first reaction

Decision in California teacher tenure suit has New York advocates talking

A ruling against teacher tenure in a Los Angeles lawsuit today has local advocates considering their own challenges to teachers’ job protections.

The preliminary ruling in the lawsuit Vergara v. California strikes down a slate of laws around teacher tenure and firing in that state. The judge in the case, Rolf Treu, said data showing that poor and non-white students in California are more often taught by low-performing teachers convinced him that the laws violate the state’s constitution. The distribution of teacher quality “shocks the conscience,” Treu said in his ruling.

The lawsuit was brought by nine families with the support of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who began supporting education issues after he was unsettled by how difficult it was for his own children’s schools to fire teachers. Its backers include national critics of teachers unions, including Michelle Rhee of StudentsFirst, whose organization has a chapter in New York.

The lawsuit’s critics include teachers unions and others who note that tenure protects teachers from capricious administrators and say tenure helps make teaching an attractive profession.

“Today’s ruling would make it harder to attract and retain quality teachers in our classrooms and ignores all research that shows experience is a key factor in effective teaching,” Dennis van Roekel, president of the nation’s largest teachers union, said in response to the ruling.

The state of California and its teachers unions are gearing up to appeal, guaranteeing a long legal fight before the issue of teacher tenure in California is resolved. Still, their first-round success has Vergara supporters weighing whether to take on teacher tenure laws in other states.

“This decision demands a similar reexamination of how we value the rights of our youngest New Yorkers,” StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis said in a statement. Eva Moskowitz, head of the Success Academy network of charter schools, called the decision “a significant social justice win for children.”

And Mona Davids, president of the New York City Parents Union, said the organization is “ready and willing to file the same lawsuit in New York State.”

In New York City, most teachers are eligible for tenure protection after three years on the job. The percentage of eligible teachers who received tenure has declined in recent years, as the Bloomberg administration delayed many teachers’ tenure decisions in an effort to make the protection less automatic and pressure some educators to leave the system.

The Vergara suit hinged on the idea that poor students were more frequently taught by “low-performing” teachers, designated by value-added formulas that took student performance into account. A January 2013 report from StudentsFirstNY examining the city’s old teacher evaluation system found that teachers rated “unsatisfactory” disproportionately worked in schools with high concentrations of poor students in the 2011-12 school year.

When the city began calculating teacher “growth scores,” teachers with the highest and lowest scores were found to be distributed across the city’s schools—a function of a value-added system meant to control for factors like differences in neighborhood and students’ past performance.

Principals have been encouraged to take teachers’ growth scores, now calculated by the state, into account when making tenure recommendations this year. Meanwhile, the Rochester Teachers Association is challenging parts of the state’s teacher evaluation system in court, claiming that the state set teachers’ growth targets too high by not adequately accounting for student poverty.

On the United Federation of Teachers’ Facebook page, city teachers lamented the preliminary decision in the California case. “California, you are about to have a teacher shortage,” one posted.

Team Memphis

How do you get teacher candidates to fall in love with Memphis? Shelby County Schools is taking them to a Grizzlies game.

PHOTO: Nikki Boertman/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis Grizzlies fans raise their growl towels during an NBA game at the FedEx Forum on April 25, 2013.

Home to one of the nation’s 25 largest school districts, Memphis has stepped up efforts in recent years to attract talented new teachers to a fast-changing education landscape, and now is including the city’s popular NBA basketball team as part of its playbook.

Shelby County Schools will kick off its hiring season this weekend by treating teacher candidates to dinner and a free game between the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks on Friday night at FedEx Forum.

A networking event will follow on Saturday at the Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education, a new downtown venue operated by the Orpheum Theatre to put arts and education center stage.

The activities are part of a first-ever “preview weekend” to fill openings for next school year in Tennessee’s largest district. Shelby County Schools typically hires between 600 to 800 teachers each year and is especially in need of special education and math teachers, said district spokeswoman Kristin Tallent.

Historically, the district has simply held recruitment fairs,” Tallent said Monday. “Through the weekend events, the district is hoping to expose potential teachers to our school district and some of the best that Memphis has to offer, which includes the Memphis Grizzlies.”

Teacher recruitment, development and retention has been a centerpiece of school reform efforts in Memphis since 2009 when the district won a seven-year, $90 million Gates Foundation grant that came to a close this school year. That grant, in partnership with the local nonprofit SchoolSeed, is helping to fund this weekend’s recruitment event. (To learn more about the influence of the Gates Foundation on Memphis public schools, read our special report).

The preview weekend comes as Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has proposed a budget without a shortfall or layoffs for the first time in years. The spending plan also includes $10.7 million for teacher raises to address inequities in the pay structure and shift to performance-based pay.

The district is asking teacher candidates to RSVP by Friday.

Parent-to-Para

How the Adams 14 school district is empowering parents to join the classroom

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A parent volunteer works with two kindergarteners on reading as part of a pilot program at Dupont Elementary School that is training parents to become paraprofessionals.

Raeann Javier would like to know what she can do to help her second-grader read better. Sometimes, sitting with her daughter, the best she could offer was, “You know how to do this.”

Javier, a single mother, also would love to land another job to earn more for her family.

A pilot program launched by Adams 14 School District in Commerce City may help her with both.

The school district is trying to build more knowledgeable, active parents through classes and volunteer time working with young students struggling to read. For those who are interested, the program also provides parents a path to become paraprofessionals, or teacher’s aides.

The initiative is one way the nearly 8,000-student suburban district — facing state intervention this year after years of poor academic performance — is trying to turn things around.

District surveys found parents were looking for ways to become more supportive.

Javier, one of 17 mothers in the program, said she already feels like she has become a more patient parent less than a month in. She also is interested in becoming a paraprofessional to supplement the income she earns as an at-home nurse.

“It’s a little bit tough. I make it work,” Javier said. “But this would really, really help.”

Other parents taking part in the pilot program already were volunteers at their kids’ schools.

“They usually just did the normal things like helping with copying or sorting papers,” said Jesse Martinez, Adams 14’s director for family and community engagement. “But we really wanted to change that dynamic. We wanted to pull in our parents to tap their potential and bring them in to support their children.”

One of the parent volunteers, Susana Torres, was an elementary school teacher for 10 years before coming to the United States. Now with three children in district schools, Torres jumped at the opportunity to get back into a classroom.

“This is my thing,” Torres said. “I love the program.”

Torres also helps other Spanish-speaking moms who are part of the program. She said that even though they don’t have the teaching background she does, the program has made it easy for all of them to learn to help kids. “All you need is a passion to make change,” she said.

Pat Almeida, the principal of Dupont Elementary, where the program is being piloted, said the goal is also to help more students become proficient in reading before third grade — especially those who are not far behind but just need a boost to get to grade level.

“We’re able to give them more repetition so they can apply that to their reading,” Almeida said. “If they’re able to have more repetition, their progress is going to be accelerated.”

Dupont Elementary is among the Adams 14 schools that is struggling, though the school isn’t yet facing sanctions like the district as a whole is this year.

District officials have been working on setting up reforms all year to present to the state as a suggestion for their corrective action, including getting help from an outside company for developing curriculum and testing. Increasing parental engagement through this and other new efforts, like having teachers visit families at home, are part of the work to improve the district.

The parent-to-para program is being funded with money from the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation (Rose also supports Chalkbeat) and Climb Higher Colorado, a coalition of advocacy groups that support strong academic standards and tests.

At Dupont, while the parent volunteers work with almost 75 students that they pull out of class for about an hour, teachers can spend the time in class working with students who need the most help.

An instructional coach supervises the moms to work with groups of two to six students and helps them plan lessons each day for kids.

During one lesson this week, parents were helping kindergarteners learn how to differentiate between capital and lowercase letters and how to sound out words. Some students were still having trouble identifying letters, while one boy was writing words so quickly he was standing up, moving around and at one point fell.

The volunteers said it’s rewarding to see the kids catching on.

“Knowing that just a little bit of our time can help them is a good feeling,” said volunteer Adelaida Guerrero. “It’s an excellent opportunity for them and for us.”

For Maria Rodriguez, the program has unexpectedly given her another benefit — bringing her closer to her teenage daughters. She said she joined the program because when a bilingual program for her two oldest daughters was removed seven years ago, she had stopped being able to help them on their school work.

When Rodriguez heard about the program, she thought she could prepare to help her younger children, a second and third grader, before they too required more help than she could offer.

“It’s brilliant,”Rodriguez said. “I’ve been helping them work on their vowels.”

Within the last week, the two older girls came to Rodriguez complaining that she hadn’t ever worked to help them in the same way, and asking to join in during the at-home lessons. Over time, the girls had kept their ability to speak Spanish, but never learned how to write it. Now they were asking to learn alongside their younger siblings.

“They have that apathy of adolescence that makes them not always want to get close to us as parents,” Rodriguez said, tearing up as she recalled the moment. “I honestly felt really good.”