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At this time of year, hallways are filled with a plethora of sounds: voices chattering, heels and soles tapping or dancing against the linoleum floor, and the unique clamoring of lockers opening and shutting to signify the start of each new day as students make their way to art or music or lunch or a Friday afternoon All-School. And while many in our community who celebrate the holidays are busy hanging ornaments or decorating their front yards, teachers are busy hanging pictures of students learning in action and decorating walls and stairwells with the latest artifacts from a recent project.

Despite the thriving, bustling, and ever-changing scenery throughout the school, one activity remains the same: reading. In our school community, although reading is taking place anywhere at any given time throughout the day, it looks different for each student. Reading is assigned and accepted in various ways. You may walk in and notice students reading in small groups, in pairs, or independently. They may be lying across a couch as they read, or under a table, in a chair, or on a window sill. You may find students reading inside in the classroom, in the hallway, in every available nook and sometimes, even on the playground. Reading happens all times of the day: in the morning, in the afternoon, and believe it or not, reading even takes place in the evenings. It is acceptable, expected, and even encouraged that students access reading in various ways: reading aloud, reading along, popcorn reading, or paired with an audiobook. Among the options, that to many, seem like a luxury, are just a part of our culture. Something that remains constant at City Neighbors is the commitment to fostering the love of literacy and learning through literacy.

In fostering this love of learning through literacy, teachers take the time to identify quality books that highlight the cultures of our students and also expose them to the cultures of others. Overall, reading has a way of bringing families and friends together in ways that celebrations often do. And let’s face it, anytime a great book is discovered, whether it is written by a classic or modern author, it’s worth celebrating! With quality, interesting books and just a snippet of time, a culture of reading can be cultivated and sustained. We encourage you to carry over the love of literacy at home over the break and hope that it will be sustained for weeks, months, and years to come.

Our teachers and students have suggested a few books with quality writing and even better messages for you to enjoy at home, in the car, or at the laundromat, anytime, anywhere, and anyhow.

Kindergarten – Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes

1st Grade – Knuffle Bunny and Elephant and Piggie Series

2nd Grade – Poppleton and Frog and Toad

3rd Grade – Wild Robot

4th Grade – Zoe in Wonderland

5th Grade – Smile and The Amulet

6th Grade – The First Rule of Punk

7th Grade – Brown Girl Dreaming

8th Grade – The Hate U Give and Long Way Down

 In addition to great books, there are exceptional websites that can guide you in fostering a culture of literacy in your home and give tips to support reading:

Brightly – Helping Parents Grow Lifelong Readers

Understood – A Site to Guide Parents with Reading Support

Have a wonderful break, filled with love, memories, and lots of reading–audiobooks included!

~Kayisha Edwards, Special Educator, City Neighbors Charter School~



mikeTwo weeks ago, the Maryland State Department of Education released its first ever set of star-ratings for schools.   According to this system, the presumably most successful schools got 5 stars.   The presumably most struggling schools received 1 star.  The whole educational world here in Baltimore and throughout the state responded.  There were star maps of districts and counties in the papers.   There were multiple television and news articles about the star ratings and where schools fell.  Social media was abuzz:  “How many stars did your school get?”   The world accepted the stars.

We respectfully submit that the star-rankings are hooey.

With all due respect to the policymakers who spent recent years developing this new rating system and the expenses committed to this venture, we simply cannot accept that schools should be rated like the last Marvel movie or the slightly fancy restaurant you may have eaten in last weekend.

For years, our policymakers have worked to simplify the understanding and evaluation of schools.   The simpler, the better, right?   Just test scores.  Simple star-ratings.  Some states grade schools on a scale of A to F.    This fundamentally misses the idea that educating children, in every context, is a complex, nuanced, and intricate effort and that outcomes are equally complex.   The more we try to simplify our understanding of great education, the further we are from making it any better, richer, deeper, more effective.   Instead of coming to this realization, we keep doubling down on simplistic, inaccurate, and corrosive measures.

Moreover, we continue to rely on measures that are simply not valid.   This year, 65% of the star rating is based on PARCC scores, a test that the state has already decided to abandon after less than a decade of implementation.   (By the way, we announced our concern about PARCC testing and predicted its demise in the first year of its implementation.)   Most educators and honest education policymakers know the many flaws of standardized testing (with a special nod to this particular standardized test), yet school Boards, State policymakers, and star-rating developers continue to pretend that this measure matters–until the next test comes along and the last one doesn’t matter anymore.

The other problems with this star-rating system are numerous.   It clearly favor schools with lower levels of poverty.   It relies on bureaucratic tricks around course offerings and gradings.  (Watch the star-ratings increase next year when districts get the hang of the tricks!)  They will rely on climate surveys that will be skewed to groups and constituencies that are more prone to respond to surveys.   Districts will begin to use these star ratings in ways they were not intended – like school accountability, charter renewal, or other levers of decision-making.   They simply do not report out the complex strengths and challenges of any individual school and, instead, invite folks to look no deeper than a star-level label.

We have been pursuing standardization and simplicity in school accountability since No Child Left Behind in 2004.   No empirical evidence says our public schools are any better.   Experiential evidence may indicate that they have been co-opted by testing and accountability and have become less effective.   In 2018, we will start transitioning to our third standardized test and a new star system here in Maryland.   In another five years, we will mostly likely try a new test or maybe apples or grades instead of stars – with the presumption that it will be these things that will fix education.

We realize that we may offend many who are excited by the stars.    And there may only be few strong voices against this kind of rating system in this era of school accountability and testing.   But we are convinced that this focus will do nothing – absolutely nothing — to improve our schools, the education our students could and should receive, or make our society better.  In fact, this focus, like the focus on standardized testing, will continue to weaken public education.   While this idea might be counter-cultural now, history will not be on the side of high-stakes standardized testing and school star-ratings.

Somebody needs to say it while we all sit around staring at the stars.

Mike Chalupa, Director

bobMuch debate in the field of mathematics instruction revolves around questions like these:

Do we teach for conceptual understanding or procedural fluency? Do we opt for direct instruction followed by application, or do we facilitate as students explore and make connections for themselves?  Is learning multiplication facts an appropriate use of class time?

Literacy instruction has been the subject of a similar debate.  While there are still people who advocate strongly for either a phonics-based approach or a whole-language approach, most progressive educators agree that a balanced approach that combines the best of both phonics and whole language is most effective. I believe that the same is true in math instruction, and that looking to literacy for a model can be helpful.

In reading, the ultimate goal is comprehension–understanding what we read. In math, it’s problem solving–using numbers to represent real world situations. In both cases, students need other skills and proficiencies to achieve these goals.

Learning phonics, or the sounds the letters make both on their own and when combined, is critical for reading success. Similarly, in math, the building blocks are the number system and basic fact fluency. Just like it’s difficult to make sense out of a passage of text if one does not know that “c” and “h” together make “ch” like in “chip,” understanding mathematical situations becomes extremely challenging when one does not know that 9 x 5 = 45.

Understanding and remembering what you’ve read is difficult if you have to stop and sound out every word. This is why teachers model and students practice reading–so it becomes smoother and more natural. In math, using inefficient strategies or relying on clever mnemonic devices to complete calculations diverts attention and cognitive energy and, in many cases, can cause students to lose track of the bigger problem they are trying to solve. That is why building both conceptual understanding and procedural fluency, sometimes through practice and repetition, is important.

In a balanced literacy classroom, instruction focuses on both the nuts and bolts of reading and writing, as well as understanding the big picture. Students are expected to know the alphabet and the sounds letter make. Teachers model smooth expressive reading and help students develop strategies to comprehend what they read. Students practice reading in many different contexts every day. Thinking about mathematics instruction the same way can help students master the skills they need to meet the ultimate goal of using math to make sense of the world around them. Students should learn the number system and their basic math facts. They should develop deep conceptual understanding and practice efficient strategies for calculation. Teachers should model and explain strategies for making sense of problem situations and students should be engaged in problem solving in many different ways every day.

~Bob Dietzen, Math Specialist, City Neighbors Hamilton~


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