Friday, July 11, 2014

Voice of San Diego has a great story about Thrive Charter School, a pet project of VOSD's Buzz Woolley

Caught in San Diego Unified’s Crosshairs, a Charter School Lives Up to Its Name
Mario Koran
Voice of San Diego
July 10, 2014

That charter school the San Diego Unified school board tried to kill has roared back to life.

Thrive Public School was approved by the State Board of Education Wednesday night in a unanimous decision. The school will open in September.

Earlier this year, after spending months working with San Diego Unified staff, Thrive’s founder Nicole Tempel Assisi presented the school board her petition to open a charter school.

The petition had been vetted by various district departments, and was recommended for a five-year charter – its highest vote of confidence. The petition was so convincing Superintendent Cindy Marten gave it the thumbs-up.

It wasn’t enough to convince trustee John Lee Evans, however, who first moved to deny the charter. He noted how Thrive had once simultaneously tried to open a charter in San Diego Unified and another district, and said it represented bad faith in the local community.

Assisi had been a founding principal at Los Angeles charter schools, worked at High Tech High in its early years and had been awarded a grant from the Gates and Broad foundations for the innovative model that Thrive promised.

But ultimately Thrive was shot down in a 3-2 vote. Why the board decided to move the goalposts on this particular charter school was hazy.

The vote, and a separate move by the board in which it raised the bar on which charter schools would be eligible for a slice of Prop. Z money, kick-started a new round of debate about the school board’s relationship with charter schools.

Thrive wasn’t finished. It appealed the decision to the County Board of Education. That came with a bizarre twist: The same San Diego Unified staff that once supported the petition argued the County Board should reject it.

Sarah Sutherland, an outside legal consultant who spoke to the county board on the district’s behalf, said Thrive sounds “good in theory,” but had gone through fundamental changes that undermined its chance of success.

It worked. Thrive was denied. Again.

Thrive appealed again, this time to the state. Thrive’s petition faced another review board, another round of vetting, another hearing before the State Board of Education, where it had 10 minutes to make its case. San Diego Unified had the same. And once again, Thrive faced opposition from a onetime supporter: Marten.

Even though Marten, months earlier, had vouched for her staff’s decision to green-light Thrive, she wrote a letter to the State Board asking it to deny the school, citing concerns over its support for English learners. (Read the letter here.)
But this time, Thrive won out.

Thrive is scheduled to open in the fall. Assisi said there are spots for 160 students, half of which are currently filled. Assisi has been interviewing teachers, and has a list of nine finalists – six of whom will get the nod for the fall.

Assisi will soon sign a lease for the school, she said. Even though the school will exist within San Diego Unified boundaries, it will be overseen by the state, which will monitor its test scores and finances.

The state will also visit the school twice a year, over the course of Thrive’s five-year charter.
Of course, because Thrive won’t be part of San Diego Unified, it also won’t see any of the bond money that other charter schools in the district will receive.
For Assisi, that’s a rub, but she said it’s not what matters most.
“We didn’t come to San Diego to have access to bond money,” she said. “We didn’t come to pick a fight. We came to San Diego because there’s need and kids across the city on waiting lists for charter schools – because there are students across the city living in poverty, not meeting their potential.”

Still, it was a fight – one that cost Thrive and San Diego Unified time and money.
Assisi said the process also cost them a grant that they’d won, but ultimately lost because the school’s charter hadn’t been approved on time.

Thrive has a lot of work to do before it’s ready to open in fall, but Assisi said it’s the kind of work she got into the profession to do.
“We have such an expedited timeline now, and that wasn’t necessary. It’s unfortunate that so much time and money was wasted – on both sides. It’s unfortunate that this wasn’t spent on children,” she said.

"Assisi said the process also cost them a grant that they’d won, but ultimately lost because the school’s charter hadn’t been approved on time."
In petition to the state Assisi claims....."Educational experts throughout the country have reviewed Thrive’s educational program, resulting in Thrive being selected over three-hundred school proposals nationwide to win the highly competitive Next Generation Learning Challenge; and receiving grants from the Broad Foundation, the Girard Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Public Charter Schools Grant Program and the Charter School’s Growth Fund. A primary concern of all of these reviewers and entities has been whether Thrive could provide an educationally successful program. Certainly differences of opinion can exist, but in this case, Thrive has raised over a million dollars in grants in support of its educational program and the successful administrative experience of its leadership after thorough vetting, interviews, and competitive processes."
Which grant did Assisi lose the Girard Foundation grant (Buzz Woolley) or some other one?

@Kathy S oh, I see what you did there.

Yes, Mario, we all see what Kathy S "did there":  she listed the five organizations that had given grants to Thrive.  Then she asked a question that brought our attention to the fact that one of those five organizations--the Girard Foundation--is led by Buzz Woolley, founder and donor of Voice of San Diego.  She was being very gentle with her subtle message.  I would have been more direct.  I would have said that this is the sort of information that should be included in a "full disclosure" message attached to your story.
Also, how about you ask Ms. Assisi to tell us in one or two sentences what is the main idea of her educational philosophy?  What is it that makes her plan innovative?

Sure, I could have written about Thrive's educational philosophy -- even though I did link to the presentation the school gave to the state -- but then I would've gotten away from the reasons Thrive was denied by the San Diego Unified school board in the first place. If you weren't at that meeting, you're welcome to check it out on the district's meeting archives. You'll note that Thrive's educational philosophy wasn't really a consideration in the board's decision for voting it down.

As far as your and Kathy's suggestion of my bias, I think, respectfully, it's a red-herring that distracts from the issues at play. I didn't answer Kathy's question because it sounded to me rhetorical. The Girard Foundation wasn't mentioned in the piece, and had nothing to do with my reasons for following the story. Of course, you're entitled to your opinions.

Whether every charter school that's authorized offers an educationally sound and fiscally responsible model is a valid concern. But it's a discussion the district and community should have in the open -- before a charter school is denied. Especially if the charter worked for months with the district, and the district helped shaped that very petition.

Maura Larkins

I think you have a great story here, Mario.  The about-face by Cindy Marten and the district is disgusting.  This charter had no problems until the issue moved into the political arena.

So why not trust your readers to see this?

The fact that Buzz Woolley is a bigshot at both the Girard Foundation and Voice of San Diego doesn't prevent the story from being accurately reported and newsworthy.

You could have avoided the distraction of this issue by doing a full disclosure up front.  A full disclosure is NOT a red herring.  It's an expected practice that allows readers to judge for themselves whether or not the story is biased.  Emily Alpert used to include disclosures when she wrote about Buzz Woolley. 

For the record, I do not think your story is biased. I think you did a public service by writing it.

@richard brick That's why schools should be evaluated not on how well students score on tests but on how much they improve.

Yes, you're right, Derek, and, happily, when people talk about test score results they're very often talking about the amount of improvement by students. There is a commonly-used measure called "value-added" which gives us the average number of months or years of academic improvement by the students of a given teacher.  Here's the Wikipedia article about Value Added Modeling:

It's much easier to improve the scores of average and advanced students than it is to bring up the scores of kids who are behind.  In fact, Michelle Rhee was accused, when she was Superintendent of Washington DC schools, of focusing resources on the more upscale schools in the district, and abandoning the lowest-performing schools. I can understand that Ms. Rhee may have felt that she had to use such tricks in order to have significant increases in test scores.
I agree with Mr. Brick that the Preuss School might not look so great if it accepted any child, perhaps using a lottery system.
I'd like to offer a challenge to the Preuss School: how about you start another campus that accepts students at random, and see if you can also be successful with those kids?

"It's much easier to improve the scores of average and advanced students than it is to bring up the scores of kids who are behind."

When you're using value-added, because it's impossible to improve a student who's at the 100th percentile as there is no 101st percentile, it can only be easier to improve the scores of students who are behind.

Maura Larkins

A student who is at the 99+%ile (there is no 100%ile) can most definitely improve. Let's say you have a third-grader who scores at a ninth-grade reading level. The next year, this child is almost certain to advance to tenth-grade or higher reading level. Of course, his (or her) percentile wouldn't change. If every single child were to improve one grade level each year, then each child would have exactly the same percentile score each year, but would nevertheless be scoring at a higher performance level. Unfortunately, a student who is two years below grade level is much less certain to advance a year or more during a school year. These students are usually not given proper instruction. They are likely to sit in class while everything goes over their heads because teachers "don't have time for the kids who are behind."

 A student who scores at the top of the class one year cannot score higher than the top of the class the next year. So at best, that student can only remain at the same percentile rank from year to year. Do we agree so far?
Now let's say that being two years below grade level puts a student in the 15th percentile. Would it not be easier to increase that student's percentile rank by 5% than it would be to increase a 94.99th percentile student's rank by 5%?

When you talk changing percentiles, you're talking about kids going up or down RELATIVE to other kids. You're NOT talking about how much actual improvement a student makes.

In your scheme of things, a kid who gets the top score in the whole country year after year, and rapidly raises his (or her) level of performance each year, has NOT improved.

You are also saying that a child who is in a low percentile to start with, who improves a little bit--but is still far below grade level--has improved MORE than the first kid!

This makes no sense.

Percentiles only allow you to know which kids are higher and which kids are lower.

Percentiles don't give you information about what kids actually know.  If everyone makes less progress year after year, the percentiles remain the same.  If everyone makes more progress year after year, the percentiles remain the same.

We want to know whether the student population as a whole is getting better, staying the same, or losing ground. This is CRUCIALLY important.

So we're not really much interested in looking at percentiles. Your mom is interested in your percentile, and college admissions departments are interested, but society as a whole is more interested in whether students are raising their grade levels..

The fact is that we ARE able to measure the improvement of the high performers by looking at changes in their grade level, and we know that teachers don't have to put very much effort into getting the high-performer to improve their academic performance.

We are also able to measure the improvement of low performers by looking at changes (or lack of change) in their grade level, and experience shows that teachers have to put a lot more effort to get that improvement.

That's why so many people are furious that low-income schools don't have the very best teachers.  The upscale schools don't need the best teachers; the downscale schools desperately need them.

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