week 21 of my fifty-state tour: WV, KY, and TN

Posted on March 19th, 2016 in Uncategorized

This week marks a milestone of sorts. I’ve now been at least once to all lower 48 states since I started this campaign last September. If you look at my schedule, I should be exhausted. But if you read what I have to say about my time in West Virginia, you’ll see why I’m not. States remaining in what some call this “No State Left Behind” campaign — Alaska (in April) and Hawaii (in May).

Two meetings stood out for me in West Virginia. I started the day in its capital, Charleston, and headed to a school in a town called Dunbar. I had planned to spend an hour at Dunbar Intermediate School, but canceled a different meeting to spend the morning there. It was an eye-opener. The school has signs in all halls with the saying “Determination Is Success,” a play on the acronym DIS (Dunbar Intermediate School). But after three hours there, and getting to know the school’s dynamic principal Jenny Spencer, I’m a believer. There was lots of energy and real learning going on in every classroom. And I was blown away by one of their innovations.

Jenny took over the school a year ago, and has been on the move ever since. She totally gets it when it comes to education, and fully understands the urgency. These kids are almost all from the most challenging of economic circumstances, and getting parents involved in their education is a big challenge. So if this school offered the all-too-prevalent daily regime of endless worksheets, with kids who don’t have parents pushing them through mind-numbingly-dull material, it would be over. But this is a school that thinks big on behalf of kids that are so small.

Dunbar has these really interesting roles for kids to play. One is something I’ve seen elsewhere — students who are ambassadors meeting visitors like me and giving us a tour. My student ambassador was the impressive Destiny, who described her school and classes with a sense of real pride and belief. She was just one of those charming young kids that gives any adult hope for our future. We chatted for some time about her school, what subjects she enjoyed, what she was doing this week, and what it’s like to be an ambassador. This young girl was so engaged and articulate. She described how the school uses technology (ST Math, for instance) to make it fun and easy for her to make progress on core building block skills — reading and foundational math skills.

Later in the morning, I met with a group of kids at Dunbar who are technology ambassadors. These are the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders responsible for all technology support in all Dunbar classrooms. This idea is brilliant. They are the ones being trained by Apple to support AirPlay, smartboards, ipads, and the selection, deployment, and use of apps. I asked these kids a few technology questions, and their confidence and expertise were immediately apparent. And the conveyed a sense of pride and responsibility, where kids their age are in charge of something important, that is missing from so many of our schools — including the high school and college level. And there it was, right in front of me. These young kids, growing up in one of our country’s poor communities, are developing skills in elementary school that accelerate their life prospects in two vital ways. First, they’re learning what we’d call the essential, or critical, skills — critical analysis, creative problem solving, collaboration, communication, responsibility and leadership — in ways missing from the day for almost all elementary school kids in America. But even more shockingly, these kids are oh-so-close to being so good at a specific skill (IT support) that any local organization would — absent challenges from Child Labor Laws — hire them at a wage well beyond the minimum wage. Think about that. An elementary school in Dunbar, West Virginia, has graduates of fifth grade who might well be ahead of many of today’s college graduates in terms of ability to find an interesting well-paying job. Too good to be true? Just visit this school, and you’ll realize that the gains to be made in re-imagining education in our country are a few percentage points, but dramatic. So the students are engaged, teachers get support for something that can otherwise be frustrating or downright embarrassing, and kids are gaining a decisive life advantage.

I was able to meet with the Superintendent for Education for the state of West Virginia, Mike Mantirano, and his team that afternoon, and was blown away by his energy and vision. How many state education leaders are happy to go on record and say that textbooks are totally obsolete in the kind of education our kids need, and deserve. He showed me his favorite book — “When Will Ever Use This?” And over and over, he impressed me with his dedication and vision for the education of 277,000 kids in West Virginia. Recruited from a senior education role in Maryland, Mike has been the top education official for his state for just two years. But, in something that just defies belief, he’s now #19 in seniority across the fifty states for the role of Chief School Officer (called various things across the country). It raises the very important question. If the turnover in this role in our states is sky high, and if each new state superintendent brings a shift in priorities, how is that good for progress in our classrooms?

En route to my last of the lower 48, Tennessee, I wound my way across Kentucky, taking advantage the drive to connect with several of the people I had met in this state earlier in the tour. But little did I know how quickly that would happen. As I checked into my hotel in Lexington, Kentucky, a young woman saw me and recognized me. Of course, Fund Kentucky was there at the hotel in force, having a drink in the restaurant before their board dinner, so I was able to catch up briefly with Barbara Bellissimo and Rene Boss. While in Lexington, I met with Carmen Coleman, Linda France, and Lu Young, of the University of Kentucky’s Next Generation Leadership Academy. While making my way across Kentucky, I also was able to catch up with Barbara and Renee in detail in Louisville and Todd Thornton, an amazing benefactor of education in Kentucky, in Bowling Green. Oh, there was a school in west Louisville, Johnny Doss High School, that was showing Most Likely To Succeed four times in a week, so I dropped in on one of their screenings for a Q&A. It was great to see a glimpse of a process where a dynamic new principal is working with his community to transform a traditional school. Doss is taking a big swing at things, and I’m rooting for them.

I have to admit, there were times in the past few months I doubted I’d get to all lower 48 states. This trip has been far more demanding than I anticipated, both in terms of the pace of my schedule and the time away from my family. My daughter is a senior in high school and I’ve missed a lot of events around her year. As I know so well, we don’t get those moments back.

I arrived Wednesday night in Nashville, Tennessee’s capital and a city just bustling with energy. I’ll save more context on my time here for the book I’m starting to write, but it was revealing, to say the least. My first meeting was with Kevin Huffman, who was the state’s Commissioner of Education from 2011 to 2015. Huffman was a TFA teacher and spent the prior ten years of his career in a senior role for the Teach For America organization. He related that during his decade at TFA, their annual budget went from $10 million to $200 million. While teaching for TFA, he was in Houston in the early 1990′s with the founders of KIPP and YES Prep, so he’s steeped in the No Excuses school of education reform. When asked how he got into the field of education, he said it happened during the interview he signed up for with TFA while a senior at Swarthmore in 1992. He thought he’d teach for two years, and did take three years out to get a law degree. But that perhaps random interview led to a two decade + career in education. Oh, while at TFA, Kevin met and subsequently married Michelle Rhee, perhaps the single figure most identified with the No Excuses and Accountability movement.

During his tenure in as Commissioner here, there were some notable gains in test scores that could be touted. His tenure was when Tennessee was one of the first two states to get big chunks of Race to the Top money, which was linked to tougher accountability measures. He put priority on charter schools, and worked in a dedicated way to see kids post gains on subjects like Algebra II, a key element of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program.

I had a brief, but really interesting, meeting with Bill DeLoache, who heads a foundation focused on education in Tennessee focused on education. These state-based, or even city/community based, pools of philanthropy can play a key role in shaping the futures of our schools. As opposed to the groups with billions of dollars, who all too often are disconnected from their grantees and therefore insist on generally meaningless data to gain hollow assurance that they’re grants are effective, these local groups can visit schools and see the direct impact of their work. Bill was an early advocate for charter schools in Tennessee, and we had an interesting discussion about what worked, and didn’t work, when it comes to charter schools.

On this tour, I’m visiting tons of schools, but I’ve gone out of my way to visit places where amazing learning is happening, but we don’t call it school. In Nashville, I was lucky to be hosted by Hal Cato (a visit, like most of my time in Nashville, orchestrated by a wonderful person here, Daphne Butler). Hal is one of those amazing people just doing the most innovative and entrepreneurial things. He founded a group in Nashville called the Oasis Center and is now CEO of Thistle Farms. Thistle Farms, whose motto is “Love Heals,” is a thriving business, selling all sorts of great merchandise (body lotion, scented candles, face cream, quilts) and now has its own great restaurant. Their sales have now grown to several million dollars. OK, I’ve dealt with a lot of start-ups, so what’s notable about this. Well, it’s staffed entirely by women who have faced incredible challenges in their life. Hal said almost all of these women share similar histories. They were sexually abused at a very young age, were passed around (and sexually abused) in foster care for years, hit the street at the age of 15-16 as prostitutes, and all too often turned to drugs or crime. Many have been in the state prison system (he noted one woman who had been arrested over 80 times). They turn to Thistle Farms as a path to get their lives on track, with an opportunity to live there for two years and, amazingly, the opportunity to help run the growing Thistle Farm business. Hal described one of the woman who had been a meth chef who is now so proud of herself designing different candle scents. I often say that there’s a fine line between a great respected entrepreneur and a drug dealer, but now I have to expand that to include great chemist. It’s sort of “Breaking Good.” I had a chance to interview several of the women there, and it was so astounding. One dropped out of high school two months from the end of her senior year, saying she still couldn’t read. Many talked about high school as a time when they went down the wrong path, and noted how pointless high school was. When I asked them how much they were learning in their jobs at Thistle Farms, the typical response was, “More in a month than in all of high school.”

My last official tour meeting was a really great and inspiring visit to Valor Collegiate Academy, which has big plans for its school and kids. Right now, they cover just 5th and 6th grades, but will evolve over time to go all the way through high school. They just added a big new wing to their school, and are acquiring a big space next door (a former Lowe’s), so they have plenty of space, and a clear ability to fund-raise. What’s interesting is that they are putting a big emphasis at their school on helping kids develop essential skills, and on learning through projects. Todd Dickson, and his identical twin brother Daren, founded Valor. Both are engineers by background, and Todd was senior at the Summit School organization for years. Along the way of their experience, they realized that helping kids develop productive work habits to churn through rigorous AP courses was an underwhelming goal. They set out with something much bolder — prepare kids to lead inspired, purposeful lives. If you have been following me, you’ll see instantly why we had so much to talk about. They do lots of work with their kids in the areas of social and emotional learning, and helping build important character traits. They set aside lots of time for expeditions. They’re iterating and refining as they go, and are moving next year to an structure where kids have four days of academics and one day of expeditions each school week. Their demographics are fascinating. About half the kids are on free or reduced lunch program. An amazing 21% come from Middle East/Northern Africa heritage.

One of their challenges is “threading the needle” between an academic/college focus and helping with the enduring aspects of character. They set aside five hours each school week (to be precise, which they are, 295 minutes) for what they call Compass skills, drawing on a framework for 6seconds on helping kids with their Emotional Quotient. Besides Summit and 6seconds, they have drawn heavily on High Tech High and the Denver School for Science and Technology.

I got a chance to talk at length with a half-dozen of Valor’s faculty, and can see why so many families want their kids at this school. Lots of great questions, observations, and experiences. One teacher, Duke LaRoache, talked at length about the really big difference between being good at school and learning, Richard Feynman, and birds. It sounds eclectic, but was so compelling. He described how much of school is like memorizing the names of different bird species. And how just because you know that a bird is a Loggerhead Shrike (my example) says nothing about whether you understand the bird’s specific behavioral patterns, role in the ecosystem, and connection to other proximate species. (In case you’re wondering, I chose the Shrike as my example since it captures its prey — usually rodents — an impales them with a stick, which this morning seems like an apt metaphor for the behavior that lies beneath the surface of traditional school :-) ).

It will be fascinating to track Valor’s progress as their kids move into higher grades. As I travel, I find some of the most amazing work done by teachers in 5/6 grades, where the kids are old enough to do amazing things, but young enough to avoid the trappings of our obsession about making kids “college ready.”

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