First Person

This week's teaching & learning tidbits

Denver middle schools recruiting and captivating students

At one recent Denver middle-school open house, the principal greased visiting fifth-graders’ palms with chocolate. Another dangled international travel before visitors. And one captivated recruits with classroom chairs that actually bounce, to accommodate fidgeting pre-teens.

Practically every Denver middle school now invites fifth-graders and their parents to an open house. Many host fifth-graders as they “shadow” an older kid through a middle-school day. And two share a full-time marketer whose job is to convince families that their neighborhood schools are worth a second look. Read more in the Denver Post.

Rice makes plea for education in America

(CBS News)  Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says she’s concerned about the economy, the deficit, and the “jaded” nature of American politics – but she says the country’s “biggest single problem” is with the public school system.

Rice, speaking to CBS’ Bob Schieffer on a special Thanksgiving edition of “Face the Nation,” argued that the nation’s educational system is failing crucial populations, and that “it’s gonna drive us into class warfare like we’ve never seen before.” Check out this CBS report.

Colo. school incentive program awaits more funds

A pilot program to improve college readiness among Colorado teens produced more high scores on students’ Advanced Placement tests — and paid $69,500 to teachers as a reward.

But it’s still unclear how well the National Math and Science Initiative’s AP program could work in Colorado because some incentives — such as payments to students who get high scores — were dropped when Colorado didn’t get federal Race to the Top funds to fully implement the program in 2010-2011. Educators are waiting to hear whether grant money will be available to expand it in coming years. Read more in the Washington Examiner.

Principals protest role of testing in evaluations

Through the years there have been many bitter teacher strikes and too many student protests to count. But a principals’ revolt? Read more in the New York Times.

Colorado in running for $17.9 million in Race to the Top funds

The Colorado Department of Education learned Wednesday that the state is in the running for $17.9 million in the latest try for federal Race to the Top funds — almost $5 million more than predicted.

Colorado was one of seven states that successfully completed an application for a round of Race to the Top set aside for finalists that didn’t receive money in the second round. Read more in the Denver Post.

Pre-collegiate program puts kids on track for college success

In a country where roughly 25 percent of high school students drop out and never earn their diplomas, and only one-third of the graduates move on to higher education at the college level, the Roaring Fork Re-1 School District is particularly proud of the outcomes of its unique Pre-Collegiate Program. Read more in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.

DPS SchoolChoice plan set to go

DPS logoThe Denver Public Schools’ new streamlined “one form, one timeline, all schools” enrollment system now has the participation of every charter school in the district.

The system, which the district is branding as SchoolChoice, will replace what DPS said was a welter of more than 60 different enrollment and wait-list processes and is designed to eliminate confusion and ensure equity in district-wide enrollment. Read all about it in Education News Colorado.

Boulder, St. Vrain schools see spike in ‘homeless’ students

Ashley Murphy started at Erie High School her sophomore year, after her mom lost her job and her family moved from Wheat Ridge to live with her grandparents in Frederick.

Her mom later moved to Denver, but Ashley, now a 17-year-old senior at Erie High, stayed with her grandparents because she didn’t want to switch schools. But their relationship deteriorated and the constant conflict was “so stressful I was making myself sick,” Ashley said. Read more in the Daily Camera.

Garfield Re-2 revs up its teacher mentoring program

When you hear school districts talk about recruitment and retention, what does that really mean?

“When teachers enter the profession today, the chance that they will leave teaching entirely within the first five years is higher than ever,” said Garfield Re-2 Director of Curriculum Larry Brady. “We know that the quality of the classroom teacher has a significant impact on student achievement. For us, the business of recruiting, and especially retaining, quality teachers has a direct correlation to student achievement.” Read more in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.

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.