December 9, 2016 Our Changing Schools

Public schools have rarely faced more challenges or been a more controversial political topic in Kansas or across the nation.

In recent years the state Legislature has changed the funding formula for public schools and the state Supreme Court has challenged the equity and amount of funding schools receive.

And as this happens, schools in Wichita – the state’s largest district – continue to get more diverse. Hispanic students now make up the largest share of students in the district. Only one in every three students is white. More than 80 languages are spoken by students in Wichita schools, and nearly 20 percent are enrolled in English for Speakers of Other Languages programs.

In another generation, whites will make up less than half the U.S. population. By paying attention to what’s happening in our schools, we get a glimpse of what this future holds for us.

Many of the people in Topeka who are making decisions about the future of public education in the state attended a public school that looks very different from the ones serving students now.

The Wichita Eagle is working with four Wichita public schools this year to give snapshots into the challenges and best practices facing its schools.

In the first story, we look at how one man, Justin Kasel, the principal at Hamilton Middle School on South Broadway, has been trying to pull up the reputation of his school beyond some of the obstacles it faces.

By spending time in four Wichita schools this year, Eagle reporters Oliver Morrision and Suzanne Perez Tobias hope to take some of the recent education debates out of the abstract. As the year progresses, The Eagle will provide regular glimpses and updates to Our Changing Schools.

December 9, 2016 Principal has begun to turn around challenging Wichita school

The theme song to “The Fresh Prince of Bel Aire” started playing on the loudspeaker at Hamilton Middle School on a recent Monday at 7:57 a.m.

Students know they have three minutes to get to class when the song starts.

When Justin Kasel, the principal, took over the school three years ago, 15 or 20 students would be late every period. Now every door shuts at the bell, and teacher aides sweep the hallways for stragglers.

The music is a signature of Kasel’s leadership style: He tries to turn what could be a difficult fight to change behavior into a celebration.

It’s not always as easy to see as an empty hallway, but Kasel has overseen a turnaround at Hamilton, which serves some of the most disadvantaged students and has often underperformed on state assessments. After Kasel’s arrival, the fact that kids come from a tough home life would no longer be sufficient reason to be late to class. Nor would the fact that they didn’t have a place to do homework after school, or someone at home to help them in areas where they struggle, mean their education would suffer.

When the Pledge of Allegiance started over the loudspeaker that Monday morning, Kasel stared at an empty hallway with his hand over his heart…..Continue reading

March 27, 2017, “North High pushes students not to just speak Spanish but to know Spanish

As a new semester of Spanish I started at North High School in January, Francisco Gonzalez, a sophomore, stood in front of 30 classmates holding a pair of orange soccer cleats.

Francisco played soccer all the time as a kid, he said: in the street, with his cousins in the house or on a team at the YMCA in Wichita. He didn’t get to play much on the team, he told the class, because he was always late.

“The coach would be mad at me,” Francisco said in Spanish. “We used to run a booth at the flea market, and my dad had to close the whole store. So we were always late to practices and even sometimes games.”

Even though Francisco has been formally studying Spanish for only a semester, his teacher, Andrea Brandt, knew he could handle speaking for several minutes, because the class was for “heritage speakers”: Francisco, like many of the students, had been speaking Spanish at home his entire life.

North High has the biggest group of heritage speakers in Wichita – about half of the 600 students enrolled in Spanish at North are in classes targeted for people who are already fluent in the language. North High was the first to offer the fast-paced classes a decade ago and has the largest program in the city now.

A group of foreign-language teachers has been meeting across the district to discuss adding a special certificate to the diplomas of students who make it all the way through the program and can demonstrate mastery of two languages….Continue reading

January 27, 2016North High tries novel idea to inspire passion for reading

Jaqueline Garcia, 17, had always been a hard-working student, but she didn’t like to read.

“I am a very shy person. That’s why math has always appealed to me: you don’t have to talk, to write, to express yourself,” she said.

A couple of years ago, one of Garcia’s teachers at North High School saw that Garcia kept switching books without finishing any. The teacher recommended a book specifically for her: “The Child Called It,” about a boy who had been abused.

Garcia loved it.

But she was so busy with schoolwork, she didn’t have time to read. She had to check it out several times before she finally finished it. That experience changed her attitude, and, now, she and her friends sometimes talk about books even outside of class.

“I remember it wasn’t cool to read. People would say, ‘Ew, a book,’ and now I see a lot of people reading,” Garcia said. “My friends recommend books. It feels good, and then we can talk about them. It’s kind of like a TV show, ‘Oh did you see this.’”

It turns out that Garcia’s newfound appreciation for books was no accident: North High has been undergoing a relatively small but focused effort to help students like her find joy in reading and, through that, hopefully, success in school….Continue reading

April 5, 2017 “How one struggling Wichita middle school improved test scores

After the bell rang, Nancy Best told the students to set a goal for their reading speed.

“Check your tracking sheets, look at your time, set a goal for yourself – maybe 10 words higher than yesterday and maybe 25 higher than at the beginning of the week,” she said.

The middle school students drew a line on a graph they keep in their binders that shows whether they are improving. They’ve been reading the same passage all week, so most kids’ scores rise steadily as they become more familiar with the passage. They’ll start a new passage next week; the hope is that each week they’ll read the new passage a little bit faster.

Darion Gonzalez couldn’t quite finish reading a short passage before his minute was up. “Dang it, that was bad,” he said. He read 207 words in a minute, down from 214 the day before but up from 167 on Monday and well above where he needed to be.

So this would be one of his last days in class: Darion’s teachers decided he was ready to be moved into a higher-level comprehension class.

Sixth-graders are supposed to be able to read 160 words per minute with 98 percent accuracy. When they can do that six weeks in a row, they move into a different room.

There isn’t any time to waste at Hamilton Middle School, where many students arrive several years behind where they should be academically. Hamilton used to switch students into new classes at the end of every semester but now, as soon as students are ready, they’ll move them….Continue reading

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