Archive for April, 2013

Sanity discovered in Red Clay: an interview with Dickinson’s Ninth Grade Academy team

April 26, 2013 1 comment

At John Dickinson High School, ninth graders who don’t do their homework don’t get zeroes. Instead, they get extra support to learn and finish the homework. How did something so sensible take root in Red Clay?

Here’s the policy:

If a student fails to hand in a homework assignment at the specified time, the student will be given until 7:27 a.m. the following day to complete and hand in said assignment or he/she will be scheduled for 5th Block after school on that day. The student’s parents/guardians will be contacted to inform them that their student will be returning home on the later bus. If the student hands in the assignment by 7:27 a.m. on the following day after it was due, the student will not be required to attend 5th Block. If a student hands in partially completed work, the teacher may use their professional discretion to determine if the student must attend 5th Block. Zeros (0) are not acceptable for a student grade on any homework assignment. If these two methods do not accomplish this, please have the student see Mr. Kohan or Mr. Miro in M201.

This policy is part of Dickinson’s Ninth Grade Transition Academy (NGTA). NGTA is part of Dickinson’s remarkable turnaround, which is worth a whole post itself.

But mostly I wanted to write something about 5th Block, which seems to be largely unknown in the district. The Grade Reporting committee is right now drafting a major overhaul of Red Clay grading and homework policies, and I would hope they would take 5th block as a model. I’ve posted before on homework policy:

The dog ate my homework policy
A new way to talk about homework: with facts
The Pontius Pilate homework policy
A school where giving up is not an option

When I first mentioned 5th Block at a PTA meeting as a possible model for our middle school, the principal got a big kick out of it. He said “Fifth Block? Is that like a cell block or something?” and the PTA parents joined in the laughter, and that was the end of the conversation. But it was a very serious suggestion on my part. I was a little surprised I had heard of it before and he hadn’t, especially since his job is to send kids to high school.

But I did wonder what was the difference between 5th Block and detention! I imagined a drab classroom full of Sweathogs slouched in their seats. But it turns out it’s nothing like that. Instead, 5th Block is held in each teacher’s classroom after school, two days per week. In other words, if you are behind on Math homework, you report to your math teacher’s room after school. According to the team, there isn’t really a punitive feel to it, and there is almost an enthusiasm. Reportedly a lot of tenth graders miss it and ask for it to be implemented in tenth grade! (it’s being considered).

Apart from the homework policy, other key innovations of NGTA are 1) Students are located in a separate wing of the building, 2) Freshman Seminar, which is a mandatory course that meets briefly every morning to teach life and school skills, 3) Double math instruction (two courses per year).

Disclosure: My son will be attending Dickinson next fall, so I will probably be posting more about it then.

So a few weeks ago I sat down with two members of Dickinson’s NGTA team to find out more about the homework policy: Cbris Kohan, who is NGTA Headmaster (as well as Director of the IB program), and John Melidosian, NGTA Coordinator (and math teacher).

Before I asked about the homework policy, first I asked the team to tell me about the origins of the NGTA and Dickinson’s overall turnaround effort. Mr Kohan began telling the story in true raconteur style.

In 2008 and the years after, a shadow was hanging over Dickinson. The news regularly featured dismal stories about Dickinson, the dropout rate was reportedly the worst in the state, teacher attrition was out of control, and enrollment was dropping with no end in sight. AYP was not being met for minority groups, so Dickinson was required to restructure in those pre-RTTT days.

So teachers took matters into their own hands, starting with the ninth grade: “All of the debate and planning on the NGTA took place at our SLRT meetings (School Level Restructuring Team), said Kohan. “The SLRT still exists and functions as Dickinson’s Leadership Team. I really think the success of the first year of the NGTA in 2009 kept us open and bought us time to allow for the redesign.”

Kohan elaborated: “The NGTA was never presented to the BOE. It was just a reallocation of resources in the school.”

Now this is the part of the story that I just can’t get enough of: Kohan described how in June 2008, the SLRT took the rare opportunity to go to lunch at a local restaurant, in a kind of come-to-Jesus meeting. Planning the new NGTA was the ostensible purpose of the meeting, but it just didn’t feel that success was assured. There was something missing.

So with a sense of impending doom, the teachers brainstormed in a very existential mode, asking things like “Why are we here” and “What is our mission,” eventually getting down to more practical questions.

Kohan elaborated: “The meeting was about planning for the NGTA, and we had all taught 9th graders before. Unfortunately that also means teaching repeat 9th graders. And repeat-repeat 9th graders. It did not take long until the idea of students failing because they did not do any homework came up. 5th Block was our best attempt at a solution to that.” Kohan said they weren’t satisfied graduating students with D’s. They wanted more.

“It did not take long until the idea of students failing because they did not do any homework came up”

Kohan continued: “We asked ourselves: Do we really care if the student learns the lesson on that particular day? And the answer was no, we don’t. The main thing was that they learned it.” That was the kind of root-cause thinking that drove the creation of 5th Block.

Another important feature of NGTA (which doesn’t seem to have made it into writing) is that if a student doesn’t do well on a test, teachers have the discretion to make up a new test and let the student retake it until the teacher is satisfied the student has done their best. That is the level of commitment needed for broad educational success.

The basic outline of 5th Block was recorded on a paper plate right there in the restaurant (Kohan still has the plate). I urged him to save it for posterity, as a reminder of what teachers can come up with themselves instead of waiting for top-down solutions. But I am not sure every school has teachers and leaders who would be able to accomplish this. I have to hand it to the Dickinson teachers and especially the SLRT, who were able to think about their school and their craft as true intellectuals, and then based on their analysis, move toward practical implementation.

A new principal
As of July 2008, Dickinson had had four principals in eighteen months. But by August, Byron Murphy arrived, stolen away from Appoquinimink. From the Hockessin Community News in 2008:

Red Clay schools’ chief, Dr. Robert Andrzejewski, was looking for the right man to become the “turnaround leader” at struggling Dickinson High School. He tapped former Middletown High School assistant principal Byron Murphy, who has a strong mathematics and engineering background — and, experience in turnaround work.

I have to emphasize the stability and loyalty inspired by Principal Murphy. I decided to choice my son into Dickinson largely on the basis of speaking with Mr. Murphy several times during RCPAC meetings (RCPAC meetings rotate among schools, and Murphy is one of the very few principals who always attend at his school). The first time I met Mr. Murphy was at my first RCPAC meeting, where I gave a (probably too long) soliloquy on the underuse and the potential of eSchoolPLUS and HAC. Murphy was one of the few in the room who got it and engaged with me on it. I didn’t know at the time that Murphy and his team were actively looking for new ideas to support the turnaround. Next year he’ll have to deal with me full-time!

Kohan described in part how SLRT works (paraphrased): “Byron is the idea man, coming up with plans ranging from the innovative to really-out-there. I’m usually the guy who plays devil’s advocate – but sometimes we all switch roles.” That sounds like a creative team in action.

“After 4 principals in 18 months, we had one who wanted to be at Dickinson.”

I asked Mr. Kohan if RTTT had been in effect, if Dickinson would have been forced to choose one of its three turnaround models rather than inventing their own. “I am sure that we would have,” Kohan said. “I sat in several meeting with Byron where the discussion was on which of the three models would work best. It is sad to report that some of the people we met with did not understand that would mean replacing Byron as Principal. After 4 principals in 18 months, we had one who wanted to be at Dickinson. And step one would be to get rid of him. I am not sure that I would have stayed if that had been the outcome.”

Phase 1
Even as change was underway, 2010 was Dickinson’s annus horribilis, with a dropout rate over 12% and enrollment at 644, almost at its lowest-ever point of 610 the following year. In January, Principal Murphy gave this presentation to the Red Clay Board, proposing Phase 1 of Dickinson’s new STEM Academy. “Those were dark days,” said Kohan. “Every day was more fear that Dickinson would be shut down in favor of some other entity occupying the space.”

But apparently it worked. The next year, the dropout rate was cut nearly in half. In 2012, DCAS scores are up, consistent with receiving double math instruction.

“I really think the success of the first year of the NGTA in 2009 kept us open and bought us time to allow for the redesign.”

I wondered how much this all cost, and Mr. Kohan said there were a lot of variables, but basically there were two extra teaching units required (almost but not quite the same thing as “teachers.”) I’m not sure now exactly which grades or programs this figure applied to, so I’ll have to post a follow-up in the future.

Kohan explained that NGTA teachers were so enthusiastic they often forgot or refused to log their extra hours – which made it very difficult when he had to explain how much the program cost!

Dickinson also received essential support from the District in other areas that were critical to its turnaround. The targeted hiring of Murphy and the support he received was the first thing. In addition, programs that would normally be pulled because they couldn’t justify their existence, were instead supported so they could recover and catch on during the turnaround.

As of this year, Dickinson has cut its dropout rate nearly in half since 2010, enrollment was up to 726, DCAS scores are up, and the school is meeting its AYP targets, plus a number of other performance measures are rising.

I have to apologize to Mr. Melidosian, who was at our meeting and did actually speak, but Mr. Kohan’s narrative was compelling, so Mr. Melidosian didn’t really get quoted here. And furthermore, I didn’t mention the new programs and work being done in other grades. But I promise I will write again about Dickinson and the role of Mr. Melidosian as well as other teachers.

For more reading on Dickinson, the inimitable Kilroy has been covering it all along, here and here among other posts.


Red Clay parents: Take back RCPAC tonight, Monday Apr. 22 5:45 pm at Highlands Elementary

April 22, 2013 2 comments

Red Clay parents, we still need more of your voices at RCPAC!

Tonight is another opportunity to take back RCPAC and put the “Advisory” back into the Red Clay Parent Advisory Council.

The meeting starts at 5:45 pm in the Highlands Elementary cafeteria (directions). The agenda features Delaware’s Secretary of Education Mark Murphy speaking and answering previously submitted questions on the topic of Common Core implementation.

Next month’s RCPAC meeting is May 20 at Lewis Elementary.

What the hell is a Performance Plus Post-Test?

April 15, 2013 7 comments

I just saw this grade pop up on my son’s HAC page with no warning. The grade was for a 100-point “Performance Plus Post-Test” that has already been given, so no warning to study for it at home. He did well enough but could have done better with advance notice. I wish I had been given information and notification in advance so we could have studied at home. I sure hope it isn’t a high-stakes grade; I have no idea what it is used for.

Apparently it was a state-required test for 8th grade in basic Algebra, but he is in Geometry. He already got the credit for basic Algebra last year! The teacher says the students knew about it and prepared for it in class, but you know teenage boys – he just did the practice problems put in front of him and forgot about them as soon as class ended! Not much info available via Google, so being lazy today I thought I’d just put the question to the readers.

I am SO tired of the “bad teacher” arguments

April 11, 2013 2 comments

Sure there are a few bad teachers – I’ve met some of them. But you know what? Every one of them was following district policies and practices. The reason they were ineffective is that they were permitted to be. If they were breaking the rules they would already be gone. Even the worst ones I met were good enough, had they been required to follow better practices.

There will always be a few bad teachers, but that is hardly the biggest problem facing the schools. How about getting rid of the bad policies and practices and replacing them with good ones?