Early College for All

Last week, I wrote a press release about my school that was picked up by our local paper. I'm proud of the work that it represents and I'm proud of the students who make this possible. So, I want to share it here:

Two-Thirds of Meridian Grads Opt for Free First Year of College

SANFORD, MI - June 4, 2016 - One hundred twenty students walked across the stage at Meridian Public Schools commencement ceremony this past Thursday night, but only forty of them took home a diploma. That’s because the other eighty students – two-thirds of the graduating class – have chosen to participate in Meridian’s fifth year program for a free first year of college.

“As an early college high school, we are set up to offer all students five years of education,” said Patrick Malley, Meridian’s high school principal. “During students’ fifth year, they take a full-time course load with one of our early college partners.”

The majority of students will take courses at Delta College. Others have opted to earn vocational credentials through the Greater Michigan Construction Academy or Bayshire Beauty Academy.

None of the students participating in fifth year have to step foot on the high school campus. For the most part, they are treated just like any other first year college students.

“This graduating class has already earned over 1,600 college credits during their junior and senior years,” said Meridian Superintendent, Craig Carmoney. “Now, with so many of our students staying for fifth year, we estimate that over 90% of them will participate in postsecondary education.”

Meridian transitioned its high school to an early college four years ago, when the students in this class were just freshmen. According to Principal Malley, the decision to become an early college made sense considering the work they were already doing: “The district had just joined the New Tech Network in an effort to improve student success after high school. We had the support of our teachers, parents, community, and Board to re-imagine our high school to improve outcomes. We saw alignment between our work with New Tech and the Early College movement, so we went for it.”

As one of only twenty-two early college high schools in the state of Michigan, Meridian is offering students an experience that was unimaginable just five years ago. In the fifth year, students receive funding for tuition, books, and supplies. They also get monthly gas cards to help offset the cost of transportation, and are assigned a laptop that they can use in the classroom and take home. Additionally, they are linked with an Early College Coach who supports them through their first year college experience.

“Our goal is to remove as many barriers to college and career success as possible for these students,” said Superintendent Carmoney.
What are the other third of the class not staying for the extra year doing next year? Most of them applied for an early graduation after just four years and are going on to a university, the military, or to work in a family business. Because of the opportunities offered, only a few of them graduated undecided about their next step after high school.

“While our evaluation of the success of this program will have to wait until students finish their fifth year, the early results appear very positive,” said Malley. “By eliminating the major stumbling blocks to college success – funding, transportation, and support – we anticipate we’ll see our first year college completion rates more than double our ten year average.”

Based on the program's past success and the number of students participating, it is likely that over eighty percent of Meridian graduates will earn a year of college credits before exiting the program.

According to Amy Boxey, Dean of Student Transitions at Meridian, some will even graduate with over 60 credits.

“Our goal is to send students to postsecondary programs once they are able to show us that they are ready,” said Boxey. “Students who demonstrated readiness their junior year went to college. More were ready and went to college during senior year. Now that these students are entering the fifth year, the opportunity has opened to all. We look forward to supporting so many of our students on their next step after high school.”

NewSchool Learning Closed for Business

It was nine years ago that I launched NewSchool Learning, a small Moodle design company that has produced just shy of 1,000 custom themes for clients across the planet. As of this past December, sadly, NewSchool Learning is no more.

The reason I decided to close shop is simple: the company stopped making money. Revenue had fallen 50% each year for the past three years. This last quarter, expenses exceeded revenue and I knew it was time to call it quits.

The reason for the decline in revenue? I honestly cannot say. I’ve been too distant for too long from the day-to-day operations of the business and the Moodle community to even guess. I just know that the accounting stopped making sense and that meant it was time to call it quits.

The fact that NewSchool Learning lasted as long as it did is pretty amazing, and credit certainly belongs to Lead Designer and Developer, John Stabinger. As I moved from teacher to school administrator over the past five years, I stepped farther away from my work with and on the company. John has kept the lights on while I’ve paid the bills, and for that I’ll be forever grateful.

I’d be lying if I said I was wholly sad to see the company close; part of me is happy to be free of dealing with payroll, accounts, and corporate taxes. At the same time, nine years of relatively passive income from a company that started as a curiosity makes it challenging to say goodbye.

Here’s to other adventures.

Could Rubric-Based Grading Be the Assessment of the Future?

So, apparently the Association of American Colleges and Universities has been piloting the use of rubric assessments of "cross-cutting skills." They call their rubrics Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education or VALUE.

According to Katrina Schwartz's reporting on the pilot last month, the professors involved were surprised by what they, themselves, learned by doing assessments in this way:

Professors began realizing how much the language of their assignment prompts communicated what they expected from students. That might seem obvious, but without other samples to compare to, professors just thought their students didn’t have the skills.

You don't get this type of reflection from multiple-choice tests.

Why Do So Many Kids Have Difficulty Adjusting to School?

Peter Gray MD, writing for Psychology Today back in 2010:

"From an evolutionary perspective, school is an abnormal environment. Nothing like it ever existed in the long course of evolution during which we acquired our human nature. School is a place where children are expected to spend most of their time sitting quietly in chairs, listening to a teacher talk about things that don't particularly interest them, reading what they are told to read, writing what they are told to write, and feeding memorized information back on tests."

We need to be talking more as a society about our perceived need to medicate 12% of boys and 4% of girls to make it through each school day.

Highly recommended reading for anyone working in schools.

It Is Rocket Science

New theories about the science of learning from the Deans for Impact. Interesting findings include:

  • The idea that we each have different learning styles? Unsupported by research.
  • "Research shows that taking a quiz or forcing oneself to recall information is a better practice" than, say, rereading a book chapter or completing a study guide.
  • Peer tutoring? "When we want a student to learn something, have the learners recall what they know and teach someone else instead of sitting with a few peer who already gets it."
  • "Teachers [should] alternate practice with different kinds of content rather than practicing one type of problem several times before moving on."

My sense of this: The better able students are at being agents of their own learning, and the better teachers are at supporting that type of learning, the more students learn.

Allowing Student Choice in Their Daily Schedule: a Technical How-To

This year, using Google Forms and two Add-Ons, I cobbled together a system that allows teachers to account for our 400 high school students during a relatively open 30-minute period of their day. When developing this system, I had two primary objectives:

  1. I wanted students to choose which class they go to for this 30-minutes.
  2. I didn't want to use passes or paper and pencil sign-ups.

I needed to know where students were at and whether or not they attended, but I didn't want students to have to go to one teacher's class for attendance just to leave (as is done in typical seminar-like structures I've seen elsewhere). I find this to be a waste of time and energy.

After some help from the internet and time to tinker, I came up with the following system:

1. Students Register for the Class They Want to Attend

We offer these 30-minute periods, called FIT (for Focused Instructional Time) every Tuesday and Thursday in the middle of the afternoon. Prior to the start of each FIT period, students navigate to this page on our website, click on the name of the teacher who's class they need to focus on, and complete a Google Form letting the teacher know they plan to attend.

For reasons that will become evident in the next step, each of the registration links on this page go to a separate Google Form specific to that teacher's class.

2. Registrations are Capped at Thirty Students Per Class

To prevent some classes from becoming overrun with students, I use the formLimiter add-on by New Visions Cloud Lab. While not perfect, this add-on looks at the spreadsheet where registrations are being recorded and turns off the form once registration levels hit a pre-determined level (in our case thirty students).

3. Students Receive an Automated Email Confirming Registration

Whenever a student successfully registers for a class, they see a message on the screen and receive an email confirming our expectation that they will attend. This email is sent using Google's own Form Notificaitons add-on. It becomes the fall-back receipt in the event of a registration getting lost.

4. Registrations are Captured in a Single Google Sheet

To ensure my entire staff can easily find any student during this 30-minute period, I have set the destination of each of the individual teacher's registration forms to the same Google Sheet. My entire staff needs to have edit rights to this spreadsheet, so I protected all of the cells they shouldn't edit to prevent errors from breaking everything.

5. Teachers Take Attendance Using Registrations

Every Tuesday and Thursday, during this 30-minute period, teachers open up the spreadsheet, navigate to their course tab, and take attendance using the list of students who have registered to be in their class during FIT. If a student who registered is absent, the teacher copies the registration information and pastes it into another tab labeled "Absent." My dean of students checks the absent tab for students who should be present while my instructional coach and a paraprofessional "sweep" the halls looking for students who may have forgotten to register.

6. Once Attendance is Taken, Teachers Delete the Registrations

Within the sheet is a tab containing formulas that count the registrations for each teacher. It is this tab that each registration form looks at to determine whether or not the class is at capacity (30) and the form needs to close. Deleting the day's registrations after attendance is taken resets the count tab value to zero for the course allowing another 30 students to register the next time around.

If a teacher forgets to delete their registrations after taking attendance, then only as many students as seats available will be able to register the next time around before the form automatically shuts itself off. For this reason, deleting student registrations after attendance is taken is a key behavior to ensuring this system works.

The Friday Five

An admirable practice explained well by 4th grade teacher, Justin Birckbichler:

Every Friday, I call five parents. While calling them, I share something great about their student from that week. It could be a concept they worked hard to improve, a great peer interaction, or showing respect to me or another teacher. I do this every Friday without fail.

Breadth vs. Depth: The Deeper Learning Dilemma

Dr. David T Conley, writing for Education Week:

A classroom well balanced between breadth and depth might introduce new concepts on a regular basis and practice them to ensure basic understanding while at the same time have students always working on one project or task that goes deeper in a keystone area. While the majority of class might still be used to introduce, explain, and practice new content, a significant portion of class time might be devoted to projects and tasks focused on keystone concepts, which students would spend considerable out-of-class time on as well.

The key word above is "balanced."

‘Student Agency’ Is Not Something You Give or Take

Andrew Rikard, Junior at Davidson College in North Carolina:

When educators say that I am an equal, even when I clearly am not intellectually, everything changes ... I feel both a sharp fear and an intense freedom. Suddenly, my voice is valuable ... my thoughts can change the mind of the other collaborators. This is empowering. It is the exclamation that we all are learning together.