'oscars of teaching'

Surprise! Aurora third-grade teacher named winner of $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Teacher Jennie Schmaltz surrounded by her students at Elkhart Elementary School. (Photo courtesy of Milken Family Foundation).

An Aurora third-grade teacher who splits her time between the classroom and coaching other teachers was surprised Wednesday with a prestigious education prize that carries a $25,000 no-strings-attached check.

Jennie Schmaltz of Elkhart Elementary School is being honored with a Milken Educator Award, given annually to educators throughout the country who not only have achievements on their resumes but have plenty left to give, according to organizers.

At a gym assembly Wednesday morning, Lowell Milken, co-founder and chairman of the family foundation that gives the award, asked students who helps them do their best every day. The first student to be called on didn’t hesitate. “Teachers,” he said.

“Good teachers really do make a difference,” Milken said, sharing a sentiment backed up by research.

Schmaltz is credited with helping improve teacher retention at Elkhart. She splits her time leading a class of 23 third-graders, with coaching other teachers.

According to the district and the Milken Family Foundation, 90 percent of staff at the school say they are “pleased with the professional development and instructional coaching” she leads. Both her students and the students of teachers she coaches have been showing at least 65 percent growth, “despite multiple challenges in the student body which included parent deaths, learning disabilities and a high percentage of English Language Learners.”

But “it’s not a lifetime achievement award,” Milken said. “We believe you have the potential to accomplish even greater things.”

After she was given a few minutes to process the news, Schmaltz thanked the rest of the staff at her school, and her students.

“You achieve great things when you surround yourself with greatness,” Schmaltz said. “I learn every day from you.”

According to state data, Elkhart Elementary, a school serving a declining enrollment of about 600 students where 93 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, has been improving. In the 2012-13 school year, the school moved up in ratings to the performance category. State officials and politicians congratulated the students Wednesday for the continuing improving achievement.

The Milken Educator Award is given to up to 35 educators across the country each year through a process that starts with recommendations from sources the foundation won’t identify. Names are then reviewed by committees appointed by state departments of education, and their recommendations are vetted by the Milken Family Foundation, which picks the winners.

Teachers cannot apply for the award, which has been dubbed the “Oscars of teaching” by Teacher magazine.

Even though her mom is also a teacher, Schmaltz did not grow up planning to become an educator.

She went to the University of Colorado at Boulder, started out in journalism school and ended up with a degree in psychology.

It was a few years later when she had a child that she decided to go back to school and become a teacher instead.

Now as she works in the city she grew up in, she says she found her calling. But she said hearing her name at the assembly Wednesday still caught her by surprise.

“I kept saying ‘Oh my God, oh my God,’ and then I finally was like, that’s me,” Shmaltz said. “That was about it. The rest is a blur.”

So what will she do with the money? A few of her third-graders told her they expected candy, cookies, pizza parties and the like after giving her their best and helping her win.

Shmaltz said she is torn between using the money for the school and her students, or using it to take a trip.

“I might go to Disneyland,” she told the students.

Milken told her she is free to use it on herself. He said the financial award is meant as a recognition that teachers often make financial sacrifices in becoming teachers.

When Shmaltz called her mom to tell her she won the award — still less than an hour after the news and in a room full of her students, officials and journalists — Schmaltz started crying as her mom told her she was proud.

Then her third graders rushed to hug her and nearly tackled her to the wall.

Newcomers

This mom came to the newcomer school ready to stand up for son. She left with a job.

PHOTO: Provided by Javier Barrera Cervantes
Charlotte Uwimbabazi is a bilingual assistant at the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program.

When Charlotte Uwimbabazi showed up at Indianapolis Public Schools’ program for new immigrants, she was ready to fight for her son. When she left that day, she had a job.

A native of the Congo, Uwimbabazi fled the war-torn country and spent nearly a decade in Cape Town, South Africa waiting for a new home. Last spring, Uwimbabazi and her four children came to the U.S. as refugees.

(Read: Teaching when students are full of fear: Inside Indiana’s first school for new immigrants)

When the family arrived in Indianapolis, Uwimbabazi’s youngest son Dave enrolled at Northwest High School. But he wasn’t happy, and a volunteer helping to resettle the family suggested he transfer to Crispus Attucks High School. When the school year started, though, Crispus Attucks turned him away. Staff there said he had been assigned to the newcomer program, a school for students who are new to the country and still learning English.

There was just one problem: Dave was fluent in English after growing up in South Africa. Uwimbabazi said it’s the only language he knows. So Uwimbabazi and her son Dave headed to the newcomer school to convince them he should attend Crispus Attucks.

That’s when Jessica Feeser, who oversees the newcomer school and programing for IPS students learning English, stepped in — and found a new resource for the district’s growing population of newcomer students.

Feeser immediately realized that Dave was fluent in English and should enroll in Crispus Attucks. Then, Uwimbabazi started talking with Feeser about her own experience. With a gift for languages, Uwimbabazi speaks six fluently, including Swahili and Kinyarwanda, languages spoken by many African students at the school.

“Where are you working right now?” Feeser asked. “Would you like a job here?”

Uwimbabazi, who had been packing mail, took a job as a bilingual assistant at the school. Her interaction with the district went from “negativity to positivity,” she said.

The newcomer program has seen dramatic growth in enrollment since it opened last fall, and it serves about three dozen refugee students. Students at the school speak at least 14 different languages. As the only staff member at the school who speaks Swahili and Kinyarwanda, Uwimbabazi is a lifeline for many of the African refugees it serves, Feeser said.

She works alongside teachers, going over material in languages that students speak fluently and helping them grasp everything from simple instructions to complex concepts like graphing linear equations, Feeser said. She also helps bridge the divide between the district and the Congolese community on Indianapolis’ westside, going on home visits to meet parents and helping convince families to enroll their children in school.

When students in the newcomer program don’t share a language with staff members, the school is still able to educate them, Feeser said. But it is hard to build community without that bridge. Uwimbabazi has played an essential role in helping the school build relationships with families.

“She believes that all of our families are important, and she’s working diligently to make sure that they feel that their voices are heard,” Feeser said. “It was a gift from God that she joined us.”

Trade offs

Indianapolis is experimenting with a new kind of teacher — and it’s transforming this school

PHOTO: Teachers and coaches meet at Indianapolis Public Schools Lew Wallace School 107.
Paige Sowders (left) is one of three multi-classroom leaders who are helping teachers at School 107.

Teachers at School 107 are up against a steep tower of challenges: test scores are chronically low, student turnover is high and more than a third of kids are still learning English.

All the school’s difficulties are compounded by the struggle to hire and retain experienced teachers, said principal Jeremy Baugh, who joined School 107 two years ago. At one of the most challenging schools in Indianapolis Public Schools, many of the educators are in their first year in the classroom.

“It’s a tough learning environment,” Baugh said. “We needed to find a way to support new teachers to be highly effective right away.”

This year, Baugh and the staff of School 107 are tackling those challenges with a new teacher leadership model designed to attract experienced educators and support those who are new to the classroom. School 107 is one of six district schools piloting the opportunity culture program, which allows principals to pay experienced teachers as much as $18,000 extra each year to support other classrooms. Next year, the program will expand to 10 more schools.

The push to create opportunities for teachers to take on leadership and earn more money without leaving the classroom is gaining momentum in Indiana — where the House budget includes $1.5 million for developing educator “career pathways” — and across the country in places from Denver to Washington. The IPS program is modeled on similar efforts in North Carolina led by the education consulting firm Public Impact.

At School 107, Baugh hired three new teachers, called multi-classroom leaders, who are responsible for the performance of several classes. Each class has a dedicated, full-time teacher. But the classroom leader is there to help them plan lessons, improve their teaching and look at data on where students are struggling. And unlike traditional coaches, they also spend time in the classroom, working directly with students.

As classroom leaders, they are directly responsible for the test scores of the students in their classes, said Jesse Pratt, who is overseeing opportunity culture for the district.

“They own that data,” Pratt said. “They are invested in those kids and making sure they are successful.”

At School 107, the program is part of a focus on using data to track student performance that Baugh began rolling out when he took over last school year. It’s already starting to bear fruit: Students still struggle on state tests, but they had so much individual improvement that the school’s letter grade from the state jumped from a D to a B last year.

Paige Sowders, who works with classes in grades 3 through 6, is one of the experienced teachers the program attracted to School 107. After 9 years in the classroom, she went back to school to earn an administrator’s license. But Sowders wasn’t quite ready to leave teaching for the principal’s office, she said. She was planning to continue teaching in Washington Township. Then, she learned about the classroom leader position at School 107, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to move up the ladder without moving out of the classroom.

“I wanted something in the middle before becoming an administrator,” she said. “I get to be a leader and work with teachers and with children.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The multi-classroom leaders meet regularly with teachers and district coaches to review data and plan lessons.

The new approaches to teacher leadership are part of a districtwide move to give principals more freedom to set priorities and choose how to spend funding. But those decisions aren’t always easy. Since schools don’t get extra funding to hire classroom leaders, Baugh had to find money in his existing budget. That meant cutting several vacant part-time positions, including a media specialist, a gym teacher and a music teacher.

It also meant slightly increasing class sizes. Initially, that seemed fine to Baugh, but then enrollment unexpectedly ballooned at the school — going from 368 students at the start of the year to 549 in February. With so many new students, class sizes started to go up, and the school had to hire several new teachers, Baugh said.

Some of those teachers were fresh out of college when they started in January, with little experience in such challenging schools. But because the school had classroom leaders, new teachers weren’t expected to lead classes without support. Instead, they are working with leaders like Sowders, who can take the time to mentor them throughout the year.

With teachers who are just out of school, Sowders spends a lot of time focusing on basics, she said. She went over what their days would be like and how to prepare. During the first week of the semester, she went into one of the new teacher’s classes to teach English every day so he could see the model lessons. And she is working with him on improving discipline in his class by setting expectations in the first hour of class.

Ultimately, Baugh thinks the tradeoffs the school made were worth it. The extra money helped them hold on to talented staff, and they have the bandwidth to train new teachers.

“If I’m a novice teacher just learning my craft, I can’t be expected to be a super star best teacher year one,” he said. “We learn our skill.”