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UB prof learns valuable lessons in year on front lines of education

At the start of the school year, Lynn Shanahan went from University at Buffalo professor to the front lines of public education.

By the end, she had learned some valuable lessons - about what teachers are being taught, what it's really like in urban schools and how she'll prepare her graduate students before they head into   classrooms.

Her lessons learned came during a year-long odyssey that began last August with a phone call.

The caller was an acquaintance, the new head of a Buffalo charter school, who asked Shanahan to come aboard for a year to help turn the place around. The school would pick up her UB salary.

“Thanks,” replied Shanahan, 52, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education, “but I’m not leaving UB.”

But after some prodding – a second call, a third, a fourth - Shanahan grew intrigued. She believed there was a certain arrogance to outsiders swooping in expecting to solve a school’s complex problems. Still,  it’s not often that an academic researcher with an expertise in how to teach kids to read and write is embedded full time, day to day in a school.

Nor is it every day she can test "best practices"  first hand, and delve deeper into a question much bigger and broader than one school: How do you build a better model for urban education?

“Instead of trying to fit students into a system that does not work for them,” Shanahan said, “we have to change the system so it does work.”

So the professor who spent the last 12 years teaching master’s and doctoral students to be teachers put her money where her mouth is. She took a year-long leave from UB and at the start of the school year walked through the doors of Enterprise Charter School on Oak Street.

It was exciting – and terrifying.

Young staff, low scores

The experience would help Shanahan grow as a researcher and academic, but she would be leaving the collegiate world she knew for a world she didn’t.

“I have a lot of experience working with rural and suburban districts; I have less experience in urban districts,” she said. “The question was, ‘How does what I know fit in an urban context?’ I didn’t know the answer to that - but I wanted to figure it out.”

Enterprise opened in 2003 as a kindergarten through eighth grade school. Its charter has been renewed by the state four times, most recently in 2016 for three years.

Its 405 students wear a uniform of khaki pants with a blue or black polo shirt. Ninety-eight percent of the students are minority and qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Only 12 percent of the students in grades 3 through 8 are considered proficient in English language arts, while just 8 percent are proficient in math, according to the most recent state data.

The school boasts a young, hard-working teaching staff of more than 40, but half were new from the prior year.

Shanahan’s new role would be assistant superintendent of professional development. Her objective: Take everything she knew about teaching literacy and create a system that better meets the needs of the students.

She would immerse herself in the day-to-day operation of the school - observe in the classrooms, train teachers, revamp the curriculum, analyze test scores, read with the students, eat lunch with them. Shanahan would be a sounding board and confidante to Julie Schwab, the school’s new superintendent tasked with its turnaround.

“I knew she knew education and I knew she had access to doors that I didn’t have,” said Schwab, who made that initial call to Shanahan.

“And I really wanted her because I knew she would give me those conversations I would need,” Schwab said. “I knew she would be really honest with me and say 'You’re crazy’ or ‘Go full throttle.’”

And Shanahan?

"I think for Lynn," Schwab said, "to come to the school and live it on a day-to-day basis, it gave her a better understanding of the research."

Feeling the culture 

The first couple months of the school year were a whirlwind.

Any plans to attack literacy were quickly derailed when Schwab and Shanahan realized the school first needed to establish some basic rules and routines  so both the students and teachers understood expectations.

They had the students practice walking the halls from one class to another.

They implemented classroom strategies so teachers weren’t talking over students.

And they got rid of the walkie-talkies. Each teacher had been equipped with one and their constant cackling disrupted the learning environment.

“There was what I call a ‘white noise’ that was just there all day long,” Shanahan said. “It may have been movement oriented. It may have been the walkie-talkies going off or teachers teaching while students are talking. My first eight weeks, I came home exhausted.”

Shanahan – who started her career as a grade school teacher – knew based on research how important culture is in a school and talked about that with her students at UB.

But it was different to be in a school  – to feel it.

“It sounds simple to tell teachers what they should be doing, but the problem is I don’t see all the things they have to bump up against as they’re trying to do what I am asking them to do,” Shanahan said. “But if I’m in the school with them, I see how the system and the different priorities and the different initiatives and the different demands are tugging at them all the time.”

That was Lesson One.

Perfect plan -- but wrong

The reading and writing curriculum being used by the school was, by all accounts, a good one – just not for Enterprise.

Most of the students weren’t quite at the level they needed to be and the material required teachers to rely on their own depth of knowledge and provide a lot of supplemental information.

That may be fine for veteran teachers, but it was more difficult for a less experienced staff at Enterprise.

UB associate professor Lynn Shanahan listens as Jandiel Torres, 5, reads a book to her in kindergarten class at Enterprise Charter School. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News

“I saw teachers working very hard, but they were spending so much time looking up information, spending so much time supplementing what wasn’t in there,” Shanahan said. “I saw in October they looked exhausted. And when you’re exhausted in October, that’s a problem.”

“It wasn’t due to lack of teacher effort or lack of teacher planning,” Shanahan said, “it was the resource wasn’t a good fit for them.”

So Schwab and Shanahan shelved that curriculum for another one that provided more teacher resources and direction.

It hasn’t been perfect – but better. And it was a good reminder that one size doesn’t fit all.

“That would probably be my second-biggest lesson,” Shanahan said. “I always looked at the student and looked at the program, but because of the young staff here I learned it’s just as critical to consider what the teachers are bringing to the table.”

“One of the things I probably never explicitly talked about with my graduate students is looking at where your faculty are – with experience levels, years of teaching – and looking at students, then finding resources that fit both," she said. "It’s that intersection of all three.”

Teacher as counselor, too

The social and emotional issues students bring with them through the door at Enterprise were noticeable.

Poverty.

Violence in their neighborhoods.

In some cases, homelessness.

“Our kids go through a lot at home,” said Valerie Ervin, the school’s cafeteria manager and one of its longest-serving employees. “Some of them live a rough life, they really do.”

These “stressors” take a toll in the classrooms, too, often bubbling through as emotional or behavioral problems without recognition of what was happening in their lives outside of school.

Schwab and Shanahan decided to set up a system with two classroom teachers, one who could continue the lesson while the other would lend the support many students need.

The school’s Board of Trustees gave the approval and eight certified teachers were hired around Thanksgiving to assist in grades kindergarten through sixth. That also would help maintain some continuity at the school in the cases of teacher absences or turnover.

Call that Lesson Three.

“When I go back in the fall I need to be able to talk with my students about social and emotional development,” Shanahan said of her return to UB. “I don’t ever talk about that in my literacy classes, but I need to be talking about that in my literacy classes because its integral to teaching and learning.”

“I want my students to know more about how you work with kids who have a lot of stresses in their life and they bring those to school,” Shanahan said. “You can’t wait for the guidance counselor to come into the class. You can’t wait for the social worker to come in. You have to understand that some children in your classroom are going to need you to understand how to become self-aware of their feelings and how to manage those feelings.”

And it’s not just at Enterprise, she said.

It’s all over.

Turn for the better

Enterprise may not have turned itself around yet, but Schwab and Shanahan feel it has turned a corner.

The school was awarded five of the six grants Shanahan applied for, including funding from the Cullen Foundation and the Catholic Health System, its Oak Street neighbor.

Enterprise Charter School Superintendent Julie Schwab, left, and UB associate professor Lynn Shanahan talk about how to improve education at the Oak Street school. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Shanahan recruited the help of UB professors Richard Lamb, who brought virtual reality to the classroom, and Randy Yerrick, who is integrating science technology in the older grades. Enterprise also partnered with UB’s School of Social Work to help deal with the social and emotional component. Second-year students in the School of Medicine will help start a clinic at Enterprise.

The year went as well as Schwab could have imagined.

“Better,” Schwab said. “I never could have fathomed the changes we’ve made the last few months.”

Staff has a good vibe, too.

“I’ve been here the last 10 years and this is the best support system I’ve seen,” Ervin said.

Staff talked about the recent turnover among the teachers, who were tired and stressed and weighed down by the pressure of improving student test scores.

In fact, Barbara Williams, a teacher at the school for 10 years, left for a job with the public library system until Schwab and Shanahan lured her back this year with their mantra of focusing on the kids.

“I was very happy to come back,” said Williams, a fourth-grade teacher. “Just talking with them it felt different, it sounded different and I felt I could be at a place that would be outstanding if we followed that path.”

“Sometimes I say to them, ‘I don’t know what your secret is, but it’s working,’” said Kevin von der Empten, supervisor of buildings and grounds at Enterprise since the school opened. “I’m excited to see what next year looks like.”

Next year, Shanahan will go back to UB – but she won’t be going away.

She will be more “strategically embedded” in some way at Enterprise with an eye toward helping Schwab measure the effectiveness of the programs put in place this year.

Besides, she doesn’t want to leave when things are getting interesting.

“It’s only been nine months,” Shanahan said. “We’re just having the baby right now.”

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Lessons learned when an education professor went to school

  • Each school's culture and the demands tugging at teachers will determine how well they can implement what teacher colleges try to instill.
  • There is no "right" curriculum. Lessons must be matched to students' achievement levels and the experience levels of the teaching staff.
  • You can't teach students without understanding the neighborhood stresses they bring to the classroom.
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