A Best-Selling Author Called Maplewood’s Jarred Amato The Truth and We Agree

Jarred Amato is no stranger to this blog-space. I first learned of the Maplewood High School teacher through Twitter and noticed the work he was producing outside the classroom. At the time of my introduction, Mr. Amato was collecting books to outfit book bins in book deserts for the community to access through his organization Project LIT Community. Soon after, I learned about the monthly book club open to the community and held at the school during school hours to ensure student attendance.

Since then I have attended two book club meetings where students and community members break off into groups for discussion that ultimately, transforms into teams for the contest portion of the meeting. The books chosen for the book club are stories and characters students at Maplewood might find relatable. Mr. Amato, a white teacher from Boston, believes his students should see themselves in books. And this is why national organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Penguin Random House, and best-selling authors love him.

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with the deeply passionate teacher prior to an early-morning meeting — standing in the cold. He remarked that he was a little tired from staying up late working on a grant that would allow him to purchase more books, but his excitement about Project Lit Community masked any hint of exhaustion. Mr. Amato is no stranger to these applications or the resulting awards as his ask is simple – more books, please.

The man is serious about getting relevant books into the hands of his students and others like them and “relevant” is the million-dollar word. During our conversation, he referred to a quote by best-selling author Jason Reynolds who told the Washington Post, “The Teacher was like, Read this book about this man chasing a whale,’ and I’m like, bruh…I don’t know if I can connect to a man chasing a whale when I’ve never seen a whale.” Mr. Reynolds did not read a book until he was seventeen years old.

Mr. Amato refuses to be that teacher and is determined students have access to relevant books and the earlier in their learning the better. In his mind, Project LIT Community is as important as state-mandated curriculum. With the support of his administrative leadership and some serious time-management skills, Mr. Amato provides students opportunities to see themselves and take a few books home in the process.

Penguin Random House Teacher of the Year

This passion-turned-LIT movement sparked a flame spreading to middle schools around Nashville, a few more schools throughout Tennessee, and to an additional TWENTY states. So, it’s no surprise to learn that Jarred Amato was recently named Penguin Random House’s 2017 Teacher of the Year at the NCTE annual convention. Oh, and that comes with a $10,000 check that he will use to purchase –more books.

And the accolades don’t stop there. New York Times best-selling author Kwame Alexander had a little something to offer:

Yep, Kwame Alexander, the 2015 Newbery Medal recipient (highest distinction for children’s books) for The Crossover called Mr. Amato – The Truth.

I couldn’t agree more.

But What Does the School District Think?

During a time when 75 percent or more of any group of students (pick one) in our school district does not read at grade level, I would expect to see top-level administration clamoring to get to teachers like Mr. Amato to replicate this work in an authentic attempt to flip the script. I asked Mr. Amato if the district has expressed interest in his work, hesitant to respond (because, you know, trust), he opted instead to share his appreciation for the support of his principal and assistant principal. Message received. I’m puzzled by the lack of district-level support.

We are fortunate to have Mr. Amato and we need to act like it.

Congratulations, Jarred Amato! If you don’t hear it from anyone else, thank you for recognizing the importance of culturally-affirming books and finding a way to get them into the hands and homes of students. You are the truth.

Nashville’s Charters Sidestep Chatter and Run Up the Score

My grandmother would always say, “I can show you better than I can tell you.” It was a mantra she lived by, which meant, in practical terms, that if someone crossed her, she might not say much, but you could bet your bottom dollar swift and decisive action was sure to follow.

I think the charter school leaders and parents might be taking a page from my grandmother’s playbook.

For a while, I’ve watched in frustration as, Nashville school board members and privileged “pro-public school” parents have executed all-out attacks on public charter schools in our city. I’ve seen effective and passionate charter leaders of color ousted, and good schools get their petitions to recharter denied.

All along I was even more frustrated by the fact the those under siege almost never raised a voice in protest. They wouldn’t fight back!

It wasn’t until I got to know Mia Howard that I started to realize what might be going on. It was Howard, the founder and executive director at Intrepid charter schools, that pulled the little chain on the light bulb in my brain and made me realize that charter leaders and supporters might be taking a page out of my grandmother’s playbook.

Last July, the Nashville Scene published a story celebrating the silence of charter backers after a series of “losses.” Angry, I tweeted “my guess is that the charter backers are quiet because they are SCARED AS S%$! And the media only exacerbates their fears. Sponsors it.” Howard, wasting no time, replied, “Not scared. Some of us are just here to educate children at the highest level. Disrupting inequity by design takes focus. No distractions.”

In other words, “I can show you better than I can tell you.”

While I was angry-tweeting about fearful charter supporters, Mia Howard’s Intrepid Schools were in the throes of flipping the narrative for Hispanic and Black students which make up the majority of their enrollment. Script-flipping statistics like: “Intrepid scholars placed #5 in the district for ELA achievement in grades 6-8.” Further, Black students placed #4 in the district for ELA in the same grades.

Compare that to the district-wide average: only 17 percent of minority students are reading in grade level.

And then there’s Math: 100% of black and brown students scored On-Track or Mastered in Algebra I and ELL students were #1 in Math achievement for grades 6-8. Anyone would be hard-pressed to ignore these life-changing achievements, but, to my knowledge, they’ve received no recognition from the school board, media, Metro Council, or even the mayor.

Just silence.

For more of Intrepid’s inequity-disrupting statistics, click here.

And speaking of silence. Do you ever hear from Valor Collegiate? The growing charter management organization of schools that prides itself on its racially and socio-economically-balanced student population that sits atop a hill above a bustling corridor in South Nashville. It seems they work very hard to avoid the city’s volatility toward charters and, like Intrepid, focuses intently on doing what they do. And what is it that they do, you ask?

Well, while I was sitting around pondering the whereabouts of Valor reps during times of distress on the edu-battlefield, Valor Voyager and Valor Flagship were busy becoming #3 and #4, respectively, in the state in composite growth. Let’s put it this way, CEO Todd Dickson and CCO (chief culture officer) Daren Dickson are fighting the haters on their own terms and Valor scholars are the reigning champs. For instance, “Our economically disadvantaged scholars inverted the achievement gap, meaning that they outperformed non-economically disadvantaged scholars in Nashville and the State of Tennessee!” Can you say #FliptheScript?

Message received and they didn’t have to say a word.

Finally, there is a Teach for America-generated graphic that keeps making an appearance on Twitter by NashvilleEdReform. It shows every middle and high school in the district and its placement on the growth chart. I am no fan of school comparisons–it’s difficult for me to celebrate schools in the face of less successful ones. Maybe it’s the socialist in me.

But to ignore this picture is to join forces with those who refuse to acknowledge the success charters schools are having in this city. I simply cannot be on the wrong side of silence. I will celebrate those who subdue their naysayers without using words, but with student successes.

Note: the three top-ranked growth schools are mentioned in this post.

 

“What We Are Doing With Reading and Literacy Is Replicable In Any School”

I’ll do you a solid and spare you a long introductory paragraph explaining Nashville’s literacy crisis. Instead, I’ll lead with this:

Seventeen percent of Nashville’s black and brown children read at grade level or above. We are failing our children by doing what we’ve always done and not accepting responsibility for the failure. I don’t care to hear excuses. My singular interest is in finding solutions and spotlighting those successful at flipping the script.

What is #flipthescript? It is turning upside down the tragic narrative that says 82.5 percent of our poor, black and brown students do not meet reading standards but with more funding, less school choice, the eradication of poverty, and more parent engagement we just might be able to get these kids to read. Do better.

Enter Nashville Classical

“What we are doing with reading and literacy is replicable in any school” – The Incredible Charlie Friedman.

Nashville Classical is a five-year-old charter school located in an old East Nashville school building, founded and led by the highly energetic Charlie Friedman. I’ve watched the hipster-uniformed school leader call out the names of every student in the building in the span of about 45 seconds.  I exaggerate… a little. Jokes aside, the man knows how to lead and the love for the little people under his watch isn’t hard to detect.

Sure, such attributes are typical of a school leader, but few are blasting the narrative that we’ve become uncomfortably comfortable accepting as the norm for poor and children of color.

“Nashville Classical’s results show it has made significant headway in closing achievement gaps for economically disadvantaged students and students of color. Not a single economically disadvantaged student at Nashville Classical performed below state standards in reading, while 44 percent of economically disadvantaged students across MNPS and 35 percent across the state are achieving below standards. Similarly, nearly all minority students at Nashville Classical are mastered, on-track or at least approaching state standards.

ON REPEAT: Similarly, nearly all minority students at Nashville Classical are mastered, on-track or at least approaching state standards.

FB economically disadvantaged below standards comparison chart

“We start by believing that all students can achieve.”

I believe in the #beliefgap. It’s as real and present as the bifocals hanging off my dad’s nose that happens to be on my face. Unlike the achievement gap or even the opportunity gap (access to opportunities), the belief gap is one of those things that is difficult to quantify. How can you actually prove that principals and teachers believe in their students? Ask Charlie Friedman.

When you BELIEVE that ALL students can ACHIEVE students will work to prove you right. Students subjected to mediocre-to-low expectations will meet those, too. Mr. Friedman’s statement about believing in his students speak volumes and the takeaways gleaned from his school’s testing outcomes support this assertion. More importantly, Friedman & Team has formed a new narrative. One where the script with which we’ve become so familiar has been flipped and forced upon us are high expectations and the knowledge that yes, success can be achieved with poor and minority children and with finite resources.

FB minority averages comparison chart

I know, I know– if belief was the Great Fixer thousands more of our children would be bound for at least a twenty-one on the ACT. But as Mr. Friedman said, the school starts with believing all children can achieve while the other ingredients include data-driven practices, structure, and brutally difficult work.

The success Nashville Classical is seeing in reading results comes from prioritizing instructional time and the quality of instruction through a variety of approaches:

  • More Time – Nashville Classical has an extended school day, similar to the district’s other Title I schools. The longer day allows for students to receive 3.5 hours of reading instruction daily, with literacy embedded in the teaching of other subjects such as science, social studies and math, as well.

  • Text Selection –  Students in all grade levels read from a collection of great literary works, intended to enrich their vocabulary, cultural awareness, and background knowledge.

  • Professional Development – Teachers at Nashville Classical spend 15 days on professional development before the start of each school year and participate in weekly professional development sessions, practicing lessons, studying video, and analyzing student work.

  • Joyful Rigor – Every classroom features its own library with more than 300 books for students to bring home each evening and teachers use songs, chants, and dramatic read-alouds to keep students on the edge of their seats.

  • Direct Instruction – In early grades, students receive individualized phonics instruction through a centers-based, small group instruction model. Students study sounds first and then letters, building phonemic and phonetic awareness.

  • Data Driven Instruction – Student performance and growth is closely monitored throughout the year, using a variety of rigorous monitoring tools. Students who are falling behind or transfer into the school mid-year receive immediate interventions and support.

 

And they are not stingy with their best practices!

Congratulations Mr. Friedman and all the teachers, staff members, and families of Nashville Classical! For more information on Nashville Classical and its testing results, go to their social media sites by clicking →→→ Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

And, finally, the best illustration of #flipthescript…

NC Founding Class

From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Guest Post: Connie Williams On The Importance Of Volunteers In The Battle To Flip The Literacy Narrative

The past couple of weeks I’ve been obsessed with the dismal student reading scores coming out of Nashville’s public schools. I’m known be a tad dramatic, but 17.5 percent is a low number no matter what you’re measuring. Further, a number as large as 82.5 percent that represents kids of color not reading at the level expected warrants Broadway-play dramatic. 

Instead, I plan to do my part to flip the statistics and change the narrative by raising awareness and accepting an offer to get in front kids with a book a few times a year. Connie Williams with Reading is Fundamental (RIF) is recruiting volunteers to read to students in select schools around the district. Join me. #FliptheScript.


Screenshot 2017-10-26 at 8.17.10 PM

If you, like many of us, are discouraged about the latest report on reading levels for Nashville children, I have a suggestion. Be part of the solution.

It’s tempting to sit around and have endless discussions about what others should do differently and who is at fault. The answer is that we are all at fault that 7 out of 10 Nashville children can’t read at grade level, and 8 out of 10 children of color in my wonderful, forward-looking hometown can’t read at grade level. That’s so shameful that I can hardly bear to think about it.

There are many ways that regular people like you and me can help our children, and this fall I’m helping Book’em place volunteers in elementary schools as part of the Reading is Fundamental (RIF) program. RIF volunteers visit a Nashville public school classroom five times during the school year. On each visit, they read a book or two to the class and then they let each child pick out a new book of their own to keep. Volunteers can share their favorite stories, talk about their love of books, and encourage children to read.  

But the most important part is letting the children pick out their own books, provided by Book’em, some of them for the first time. The Handbook of Early Literacy says that in middle income neighborhoods the ratio of books per child is 13 to 1, in low-income neighborhoods the ratio is 1 age-appropriate book for every 300 children. I want to think we do better than that in Nashville with Imagination Library for toddlers and pre-schoolers and the best library system in the U.S. in the Nashville Public Library, but I know that the children in RIF classrooms are overjoyed to receive these books and even more excited to be able to pick out the ones they want.

I understand that what we can accomplish as readers and book providers to these precious children is not the magic answer. It’s certainly not as big and shiny as teacher training or teaching methods or parent engagement or more funding or even one-on-one weekly volunteer tutoring in an MNPS Reading Clinic, but I know that it’s meaningful. And it’s something that almost anyone can do.

Are you willing to give 10 hours total of your time to help a classroom of children during this school year? We still need a few more volunteers at Cockrill, Park Avenue, Tom Joy, KIPP Kirkpatrick, Explore, and Dodson schools. Email me to learn more or to sign up at connie@bookem-kids.org.


Connie Williams is the former executive director of Metro Schools’ longtime partner PENCIL Foundation, which is known for its impact on the Nashville community through the creation and nurturing of hundreds of partnerships between business and schools. When not recruiting and training reading volunteers, Ms. Williams teaches at Belmont University.

 

If Reading Scores Are A Predictor of Success, We’re In Big Trouble 

I’m terrible at compartmentalizing my life. If I’m going through something it affects everything I do (or don’t do). For two weeks, since learning about Nashville’s reading scores, I’ve submerged myself into studies, manuals, blogs, newspaper articles, and personal testimonies in an effort to understand where we are going wrong with literacy in our schools.

 I just want to understand. 

Because I need to believe that our system and the powers-that-be are uncomfortable with sending three-fourths of our students into the world poorly equipped. I have to believe that our kids are not being groomed to lift the wealthy and carry their middle class on their backs. 

I want to believe the best, but when only 17.5% of Black/Hispanic/Native American students read at grade level and no one has stepped out to say – “never again” – well, I can only surmise we’re a people ok with certain public school children not reaching the American Dream. 

This is not to advance wild conspiracy theories, but rather to raise awareness about our crippling literacy crisis and seek real solutions. 
So because I wear my heart on my sleeve and I’m totally inept at pretending, when you see me about town and ask how I’m doing, I’m likely to respond with “I won’t be fine until we #flipthescript for our children. And you?”

Commissioner McQueen Celebrates Innovation and Calls Out Culture Issues While On Capitol Hill

Note: I wrote this before the news that less than 6% of Tennessee’s 3rd-8th graders are meeting the state’s reading standards. Currently, I am in a RESIST state of mind, but the commissioner’s testimony on Capitol Hill is still worth sharing.


Maybe I need a life or maybe you should stop judging me, but I thoroughly enjoyed Commissioner Candice McQueen’s testimony to a group of senators on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Dr. McQueen was invited to speak about Tennessee’s exemplary Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan submitted in April and approved in August.

At the start of her testimony (at 29:28), Commissioner McQueen rightly and not so timidly points out that Tennessee’s strategic plan Tennessee Succeeds was ESSA plan before ESSA was even a thing. And with that, the Tennessee commish’s “just sayin’” moment set the tone for the remaining ninety-five minutes.  

After burning up a minute of high-fiving the Tennessee’s innovation and public engagement efforts, McQueen gradually arrives at the part of the plan that some find controversial. Some, meaning me and a few others who are minorities or work for civil rights. “Here we go”, I think as the hair on my arms stand at attention and the pride of watching my commish testify before the United States Senate takes a backseat. But not for very long.

I dunno, maybe it was the sheer number of seconds she spends explaining the bane of my existence – BHN – the combination of Black, Hispanic, and Native American students into one super subgroup. I’ve blogged and tweeted endlessly about my thoughts about the state’s statistical creation of combining these three very different groups of students. I’m neither a statistician nor education professional, so my conclusions are mostly anecdotal but solid as a rock. Because as I’ve stated too many times “You don’t need a degree in education to know these groups are different, with unique challenges requiring customized attention and remedy.” (Yes, I just quoted myself)

Still, I appreciate Dr. McQueen’s effort to allay concerns (or end the discussion once and for all) about this issue using as much time as a five-minute testimony on innovation will allow. The gradual transition from celebration to ‘oh, by the way, we did this subgroup thing and here’s why you should like it ” was so crafty I almost forgot my grandiose opposition to the super subgroup. She says the department is committed to equity for every student and illustrates her point using the demographics in a small school in rural Tennessee.

“An example is Camden Junior High in Benton County. There are 31 total students across three individual racial/ethnic groups, so it can be held accountable for all 31 students under the combined group. But it only has 19 Black/African-American students, 11 Hispanic students, and one Native American student – none of which are high enough counts to be included in our accountability system. Because of the combined racial/ethnic group, Camden Junior High is now held accountable for the performance of these students.”

Further, “…we will also publicly report the performance of every individual racial/ethnic student group, provided it meets an n-count of 10. This will equip educators, parents, community members, and advocates to hold each school accountable for how they serve every child. We believe all of these approaches will help to shine a spotlight on all students’ performance and drive a conversation about the needs of individual students, which is our goal, and we are doing more than ever to ensure that ALL students, particularly historically underserved students, are making progress.”

We will have to wait and see.

I’m convinced there is not much, if anything, one can throw at the former Lipscomb University dean and not be met with a swift, perfectly-delivered uncrafted response. The woman knows her stuff. I’m not here to be the good doctor’s cheerleader, because, you know, the kids… I will, however, shout her praises for acknowledging Tennessee’s decades-old problem of disproportionately suspending black males in response to a question about accountability (1:06).

She could have easily swept that tidbit of Tennessee’s unsavory history and culture under the rug, but she put it out there – for America to see. She put it out there in a room full of rich white men and women who are so far removed from public schools they speak of them as if they are little third-world countries. She put it out there against a backdrop of heightened racial tension. When we know better, we do better.

Senator Petty Warren

Finally, I’ve just got to put this in the universe. Senator Elizabeth Warren, the resident smart-aleck brazenly repping Massachusetts was given her time at the mic. She never fails to ask spite-dipped questions accompanied by body language that would not go over well in the hood. After she and the senator from Tennessee had a brief but heated back and forth, she asked those questions. She knew the answers making the targets look like a punchline. But what ticked me off was the not-so-gently lady’s reference to “Ms. McQueen” and one second later addresses the very-male “Dr.” Steiner.

Senator Warren, that’s Dr. McQueen, sis.
Hearing on ESSA innovations in Tennessee, Louisiana, and New Mexico.

As Summer Fades, Education Stories in Tennessee Heat Up and Urban Districts Are on the Hot Seat

And all at once summer collapsed into fall. – Oscar Wilde

I seriously cannot keep up with all the stuff going on in edu-world today – like Wednesday today, not the universal today. I’ve scrolled through a number of articles that forced a pause only to be preempted by the next pause-worthy story. It seems a perfect storm of good-to-great and bad-to-worse is converging upon us as the school year settles in and long-awaited test scores make an appearance. Let’s dig in, shall we?

A bit of good news…

Nashville’s crack edu-watcher and writer Zack Barnes recently went on a data bender and tweeted out the amazing growth outcomes for many of our schools – traditional and charter. The most fascinating chart shows a list of schools achieving the greatest growth (level 5) for the 2016-2017 school year.

Screenshot 2017-09-20 at 10.51.35 AM

Great for these schools!

Note to ponder: every level 5 performing school on this list is a magnet or charter except for the dual-enrollment Middle College.

Follow @zbarnes for more chart love!


Not so good news…

Did you see the story “Regular Public School Teachers Miss More School Than Charter School Teachers?” 

A study performed by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that on average traditional public school teachers miss 10 more of school than charter school teachers. The EdWeek article explores two possible reasons for this gap in teachers showing up to work — collective bargaining and school culture.

Screenshot 2017-09-20 at 9.57.47 AM

Teachers in traditional public schools are protected by unions that negotiate sick leave while the majority of charters are not unionized. For instance, Tennessee’s teachers are greatly protected by the Tennessee Education Association (MNEA in Nashville) while not one of Tennessee’s charter schools has union influence. Could that be the reason our traditional public school teachers miss 25.3% of school while charter teachers miss 7.6%?

Of the 6,900 charter schools nationally, about 1 in 10 have teachers’ unions. According to the report, 18 percent of teachers in unionized charter schools are chronically absent. It’s about half that in charter schools without unions.

Culture is the other possible explanation. Charter schools pride themselves on creating a culture of exceedingly high expectations for students, parents, and faculty.

Teachers who work in charters “agree to go there as an at-will employee in most cases,” said Miller, who once served as a president of his local teachers’ union in Palo Alto, Calif. “This means you’re buying into a school culture and a way of doing business. That doesn’t include the elaborate leave policies you can often find in a collective bargaining agreement.”

But the million dollar question is “does teacher chronic absenteeism affect student achievement?” The article briefly touches on a study by Raegan Miller, a Georgetown University researcher quoted in the article, that concludes math students fall behind and are less engaged when their teacher is chronically absent. I’m no researcher, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest the “less engaged” part of his conclusion is pretty important.

For the past two years, Tennessee (and Nashville, specifically) has been plotting and planning to triage the chronic absenteeism problem within our schools — for students. Maybe they are following the examples set before them? Don’t misunderstand me, parents need to be sure their child is in her seat, but if we have a problem with teachers showing up, then let’s make it, too, a prominently acknowledged and measured indicator for student success.


Downright ugly…

But most students in three of the state’s four largest districts — in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga — aren’t growing academically as they should, and neither are those in most of their “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

Tragically, the districts with the greatest number of vulnerable students are not growing. Hamilton County has gotten unwanted attention after scoring ones across-the-board except in one area. There is no shortage of articles about Memphis and their academic struggles, but Nashville has avoided the spotlight – until now.

Screenshot 2017-09-20 at 11.07.00 AM

An overall score of one is a sure-fire way to regain exposure – whether you want it or not.

Admittedly, I’ve been generous to the district that educated my entire family and helped me provide a nice life for us. Additionally, working hard every day are Metro School staffers I care for deeply making it more difficult for me to call foul when foul clearly needs to be screamed.

But where I’ve failed to acknowledge weaknesses in our district, fellow blogger Thomas Weber of Dad Gone Wild (norinad10) has been on the case- for years. While we tend to see things differently, I understand the importance of respecting different points of view

You never know, there might come a time when the two points of view converge.

Screenshot 2017-09-20 at 11.38.56 AM