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School leader’s challenge: To ‘constantly get kids to be thinking’

Ron Chaluisan

As the head of four charter schools in New York City, Ron Chaluisan is aiming high. And he wants his students to do that, too.

“For me, the big question is: how do you constantly get kids to be thinking?,” Caluisan says. “They’re asking questions. There’s an internal dialog going on. They should be tired because they’re thinking.”

His students are poor kids, minority kids, immigrant kids. He wants them to acquire far more than basic skills in reading, writing and math — even though these are skills that many of them lack, despite advancing year by year through the school system.

He wants his students to be critical thinkers and to gain the habits of mind and industry that people need to succeed in a fast-changing world. He wants them ready for the 21st century.

We recently profiled one of the schools that’s putting Chaluisan’s ideas into practice, the New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities II, or Hum II, in the Bronx (story here).

When we spoke with Caluisan last month, he told us much more about his ideas for education than we were able to run in that earlier story. Here is more of our interview with him.

Born and raised in the Bronx, and a graduate of Harvard, Chaluisan heads the charter schools run by New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit that’s helping scores of New York City public schools raise their game, mainly by giving close instructional support to teachers and principals in almost 80 New York schools. In addition to that work, New Visions runs four charter high schools and plans to open two more next fall. They’re all part of the public school system.

Chaluisan was a teacher from 1983 to 1997, always in New York schools except for a three-year stint in California, and a principal for three years. He joined New Visions in 2002.

We spoke with Chaluisan on February 15 in his office in the West Village.

IFL: You’ve got ambitious aims for students. But many of the kids who enter your high schools are lagging years behind in reading and math. How do you reconcile the ambitions with the reality? What exactly do you do to “constantly get kids to be thinking”?  

RC: The question becomes: how do you do it with a group of kids who, for 13 years, mostly have been told that they’re not successful in one way or another?

In a weird way, you have to first get them to a place where you get them first to be students: what does it mean to be a student? And then, how do you create a whole bunch of small opportunities for kids to experience success?

Because if they don’t know what they’re working for, they’re less likely to work.

You can never tell a 14-year-old kid, the kids that we work with, a kid coming in with a 4th grade reading level or a 3rd grade reading level, and say, “Do this because it’s important, because it’s school.”  That’s not where the kids are today.

How do you get to the kids’ understanding that success can build on success, can build on success — and it’s something they can use now?  That it’s not something that’s useful four or five or 10 years from now, or that it’s for a good job? For right this second, how can I get you to do something so that, if you do well, you can see the advantage of it today?

And that’s a very different mentality for teachers.

You hear teachers say to students all the time: “You need to do well for the exam in June, you need to do well in order to get into college, you need to do well in order to get a job.” But, do they need to do well in order to do something tomorrow? So we’ve been working really really hard on this.

Kids need to experience success. They need to get success, to understand what it means. Not just to feel good. (Although, yes, there’s a piece of that.)

Let me share a story, it was a real intense learning experience for me.

I danced as a kid. But then I became a principal and I was 33 years old, and I had stopped dancing at 25 or 26. But there was a production I wanted to be in, and I passed the audition — and I hadn’t danced for eight years. At the first rehearsal, I was horrible. Absolutely horrible. I went up to the director and I said, “You’re probably wondering why in the world you picked me for this. And I want to assure you that when we need to be ready, I’ll be ready.”

I saw what I had to do. I had the tape. I knew what I had to rehearse and work on — and I was fine.

And I went back to school, and I said, “I was so clear. I knew what I needed to do in order to accomplish this. It was absolutely clear in my head. Do our kids know that — do our kids know what they have to do to succeed?”

I said, “We don’t do that kind of work with our kids. We don’t make explicit to them and show them, and have them experience, that if you do this and this and this, you can do that.”

And it’s such a basic thing that we take for granted. For our kids, it’s daunting to them. they don’t connect those pieces.

If I sit down and I try to write something, and I just put everything down, and then I rearrange the stuff and read it out loud and hear what it’s saying, and I ask someone, what is it saying — if I do those things, I’ve going to have a well-written piece.

It’s not like that for them. For them, it’s like, if I’m going to be a good writer, I’m going to sit and I’ll write. Because that’s what they think writers do: it’s amazing the moment it goes on the page. They don’t think about rewriting, reading it out loud, sharing it — none of that. They’ve never made that connection.

They absolutely believe and I’ve seen this, I’ve talked to so many hundreds of kids over my 30 years, they will tell you I’m not a good writer, because when I sit down and write, it’s horrible. Like, there’s no process to it.

And it’s the same thing for test-taking and reading and presentation. They think, ‘The people who are successful just do it. And I can’t do it, so I’m not successful. And you’re going to ask me to take this test, and I’ve never been successful on tests and I’m not a great test-taker and I’m never going to be a great test taker.’

IFL: Can you give us an example of how you’ve built up someone’s feeling that they can succeed?

RC: Sure, but we’re at the beginning stages of it.

A teacher will say, ‘OK I want you to create a commercial that shows blah blah blah.’ Now, creating a commercial isn’t something that most people do. So, first of all, you say, ‘You have 30 seconds. And now, sometimes you have a direct narrative, or a visual with voice0over. And how many scenes…?”  So you break it down. And then you help kids do those pieces so they have the greatest chance of being successful.

You’re working through it with them. And you’re helping them do it. And when they’ve actually produced it, they can say, “I did this.” That’s a really important piece.

Are we 100 percent successful? No.

IFL: The point isn’t to create commercial writers, obviously. But it is to do what? 

RC: It is for the student to create a strategy, follow a strategy and complete a project.

The language that we use is: a kid needs to know stuff well enough so they can ask a question. They need to be able to find information so they can answer that question. Then they need to put something together — they need to show their knowledge — and then they have to be able to defend their choices.

It’s not even, necessarily, what’s the right answer? It’s what the best answer you have now, given the information you have.

It’s a real shift. It’s not, “Get these eight questions right on the test.” It’s, “Here’s a question. Here’s some information. What’s the best answer you can put together, given the information that you have?” And then, “How are you going to put it together, and how are you going go show us that you actually have applied it to something else?”

In a classroom, the people who should be working the hardest are the kids. They should be making and doing stuff. They should be arguing. It’s not the teacher. the teacher’s work should be in the planning, 80 percent of it.

If I’m evaluating a teacher, my goal in evaluating the teacher’s work is to look at the planning. When I go into a classroom, I don’t want to see the teacher doing something. I’m looking to see what the kids are doing.

If the kids are sitting there quietly and the teachers are acting, it’s not a good class. It’s not the class I would want my kid in. I want my kid to be arguing and presenting and writing, you know, because at the end of the day, when I think about what I do on a day to day basis, and what i see successful people do … and it doesn’t matter the job you’re doing — I look at the TSA [Transportion Security Administration], it drives me insane every time I go into an airport, because my brain is going, “How could this be more efficient?” and it seems like no one’s asking that question, and it’s a big mess everywhere, except for a few examples where someone smart seems to have figured it out.

And so there’s room for efficiency and effectiveness in every single job. And whatever kids choose to do, I want them to enter life that way. To think: How can I contribute to making whatever I’m doing better?

If we can accomplish that, it’s an amazing thing. And that’s where you get joy: “Wow, I thought of that, I made this better.”

Story and photo by Howard Goodman

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A high school that aims to take struggling students beyond the basics

Chelsea Katzenberg and her 9th grade Social Studies class

Chelsea Katzenberg and her 9th grade Social Studies class

It was a Monday morning in the Bronx, and 25 ninth graders, dressed in identical dark black pants and blue polo shirts, some in matching v-neck sweaters, were getting up and moving around their classroom — not because they were disruptive, but because their social studies teacher asked them to.

They were playing a game called “Agree, Disagree,” and they were supposed to make up their minds about statements that the teacher read aloud. Students who agreed with a statement were supposed to walk to one corner. Those who strongly agreed were to walk to a second corner. Those who disagreed or strongly disagreed walked to a third or fourth corner.

“I have one more for you,” said the teacher, Chelsea Katzenberg. “Here it is: ‘People who are born into poverty, and grow up in poverty, will always be poor.’”

Every one of the students walked over to the “disagree” side of the room. Two-thirds crowded the “strongly disagree” corner.

“Why do you disagree that poor people will always be poor?” Katzenberg asked, pushing the kids to back up an opinion, and teaching them how to express their reasoning.

"Agree, Disagree"

“Agree, Disagree”

“Because,” said a slight girl with long black hair, “I know I am going to escape.”

She will, if the New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities II has anything to say about it. The fourth and latest charter high school from the educational incubator New Visions for Public Schools, its quiet and well-managed hallways are offering a route to college to a cross section of Bronx kids who otherwise could be looking at very long odds indeed.

Their method is to employ techniques common to charter schools — long hours, school uniforms — but also to sharpen skills not often associated with education in America’s poorest places, where the usual goal is to reach a baseline of basic skills. At the New Vision Charter High Schools, the target is to teach higher-order reasoning and critical thinking.

Thus, Monday’s hour-long class also saw Katzenberg reviewing concepts of economics, then instructing the kids to quickly write a first draft of an essay on the question, “How does economic inequality affect the lives of people in the Bronx?”  In a recent exercise, her students wrote letters to President Obama, offering suggestions “that would help turn the U.S. into an ideal economy.”

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9th Grade Language Arts class

That same Monday, Language Arts teacher Aliyah Hayes went over the steps for a multi-level assignment in which the kids were to interview somebody from their community and write a feature story about him or her. She described how a good interviewer seeks out personal details and strives for candor from the interview subject.

“Anyone know what ‘candor’ means?” she asked.

No one did. So she explained.

A little later, a student named Joseph Perez leaned toward me and asked how to pronounce a word that Hayes had written on the board: “Collage.” He nodded when I gave him the answer, taking it in.

The final paper was due in a month. Having an advance deadline — that was a new concept in itself.

“When you go to college,” said Hayes, “you will get a due date in the future like this, and we want to treat you like you are the college-bound students that we know you are.

“Now why,” she asked, “would it be a bad idea to wait until the last minute?”

A dozen hands shot up. All had a good argument against procrastination.

You would never guess that this is a school in which 30 percent of the students have Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs) because of one learning disability or another, or that for 17 percent, English is their second language — a few students having started school in August with virtually no English, just arrived from another country.

Nor would you guess that most of these 9th graders started the year at a fifth-grade reading level or lower. Some were at third-grade level.

The 125 Bronx teenagers who became Hum II’s inaugural class were chosen by lottery from about 500 applicants. They did not constitute a student body of the gifted or the extraordinarily well-behaved. Far from it.

“The demographics of our student body match the demographics of this area of the Bronx,” said chief operating officer Pamela Fairclough — with the possible exception that these were all students whose parents thought strongly enough about the importance of education to fill out the application.

How do you make a school get extraordinary results from a student body that’s as ordinary as its general neighborhood?

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Richard Gonzalez

“Good curriculum,” said principal Richard Gonzalez.

That means “making [school] accessible, making it understandable and based on the real world.”

“And we do a lot of culture-building,” continued Gonzalez, whose jaunty bow tie and cufflinks send a daily signal that becoming educated is worth dressing up for, and who refers to his students, when speaking to them, as “scholars.”

“On the very first day, I got up in front of them and said, ‘You are all graduating in four years. I’ll be standing up here, shaking your hands and handing out diplomas.’”

That would be quite an achievement, given the starting point. Last summer, planning for the school’s first year, Gonzalez and his teachers realized that the incoming students’ reading levels were generally so low that extra measures were called for: every student would be required to take remedial reading and math, in addition to the usual 9th-grade material.

In two of the students’ five daily classes, there is a second teacher whose job is largely to give added support to students most needing to catch up.

At the same time that the students are playing catchup on basic skills of math and reading, they’re leapfrogging forward on sophisticated concepts. Economics, for instance, isn’t usually taught until 10th or 11th grade in New York schools. But Katzenberg is teaching her 9th graders “how to think about economic problems.”

She is a first-year teacher, fresh from Vassar College and Columbia University’s Teachers College. “I knew it would be a lot of work, coming into a brand-new school,” she said. “But I really do love it.”

On the day I observed her, she seemed to pour boundless energy into her class, never lecturing but always leading another activity: the Four Corners game, or a reading passage followed by quick questions and oral answers, or a speed-writing assignment as a warmup to a more formal paper to come. Her students didn’t sit and listen; they did things.

“I never used to like Social Studies, but now I’m getting straight As” said Emily Cacho, 14. “I really work hard to get my grades up. My whole life has been based on working hard. Both my parents” — immigrants from Honduras — “have had to struggle, and they came to New York and they are my inspiration.”

Ms. Cacho wants to be a pediatrician, the first doctor from her family, and show people “they can do anything they want so long as they put their minds to it.”

Is it working? Gonzalez said the students seem to be on track to meet the Regents exam standards by the end of the year. But to really see where they’re at, and to make sure the school’s philosophy is working, he planned to test the students in math and reading at the end of the February — giving them the same test they took in the summer, to see if there’s any growth. No one mandated the test. It was Gonzalez’ idea. If the school isn’t producing the results that everybody wants, he said, he wants to know it.

He has made another daring decision. He plans to tell the kids what the tests show about their reading and math levels. He doesn’t want them to wind up like so many thousands of college students who arrive on campuses with exaggerated ideas of their abilities because they scored well in their high school, only to find that compared with the larger world, they’re way behind.

Ron Chaluisan

Ron Chaluisan

Gonzalez’s boss, Richard Chaluisan, said the principal is absolutely correct to level with the kids about their shortcomings, a frankness that might have been avoided in earlier decades for fear of damaging students’ self-esteem.

“He’s straight up with them,” said Chaluisan, New Vision’s vice president for charters. “He’s saying, ‘This is where you need to get to. We’re going to work with you. And you’re not leaving.’”

The school’s over-arching philosophy reflects Chaluisan’s belief in challenge based learning, an approach which presumes that, in this age of easy access to information, it’s far more important for students to learn, judge and assess different pieces of information, and to solve real-world problems, than to regurgitate facts.

“For me, the big question is, ‘How do you constantly get kids to be thinking?’,” Chaluisan said. “They should be tired because they’re thinking.”

Next year, Hum II, as the school is called, will add a new freshman class. The following year, another, and so on until it becomes a full four-year school.

The conventional wisdom holds that if a kid has a serious deficit in reading or math, you dumb down the coursework.

Put Gonzalez and his staff at Hum II in the “strongly disagree” corner.

“Just because you lack a basic skill doesn’t mean you can’t conceptualize,” the principal said.

“Your vocabulary may be low and your fluency may be low because you don’t read enough or you didn’t have reading material in your house — and you need to read a lot to have those skills — but that doesn’t affect your ability to come up with ideas or participate in a class discussion.”

Story and photos by Howard Goodman

The ‘brilliant’ bus: Has knowledge, will travel

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She calls it Estella’s Brilliant Bus, and she uses it to bring computer-based learning to some of the most forgotten schoolchildren in America.

Estella Mims Pyform grew up in these backwaters, a daughter of the segregated South who started working in the fields at age 6 as a migrant worker, her family annually going up the road, as they called it, from the Okeechobee mudlands of Florida to the hills of New York State.

“Beans, potatoes, strawberries, corn, apples, tomatoes,” she recalls one quiet morning on board the technology-laden bus, her eyes still seeing those sweat-gained crops in the grip of her hands.

All the while, until she was 25 years old, she and her six siblings went to school.

“My father had a different concept from most people. His attitude about education was, we as parents need to do what we have to do to make sure you go to school. So if you have to work a little harder, fine. So even in New York when we traveled, if school was open, we went.”

She earned four college degrees and became a teacher, guidance counselor and high school drill-team coach back in her hometown of Belle Glade, an Everglades town so destitute that it was the subject of the famous 1960s Edward R. Murrow TV documentary, “Harvest of Shame,” that opened America’s eyes to home-grown poverty.

She notched 50 years with the Palm Beach County School District, interrupted by two years in which she attempted to retire, only to come back as an elementary-school guidance counselor because she still saw much to do.

“In working with the low-income families, I saw so much that was needed,” Pyfrom says. For some of them, “not even soap to bathe with. Or detergent to wash the clothes with.”

After a while, “you start asking yourself, what can I do to make a difference to this population of people?”

They were her people. She’d gone to school with them. She’d taught, coached and counseled their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She knows they’ll be lost if the education system passes them by.

Just as urgently, they need computer skills.

“It’s absolutely necessary,” says this 76-year-old who grew up without a radio, never mind a TV. “We’re in an age of technology and computers. Just to fill out a job application — you can’t do that on paper anymore.”

The idea of a bus seemed a natural way to spread the knowledge to these Everglade towns, located miles from everywhere else. “I couldn’t think of a better way to get it out to them.”

DSC_0016She had the vehicle built to her specifications, from the wheels and chassis on up, designing it so that she could be driver, if need be. She spent about $900,000 of her own money, a hefty chunk of her retirement savings after a lifetime of work, which included night work in addition to her day jobs. She sold insurance and taught evening classes, all while raising four children of her own (two with Ph.Ds) and three kids of her youngest sister.

She started in 2009, but had to take a few months off to nurse her husband of 60 years, Willie Pyfrom, the retired director of the celebrated Glades Central High School marching band, from a dire illness. The bus, and its modern tools of knowledge, finally got rolling about two years ago.

Instead of passenger seats, the interior is lined along each side with formica counters, swivel seats and 17 computer terminals, interconnected and wired by satellite, WiFi and hot spot for the Internet. There’s a steady hum of a generator, keeping it all running.

From its base in a locked storage center in West Palm Beach, Fla., she rolls the bus on Mondays to an elementary school in rural Pahokee, where 3rd, 4th and 5th graders study science and math to prepare them for statewide standardized tests. On other days, she takes the vehicle to community centers in Lake Worth and Riviera Beach, where children as young as 3 and 4 climb aboard to learn basic skills of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.

Source: NBC Nightly News

Source: NBC Nightly News

The kids will board the bus in shifts of 30 or 45 minutes, about 80 kids in all in the course of a day.

When she teaches preschools, Pyfrom insists a parent sit alongside. Together, a mom and a child will look at the same computerized lessons on adjoining screens: cheery exercises in primary colors that ask the kids to identify letters of the alphabet with sounds they hear over a pair of headphones.

Many of the children are brand new to computers. Some don’t know how to use a mouse. In those cases, the kids will point to the answer on the screen; the moms will click the mouse for them.

The parental involvement is a big part of it, Pyfrom believes. She gives parents the children’s pass codes, so they can continue the lessons at home if they have the Internet. Many don’t. In those cases, she hands out applications for a Comcast program providing low-income households with Internet service for $10 a month and notebook computers for $149 — affordable bridges across the digital divide.

“It allows them to spend quality time with the kids,” she says, “and this whole process is helping the kids with their readiness skills. Because if you put a kid in school and they’re ready to learn, they’re going to move.”

Robbie Everett, a media specialist at Pahokee Elementary School, is very glad that Pyfrom’s been bringing her bus up State Road 80 and parking it in the school parking lot each Monday. The school has a computer lab, but with only enough space for students to attend once a week. With the bus, many children double their access to computers to twice a week.

“It really helps our kids,” said Everett, who had Pyfrom as her 4th-grade teacher and then knew her as a school-district colleague. “The children love it. They really love it.” One thing they love is the chance to play games. But the lessons are slyly rigged; to play a game, you have to get an answer right the first time. On Estella’s Brilliant Bus, you can bet those kids are concentrating on the questions.

All the while, the computers are generating detailed readouts showing children’s progress through the specific skills required in Florida standards: root words, content clues, synonyms, and the like. Children need a 90 percent score to move to the next level, or else repeat the lesson. According to Pyfrom, the readouts are recording an accumulating account of student progress.

How long will she keep this up? “I’m going to do it for as long as I can afford to do it,” she says. At $400 just to fill up the tank with diesel, her money won’t last forever — maybe two years. By then, she hopes, she’ll get enough help from grants or individual donations to continue. Her health, at least, is not an issue. “I’m blessed. I get up every morning, I feel good. I don’t have aches and pains.”

DSC_0008She gets incalculable help from Patrick Morris, a drug-rehab counselor who works at night so he can spend his days volunteering to keep her computers running, her motor purring and do the driving.

Why so dedicated? Morris answers with a self-effacing shrug. “It’s a need,” he says, “and I’m in a position to help.”

Pyfrom and her bus are attracting recognition (thanks in part to free publicity and social-media services provided by the Small Business Development Center at Palm Beach State College).

Last week, she was the subject of a terrific segment on the NBC Nightly News. (See it here. It’s not to be missed.)

She has used the experiences of her life to forge a philosophy: “You make your breaks and you determine your own destiny. You work hard and make things happen for yourself — and don’t use what you don’t have as an excuse.”

She expresses that philosophy in a converted coach with slogans painted on its sides: “Have Knowledge Will Travel.” “We Bring Learning To You.”

“We’re going to keep rolling,” Estella Pyfrom says.

– Story and photos by Howard Goodman

Want to help Estella’s Brilliant Bus? Click here.

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