This case study on Phalen Leadership Academy, an Indianapolis charter school, examines the school’s approach to blended learning in its first year. Commissioned by statewide charter authorizer the Indiana Charter School Board, the case study provides lessons for potential school leaders considering similar schools.
What do you get when you combine an experienced charter school leader with a new model that mixes multi-classroom leaders and blended learning in a high-need school? At charter management organization Touchstone Education, you get nimble teachers, quick to adjust their models as needed, and some great student results.
“We have learned that the one most important thing we can do to positively impact the learning of a child is to consistently provide them with a great teacher,” says Ben Rayer, Touchstone’s founder and CEO, and former president of Mastery Charter Schools. “In our model, we have reframed what teachers do and how they are developed.”
Touchstone opened its first site in fall 2012, Merit Preparatory Charter School in Newark, N.J. The school started small, with 84 sixth-graders, so it could quickly adjust and learn from its efforts. In its first year, with a student population that is 90 percent low-income and was generally several years behind grade level, Merit Prep Newark showed great growth in reading and science: By March 2013 tests, students already demonstrated two years of growth in reading and 1.25 years of growth in science.
Its reading scores came out of an English language arts program led by a “master teacher,” an excellent teacher who taught with and led a first-year teacher. In Public Impact’s latest Opportunity Culture case study, Touchstone Education: New Charter With Experienced Leader Learns From Extending Teachers’ Reach, we look at how this teacher, Tiffany McAfee (at right), led the school’s teachers in their focus on literacy, and how the school combined her leadership with online instruction.
In late 2011, Denise Watts, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg zone superintendent, approached Public Impact for help meeting the goals she had as executive director for the new Project L.I.F.T., a $55 million public-private partnership to improve academics at historically low-performing, high-need schools in western Charlotte, N.C.
“If we didn’t try something truly different to change education, many of my students were not going to graduate,” Watts says.
Public Impact’s second Opportunity Culture case study, Charlotte, N.C.’s Project L.I.F.T.: New Teaching Roles Create Culture of Excellence in High-Need Schools, explains the “truly different” things that L.I.F.T. did to redesign four schools using Opportunity Culture models and principles. The study details the steps these schools took and the challenges they faced as they prepared to kick off their Opportunity Culture schools at the beginning of the 2013–14 school year. An accompanying study, Charlotte, N.C.’s Project L.I.F.T.: One Teacher’s View of Becoming a Paid Teacher-Leader, offers a Q&A with an excellent teacher on one design team, now set to take on one of the redesigned jobs as a multi-classroom leader.
In Public Impact’s Opportunity Culture school models, schools use job redesign and technology to reach more students with excellent teachers, for more pay, within budget. As districts and schools around the country consider implementing their own Opportunity Cultures, they want real-life examples of just how others have already done so.
Today, we begin a series of case studies that provide in-depth looks at how districts, charter schools, and other programs have begun using Opportunity Culture models or experimented with similar means of expanding teachers’ impact on students and peer teachers. In the studies, we will describe new programs, including personal descriptions of teachers involved. We will also analyze how well the programs stack up to the five Reach Extension Principles, which call for reaching more students with excellent teaching, higher pay, sustainable funding, job-embedded development opportunity, and enhanced authority and clear accountability for great teachers.
In our first study, Leading Educators: Empowering Teacher-Leaders to Extend Their Reach by Leading Teams, we profile Anna Lavely of Kansas, who participates in Leading Educators’ two-year fellowship aimed at developing the leadership of already-excellent teachers.
Leading Educators’ fellows are currently spread out over 65 schools in Kansas City and New Orleans. A fellow’s school district or CMO must commit to placing the fellow in a role in which he or she leads a team of other teachers to meet the fellow’s standards of excellence; teaches students; and facilitates a teaching team’s collaboration and planning. After intensive training and visits to schools with a record of closing the achievement gap, fellows create yearlong projects that focus on leading other teachers and raising student achievement, designed and implemented by fellows to meet their schools’ needs.
Meet Romain Bertrand: middle school math teacher and Opportunity Culture enthusiast. As this school year winds down, he’s already thoroughly looking forward to the next—when he will become a Multi-Classroom Leader at Ranson IB Middle School, taking accountability for the learning results of 700 students. At Ranson, a Project L.I.F.T. school in Charlotte, N.C., Bertrand sees the opportunities of its new Opportunity Culture—to extend the reach of excellent teachers to more students, for more pay, and develop other teachers—giving him and others exactly the sort of recognition and respect he says teachers now sorely lack.
Bertrand grew up in Avignon, in the south of France, the son of teachers who both went on to become principals. After teaching middle school math in France for five years, he came to the U.S. through the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based VIF International Education, which placed him in Charlotte, teaching seventh- and eighth-grade math for five years. “It became obvious after 10 years of teaching that I finally found my groove, and I saw that I could consistently get my students to enjoy math and become passionate about it, and to grow,” says Bertrand (relaxing at right with his children).
I spent two years teaching in a diverse, high-poverty school on the northwest side of Chicago. And I was fortunate enough to say that even with the incredible growth my students showed in my classroom—in my second year, students averaged more than four years of growth—I was not the best teacher in the building.
On the contrary, I worked with teachers who were simply amazing—who had dedicated five to 10 years to this profession, who made strong gains with their students every year, and who served as models for me. They knew how to develop supportive relationships with parents and work with peers collaboratively in ways I was just beginning to understand.
Most of the excellent teachers were founding members of the school, and were extremely invested in it and the students whom they watched grow from kindergarteners to middle-schoolers.
But after giving five years of 14-hour workdays in a high-stakes environment with high expectations and little reward, all of the best teachers, one by one, left during my two-year tenure there.