teacher leaders

To keep top teachers, principals of struggling schools offer bigger paychecks

Like other principals of low-scoring schools with many needy students, Sean Licata faces the twin challenges of holding onto his best teachers and wooing skilled new hires.

But because his Bronx middle school is part of the city’s “Renewal” program for struggling schools, he had a secret weapon this summer: $27,500 for raises for top teachers willing to take on leadership roles. The promise of the extra money helped him convince a veteran educator to join his staff and provided a new way to recognize the hard work of his strongest teachers, whom he encouraged to apply for the raises.

“You could see a little more pep in their step,” said Licata, principal of School of Diplomacy.

The raises are part of a new, $4.9 million teacher-leadership program that some Renewal school leaders say is helping them hold onto top staff members, though it has limitations. Several principals said it has not been much help as they try to recruit teachers from other schools, but it has provided a considerable reward for their best existing educators.

The stakes are high for New York City’s bottom-ranked schools, which are receiving an infusion of funding and support as they try to rapidly improve student performance. But the high-profile effort has also focused greater scrutiny on those working in the schools, which could face state takeover or closure unless they quickly improve. All that has raised the prospect that the already hard-to-staff schools could see an exodus of teachers whose replacements might be tough to recruit.

Looking to prevent that, the city has retooled the teacher-leader roles embedded in last year’s teachers contract into incentives to help Renewal schools keep and attract strong educators. This year, each Renewal school has received funding for up to three teacher-leaders, whose pay increases will range from $7,500 to $20,000.

At the same time, the program offers schools a way to get more staffers invested in the improvement process, said Paul Asjes, a math teacher at a Bronx Renewal school who will take on one of the leadership roles this fall.

“There’s so much work that needs to be done, and a small group of administrators can’t do it on their own,” said Asjes, who teaches at the School of Performing Arts. The position, he added, helped convince him to remain at his school.

The threat of high teacher turnover loomed this year over many Renewal schools, where some teachers were subjected to a steady stream of official observations and asked to work an extra period each day. At the two Renewal schools where all staffers were forced to reapply for their jobs, the majority of teachers did not return.

An education department spokesman said turnover rates at the other Renewal schools for last year were not immediately available. But a survey of five Renewal schools found some variation: three saw more teachers retire or switch schools than in past years, while the others had average turnover. Serapha Cruz, principal of the Bronx School of Young Leaders, said nine teachers left at the end of the school year — up from the usual three.

“It was way worse than it’s ever been since I’ve been principal,” she said.

At the same time, it took more salesmanship than usual to attract new hires. “It’s hard for people to believe that this school could be well run if you’re on the list” of Renewal schools, Cruz said.

To help principals fill those openings, the city organized Renewal-only recruitment fairs and sent them lists of top candidates. In the end, according to principals and people who work at Renewal schools, many teachers applied for jobs at those schools, likely a reflection of New York’s competitive teaching market.

Haven’t I heard of this before?

    The city has tried offering higher-paid teacher-leader roles to match troubled schools with strong teachers in the past.
    In a 2010 pilot program under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “master” and “turnaround” teachers who committed to work for three years at certain low-performing schools earned extra pay in exchange for supporting their colleagues. The city abruptly ended the program two years later after it lost federal school-improvement funds due to a legal battle with the teachers union.
    In 2014, the teachers union negotiated with the de Blasio administration to get the latest version of the leadership program into the new teachers contract.

“The challenge was not in getting people to apply for the positions,” one Renewal high school principal said, “but finding people who were suitable.”

The city is deploying the teacher-leader program to help solve that problem, too. Only highly rated teachers were eligible to apply, and those who did sat for interviews before a joint city-union panel that reviewed lesson plans and student work. The city sent a list of any teachers who made it through the vetting process to Renewal school principals in mid-July.

But Renewal principals had trouble using the program to hire vetted teachers from other schools, according to several people who work in those schools.

Some said that many candidates had already accepted positions elsewhere by the time the Renewal principals received the teacher-leader list this summer. Others noted that Renewal schools had to compete with higher-performing schools for the same relatively small pool of vetted teachers. Licata, the School of Diplomacy principal, said his one approved teacher fielded job offers from several schools, since all principals had access to the same candidate list.

“A lot of principals reached out to her about accepting a new position,” he said, adding that the teacher was “a hot commodity.”

Still other principals said they hesitated to hire outside teachers for a position that would have them coaching colleagues and running demonstration classrooms in a school where they had just arrived.

“I’m very wary of hiring someone to do a leadership position when they don’t understand the school,” said Cruz, the Bronx School of Young Leaders principal.

The leadership program has showed more promise as a tool to retain strong teachers, principals said. Research has shown that higher pay alone is often not enough to keep teachers from leaving, but offering extra authority and more collaboration with colleagues can be strong incentives to stay.

The “model teacher” role, which comes with a $7,500 raise, requires teachers to open up their classrooms for others to observe their lessons. The “peer collaborative teacher” role, which brings a $12,000 pay hike and replaces the “lead teacher” position that existed for a decade, has teachers coach their colleagues and lead school-wide trainings. They get at least one period off from teaching each day to do that work. (A “master teacher” role, which the city said will be available for only a few teachers, comes with a $20,000 raise.)

The education department spokesman would not provide the number of teachers who were approved for the leadership roles, and said that hiring for those positions is ongoing.

In addition to Renewal schools, the city is also helping fund these positions at more than 140 schools in the Learning Partners and Learning Partners Plus programs, in which educators visit partner schools. Other schools that chose to hire teachers for the leadership roles had to use their own money.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.