First Person

Opinion: Summit 54 grows up

In September of 2010, Tony Caine, a wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur and options trader, invited a group of education policy experts to his adopted hometown of Aspen to talk about an idea he was hatching to help motivated, low-income students make it to and through a four-year college.

I attended and wrote about that Summit 54 gathering and came away impressed by Caine’s enthusiasm and spirit, but concerned that he was tying to create a new program in a field already crowded with organizations doing similar work with varied levels of success.

Aurora Superintendent John Barry
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Superintendent John Barry exults at the opening of the College Track-Summit 54 headquarters Thursday.

Some of the other attendees I spoke with after the meeting felt much the same way; that Caine had the kernel of a good idea but might be wise to put his money behind an existing organization instead of creating something from scratch. During the meeting, Caine, now a youthful 54, invited people to be blunt with him when they thought his thinking was flawed. And they complied.

It was hard at the time to tell whether  Caine was taking the advice to heart. In the fall of 2010 he had already invested a good deal of time and money into creating Summit 54. He’d even spent big chunks of the previous year climbing all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks.

It’s now clear that he did indeed listen. The evidence sits in a shopping center at the intersection of East Iliff Avenue and South Buckley Road in Aurora, where the gorgeously appointed and well-equipped CollegeTrack-Summit 54 headquarters was dedicated Thursday night. Gov. John Hickenlooper and Aurora Public Schools Superintendent John Barry were among those present.

Caine said it may have taken awhile, but he learned an important lesson during the creation of Summit 54. “If I were raising money in the venture capital community for a business endeavor, I would have been chastised for not doing my research,” Caine told me last night. “Summit 54 had gone down a path of developing curriculum and starting to develop a program when we discovered College Track.” College Track, an after-school, college prep program was founded in Palo Alto in 1997 by Laurene Powell Jobs — Steve Jobs’ widow — and Carlos Watson. Since then, the organization has expanded to Oakland and New Orleans, and now Aurora.

Gov. John Hickenlooper and a College Track participant at Thursday's event

“I took three trips out to California (last winter and spring) and met with Laurene and her team,” Caine said. “After the third trip, we looked at each other and said, ‘why don’t we join forces.’ Instead of reinventing the wheel, we want to incorporate some of the best practices that are occurring in the country.”

College Track would seem to fit the description. According to the organization’s website, 100 percent of its students have graduated from high school. Ninety percent are admitted to a four-year college and 70 percent of them graduate within six years. Of those, 85 percent are the first in their families to have graduated from college.

What this means for 60 low-income students in each grade at Aurora’s Rangeview High School is an opportunity to get mentoring, help with college applications and then scholarships and grants to fully fund four years at the college of their choice, along with continued support services through four years of college.

Eventually, the College Track-Summit 54 partnership will serve 200 Aurora students and 200 college students at a time.

Aurora’s Barry told a high-energy gathering at the program headquarters that he was thrilled by the opportunity this partnership provides students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to attend college.

Danielle Diaz

“If you don’t remember anything else tonight, I want you to remember this,” Barry said. “What is evident in 21st century learning is we can no longer do this alone.”

Students who signed on to the new program have demonstrated “evidence of courage,” Barry said. “They have signed on the dotted line and committed themselves to not only working with College Track and Summit 54, but going on to college and being that example we need for so many students in our district.”

In these days of bitter divisiveness over education policy, where labeling and name-calling too often drowns out substantive debate, it was refreshing last night to attend a unambiguously feel-good event. It may have been best summed up by Danielle Diaz, a Rangeview student enrolled in the new program.

“College track has sparked an educational trigger in my brain to do my absolute best in school and to better my future,” Diaz said. “I was once a D student in math without a clue what to do. I am now an A student, helping others.”

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.