Q&A with Valerie Hoekstra – Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of the interview with Ms. Valerie Hoekstra, Inwood Academy’s Middle School Director. See Part 1 here and read her bio here.

Q. Based on your five years of experience at Inwood Academy, are you making any major changes at the middle school?
We spent a lot of time focusing on academics and trying to make it rigorous, not necessarily test-focused and in the last year and a half we have figured out exactly what our students need academically and we know how to deliver rigor in an engaging way.

What we need to get back to a little bit is what we started with the first couple of years where our students see themselves as learners and understand that when they walk into the classroom they have a responsibility to bring something to the classroom as well. It’s not new, just that’s where our focus is going to be. We’re going to focus on that reluctant learner.

We’re going to focus on students seeing themselves as learners and then being able to use other students in the classroom as resources instead of obstacles, sometimes to their learning. Students will have a mental check list: I’m struggling on something and I’m going to use the strategy that I’ve learned to persevere a difficult problem. I may go ask one of the other students to see what they are doing to solve this type of problem, then go back and work on it again and finally see the teacher but to persevere through that learning.

We’re going to focus on that reluctant learner.

Q. And giving them the steps that they need to take to persevere?
No. There has to a recognition that I’m at a point where I’m about ready to give up. It’s being aware of how you are thinking, being aware of how you are feeling. Sometimes we don’t know when we are struggling. We don’t know why we are frustrated. You kind of mentally shut down. The first thing is to recognize that is happening. So, it’s not so much steps but a toolkit with steps of things that they can do in order to persevere as learners.

It’s part of our five character traits. The responsibility part of it, especially for learning. It’s students understanding that they bring something into the classroom every day and that’s different than walking into the classroom and thinking what’s the teacher going to tell me today, instead of what do I need to do to learn today. That, I think, is big.

This is teaching them to be students and really being participants in the classroom. Our teachers have been fabulous at building lessons and differentiating it for different students and making it engaging, and we will continue that. So that academic rigor will continue just as before, and teachers will continue to develop beautiful lessons, and we will get our students to walk into the door ready to receive it!

In order to help students to see themselves as learners and have the ability to persevere any kind of task, we are implementing a new advisory program. We will have small group advisory with one staff member and eight to ten students, three to four times per week for 25 minutes with lessons around our five character traits. That group, I envision, becomes the safe space for students, a cohesive group where students can rely on each other and talk to their advisor.

It’s students understanding that they bring something into the classroom every day and that’s different than walking into the classroom and thinking what’s the teacher going to tell me today, instead of what do I need to do to learn today. That, I think, is big.

Q. I heard you want to involve parents more in the school. Can you talk about that?
For the first time we have a full time parent coordinator, Nancy Betances. She has been with the school since the beginning and parents know and love her. In her new role, she is the liaison between the parents and the school, an advocate for parents, bringing what the school is doing to the parents, education, and setting up volunteer opportunities.

One of the things that a lot of parents have said they want to do is be in the classroom more and we want to have them in the classroom more. Our model for parent involvement will come from the staff council, to hear how they want to use parents in a classroom so we can set up something that is cohesive across the board. Nancy will work with the staff council to do that and work with the families to implement it.

Q. Are you doing anything differently than what you originally wrote in Inwood Academy’s charter application from 2009?
We figured out that Response to Intervention (RTI) we were using mainly at first for our special needs population actually works with everybody and that’s really the way it’s supposed to be. Because of the way our teachers evaluate who understood a lesson that day, it may not be the special education students who end up in the group that needs the extra help that day. It doesn’t really matter to us if they are the group that needs the help that day or not as long their understanding was accessed. On the other hand, a top student in the school typically might be in a group that needs the extra help that day, just for that one specific area. Because we have a lot of children that are English language learners and they may have no difficulty with math but when it comes to expressing themselves they may find themselves in a group that is getting the extra help even if they don’t have an IEP.

Q. You said using Response to Intervention is for all students and that’s the way it should be. Is that because of new teaching standards or a law that RTI is to be used for all students?
I think it’s the spirit of the law. So you have a tier, one group of full time special ed students, then a group in the middle who gets a certain amount of help, and then the biggest percentage of students are supposed to be those in general education who do not need services at all. It looks like each tier are completely separate. Yet, when you read about RTI if a learner is responding to something that you do you need to move them into a more independent work environment, and if they are not responding then you may need try something that gives them more support. The truth is that just doesn’t happen for special education students and it can’t possibly. So while you might just want to move that first tier of learners up and down you really have to move everybody and that’s what I think it (RTI) was really intended to be.

Traditional response to intervention pyramid

Traditional response to intervention pyramid

What’s going on at the moment is where we are going to catch them in learning.

It’s really looking at what students can do regardless of what we know about them from a test that they took because that doesn’t define what’s going on in the moment. What’s going on at the moment is where we are going to catch them in learning.

The more often we use growth data and targets for every child and we see individually what they are able to do, the better. Hopefully, it’s where education is going.

Q. Do you think charters do a better job of that?
That’s a good question. I think there’s more talk about it in the charter school world but there are a lot of progressive independent and traditional public schools who also have this model. A lot of schools are not going after the one size fits all, but in high performing schools it’s probably their model.

Q. What role does test data play at the middle school?
Oh boy (checks the time). Test data is really important. We use test data every day but our tests could be as easy as here’s your exit ticket, answer this question. An exit ticket will be one question on the lesson of the day, the objective of the day. Teachers use that to inform their instruction for the next day. We also have unit tests designed by teachers to see if their students get the content, did they understand what was going on, and how well are they writing and are they improving in their writing and those kinds of things. We use this data every day.

We have the state test scores which are helpful to see how we are doing as teachers moving students along but that’s more of a benchmark for them. Because we don’t get back (the results) for quite a while for individual student results and we don’t get every question anyway we don’t have timely or as clear data that we would like to have from the state tests. They, obviously, can’t give out all of the test data because that would invalidate the test.

Then we have NWEA which our students take three times a year. It’s a national standard for measuring real growth and we’ve used it since the beginning. We can see where a child started with us and it doesn’t matter how low they are. For the students who start with us in our fifth grade and they’re at first grade reading, we know the state test is too difficult for them and they won’t pass it, but with the NWEA data we can see growth against the targets we set for them. We can’t do that with the state test data.

NWEA- Student Proficiency

Q. What does an ideal classroom look like to you?
There really isn’t an ideal classroom. There are ideal teachers. There are teachers whose personality come through in a classroom and that to me is ideal. I also think an ideal classroom is when teachers use their personalities—that could be somebody who is really kind of boring to someone who is really exciting or really intense—but every student is involved and sees themselves as a learner in that class and knows that if they are not doing their part the class suffers, and the student doesn’t want that to happen.

Q&A with new Middle School Director – Part 1

Valerie Hoekstra has led the school’s special education and academic intervention services since Inwood Academy launched in 2010 and was named its Middle School Director in June 2015. She was one of the authors for the original Charter School Application in 2009, outlining how the school would serve students with special needs. For the past five years, students and teachers have relied on Valerie for her expertise and compassion for the faculty and students. While our teachers and students know her well, we thought a Q & A session with Ms. Hoekstra might help our families and supporters get to know her a little better. Her bio can be found on our Leadership page.

Q. What inspired you to become an educator?

I loved school growing up and loved learning. When I got to college and thought, well, if I go into business or medicine or law I won’t be in a classroom as much anymore so I took a couple of classes in the education department just to see if I was interested. I took a class called How Children Learn and became fascinated with the process of how kids take in information, what they do with it and how their minds work, and the cognitive science of it.

Q. Were you a good student?

I was a good student, yes. Middle school was not my shining moment, but by the time I was in high school I was a very serious student. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to middle school students.

Q. What excites you most about Inwood Academy’s mission?

There are things about us academically that are very similar to other schools. Of course, everybody wants students that are college ready and I see that pushed a lot in schools but I was also just reading today how new research shows students that are over achieving are not able to focus on their character or who they even want to be or what they want to do. They are told to give back to their community and have many community service hours but don’t see themselves necessarily as members of their community. When I think about Inwood Academy, I think about the whole child, which is my view of education. You really can’t educate just the brain of the child, you have to educate all parts of them and I feel that our mission captures all of that.

Q. So it’s also focusing on the emotional and social aspects of a child?

Yes and community, too. A lot of our kids will stay in this community or another urban environment. Many of our teachers and our aspiring teachers started out here, went away to school, and came back. Even if our students go into other communities they need to know how to be responsible for their part and to be responsible for the people around them. A lot of our students will stay in this community because of their strong family ties and love of the city. There is a different community feel up here (Inwood) than there is in different parts of the city and they naturally are drawn toward this because of its warmth.

Q. What was your contribution to Inwood Academy’s original Charter School Application?

When Christina (Reyes) was writing the charter one of the things that she wanted some help with was thinking about special populations. What is our philosophy of students with special needs? How do we set it up? What does our Response to Intervention look like? In other words, when you try something with a student, how do we know it’s working, what do we do once we see that it is or is not working, and what is the next step, or how do we know when to pull back on services if they are not needed? Then it was how do we set up accountability with the Department of Education. What do we do with students who come in where we identify that they actually need an IEP (Individualized Education Plan from the Committee on Special Education) and what would be our process? For me it was really wonderful because I got to say, well, here is what the law says we have to do and here is the way I think it should look. I believe that all students have the ability to learn and we can’t just say that because the student has an IEP that is written this way that we have to keep them separate. And so we really worked on finding what the least restrictive environment is for a student and then when can we move them along to a different setting or to a less restrictive environment, even still.

Q. How will your experience as a special education specialist influence your decision making going forward as Inwood Academy’s new Middle School Director?

I can’t decide if it’s the special education specialist or if it’s just the mother in me, but I really like to take away as much chance for issues to happen as possible. In my experience with special education students, clear structure and understanding what’s expected of them is when they feel safe and that’s when they will respond in a really positive way. But I felt the same way about my own children.

Our goal is for 100% of our students to be engaged in the work of a reader, the work of a mathematician.

We want to look at the reluctant learner this year and that probably comes out of my special education background. Our goal is for 100% of our students to be engaged in the work of a reader, the work of a mathematician. In math we are focusing on persistence and working through difficult problems and both of those are special populations’ struggles.

Q. What are your thoughts on in-classroom teaching vs pull-out push-in model?

We do both. I think it’s kind of a continuum and it’s on an as needed basis. Most of our teachers teach in a way that in one class period they are going to see the work of every student. They have set up stations where they are at one station and the students rotate through or the teacher rotates around and sees what’s going on. Because we also collect a lot of data, and daily data, we know whose struggling on whatever so that might mean that they need to be pulled out for a time or they need just a quick fix on something.

There are students who need to be pulled out and we have pull out for those needs. It’s students who are especially distracted or English language learners who just need a lot of extra vocabulary or need more background knowledge so when the content is really important to be delivered that way we will do it. Most of the time our model is to deliver it in the classroom as often as possible and that’s what kids prefer.

A big challenge is, honestly, funding.

Q. Based on your experience teaching in different school settings, what do you think is the biggest challenge for us as a charter school?

It’s not what most people think it is. I think most people would say that its students come from a background where they don’t have background knowledge, they don’t have the language skills. I don’t think that’s it. Sure, these are many of our kids and we have found ways to come along side children and celebrate their amazing strengths.

A big challenge is, honestly, funding. We are not funded the same way traditional public schools are, but we have the same requirements in terms of building and teachers and meeting the special needs of our students. We have a lot of things that we would like to do and we are restricted by budget.

We take in everybody and we try, especially with students with special needs, to meet them where they are even though they may be four or five years behind.

As the charter management organizations in the city grow, it’s harder for philanthropists and private foundations to find us and to see who we are and what we do and how we are different from the big charter organizations. Our philosophy is different. We take in everybody and we try, especially with students with special needs, to meet them where they are even though they may be four or five years behind. We’ve built services like our Orton-Gillingham reading program specifically for students that are that far behind, where other charter schools may not always do that. We also have an extra teacher that just does that because we think it is important. And this requires funding. That to me is the biggest problem.

The students that we serve and the enthusiasm from the parents and what is the potential in this neighborhood I think is really exciting. I just feel like we need to keep searching until we find more strategic partners. I don’t think that it’s going to be the same ones who fund charter management organization because if they are supporting an organization like that they already have a bigness in mind and they have a philosophy in mind.

Q. Tell us something about yourself that might surprise us.

I read everything from books about economics and science to books about World War II and the Civil War, and a lot of non-fiction. I also love to read fiction; I read science fiction and once in a while I’ll read a suspense novel, but mainly I just read kind of anything. Books about nothing are my favorite.

Q. And your family?

I have four kids. Our oldest is blind which was something that made me understand the IEP process from the parent perspective and taught me a lot of what to do and what not to do. How the system worked from the parent end. Sometimes I’m conflicted in my role at Inwood when I’m sitting in an IEP meeting (with the CSE) from being the teacher or wanting to be the parent advocate. I think we can really play both because as teachers we do have to be both.

What is “teaching to the test” and is it bad?

Years ago in a professional setting, a respected educator asked a group of teachers a simple question: “What do you teach?”  The group of skeptical middle school educators answered with different responses that varied from subjects to grades.  At the end of the process, the facilitator reminded us that none of the things we mentioned, science or seventh grade, were important and that everyone in the room actually taught children.  “Teaching to the test” is a statement that has many flaws, the largest being that the phrase itself de-emphasizes the most important part of education: students.

The statement “teaching to the test” is assuming that these (or any) tests are not an accurate judge of what a student knows or is able to do. Many of these statements are made by those who have not seen the tests in their entirety since the vast majority of questions from these secured materials have not been released since the implementation of the new testing system in New York State.  The tests are difficult, but in my opinion that has to do more with the length of examinations and less with the content.  The tests are an excellent judge of critical thinking skills and the only objection I would have is the idea that this type of thinking has a time limit.  With minor changes to the timing of exams, I find it hard to argue that the tests are not an accurate assessment of where our students should be.

As a parent, I want my child to be able to engage with Dahl, Alcott, London, and Verne during their years in school and the tests have asked them to do so.  Early in my career, students were reading an incredible amount of poorly written “test stories.,”  These stories, mass-produced along with several questions, were similar to seeing a script for a movie with twelve writers.  The style and craft that we emphasize was gone and often contained questions that could be answered correctly without comprehending the gist of each text.  It would be hard to argue, as a parent, that the need for excerpts from established authors is a bad thing for students.

The biggest misconception in my mind is that teaching to the test is a new phenomenon.  Since the inception of the high-stakes assessment, schools have been trying to prepare students for the exam.  One of my first experiences as a young teacher was sitting in a staff meeting discussing the different test preparation strategies to use from September  onward so that students would be prepared.  Teaching is a difficult job and creating lesson plans is the most difficult part.  Beginning your unit with the idea of what an assessment looks like is considered distinguished planning on each of the many accepted teacher evaluation rubrics.  Inside the education community, and more specifically at Inwood Academy, teachers are celebrated when they have planned backwards from any assessment, including those created collaboratively or adapted from the state.  The assumption that preparing for the test is limiting creativity is fiction; the problem is the new testing is harder to prepare for and the techniques developed to beat the old testing system are no longer applicable.

One of the reasons for celebrating the charter movement is the decision to provide freedom to educators and school administration to plan within the testing system of state exams.  At IAL, the state testing questions are often the floor and not the ceiling for our planning.  Teachers consistently deliver lessons that challenge students to think, understand, justify, and struggle.  Data from larger assessments are used as a teaching tool and not a punishment.  Oftentimes, teachers desire the comfort of knowing how their students are being assessed before planning a rigorous lesson.  The demands of the Common Core and the New York State Tests do not limit creativity, they increase accountability.  Accountability and creativity are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, the most creative teachers thrive in the world of accountability because they have a clear structure.

We live in an age where information is shared faster than ever before.  As a principal, I speak with students everyday about sharing their every feeling on Facebook, Instagram, or any other internet-based outlet.  My caution to them is that oftentimes one comment can incite the actions and opinions of others by providing limited or incomplete information.  I wish adults would be mindful of the same issues caused with their use of social media.

My wife shares posts with me on a daily basis about my profession and it saddens me.  As educators, we are letting the conversation of lesson craft become public without properly informing those partaking in the discussion.  Teaching is the hardest job in the world.  To plan, deliver, and assess a lesson to a group of children at any level is extremely difficult and the amount of effort, skill, compassion, and grit it takes to do it well once is extraordinary, let alone the four or five times my teachers are asked to do it each day.  My fear is that we lose sight of the students in this process.

Whether the end goal is the tests, Common Core standards, older state standards, or the table of contents in an old textbook, I wish the conversation would migrate from how impossible it is to teach to something more productive, like the stories of successful teachers within the system.  Many people are generating interest, building critical thinking skills, and preparing for the test every single day in New York State. Let’s share their successes as often as the failures of systems to adapt.  That way we can reassure those working within the systems of accountability that it can be done well.

This is not simply something I believe in theory. This is something I watch in practice everyday at Inwood Academy.

By Ryan McCabe, Middle School Principal