First Person

Opinion: Please keep Life Skills open

Editor’s note: This article was submitted by Peter Droege, president of the Life Skills Charter High School board.

According to the Colorado Department of Education, approximately 13,000 students drop out of school each year in our state.

Life Skills Charter High School has proven remarkably effective in reclaiming these high-risk students and helping them graduate from high school. We are deeply concerned that the Office of School Reform and Innovation (OSRI) at Denver Public Schools recommended non-renewal of our school. The DPS board vote this Thursday will not only impact the lives of the hundreds of students we serve, it will send a powerful message about our community’s commitment to students who have dropped out of school.

There has been a great deal of misinformation around the performance of Life Skills Charter High School. A Nov. 4 article in the Denver Post gave the impression that we had only one student graduate last year, with 16 others listed as “completers.” In fact, 24 students received diplomas through our program last year. This confusion has been present at every level of the renewal process. I hope the following information will provide a more accurate description of this amazing program serving students who have dropped out of school.

Given the student population at Life Skills, it is a remarkable accomplishment that we exceed, meet, or make reasonable progress on 10 of the 12 goals in our contract. The primary area where we do not meet our goals is academic performance. This is not surprising given that our students come to us reading, on average, at the fifth-grade level. In addition, many of our students face tremendous social challenges: homelessness, addiction, being young moms and dads, mental illness, being on probation, etc.

We are honored to partner with DPS in providing an academically rigorous program with supportive services that truly serves the needs of our students. We provide each student with an individual assessment, a personal academic achievement plan and the individual support needed to succeed and graduate.

Classes are offered year-round and students attend one five-hour session per day, five days a week, with multiple daily class sessions offering maximum flexibility.

All of our caring and dedicated teachers are No Child Left Behind highly qualified and licensed in the subject area in which they teach. We have a full-time family advocate, or social worker, to assist our students, who often face tremendous challenges in life. We also have two full time vocational specialists to help our students discover their passion and purpose in life. Students must pass each class with a “B” in order to move on to the next level.

Our Response to Intervention (RTI) team does an amazing job connecting struggling students with academic programs designed to meet their needs. More often than not, this results in one-on-one instruction in the math or reading labs.

This year we established a partnership with the Better Business Bureau that offers paid internships to students to equip them to succeed in the workplace. We also launched a partnership with the Food Bank of the Rockies, since many of our students are at risk of hunger. We are actively engaged with countless other schools, community organizations and probation officers who see us as a key partner in helping their young people get a fresh start in life.

Every student is welcome at Life Skills, no minimum academic requirements, no interview process.  We would never think of excluding students out of a concern that their academic performance will drag down our test scores.

Do we have improvements to make? Yes. Has our performance over the past several years demonstrated that we are willing to continue to improve our school? Yes. We believe this warrants us getting our contract renewed for at least two years.

About half of our students have already tried — and failed — in two or three other DPS schools. The other half have been to four, five, six or even seven other schools before coming to Life Skills. It’s these students that have repeatedly fallen through the cracks that we care about at our school.

Where else will they get an 11:1 student to teacher ratio? Where else will they get the wraparound services that they need in order to even be able to address academic issues?

The OSRI office says that there are 1,000 seats waiting for our students, but  many of our students and parents have said that they do not view these schools as viable options, given that many of the students have already dropped out of the same schools.

There are many thousands of unserved students who have dropped out of school and are looking for a second chance at life. Now is not the time to eliminate this option. Please consider contacting the DPS board and asking them to vote in support of allowing Life Skills Charter High School to continue providing this model that has proven to be so effective in helping high-risk students.

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.