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What one assistant principal learned from shadowing a student for a day

August 9, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
Karen Ritter, an assistant principal at a high school just outside of Chicago, wanted to see her school through a student’s eyes. So she decided to follow 9th grader Alan Garcia, who came to her asking to be switched out of the many remedial classes in which he is enrolled, hoping to get a clear view of his experience in the classroom. Special correspondent John Tulenko of Education Week reports.
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GWEN IFILL: High school students and parents sometimes say principals and teachers don’t quite understand what it’s like to be a student these days. It turns out there’s an effort to change that. Some 1,300 principals recently took a day off from their usual role and instead followed one of their students for a day.

The approach came from two groups outside the traditional field of public education, the Design School at Stanford University, and IDEO, a design company based in Palo Alto, California.

Special correspondent John Tulenko of Education Week followed one principal through the first ever national Shadow a Student Day Challenge. It’s part of our weekly education series on Making the Grade.

KAREN RITTER, Assistant Principal, East Leyden High School: My name is Karen Ritter. I’m an assistant principal at East Leyden High School, which is just outside of Chicago.

And, today, I will be shadowing a student.

JOHN TULENKO: Why are you doing this?

KAREN RITTER: Just to get a sense of what students go through during the day.

I don’t really get to spend a lot of time with students. Usually, I’m in charge of things that the teachers are involved in. So, this includes teacher evaluations, teacher attendance, professional development. I would say 50 percent is in meetings.

JOHN TULENKO: Do you feel like you know what goes on here?

KAREN RITTER: I — I do, just because I do observe a lot of classrooms. Now, I’m looking at it more from the teacher’s perspective.

But now I want to know what it feels like through the lens of a student.

JOHN TULENKO: Her public high school serves some 1,700 students and is both racially and economically diverse.

Today, Karen is following a ninth-grader.

KAREN RITTER: Wait for me, Alan.

JOHN TULENKO: Alan Garcia.

KAREN RITTER: I first met him because he came to my office and said he wanted to talk about his schedule for next year. He’s in a lot of remedial classes, and he wanted to be changed out of those classes. So, I really want to know what makes him feel that way.

JOHN TULENKO: She hopes to find out, not just observing Alan’s classes, but by fully participating in his entire day, which started at 7:35, with a boost of physical education.

KAREN RITTER: This is the class I was most nervous about, because I don’t run.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN TULENKO: Her stamina would be put to the test by what comes next, seven more 50-minute periods, starting with learning center for one-on-one help, followed by Alan’s usual two-hour double math class, then barely pausing for a bite, before jumping into the second half of the day, four back-to-back classes, literacy, computers, English and freshman seminar, until the 3:00 p.m. dismissal bell marks the finish line.

What is it like having Ms. Ritter follow you around?

ALAN GARCIA, Student, East Leyden high School: Having the assistant principal follow you everywhere, it’s — it feels weird.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN TULENKO: And for Karen? We checked in with her about halfway through the day.

KAREN RITTER: I’m holding up.

(LAUGHTER)

KAREN RITTER: I definitely feel like my energy level has gone down since this morning. I had to write an essay in literacy, and I felt like I had a hard time concentrating and trying to focus. Yes, it’s a lot of sitting and a lot of thinking.

So, like algebra, algebra block, so it’s a double period. That was hard, because, especially, it’s over a couple different lunch periods. So, every time the bell rang, I wanted to get up and leave. But it’s like, oh, no, we have another period to go. More time to go.

JOHN TULENKO: Double period math is one of the remedial classes Alan wants to change.

ALAN GARCIA: It’s really boring. And it gets me exhausted at times, just sitting down for two hours. It gets me mad and sometimes puts me down, because I’m like, I could be like learning new stuff. Instead, I’m stuck with something I have been doing for like seven, sixth, eighth grade.

JOHN TULENKO: So, what do you want to be doing?

ALAN GARCIA: I would like to be taking, French, like, woods, metals, all those types of classes.

KAREN RITTER: Because Alan is in the classes that he is, he doesn’t have the opportunity for a lot of those electives. He was placed in certain classes because of his test scores, but I don’t know if he necessarily needs to be in that level.

He was getting things and teaching them to me.

WOMAN: Yes, you got it.

KAREN RITTER: Alan helped me.

WOMAN: Really?

KAREN RITTER: Yes.

I think Alan represents someone who is very representative of our school, middle-of-the-road kid who, when challenged, can reach high, very high expectations. And I think maybe keeping him at a certain level might hinder his opportunity to do that. So, I would like to see more opportunities given to students. And maybe we need to rethink the way that we place students, not based on test scores.

JOHN TULENKO: How else had her views changed?

To find out, we asked Karen to grade East Leyden High School on some key measures, both before and after her shadow day. Keep in mind, her view was limited to just Alan’s classes.

We began with this statement:

In this school, students learn actively, creating, questioning, discovering. Your grade yesterday was a B. Today?

KAREN RITTER: I would say a C-minus.

JOHN TULENKO: Her scores also went down for student engagement, from B to C-plus.

And relevance, how often teachers drew a clear connection between students’ work and the outside world, that dropped from C to D.

KAREN RITTER: So, we’re looking for creativity.

JOHN TULENKO: But her take on school climate and the expectations, both remained high.

KAREN RITTER: Yes, we have some work to do. We have some things that we can fix. But it’s a great place. I think we provide a safe environment for kids. We have plenty of resources for them.

I think I will do some more shadow experiences with an ELL student, with a special-ed student, with an AP-level student, because I think they do have different experiences here.

That was fun. Do we have to do it again?

The point is to know what the students are thinking and wanting, and start with them.

JOHN TULENKO: In Franklin Park, Illinois, I’m John Tulenko of Education Week, reporting for the “PBS NewsHour.”

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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