Notes from DissemiNATION Fair

DissemiNATION Fair was offered by DESE's Office of Charter Schools and School Redesign a couple of weeks ago. Held in Devens, it was a major event, two years in the making, built on feedback and input from people in the field (both charters and public schools), as to what to offer in the way of sharing best practices from all types of public schools across the Commonwealth. Based on conversations I had with participants, and my observations and experience within panel sessions, I found this to be an energetic networking and high-quality, well-attended professional development event.

Presentations were relevant, engaging, and of high quality. Panel Session presenters were seated at long tables on a dais in the ballroom. I was struck by their non-jargon-y command of presentation material, enthusiasm to share their expertise, and professionalism overall. The format greatly contributed to this and to the elimination of perceived or real contentiousness or defensiveness that can be evident between "types of schools" sometimes.

While people were getting registered and getting breakfast, I sat at a table off to the side of the ballroom and was soon joined by a core public school guidance counselor, then a charter school executive director. We introduced ourselves to one another and wanted to know about each other's schools and their challenges. Both lauded their teams and colleagues and described some of the challenges they face at their schools, noting master schedules, in particular. They were both looking forward to the session, "Designing Teacher and Student Schedules", in hopes of gleaning some useful insights with which to attend to their particular challenges. Along with some other topics of interest, each was optimistic about leaving Devens that day with some good ideas to discuss with colleagues (and possibly implement) back at their respective schools.

Welcome and Logistics from DESE Staff:
Ruth Hersh, Assistant Director, Office of Charter Schools and School Redesign; Mitchell Chester, Commissioner, attended via video message; Cliff Chuang, Senior Associate Commissioner, Center for Educational Options; Ventura Rodriguez, Director, Office of Strategic Transformation and Commissioner's Liaison to Boston Public Schools; Ellie Rounds Bloom, Coordinator of Access and Equity, Office of Charter Schools and School Redesign. There were many additional staff throughout the venue and on the floor assisting with the event, including several I recognized from the Office of Charter School Accountability.

Participants were asked to think about the practices and the processes being shared. To make the most of the day, Cliff Chuang invited participants to:
  • Enjoy the day away from students - return on Monday feeling refreshed from a day of professional learning;
  • Take one concrete idea back to your school;
  • Make at least one deeper connection with someone outside of your school.
Three Panel Sessions were offered, each for an hour. Between each Panel Session, 15-minuted breaks were offered as opportunities to transition to the next Panel Session and for viewing school displays upstairs. At lunch, networking table topics were arranged across the space; participants got their lunch and chose from a list of topics to be discussed at one of the tables, for about 30 minutes each (some popular topics were offered at multiple tables). Participants wrapped up the day in "School Specific Meetings" (see below), which took place in the final 75 minutes.

Panel Session 1:
  • Introducing Project-Based Learning into Core Subjects
  • Recruiting and Retaining Talented Teachers
  • Effective Academic Behavorial Interventions: Elementary School
  • Effective Academic Behavior Interventions: Middle and High School
Break and Display Viewing
Panel Session 2:
  • Evaluating School Systems, Curriculum, and Initiatives
  • Reducing Chronic Absenteeism
  • Designing Teacher and Student Schedules
Participants Get Lunch and Join a Table
Lunch Table Networking Options (choose 2, each for 30-minutes):
  • Integrating Digital Learning into Lessons
  • Creating Teacher Leadership Opportunities
  • Introducing Project-based Learning into Core Subjects (A)
  • Introducing Project-based Learning into Core Subjects (B)
  • Introducing Project-based Learning into Core Subjects (C)
  • STEM (Elementary School)
  • STEM (Middle School)
  • Teaching Students to Craft High-Quality Thesis Statements
  • College Access
  • Designing Teacher and Student Schedules (Elementary)
  • Designing Teacher and Student Schedules (Middle School)
  • Parent/Community Engagement
  • Recruiting and Retaining Talented Teachers
  • Better Differentiation Techniques
  • Reducing Chronic Absenteeism
  • Effective Academic Interventions (A)
  • Effective Academic Interventions (B)
  • English Learners
  • Social-Emotional Learning (A)
  • Social-Emotional Learning (B)
  • Students with Disabilities (A)
  • Students with Disabilities (B)
  • The Use of Data for Student Achievement
Break/Get Dessert and Panel Viewing
Panel Session 3:
  • Social Emotional Learning: Elementary School
  • Social Emotional Learning: Middle and High School
  • English Language Learners
  • Students with Disabilities
School Specific Meetings:
  • Expanded Learning Time
  • Charter School Leaders
  • Innovation Schools
  • Turnaround Schools
I left after lunch. Here then, notes and take-aways from what I attended:

Session I: Introducing Project-Based Learning into Core Subjects
Moderator: Karyl Resnick, Coordinator 21st CCLC Programs, Office of Student and Family Support, DESE; PanelistsPaul Niles, Executive Director, Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School; Nina Cullen-Hamzeh, Head of School, Marblehead Community Charter Public School; Rachel Kuklinski, Title I Interventionist, Wareham Public Schools; Colin Gibney and Rebecca Schwer, Middle School Teachers, River Valley Charter School.
  • Paul Niles: also 8th gr science teacher; founding teacher of this school, 21 years ago; taught in the era when just doing PBL was enough to engage kids, before the standards-based setting environment; buy-in from staff - teachers really didn't like to be directed, but we got by because we were a project-based learning school; had to think through professional development. His presentation focused on his school's gradual transition from students doing cool projects to rigorous, integrated project-based learning with protocols, projects assesssments and tools used to vet, scaffold, assess, and create rubrics for PBL that is validated across disciplines.
  • Nina Cullen-Hamzeh: Nina described Marblehead's mind shift over time to create standards-driven PBL, while ensuring students are learning deeply and remain fully engaged...small steps...taught in South Central LA - Crips, Bloods, razor-wire - - taught them PBL and they thrived. She discussed some of the systems and tools that have been most successful, including rubrics, collaborative validations of projects among teachers, and the school's culminating Exhibition, where PBL is celebrated across the school community.
  • Rachel Kuklinski: presented on the evolution of a PBL/service learning exemplar she's created with her students -- emphasizes student voice. Student-run newspaper was generated by student interest, addresses community concerns of her students, and brings in community awareness by her students. Time management, flexibility in lesson planning and involving students in project evaluation. Encourages risk-taking. Small steps to get there. One student's feedback to her: there really is a reason for writing!
  • Colin Gibney (Science teacher) and Rebecca Schwer, (Humanities) shared an actual project (SciManities: general tenents - project and place-based education ("focuses learning within the local community of a student. It provides learners with a path for becoming active citizens and stewards of the environment and place where they live." from Antioch University: center for Place Based Education) Essential Questions get them thinking big about what they can do about it. Their presentation on one of River Valley's place-based project themes: How have humans and the natural environment shaped and changed our place in the Merrimack River Valley? Presentation demonstrated how lessons and tasks develop academic skills and a strong sense of place/community, as well as a discussion of the tools and rubrics used to assess student progress.
Panel Session 2: Evaluating Schools Systems, Curriculum, and Initiatives
Moderator: Erica Chanpagne, Director, Office of Effective Practices in Turnaround, DESE; Panelists: Shira Decovnick, Program Manager, Office of Trunaround and Transformation, Boston Public Schools; Joretha Lewis, Principal, Baystate Academy Charter Public School; Paul Hays, Chief Academic Officer, City on a Hill Charter Public Schools
  • Shira from BPS: focus is on Technical Assistance Teams (TATs), which include liaisons from 10-15 central office departments who provide coordinated support to BPS' Turnaround Schools (if a school is in Level 4). Rather than an ad hoc response by individual district departments, TATs are designed to systematically address a school's challenges, which then allow principals to spend more time on instructional needs. TATs monitor and responsively support the implementation of the turnaround plan. Done correctly, the school isn't feeling that they're under a magnifying glass, but being attended to by a "pit crew".
  • Joretha from Baystate Academy Charter Public School: presented on shared leadership and the functionalities of a sustainable instructional leadership team (ILT). A sustainable shared leadership design promoting a positive school culture and effective operational leadership. "Be stubborn on vision and flexible on journey ~ Noramay Cadena" Leadership Team Representations -- no more than 10 members. Learn to let go. Use data and then the ILT makes decision about instruction together.
  • Paul from City on a Hill: One of the original 13 charter schools, chartered in 1995. One of the few charters that is a high school (no feeder middle school). Raise standards and embraced difficult convos; get assessments. 40% of students on IEPs. As they were growing: How do we know that the grades produced have integrity? They're in the second year of using interim assessments to track student growth on Massachusetts Common Core standards, which will be used as a factor on its teacher impact rating. Discussed the promotion of teacher leadership in this process to ensure equitable and uniform application, including having teachers plan assessments and monitor growth across City on a Hill's three high-school campuses. He will emphasize his school's "sensitivity to the importance of balancing essential teacher voice in this process" with the need to "expeditiously arrive at a process for implementation". Bottom up. ALL students can learn - the philosophy first, systems second. Have the difficult convos you need to have.
Lunch Table Networking Option #1: English Learners With Hali Castleman, ESL/RTI Coordinator, Lawrence Family Development Charter School
  • The discussion opened (about 15 minutes) with how LFDCS has leveraged the school's Title III funds to increase both parent engagement and EL achievement in students' early childhood years. LFDCS chose strategies (based on analysis of internal benchmarks and other data), including math nights and workshops for families, PD in sheltered English immersion (SEI) for educators, and introduction of an EL Summer Academy to stem summer learning loss, that also incorporates opportunities family partnership. Then, folks at the table asked questions of Hali and also shared stories from their own schools. About two-thirds of the people at the table (12 people) were from charter schools.
Lunch Table Networking Option #2: Effective Interventions for Students with Disabilities
With Jeanne Powers, Associate Academic Programs Director, Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School (South Hadley, 7-12). Also at the table: Patricia Lampron, Principal, and Amy Gailunas, Director of Inclusion, Henderson K-12 Inclusion School, Boston
  • The discussion was teed up within the context of providing access to the curriculum and excellence for all students at PVPA: has about 400 students, ~16% on IEPs and require academic support in addition to support in the classroom. Students with 504 accommodation plans receive additional homework support. Para-professionals are apprentices assisting in support classrooms. Delivery of the plan is the most important. In Boston, Pat and Amy use a "team" approach at the Henderson: Always asking "What does good planning look like?" Are they planning thoroughly enough? What do you need to do as the general educator and special educator to deliver the curriculum? They use "OnCourse" to share lesson planning between general and special educators. "We are all looking for the silver bullet. It's not in the curriculum, it's in the standards and we provide the access." If I understood Amy and Pat correctly, they think through the planning for each student using Bloom's Taxonomy and also develop an "expectations" document for all educators.