Under the umbrella of the Center for the Professional Education of Teachers (CPET) reside three related but specialized literacy initiatives that are run by individuals who are passionate about education. The three initiatives that make up CPET are SEI, SLI, and SPI. Roberta Lenger Kang along with Courtney Brown and Elizabeth Fox lead the SLI organization under the guidance and direction of Ruth Vinz.
How was SLI started and why was it started?
This is probably a question best answered by Ruth, who started SLI as a way to help schools and even whole Regions across the city (in early 2000’s) focus on the essential qualities of Literacy across content areas. In 2007, the city established a mandate that teachers must conduct Periodic assessments at least three times per year until students passed the Regents in ELA and in Math. That lead to the development of the Design Your Own assessment program.
Can you tell us more about the DYO program?
The DYO program is an alternative to the standardized assessment approaches offered by the city. Instead of having students take standardized tests three times per year, we support schools to design assessments that are more aligned with their mission and vision of the school. The DYO Program has grown, as we’ve seen how the work of assessments spreads into curriculum mapping, instructional practices, school structures, professional development and a host of other. Ultimately, I think SLI was created to fill a need for Professional Professional Development that meets the needs of school communities.
If you could choose one word to summarize SLI's philosophy what would it be and why?
What! Just one Word! I don’t think I can do that. I supposed, if you’re going to MAKE me choose one word, I would say . . . no – I can’t do it. Sorry. I will say this, I’ve long believed that SLI bridges theory and practice – meeting the real needs of teachers in real city schools. One of the things that is closest to our hearts is that our services are meaningful to the teachers and schools we’re working with. We aren’t interested in selling a product or a program, we’re interested in transforming school communities.
Our coaches are all experienced in the field and speak not only from a place of education, but also of experience. Out commitment to on-site professional development allows us to nurture relationships with teachers and schools so that we can identify the specific needs of the community and develop customized Professional Development plans to meet those needs. Sorry to break the rules here, but I just can’t think of one word that can represent this idea.
How does SLI espouse educational equity?
I don’t think we espouse educational equity – I think we’re warriors for it. Almost all of the schools that we partner with are schools who experience the great inequities of the educational system and I’m not just referring to the socio-economic demographics of their school populations!
Of course many of our schools struggle with the very overt examples of inequality: the physical components of their school’s building (schools without heat, without a library, without a gymnasium, sharing space with other schools) or their school’s location (proximity to public transportation, healthy food, safety and security around the building). But many of our partner schools experience more subtle and more divisive forms of inequity which we attempt to address through our support services. For example, disproportionate number of students with special needs, or English Language learners who require more specialized instruction from teachers who have more expertise –but these teachers are difficult to recruit in impoverished communities.
Some of our partner schools experience extenuating challenges with attendance, and maintaining a safe and secure school culture, not to mention students who arrive years below grade level in reading, writing and math functions. Schools in these situations are open to harsh and highly politicized critique. As our partners, we aim to support these school communities as they confront the challenges they experience head on, with access to leading research in the field, content expertise and customized on-site coaching support.
One of our major priorities as an Initiative is to leverage mandates for whole school transformation. What I mean by that is while the school is busy meeting the needs of its population and community, it also has to meet the (often bureaucratic) needs of the city or the state. Our goal is that through our customized support services, we help them to negotiate the mandates and leverage them to make real and authentic changes in the school whether that be to specifically address students’ academic needs, school programs, or overarching school structures. This is an issue that we are fiercely passionate about and because of our passion, you’ll find every single member of SLI out in the field working with teachers, principals, and other school leaders—we are warriors and champions for educational equity and we live that out each day we put our feet on the ground of the schools that have been left to drown.
How did you end up working with SLI?
I can’t decide if it was by accident, providence, or intelligent design! I was a student in the English Education program and had been working for about a year and half for another Coaching organization that Dr. Ruth Vinz was an advisor for. While working there part time, Ruth recruited me as a DYO coach. When the organization’s grant funding came to an end, Ruth recruited me and a few others to continue the work through CPET. I have been in her debt ever since.
Can you tell us about a favorite past project or a story you enjoy from your work with SLI?
Wow – there are so many but one does jump out at me right away. I have had the privilege of working with one of my school sites for almost four years now. Over the course of the past four years, I have spent time working with a small group of teachers on designing assessments, reading data reports, analyzing data and using key patterns and trends to inform their instruction. It has been a huge shift in thinking and ways of working but the teachers were dedicated and they were seeing results. This year, the assessment program has expanded beyond this single department and is now school wide. A few of the teachers I’ve been working with developed their own Professional Development workshop and presented it to the staff. For me, it was a beautiful experience (how many people say that about PD?!). As I watched the teachers I’d worked with presenting their own work to their colleagues, explaining their learning and their processes and truly leading by example, I thought to myself, “yes! This is what we’re all about!” It was a great moment of the transference of information and experience and expertise.
Can you walk us through a "typical" day at SLI?
Oh my goodness – there is no typical day at SLI! Most of our work is customized by the school or project we’re working on so our schedules vary from week to week (and sometimes day to day, even!). Our days on site are usually very busy because our time is limited so we compress everything we need to do into a short 6-8 hour time frame; and often take work home with us to prepare for the next day, the next school, the next meeting. On days we’re not on a school site, we meet together at the CPET SLI office. This is where we collaborate, strategize, and prepare for to get back out into the field.
How do you respond to mandates, trends in education and educational discourse that might conflict with SLI's current way of working/pedagogy?
This is such a challenge. There are some trends in education and in educational discourse that we can set aside because they aren’t our focus—but others we must confront. Teacher evaluation programs, mandates from the city and the state about testing and pass rates, quality reviews and even Common Core Standards, these are some of the trends and mandates that we’ve encountered this year. One benefit of our work together is that, through collaboration and community, we are able to critique, defend and interrogate these issues as we sift through them together. What is often on our minds is that, while we have a choice to engage or not to engage in these issues, most of our partner schools do not have these luxuries. Therefore we work hard to help schools better understand the mandates, identifying aspects of the work that can be used to benefit their school and align with their vision. Through some of the support work we’re able to do with schools, we seek to lessen the burden they carry alone through the development of programs or school-wide initiatives that combine mandates and align with school goals.
What would you like to see going forward with the program?
Going forward with the program, I’d like to be able to create time and space for our coaches and consultants to work together, learn together, and create together. While some are able to collaborate, our coaches are often working alone different schools every day. As we grow, I want us to be able to cultivate our own garden of experience so that we strengthen our root system and continue to grow and blossom.
Finally, a less daunting question: if your life was a movie, what genre would it be, who would play you and what is one song you want on the soundtrack? (That still might be a tough question).
Oh my goodness, okay – so . . . if my life was a movie it might be in the genre of movies people think are too boring to go and see! But if some crazy person wanted to make it, I think Winona Ryder could make her come back playing me in a dramedy that ended with resolution, but not perfection. As far as a soundtrack song, I really love the message in Matchbox Twenty’s song “Street Corner Symphony” where they sing: Come on over, down to the corner, my sisters and my brothers of every different color, can’t you feel that sunshine telling you to hold time, things will be alright, try to find a better life, come on over . . . “ It’s this kind of hopefulness and passion I feel about our work and my life and I just want everyone to gather around on a street corner and know that they are their authors of their lives and we can work together to make it great.