Dacia Toll, CEO of Achievement First charter network
Dacia Toll, CEO of Achievement First charter network

New Haven — When students start taking Common Core exams, the results will “expose that we have a middle-class crisis in this country,” predicted a local charter school network CEO.

The remark came at the eighth annual Yale School of Management Education Leadership Conference Monday, which brings national figures in the education field to the Omni Hotel every April.

The conference opened with a panel of educators from Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport. The panel, like the conference, had a heavy emphasis on charter schools: Two of five panelists hailed from charter schools, and the conference included a site visit to Amistad Academy, the flagship in the Achievement First network of charter schools.

In a question-and-answer session, a school official from Burlington, Vt., raised an objection. He said in its early years, the conference was a “pep rally” for Achievement First, Teach For America and the KIPP charter network. The conversation had broadened, he said, but not enough. Charter schools like those run by Achievement First serve a concentrated population of poor minority kids, he noted. He said his school in Burlington is only 30 percent minority. The conference was billed as a national debate about education reform, he said, but it was failing to discuss how to help white, middle-class kids learn.

Dacia Toll, CEO of Achievement First, agreed that middle-class students are being overlooked.

She gave the audience a pop quiz. What percent of students from families in the top income quartile graduate from college?

About 75 percent.

What about the bottom quartile?

8 percent.

That last figure has gained more attention of late, as President Obama and others place an emphasis on helping low-income kids succeed in college.

But how about the middle two quartiles of kids? Toll asked.

Only 30 percent to 35 percent of them finish college, she said.

“We have a middle-class problem in this country,” Toll concluded. “It’s been hidden by test-scores that are pitched to way too low” a bar, a “feel-good bar.” The legacy standardized tests like the Connecticut Mastery Test, produced in response to No Child Left Behind, are “making middle-class families feel like our kids are going to great schools.”

Connecticut and 44 other states are preparing to ditch those legacy tests in favor of new, much harder assessments aligned to the Common Core national standards.

Those new tests, Toll predicted, “will expose that we have a middle-class crisis in this country,” that schools are failing middle-class kids.

Toll has also warned that Common Core will be a “wake-up” call, revealing a wider achievement gap between poor and wealthy kids. (Click here to read a teacher’s recent column on the subject.)

In other conference highlights:

Trauma “Overlooked”

Karen Lott, a former star New Haven principal, who used to run a turnaround school in New Haven, now runs another turnaround, in Hartford, has concluded that childhood trauma is “greatly overlooked” by modern-day reforms.

Her former school, Brennan/Rogers, was one of the first in the nation to pioneer the Comer Method of social-emotional learning and personal development in school. The method went national and international before being scaled back amid a new emphasis on accountability and teacher quality.

Budget S.O.S.

New Haven Superintendent Garth Harries, who has a track record of supporting charter schools, signaled that he could use a little help from charter advocates in New Haven.

First, he cited this Independent story, which noted that while school districts and teachers’ unions in Bridgeport and Stamford fought applications for new charter schools, their counterparts in New Haven did not. New Haven has has been free from the deep division in those cities; Harries supported Pastor Eldren Morrison’s proposal to open a charter school next fall.

Harries said he could use some of that support in return when it comes to his budget. He said he had just met with New Haven alders to talk about next year’s schools budget, which is under threat of a $40 million cut. Harries said some school system parents and school officials were across town at a budget hearing, fighting cuts to the schools budget.

“Where are folks when there are 40 million dollars of cuts?” Harries asked.

Harries said he hopes to see “a broader swath” of people standing up for the school system budget.

“Some of the old traditional lines are starting to change.”

Harries, who oversees the truancy department, gave another example of charter and traditional schools’ shared problems. He recounted a recent visit he made to the home of a student who had been missing school. The student was pregnant with her second baby. She was being raised by her grandmother.

He knocked on the door and walked into a “cloud of pot smoke,” he said. Inside the home, he found students “wearing shirts from all different schools”—including charter schools. That family is in need, he said—and the public district and charter schools need to help.

Bipolar Pre-Teens

Myra Jones-Taylor (pictured), who left the New Haven school board to become Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s point-person on early childhood education, said there are 6-year-olds in Connecticut diagnosed with bipolar disorder. That’s just one of the “heartbreaking” situations facing kids, many of whom have untreated mental health needs, she said.

Jones-Taylor now oversees an office of 120 people who are trying to address problems like that, in part through home visits.

A Google School

Achievement First Amistad High School received a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant to provide one Chromebook laptop for every student in grades 10 to 12, reported Principal Chris Bostock (pictured). Now students don’t print out their papers; they share them on GoogleDocs, where teachers give in-line feedback.

The new system—in which students can share answers instantly with each other—recently prompted some concerns about plagiarism at the school. Bostock said he held a staff meeting to determine how staff can monitor students’ shared documents to make sure kids are doing their own work. Amistad High is also using a web tool produced by the tech startup Kickboard to track student data, so that staff doesn’t have to deal with paper copies and Excel spreadsheets anymore.

This story appeared first in the New Haven Independent.

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