Ulichny: Brown’s elementary MAT program gets it right

Brown has a responsibility to enrich the community that hosts it. It is abundantly clear that the elementary MAT program serves the surrounding urban community in tangible and critical ways.

Op-Ed Contributor
Sunday, March 11, 2018

As director of the elementary Master in Teaching program from 2000 to 2009, I’d like to make a case for not only continuing the elementary MAT program but financially supporting it more robustly than it has been. During my tenure as director, I authored an annual comprehensive report for four consecutive years to justify the continuation of the program for four different audiences. One such audience included three national experts on teacher education and teacher education reform. After reading our documentation and interviewing students and alums as well as local principals from Providence and Central Falls, they recommended that the program be continued and better funded to support its mission.

The mission of the elementary MAT program, first created in 1998, was specifically tied to educating teachers for urban school careers because of the continuing local and national need for smart, talented and well trained teachers to effect positive change for already vulnerable young people and their families. The program has been very successful in carrying out its mission. Let me give you an example of its effectiveness.

The Learning Community, a charter school in Central Falls, opened its doors in 2004 for kindergarten and first grade. After adding a grade level each year, it is now a K-8 school with 573 students who enter via lottery and come from Central Falls, Providence and Pawtucket. The Brown MAT program has been a major feeder of highly successful teachers, coaches and administrators for The Learning Community. Our graduates were hired each year as the school expanded its grade levels so that by the time I left Brown, nearly one half of the teaching faculty at The Learning Community were Brown elementary MAT grads or mentor teachers that we recruited to supervise our students during the SummerPrep experience and in their classrooms, the majority of which were in Providence. I myself have been on the Board of the Learning Community since it began and have been an active participant in many aspects of the school’s development. 

According to national statistics, The Learning Community’s demographics suggest that it is among the schools that are most likely to fail. It is in the highest poverty district in Rhode Island, with 85 percent of its students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, the public school measure of poverty. Seventy-nine percent of the student body is Latino, 16 percent is black and 5 percent is white. Thirty-two percent of the students are English language learners, and a much higher percentage live in homes where English is not the primary language. Fifteen percent of students are special education classified, which is similar to the percentages of the sending districts, Central Falls, Providence and Pawtucket. 

In spite of this statistical profile, which correlates highly with school failure, The Learning Community’s students have defied the odds. On the 2017 Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers’ English Language Arts assessment — a state-wide assessment, 23 percent of R.I. Latino students in grades three to eight were deemed proficient. Fifty percent of white students in all of Rhode Island scored proficient. Fifty-seven percent of The Learning Community’s Latino students scored proficient. That means they closed the achievement gap between white and Latino students by outperforming the state’s white students by 7 percentage points. Furthermore, The Learning Community reached proficiency at two-and-a-half times the rate of their Latino peers statewide.

Math results are also impressive. The proficiency level of students in grades three to seven on the 2017 PARCC Math assessment was 43 percent for white students in Rhode Island, 9 percent for Latino students statewide and 42 percent for Latino students at the Learning Community. The Learning Community was the top performing R.I. urban middle school in math.

While these are extraordinary results, they are even more impressive because The Learning Community is not a test-centered school unlike many expanding, chain urban charter schools. The Learning Community’s students are actively engaged in every classroom, debating their views and explaining their thinking. They have a social justice mission that is realized in concrete projects that enhance the Central Falls community every year. On top of that, The Learning Community, as part of its charter, is committed to bringing what it has learned to urban districts through the Teaching Studio, a professional development entity within the school staffed by teachers at the school. They have worked successfully with Central Falls elementary schools, raising their ELA proficiency rates from the first year of collaboration. Funded by the Rhode Island Foundation and the Kellogg Foundation, they expanded their work to include Woonsocket, Smithfield and other urban schools.

There is a great deal that goes into making a school as successful as The Learning Community, but a major part of its success is due to the amazing teachers that work there. The critical mass of Brown elementary MAT graduates who are teachers and administrators has created a nationally recognized school that is doing it right — fulfilling the vision of the first champions of the charter school movement, which is to incubate ideas and share successful practices with their district counterparts. Ted Sizer, former chair of the education department, the greatest influence on the current Brown MAT programs, would be very proud of this legacy.

As the elementary MAT program was taking shape and becoming more urban focused in 2001, The Learning Community was in the planning stages, and my association with the co-directors helped create a common vision of excellent instruction between The Learning Community and the MAT program. We were on the same page from the beginning, having both experienced the positive outcomes of the Reading and Writing Workshop model of instruction developed by Lucy Calkins and colleagues at Teachers College, Columbia University. The main idea behind the workshop model is that whole-class, teacher-led instruction takes place in a mini-lesson of 10 or 15 minutes, which gives students multiple opportunities for active engagement, and the rest of the 60 or 90 minute period allows the teacher to work with individuals or small groups at their particular level. Meanwhile, all students are engaged in doing independent work at their own level of proficiency. In each subject area, students get individualized instruction an average of three times a week. Since 2001, the workshop model — the basic instructional methodology of our MAT program — has been refined and adapted to the needs of an urban school by The Learning Community. It has been expanded to include math and science instruction as The Learning Community developed its own curriculum in those subject areas.

At The Learning Community, Brown MAT grads are teacher leaders, coaches and some have become administrators, charting the course of the school with the co-directors. Because The Learning Community is very democratically run, teachers create the curriculum for their grade levels and have a lot of say in how the curriculum, instruction and culture of the school unfold. They work very hard, are evaluated rigorously and continue to refine their craft. However, teaching methods are not the only thing that make The Learning Community excel. The co-directors have a vision for a school that deals with the whole child, so there is a large safety net program to assess student learning and to intervene, with additional adults working with small groups of learners, so no child loses ground and falls behind in his or her learning. Of course some do, but they are then even more heavily supported by other adults. Not only is there an instructional safety net but there is also a social-emotional team of social workers and interns who work with students experiencing all sorts of environmental and psychological stressors — including immigration policies that are tearing apart many of the families. Another leg of the stool that supports the excellent outcomes of the school is the involvement of families. The school is a support for many families and caregivers and actively involves them in their children’s education. Parent involvement, as measured by Rhode Island Department of Education criteria, is about 98 percent!

In its current self-study, I understand that Brown’s administration may eliminate some programs that don’t align with its intended focus. In my opinion, however, Brown has a responsibility to enrich the community that hosts it. It is abundantly clear that the elementary MAT program serves the surrounding urban community in tangible and critical ways. It would be a great loss to the children and families of the Providence area urban core if the program were to be eliminated.

Polly Ulichny is a retired senior lecturer and the former director of the MAT program’s elementary education track. She is also a board member of the Learning Community Charter School. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.