long-term planning

To transform failing schools, new teachers take up residence

A Bank of America employee, a fashion industry veteran, and a 311 operator are among the newest additions to the city’s teaching corps.

They are among 26 people being eased into the classroom through a new city program designed to train – and retain – high-quality teachers specifically for the city’s worst-performing schools.

Launched with little fanfare this summer, the NYC Teaching Residency for School Turnaround is the city’s latest effort to attract talent using an alternative certification program. But unlike the city’s NYC Teaching Fellows program, the residency isn’t throwing its trainees straight into the classroom. Nor is it quickly relieving them from their obligation to the city.

Instead, the program requires them to make a lengthier commitment, but only after they’ve spent a year working as assistants to in the classroom.

The teachers-in-training have been dispersed into two schools undergoing federally-funded “transformation” — Queens Vocational and Technical High School and J.H.S. 22 Jordan L. Mott — and are part of an experimental effort to overhaul schools deemed “persistently low-achieving” by the state.

Borrowing heavily from models that preceeded it in recent years, the program comes amid a growing nationwide focus on improving both the teacher quality and retention rates in high-needs urban schools.

The programs are expensive to create and operate, but supporters say the cost is worth it because it cuts down on pricey turnover expenses. Half of all teachers in urban districts will leave the profession within five years, statistics show. But 85 percent of teachers who were trained as residents will stay, according to early data collected by Urban Teacher Residency United, a network that has more than a dozen programs in 10 cities.

This summer, NYC Teaching residents spent a month preparing for the school year in classes of their own. They spent mornings in lectures at St. John’s University and afternoons in seminars and workshops taught by a DOE instructor.

During the first few months of school, trainees will have limited responsibilities, but by the end of the year they’ll be expected to devise and teach their own lesson plans for weeks at a time without guidance.

The city is spending $1.3 million — or $50,000 per resident —  in federal School Improvement Grant money for the 10-month program, which includes a $22,500 stipend, benefits, and tuition subsidies for certification classes at St. John’s. After the residency, participants commit to four years of teaching in schools that the city wants to overhaul.

“It is part of a broader school improvement initiative to create a pipeline of people who are going to come in and stay in these schools,” said DOE spokeswoman Barbara Morgan. The city plans to double the program’s size next year.

Dozens of new residencies have popped up around the country in just the last few years, fueled by federal grants and philanthropic organizations that seek to not only find committed new teachers, but identify and prepare the ones who are most likely to succeed. Last year, 19 new residency programs were funded with a $43 million federal grant to “improve teaching in high-needs schools.”

And more are on the way, via Race To The Top. This summer, the state awarded grant money to six city training institutions to “address the teacher shortage issue” through two teacher preparation programs, one of which includes a residency.

“We’re looking at teacher preparation pretty hard,” said Julie Mikuta, of New Schools Venture Fund, a philanthropic firm that was an early investor of UTRU and supports education initiatives for low income students. Mikuta, who focuses on human capital investments at the firm, said preparation was “a major spoke in the wheel” toward closing the school achievement gap.

In New York City, four residencies have been created in the last three years, with the NYC Teaching Residency being the latest. Vicky Bernstein, the DOE’s executive director of teacher recruitment and quality, has supervised each of the new programs and, before being promoted to chief academic officer last year, Shael Polakow-Suransky worked closely on developing some of the programs.

The four programs follow a basic model, but teachers aren’t necessarily trained in the same way.

At New Visions for Public Schools, teachers are trained to teach in high-needs schools, but they are initially placed in “stronger schools where they can learn effective practices,” said program director Marisa Harford.

“We feel that for the residency school, it’s important to be in an effective school first,” Harford said.

At I-START, the city’s first residency program, which trains teachers for schools for new immigrants, residents are trained on strategies that get English language learners speaking English in their classes.

“We really take seriously developing human capital and this was one way to create a continuous pipeline of teachers who fit our educational approach,” said Claire Sylvan, founder of Internationals Network for Public Schools, which launched I-START in 2008 in partnership with Long Island University.

The costs associated with teacher residencies are high, ranging from $40,000 to $60,000 per teacher per year. As school districts’ budgets contract, some question whether it can be a sustainable model for preparing teachers nationwide.

“I always caution against measuring these things in the abstract,” said Rick Hess, an education policy analyst.

Hess warned that just because teachers trained in a residency did not mean they’d be successful. He said the positive generalizations given to residencies as they’ve grown in numbers remind him of the reputation that charter schools obtained, even though they vary widely in type and quality.

“Certainly a well-run residency program that’s being highly-selective about talent would give me confidence that it’s a reasonable strategy, but the  notion that a residency is any kind of a solution is naive.”

The I-START program is still young, but Sylvan said that many former residents have stayed in her network of schools and their presence is beginning to pay off.

“The vast majority went into our schools are are beginning to play significant roles,” she said. “I expect to have some school leaders come out of this in the next five to 10 years.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.