check-ups and dental care and help them get eyeglasses or counseling when needed. They have even helped families find housing and deal with the gas company when their heat was turned off.

Epiphany is part of a national network of full-service parochial schools that includes Nativity Preparatory School in Roxbury. Public schools nationwide have also embraced the full-service model, but only a few in Massachusetts have done so, according to Margot A. Welch, an instructor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who organizes an annual conference on full-service schools. Among them is the Thomas Gardner Elementary School in the Allston section of Boston. In partnership with Boston College, the YMCA, and the Healthy Boston Coalition, the Gardner offers health care, dental care, counseling, legal services, tutoring, and before- and after-school programs to its 430 students, plus adult-education courses that are open to the community. All but the after-school program are free of charge.

Now in its second year, Epiphany has 62 students in grades five, six, and seven who mirror the racial and skill diversity of the Boston public-school population. But the classroom atmosphere couldn’t be more different. At Epiphany, the maximum class size is 10 students; Amelia Woodley had almost 30 classmates in her public-school fifth grade. Students also study the Bible and take ethics courses.

So far the academic news is good. Testing by a specialist from Children’s Hospital found that median reading and math scores grew two academic years in seven months, and reached grade level.

Though private, Epiphany charges no tuition or fees. The school relies on individual donations and foundation grants to fund its $923,000 annual budget. Eight teaching interns, recent college graduates who work for $400 a month plus room and board, keep staff costs down. The school also depends on a huge crew of volunteers to help cook and serve three meals a day, clean the building, and tutor children. All parents are required to help out.

In an ideal world, says Welch, all schools would be full-service schools. “As the public focuses so much attention on testing and standards. . .what’s getting forgotten is that the kids who are asleep or terrified or hungry are not going to be there to take the test or certainly to be able to do well on the test. And there are a lot of those kids,” she says. “That’s what’s wonderful about this model.”

2. Individual learning plans
When Whitney Haskell was having trouble with spelling in the fifth grade, she was not the only one assigned extra work. Her mother had to check her writing each night, point out errors, and make sure she made corrections. And her teacher had to find special strategies to help her learn and offer plenty of positive reinforcement.

Everyone’s role was spelled out in Whitney’s “individual learning plan”–a written contract that outlines her educational goals and requires her parents and teacher to help her achieve them. All 168 students at the Marblehead Community Charter Public School have one.

“I don’t think you can successfully educate a child unless everyone takes some responsibility,” says Whitney’s mother, Carol Haskell, a former chair of the school’s governing board. “That’s something that’s gotten lost in education over the years.”

The idea comes from the world of special education, where state and federal laws require every disabled student to have an IEP, or individualized education program. The document describes each student’s abilities and explains the services the school must provide to help meet his or her goals.

When the charter school was created five years ago, the staff decided that kind of detailed plan would benefit all of their students, not just those with special needs. They were so sure it made sense that they required every teacher and the head of the school to have a learning plan, too.

The student version follows children through their four years at the school, which houses grades five through eight, with each teacher making modifications along the way. It lists strengths, “areas of need,” approaches to learning, and any instructional techniques or modifications that might prove useful. Then come several pages of goals with required steps for the student, parents, and teacher, and progress reports in October and April.

Whitney Haskell, who is now in eighth grade, has an ILP that’s eight pages long. It praises her for being well-organized and intelligent, but points out that she sometimes makes writing errors because she rushes through her work. It also notes that she displays little interest in math and needs to find more “enthusiasm for learning.” Among her goals are improving her writing, finding the “fun” in math, and spending more time reading for pleasure.

Over the past few years, she has become such a good speller that her ILP’s old spelling goal is marked “M” for “mastered.” Though Whitney was “having a miserable time of it” in the fifth grade, she now gets perfect scores on most spelling tests, according to her mother, who credits the ILP for zeroing in on specific ways to help her improve.

What started as a “grand experiment” has proven to be a breakthrough, says Pam Miller, a sixth-grade teacher who coordinates curriculum development. Writing the ILPs helps teachers get to know their students–and figure out how to meet their individual needs–in a way they never would otherwise. And meeting twice a year to talk about the plans directly involves students in discussions about their learning that most never had before.

Perhaps most important, Miller says, the ILPs pull parents into the educational process at a time when “kids would just prefer their parents disappear for several years.” And that¹s a well-documented advantage. “It’s no secret that the more involved parents are with their kids’ education, the more successful the students are,” she says.

Creating ILPs for every student is a lot of work, to be sure. Miller, who has a class of 22, concedes they might not be feasible in larger schools, or in high schools, where most teachers are responsible for 100 or more kids each day. “It wouldn¹t be right for every situation,” she says. “But it’s certainly right for every kid and for every parent.”

3. Mentors for teachers
Peter Birney wouldn’t strike most people as someone who needs a mentor. At 48, he is twice the age of many new teachers, coming to the classroom after years as a police officer, insurance salesman, and minister. He knows how to handle himself.

But Birney admits he knew little about how to handle a room full of teenagers–let alone where to find supplies or what to say to parents–before his first day teaching World History last fall at Murdock Middle/ High School in rural Winchendon. So he was relieved to find that the school district had paired him with a 20-year veteran he could ask for advice–every day, if needed–and that helping him succeed was part of her job.

“I was calling her all the time,” Birney says of his mentor, Cathy Callahan, who teaches US history down the hall. “To me they were important questions; to her, of course, they were routine.”

Put a longtime teacher together with a rookie, and let the two talk.

The concept isn’t complicated: Put a longtime teacher together with a rookie, and let the two talk. It can happen informally when colleagues click. But with national studies showing that as many as one-third of new teachers quit during their first few years on the job, some schools are not leaving it to chance. Like the Winchendon school district, they’re setting up formal mentoring programs to help new teachers get their sea legs. And like Winchendon, some are making the pair-ups mandatory.

Almost half of all school districts in Massachusetts–roughly 170–now offer to hook up new teachers with veterans for some kind of assistance, according to the state Department of Education. But what the programs involve varies by district, and usually the degree of participation is up to the teachers themselves.

What’s more startling is that this leaves half the school districts in the state without any kind of institutional support for new teachers. With a wave of retirements expected in the next decade–and the state spending millions on bonuses to attract high-quality candidates–critics say it’s dangerously short-sighted not to do more.

“It should be something that all teachers should be assured of, not just depending on the system whether they have it or not,” says Callahan, Birney’s mentor, who recalls facing a “sink-or-swim” attitude from colleagues in her early years.

A recent Education Week study shows that teachers who did not participate in an induction program were nearly twice as likely to leave the classroom as those who did. Some 19 states require school districts to set up such programs. Massachusetts is making $1.5 million available this year to encourage mentoring; the governor has requested $6 million from the Legislature to expand the program next year.

For school districts starting up a mentoring plan, Winchendon could serve as a model. Administrators and leaders of the local teachers union created the program three years ago after a new hire had a particularly difficult time and was not asked back. Mentors are required for all teachers new to the district–this year there are 20–and for some veteran teachers on improvement plans. Two years of regularly scheduled mentor meetings–fewer as time goes on–are part of a larger induction program that includes a three-day summer orientation and 10 professional development sessions touching on topics ranging from MCAS tests to parent-teacher conferences.

Almost one-third of the school district’s 160 teachers have been trained as mentors in a graduate-level course taught by Winchendon staff through Fitchburg State College. The mentor role pays stipends of $300 the first year, $150 for the second.

Callahan points out another important benefit: Mentoring can rejuvenate the mentors as much as it helps the “mentees.” “It’s exciting for a veteran teacher to be around a new teacher,” she says. “It brings you back to the beginning years.”

4. Co-teaching
Back in first grade, Mara Edelman often came home from her Dorchester elementary school and complained she had been bored all day. As she listened to classmates struggling to read out loud, she sat silently breezing through the text herself. “It was really torturous,” recalls her mother, Meghan Willis, “and it was turning her off.”

Now in sixth grade at the Neighborhood House Charter School, Mara gets extra assignments if she finishes early. She meets alone with her teacher, or in a small group of kids, without disrupting the rest of the class. Now, she is much more interested in learning.

How does she get the special attention? Her classroom has two teachers at work. With only 18 students, the setup allows each child to get what he or she needs. While one teacher leads the large-group lesson, the other has time to help students one-on-one or in small groups.

Co-teaching, which is the norm throughout the Dorchester charter school, benefits not only the advanced students, but everyone in the room, staff and parents say. Kids struggling to understand a concept can get extra explanations without slowing any-one else down; those with behavior problems have someone to keep them focused.

“This has an essential and profound day-to-day impact,” says Kate Nissenson, a fourth-grade teacher. “It really increases our ability to work with the kids closely.”

Campaigns to reduce class size by hiring more teachers are underway in Massachusetts and across the country, but the Neighborhood House takes the idea one step further: not just fewer children per classroom, but more grown-ups. All of its kindergarten and first- and second-grade classrooms have two fully certified teachers, while grades three through eight have a variety of setups–some have two teachers, some a teacher and an “educational associate” (a college graduate without a teaching certificate)–but always two adults per class. Nissenson had a co-teacher daily throughout the fall and now works with Melissa Basquiat, a teacher who recently returned from maternity leave, three days a week.

Ask Nissenson about the benefits and she rattles them off rapid-fire: Teachers take on creative projects they could never pull off alone; they play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses and continually learn new techniques; they work together to solve children’s problems. Her list goes on. And it’s not just about the kids.

“It just genuinely makes your quality of life far more pleasant,” Nissenson adds. “If I’m working on my own and have to plan all the lessons and grade all the work and keep the classroom tidy, something’s going to give, and I’m not going to do all those things as well.” Relief from bearing responsibility for everything helps keep people committed to a job with a notoriously high turnover rate.

Headmaster Kevin Andrews cautions that co-teaching by itself does not improve instruction, but it does give good teachers the chance to do more. Although there’s no hard data at Neighborhood House to prove that co-teaching makes a difference, the school’s fourth-grade MCAS scores were among the highest in the city. And in only the third year of shared teaching, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence. Nissenson, who is co-teaching for the first time this year, says her students are making more rapid progress than they have in any previous year. And parents love it. “The teachers really know the kids, and they can pick up on any issues that arise,” says Mara¹s mother, Meghan Willis, who works part time as a community liaison for the school.

And the drawbacks? It’s not cheap. Putting more adults in the classroom means chores other schools might hire an administrator to handle fall to the teaching staff. (Nissenson, for example, is the school’s curriculum coordinator.) Plus, Neighborhood House pays teachers $5,000 to $10,000 less than other public schools in Boston. Nissenson says, for her, the tradeoff is more than worth it.

5. Senior projects
By the second half of his senior year at Concord-Carlisle Regional High School, Luke Colby could have coasted right through to graduation. He had already been accepted to Boston University and finished most of his requirements. So why did he spend warm, sunny days learning the basics of rocket propulsion, calculating chamber pressure, and mixing chemicals when he could have been working on his tan? “It was just a lot of fun. . .[and] it was a great way to end the year,” he says.

Colby, who designed and built a solid-fuel rocket and launched it off the football field’s 50-yard line last spring, is one of about 200 Concord-Carlisle students who have spent their final semester of high school working on an independent project of their own choosing. The “senior project” program takes the place of one course and allows students to investigate something they have always wanted to learn about but never had the chance to pursue in the traditional curriculum, says Mark Angney, an English teacher who has coordinated the program since it began six years ago.

Intended as a transition to the freedom of college, the program has few rules, but rigorous standards. Projects can be academic or creative; they can involve career exploration or community service. The only crucial component is that students learn something along the way.

As transitions to the freedom of college, senior projects have few rules.

To make sure that happens, the students work closely with a faculty advisor, meeting weekly to discuss their progress, and often consult with an outside expert as well. (Colby studied with a retired aerospace engineer who lived in Concord.) Faculty teach group sessions on basics, such as how to develop a project proposal or keep a daily journal of their activities and reflections on what they’re learning. But mostly their time is their own–to do research, work at an internship, or just try to create something.

At the end of the year, each student gives a 45-minute presentation to a panel–including a faculty member, a community member, and a student–which evaluates the work. They also exhibit their projects, which have included musical performances, dance recitals, and dramatic productions, at a fair that’s open to the public.

Last year, one of Colby’s friends studied music theory and wrote a string concerto on a computer. A classmate who was considering becoming a teacher worked in a seventh-grade social studies classroom. And two years ago, a student learned auto mechanics and rebuilt an old Volkswagen Beetle, painted it, and used it to drive his date to the senior prom.

Concord-Carlisle limits participation to 40 students a year–less than one-fifth of last year’s senior class–to prevent overburdening the faculty. But organizers stress that the projects have proven valuable for all types of students, not just the top achievers. Part of the value lies in motivation.

“The kids want to be there, the teachers want to be there. It’s so different from a traditional classroom situation,” Angney says.

But the projects are more than just a cure for “senioritis.” In this era of MCAS, they counterbalance the pressure to display subject mastery on a written test. Students are encouraged to consider their project a culminating experience–the chance to bring together lessons learned in different fields throughout their education and apply the knowledge to something new.

Meet the Author
A similar program was set up last year at Monument Mountain Regional High School in the Berkshires, and Newton South High School is planning its own version to begin next spring. But while senior projects are not common in Massachusetts, they are part of the curriculum in hundreds of schools across the country, says Vic Leviatin of WISE Services in White Plains, NY, which has helped about 40 schools, including Concord-Carlisle, launch senior project programs since 1992.

These five ideas are only a few of the ways Massachusetts schools are rethinking the way they do business. None is a cure-all for educational woes. (Indeed, many innovative schools incorporate several of these techniques. The Neighborhood House Charter School, for example, not only has two teachers in every classroom, but also uses individual learning plans and aims to become a full-service school.) But each program does have the potential to dramatically improve instruction and get kids learning a thing or two. And when it comes to education reform, isn’t that the point?