Interview: California Teacher of the Year Ang Bracco

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Angelo Bracco was recently selected as one of five California Teachers of the Year and is a special education teacher at Solano Middle School in Vallejo, CA, a California GEAR UP School. We are proud Ang is on the GEAR UP leadership team at Solano and was gracious enough to take the time to participate in an interview.

Please tell us about your award and what it means to you

I was recently selected as one of five teacher of the year for the State of California. This was quite an honor since California has over 400,000 teachers. The award was significant to me for a number of reasons. First of all, as I contemplate retirement, this completes a journey that began nearly forty years ago as a law enforcement officer and has culminated as Calif. teacher of the year.

As a Special Education teacher and working with the most challenging of students, this award has brought hope to parents, our district, and our County of Solano. The City of Vallejo has soaring unemployment, is lacking in resources, and crime is high. Students at our school and in my class are proud that one of their teachers is on “You tube”, on T.V., and on the front page of our local newspaper. They are proud of my accomplishments.

The ward has also brought recognition from the Law enforcement community. At a recent retirement dinner for one of my former squad members, I was mentioned prominently not for my service in law enforcement but my recognition as a teacher.

Tell us a little about the community and school.

Vallejo is considered part of the immediate Bay area. Up until 1992, the economy was propelled by a naval shipyard, Mare Island. Many of Vallejo residents worked at the base. When the base closed, there was an immediate impact on the community. Many of the residents left the city in search of work else ware.  Businesses also took a huge hit. Many closed up shop and left permanently. With the exit of jobs from the area, crime, especially in the inner city climbed dramatically. With the tax base slowly eroding, police officers and fireman lost their jobs. Police and fire stations closed.

Schools that were once vibrant also felt the economic impact. With the tax base eroded, funding was cut drastically which eventually led to the closing of several schools in the city, including middle and a high school.

Solano Middle School where I teach has a student population of 720. This is down considerably from just two years ago when Solano Middle had over 900 students. The drop in attendance is attributed to many factors. Some are economic, other include newer schools being built just north of Vallejo in a city named American Canyon. Also another huge factor was the inception of charter Schools in Vallejo. There are currently three charter schools that are fully functional in our city. This has taken away from the population of schools such as ours.

Solano Middle school’s population consists of 38% African American, 35% Asian, 22% Hispanic, and 4% Caucasian, and 1% “other”. Our API score hovers just under 700 points. Until recently, we were on state probation for failure to achieve our academic target goals. We also had financial issues which resulted in a state “take-over” of our fiscal responsibilities. We have since exited this “take over” by the state and once again on solid footing.

Why special education?

I chose to teach special Education for a number of reasons.  As a law enforcement officer for 27 years in both San Francisco and Concord California, I felt my impact on youth would be better served working with special needs students. When I use the word “Special Needs”, this can be defined from being physically challenged, intellectually or emotionally challenged. Not only did I feel my talents could best be used in this capacity but I also wanted to work in a community that was in need of a person like myself that could that could make a difference in a person’s life. Special education offered this opportunity for me. In a number of my presentations, I often refer to “Special Education” as the emergency room for education. As Special Education teachers we are charged with “leveling the playing field” so that our students can compete in an ever-changing world.

You used to be a law enforcement officer. How does this inform your teaching?

I believe my service as a law-enforcement officer has benefitted me as a teacher. The teaching profession was not totally new to me. As a law enforcement officer, I trained new recruits who were new to law enforcement. I also taught “In service training” at our department.  I also was very active in working in the community both in San Francisco and Concord. In fact, while working in Concord, I was recognized by Senator Barbara Boxer for my intervention in the Latino community in helping to prevent the negative gang influence that was so prevalent in their daily lives.

My previous background actually has been a plus for me in the classroom. It has run the gamete of “no body will mess with us because Mr. B. use to be a cop”, to don’t act out with Mr.B., he was a real cop…..and of course I’m asked constantly to tell  stories which I kindly decline to share.

What are some challenges your school community faces.

Probably the biggest concern I have is parent involvement in their adolescent’s education. It’s extremely frustrating when we call for a parent night and a handful of parents participate.  I realize parents work and our population of single parents is huge.  We also, like so many districts, are strapped financially. With all of this being said, were hopeful the Governors new financial formula will benefit schools like ours who endure insurmountable economic odds.

Why is getting students to think about college in middle school important?

For many, college is their ticket out of poverty. If given a clear path to pursue, the road to a better life, a sense of direction. By preparing students on what classes to consider (A/G requirements), they have a purpose and know even during the early academic years of their lives, they began preparing for the future.

How do adults work together to prepare all students to be successful?

The general answer is making sure you prepare your students both emotionally and academically for the educational road ahead. It’s imperative that teachers communicate from early elementary through Middle and finally high school. The key I have found is knowing who your students are. What is it that they respond to, what is their learning style; all of these questions must be answered to have a truly successful student.

How has the school changed with GEAR UP?

GEAR UP has been such a positive force at our school. Student success has many key components attributed to GEAR UP, including academic support, professional development, and family programming to encourage a college culture from middle to high school. The GEAR UP presence has been especially positive here at Solano Middle School. We’ve instituted the PIQE program which is under the GEAR UP umbrella. We’ve completed these programs in both English and Spanish. We’ve had strong parental involvement throughout these sessions. The Education Trust Awards has also been well received by our staff and students. The Professional Development, conferences, all had to the positivity of our ongoing college culture here at Solano Middle School. Our staff acknowledges without GEAR UP support and the influence GEAR UP has on our campus, we would not be nearly as successful without their support.

What does it mean to be a GEAR UP school?

GEAR UP is constantly changing to meet the needs of our students. We know as a staff as a GEAR UP school, we can obtain the latest innovative job skills to further enhance the education of our students. We also know the GEAR UP foundation is steadfast in their approach to reach our target population, low income; First Generation College bound students that require engagement of school leaders, families, and communities. With GEAR UP as a partner, we have the courage and the opportunity to form a strong bound that will benefit all of our students in the middle school and beyond.

What efforts and resources best support creation of a college-going culture?

Many of our students come from a home that education was not paramount in their lives. Although many may have dreamed of attending college, they really didn’t know or have any idea where to start. With GEAR UP providing awareness and guidance to both staff and students, we now feel the pathway is clear and the directional signs are clear. We recently held a job fair where students were exposed to different occupations in the job market. We have a classroom that is solely dedicated to college culture and how to pursue colleges and Universities that students might be interested in.

Other efforts include the Parent Institute for Quality Education, the Latino Family Literacy Project, Family and Schools together (F.A.S.T.) GEAR UP has given us the foundation to expand our horizons to truly create a college culture on our campus.

What can teachers do in any school to best help ALL students succeed?

I don’t want to sound simplistic in this answer, but as we know, I was chosen one of five California Teachers of the Year. I feel I am a very good teacher, not a great teacher that when you walk away from one of my lessons your so awe struck your unable to speak.  No, that’s not me. But what I can tell you as a mentor and coach, if you are able to form a bond between you and your students, and they feel you are that person they can trust and look up to, the battle to higher education has been won.  Although I am a Special Education teacher, my class is filled with students of all walks of life who come to visit me throughout the day. Forming relationships with students who have been unsuccessful in all of their academic endeavors, find a home where optimism and positivity thrive. The fact that students know you’re genuine and care, opens doors that were previously iron clad shut.

How does your school prepare students for and to succeed in college/career?

With the advent of STEAM (Science-Technology-English-Art-and Math). Wall to Wall Academics at the High School level, Project Based Learning, and now with the introduction of the Common Core State standards, we feel our students are being prepared for the next level. We are now teaching Geometry at the middle school level which in the past would have been either a 9th or 10th grade course. As mentioned earlier, we have job/technology fairs and other extra-curricular activities that keep students interest at a high level.

Why is an educated workforce important for strong communities?

A workforce with talent brings jobs and the marketplace to the city in which you live. Without an educated workforce, businesses look outside your realm and either go elsewhere or recruit outside talent. All one has to do is reflect on the success of Silicon Valley. Businesses flock to the San Jose/San Francisco Bay  Area knowing there is a pool of talent there that they can draw from. An educated work force is the key to a community success.

How do teachers ensure access to high quality academics?

Many of our teachers are constantly being exposed to all types of “In service training”. As part of Common Core, we’ve just introduced Project Based Learning, a key component to the common Core. Our teachers at Solano Middle School are committed to the success of our students. We have tireless workers who spend countless hours on their own time to ensure this success of our students. Our teachers participate in the decision making of new adaptions for our district. We’re on the ground floor for higher academics. Our teachers collaborate not just monthly, but weekly and yes even daily to provide the best opportunities for our student’s success.

What are some of the challenges in preparing all students for career/college?

There are many challenges when you’re faced with low-income, poverty, and sometimes a family structure that is not supportive. Once our students get past that all may not be the next NFL running back, the next NBA Super Star, or the next Hot Rapper, and then reality sets in. You never want to lose sight of attaining those goals, but let’s have a back-up plan if were not quite there to meet those challenges. Another challenge that we face in our students is “why is college important, we in our family survived without it”. And that’s the whole focus, why do you just have to exist or “survive”? Why not have a meaningful productive life for you and your family?

Anything else you would like to tell about yourself, your school, or your students?

I personally want to thank the GEAR-UP team for all the support they have given our school. I especially want to thank Michele Molitor, our school service coach. Ms. Molitor is a tireless worker and is always there when we request her services. She visits our school on a frequent basis and is there for special events, for instance at our career fair last week. Having Ms. Molitor as our service coach has been invaluable and provides the foundation for our success here at Solano Middle School.

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New Ed-Trust Study on Promising Teacher Evaluation

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OAKLAND, CA (May 22, 2014) – The Education Trust—West releases initial findings from a two-year study examining innovative teacher evaluation systems in a new report titled, Beyond Satisfactory: Redefining Teacher Support and Evaluation to Improve Teaching and Learning. The report reveals that teachers and administrators generally experience the evaluation process as an objective and constructive opportunity to reflect on and improve their instruction in order to best serve all students. These systems offer teachers support in ways that are connected with teachers’ deep desires to ensure their students will achieve at high levels. The report also highlights promising practices, and it offers recommendations for improving teacher evaluation and support in California.

“Our teacher evaluation system in California is broken. For far too long, teachers in our state haven’t been able to get the feedback or the supports they deserve,” said Dr. Jeannette LaFors, Director of Equity Initiatives at The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization that works to close the opportunity and achievement gaps that separate students of color and low-income students from their more advantaged peers. “What was so interesting in our study was the extent to which teachers credited the measures and supports of their evaluation system as a way to increase their effectiveness in the classroom. They welcomed the opportunity to reflect on and improve their instruction.”

The study, which was designed to capture how teachers and school leaders across seven districts and charter school networks responded to initial efforts to build coherent evaluation and support systems, found that redesigning teacher evaluation and support is challenging, but rewarding. Teachers described getting more frequent and more meaningful feedback tied to clear expectations for effective teaching. They appreciated the use of multiple measures to inform their performance evaluation, in part because the process is designed to be objective and balanced. They also expressed appreciation for professional development that mutually benefits them and their students.

“What the findings in this study do is reflect what we hear from our teachers and principals. It offers evidence that California can build on the positive momentum being carried out in districts and leading charter organizations across the state towards meaningfully differentiating teachers’ performance and their professional development needs,” said James Gallagher, Director of Instruction at Aspire Public Schools, a charter school management organization participating in the study. “We encourage other school leaders to take this on.”

The findings of the study reveal promising practices and a set of recommendations that chart a course for improving teaching and learning. From making teacher evaluation and support work a top priority to accepting that it will take time to fine-tune, the recommendations developed in the report are offered to help other school and district leaders elevate their standards for teaching.

With over thirty states revamping their teacher evaluation systems, the report recommends California’s legislature take action to ensure that teachers get the feedback and support they need so that all students—including high-need students who have traditionally been denied access to the most effective teachers—get the teaching they need to succeed.

“There are several exciting examples of school systems in California that take teacher evaluation seriously and are forging a path for others to do the same,” said Sandi Jacobs, Vice-President and Managing Director of State Policy at the National Council for Teaching Quality. “State policymakers need to take action now to raise the bar for teacher effectiveness in California for the benefit of all teachers, and ultimately, the students they serve,” she concluded.

To read the full report, click here. To register and participate in The Education Trust—West’s upcoming webinar “Beyond Satisfactory: Redefining Teacher Evaluation and Support” on Wednesday, June 4, from 3:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m., click here. Webinar presenters will include school leaders from districts and CMOs featured in this report.

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About The Education Trust—West
The Education Trust—West works for the high academic achievement of all students at all levels, pre-k through college. We expose opportunity and achievement gaps that separate students of color and low-income students from other youth, and we identify and advocate for the strategies that will forever close those gaps.

Secrets to Creating a Positive School Culture

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As part of our guest blogger series, our very own Whole School Services Coach Michele Molitor provided her recent experience interviewing Karen Webber-Ndour, Executive Director of the Office for Student Support and Safety for the Baltimore City Schools.

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What do you get when you combine passion, listening and fierce compassion for others? You get a woman who’s soul purpose is to help students get the education they need to thrive in the challenging community of Baltimore City, MD.

I’m speaking about Karen Webber-Ndour, Executive Director of the Office for Student Support and Safety for the Baltimore City Schools. I recently had the pleasure of talking with her as part of my “Inspired Leaders Raising A Ruckus” Interview Series. http://bit.ly/PositiveCulture

Back in February at the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships Capacity Building Conference in Orlando Florida, I had the pleasure of first hearing Karen talk about her work in Baltimore City.  Her passion for her work really had me sit up and listen. But what truly got my attention was the methodology that she had used to turn around some failing schools in the Baltimore City School District.  She was able to actually and truly, LISTEN to the students, to learn more about what was going on with them in a restorative approach versus making assumptions about their bad behavior and taking punitive actions based on those assumptions.

On the surface level this may sound simple, but in reality it’s actually more challenging than you might think. In my work as a coach, my listening skills are key to the success of my clients and teams that I work with. Listening with not only my ears but with my intuition as well to what is being said along with the unsaid, which actually speaks volumes about the issues at hand. Within the unsaid, you’ll find the deeper range of emotions and challenges that a person is dealing with that has led to their thoughts, behavior and actions. From here, you can ask more curious questions to get at the actual heart of the matter so that conscious and well-informed actions can be taken.

No matter whom you’re dealing with, whether it’s from the boardroom to the classroom, it’s no different — active listening is an often over looked and vital skill. Ms. Webber-Ndour was able to consistently utilize the skills of listening, compassion and respect across the board to deliver amazing results felt by the students, staff and families.

Karen’s unwavering conviction and vision for the sake of the student’s well-being, safety and learning is what has enabled her and her team to transform entire schools. Her approach has given the students a voice that helps to shape their experience and their education through building stronger relationships, increasing healthy communication, placing an emphasis on accountability for their actions while creating respect for others.

From our conversation, it really made me wonder, why is this powerful tool of listening not used in ALL of our schools more effectively? Where are we missing the mark?  From my 13 years of experience as a professional coach, I’ve seen in both education and in corporate America, that most folks just aren’t comfortable dealing with other people’s emotions, let alone their own.  So regularly and consistently dealing with the emotions of the students and the faculty at a school is a big challenge and certainly not for the faint of heart. It takes courage and compassion to be able to stand in the fire with someone when they’re in the midst of an emotionally charged situation.

Karen clearly has demonstrated that she has the capacity for doing so and has enabled and inspired her teams to do the same through her leadership.  This is what I refer to as “Inspired Leadership.” This kind of leadership comes from and through someone who is willing to have the difficult conversations for the sake of the greater good versus what their ego or fears might otherwise dictate.  Both of which often want to hold us back and keep us playing small within the confines of our “comfort zone”.

So how did she create such massive change? In our interview, Karen shared with me that “In a school that is failing, everyone is failing. There was an expectation that anything was allowed.” So changing the mindset first and foremost, from top to bottom was her first priority. Transforming fear-based thinking into words, deeds and actions based on the values of respect, safety and listening for understanding, were just some of the foundational steps that she took with her entire staff, all the way down to the mailman.

When she was faced with opposition from the ‘naysayers’, she went on to tell me that “You have to bring your entire soul to the work and you have to mean what you say. You have to be willing to stand up to any force that will hurt your school – that would have you do something against My Village. You have to have that level of conviction or else it won’t work.”

With this vision and level of conviction, she set out to create a school where everyone wants to be – a paradise if you will – an oasis in the middle of a dangerous city where crime and violence is high and gang activity makes it difficult for a student to walk home safely.

Within this nurturing and caring environment, students can thrive because they feel Safe, Heard and Seen for their brilliance and contributions, large and small. This creates a foundation for them to actually focus on their schoolwork instead of their survival, enabling them to flourish. Student success rates go up. Suspension rates go down (a 24% decline in suspension rates district wide!).

Within this kind of environment where listening for understanding is the norm, students can see their abilities and shine, teachers feel their work is making a difference, families feel welcome and get more engaged with the school community and everyone feels respected.

And thus Everyone wins.

My question for you is this: how can we as the adults, move past our own blocks, fears and assumptions to more effectively create a thriving environment for students at home and at school?

Click here if you’d like to listen to my interview with Karen Webber-Ndour.

For more information on her work: Creating a Positive School Climate: Making School a Place Where Everyone Wants to Be”

Or visit: http://www.baltimorecityschools.org/climate

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Save the Date: National GEAR UP Week 2014 Sept 22-26

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During the week of September 22-26, 2014 join thousands of students, parents, teachers, partners and college access professionals from across the nation to celebrate GEAR UP and the successes of your hard work and dedication!

National GEAR UP Week is an opportunity for you to raise awareness in your community about the positive impact GEAR UP is having locally.  It’s a time to engage all your stakeholders – local, state and federal elected officials, funders, partners, as well as local, state and regional media – to share your program’s accomplishments and to get them more involved with your services to students and families.

Resources for schools and GEAR UP Programs:

Press & Media

  • Download the National GEAR UP Week logo
  • Media Advisory – This template is to notify media outlets in your area to cover the event you are hosting.  Media advisories are distributed ahead of the event so that outlets can schedule and plan to cover your event.
  • Press Release – This template will help you create some “buzz” about your event.  You can send it out before or after the event takes place, just make sure you edit it accordingly!
  • Op-Ed: Guidelines & Talking Points – Op-eds are a great way to raise awareness about GEAR UP at the local and regional level.  Follow the tips and use the template in this resource to submit your op-ed to your news outlet.

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