First Person

Voices: Turning things around in Adams 12

Teacher Mark Sass says it’s not too late to turn things around in Adams 12, where a rift between the teachers’ union and administration is reaching the boiling point.

School boards exist to bring accountability to those whom we entrust our children. As elected officials, school board members have a responsibility to see that the community has avenues to express their beliefs and values. In short, school boards exist to advocate for their communities. How school boards go about their mission certainly varies among communities. For me, the best school boards empower their superintendents and educators to do their jobs with as little direct action as possible. A great example of this is the Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education.

Cindy Stevenson and Kerrie Dallman
Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson, left, and Kerrie Dallman, president of the Jefferson County Education Association, said the district-union collaboration helped win a $32.8 million federal grant. <em>EdNews </em>file photo

When the Jeffco school district faced a budget crunch in 2011 – as was the case with many Colorado school districts – the board, under the leadership of Chairman David Thomas, empowered Superintendent Cynthia Stevenson and union President Kerrie Dallman to take a unique and never-done-before approach to the difficult task of negotiating budget cuts. They decided to collaborate, along with other district stakeholders, around the common value of student achievement to make decisions on what to cut.

Two representatives from the union, the district, the school board and groups from the administrators and classified staff members, attended a two-day summit. Everything was on the table from athletic fees to transportation, from teacher salaries to administrator salaries. The negotiations were made more difficult by those from both the board and union, who saw this new approach as too drastic a shift from the past. For them, giving up control to a consensual form of negotiation was not in the best interests for their respective groups.

A total of $40 million was cut from the 2011 budget. The same process was used in 2012. Because of their work both Dallman and Stevenson have been named as “Leaders to Learn From” by Education Week. Today the challenge for the district is to maintain this same level of collaboration with different players at the table. This is especially true since Dallman was elected as the new Colorado Education Association president last spring.

The level of trust and respect that the summits generated led to a collaborative decision-making process that was a significant change from the past, which had seen the board and the union engage in outright hostility and charges of the usual canard of not doing what was right for kids.

Contrast the collaborative and shared values of the Jeffco summits to what is happening today in Adams 12 Five Star School District.

For 40 years the Adams 12 school board and the District 12 Teachers Association (DTEA) have had a relatively professional and honest labor-management relationship. Not so today.

In June of last year, the school board made a unilateral decision to cut teacher’s pay by 1.5 percent to make up for a state imposed increase in PERA payments. DTEA claimed that the board had violated the master agreement, which members pointed out specifically forbid such a unilateral decision. DTEA filed a class action grievance against the board. All of this took place during negotiations for the current master agreement, which expires in August of 2014.  The negotiations have hit an impasse.

Both parties agreed to hire a fact-finder whose finding, while not binding, was accepted by the association but rejected by the board. The fact-finder found that the district does have enough revenue to “fund, at least, some of the economic adjustments, while keeping faithful (to its board policies).”

In the meantime, the labor-management relationship has deteriorated to name-calling and public displays of anger and frustration. Morale among teachers is low, which couldn’t come at a worse time as the district looks to implement new standards and standards-based grading – all of which takes extraordinary efforts on behalf of all district personnel. Charges of union busting and harassment have been aired in public and at school board meetings. Things are coming to a head in Adams 12.

Most frustrating for me is what could have been. Using the Jeffco model we could have engaged in tough decision-making with a focus on shared values of increasing student achievement and respect for each other. It will be hard, but we can turn things around. Let’s do what we expect from our students; stop and reflect on what went wrong and look to news ways to get it right and try again.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.