MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We often hear a lot of talk about what's wrong with our public schools, but not always a lot of outside the box ideas to fix these problems. And teachers, the people who spend the most time in the classroom, don't always have a way to share their thoughts on the matter.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Teach for America, which recruits talented, young teachers to work in low-income communities is trying to address that by turning to some of its alumni who have worked in D.C. public schools. These alums mulled over how they would address the biggest challenges and recently presented their ideas at a forum at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Northwest D.C. Education reporter Kavitha Cardoza caught up with a few of these teachers to hear more about their time in the classroom and their ideas for change.
MS. KAVITHA CARDOZA
It's a long-running question in public education. How do you best serve children who are struggling? That's what Hayley Steffan addressed in the Teach for America challenge. She taught students with special needs in Community Academy Public Charter School. She says teachers are assigned to schools based on the number of students they serve, not by the grade level, how many hours or the type of specialized help these children need.
MS. HAYLEY STEFFAN
Well, then it becomes logistically impossible for teachers often to meet all the needs of their students.
So she and her friend Laurel Horn, who is a high school special education teacher at Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School, came up with an idea. Instead of expecting one school to do it all, neighborhood schools could collaborate. So say there were 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.
Where they're providing inclusive support in the classroom as well as pulling kids outside of the classroom to receive some of the services. And in that school, we would be able to serve a number of students across grade levels who needed that more complex support because you'd have more teachers to share that workload.
And the third school could work exclusively with children who needed the most attention. D.C. PS is in the process of bringing students with special needs back from private schools into regular classrooms and Steffan and Horn say this is the perfect time to change the way things have always been done.
I think it's just a traditional mindset to think that the one neighborhood school has to provide services to that child rather than thinking about collaborating.
Connecting what children are learning in the classroom with a career is another challenge. Callie Kozlak used to teach 1st graders at Seton Elementary School. She says it's important to think about careers even with the youngest students.
MS. CALLIE KOZLAK
And already at that age you could see where students were really behind on their reading skills and math skills that are really important for them to have as sort of like building blocks to move on to the next level.
The next year, she moved to Community Academy Public Charter School where they have two extra hours of instruction time. But she found that that brought its own challenges.
Having those extended hours just put a lot more stress on the teachers. There was a lot of burnout among the teachers because you're there all day.
Kozlak's idea was to create a cadre of what she calls second shift educators.
Washington D.C., our nation's capital, is just a wealth of human capital. There's tons of educated folks in this city doing all types of interesting things and I feel like the schools are sort of missing out on that.
She says the expanded school day could be filled with, say, engineers, lawyers and politicians working with students.
For example, like working with engineers to design video games or learning how to write laws or doing polling, different real-world projects, and so kids can sort of start to see what sort of careers might be possible down the road.
Of course, before students can start off on those careers, they have many years of school to get through. And during that time, Grant Van Eaton says teachers collect an overwhelming amount of information in the classroom. He teaches at Paul Public Charter School.
MR. GRANT VAN EATON
The average teacher collects 40,000 pieces of data on one student every year, data on how well a student masters the day's objective, how well they're doing on quizzes each week and what their level of understanding of each concept is.
The problem he says is there's no easy way to synthesize this information. There's also a lag time. Teachers sometimes get this data three to four weeks later. And more importantly, Van Eaton says, teachers often feel there's no connection between the data they collect and the teaching resources available to them.
There are two very distinct systems, one that manages all your data and one that gives you curricula resources.
So in spite of all this information if a teacher typed the lesson DNA into one of the common curriculum databases...
You'd get over 3,000 different responses and a teacher is just left to look through and spend a lot of time trying to figure out which one is best.
Van Eaton and Dan Englender, with Teach for America, came up with an idea to help match all the data teachers collect and help them find teaching materials. They say first a computer program would analyze how students in that class learn best, whether watching a YouTube video of the double helix, listening to a teacher describe the different parts or actually touching a 3D model. Then it would immediately provide the teacher with selected resources based on what's worked best for students in that class in the past.
What we're hoping is by incentivizing, using this data to get a better resource every day, to save time picking out your resources teachers will see the value of data.
For now, their idea and those of the other teachers we've heard from, are just thoughts on paper. But Teach for America is posting them on its website and is hoping they'll get the creative juices flowing at schools, not just here in D.C., but across the country. I'm Kavitha Cardoza.
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