Parent-to-Para

How the Adams 14 school district is empowering parents to join the classroom

A parent volunteer works with two kindergarteners on reading as part of a pilot program at Dupont Elementary School in Adams County that is training parents to become paraprofessionals.

Raeann Javier would like to know what she can do to help her second-grader read better. Sometimes, sitting with her daughter, the best she could offer was, “You know how to do this.”

Javier, a single mother, also would love to land another job to earn more for her family.

A pilot program launched by Adams 14 School District in Commerce City may help her with both.

The school district is trying to build more knowledgeable, active parents through classes and volunteer time working with young students struggling to read. For those who are interested, the program also provides parents a path to become paraprofessionals, or teacher’s aides.

The initiative is one way the nearly 8,000-student suburban district — facing state intervention this year after years of poor academic performance — is trying to turn things around.

District surveys found parents were looking for ways to become more supportive.

Javier, one of 17 mothers in the program, said she already feels like she has become a more patient parent less than a month in. She also is interested in becoming a paraprofessional to supplement the income she earns as an at-home nurse.

“It’s a little bit tough. I make it work,” Javier said. “But this would really, really help.”

Other parents taking part in the pilot program already were volunteers at their kids’ schools.

“They usually just did the normal things like helping with copying or sorting papers,” said Jesse Martinez, Adams 14’s director for family and community engagement. “But we really wanted to change that dynamic. We wanted to pull in our parents to tap their potential and bring them in to support their children.”

One of the parent volunteers, Susana Torres, was an elementary school teacher for 10 years before coming to the United States. Now with three children in district schools, Torres jumped at the opportunity to get back into a classroom.

“This is my thing,” Torres said. “I love the program.”

Torres also helps other Spanish-speaking moms who are part of the program. She said that even though they don’t have the teaching background she does, the program has made it easy for all of them to learn to help kids. “All you need is a passion to make change,” she said.

Pat Almeida, the principal of Dupont Elementary, where the program is being piloted, said the goal is also to help more students become proficient in reading before third grade — especially those who are not far behind but just need a boost to get to grade level.

“We’re able to give them more repetition so they can apply that to their reading,” Almeida said. “If they’re able to have more repetition, their progress is going to be accelerated.”

Dupont Elementary is among the Adams 14 schools that is struggling, though the school isn’t yet facing sanctions like the district as a whole is this year.

District officials have been working on setting up reforms all year to present to the state as a suggestion for their corrective action, including getting help from an outside company for developing curriculum and testing. Increasing parental engagement through this and other new efforts, like having teachers visit families at home, are part of the work to improve the district.

The parent-to-para program is being funded with money from the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation (Rose also supports Chalkbeat) and Climb Higher Colorado, a coalition of advocacy groups that support strong academic standards and tests.

At Dupont, while the parent volunteers work with almost 75 students that they pull out of class for about an hour, teachers can spend the time in class working with students who need the most help.

An instructional coach supervises the moms to work with groups of two to six students and helps them plan lessons each day for kids.

During one lesson this week, parents were helping kindergarteners learn how to differentiate between capital and lowercase letters and how to sound out words. Some students were still having trouble identifying letters, while one boy was writing words so quickly he was standing up, moving around and at one point fell.

The volunteers said it’s rewarding to see the kids catching on.

“Knowing that just a little bit of our time can help them is a good feeling,” said volunteer Adelaida Guerrero. “It’s an excellent opportunity for them and for us.”

For Maria Rodriguez, the program has unexpectedly given her another benefit — bringing her closer to her teenage daughters. She said she joined the program because when a bilingual program for her two oldest daughters was removed seven years ago, she had stopped being able to help them on their school work.

When Rodriguez heard about the program, she thought she could prepare to help her younger children, a second and third grader, before they too required more help than she could offer.

“It’s brilliant,”Rodriguez said. “I’ve been helping them work on their vowels.”

Within the last week, the two older girls came to Rodriguez complaining that she hadn’t ever worked to help them in the same way, and asking to join in during the at-home lessons. Over time, the girls had kept their ability to speak Spanish, but never learned how to write it. Now they were asking to learn alongside their younger siblings.

“They have that apathy of adolescence that makes them not always want to get close to us as parents,” Rodriguez said, tearing up as she recalled the moment. “I honestly felt really good.”

School shootings

Parkland teacher to future Indiana educators: Don’t be afraid to become a teacher

PHOTO: Provided by Indiana University Communications
Indiana University alumna Katherine Posada, an English teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, speaks to IU School of Education students on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. Posada survived a mass shooting at the Parkland, Florida school where 17 students and teachers were killed by a former student.

Anxious students about to embark on their teaching careers might be even more worried about life in the classroom after the recent shootings at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

But after surviving last week’s attack that killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, teacher Katherine Posada wanted to ease the fears of education students at her alma mater, Indiana University.

On Friday morning, she spoke to an auditorium of about 200 people in Bloomington about huddling with her 22 students while the school was on lockdown.

Posada acknowledged hard truths: that teachers can do their best to help struggling students, but there will be some — like alleged shooter Nikolas Cruz, who had been expelled from the school — who they won’t be able to save.

But her clear passion for teaching, and her hope for change for safer schools, rang through.

“Please don’t let this type of event discourage you or make you be afraid to become a teacher,” Posada said. “Because in this world, it is more important now than it ever has been to be able to give these messages to our students, and to be able to prepare them for the world they’re about to go into.”

Here are some excerpts from Posada’s talk:

On why she thinks arming teachers is a “terrible idea”:

“Teaching is about relationships, and it’s about respect. And if I am armed, and I have a weapon, my students no longer respect me. They respect my weapon. They fear my weapon. And I become a threat to them, or a potential threat to them.”

Posada said she supports safety measures such as requiring students to wear IDs and limiting access to schools by keeping entrances locked. But she said she believes it could have been dangerous for her to have a gun on the day of the shooting, particularly when law enforcement cleared the building.

“The first thing that we saw was the barrel of a rifle pointed at us,” she said. “I understand that they had to assess whether or not there was a threat in the room, but they’re pointing guns at us, and they’re shouting, and they’re saying, ‘Hands up! Get in the middle of the room!’

“If I’d had a gun at that moment, they would have shot me. Because they’re there to assess a threat. They’re not there to say, ‘Hmm, this person looks like a mild-mannered 10th-grade teacher who’s not a threat to me.’ … I don’t ever want them to wonder if I’m a threat to them.”

On Parkland students’ gun-control activism after the shooting:

“They are articulate and inspiring and educated. And they didn’t get there by accident.

“They got there because of people like you in this room. Because of their teachers. Because of people who have taught them to think critically about important issues. Because of people who have taught them how to formulate their words and given them the opportunity to practice those things, and educators who have told them they can change the world.”

On how teachers can prepare for school shootings:

“Many of you are wondering if you will ever be able to be prepared for a situation like a school shooting. Yes, you can be logistically prepared. You will do trainings, and you will do the drills, and you will talk to students, and you will know exactly what to do in those situations. But I will tell you, you can never be emotionally prepared for what that is like.”

But Posada said even if you’re in shock, your instincts will kick in.

“You do what you have to do to protect your kids. And that’s what they are: Every student who comes into your classroom, as an educator, is your kid. You form relationships with them, and you’ll do whatever it takes to protect them. You’ll know what to do.”

On what she really teaches in her 10th-grade English class:

“Empathy and the ability to relate to other people.

“Any time you pick up a book, you are putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. You are looking at the world from someone else’s perspective for that 300 pages, or whatever it is that you’re reading. That’s such an important thing to be able to do in this world where we are so polarized. It’s so ‘us versus them.’ ‘If you don’t agree with what I say, you must be a terrible, horrible person.’ I think we get caught up in that way of thinking far too often. … It’s OK to disagree with each other, you just have to do so respectfully.”

Posada said she teaches students to think critically by articulating their own arguments — and understanding other perspectives.

“I really try not to let my own personal views come across in the classroom. It’s not my job as an educator to tell my students what to think. It’s my job to teach them how to think for themselves.”

On how she plans to go back to school after the shooting:

“In many ways, I don’t think it will ever be the same.”

Posada expects students’ first days back will be devoted to talking about the shooting.

“I was in the middle of reading Macbeth when we left. How am I going to do that? How am I going to go back and read Macbeth to them at this point? Would anybody care? I don’t think so.”

She said she may shift her lesson plans to be more meaningful, to include a project for students to research and present on issues they feel passionately about.

“I don’t know that we’ll go back to Macbeth. I am going to teach the standards, maybe in just a little bit of a different way. .. I think it would be a disservice to the students to jump back into, let’s do some SAT prep.”

On being “more than just a deliverer of curriculum”:

“I feel like I’m their mom sometimes. I feel like I’m their parent. I think sometimes they’d rather I didn’t feel that way, because I expect a lot of my students, and sometimes I call them on stuff that they’d rather you let slide. … Some of them need an adult who can be a role model, or who can be someone they can talk to, because they don’t have that anywhere else. You feel like a therapist sometimes. So yeah, you’re definitely more than just a deliverer of curriculum. That would be easier, probably, less stressful, but you’re more than that.”

Her relationship with her students, Posada said, helps her see red flags in their behavior, in their writing, or from other students, in cases in which students may need counseling.

“Unfortunately, we can’t catch every single incident,” she said. “But you do the best you can.”

On whether there is “room in our hearts to love kids like Nikolas,” the alleged shooter:

“I think that the answer to things like this is more love, more understanding. More willingness to accept other people and their points of view and the way they might feel and the way they might think and to be open to everyone expressing themselves. So I think there’s room. It might take us awhile to get there, but I definitely think it’s possible.”

another round

New York wants to overhaul its teacher evaluations — again. Here’s a guide to the brewing battle.

PHOTO: Kyle Taubken

State policymakers recently dipped their toes into one of New York’s most politically charged education issues: teacher evaluations.

At a meeting this month, state education department officials outlined plans to revamp the unpopular teacher-rating system, which was essentially put on hold more than two years ago. Shortly after, the state teachers union called for faster action setting the stage for a new round of evaluation debates.

To help explain the brewing debate, Chalkbeat has created a guide to the current evaluations, how they came to be, and what might be in store for them.

Here’s what you need to know:

How do New York’s teacher evaluations work now?

Teachers are evaluated based on two components: students’ academic improvement and principals’ observation of their teaching.

Every district creates its own state-approved evaluation plan that spells out how they will measure student learning. In 2015, state policymakers temporarily banned the use of grades 3-8 math and English state tests in evaluations.

In New York City, teams of educators at each school pick from a menu of assessments called “Measures of Student Learning.” Among the options are developed essay-based tasks and “running records,” where students are assessed as they read increasingly difficult texts. They can also choose to include the results of science tests or high-school graduation exams. (Certain teachers — such as those who teach physical education — are evaluated based partly on their students’ scores in other subjects.)

Teachers receive one score based on how much students improved academically, and another based on principals’ ratings. The combined scores are translated into one of four ratings, ranging from “highly effective” to “ineffective.”

Teacher evaluations must still be a factor in tenure decisions and three “ineffective” ratings can trigger a teacher’s firing.

What are the outcomes of the current system?

Nearly 97 percent of New York City teachers earned the top two ratings of either “effective” or “highly effective” in the 2016-17 school year, according to preliminary numbers presented by the city teachers union president at a meeting in October. That is an increase from the previous year when 93 percent of teachers earned one of those ratings.

How did we get here?

Until 2010, teachers were rated either “satisfactory” and “unsatisfactory,” and individual districts and principals were given latitude to determine how those ratings were assigned.

But in order to win a federal “Race to the Top” grant that year, New York adopted a new evaluation system that factored in students’ standardized test scores — a move strongly opposed by many teachers, who consider the tests an unreliable measure of their performance. The new system was based on a 100-point scale that allotted 20 points to state tests, 20 points to local tests, and 60 points to principal observations.

The battle lines were redrawn again in 2015, when state lawmakers led by Gov. Andrew Cuomo sought to make it tougher for teachers to earn high ratings. The new system allowed for as much as half of a teacher’s rating to be based on test scores.

But that plan was never fully implemented. Following a wave of protests in which one in five New York families boycotted the state tests, officials backed away from several controversial education policies.

In late 2015, the state’s Board of Regents approved a four-year freeze on the most contentious aspect of the teacher evaluation law: the use of students’ scores on the grades 3-8 math and English tests. They later allowed districts to avoid having independent observers rate teachers — another unpopular provision in the original law.

Why is the state looking to overhaul the system now?

Over the past few years, state policymakers have revised New York’s learning standards and the annual exams that students take. Now, they are turning to the evaluation system.

The moratorium on the use of certain test scores in teacher evaluations expires after next school year, so the clock is ticking for state education officials to come up with a new system. They have said they hope to have a new system ready for the 2019-2020 school year — but they also floated the idea of extending the moratorium in order to give themselves more time.

What could change?

Everything is up for debate.

First, state policymakers must decide whether to create a single statewide evaluation system or let local school districts craft their own, as the state teachers union is urging.

Second, they must decide what to put in the evaluations. Should they include test scores, principal observations, or other measures? If they allow tests, they must determine which kinds to use and how much to weigh student scores.

However, they may run up against some obstacles. Besides the relatively short timeline, major changes to the evaluation system could require state lawmakers to revise the underlying legislation. And any new student-learning measures they hope to use could prove costly to develop.

Who are the key players and what do they want?

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has made it clear she wants to oversee a careful redesign process that will involve teachers and could lead to a revamped, statewide evaluation system. “This isn’t going to be a fast process,” Elia said during a legislative hearing at the end of January.

State teachers union officials have called for a much quicker process that results in local school districts crafting their own evaluations — a move that could eliminate the use of test scores. “First and foremost, the teachers that we represent believe that the time to fix [teacher evaluation] is this year,” said Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of the New York State United Teachers, after the state outlined its plan earlier this month. Since then, union officials have said they want to work collaboratively with the education department.

Gov. Cuomo has shied away from this issue after pushing for the deeply unpopular 2015 law that tried to toughen evaluations and inflamed the teachers unions. And he does not appear eager to revisit the issue this year as he seeks reelection. His spokeswoman, Abbey Fashouer, told Chalkbeat: “We will revisit the issue at the appropriate time,” and noted that the moratorium will remain in effect until the 2019-20 school year.

State lawmakers have not indicated that overhauling the teacher-evaluation law this year is a top priority.

During a city teachers union event in December, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he was not sure the state could get to a “final idea” by the end of this year — but that he wanted to “start the dialogue.” The senate majority leader, John Flanagan, did not respond to a request for comment.

“I have not heard any movement on teacher evaluations this year,” said Patricia Fahy, a Democratic assemblymember who represents Albany, in an interview this week. “Normally something about that would be bubbling up already.”