Saturday, February 12, 2011

Live Blogging from Teach for America 20th Anniversary Summit, Part 3 - Afternoon Session

"I ask him next about attrition. While his Houston schools seem to have low attrition, can he explain New York’s? (See KIPP chart from earlier post this morning.) He appears surprised to see the numbers in my hand, but says he is aware of this “challenge.” He criticizes the KIPP school leaders who claim 100% graduation rates even though they have had 50% attrition in their schools. He does not, however, offer any insight as to where these children go. He simply says that it is “harder” to hold on to middle/high school kids than elementary kids. He says this is why his school has such low attrition: “When we start with them young, they stick.” He does not offer a response to my question about whether or not KIPP schools counsel out kids. He says he knows the KIPP Infinity school leader and couldn’t imagine him doing this. But, he offers NO explanation as to why the attrition is so high."

12:45 A hunt for lunch ensues. Corralling 11,000 people into a cafeteria is not easy work. Rushing to make the next session, I get stopped by a TFA film crew, asking if I want to be interviewed. Pushing down my great fear of cameras, I agree. I ‘m asked about my perceptions of the achievement gap and I talk about how TFA uses this as such a buzz word. I’m also asked why I came to the summit, which gives me a chance to talk about my concerns about the current positions and direction of TFA. I talk about the privatization of public education, TFA’s blind support of charter schools  and the strong anti-union sentiment I feel at the summit. The interviewer seemed surprised by my responses, and luckily I’m wearing my GEM button, so my message cannot be mistaken. Well see if they use the footage! Doubtful, as it seemed they were looking for some “Rah! Rah! Go TFA” clips.

1:15 Found a box lunch. Making my way to my next session and run into two people from my corps year. They are both working at charter schools (Achievement First and Girls Prep). Gave them some GEM literature, had a brief chat with both.  It’s a challenge to figure out how to talk to people who work in charter schools in a way that I can explain my perspective while still being respectful. But, these conversations are crucial.

1:40 Arrive at my Lunch session twenty minutes late.

From Cradle to Kindergarten: The role of early childhood education in ending educational equity.

1. Aaron Brenner, KIPP Houston
2. Shana Brodaux, Senior Manager of Early Childhood Programs, Harlem Children Zone
3. David Johns, Senior Education Advisor, U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions

*I missed David Johns piece, and came in while Shana Brodaux was speaking.

HCZ=
Shana Brodaux talks about HCZ’s early childhood program and their efforts to educate the “whole child,” improve educational outcomes and “end generational poverty.”She talks about how their program starts when children are “in the womb” and offers them an education all the way through early childhood. They are then feed into HCZ Promise Academies. She says they spend the most money on their 4-year old program. There are 5 teachers in every class of 20 kids, with a focus on school readiness.

I want to ask her about HCZ’s attrition that I mentioned this morning when Canada was speaking. Everything she says sounds good on paper. Her program of Early Childhood Education appears successful in the way she is painting it, however I wonder what she is leaving out? How can this program be called “successful” if these kids are not making it through their school long term. Will try to speak to her at the end.

KIPP, Aaron Brenner:
He talks about the KIPP SHINE in Houston. He claims they started with 114 kids in a Pre-K type program. He says they were 98% free reduced lunch, 67% ELL’s. Drastically different stats than what we see in New York. He next says that 103 of these kids “made it through to 5th grade.” He touts their successes on a whole range of standardized tests and claims they are all “at or above grade level.” But what does it mean to “make it through” ?

I wonder where those 11 students went. Were they counseled out as seems to be the practice with KIPP schools in NYC? I am surprised that there was not more attrition.

He describes his school’s approach to early childhood and stresses the importance of Kindergarten teachers, claiming they are the “most deserving of our admiration.” The first thing I’ve heard all day that made me feel just slightly good. He mentions the importance of song, play and free time in early childhood education and even goes as far as to say that it should be a part of middle and high school education.

I wonder what his KIPP colleagues who work in middle and high schools would say about this? KIPP has been exposed for its use of authoritarian practices in many of its schools.  What to believe? I would love to ask him, but will have to attempt when the session is over, or try my luck with a note card. Again, in this session, we are required to write questions down on note cards and pass them to the front. No face to face contact between the panel and the audience. I guess that would be too personal.  

There are no public school teachers or leaders on this panel. TFA is painting charter schools as the only organizations that are doing anything to change education. This panel shared a lot of good information about the importance of early childhood education, and as an early childhood educator I appreciate the affirmation of the importance of my work.  Yet, TFA is offering a narrow perspective to its alumni—why isn’t this discussion about how to make Pre-K universal?

Question from the audience (via note card): Is the work of HCZ/KIPP scalable?

KIPP response: “We believe our approach is scalable” and that “we can silence our critics” with our success. He does not, however, explain how it is scalable.

HCZ response: Talks about the need to partner with public schools and share best practices. Says that charter schools cannot shoulder all the burden and that public schools need to be able to expand their Pre-K programs. This is the first acknowledgement of the day that charters may not be the panacea, and from an HCZ staffer. It’s not much, but I’ll take what I can get today. 


2:45 Session ends and I race to the panel to try to ask Brenner from KIPP some questions. He’s very receptive to my questions and speaks frankly.

I ask him about KIPP’s “drill and kill” reputation, which he mentioned as something he does not want happening at his school in Houston. I ask him how he perceives KIPP schools in general? Do they use the drill and kill? Are they authoritarian? He says that his school in Houston is not and that the reason he took the job there was to have a chance to do something different than what KIPP generally does. (KIPP mainly operates middle and high schools. In Houston he started an elementary.) But, he admits that KIPP schools are characterized that way because many of them have a history of being that way. He claims it is all “in the past” and that each KIPP school is making efforts to be more nurturing, less controlling. I’m not so sure I believe him, but he is quite convincing.

I ask him next about attrition. While his Houston schools seem to have low attrition, can he explain New York’s? (See KIPP chart from earlier post this morning.) He appears surprised to see the numbers in my hand, but says he is aware of this “challenge.” He criticizes the KIPP school leaders who claim 100% graduation rates even though they have had 50% attrition in their schools. He does not, however, offer any insight as to where these children go. He simply says that it is “harder” to hold on to middle/high school kids than elementary kids. He says this is why his school has such low attrition: “When we start with them young, they stick.” He does not offer a response to my question about whether or not KIPP schools counsel out kids. He says he knows the KIPP Infinity school leader and couldn’t imagine him doing this. But, he offers NO explanation as to why the attrition is so high.   

I rush out to head to my next session, which guarantees to enlarge my current ulcer—its about the future of school systems and its bound to be a charter party!