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TFA Teachers Brainstorm Ideas To Improve D.C. Schools

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Grant Van Eaton (DC Region 2009) teaches Biology at Paul Public Charter School. He was part of a team (Daniel Englender, Connecticut 2007) that worked on an idea to bridge analyzing data and curricular resources.
Kavitha Cardoza
Grant Van Eaton (DC Region 2009) teaches Biology at Paul Public Charter School. He was part of a team (Daniel Englender, Connecticut 2007) that worked on an idea to bridge analyzing data and curricular resources.

Getting the right help to special needs students

It's a long running question in public education: how do you best serve children who are struggling?

That's the issue Hayley Steffan addressed in the Teach for America challenge. She taught students with special needs in Community Academy Public Charter School. She says the school system assigns teachers to schools based on the raw number of students in attendance, rather than the number of hours or the type of specialized help these children need.

"It becomes logistically impossible often for teachers to meet all the needs of their students," she says.

So she and her friend Laurel Horn, who's a high school special education teacher at Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School, came up with an idea. Instead of expecting one school to do it all, neighborhood schools could collaborate.

It goes like this: if there are three elementary schools, one could serve as what they call a 'mild' setting, for students who needed the least intensive support. The school that had more teachers could serve as a 'moderate' setting, "here they're providing inclusive support in the classroom as well as pulling kids outside the classroom to receive some of the services," says Steffan.

And the third school could work exclusively with children who needed the most attention.

Making learning practical

Connecting what children are learning with a career is another challenge. Callie Kozlak used to teach first graders at Seaton Elementary School. She says after-school academics were almost nonexistent. The next year, she moved to a Community Academy Public Charter School where she had two extra hours of instruction time each day. But that brought its own challenges.

"Having those extended hours put a lot more stress on the teachers," she says. "And the kids too are with the same adults all day long."

Kozlak's idea was to create a cadre of what she calls "second shift educators" filled by, say, lawyers or politicians.

"For example, working with engineers to design video games, or learning how to write laws or design polling," she says.

Putting mountains of data to good use

Another idea was to synthesize what teacher Grant Van Eaton says is an "overwhelming" amount of information teachers collect. He teaches at Paul Public Charter School.

"The average teacher collects 40,000 pieces of data on one student every year," he says, rattling off examples. "How well a student mastered the day's objective, how well they're doing in quizzes each week and what their level of understanding of each concept is."

Van Eaton says teachers often feel there is no connection between the data they collect and the teaching resources available to them.

"There are two very distinct systems. One that manages data and one that gives you curriculum resources," he says.

If a teacher typed the lesson 'DNA' into one of the common curriculum databases, "you'd get 3000 responses and a teacher is left to go through this and spend a lot of time trying to figure out which one is best," Van Eaton says.

Van Eaton and Daniel Englender with Teach for America came up with an idea to use all that data to help teachers find teaching materials. First, a computer program would analyze how students in that class learn best, whether it be by watching a Youtube video of the double helix, listening to a teacher describe the different parts, or actually touching a 3-D model. Then it would provide the teacher with resources based on what's worked best for those students.

"We're hoping by incentivizing using this data to get a better resource, teachers will see the value of data," Eaton says.

For now, these ideas are just thoughts on paper. But Teach for America is posting them on its website and hoping they'll spark additional ideas at schools not just here in D.C. but across the country.

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