SCUSD Observer

Sacramento, California

Archive for April 2010

Improving the District, step by step… school discipline

I thought I would begin with a topic I confront everyday – school discipline.  As a juvenile justice attorney, the security of the school environment is central to the work I do.  Also, as a parent, assurance that your child will be safe and secure at his or her school is of paramount importance.  This article is an attempt to look more deeply into the issue of school discipline.

At this time, with our school district budget hemorrhaging dollars, we must refocus on those programs and people who can help realize student success without additional cost.  School disruptions and discipline is an area where a rededicated effort ensures that we do not unnecessarily lose kids from our district while strengthening the school site toward our goal of academic achievement for every student.

I am aware that our district has policies in regard to school discipline.  However, after consultation and research, I believe that the school district still does not devote enough attention and thought to the issue.  There lacks an ongoing commitment to school discipline issues where school sites are left without proper support, and partnerships and consistency are neglected.  And in the end, our students suffer.

A proper school discipline program must be flexible, built into the school structure and administered fairly across schools, individuals and grade levels.  Non-disruptive students should not be harmed by those youth who fail to heed the school structure.  At the same time, the public education system must strive to enfranchise and educate all of its students and collaboratively work with each child to reach this goal.  We should not lose any child to discipline issues without a determined, particularized approach that brings to bear our district’s best intentions, thoughts and resources to the problem.

At the school site, early intervention is the most important piece in maintaining a safe and secure school environment.  And, two personnel of import to this model are school administrators and teachers.  They know each student, his or her life challenges and personal quirks.  As a child advocate, my work with children and youth depends upon my ability to accurately identify the differences between each child and respond accordingly.  Teachers and administrators are called upon to make these decisions as well.  In addition, parents are as crucial to an early intervention model.  Oftentimes, administrators will learn of important information that could explain, and help remedy, the student’s situation.  A proactive, successful early intervention model relies on collaboration between teachers, administrators, parents and the student.

Early intervention plans, then, are student specific.  They should include norms of behavior.  Rewards for positive behavior and sanctions for continued disruption should be made clear.  A written contract between the parties is a sane and efficacious solution.  Regardless, collaboration and consultation should be ongoing and continuous.  It truly takes a team effort to ensure that the student is brought back into the educational enterprise while guaranteeing that other students are not negatively impacted by disruptive behavior.

One issue I find concerning is the failure to maintain and implement a consistent approach to school discipline throughout the district.  In my opinion, the policy should continue to be guided by defined principles.  First, the policy should seek to maintain and ensure fairness between and among each and every school.  All students should be assured a modicum of equity.  Fairness and equity for every student throughout the district should be articulated broadly but specifically.  Although codified in writing, the district must do more to ensure equity in fact as it pertains to each student.

Second, the policy should not tie the hands of school site administrators and teachers.  Rather, the policy should institute a defined flexibility, allowing for latitude in approach and implementation.  Individual needs, both with the student and at the school site, must prevail over a dogmatic, bureaucratic system.  Specific district mandates are not the solution.

In addition, development and implementation of two processes is needed.  First, the policy should focus on sharing best practices developed at the school site level throughout the district.  One of the strengths of the district office is its vantage point.  It can reach out to school administrators and teachers to learn the efficacy of their intervention models.  The most successful models can be communicated to administrators and teachers at other schools.  At its best, various school personnel can share ideas and solutions to specific problems, thereby improving school site policies and education district-wide.

The district must bring together school site administrators and teachers to bring about and maintain a forum for best practices.  As the needs of children change, new strategies emerge for assisting students and improving the quality of the classroom environment.  The district can proactively act as a receptor for information, communicating these best practices to each school site for implementation.

Second, the district needs to implement more rigorously an internal mechanism to develop and oversee best practice models.  The district should maintain a clearinghouse for best practices.  Although I understand school sites are mandated to file their local school discipline plans, a periodic review of those plans should be undertaken.  This review is with an eye toward what is working at the school site level, both for the school as well as individual students.

Development and oversight of best practice models include outreach to parents and students.  Parent opinion needs inclusion in this periodic review and should not be limited to the school site.  Students who evidence a strong turnaround in part because of the school site’s efforts should be interviewed.  Academic and education literature review might be a good idea given the ever-changing climate within which our educational system operates.  Reexamination of the oversight processes and involved personnel should be done intermittently.

Our goal should be to provide the necessary resources and proper accommodations so that every student receives a world-class education.  In these lean budgetary times, the district would be wise to refocus on the issue of school discipline and begin the process of rededicating its efforts toward this policy area.  I believe that with the right mix of dedication and thoughtfulness, our district can improve academic performance and student achievement so that each and every student thrives both academically and personally.


Written by jeffcuneo

April 26, 2010 at 9:19 pm

Kicking over stones and asking questions

I was just looking at the new job qualifications for “Principal, Superintendent’s Priority School”.  Did you know that their starting pay is $96k – $107k?   A regular principal starts at $83k – $98k.  The lower of both starting salaries are for principals at elementary schools, while the top starting salaries are for high school principals.  Why the increase in pay?  Where is the district getting the money?

Another thing I noticed is, it would appear the district has brought in a consulting firm called Mariner LLC.  Apparently, they are already working in SCUSD.   They developed and run a program that is called Data Dashboard in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.  I wonder how much they cost, as well as any new training, hardware, and software associated with their services.  Will this take the place of Data Director (our current tool for organizing data from the district benchmark tests and the STAR test)?

Written by carlosrico1

April 26, 2010 at 5:36 pm

I’m not your stepping stone…

A story in today’s Sacramento Bee highlights the city council race for District 5. It’s an informative article that features the rise of SCUSD trustee, Patrick Kennedy, who was elected in 2008. He ran unopposed.

Kennedy’s opponent in the race is Jay Schenirer, a former SCUSD trustee.

The underlying nuance in the article fails to mention that Kennedy’s position on the school board appears only to have served him as a political stepping stone for a higher ambition.

Conversely, Schenirer’s history on the school board (and the decisions he made regarding Sacramento Charter High School) may serve as a stumbling block.

If Kennedy’s seat on the board is vacated because he is elected to a higher office, his replacement needs to be singly devoted to helping our district solve problems and find solutions to the current devastating budget crisis. Instead of spending time raising money for a city council candidacy, he or she needs to be building consensus and focusing on the issues affecting our schools.

Written by scusdobserver

April 26, 2010 at 7:22 am

A student’s voice

The SCUSD Observer is pleased to announce the addition of Jordan Feri to our writing team. Feri is a sophomore at West Campus High School and he has served on his school’s Associated Student Body for the past two years as vice president and president of his class. Jordan is involved with the SCUSD Student Advisory Council and the California Association of Student Councils. Jordan is an avid supporter of student and teacher representation in the Sacramento City Unified School District.

Written by scusdobserver

April 22, 2010 at 6:50 am

What does a well done use of technology in education look like?

There are a whole lot of terms used to describe how technology is used in education: technology integration, embedded technology, technology infused. I’m not going to explain the hair splitting definitions that separate each of these different terms. Here are some basic “rules of thumb” for effective use of technology in education.

  1. Having students “creating” on computers (writing, making multimedia, etc.) is much more powerful than just consuming (staring at a screen and answering questions);
  2. The students should be able to have a chance to manipulate the data/materials, not just the teacher;
  3. While test prep is easier to do on computers, if that’s all that they are used for you are missing out on a lot of the potential.

Here are some examples of how this looks in practice.

Creating vs. Consuming

Larry Ferlazzo teaches at Luther Burbank, the largest inner-city (high poverty, high language learner) high school in Sacramento City Unified School District. He started using online tools to help teach students that included a large wave of Hmong immigrants, who had no formal schooling prior to going to coming to Sacramento. His work is internationally recognized, and he was the Grand prize winner of the 2007 International Reading Association Presidential Award for Reading and Technology. He uses online tools with students so they can practice speaking, and interact with each other. Remember all those dialogues you had to do with fellow students in French/Spanish class? He’s taken a lot of that work online. The advantage? Students can practice, redo it when they think it can be improved, and save it to share with others. Here is what he calls, The Best Online Examples Of My Students’ Work.

I use tools like VoiceThread to help students develop thinking about concepts and vocabulary. Here is an example that was created over time as students did a unit on Friendship.

For examples outside our district, I’m going to point to the films made by Mathew Needleman in Los Angeles Unified. He has students create films on their unit themes and has found that this increases students longer term retention of vocabulary. In other words, the kids remember what they learned longer, than just doing worksheets. His work can be found at Video in the Classroom.

Using technology to share teaching with students

Interactive white boards are the new big thing. Some schools in our district that have used site-based funds to purchase them have claimed test-score gains. I don’t know how they are being used at these sites, but a general complaint outside SCUSD about them is that they are used simply as a means for teachers to deliver lectures with a bit more “pizzazz”, and are really not involving students in their learning. I’ll get to why I can’t claim first hand knowledge on this subject about district schools of this in my last post on this subject, but you may ask, why is it important for students to “participate”? They learn more, for example Mathew’s finding that students had better vocabulary knowledge retention when they made films rather than doing worksheets. What does this look like? Here is a video of students in my lab working with a Smart Board showing one way to get students in the drivers seat.

My son goes to school in Natomas. One day, Leroy wanted to learn how to knot a tie. The next day he insisted that he wear a tie to school. A couple weeks later I was meeting with his teacher for a parent conference. She talked about the InterWrite board she was trying out, and how Leroy had “taught” a science lesson using it one day, and had even worn a tie. That’s motivation that you can’t get from kids if they are just watching the teacher use the tool.

More than a means of doing test prep

Quizzing, testing, and assessing students is a lot easier online, especially if it is multiple choice answers. The scoring, and analysis is right there for you to look at. This saves time for teachers, but it’s not teaching students to use technology, but more like the technology is using them. They should be doing more than that. When I have students write on blogs, and then read each others work and comment, and read blogs from other classrooms, I’m lowering the walls of their world and not just having them do what the machine tells them to do.

Written by alicemercer

April 19, 2010 at 4:04 pm

Education Technology in the classroom: What should it look like?

My name is Alice Mercer, and I am an ed tech blogger (I blog about education technology). I am an educator and a computer and technology teacher at an elementary school in Sacramento City Unified School District. In addition, all of my teaching experience both in the lab and out, has been in high poverty schools. I believe in the power of technology to change education, but I also believe that if we are really going to change education, all students need to create and not just consume their education. If we can’t make it work with poor and minority children, we won’t really change how we are teaching, but if it can work where I teach, it can work anywhere.

Technology is one of the “new” and trendy things to talk about in education, but what does it mean? First, just knowing your way around a computer and the Internet doesn’t mean you’re ready to teach technology. Effective use of technology is more important than the technology itself. Why is this? Let me give an example. I have a dad who is super smart, and was a math wiz. He would sometimes attempt to “help” me with math, but all his smarts did not make him a great tutor for me. Ideally, we should be using technology to make a lesson richer, more effective, and more enticing for students. Getting to that point requires learning, time, and most importantly, support.

Next, you need to know not all technology is the same, and how it is used is where the real differences come out. Some people approach “learning” to use a computer as though it is like “learning” typing. Although there are skills involved in learning technology, the potential uses are much richer, and more complex than how one can use a typewriter. A mechanistic approach will not have students making use of the true potential for making learning more effective. There is a tendency to simply transfer tasks, and lessons that used to be done with paper, pencil, and blackboards, to computers. While this can give you improvements in terms of management and administration (like automated grading), it will make little or no change to instruction. How does this play out in the classroom? My son would refer to computer lab time as going to the “Tungsten” lab. In many schools, students think the lab is only for doing Accelerated Reader and Orchard test prep, and teachers who get interactive white boards use them simply as a more glitzy way to deliver a lecture instead of involving students in learning.

Last, how computers are used in education has a very strong class and race bias, that keeps poor and minority students from realizing the potential of this tool. One of the best explanations of this comes from Towards Digital Equity by Gwen Solomon and Nancy Allen, which is essentially, poor students are told what to do by computers (they are much more likely to spend all of their time on school computers doing test prep), while more well off students learn to tell the computer what to do. The second group of students is being prepared to become programmers, or analysts, while first is being prepared to operate POS (Point of Sale) machines at WalMart. Those kids are part of a future job market that will help support you in your Social Security years, if that’s not a disturbing thought I don’t know what else I can say.

Written by alicemercer

April 18, 2010 at 6:51 pm

My Children are not Widgets

Sometimes I’m amazed at how my two children could have come from the same gene pool and be so different.  From the very beginning this was clear.  As an infant, my son needed to be held while we walked around the house constantly.  The moment we tried to set him down…”WAAAAAAA!!!!!”  My daughter, at the same age, could be put down in her crib wide-awake and she would soothe herself to sleep.  As a preschooler, my daughter was debilitatingly shy.  (FYI-Microsoft Word tells me that debilitatingly is not a real word, but I will continue to use it anyway.  Take that, Bill Gates) If we went out in public, you could see the fear on her face as people approached her.  My son, however, was comfortable starting a conversation with whatever kid, teen or adult happened to be within earshot.  Many a stranger has been privileged to learn the finer details of the Thomas the Tank Engine saga.  His comfort in social situations continues to this day.

Now, these two children in elementary school are still very different.  One is amazingly academically focused, creating new work assignments when the ones assigned by the teacher are completed.  The other spends homework time creating incredible things out of Legos and brainstorming questions about what would happen if the guy from Avatar teamed up with Qui-Gon Jin and they created a super spaceship.  (OK, I totally made up that question, but it’s usually something like that)

Why am I divulging this personal information about my kids?  Stay with me.  I’m going somewhere with this.

Our current education system is based on a principle that all children, families, and teachers are the same.  We have a one size fits all mentality when it comes to curriculum, behavior management, and selection of teachers.  This attitude may work great in the industrial world, where the final product is some random widget that can only be created one way.  But guess what…

My children are not widgets.

If my two kids, who came from the same gene pool, are so different, think about how many individuals there are among the students in our school, our district, and our community.  Different kids have different personalities.  Different kids learn in different ways.  Different teachers teach in different ways.  These are all things that we should appreciate, not ignore.

I understand that some of my concerns stem from decisions made at the state level, where a lot of the curriculum requirements are determined.  But I also know that there are many teachers in SCUSD and beyond that are truly amazing, and despite the fact that they must use the curriculum approved for all students, manage to make it interesting, fun, and work to the strengths of each individual student.

And, like in all professions, there are those who are just not good at their job.

Unfortunately, we have a personnel system that is entirely based on seniority.  The Board of Education, district administration, Sacramento City Teachers Association, and our community as a whole have accepted a system that bases teachers’ value solely on how long they have continued to show up for work.  Sure, experience is important, but it’s not the only thing.  My kids have had amazing teachers that have been brand new to this career, and others that have been teaching long enough that they could have been my teachers.  But they have also had some teachers that, if I had the authority, would have been sent packing years ago.  I’m sure there is a widget-making factory for them somewhere.

My point is this: We need the best teachers with the best ability to adapt to the needs of our children.  Whatever that takes.  In the future I will discuss some possibilities for how to evaluate teachers in a way that includes both experience and results.  Not just test results, but actual results.  Those amazing teachers that I referenced…I want them to stay.   In those tough budget times where pink slips are given to our teachers, job security needs to be there for the best teachers, not just for those with the most seniority.  Experience does not automatically equal ability and interest.  For example, I have had far more time on this earth than my son, but he can do a far better job at answering those questions about Qui-Gon Jin and that Avatar dude.

I know I’m not alone with these ideas.  I talk with other parents about this all the time.  In New York, a bill would allow principals to decide who stays and who gets laid off. Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers, when asked about keeping ineffective teachers, has stated that we need “far better evaluation systems where you actually look at somebody’s performance instead of these drive-by evaluations…” (Real Time with Bill Maher, 3/26/10). Clearly, this is an issue worthy of discussion.

We need to figure out how to best serve every student, and what structural system will best enable that to happen.  We can all agree to put our students first.  Let’s also agree that our children and teachers are not interchangeable widgets.

Written by Michael Minnick

April 16, 2010 at 11:22 pm