Healthy Schools

Academy 360 aims to change the conversation

It was 7:45 a.m. on a cloudy Monday morning. About 100 children hopped up and down on the cracked asphalt outside their school, pretending to dribble basketballs, toss baseballs and jump rope.

Students at Academy 360 participate in morning movement.

Following the lead of Health and Wellness Coordinator Becky McLean, the children shouted, “I am smart! I am kind! I am a scholar!”

This is how each day starts at Academy 360, a new health and wellness charter school in the Montbello neighborhood in Far Northeast Denver. The 15-minute morning movement session is one small part of the school’s ambitious plan to bolster academics by promoting students’ physical, mental and emotional well-being.

Students, about 95 percent of whom come from low-income families, also get free breakfast and lunch in their classrooms and 45 minutes of physical education and 15 minutes of “guided” recess every day. Sugary drinks and flavored milks are not permitted, and unhealthy snacks like potato chips will likely prompt a note home with suggestions for healthier alternatives. Woven throughout the school day are formal and informal lessons on social-emotional skills such as compassion, tenacity and responsibility.

There is plenty more in the works. Although the school is currently located in leased church space, the long-term plan calls for a facility with a school-based health clinic. There are also plans for parent programs such as weekly exercise classes and talks on topics such as buying healthy food on a budget. Finally, the school, which currently serves kindergartners through second-grade, plans to add a grade on each end every year until it eventually offers preschool through fifth grade with additional programming for younger children as well as prenatal programs for parents.

Ultimately, school leaders and board members hope Academy 360 will help change the conversation around education, showing that healthy students and families are cornerstones of academic success, not optional add-ons.

“If we do this well, it does have the opportunity to be a new model of what education can look like,” said board member Dan Schaller, director of outreach and operations at the Denver Preschool Program.

In the classroom

The school’s focus on character education is obvious in the classrooms, with teachers discussing such attributes as graciousness or responsibility during lessons and walls and whiteboard adorned with aspirations such as, “I can be a model of tenacity.” Sally Sorte, the school’s founder and executive director, explained that these social-emotional themes are embedded deeply in expeditionary learning model used at the school and that teachers try to break it down into a discrete set of skills for students.

When two kindergartners had a tiff in Teacher Abbie Mood’s classroom, Sean Udell, the school’s special education and Response to Intervention coordinator, sat with the boy and girl at the “peace table” near the door and coached them through the conflict using a restorative justice approach.

A poster in a second grade classroom illustrates some of Academy 360’s values.

“It sounds like you both were hurt,” he said to the pair. “Instead of hitting her back, what could you have said to her?” he asked the boy.

Across the hall, second-grade teacher Dorothy Shapland, who is also the school’s director of curriculum and instruction, read the book “Children Make Terrible Pets” to her students. In between making the children giggle with her animated story-telling, she helped the children identify the characters’ feelings, and used the story to illustrate the meaning of compassion.

“She’s showing compassion,” Shapland said of the main character Lucy, a bear who adopts a little boy and then allows him to go home to his family. “She thinks about how someone else is feeling and then she acts on that feeling.”

A neighborhood in need of help

Across Scranton Street from Academy 360 is Amesse Elementary, a traditional public school that serves as a reminder to its new neighbor of the challenges that lay ahead. Like Academy 360, it serves a large majority of low-income and students of color. In the last few years, it has also gradually slipped to the lowest “red” ranking in the district’s five-tier performance framework.

“Sadly, they are one of Montbello’s many failing schools,” said McLean.

That’s in large part why Academy 360 serves Montbello as well neighboring Green Valley Ranch. Its leaders not only wanted to give parents a new school choice, but one cut from different cloth than the typical offerings.

“The mission was very attractive to parents,” said Board President Leslie Bayliff.

Funders found it appealing as well. Several have contributed financially to Academy 360, providing start-up grants or money for specific projects or staff members. They include the Colorado Health Foundation, the Gates Family Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Colorado League of Charter Schools and the Colorado Department of Education.

While Academy 360 may enjoy a brief honeymoon as it puts down roots this year and perhaps next, everybody wants to know if it can outshine nearby district schools.

Kindergarteners at Academy 360 have cereal, milk, apple slices and sunflower seed butter for breakfast in their classroom.

 

Sorte is quick to say, “Number one, we’re a rigorous academic school.”

The charter’s expeditionary learning model emphasizes interdisciplinary project-based learning designed to tap kids’ interests. The school supplements its math and literacy curriculum with programs such as Singapore Math and the “Lucy Calkin” workshop approach to teaching writing. Finally, at 8.5 hours, the school day is longer than most.

While Academy 360 tapped various sources for its curriculum and programming, Namaste Charter School, a health and wellness school in Chicago, may figure in most prominently. Sorte believes the nine-year-old school provides solid evidence that Academy 360’s model can work.

“They’ve done a good job in showing how health and wellness can lead to greater academic outcomes.”

Last year, Namaste earned the middle ranking, “good standing” on Chicago Public Schools’ three-level performance rating system. In 2012, 87 percent of its students met or exceeded standards on state tests, beating the district average by more than 10 percentage points. Of Namaste’s 482 students last year, 85 percent were low-income and 26 percent were “Limited English Learners.”

The journey

Academy 360 was just a concept two years ago when Sorte, who was 25 at the time, applied for a fellowship to design a health and wellness charter school. The fellowship was funded by the Colorado Health Foundation and offered through Get Smart Schools, a Denver non-profit dedicated to expanding the number of charter schools and other autonomous schools.

Sally Sorte, Academy 360’s founder and executive director, talks with students after morning movement.

Sorte, who taught high school in Hawaii through Teach For America and worked at Google before coming to Denver, describes the school-planning process as “long and grueling.”

Tasks included recruiting board members, filling out the lengthy charter application, passing out brochures at grocery stores and knocking on doors to meet prospective families. In addition to doing a month-long residency at Namaste Charter School, she visited the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City and The Odyssey School, an expeditionary learning charter school in Denver.

Sorte said at times she felt her age and gender prompted some push-back from the Denver Public Schools board, but she considered it “an opportunity to show it’s not just about the individual, it’s about the team they create.”

Part of that team is her 11-member staff, which went on an overnight camping retreat over the summer. All appear energetic and committed to the mission of educating students’ minds, bodies and characters. Take Udell, who used to teach special education at STRIVE Prep’s Highland Campus. He ran into Sorte, whom he’d met once previously, at a social gathering last June. She updated him on Academy 360’s progress.

We talked for about three hours and at the end of that conversation I was totally inspired by the vision and so impressed by how much was in line and how much she had reached out to the community… I didn’t want to miss out being a part of it so I sent her my resume from the bar,” he said with a laugh.

Mclean, who worked for the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition in 2011, is similarly passionate about her role as the school’s point person for health and wellness. In such, she not only collects health data from families and plans parent wellness activities, she has one-on-one conversations with students about how they feel when they eat too many sugary treats or with parents concerned about children exercising outside in cold weather.

While McLean has many plans to promote and publicize wellness efforts at Academy 360, one of her most ambitious is to have Michelle Obama visit the school. McLean envisions the First Lady eating at the salad bar with students and taking part in a school movement session.

“I think I’m just going to have to pitch the White House a bunch of times, prove that what we’re doing is working,” she said.

Detroit Journalism Cooperative

Restrictions on teacher pay in Detroit schools can scare away applicants — and make it hard to fill 260 classroom positions

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Kindergarten teacher Stefanie Kovaleski of Bethune Elementary-Middle School is one of many teachers who could take a major pay cut when her school returns next year to Detroit Public Schools Community District if she doesn't get credit for her years of experience.

This story is published in partnership with Bridge Magazine, part of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.  

In Detroit, as many as 260 classroom teacher positions are unfilled in the state’s largest district, prompting a shortage so severe that substitutes last year were the full-time solution in more than 100 classrooms.

And with fewer new teachers are graduating from college every year, pressure is mounting to find qualified teachers. The situation has left teachers working harder in overcrowded classrooms for underwhelming pay –  they’ve seen their pay frozen and cut repeatedly in a district that’s beset with problems both financial and academic.

Yet in the face of a supply and demand problem, the Detroit teachers, like their peers in numerous Michigan school districts, have bargained for contracts that severely restrict the pay of the folks who could help alleviate the shortage.

In Detroit, Dearborn and Roseville, new teachers can only get credit for two years’ experience they accrued working in other school districts. In Grand Rapids it’s five years, in Lansing it’s eight.

It’s difficult to gauge whether the restrictions affect teacher recruitment because they may scare away potential applicants. But for those who are considering a move, the impact is huge.

Say you’re a teacher with 10 years’ experience at Utica schools, which had layoffs last year. To work in Detroit, you’d have to accept nearly $36,000 less, going from more than $78,500 to just under $43,000 because eight years’ of experience wouldn’t count.

Detroit already pays less, with teachers topping out at $65,265 after 10 years, compared with well over $78,000 in most districts. But the restriction put in place by the teachers –  and agreed upon by the administration –  makes that cut even more steep.

Union rules

In a number of Michigan school districts, teachers have negotiated to limit the pay of new hires, ensuring they cannot get full credit for prior teaching experience. In other districts, those decisions are left to the administration. In most cases “max pay” refers to salaries of teachers with master’s degree plus 30 additional hours of graduate education who have the maximum number of years of experience. Below are the 25 largest districts in the state. The restrictions were more common among the 21 districts that surround Detroit, with more than half calling for limits on credit for teaching experience.

District Maximum years of credit Years to top of scale Max pay
Detroit 2* 10 $65,965
Utica full 11 $89,563
Dearborn 2* 18 $82,006
Plymouth-Canton 5* 14 $81,049
Ann Arbor full 11 $80,769
Chippewa Valley full 12 $89,443
Grand Rapids 5* 12 $68,042
Rochester full 20 $86,420
Warren Consolidated full 12 $94,700
Walled Lake full 15 $90,362
Livonia 7 12 $84,595
Troy full 14 $92,400
Kalamazoo full 25 $76,881
Wayne-Westland 3* 14 $76,839
Lansing 8 22 $76,850
L’Anse Creuse full 16 $84,386
Farmington 4* 11 $86,830
Forest Hills full 28 $84,590
Traverse City full 20 $74,819
Waterford 8 15 $78,351
Huron Valley 5* 17 $75,915
Port Huron full 13 $69,831
Kentwood full 26 $80,403
Portage full 30 $88,808
Grand Blanc full 12 $73,588

*In some cases, the union contracts allow districts to acknowledge additional years of experience.

Source: Collective bargaining agreements

There’s little wiggle room because the collectively bargained contracts set salaries exclusively by experience and education. Critics say the restrictions put teachers’ interests ahead of students.

“School districts that want to attract the best teachers… for their students would not want these kinds of policies,” said Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center, a free-market think tank based in Midland. It has been frequent critics of teachers’ unions.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the language has been in the contract for years and acknowledges those teachers who’ve suffered through years of pay cuts and freezes.

“You have teachers who stayed here and endured it all,” she said. “They care about the children and they’ve stuck it out.”

Bailey said the contract allows the district more latitude when trying to hire teachers in critical areas such as special education. Those specialty areas can salary credit for up to eight years’ experience.

But if it’s not in a critical area, no dice. And that’s been a problem for principals wanting to fill vacancies such as Jeffrey Robinson, principal at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit’s west side.

“On three separate occasions, we got people who got past the onboarding process, right to the point where they were ready to sign the contract. Then they took a better offer because the salaries are just not competitive,” Robinson told Detroit Journalism Cooperative reporting partner Chalkbeat Detroit recently.

Despite the obstacles in pay and a push by officials some to consider uncertified teachers, district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said the district “is committed to hiring certified teachers.”

Detroit is not the only district with restrictions. They are found in union contracts at districts large and small, wealthy and poor, urban and suburban and are the result of the anger stemming from pay cuts and freezes that have taken a huge chunk out of the earning power of teachers who have worked for years in troubled districts.

Not found everywhere

Bailey said it’s common for teachers who change districts to get less than full credit for their experience.

“We can’t do it when we go to another district, either,” she said. “Nobody’s going to give you all of your time.”

But a survey of teacher contracts from more than 40 districts around the state show that many allow district administrators to grant full credit.

In  Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Ferndale, Warren Fitzgerald, Warren Van Dyke, South Redford, Utica and others, a teacher could jump to the top of the scale without the teachers union contract prohibiting it.

In the Grosse Pointe schools, which pays among the best in the state, new teachers can be hired at the 13th of a 14-step salary schedule.

Yet in other places, teachers have put the brakes on salaries. Those that have are communities suburban and urban, wealthy and poor. In Oak Park, just north of Detroit, the teachers’ contract has a provision that says all new hires should be hired at beginners’ wages.

Hiring at higher levels “puts financial pressure on the district and creates an environment which disenfranchises staff currently restricted by contractual step freezes,” according to the contract.

The Walled Lake schools in Oakland County, the 10th largest district in the state, had restrictions in prior contracts. But the union agreed to take them out a few years ago even though they continue to encourage the district to hire teachers at as low a step as possible.

Still, the union recognized the need to give the district more flexibility.

“It makes it really hard to have one blanket policy for every opening,” said Daryl Szmanski, president of the teachers’ union in Walled Lake. “As a teacher shortage looms, it’s going to be harder and harder to get good candidates.”

To be sure, restrictions on teacher pay for outsiders is hardly the only factor in teacher shortages in parts of the state. It’s difficult to say if it’s even a major factor. Stagnant state funding for education, a steep drop in enrollment in teacher preparation programs, and sometimes harsh public and political rhetoric directed toward public education almost certainly also play a role in the shortage. So too, there are far fewer substitute teachers available to fill in when permanent teachers are absent.

But for unions, the teacher shortage presents two bad choices: Be unhappy about crowded classrooms or be unhappy that new teachers make more money.

For the Mackinac Center’s DeGrow, the decision should be easy: Door No. 2.

“This kind of policy is just an obstacle for getting the best talent in the classroom,” DeGrow said. “The kids (in Detroit) are already as a disadvantage. Why would we want to make it harder to bring qualified teachers in?”

Need ‘best teachers’

Brad Banasik, director of labor relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said he’s not heard complaints about the contracts, but noted that he thinks “administrators would like the ability to hire some on the higher step (pay level).”

Some unions agree. Doug Hill is a veteran teacher who’s now president of the Rochester teachers’ union in Oakland County and he said he’s aware of the painful cuts at other districts.

Hill’s union decided in a recent negotiation to remove a restriction on pay for counselors who held teaching certificates. The district had seen positions go unfilled but now can hire teachers in at whatever level experience they want.

“I can see both sides of this,” Hill said, but added “we’re trying to get the best teachers to put in front of students.”

Union officials say they asked for –  and got –  the restrictions because they say without it their veteran teachers would be demoralized by having new hires, who had not endured the same pay cuts and freezes, make more money doing the same work.

It would be hard to determine how often these provisions have hurt districts like Detroit and Dearborn. If  teachers know they’d have to take a $20,000 or $30,000 pay cut, would they even apply? And they’d likely know: All Michigan districts are required to post their teacher contracts online; Bridge did its survey using this easily-to-access information.

“I think they’re very aware of what’s out there,” Rochester’s Hill said.

For Detroit and other districts, that may be a problem.

This story originally ran in Bridge Magazine on June 15, 2017.

To focus on community life and the city’s future after bankruptcy, five nonprofit media outlets have formed the Detroit Journalism Cooperative (DJC).

The Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine is the convening partner for the group, which includes Detroit Public Television (DPTV), Michigan Radio, WDET, Chalkbeat, and New Michigan Media, a partnership of ethnic and minority newspapers.

Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation, the DJC partners are reporting about and creating community engagement opportunities relevant to the city’s bankruptcy, recovery and restructuring.

First Person

I had an anxiety attack in school, and a social worker saved me. What about the students without one?

My first anxiety attack was in a school hallway. Nestled between a doorway and a red bulletin board of exemplary student work, I collapsed. My sight became hazy. My breath became nonexistent. My limbs became numb. Tears stained my cheeks. My heart beat like a broken machine.

I raised my head up to see a teacher closing the door and pulling the blinds, isolating me from the eyes of curious students. I felt like I was merely a nuisance interrupting her lesson.

“Zubaida! Zubaida!” I turned my head to see the school social worker, Ms. McNeil, running down the hall. She sat next to me, held my hand, and slowed my breathing down. I had never talked to the social worker before. However, after my first anxiety attack, she became an important part of my life.

Sadly, I am not the only student of color who suffers from anxiety or other related mental issues. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, around 41 percent of college students struggle with anxiety. Furthermore, 25 percent of adolescents will struggle with some form of anxiety and 12.5 percent struggle with depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

We also know that not everyone has the courage to reveal their mental issues. Who knows how many students struggle with mental issues and aren’t able to seek help?

The most distressing part is the response to students of color with emotional issues. It is no secret that communities of color can have a certain stigma towards mental illnesses. Sometimes, parents actively refuse to seek help or ignore the signs of mental illness.

national survey in 2015 revealed that Hispanic and black students who have felt overwhelmed are more likely than white students to keep their concerns to themselves. White students were more likely to feel academically and emotionally prepared for college. White students were also twice as likely to get treated for emotional distress. Why?

Meanwhile, many New York City students don’t have access to a social worker or counselor. In fact, there were only 2,902 guidance counselors and 1,275 social workers in New York City this school year. That’s a ratio of one counselor or social worker for every 241 students.

Without professional help, many students turn to substance abuse to cope with their mental illness. Other students continue to accumulate stress from academics and family issues. If parents and teachers want to help their minority students to succeed, they need to invest in mental support.

This isn’t to say we’ve been neglected completely. Counselors in the Bronx have worked on initiatives this past year to help students reach their potential, prepping them for life after high school, and school-based health centers have opened to provide mental health support. Like all things, however, there is always more work to be done.

The stigma surrounding mental illness and mental illness patients in communities of color is certainly unfair and detrimental to our health. However, the fact that this stigma is affecting the success of students of color is even more enraging. We deserve better. Administrators, politicians, and educators must realize the importance of having even more social workers and guidance counselors.

Right now, somewhere in the Bronx, there is a young girl like me, having her first anxiety attack. Her fingers are numb. Her sight is hazy. Her heart is beating like a drum as she watches somebody close the door in her face. She can’t move, a mere witness to her breakdown. But there is no Ms. McNeil who can save her.

Zubaida Bello is a junior at Uncommon Preparatory Charter High School in Brooklyn. She has performed original poetry at the Apollo and New York Live Arts and has been honored by the Black Lives Matter club at her school. In her free time, she enjoys reading and skateboarding.