'oscars of teaching'

Surprise! Aurora third-grade teacher named winner of $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Teacher Jennie Schmaltz surrounded by her students at Elkhart Elementary School. (Photo courtesy of Milken Family Foundation).

An Aurora third-grade teacher who splits her time between the classroom and coaching other teachers was surprised Wednesday with a prestigious education prize that carries a $25,000 no-strings-attached check.

Jennie Schmaltz of Elkhart Elementary School is being honored with a Milken Educator Award, given annually to educators throughout the country who not only have achievements on their resumes but have plenty left to give, according to organizers.

At a gym assembly Wednesday morning, Lowell Milken, co-founder and chairman of the family foundation that gives the award, asked students who helps them do their best every day. The first student to be called on didn’t hesitate. “Teachers,” he said.

“Good teachers really do make a difference,” Milken said, sharing a sentiment backed up by research.

Schmaltz is credited with helping improve teacher retention at Elkhart. She splits her time leading a class of 23 third-graders, with coaching other teachers.

According to the district and the Milken Family Foundation, 90 percent of staff at the school say they are “pleased with the professional development and instructional coaching” she leads. Both her students and the students of teachers she coaches have been showing at least 65 percent growth, “despite multiple challenges in the student body which included parent deaths, learning disabilities and a high percentage of English Language Learners.”

But “it’s not a lifetime achievement award,” Milken said. “We believe you have the potential to accomplish even greater things.”

After she was given a few minutes to process the news, Schmaltz thanked the rest of the staff at her school, and her students.

“You achieve great things when you surround yourself with greatness,” Schmaltz said. “I learn every day from you.”

According to state data, Elkhart Elementary, a school serving a declining enrollment of about 600 students where 93 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, has been improving. In the 2012-13 school year, the school moved up in ratings to the performance category. State officials and politicians congratulated the students Wednesday for the continuing improving achievement.

The Milken Educator Award is given to up to 35 educators across the country each year through a process that starts with recommendations from sources the foundation won’t identify. Names are then reviewed by committees appointed by state departments of education, and their recommendations are vetted by the Milken Family Foundation, which picks the winners.

Teachers cannot apply for the award, which has been dubbed the “Oscars of teaching” by Teacher magazine.

Even though her mom is also a teacher, Schmaltz did not grow up planning to become an educator.

She went to the University of Colorado at Boulder, started out in journalism school and ended up with a degree in psychology.

It was a few years later when she had a child that she decided to go back to school and become a teacher instead.

Now as she works in the city she grew up in, she says she found her calling. But she said hearing her name at the assembly Wednesday still caught her by surprise.

“I kept saying ‘Oh my God, oh my God,’ and then I finally was like, that’s me,” Shmaltz said. “That was about it. The rest is a blur.”

So what will she do with the money? A few of her third-graders told her they expected candy, cookies, pizza parties and the like after giving her their best and helping her win.

Shmaltz said she is torn between using the money for the school and her students, or using it to take a trip.

“I might go to Disneyland,” she told the students.

Milken told her she is free to use it on herself. He said the financial award is meant as a recognition that teachers often make financial sacrifices in becoming teachers.

When Shmaltz called her mom to tell her she won the award — still less than an hour after the news and in a room full of her students, officials and journalists — Schmaltz started crying as her mom told her she was proud.

Then her third graders rushed to hug her and nearly tackled her to the wall.

Training teachers

More literacy coaches to bolster Tennessee’s drive to boost student reading

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

More than half of its school districts signed on last year when Tennessee created a network of literacy coaches to help classroom teachers improve their students’ reading.

Now entering the program’s second year, another 16 districts are joining up. That means two-thirds of Tennessee districts will have instructional supports in place aimed at addressing the state’s lackluster reading levels.

Tennessee has a reading problem. Less than half of its students in grades 3-8 were considered proficient in 2015, the last year for which test scores are available. In Memphis, the numbers are even more stunning. Less than a third of Shelby County Schools’ third-graders are reading on grade level.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Gov. Bill Haslam speaks during the statewide launch of Read to be Ready in 2016.

The state wants to get 75 percent of third-graders proficient by 2025. (New scores coming out this fall will help track progress.)

The coaching network is a major component of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready drive, launched in 2016 by Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. The focus is helping teachers improve literacy instruction for the state’s youngest students.

So far, some 200 coaches have worked directly with more than 3,000 teachers in 83 districts, including all four urban districts. This fall, 99 out of the state’s 146 school systems will participate.

About 92 percent of classroom teachers report that coaching is improving their teaching, even as many coaches say they are stretched too thin, according to a state report released Wednesday. Inadequate planning time for teachers is another barrier to success, the report notes.

To join the coaching network, districts must commit to funding a reading coach who will support about 15 teachers. New districts signing up this year are:

  • Scott County Schools
  • Smith County School System
  • Pickett County Schools
  • Jackson County Schools
  • Macon County Schools
  • Clay County Schools
  • Sumner County Schools
  • Dyer County Schools
  • Wayne County Schools
  • Bedford County Schools
  • Benton County Schools
  • Alamo City School
  • Polk County Schools
  • Kingsport City Schools
  • Oak Ridge Schools
  • Dayton City School

A complete list of participating districts can be found here.

Getting there

With new contract, first-year teachers in Detroit could soon make more than peers in Grosse Pointe and other suburbs

PHOTO: Detroit Public Schools Community District
First-year teachers in Detroit could soon earn more than their peers in neighboring districts. The gray bar in this chart shows where starting salaries were in Detroit last year. The green one shows how the contract could change that.

For years, Detroit’s main school district has paid some of the lowest starting teacher salaries in the region but Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says that’s about to change.

The teachers contract approved by the Detroit school board Tuesday night doesn’t include enough of a pay increase to bring city teachers back to where they were in 2011 when a state-appointed emergency manager ordered a 10 percent pay cut.

But data compiled by the Detroit district show that the new agreement, which will boost teacher wages by more than 7 percent, would pay enough that starting teachers could soon earn more than their peers in Dearborn, Grosse Pointe and other nearby districts.

“It doesn’t begin to address the injustice [of pay cuts and frozen wages] but this is a first step,” Vitti told the board as it met at Osborn High School Tuesday.

The new contract was approved last month by members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers union. Now that the school board has signed off, the contract will go to a state financial review board for final approval.

Vitti, who hopes the higher salaries will make it easier for the district to fill more than 400 vacant teaching positions, showed the board a series of charts and graphs that illustrated some effects of the new contract.

Among the charts he flashed on a screen was one that compared starting teacher salaries in Detroit to other districts, before and after the new contract. Another slide showed how salaries would change for teachers at every level of the pay scale. A third warned that the city’s main district could be careening toward a “cliff” if it doesn’t recruit enough young teachers to replace the district’s predominantly senior educators as they begin to retire.

See the charts — and additional details about the contract — below. The last page spells out other steps Vitti says he plans to take to address the teacher shortage.