More than 200 new public school teachers in Nashville sat as students recently during a four-day training in the New Teacher Induction Program. It’s a regular event this time of year for Metro Nashville Public Schools. But this time, there are significant changes, including a new format focusing on major content areas like classroom management, technology, and teaching strategies for English Language Learners.
“Our new teacher induction is much more intensive than it has been previously…and it’s making our first year teachers be able to get on board much more quickly and be successful,” says Earl Wiman, who works in MNPS Human Resources.
The biggest change of all is what may have attracted many of the 200 new teachers to MNPS in the first place: $40,000 starting pay.
“It’s been difficult for us to hire teachers, because so many urban districts outside pay more,” says Wiman. “With the $40,000 starting salary, that’s allowed us to be much more competitive.”
More than 113 languages are spoken in Metro Nashville Public Schools, which was a significant reason why English Language Learners (ELL) was a major focus of the training.
“I am nervous about teaching in a classroom that would have a high rate of English-language learners simply because…it would be hard maybe for me to tell whether I’m being effective until it is time for that unit test,” says first-year teacher Michael Mixon, who will be teaching middle school math and science.
Nashville public schools have the largest number of English Language Learners in Tennessee, according to Deana Conn, who is instructing the class.
“Some students– it’s very clear that they’re not proficient in English…and they have very specific needs about really helping them understand the content,” says Conn. “And then there’s the other category of students who come into the classroom speaking very well and they sort of sneak by teachers and teachers don’t realize that really…they’re not academically proficient.”
In the ELL workshop, teachers were given information about specific population breakdowns, learning the ELL lingo, and different cultural considerations and their impact.
One teacher simply asked what seemed to be on everyone else’s mind: how do you teach someone something in English if you don’t know his or her language?
“It’s important to make sure that teachers are thinking of visuals or how can they make sure their students understand what they’re telling…and can they do things that are hands-on and interactive to help them really grasp what’s going on,” says Conn.
Even as a new math teacher, Michael Mixon says he found great benefit in learning unique teaching strategies for dealing with English Language Learners.
“They are pushing us to use literacy and verbal skills, even in math classes, so this will be very helpful especially if you’re dealing with high-level math problems like word problems,” says Mixon.
“Also it’s kind of given me insight to dealing with how English language learners would deal with number sense. Different cultures are going to have different number sense, so things that seem obvious to me as a math teacher that was born and raised the United States may not necessarily be obvious to a student from a completely different culture.”
The real test for teachers will be when classes begin August first.
Rutherford County Schools (RCS) get high marks in rankings released by the Tennessee Department of Education. RCS and Franklin Special School District are the only two in middle Tennessee on the list of those achieving “exemplary” status—meaning they met targets during the 2011-2012 school year.
The rankings are the first since the state’s new accountability system under a waiver from No Child Left Behind standards. 21 school districts achieved the highest ranking of Exemplary. That means those systems met three requirements, according to TDOE:
Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) was not on the list released today by the state.
But MNPS officials last week stated the district has moved up to “intermediate” status after being under warning by the state in the last few years. That was due, in large part, to the student performance on this year’s TCAPs (Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program).
“To fall into the intermediate category, you have to show growth in the majority of your goals and all of your sub-population sub-groups also have to show improvement,” says Dr. Jesse Register, MNPS director of schools.
Watch the video (right) to hear more from Dr. Register about MNPS performance on state assessment and under the new accountability system.
Elsewhere in the area, four school systems are listed as failing to meet learning goals for some groups of students. They are Cheatham county Schools, Wilson County Schools, Lebanon City Schools and Murfreesboro City Schools. These districts are among those in the state labeled as In Need of Improvement. They will meet in-person with TDOE officials to set an aggressive, effective plan to meet the goals they missed in 20011-2012.
To view the a complete list of districts designated as: Exemplary, In Need of Improvement and In Need of Subgroup Improvement, go to the TDOE website.
Here is a theory on how to motivate more girls to be interested in science and math: connect those subjects to art and creativity.
That’s the goal of an all-girls program in Nashville called Art2STEM. It’s a year-round program, but this summer, 50 girls spent a week mixing art with science—painting and making pretty objects while also inventing designing concepts to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges.
“The two places we’re dealing with are Sudan and Somalia,” explains Carlotta, an 8th grade participant in Art2STEM. “Sudan is kind of a country that’s poor and their water is contaminated, and we thought about making a solar-powered water purifier. And since solar power uses heat, we thought about changing it using the heat to make it cool– so the water would be cold and purified.”
Such big ideas are typical at this camp. The girls work in groups, focusing on various countries and their challenges or unique characteristics. After doing research, each group plans and designs an invention or concept for its country.
Besides Africa, another group focuses on South America. Bayleigh, the group spokesperson, says their idea is to capitalize on tourists’ interest in the many landmarks that are located high atop steep mountains by using ziplines—with a twist.
“We could have something like a hologram guide to tell them something about it… and have like traditional foods and patterns on the seats, music and headphones,” says Bayleigh. “And maybe not just be a straight shot so they can drag it out as they’re going up.”
For this week, it doesn’t matter how extreme the ideas are. The point is to get these middle school girls focused on STEM—and not the kind you find on a flower; STEM as in science, engineering, technology, and math. Those subjects can be daunting to any student. But girls also can be influenced by myths and stereotypes, according to camp coaches.
“I don’t think anybody has told them that they couldn’t do these things; it’s just a matter of what they’re used to seeing, so called women’s roles or women’s jobs,” says Deborah Smith, who has a Ph.D. in math.
Smith teaches middle school math. But as a coach for Art2STEM, she’s also a role model.
“As a female who is a math major, that wasn’t something that girls did. That was a guy’s thing,” says Smith. “ But I try to encourage my girls. Girls are actually smarter than boys in math!”
Smith laughs, but says there’s truth to her statement. She believes girls are just as smart or smarter at math than boys, but boys receive more encouragement.
“[Teachers] often call on the boys more so than the girls in math class. So the girls don’t get to show that side of themselves. And then in middle school, it might not be cool to be that smart girl in math class,” says Smith.
“Historically we know that girls by 5th grade have not been encouraged to pursue science and math,” says Susan Duvenhage, president of Adventure Science Center. “It may be from the home—parents seeing the son and the daughter and this perception that the son is going to do well in science and math and the daughter will not. So we are trying to address that.”
Duvenhage says surveys of girls before and after they participate in Art2STEM show a 30-percent increase in interest in STEM. The girls at the camp seem to affirm that finding.
“I now want to be a chemical engineer because of Art2STEM… because of what it showed me,” says Bayleigh. “It’s teaching me how I can look and invent things, and innovate things. And so, If I do that more, we could all find something and make it better than it already is.”
And programs like this are even causing some to re-think the meaning of STEM, according to Smith.
“It’s called STEAM, instead of STEM– science, technology, engineering, art, and math because art is very much a part of each.”
When it comes to science class, some teachers are just as intimidated as their students.
“I was a little nervous because I know nothing about science,” says Dorcas Wallace, an experienced middle school teacher who was recently asked to teach the 4th grade science classes at her school. “It meant I had to go back and do a lot of research and everything.”
Wallace spent a week this summer in Nashville attending a teacher boot camp for STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math.
About 2 dozen middle school teachers from across Tennessee came together at Adventure Science Center in a quest to learn how to make science and math more interesting for their students. For most, it means stepping out of their comfort zones
“Get to know your squid!” barks the leader of the boot camp. She wears camouflage, boots, and paces the room like a sergeant, overseeing the teachers as they dissect their squids.
Most of the teachers at this boot camp teach some science; but few are trained as science teachers. Their challenge is not in knowing the content—but how to effectively deliver it, says Detra Thomas, who has taught 8th grade science for 14 years.
“We were not taught to teach this way; and this is a much more fun way of learning,” says Thomas. “It’s hands on. It’s more fun for us!”
It can also be a little messy, as Thomas learned first hand when squid juice squirted in her eye and on her sweater during the dissection.
“I thought I did everything right, but when I cut into it, the ink just squirted all over me,” laughs Thomas. “It was a little bit of a scare, but that’s okay. We cleaned up okay! And the kids would love it!”
Science should be fun, according to officials with Adventure Science Center. But there is nothing fun about the state of science education in this country.
“The United States, who put a man on the moon decades ago, now is 17th ranked out of 30 in industrial nations in our kids being prepared and proficient in science,” says Susan Duvenhage, president of Adventure Science Center.
Duvenhage says this boot camp is itself an experiment– the first to connect the center’s professional science and technology educators with school teachers for training. She hopes the camp will catch on.
“80% of the teachers in teaching now don’t have a special certification in science. It’s a general certification,” explains Duvenhage. “So we like to think that by offering the STEM Boot Camp, it’s an opportunity for the teachers to become comfortable with science in a fun hands-on approachable way that will also resonate with their kids.”
Thomas believes the result will be a chain reaction.
“When other students that are in 6th or 7th grade hear from my students what we’ve done in Ms. Thomas’ class and we’ve either blown this up, or we’ve cut this apart. It’s not the paperwork, it’s not the book work, it’s a hands-on type of learning.“
Anthony Geraci is a food and nutrition expert who has a tall order. He oversees the massive central kitchen and the entire food service system for Memphis (Tennessee) City Schools. But he was hired to do more than plan the 100-thousand meals served in the school system each day.
“Putting healthy kids in front of educators ready to learn, that’s the product. That’s what I’m supposed to produce,” says Geraci, executive director of child nutrition for the school district.
“Child nutrition is readiness. It is one of the tools for success in public education, that hungry kids don’t learn and kids that have great nutrition are prepared to learn. So one of the mandates that [Memphis City Schools] gave me was make this happen.”
In just 6 months on the job, Geraci has made significant changes to the program. One of the first of his sweeping mandates: Geraci cancelled all contracts for cookies, Pop Tarts, flavored milk, and what he calls “food on a stick” and “carnival food.”
“The major changes that we made are just the commitment to local, fresh, cooked-from-scratch delivery. We have launched the largest demonstration school garden project in the state’s history, where actually the food being grown [here] will be served in the cafeterias in just a few weeks.”
Geraci also expanded school meals to include after-school and breakfast service. This is all new to Memphis. But Geraci first launched his school meal initiative in Baltimore City Schools, turning an abandoned property into a huge organic farm to feed public school kids. He is also part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative to fight childhood obesity, been featured in two documentaries, and has become sort of a national celebrity when it comes to public school food service—with an increasing number of believers.
“I have a lot of anecdotal evidence from teachers and principals that will tell you that kids that are eating, there’s fewer behavior problems, there’s better test scores, there’s — definitely fewer visits to the nurse’s office.”
Geraci’s experiences are being backed by a growing amount of data showing his concepts and practices make a difference in the classroom—especially in the case of breakfast programs. According to the Food Research and Action Center and Harvard scientists, students who eat school breakfast increase their math and reading scores as well as improve their speed and memory in cognitive tests. They also have better attendance, fewer behavior problems, and higher attention spans.
Geraci balks at the idea that his practices are is too expensive and inconvenient for many public school systems. He says the changes in Memphis have brought more student participation in the meal program, greatly increasing school system revenue. And buying locally-grown pumps millions of dollars into the community’s economy.
“The reality is fresh food local food ultimately cost less money. For every dollar that I can spend in my community, it flips five times before it leaves my community. So I’ll spend $10 million in buying fresh fruits and vegetables in western Tennessee that will have a $50 million economic impact in western Tennessee.”
State education officials in Tennessee will allow select charter schools to take over ten low-performing public schools in Nashville and 31 in Memphis, beginning in 2013. The announcement is part of the Tennessee Achievement School District, an aggressive plan by the state to turn around failing schools as part of the federally-funded Race to the Top.
“We have a real opportunity with what’s going on in Tennessee but more importantly what’s happening here in Nashville, for Nashville not just to be known as Music City but as a city that’s leading the nation in creating a quality system of public schools for all kids,” says Chris Barbic, Achievement School District Superintendent.
The charter conversions of the public schools will be phased in, much like what is already happening in Nashville at Cameron Middle School. LEAD Academy took over the fifth grade in 2011, creating Cameron College Prep. Next school year, the charter program will add 6th grade, then another grade each year through 8th—until Cameron is all charter. (See video story here.)
LEAD Academy will begin a similar process this fall with Nashville’s Brick Church Middle School.
“To me, it’s not about charter schools, it’s not about private schools, it’s not about public schools,” says Dr. Jesse Register, MNPS Director of Schools. “It is about good schools for all children and that’s what we have to be about in this school system.”
Education officials have not said which public schools will be converted to charters. However, the move is aimed at so-called “priority schools” – the ones that rank in the bottom five percent in student achievement in Tennessee. There are about 85 such schools altogether, with 69 of them located in Memphis.
Besides LEAD Academy, two other charter school operators will manage the take-overs. They are KIPP Academy, which already operate a charter school in Nashville; and Rocketship Education, based in California.
What does it take for a school to be labeled one of the best in the country? The faculty and students at Merrol Hyde Magnet School think they know the answer. The Hendersonville, Tennessee, school was listed among the best public high schools in the country by U.S. News in its annual ranking of schools.
Merrol Hyde is also ranked number three in Tennessee, joining Nashville’s Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet and Martin Luther King, Jr., Magnet, along with Brentwood High School as the top 4 public schools in Tennessee.
This is the first year Merrol Hyde has ranked that high, reaching the Gold Medal level, according to the principal, Brad Shreiner.
“We received silver distinction a couple of times and we were thrilled with that. But we’re always trying to go from good to great and we looked at what do we need to do to get that gold,” says Shreiner. “It was just a real morale booster!”
According to the U.S. News report, Gold Medal schools are the top 500 in preparing students for college. (The overall rankings also considers student test scores and other factors.) Shreiner believes that criterion sets Merrol Hyde apart: it’s a founding principle of the school, which serves students from kindergarten through 12th grade.)
“What we do here is we start talking about college in kindergarten. In the first week or two of school, the announcements are done by seniors. Seniors lead the pledge, they choose a song—but they also mention where they’re going to college and what they’re going to major in,” explains Shreiner. “The little ones hear that; kindergarten and first-grade students hear that. So they say to their first-grade teacher ‘What’s the difference in a college and a university? What’s a major? What’s a minor?’ So we set the tone early on that when you leave here you go to college and we talk about college… We do have 100% college-bound students.
Shreiner says it’s not just the responsibility of the school counselor to discuss college options with students.
“Since we have a very small school – we have 60 graduates or fewer every year—students talk to their history teachers about their best college fit for them, or their math teacher. So we’re all kind of college counselors in the high school level. They’ll talk to the librarian—not just the guidance college,” says Shreiner.
But she also credits how students learn in the years leading up to high school. Merrol Hyde uses the Paideia style of teaching, so classrooms rarely have a conventional lecture-style appearance.
It’s not uncommon to visit a classroom and find students huddled together while one of their classmates gives a lesson—and the teacher looks on.
“When you sit in a circle with your peers and you talk about the different way that something can be solved or you take an open-ended text and you have to pull it apart, I think that develops critical thinking,” says Shreiner. “Students are thinking more critically because they’ve been trained to do so since kindergarten.
“I would say one of the areas where they excel is in their communications skills. They know how to have a civil dialogue, and that prepares them for a job interview, for college, when they can communicate in a civil way with an adult. We’ve given them a skill that a lot of students don’t develop until they get to post-secondary education.”
Lesson learned, according to graduating senior Cam Burrus, who has attended Merrol Hyde since grade school.
“All the seniors that have graduated from here before tell me that they’re really prepared for college when they get here and it’s just an easy transition,” says Burrus.
Another high school student, Henry Holmes, also feels better prepared.
“I feel like our homework is more in-depth and [requires] more writing, really understanding the concept rather than just answering a few questions,” says Holmes.
Besides college preparedness, the U.S. News editors also look at other factors, such as student performance on state proficiency test, stating that “… a great high school must serve all of its students well, not just those who are college-bound, and that it must be able to produce measurable academic outcomes…”
Principal Shreiner admits Merrol Hyde serves a select group of students—only those who meet specific academic standards are accepted. But she says the U.S. News ranking shows that even high-achieving students can continue to make gains. She also believes that some of the strategies used at her school can be just as effective elsewhere—over time.
“ I think you have to set up the school as we were able to do, with the end in mind,” says Shreiner. “I don’t think you can just decide one day as the principal of a high school that’s got 15-hundred kids that ‘Now, we’re going to make everyone go to college.’ It doesn’t work that way. We were blessed to be able to start with that founding principle in place.”
A street marketing campaign in Nashville could be a pathway to college for some Latino teens. It’s part of a fundraising drive to provide college scholarships for Latino students like Federico Gonzalez.
“I’m really happy because I finished with my first year in college and I’m helping with this program right now—fundraising the scholarship,” says Gonzalez.
College scholarships are one mission of Latino Achievers, a YMCA program that promotes high school graduation and college among Latino students in Nashville. Gonzalez’ story is typical. He came here from Mexico three years ago, graduated from public high school, but thought he might have little chance of succeeding at a local university.
“I wanted to do it but I wasn’t sure to be in college in the united states because of my language. And I felt that it would be an issue—a hard issue for me. But I did all these things that made me believe that I can do it.”
That message sums up the work of Latino Achievers’ Program Director Carol Cubillo-Seals.
“Latino students in Metro Nashville have 50% graduation rate compared to 87% of your average,” says Cubillo-Seals. “ We’re here to bridge the gap—‘Why are students no graduating? Why are they not continuing to college?’
Cubillo-Seals spends a lot of time in local high schools, meeting with students, encouraging and informing them about the college admissions process. But today, she is trying to reach a broader audience: the listeners on Spanish-language radio in Nashville. The Latino Achievers’ radio-thon seeks donations from the listeners of La Sabrosita 810-AM. As the announcer gives her an enthusiastic welcome, Cubillo-Seals connects with the listeners—through language and information.
“I was inviting the families to participate. But I also was sharing some of the information and the steps to college. You know there’s grants and loans and some you have to pay back and some you don’t; and then telling them about the college process and the scholarships,” says Cubillio-Seals.
“There’s a lot of myth and taboo around the college-going process: ‘I can’t go; it’s too expensive; I don’t have the grades; I’m not smart enough…’ It’s just so little that we have to do to empower students to dream and inspire. Just letting them know that ‘Yes, you can do it and this is how. And I will sit with you and walk with you through this.’
She is echoed by a growing contingent of Latino college students and their parents—who want others to know about the work of Latino Achievers. Several parents showed up for the radio-thon, to give their personal testimonies on air. One of the most enthusiastic is Miguel Valadez.
“My daughter now is in Columbia State College in Franklin. And I’m proud right now because my son is graduating this Saturday at Tennessee Weslyan College,” says Valadez. “Everybody can talk to me. I’m very, very proud for this help.”
Since 2008, Latino Achievers in Nashville has awarded more than 87-thousand dollars in scholarships—money raised from grassroots efforts like the radio-thon and street drives– but with a value that measures much greater than the dollar amount.
“It is pretty big, because when you give out a scholarship, you’re not only giving money to help with books or tuition,” says Cubillo-Seals. “You’re telling a student ‘I believe in you and I’m willing to put my money on you and you’re worth it.’ And that’s huge.”
Laws that will affect Tennessee public school classrooms highlighted the legislative session that ended on May first.
One of the most talked about is a proposal to revamps how education is taught in public schools (House Bill 3621). The bill would promote abstinence. But a more controversial section would discourage instructors from promoting any action that might lead to sex. It states that classroom instruction could not “…promote, implicitly or explicitly, any gateway sexual activity.”
Some teachers say the change would greatly alter what is currently taught in Tennessee schools by not allowing sex ed classes to cover practical matters like contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.
Another law places limits on charter schools in hiring foreigners. House Bill 3540/Senate Bill 3345 states that no more than 3-and-a-half percent of a charter school’s workers can be non-citizens. The schools also must report an employee’s connection to foreign governments.
A much discussed proposal that DID NOT pass would have cut lottery scholarships in half for some high school graduates, depending on lottery revenues. That bill was withdrawn by the sponsor, meaning lottery scholarship requirements in Tennessee are unchanged: students can receive a scholarship worth $4,000 for each of four years if they either earn a 3.0 grade point average in high school or score a 21 on the ACT entrance exam.
The bills on sex education and charter school hiring of foreigners are both now before Governor Bill Haslam, who must decide whether to veto or sign them in to law.
The hallways of John Coleman Elementary in Smyrna, Tennessee, look like a pep rally before a big game. But in this case, the banners, balloons, spirit signs, and daily pep talks were preparation for the Super Bowl of school testing in Tennessee: TCAP, Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program.
“They work all year long for this one opportunity—these 4 days,” says Dr. Joe Phillip, principal of Coleman, and he plans to reward that effort—for those who excel.
“I went to Wal-mart and spent about $11-hundred to get prizes to motivate the kids. And I told them for 3 subjects: reading/language arts, math, or science. If you’re proficient in a subject, you get a ticket. If you’re advanced in a subject, you get 2 tickets.”
The prizes include boy’s and girl’s bicycles, games, dolls, and much more, all lining the entrance hallway of Coleman along with reminder signs of how many tickets students need to nab one of the toys. And what’s happening here is not unusual.
Another Rutherford County school, Eagleville Elementary, has produced a series of videos featuring TCAP Ninja—a character costumed in a colorful ninja leotard who gives testing tips and leads catchy sing-alongs to popular songs that are re-written for TCAP testing. One of the most popular is a music video spoof called “I’m Ready for the Test.”
If teachers and school officials are willing to dress in costume, give away prizes, and plan testing pep rallies–it’s because TCAP testing has bigger stakes than ever before. And students get the message.
“The importance of the test is… it’s supposed to count as 20% of your whole grade,” says Gabriella Hatcher, a 5th grade student at Coleman. “It’s kind of tough.”
Each year from late April to early May, the department of education requires school districts to administer the TCAP– a multiple choice assessment that measures skills in reading, language arts, mathematics, science and social studies. This year, for the first time, TCAP scores must count in a student’s final grade for the school year—a new mandate from the state. Also new—TCAP scores will be a factor in one-third of a teacher’s evaluation score under the state’s new teacher evaluation system.
How much weight TCAPS receive in student grades varies among school districts, ranging from 10 to 25%. In Middle Tennessee, Rutherford County– where Coleman Elementary is located—will place the most weight on TCAP scores. James Evans, spokesperson for Rutherford County Schools, explains how the process in that school district.
“TCAP scores will count 20-percent of a students second-semester average. Another way of looking at it is it’s 10-percent overall of their yearly grade. For grades middle school and high school – it’s 25-percent. And the reason there’s a difference there is the state set the high school percentage of 25% and we have a number of middle school courses that are offered that are also offered in high school.
“We’ve been trying to educate parents—sending out lots of notes home, things like that to let them know this is coming this is best way to help your child prepare that kind of thing.”
Evenso, the change has generated more calls and questions from parents and concern from some students about how much emphasis the test is receiving.
“Personally, I don’t think it should be that way,” says Hatcher. “Because if you’re getting straight A’s and then you just get completely nervous about like taking that test, then you could like mess the whole thing up and blow your grades right out the water.”
Principal Phillips knows that might happen in some cases, but in the long-run he believes incorporating TCAP scores will bring consistency and accuracy to student assessment.
“I’m all for it. It is a tool that we can use to help motivate kids and also to help teachers understand that the grades and TCAPS need to go hand in hand,” says Phillips. “You know, you shouldn’t have a kid that makes honor roll and below basic, or you shouldn’t have a child that’s proficient or advanced and have bad grades. That just doesn’t match up.”
Whether these tactics work will be evident by the end of May. That’s when the state will release preliminary TCAP scores so schools can finalize year-end grades for students.