The Other 60 Percent

AFT prez sees best, worst in DPS, Dougco

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers, viewed her visit to Colorado on Wednesday as a kind of tale of two cities, with lots of Dickensian overtones.

AFT president Randi Weingarten and members of the Denver Federation for Paraprofessionals and Nutrition Service Employees, who helped design an incentive plan with the help of a union grant.

On the one hand, there was her lunchtime visit to Denver’s Cole Arts & Science Academy, where she met with members of the Denver Federation for Paraprofessionals and Nutrition Service Employees. The Denver union received an AFT Innovation Fund grant last year to create a model employee incentive pay program called “The Good Food! Incentive Project” to reinforce the district’s nutrition and wellness efforts to combat obesity among schoolchildren.

The pay-for-performance system was jointly designed by labor and management, and rewards school lunchroom workers for making meals so enticing and nutritious that more youngsters will eat them. The program is being piloted in DPS this year and, if successful, may be replicated by other districts nationwide.

It was all lovey-dovey and harmonious as Weingarten joined representatives from both labor and management around a Cole lunchroom table as they dined on the same menu items students were having – meatloaf, mashed potatoes, fruit, salad, a whole-grain roll and low-fat milk. This was after Weingarten, a lawyer-turned-teacher-turned-union activist, took a turn serving students on the lunch line.

‘Political and malevolent’ school board draws her wrath

But then the subject of Douglas County came up, and Weingarten turned into the street fighter she’s noted for being. She had harsh words for Douglas County district leadership.

Strong words
  • Weingarten’s visit prompted a letter from state Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, a staunch supporter of Dougco’s school board: “On the issue of school reform, Ms. Weingarten and her union are decidedly on the wrong side of history.” Read the full letter.

“This is what’s infuriating to me,” said Weingarten. “Here we have Denver, which took the germ of an idea and it has blossomed into this amazing thing with workers and management re-envisioning the school kitchen.

“And across the border is Douglas County, where the school board is only interested in its own power. Douglas County schools used to be on the cutting edge in Colorado. But rather than respect the staff, for political and malevolent reasons the board has undermined the public education system that once was known as the jewel of Colorado.”

Since the 2009 elections brought a conservative majority to the school board, relations between the board and the Douglas County Federation of Teachers – which has represented the district’s teachers for more than 40 years – have dramatically deteriorated.

Dougco’s 3,300 teachers are now working without a union contract after public negotiations stalled and the 2011-12 contract expired July 1. That makes Douglas County the largest district in the state in which teachers are working without a collective bargaining agreement.

There have been disputes over issues such as whether the district would continue to pay half the costs of the union’s staff salaries and about deducting union dues from teachers paychecks. Both practices have now stopped.

Last month, board members backed off a plan to put three measures on the November ballot that would have severed all district-union ties, if approved. But they did make changes in policy that have similar effects.

“They took something that was collaborative for 20 years and destroyed it,” said DCFT president Brenda Smith, who accompanied Weingarten on her visit. “They have an absolute political agenda.”

Dougco official says Weingarten visit shows union agenda

Douglas County school board President John Carson said Weingarten’s visit and her comments about the district “demonstrate what we’ve been arguing for the last year.”

“The Douglas County Federation of Teachers is really more interested in national politics and is not interested in the educational interests of kids in Douglas County.”
– John Carson, Dougco board

“The Douglas County Federation of Teachers really has its strings pulled by the national union in Washington, D.C., and that’s demonstrated by the fact that that’s where they send the majority of their union dues, to the national union for politics,” Carson said. “The Douglas County Federation of Teachers is really more interested in national politics and is not interested in the educational interests of kids in Douglas County.”

Weingarten was to meet with Gov. John Hickenlooper after leaving Cole, then spend the late afternoon at an AFL-CIO union phone bank, meeting with workers and local activists and making calls to discuss with voters what’s at stake for them in the November election.

Dougco union leaders have asked the state to intervene in the district-union issues, and both Dougco district and union officials have previously met with Hickenlooper to discuss the matter.

“We feel that the important thing here is that the voters of Douglas County and the elected representatives of Douglas County make the ultimate decisions concerning the school district and the education of Douglas County kids,” Carson said.

That said, “we’re interested in working with Gov. Hickenlooper on education reform and we feel we agree on many things,” Carson added. “We particularly agree on the need to increase the performance of our schools and to reward great teachers, so we look forward to working with him on areas where we agree.”

Weingarten promised, “The AFT is in this for the long haul.

“This is not my first trip to Colorado, and it won’t be my last,” she said. “I’m here to say to Douglas County, ‘What the heck are you doing? And why are you doing this?’ They are attempting to destroy the public education system. It is absolute political machination.”

But she had nothing but praise for the Denver pay-for-performance experiment.

“To see this kind of engagement is incredible,” she said. “When I taught full-time, my administrative duty was being in the lunchroom. The difference between my lunchroom and this, well, it’s amazing. This really shows tremendous respect.”

Lunchroom workers say they’re more engaged

Tracy Young, lunchroom manager at Denver’s Morey Middle School, served on the team that designed the incentive program.

Weingarten, a former classroom teacher, took a turn serving students on the lunch line at Cole Arts & Science Academy in Denver.

“We thought it would be easy when we started, but oh my goodness … ” she said. She said the team met every week for an entire year to craft the program, which provides financial bonuses to lunchroom workers based on individual performance, school performance and district performance in meeting certain targets.

“The amount of the bonus all depends on us,” said Sandi Torres, food service worker at Schmitt Elementary, who was also on the design team. “We’re working now as a team more. We understand our responsibilities more in-depth. In the past, someone might have said, ‘Oh, that’s a manager’s job.’ But now everyone is pitching in. And we’re working more in marketing to get the kids involved.”

Denver has been a leader among Colorado school districts in the move to scratch cooking, salad bars and school gardens. The district has also embraced breakfast-in-the-classroom, which it plans to eventually roll out to all Denver schools. Some of the schools participate in a federally-funded program to deliver a piece of fresh fruit or vegetable to every student, every day in their classroom.

“It’s a lot of work, but often, we’re the first person a child sees in the morning,” said Torres. “And sometimes, what they say makes me cry. I’ve heard them say ‘This is the first food I’ve had since Friday,’ or ‘I just had popcorn for dinner.’”

Young said the number of breakfasts she serves every morning at Morey has jumped from 160 to 200 when breakfast was served in the cafeteria to 600 now that it is served in the classroom.

DPS lunch workers: No pushback to healthier foods now

Recent national media reports have depicted students pushing back against the healthier school food requirements mandated by Congress this fall.

But Denver lunchroom workers say the pushback against the new school nutrition guidelines isn’t much of an issue in DPS.

“We got a jump on that. We started this a long time ago,” said Sandi Torres, food service worker at Schmitt Elementary. “We’re training our students early now. A salad bar is great because they get to decide what to take, and they eat what they take. They begin to realize at a young age what foods have more nutrition.

“I think it’s becoming more stylish for students to eat a salad now. Our salad bars are so colorful, with all those different mixtures of lettuce, and our wonderful selection of fresh fruits.”

Added Tracy Young, lunchroom manager at Morey Middle School: “And those seventh- and eighth-grade girls who are thinking of becoming anorexic, they can still eat a nutritious salad. And the boys who are always starving can go back again and again to the salad bar. And they do.”

How I Help

Why this high school counselor asks students, ‘What do you wish your parents knew?’

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Help,” which features school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students.

Our first “How I Help” features Cassie Poncelow, a counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. She was the 2016 Colorado School Counselor of the Year and is one of six finalists for the 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award.

Poncelow talked to Chalkbeat about how she creates a legacy of caring, what teens want their parents to know and why peer-to-peer mentoring is better than a social-emotional curriculum taught by adults.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?
I was incredibly fortunate to have many powerful educators shape my life in my time as a student, but none did more so than my school counselors. My counselor from high school remains a dear friend and mentor. I knew that I wanted to be a part of what is happening in education and loved the diversity of the school counselor job. They get to collaborate with so many different stakeholders, get to know students in really cool ways and be involved with so many aspects of making change.

Cassie Poncelow

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Three years ago, we noticed that students were dropping out continuously because they were short on graduation credits and tired of taking the same classes over and over again. I worked with a team to create Opportunities Unlimited, which is a dropout recovery program for students ages 17-21 that is focused on GED completion and concurrent enrollment opportunities. A fifth cohort started this fall and the program has graduated 26 students in two years.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
Our Ambassadors program is in many ways the backbone of our climate and culture at Poudre High School. This program trains 50 upperclassmen to mentor freshmen through a year-long curriculum that includes topics like stress management, suicide prevention and sexual assault. This mentoring model means that every freshman has an ambassador that is connecting with them for almost three hours each month. The ambassadors deliver comprehensive, peer-to-peer education that is far beyond and better than any social-emotional learning curriculum that counselors could facilitate. As the co-leader for this program, I also couldn’t live without the hope that this crew gives me. They are the best part of my job.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school(s) where you work?
I am grateful to work in a place and with people who see the vital role of school counselors and are eager to partner with them. In my time at Poudre High School we have added two new school counseling positions, further demonstrating our school’s belief in the work we do. I have worked at schools in the past that created a lot of systemic barriers to accessing school counselors and I think this was based on a misconception that we were a more frivolous part of services for students.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I often ask my students, “What do you wish your parents knew?” What I hear consistently is a plea for them to remember what it was like to be 16: How painful and awkward it was, how boys were all the rage and not getting invited somewhere really was the actual worst.

So, I advise parents to remember that. And remember that a lot of what they dealt with at 16 is even more complicated by the world our kids are experiencing. Social media wasn’t a reality when they were kids and our current students have never known a world where mass shootings haven’t happened often. I know it’s no, “I walked uphill both ways without shoes in the snow,” but this is a scary time to be student — different, but equally hard. Our kids need us to hear them in that. And believe that they can change it.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
At my core, I think we all thrive on authentic relationships and I do whatever I can to create these with my students. I want each of my students to feel like I am truly in their corner and a champion not only of what they do but more so of who they are. I hope to not only live this, but to model it for my students in ways that inspire them to do the same.

This semester I have a freshman boy who was consistently skipping class (who knew gas station tacos were such a draw?) and failing multiple classes. His “consequence” is that he has to spend a period working on missing work in my office. I also have a slew of seniors who have made my office their home during this fifth hour, many who are excellent students and are just looking for a place to study. They have taken this freshman under their wing and are committed to his success far beyond what I could ever be. They are constantly asking about his upcoming exams, what he needs help with and celebrating his rising grades with him. I think I have built really authentic relationships with these upperclassmen who then remember what it means to feel connected and cared for and are passionate about showing this student just that. I often stress “legacy” to my students and this seems like a clear picture of that.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Kid stuff is hard. I hurt for kids a lot, as I think all educators do. They live lives far beyond our walls and far beyond what we could imagine and ever control. That’s the hardest. Close second would be trying to operate in a system that seems to be driven by folks who aren’t doing the work. I recognize that there are so many moving pieces and would love to have some of the actual “decision-makers” come spend the day in our role and better understand the work we do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A year ago, I had a student who was really struggling with some significant mental health issues. I knew that we needed to bring in a parent but the girl was very anxious about this idea, to the point where she had literally crumpled up on my office floor. After calling her mom to meet with us, I joined her on the floor of my office to talk more. Her mom walked in shortly after, assessed the scene and sat right down on the floor with us, despite the chair-filled room. This move shifted everything and I was so grateful for her wisdom to be where her kid was at. It was a good reminder to me to do that always: be where kids are at.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
A lot of my unwinding still includes my students as I announce volleyball games or attend other sporting events or performances. I love these opportunities because they let me see my kids in a different light and remind me how awesome they are. I also spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s going for a quick hike with my pup or a bike ride. Beyond traveling and reading, I cheer hard for the CSU Rams! Go State!

Big money

Millions in grant dollars will bring more counselors to Indiana’s underserved students

KIPP Indy was one of several schools in the county to receive a counseling grant.

Scores of Indiana schools were awarded private grants that will allow them to bolster counseling services for students, many of whom are lacking help for an increasing portfolio of problems, including fallout from the state’s drug epidemic and basic needs like advice on college applications.

The $26.4 million in grants, decided last month, include six for Marion County districts and charter schools. They were awarded by Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy founded by key players in the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

The grants went to 52 school districts and five charter schools, covering about a third of the state’s counties. Based on enrollment, they ranged from about $68,000 to almost $3 million.

Lilly began its push to help schools build better counseling programs last year.

“The response from school corporations and charter schools far exceeded the Endowment’s expectations,” said Sara B. Cobb, the Endowment’s vice president for education. “We believe that this response demonstrates a growing awareness that enhanced and expanded counseling programs are urgently needed to address the academic, college, career, and social and emotional counseling needs of Indiana’s K-12 students.”

As Chalkbeat previously reported, school counselors have been stretched exceedingly thin in recent years, both in Indiana and across the country. On average, each Hoosier counselor is responsible for 630 students, making Indiana 45th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for counselor-to-student ratios. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no higher than one counselor for every 250 students.

So far, state-led efforts to expand counseling have fallen short; a bill proposed in 2015 to require a counselor in every school was withdrawn for further study, and the issue hasn’t resurfaced significantly in the legislature since. At the time, cost was the sticking point.

Schools and districts had to apply for the grants and show how they would use the money. Lilly reported that mental health and business partnerships, mentoring programs, improving curriculum and adding in more training for staff were all strategies that grant-winners have proposed.

Initially, 254 districts and charter schools applied, many pointing out how Indiana’s recent opioid crisis has increased social and emotional challenges for students. Counselors have to juggle those serious needs with college and career advising and, increasingly, responsibilities that have nothing to do with counseling, such as overseeing standardized tests.

Because of the level of interest, Lilly is planning a second round of grants, which would total up to $10 million.

“Because the implementation grant process was so competitive, the Endowment had to decline several proposals that had many promising features,” Cobb said. “We believe that with a few enhancements, many of these proposals will be very competitive in the second round of the Counseling Initiative.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Indianapolis Public Schools: $2,871,400
  • KIPP Indianapolis: $100,000
  • Lawrence Township: $1,527,400
  • Pike Township: $1,114,700
  • Neighborhood Charter Network: $68,312
  • Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence: $99,870

IPS said in a news release that it planned to use the grant money to build counseling centers in each of the district’s high schools, which would begin operating in 2018 after IPS transitions to four high schools. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said counselors are “critical” for students as they prepare to graduate high school and pursue higher education and careers.

“We’re thrilled that the students and families we serve will benefit from this gift,” Ferebee said.