Alexander Russo Interviews Cami Anderson
Reinventing NYC's alternative ed program.
Don't be fooled by her cute name: Cami Anderson is fast-talking and straight-shooting. Maybe that's because she works in the NYC schools, or perhaps it's due to the tough job she took on five years ago: revamping the city's notoriously chaotic set of alternative ed programs, including GED, Career and Technology Education, services for students, parents, and schools in involuntary settings (drug treatment, juvenile detention)—and the district's Adult and Continuing Ed services. Anderson has done stints with Teach For America and New Leaders for New Schools. She's clearly up to the task, though it involves ruffling feathers along the way.
Q What is District 79?
A The district is a unique network of over 300 alternative schools and programs that spans all five boroughs (and Rikers Island). The rest of the city's districts were numbered in order, 1-39, by geography. No one seems to know why we're number 79.
Q What would your ideal alternative education program look like?
A It would include incredible teaching that skillfully marries high-level analysis and thinking with accelerated learning on the basics, purposeful, rigorous, and high-quality "life coaching" around social and emotional skills—from time management to conflict resolution—and high levels of student ownership, engagement, and empowerment (with support, of course) so students assume full ownership over their learning and their lives.
Q How do you measure success, or effectiveness?
A We look at student engagement measured by student attendance, how long a student "persists" in our programs, and student surveys. These are particularly critical in involuntary programs. Then we look at student gains. Are students progressing toward reading, writing, thinking, speaking, and doing math at grade level, and how quickly? This is tricky to measure well. Lastly, we look at outcomes. What's the average passing score on the GED? After leaving Rikers, how many students return, stay, and graduate from high school? Early indications are that we're making progress on all three with miles to go.
Q "Credit recovery"—is it scam or savior?
A We need new and innovative ways to dramatically accelerate credits and skills. If those happen concurrently, it is a good thing. Progress shouldn't be measured by how many hours students sit in front of a computer—or in a classroom, for that matter. However, I would caution against anything that seems "too good to be true."
Q Who do you relate to more—Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, Joel Klein, or Diane Ravitch—and why?
A Michelle is fearless and incredible at creating a sense of urgency about the status quo. Wendy is one of the most focused, organized, and driven people I know—she gets more done in a day than most people do in a week. Joel is a brilliant strategist willing to question all sacred cows to better serve kids. I don't know Ravitch (and don't agree with her on many points), but totally get her passion about the need to create more comprehensive ways of measuring student progress and her dedication to underserved students.
Q What is "blended learning" and why should administrators care about it?
A Students should have high-quality, teacher-led instruction and the opportunity to apply, practice, and learn new content on a computer. It's the 21st century. We have to use every tool we have to motivate students and accelerate their learning (and many of them love computers).
Q What do you wish someone had told you about working with incarcerated, overage, or teen-parent students?
A I have worked with the population of students D79 serves for over 25 years (yes, I started young) so there's little I didn't know-both the challenges and possibilities. Their stories of resilience and ability to "stay at it" in the face of unthinkable obstacles propels me to do more to match my students' commitment every day.