Funding & Finance

IPS pilot offers cash to keep great teachers in the classroom while they train peers

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

After three years as a teacher, Britney Yount realized that if she wanted a leadership role in education, she would have to leave the classroom.

So Yount took a job as an instructional coach for Teach for America, and now she spends her days training other teachers. But she’d like to be teaching kids, too.

“Every time I go in a classroom and I see kids with their teacher and they’re not my kids, I really, really miss that,” she said. “But I really want to use the skills I’ve learned in the last couple of years.”

It’s a common problem in education: in order for less experienced teachers to benefit from the knowledge of their peers, educators who use their expertise to offer training or support often have to give up teaching. That means kids are missing out on learning from some of the very best teachers.

A new program in Indianapolis Public Schools aims to change that equation by giving educators the chance to be professional leaders and mentors without leaving the classroom. The program will offer a small group of teachers with records of success extra pay to lead other teachers or teach more students.

The district is offering big money for the teachers it selects. They can make as much as $18,300 in extra pay, depending on how many extra duties they take on. All the teachers in the program will make at least $6,800 in extra pay.

Yount, who was at an informational meeting on the new program last week, was enthusiastic.

“I’m here to figure out a way to be in a classroom and have a community of kiddos that are mine, but also increase my leadership skills,” she said.

The “opportunity culture” initiative, which is modeled on a program developed in North Carolina, will pilot at six IPS schools beginning next fall. Each school is structuring its new leadership roles differently, but they fall into two categories — positions where teachers will educate more students than usual and positions where they will lead and coach other teachers in their school.

The goal is for excellent teachers to have an even greater effect on their schools, said Mindy Schlegel, the district’s talent officer.

“The thing that’s typically been done in education is that we pull our best people out to be coaches,” she said. “They’re no longer in front of kids or accountable for student outcomes.”

Struggling schools lead the charge

The six schools trying out the program are facing big challenges. They all struggle with low student test scores, and they are all part of “transformation zones,” an IPS turnaround effort that launched this year.

Those schools are a good fit for the program precisely because they need to attract and retain talented teachers, and they need strong teacher leadership, Schlegel said.

“We need something different,” said Crishell Sam, principal of School 48, a transformation zone school that will be in the pilot group. “We need something new because you can’t keep operating and doing the same thing in order to get different results.”

The other schools that will pilot opportunity culture include three elementary schools and two secondary schools: School 107, School 63, School 49, Northwest High School and George Washington High School.

Some of the schools will hire teachers to lead teams of other educators, taking on responsibilities like lesson planning and coaching. But they will still rotate into the classroom, working directly with students. Other schools will use strategies like team teaching and blended learning to help excellent teachers reach more students.

If the pilot program is successful, the district plans to slowly roll it out to more schools, Schlegel said.

School 48 is starting small with just one teacher in the program. In order to help third-grade students improve their reading, Sam plans to hire a teacher who will be dedicated to literacy. The teacher will only teach reading and writing, while other educators teach subjects such as math and science.

Elementary school teachers often have subjects that they love to teach and plan for. With opportunity culture, Sam said, “that one teacher who has all of these ideas and ways in which to make it work, she has that opportunity to expand her reach with those students.”

Balancing the costs

There’s no extra money on the table to help schools pay the teacher leaders they recruit. Instead, principals must shift funding from other parts of their budgets to pay for the leaders they want.

Teachers in leadership roles will earn additional stipends that won’t be less than $6,800 extra. But some teachers could earn up to $18,300 per year from the stipend, if they are leading several other teachers. The cost to schools will depend on how many teachers they select for leadership and what type of positions they decide to offer.

No current staff will lose their jobs to pay for stipends, Schlegel said. But principals may decide not to fill open positions.

There’s an advantage to building the program into school budgets, Schlegel said, because it will make it more sustainable in the long-term. Unlike prior, grant-funded initiatives to improve teacher leadership, the money won’t disappear.

“What we’re really looking to do,” she said, “is to start to think about building teacher leadership positions that can exist permanently.”

New Partner

Boys & Girls Clubs coming to two Memphis schools after all

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Principal Tisha Durrah stands at the entrance of Craigmont High, a Memphis school that soon will host one of the city's first school-based, after-school clubs operated by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.

Principal Tisha Durrah says her faculty can keep students focused and safe during school hours at Craigmont High School. It’s the time after the final bell rings that she’s concerned about.

“They’re just walking the neighborhood basically,” Durrah says of daily after-school loitering around the Raleigh campus, prompting her to send three robocalls to parents last year. “It puts our students at risk when they don’t have something to do after school.”

Those options will expand this fall.

Craigmont is one of two Memphis schools that will welcome after-school programs run by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis following this week’s change of heart by Shelby County’s Board of Commissioners.

Commissioners voted 9-4 to foot the bill for operational costs to open clubs at Craigmont and Dunbar Elementary. The decision was a reversal from last week when the board voted down Shelby County Schools’ request for an extra $1.6 million to open three school-based clubs, including one at Riverview School. Wednesday’s approval was for a one-time grant of $905,000.

Commissioners have agreed all along that putting after-school clubs in Memphis schools is a good idea — to provide more enriching activities for neighborhood children in need. But some argued last week that the district should tap existing money in its savings account instead of asking the county for extra funding. Later, the district’s lawyers said the school system can only use that money legally to pay for direct educational services, not to help fund a nonprofit’s operations.

Heidi Shafer is one of two commissioners to reverse their votes in favor of the investment. She said she wanted to move ahead with a final county budget, but remains concerned about the clubs’ sustainability and the precedent being set.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club provides after-school programs for children and teens.

“If we give (money) to something that’s para-education, we have less to give to education,” she said. “There’s only a limited amount of dollars to go around.”

The funding will help bring to Memphis the first-ever school-based Boys & Girls clubs opened through Shelby County Schools, the largest district in Tennessee, said Keith Blanchard, the organization’s Memphis CEO.

While the nonprofit has had a local presence since 1962 and is up to seven sites in Memphis, it’s had no local government funding heretofore, which is unusual across its network. Nationally, about 1,600 of the organization’s 4,300 clubs are based in schools.

Blanchard plans to get Dunbar’s club up and running by the beginning of October in the city’s Orange Mound community. Craigmont’s should open by November.

“We hope to maybe do another school soon. … A lot will depend on how this school year goes,” he said. “I certainly hope the county sees the value in this and continues to fund in a significant way.”

At Craigmont, the club will mean after-school tutoring and job training in computer science and interviewing skills. Durrah says the activities will provide extra resources as the district seeks to better equip students for life after high school.

“It looks toward the long term,” Durrah said of the program. “This really fits in with the district’s college- and career-ready goals.”

diplomas for all

Education commissioner floats idea of allowing a work readiness credential to confer benefits of a diploma

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

A high school diploma opens doors to matriculating in college, qualifying for certain jobs and entering the military.

But many students struggle with New York state’s arduous requirements, which generally include passing at least four Regents exams. During a discussion Tuesday about creating more diploma options, New York state’s education commissioner floated a radical solution: Allow students to use a work-readiness credential to obtain a “local diploma” instead.

“I think what we need to look at is the opportunity of saying can the CDOS [Career Development and Occupational Studies credential] be, can the completion of the CDOS sequence, be an appropriate end to receiving a local diploma?” Elia said during a Board of Regents conversation about graduation requirements.

The CDOS credential was originally crafted in 2013 as an alternative to a diploma for students with disabilities. They can show they are ready for employment by completing hundreds of hours of vocational coursework and job-shadowing or by passing a work-readiness exam. The rules were changed last year to also allow general education students to obtain the credential, which can substitute for a fifth Regents exam for students who pass four.

Allowing the credential itself to confer the benefits of a diploma would mark a seismic shift in what it means to graduate in New York state. Students would potentially avoid having to pass a series of Regents exams — which would mark a huge victory for advocates who argue those exams unfairly hold students back.

But it would also raise questions about whether standards are being watered down. Chalkbeat has reported that the work-readiness exams used to obtain a CDOS credential often test fairly basic life skills, such as how to overcome obstacles when throwing a company party. The state itself is currently reviewing these exams to see if they have “sufficient rigor.”

The state cautioned that there is no formal proposal on the table. Also, the commissioner’s statement Tuesday morning was vague. If state officials decide to move forward with the proposal, for instance, they would need to decide if it is for all students or only students with disabilities. Officials would also need to clarify whether the work-readiness exam itself was sufficient for a diploma, or whether extra coursework would be tacked on.

“The Board of Regents and the State Education Department have made it a priority to allow students to demonstrate their proficiency to graduate in many ways. This is not about changing our graduation standards. It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma,” said education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis. “Today, the Board of Regents and the Department started a discussion to examine all of New York’s diploma options and graduation requirements. This discussion will continue over the coming months. It is premature to speculate on any changes that could be made as a result of this process.”

Regardless of any changes, all students would likely be required to complete the same number of high school courses, which includes 22 credits of required work, state officials said.

Still, just having the head of the state’s education department float this concept suggests a dramatic policy reversal. Starting in 2005, the Regents began a process to make it more difficult to earn a diploma in an attempt to prepare more students for college and career. Local diplomas exist today but are only offered in limited cases, for students with disabilities who complete a set of requirements, including the math and English Regents, and for general education students who just miss passing two of their Regents exams.

Recently, state education officials have been looking for ways to help students just shy of the passing mark. In 2014, they created a “4+1” option, which allows students to substitute a final Regents exam for a pathway in areas like the arts or Career and Technical Education, and then last year added CDOS as a potential pathway.

In 2016, another rule change allowed students to appeal Regents exam grades with scores below passing and let students with disabilities graduate after passing two Regents exams and getting a superintendent’s review. Last year, the number of New York City students successfully appealing Regents exam scores in order to graduate tripled, likely contributing to a boost in the city’s graduation rate.

By placing a discussion about diploma options on Tuesday’s agenda, state officials suggested the Regents want to do even more. Allowing students to earn a local diploma without passing any Regents exams would be the biggest change to date.

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, did not comment specifically on this provision and said he generally supports recent changes to graduation requirements. But he said looking forward, it will be important to maintain high standards.

“Ensuring that there’s rigor and that graduates are ready for what comes next is very important,” Sigmund said.

Many education advocates are likely to be supportive by the change. A group of activists rallied at the State Education Department on Monday, carrying signs that said “diplomas for all.”

These and other advocates argue that students across the state — particularly those with disabilities or those who struggle with tests — have had their life options severely limited by the exams.

State Senator Todd Kaminsky, who has been active in fighting for more diploma options, said for him, finding solutions for these students outweighs critics’ concerns about rigor.

“I think this is a major victory for parents who had seen their potential for their children stifled,” Kaminsky said. “I am firmly of the belief that we need to err on the side of giving children options to graduate.”