Storm alert

Storm impact: Chicago cancels another day of classes; union publishes list of educator grievances

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat Chicago

As Chicago braced itself for a winter storm and subzero temperatures, the school district canceled another day of classes on Thursday. Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union published a list of grievances from anonymous school teachers and administrators complaining about the school district’s response to weather-related safety concerns.

As temperatures began falling Tuesday evening, the district said classes and all after-school activities would be closed Wednesday and Thursday. Friday is a previously scheduled in-service day for educators, and students do not attend school, which means families of some 361,000 children will have to find child care for the rest of the week.

Related: To close schools or not close schools? Tough decision either way. 

On Tuesday, the union posted on its blog a list of storm-related safety concerns that spans more than a dozen schools and includes such complaints as slippery sidewalks and exits, unplowed or poorly plowed sidewalks and parking lots, and at least one concern about chilly classrooms.

Some of the complaints echo concerns raised last year about potential neglect of school facilities and grounds since the district privatized its janitorial contracts. Many schools now have part-time engineers and a reduced custodial staff and rely on private contractors and district facilities crews for salting and snow removal.  

Reached for comment on the list, a Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman said that the facilities crew had prioritized heat in classrooms and buildings and had been working quickly to address concerns about snowy school grounds.  She said “the severity and timing of the storm” — Monday’s snowfall coincided with the morning drop-off for many families  — created “minor delays and challenges” in snow removal.

“School staff and vendor partners continue to work diligently to ensure school properties are as cleared as possible while also making sure school buildings are prepared for extreme temperatures,” spokeswoman Emily Bolton said.

She declined to address individual complaints.

Some items on the union’s list fall outside of the school district’s jurisdiction: for example, the list includes examples of unplowed streets around schools where teachers and parents park. 

The district said it will likely add additional instructional days to the end of the year to make up for missed classroom time.

Among the complaints listed by the union on Tuesday:

Our parking lots, stairs, and sidewalks were not shoveled or salted. (Mount Vernon Elementary School)

“Our parking lot was 100 percent unplowed and still was full at dismissal. Additionally, the sidewalks around the school were not shoveled very well. The last few weeks I have fallen twice on school grounds due to unsalted ice. The small area outside the school has also not been shoveled although that is where we bring all the students at the end of the day for dismissal. (Carson Elementary)

“Sidewalks were not cleared. Staff and admin had to run the snowblower and shovel. Not sure if anyone is clear on whether Aramark/Sodexo employees are supposed to do any snow removal. (Disney II)

The parents and principal shoveled the sidewalks because Sodexo didn’t show up on time, parking lot was not plowed. (Prescott Elementary)

Some of the complaints predate this week’s storm:

On Tuesday, Jan. 22, I walked out one of our exits to dismiss students. I took two steps and fell backwards on the ice. I felt a crunch in my neck. I tried to stop my students from walking on the ice. Simultaneously, a sixth-grade class dismissed, and one of the students fell and hit his head on the ground. I asked a parent to get security and we were able to stop classes from using this particular exit.

It was a very dangerous situation and I feel it was incredibly irresponsible to neglect all of our exits prior to dismissal during weather like this. (Bell Elementary)





Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”

technical difficulties

This personalized learning program was supposed to boost math scores. It didn’t, new study finds

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

A program that Bill Gates once called “the future of math” didn’t improve state test scores at schools that adopted it, according to a new study.

The research examines Teach to One, a “personalized learning” program used in schools across 11 states and which has drawn support from a number of major funders, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. (Gates and CZI are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

At five schools in Elizabeth, New Jersey, students who used Teach to One didn’t improve any faster than similar students who didn’t use the program, even after three years. The results underscore the limited evidence for claims that such technology programs can dramatically improve student learning, even as they have become magnets for philanthropic dollars.

“The original aspirations, that Teach to One programs were going to have huge positive effects on math scores — we can rule that out with these studies,” said Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia professor who studied an earlier iteration of the program.

Teach to One says its approach is designed to help students steadily learn math skills, regardless of how unprepared or advanced they are. Students spend time on a computer as well as with a teacher and working in small groups. Students receive individualized schedules each day based on their progress, and a computer program adapts the curriculum to students’ strengths and weaknesses in the form of a “playlist.”

New Classrooms, the organization behind Teach To One, suggests that the Elizabeth results aren’t the full story.

It points to a separate analysis released this week that looks at a broader group of schools — 14, from several districts — that used the program. That study shows Teach to One students making above-average gains on a test known as the MAP, which is taken on a computer with questions changing as students answer correctly or incorrectly.

New Classrooms co-founder Joel Rose suggested in a statement that those computer-adaptive tests capture something that state tests can miss: students’ progress.

“What seems to be emerging is a real tension in math between approaches focused on long-term academic growth and state accountability systems,” he said.

Rockoff said there might be something to New Classroom’s argument that the study using adaptive test is better able to showcase students’ gains. “If [students] are at a grade four level but they’re in grade six, teaching them grade four material is going to hurt them on the state test,” he said.

But the author of the second study, Jesse Margolis, and a number of other researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat note that it cannot show whether Teach to One caused any of the students’ gains, though — a major limitation.

“While this study cannot establish causality, it is encouraging,” Margolis wrote. (The New Jersey study is better able to establish cause and effect, but it also has limitations and does not rely on random assignment.)

The New Jersey study isn’t the first to show that Teach to One didn’t improve test scores: so did Rockoff’s 2015 report on three New York City middle schools that looked at both state and MAP tests.

One possible explanation is that Teach to One is helpful to students in some places but not others. Margolis said his study examined the same five Elizabeth schools as the Columbia study and also found minimal gains there, but that schools elsewhere seemed to see larger improvements.

Researcher John Pane of RAND, a leader in studying personalized learning, says the results are important to understanding a field with limited research to date.

“Because we have so little evidence on personalized learning,” he said, “every data point can be helpful for us to start triangulating and piecing together what works and what doesn’t work.”