The School Of The Future Gets A Dry Run

Aliyya Swaby PhotoAs other students read through their own worksheets, Natenen Conde sprang from her seat and rushed up to her principal with a declaration: “I finished everything.”

On her own, she had finished four humanities and science lessons throughout the day’s block of “self-directed learning,” part of a quest by the charter organization Achievement First (AF) to create a model, dubbed “Greenfield,” for the future of its schools.

That model is the basis for a controversial proposed school called Elm City Imagine, suggested as the first financial partnership between the New Haven Board of Education and AF on a charter school. (The Board of Education will discuss the proposal at earliest Feb. 9., according to schools Superintendent Garth Harries, and will vote at a later date.)

AF has enlisted the help of the inventor of the computer mouse to design that school of the future.

While preparing to launch the new K-1 Imagine school, AF has been testing out the underlying concepts for the past three weeks with fifth-graders at its Elm City College Prep Middle School on Dixwell Avenue in Newhallville. Next year’s fifth graders will also learn under the Greenfield model, as part of a separate AF effort to create a Greenfield middle school.

The Greenfield model encompasses a variety of experimental teaching and learning methods, many of which AF staff incorporated after seeing them work at existing schools, said AF CEO Dacia Toll. At a recent parent informational session, Toll and Elm City Imagine principal Katherine Baker unveiled details on those methods, which include an extended school year with a calendar alternating eight weeks of regular classes with two weeks of career “expeditions”; longer school days with staggered teacher schedules; long blocks of “self-directed learning” time; and small-group reading, writing and math.

The three-week fifth-grade mini-“Greenfield” at Elm City Prep Middle tested out small group reading, small group writing and self-directed learning. (Because of the snow days early in the week, the pilot ended Thursday with fewer days than expected.)

At Their Own Pace

Robert Hawke will be the principal of the middle-school pilot, which starts next year with just fifth grade and is set to expand every year through eighth. Now an AF principal-in-residence, he has worked as an academic dean coaching math, humanities and science teachers for the last two and a half years.

Conversations with teachers, AF alumni and parents showed demand for “kids to be more independent,” Hawke said. For the past three weeks, students in the pilot have had an hour and 45 minutes total every day to go through a set of tasks at their own pace. With the help of instructors, they complete programs in various subjects on their Google Chromebook computers and take notes on correlating sheets.

If a student wants to spend that time accelerating his or her science studies, he or she can do that, “but don’t neglect the humanities,” he said. Every morning, kids check in with advisers who would help them to correct that educational imbalance.

After Conde “finished everything” in humanities and science, Hawke encouraged her to move onto learning vocabulary. She pulled out a packet of worksheets and got to writing. “The words are kind of easy,” she confided and listed a few: distract, obstacle, concept.

All 60 students in the school’s fifth grade participated in the pilot program, split into two cohorts supported by a team of seven total teachers—four of whom were also teaching sixth grade using the traditional AF model. “It’s a lot of work for them,” which is why the pilot was no longer than three weeks, he said.

AF has tweaked the Greenfield model slightly after hearing feedback from parents, teachers and students, Hawke said.

“We’re trying to build the school we want for our kids,” he said. When parents told him that afternoon exercise made their children sleepy, they replaced it with recess, which is going over a lot better, he said. Ultimately, Greenfield kids will shuttle through a long school day, from 7:15 a.m. to 5 p.m.—an hour longer than the average day at an AF school. The three-week pilot did not extend the day that hour.

“Intimate” “Seminars”

Besides self-directed learning, AF staff was testing small-group reading and writing using the epic of Gilgamesh, adapted for grades five and up. Humanities teacher Danielle Charlemagne led two groups of six students back-to-back in the discussion of a short passage—in which the hero Gilgamesh unexpectedly turns down the beautiful goddess of Love.

The small groups are more “intimate,” like college seminars, Charlemagne said. As the instruction, she has a “tight locus of control” and can give everyone in-depth feedback on the quality of their writing assignments, instead of more superficial commentary. There are more “peer distractions” in a larger classroom, she said.

The groups are formed of students at different skill levels, so they can learn from each other’s strategies, Hawke said. They “can fly” during self-directed learning.

Charlemagne said she is “strategic about who [she’s] asking what,” playing to individual students’ strengths. In Thursday morning’s discussion, one student can make discussion points using basic terms of literature analysis, while others “think in a more abstract way” and may be able to add context. Others can add in “a literal take on the text,” and some can reiterate those points, showing they are at least engaged in the discussion, she said.

Two separate groups of six worked on Gilgamesh in a large classroom Thursday afternoon. After reading the chapter aloud, Charlemagne asked the six kids around her table to throw out one word describing Gilgamesh at the beginning of the story: “Cruel,” “Desperate,” “...Cruel,” “Brave,” “Angry,” “Selfish.” She alternated between questions that were analytical—how does the author characterize Gilgamesh?—and ones that were more literal—Where did he defeat the monster Humbaba?

Charlemagne chose one student to read the third paragraph aloud. A minute later, the same passage was echoed by a child at the table across the room. And the process of “Imagin”-ing the school of the future proceeded.

For previous coverage:
Teachers Union Prez Pens “Imagine” Critique
Charter Plans Detailed; Parents Weigh In
Elm City Imagine Sparks Debate
NHPS, AF Team Up On Experimental School
Elm City Charter Eyed For Futuristic “Conversion”

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posted by: RichTherrn on January 30, 2015  12:22pm

Of course, seeing that daily block on the schedule dedicated to Science/STEM for elementary students is exciting. However, I cringe at the “complete packet of worksheets” model of “individualized learning”, especially for a subject like science. Going through a set of worksheet packets at their own pace isn’t the point of mastery learning…
And elementary students, especially, need experiences and collaboration to master and develop their own understanding of science concepts, practices and skills.
The small group writing/reading/humanities and discussion seems like what is done in the literacy blocks I see all the time across NHPS schools, perhaps the reporter could offer a comparison to see what the differences are or do an equally in-depth reporting on NHPS instruction.
-Richard Therrien
-NHPS Science Supervisor

posted by: NHLearner on January 30, 2015  1:13pm

So if they can already implement their brave new world, what do they need money from the New Haven Board of Ed for? Xerox paper for the packets?

posted by: cupojoe on January 30, 2015  1:18pm

“Cruel,” “Desperate,” “...Cruel,” “Brave,” “Angry,” “Selfish = life without Recess. Art. Music…

posted by: Rebecca82 on January 30, 2015  1:58pm

I really don’t see anything innovative about this model, and if it relies on packets as much as the article suggests, then it seems to go against what research and theory suggest about how children learn. Self directed education can work really well when it is hands-on and allows for collaboration in addition to independent work. If that’s what they are going for, maybe they should consider opening another Montessori school. I don’t believe the Board of Education should fund this school, and I feel this article just makes that even more clear.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 30, 2015  3:09pm

Charter School are cash cows and the are the inventions of rightwing corporations, There is zero oversight for taxpayer money doled out like candy. Charter schools will turn out to be the biggest and most expensive fraud ever perpetrated on the taxpayers.But there is a noble goal in mind, To undermine and destroy the teacher’s union and to line the pockets of people like this.These are the puppet masters who are behind the Charter School take over.

Glen Ford.

The Plot Against Public Education

How millionaires and billionaires are ruining our schools.By BOB HERBERT

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 30, 2015  3:42pm

Why not use the Comer School Development Program.

These teacher led curriculum units, that involved students and often parents in the planning, engaged our low-income, socially marginalized students with the kind of experiences that promote executive function and social skills that many mainstream children acquire in their families.

posted by: ElmCityVoice on January 30, 2015  7:10pm

I’d like to see a reporter from the Independent write a story about charters that’s not a puff piece. Can someone go behind the scenes for the “real” story?

posted by: Tom Burns on January 31, 2015  12:45am

What a bunch of crap—yeah—we didn’t think of that ten years ago did we—but our system won’t let us do it—so give it to an outsider who has no educational experience or background—that makes sense—doesn’t it?
Here is my charter analogy—I have buttered bread before so I know how to use a knife and I had a Biology class in High School so I know a bit about the human body—therefore I think I have an idea as to how to perform surgery on a patient with a brain tumor and will fix them—why in the world would you let non-educators try to educate when you won’t let me do surgery on sick patients—I truly believe I can make a difference—would you let me operate on your Dad, Wife or Child?—I don’t think so—so lets put an end to these phonies—OK? T

posted by: timshortty on January 31, 2015  6:45am

I agree with everything Richard posted.  Come to Hooker and other NHPS schools you’ll see some self-directed learning. If students are given a writing packet as part of part their “learning”, how self-directed is it?  Every thing mentioned in this article is already being done and is nothing new.  Oh! It is new for Achievement First!

posted by: NewHavenPublic on January 31, 2015  8:41am

Why would the New Haven Public Schools give charter schools “smaller class size, and… small-scale programs”?

Don’t public school students deserve this too?

Achievement First, Yale, and the new corporate-reform leadership of the New Haven Public Schools are making radical changes to our public schools.

Great schools are made up of great teachers - who stay for more than a couple or three years and are woven into the fabric of the school community.  Achievement First corporation has a business plan that requires high teacher turnover to keep teacher pay low. 

At their core, schools are about meaningful connections between children and adults.

The New Haven Board of Education must reject Achievement First’s expansion plan.  Come to the Board meeting that was quietly scheduled for THIS Monday night, February 2.

posted by: Cyto1 on January 31, 2015  11:27am

Ten hours in school for elementary and middle schoolers?  We need to begin asking ourselves what are we doing to our children, our futures.  I am a teacher at a charter school, I have graduate degrees in Business (MBA), Medicine, and Education(MAT) and even I believe this is extreme.  Children will learn when given 3 things: good teachers, supportive parent(s), and the opportunity to be children!  That does not translate to being in what is equating to be an educational sweatshop!  Whenever we see failing/low performing schools and/or failing students why is our automatic reaction to add more school hours or more tests?  This does not work!  We need to begin asking ourselves, as responsible educators and parents, what will be the psychological toll that this is doing to our children?  Are we in fact bringing up children who love to learn and preparing them to enter a global society?  Or are we simply turning them into burnt out mini adults who will be unable to function in a global society as their peers in Europe and Asia. It is time for the traditional public school community and public charter school community to take a step back and look at what our actions are doing to our most precious resources, our children.  If we take their formative and playful years, years they will never get back, and have them in school for 10 hours a day, are we not as guilty as those in countries where children are forced to work in sweatshops for 10 hours a day?  Education is important, I consider myself a lifelong learner, however a childhood is just as important.  What would you rather have, an adult who fondly remembers learning in school AND the memory of playing outside at the end of a school or listening to music? Or an adult who wonders what his parents and past teachers were thinking when they robbed him of his childhood?  Wake up please before it is too late. We are robbing our children of a good education, one that includes being a child and not a full time working adult.

posted by: Bigal on January 31, 2015  4:27pm

I’ve been behind the scenes.  There is nothing futuristic about worksheets.  Most of the teachers are Teach for America, which translates into 1. they don’t know what they are doing; 2. they are arrogant; 3. they are indoctrinated into believing that what they do is better than what certified teachers do; and 4. they don’t intend to stay for more than 2 years. 

Garth has already made his promises to AF.  They wouldn’t be having meetings, pilots, and launchings if otherwise.  Where will he be when the Teachers Union walks off with the TIF grant money and his uncertified and loathed Garthians such as Gemma Joseph Lumpkin, Fred Benton, Victor de la Paz, and Kelly Kovacek no longer have funding?

Put Garth and the Garthians on a one way bus out of New Haven and let the public schools do their work.

posted by: Theodora on February 1, 2015  12:27pm

Why does Achievement First and its overlords get so much positive press from the NHI? How is it that no one truly digs into the facts behind Achievement First and its retention rates?

Why isn’t anyone advocating for a hybrid board for this hybrid venture? What is Achievement First giving up? And let’s not hear about “substantial class reduction” because that is a lie.

I don’t know whose behavior is worse—Achievement First, the superintendent or the NHI for its cheerleading (instead of reporting).

Dave Ciccarelli has a point, AF is trying to hitch its wagon to the NHI golden boy, who is about to flame out. Is Mayor Harp going to stand up to this ridiculousness? Does she have the ability to stand up to those who’ve anointed the superintendent, without his being accountable for results?

posted by: nhteach on February 1, 2015  3:12pm

I don’t understand how giving students a packet of worksheets to complete independently is considered revolutionary?

The reporter would benefit from visiting a New Haven elementary school during the Intervention block and seeing how New Haven is already using small group instruction to provide targeted support to all of our students. Not to mention all of the small group instruction that happens throughout the other parts of the day…

Also, that school day is obscenely long. The teachers have to work in shifts, but students attend all day? This does not sound developmentally appropriate.

posted by: urban ed on February 1, 2015  4:42pm

The model may have some merit. But District Leadership’s desire to outsource it is an insult and a poke in the eye to those innovators who remain in the NHPS. While the stultifying district bureaucracy works to kill the innovations already well-established in our system of schools of choice, they now are willing to fork over precious taxpayer funds to Yalies-come-lately AF to move this model forward. Garth has sometimes demonstrated himself to be a listener. I hope he’s listening now.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on February 1, 2015  6:18pm

Give me a break People wake up. This is the real deal.

Who Is Profiting From Charters? The Big Bucks Behind Charter School Secrecy, Financial Scandal and Corruption
What we know about the financial incentives offered by charter schools.
By Kristin Rawls / AlterNet
January 21, 2015

This article is part of a two-part series that looks at mass school closings targeting America’s inner cities and the promise of charter schools as a magic solution to alleged “failing schools.” Part I explained how the charter school movement cynically appropriates civil rights rhetoric, but often leaves the most vulnerable students worse off than before. In Part II, AlterNet looks at a more likely motivation for the “reforms”: Profit.

Part One.
Punishing Students For Not Making Eye Contact? How Charter Schools’ Prejudiced Policies Undermine Equality
Charter schools are failing children of color and students with disabilities even as their supporters advocate using civil rights rhetoric.
By Kristin Rawls / AlterNet
May 9, 2013

Part Two.

posted by: panthermouse on February 2, 2015  1:04pm

I respectfully discourage well-meaning commenters from over-emphasizing the “packets” as a destructive force. In my opinion, talking about packets is spending energies on an argument that is easily laughed off by those within the charter school system because charter schools and public school teachers alike rely on packets. Unless you are a teacher that carefully designs daily labs in a Montessori-type setting (good for you, by the way), you probably use packets sometimes and it does not mean you are a careless teacher. I’d like to redirect commenters’ attentions to the areas of teacher experience, teacher quality, and the role of private funding and the questionability of private “investors” in Achievement First.
Greenfield is a model that prioritizes small group instruction which is GREAT, yet it hires inexperienced people through the teacher-in-residence program (TIR). Although the TIR program has many, many merits, it is somehow below the radar that they are replacing experienced, veteran teachers with people that are new to education, and have no formal experience teaching. AF excuses the lack of experience because students will be taught in smaller groups. Of the 2-3 new Greenfield hires we have been made aware of, all of them have less than one year of teaching experience. Although they are well-intentioned people that have an excellent rapport with children, they just don’t have much experience.

As a person that was once a first year teacher, then a second year teacher, and third and fourth, etc. I only WISH I could single out all the children and parents of my first and second year teaching and apologize to them, with all sincerity, for my deficiencies as a teacher while their children were under my educational care. First year teaching is part of the career - everybody must go through it and first year teachers aren’t a harbinger of doom for students’ education. That being said - knowing what I know as an educator - if I were a parent, I would send my…

posted by: panthermouse on February 2, 2015  1:05pm

child to a school in which (among other things) first and second year teachers are few and far between. Yet, the model that is Greenfield, will be continuously cycling through first year and second year teachers, over, and over, and over, because that is its educational premise.
See, there will only be a small handful of experienced teachers, something like a Math “lead” teacher and a Humanities “lead” teacher - maybe a science one as well. This person will spend their morning teaching the TIR teachers the content, then lead whole group instruction, and then students will break off into small groups with the TIR teachers. The lead teachers spend their time circulating between groups, and so children will spend the bulk of their time with less experienced educators as the experienced educator is responsible for supervising the education the TIRs are providing.
The TIRs are paid a pretty insufficient salary for an educational professional and there will be very few ACTUAL teaching positions, so the expectation is that someone will come to Greenfield as a TIR for a couple years, gain experience, and leave. Although promoters of Greenfield tout that these people will graduate into teaching roles, the question is - what teaching roles? Experienced teachers will be replaced with TIRS and a computerized curriculum that accompanies the “packets” described above. It seems like it will eventually be a very cost-effective model, which is why the likes of Garth Harries seem to be salivating at its prospect. Without costly teachers and costly benefits, they can divert money elsewhere (and when I say “elsewhere,” don’t think I’m talking about teachers or classrooms, for one second). All the same, what will it do to the school community - when children and parents see even fewer familiar faces from year to year? This is a HUGE problem in AF and creates a rightful sense of distrust between AF, the community, parents, students, etc…

posted by: panthermouse on February 2, 2015  1:06pm

Rather than responding to this criticism and entrenching itself as a community-based school, AF has taken the opposite direction and is modeling a school whose staff will very likely grown increasingly aloof from students, families and the community. Greenfield has offhandedly mentioned the intention of bringing in “more community members” but this smells more like a half-hearted talking point rather than a meaningful investment in community building.
But then again, how much does AF actually care about community building – and where do their allegiances lie when it comes to the intersection of cutting classroom dollars and building schools that are safe, community-oriented spaces that can upend the status quos that work against so many students and families? Do a quick google search of the AF Network board of trustees and get accustomed to the “community building” efforts of the likes of William R. Berkley:

“As one would imagine, talk of the Deepwater Horizon incident and the insurance implications surrounding it emerged. Berkley, one of the many insurers of Transocean, said his company lost $5 million from the offshore accident, but that number is far from what Llyod’s, Excel and ACE lost. Berkley, however, was not upset at the relatively small chunk of change his company lost. Rather, he was excited that his firm, for the first time, was able to raise prices 40 to 50% for offshore insurance — calling the Gulf of Mexico disaster both very unfortunate and an opportunity for insurers. I asked Mr. Berkley if he perceived the Deepwater Horizon incident as an enormous lack of risk management. He responded: “I don’t think it’s an enormous lack of risk management in the offshore drilling industry, no. I think it was more a lack of understanding of all the alternative things that could go wrong.”

posted by: panthermouse on February 2, 2015  1:07pm

Or, Doug Borchard, another board member for the Achievement First Network and Managing Partner and Chief Operating Officer, New Profit, Inc: “Doug has led the firm’s investments in KIPP, iMentor, Achievement First, New Classrooms, Computers for Youth, Year Up, and BELL; he helped launch the Pathways Fund – a portfolio funded by the federal Social Innovation Fund and focused on college success and workforce access; and he has helped managed the firm’s growth of more than 500%.”

Or, James Peysner who publicly praised the education reform in Lawrence, MA for ‘cutting half the principals and 10% of the teachers.’

I, and many other educators, see Natenen Conde (the student featured in this article) as an investment in our future. So does William Berkley, Doug Borchard and James Peysner, but in a fundamentally different way, which I think can get unearthed with more public discourse and a higher standard of investigative journalism.

I encourage commenters to de-emphasize the concern regarding packets and increase their concern around AF’s relationship to private funders, like the aforementioned board members. I respectfully encourage parents to demand more transparency from AF regarding teacher experience and performance before sending their child to an AF school, and a Greenfield school in particular. I’d also like to call on the New Haven Independent to do more legitimate educational reporting and stress their responsibility to do so. There is a ton of investigative work to be done around education dollars being mixed with and funneled into a private setting. This “mixing” and “funneling” needs to be aired so that AF is held accountable for meeting the best interests of students and the families that they talk so much about.

posted by: THIWDO on February 2, 2015  2:10pm

This article is proof that the Charter School philosophy and model is ridiculous.  The New Haven Public Schools had moved away from worksheet teaching about 20 years ago.  Research has shown this form of “self- directed education” is meaningless busy work that stifles students’ creativity and provides them with no deep understanding of any concept. Students need rich and stimulating dialog in collaboration with teachers and other students revolving around the subjects they are learning.

As described in the article discussions are based on lower level questioning with no understanding of the difference between literal and analytical questions.

New Haven has spent millions of dollars providing teachers with training and professional development to provide our students with the best education possible.  Yet, Charter supporters want our students to attend sup-par schools that focus on work sheets to direct them with limited teacher support.  This would be a disservice to the children we teach. 

Most successful academic institutions do not focus on the length of time in the class rather the positive results stem from the complexity and rigor of the work. So if the real concern is the safety of our students after school, set up a Charter after school program that can focus on other activities like sports, drama, martial arts or just having our students play constructively.

And leave the teaching to the teachers.

posted by: urban ed on February 2, 2015  2:59pm

Tonight’s meeting still going forward….

posted by: Leslie Blatteau on February 3, 2015  7:44am

Teachers, administrators, parents, and community members:  Please join us on Tuesday evening (February 3) at 5:30pm at the Wilson Branch Library (303 Washington Avenue) for an Organizing Meeting to discuss the impact of privatization in New Haven. 

Here is a link withe more information:

In addition, I welcome the information from panthermouse about the AF Board of Directors.  While New Haven Public Schools describes charter schools as “small scale programs…managed by governing board(s) comprised of teachers, parents/guardians…and community members,” I fail to see how one-percenters from Greenwich represent anything remotely related to the New Haven community. 

For more info:

Join us in the coming weeks as teachers, administrators, parents and community members unite and let the New Haven Board of Education know we OPPOSE the NHPS-AF charter school merger.