Steel City Strike

Why these Colorado educators are prepared to strike: ‘Teachers are walking into classrooms that are not funded’

Members of the audience, mostly teachers and paraprofessionals, react to the 3-2 vote by the Pueblo school board to reject a recommendation for pay increases. (Chris McLean, The Pueblo Chieftain)

Teachers in Pueblo are prepared to join a national movement of educator activism and walk out of their classrooms later this year if their demand for a 2 percent raise isn’t met.

Members of the Pueblo Education Association, the southern Colorado town’s teachers union, voted last week to authorize a strike after the local school board rejected a third party recommendation that the district provide the cost-of-living pay increase the teachers were seeking during this year’s contract negotiations.

As part of its rationale for rejecting teacher raises, the board cited other budget priorities, a desire to protect funding reserves, and raises given to most teachers in the past two years. The average teacher salary this year in Pueblo is $47,617, according to state data.

The board’s vote came after the district recently decided to go to a four-day week, in part as a cost-saving measure.

The extraordinary vote — the last teacher strike in Colorado occurred in 1994 — took place as teachers across the country have left their classrooms over demands for better salaries and more school funding. So far, teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma have staged weeklong strikes. Arizona teachers are also preparing to leave their lesson plans behind.

“I think both movements, both nationally and locally, show that teachers have had enough,” Suzanne Etheridge, the Pueblo teachers union president said. “Teachers are walking into classrooms that are not funded.”

For the moment, Pueblo teachers are still in their classrooms. A strike can’t take place until after the state decides in early May whether it will step in to broker a deal.

Etheridge, in an interview with Chalkbeat, discussed the circumstances that led teachers in the 16,000-student school district to take such “drastic” action, how the national climate is fueling their effort, and how the looming strike could be resolved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. (Click here to read the district’s statement on the union’s vote to strike.)

Negotiations between the union and the district have been tense before. What’s different this time? Why did you go all the way to taking a vote for a strike?
I think what’s different this time is the true lack of openness during this round of bargaining. Although the district has accused us of never coming off our demand for 2.8 percent, which was our initial request, they also stuck to zero the whole entire time. There were also some issues, some discussions we should have had but never happened. We were invited to one budget summit that consisted of a sit-and-listen to somebody lecture the school board. So, it was just the real lack of openness and transparency through this process.

What finally tipped the balance was when the school board took its vote. Some of the comments made really angered our teachers. It felt like we were being publicly lectured asking for a cost-of-living increase. One of our board members went on about the value of younger teachers versus more experienced teachers, when we’re all valuable. There should be none of those lines drawn. We felt like some of the comments were very caustic in nature. I watched teachers’ faces at that board meeting. I watched the disappointment. I watched the hurt. I watched the anger. Our members after that were very, very upset.

You said in another interview that this wasn’t just about money, but about respect. How have Pueblo teachers been disrespected?
Educator voices are not part of the decision-making in our schools right now. At one of our schools, which is in turnaround status, they just had their lesson plan format changed for the sixth time this year. It’s the middle of April! We have very little input at the district level. We have made three open records request for the district’s staffing model for next year. And still, we’re just told no, that it’s still fluid. When they ask questions, they’re very often met with not only resistance, but are sometimes punished. It’s those sorts of things that have just added up for teachers.

There’s a five-member board. Two of the members were endorsed by the union. How did your relationship with the board break down?
The board members who voted against the fact finder report aren’t hearing teachers. What we’re trying to tell them is that a budget is about choices. And we don’t agree with some of the choices they’re making right now. One of the choices was that the instructional budget was cut, but business services had their budget increased, so did human resources. That’s a choice. The district is spending a lot of money on a law firm out of Boulder. That’s a choice. Administrators received a cost-of-living increase this year, teachers are not. More importantly our paraprofessionals have not. It’s those kind of choices we’re looking at in our budget analysis and saying, “Wait a minute.” We’ve also found money where we believe the district is over-budgeting and has some money available.

The school board president, Barb Clementi, a former teacher whom you did endorse, wrote in The Pueblo Chieftain about her vote against giving teachers a raise: “There is no question that our employees deserve more, and yet we are in a grim financial situation. Since three educators were elected to the board, teachers, paraprofessionals and other educators have seen two raises and three step increases in pay. We are struggling to continue to fund those increases in the coming budget and will undoubtedly see cuts to staff and programs in order to do so. It is fiscally irresponsible to dig an even deeper financial hole by raiding our reserves, which are meant to cover one-time emergency expenses, or by further cutting staff and programs.” I know you’re suggesting that the district doesn’t need to use reserves to pay for these raises, but more broadly, why is she wrong? Is it just possible that it’s just not the teachers’ turn for a raise? Was a guarantee of a raise next year never part of the conversation?
No, it was not. At least not until now, after all this has got rolling. We still have next year’s contract hanging out there. It’s been mentioned in some informal conversations, “Well, there’s next year.” The problem is, those raises, the past two years only came after this same process — long, drawn-out negotiations. Steps (or years of tenure) are not a raise for all of our employees. There are some places people are frozen. What the district also fails to recognize, is that in all of its years, it’s never once been on the state’s watchlist for fiscal risk. They’ve always been very healthy financially. They’ve maintained stable ground. We’ve tracked reserves through the years, and this is the first year you can see a little bit of a decrease. But that’s because the district made a choice to move some money to address facility issues, which we also understand. The other thing they neglect to mention is that the district continues to get more money from the state despite declining enrollment. They are getting additional money, and they’re set to get more money. School finance is looking a little better in Colorado for next year.

Should teachers expect to get raises every year?
I think there are ways that we need to start looking at our traditional salary scales. That should be something on the table at a future point. Do I think some of the structures of our salary schedules are a little outdated? Yes. I think there are ways we can change that to make the money a little bit better. What people also need to understand is that schools are funded by the state based on cost of living. So, I think it’s reasonable for there to be something. Does it need to be a 10 percent raise? Not necessarily, because we are dependant on state funding.

Teachers, in a lot of cases, have the same level of education as attorneys, physicians assistants, nurses. And those people can expect raises. They have a high level of education and so do our teachers. Teachers have been deprofessionalized by the lack of funding, by the lack of raises. Do I think teachers deserve to come into a profession and take care of their own families, to pay off their own students loans? Absolutely.

We’re at a moment of national unrest and action by teachers. Do you think your members are feeling embolden by that? Would your members have voted to strike if it there wasn’t this national conversation?
I think we’d still be heading here, even without the momentum. But do I think the national momentum has helped? Absolutely. I think both movements, both nationally and locally, show that teachers have had enough. Teachers are walking into classrooms that are not funded. We have teachers who (can only make) 100 copies a month from the building copier. And yet, they see 125 to 150 students a day. That’s the kind of thing teachers are tired of. My daughter-in-law, she’s a teacher, the decorations in her classroom are bought with her own money. Teachers for the last five to seven years have been put in the situation of having to buy basic supplies such as paper and pencils because schools have been so underfunded. It’s all part of the same issue. It’s about respect. No other professional would be asked to buy their supplies like teachers do.

Pueblo is the only urban school district in the state to not have voter approval for additional local funding for its schools. What do voters in Pueblo and Colorado need to know about how the financial situation is contributing to this moment?
Colorado has fallen further and further behind in school funding. Current estimates suggest we’re either 46th or 48th in funding schools. Which is really tragic considering our economy — at least in the northern part of the state — has been healthier than it’s ever been.

The other piece of this, for districts like ours that have not passed a tax increase: We’ve hurt ourselves. School districts have had to pass local tax increases to keep the cash flow coming in to do things like keep up facilities, supplies, and technology.

We desperately need one. We need a long-term, well-thought-out plan for a mill levy override and perhaps a bond issue to be able to get our schools up to date. There was supposed to be a committee to get this started. And we were supposed to be part of that committee. But it hasn’t happened.

Getting back to the potential strike, teachers at a local middle school recently staged a “sickout.” One parent responded: “If the teachers want to strike, fine: strike like the steelworkers strike where they don’t get paid a damn dime. But for them to use sick time and screw over all these kids, who’re aren’t in school today because of that? That’s wrong. And they expect the community to take them seriously?” What do you say to that parent? Are you at all concerned that this could backfire, are you worried that the district could just drop the collective bargaining all together?
That’s always a concern. That’s something we hope doesn’t happen. The association did not plan what happened at Corwin International Magnet School. I didn’t even know about it. I read it on Facebook and in the news like everyone else.

What I would say to that parent is that we’re not walking out to harm our students. In reality, we’re planning a strike to help our students. One of things that this district struggles with is high teacher turnover. It’s one of the highest rates in the state. We have positions filled this year by teachers who have come out of retirement for limited contracts. We have teachers in classrooms on alternative licenses. Finding a special education teacher in the city of Pueblo is like finding a needle in a haystack. We believe that if we can get back to work openly, honestly, and collaboratively with the school district, where we can compete salarywise with districts surrounding us, then we can keep highly qualified teachers in our classroom. That’s what we’re after. Our goal is not to harm students. But we feel like to benefit our students, we have to take drastic opinions right now.

What is the long-term solution, so a strike can be avoided and you’re not here next year?
We have made a conscious decision: We feel a 2 percent raise is fair. It’s off of our initial proposal by almost a full percent. We’d like to be able to come back to the table with some sort of real labor-management partnership collaboration agreement so we’re not here again. It’s going to take some real work. It might even take some outside help to repair our relationship. However, when we do come to the table again, I’d like to see come forward a real partnership agreement. Not one that is just written on paper.

What’s the nationwide or state solution to this moment of educator unrest?
Funding formulas across states need to be changed. States need to take a long hard look at how they fund schools. I believe Colorado’s is archaic. Will money solve everything? No. But it’s a big piece of it. We also have to get teachers to the table when education decisions have been made.

First Person

How football prepared me for my first year of teaching (but maybe not the second)

Football brought me to Memphis, and Memphis brought me to teaching.

That’s how, last August, I found myself the solo teacher for seventh grade science at a KIPP middle school in North Memphis that hadn’t had a teacher in that role make it to May in four years.

I completed and even enjoyed that year of teaching, despite its challenges. And while I don’t think my years of high school and college football gave me every tool or personality trait I needed to do that, the experience helped.

First, football taught me to perform when I was not at 100 percent. One of my former coaches used to ask ailing players, “Are you hurt, or are you injured?” in an attempt to parse the words of high schoolers. Hurt was a bruise; injured was a break. I learned to play with bruises.

I found myself asking the hurt or injured question one early morning in February, when I woke up with a throbbing headache. I was hurt, not injured. I made it in.

But physical ailments aren’t the only ones that can sideline a teacher. Teachers have bad days. Frankly, teachers can have bad weeks or months. The same can go for football players. All-star quarterbacks throw interceptions, and gutsy linebackers miss tackles.

The same coach used to tell me, “The only play that matters is the next play.” I found that true last year, too. I couldn’t go back and change the way I unduly reprimanded a student any more than a wide receiver can get another shot at catching a dropped pass.

Some days, though, you “learn” more than you bargained for. In football, those days may be when you feel like you probably should have never tried to play. Those days you drop every ball that comes your way, you forget where you’re supposed to be on every play, and you wonder if the knitting club has any openings.

Football taught me how to drown out these thoughts of inadequacy with positive visualization and by staying focused on concrete goals. As my coach used to tell us after a particularly good play, or a particularly bad one: “Never too high, never too low.” Just as the bad days will soon be washed away in the unrelenting tide of the school year, so will the good ones.

Retaining any sense of perspective on the school year was hard, and there’s no easy fix to an extended period of self-pity or frustration at a string of bad days. My goals were to help kids learn to appreciate science, and to be an adult that students felt they could go to for support. Keeping them at the front of my mind was the best help I could find.

On that note, I have a confession to make. Before my first year of teaching, I was one of those people who didn’t truly understand how difficult teaching was. The reality of how many hours teachers spend outside of school putting their lessons together never crossed my mind. The fact that planning units ahead for my students felt like scouting out my opponents didn’t make the long hours any easier. That first month of teaching was a shock to my system, and the only solution was to put my head down and go, the way I had been taught to do.

Football also left me with some loose ends. The sport taught me next to nothing about patience or about the virtues of benevolence; it never pays to be gentle on the gridiron. Football also didn’t teach me anything about working with people you don’t agree with. On a football team, everyone is united under the same cause: winning.

The parallels I discovered also raise a few uncomfortable questions. I decided to pursue an advanced degree instead of continuing to teach a second year. Does football truly inform teaching as a career, then, or just that first year? A main tenet of football is to never quit. Did I violate that by switching career paths?

Pushing past pain, and centering most hours of one’s life around one goal, can be difficult principles to build a life around. They were also valuable to me when I needed them most.

And regardless of whether football continues to be popular among young people, I hope that parents still find ways to give their kids a chance to compete — a chance to win, and more importantly, to lose.

Having to do that time and time again made me able to accept struggle in life, and it made me a better learner. I think it made me a better teacher, too.

Evan Tucker is a former teacher at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle. He is now pursuing a master’s degree in ecology. 

Miseducation

In Colorado’s high-poverty schools, many teachers are just starting their careers

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles/Chalkbeat
A first-grade student reads in Spanish in a biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary in Adams 14.

This story is part of a partnership between Chalkbeat and the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. Using federal data from Miseducation, an interactive database built by ProPublica, we are publishing a series of stories exploring inequities in education at the local level.

Koli Jamerson’s residency program gave her tools that she uses every day as a teacher, ideas for developing engaging lessons and for working with English language learners.

But it didn’t teach her how to help a student who explodes in anger because the police were at her house the night before on a domestic violence call or who cries all day because she doesn’t know where she’ll sleep that night.

Jamerson, now in her third year of teaching first grade at Altura Elementary in the Aurora school district, is still standing. She remains committed to her profession in large part due to the help of veteran teachers on her team, who provided advice as she found her footing those first couple of years.

“It helps keep things in perspective,” Jamerson said of her conversations with more experienced educators. “Otherwise, I would have been talking to a bunch of other teachers who were also drowning, and we would have drowned together.”

It’s getting hard for new teachers in Colorado to find those support systems, since the percentage of Colorado’s teachers in their first or second year in the classroom is among the highest in the nation. In 2015-16, the most recent year for which federal data is available, 17 percent of Colorado teachers were new to the classroom, compared with 12 percent nationally. Only Tennessee, Arizona, and Washington, D.C., rank higher. As recently as 2011, less than 11 percent of Colorado’s teachers were new to the classroom.

This information comes from a new interactive database from the investigative news organization ProPublica. It draws on data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and for the first time allows parents to easily search their school and district and compare it with others in the region. 

The rates of inexperienced teachers are even higher in certain rural districts and in districts where lots of students come from low-income families and face more challenges. Those districts also often have high numbers of students of color. In contrast, whiter, more affluent suburban districts tend to have low rates of inexperienced teachers.

And those numbers have significant ramifications for Colorado’s students: New teachers can bring energy and innovation to the classroom, and some, especially those with support and guidance, manage to thrive early on. But students with inexperienced teachers tend to have lower test scores on average, according to numerous studies, and new teachers often get lower scores in classroom management from their principals.

Most teachers will readily admit it takes several years to get your bearings in a profession for which no amount of classroom learning can fully prepare you.

“In reality, you get second grade one time, you get third grade one time, as a kid,” said David Singer, founder of Denver’s University Prep charter network, which has shown impressive test results even with plenty of relatively inexperienced teachers. “You deserve an excellent educator.”

Chalkbeat reviewed more recent state data that follows the typical federal definition of “inexperienced teachers” — teachers with less than three full years of classroom experience — and found that the broad trends remain true and in many cases are even more severe than they appear in the federal data. Statewide, one in four Colorado teachers was classified as inexperienced. Last school year, 31 percent of Denver Public Schools teachers were in their first three years on the job, compared with just 7 percent of teachers in the more affluent Boulder Valley School District.

The Adams 14 district, based in the working-class suburb of Commerce City, is one of the lowest-performing in the state. Last year, 45 percent of teachers there were considered inexperienced, compared with 8 percent in the south suburban Littleton district. 

In districts with so many new teachers, it becomes inevitable that students there will encounter educators who haven’t yet reached their prime.

“When a teacher is new to the profession, as with any profession, they’re not as effective,” said Allison Atteberry, an assistant professor in the research and evaluation methods program at the University of Colorado’s School of Education. “There’s a really steep learning curve in those first years. That can’t really be avoided. But if there are more of those teachers, then more students will be exposed to those teachers. And if you have districts with more at-risk students, that has major equity implications.”

Atteberry said the numbers don’t surprise her, and they reflect a perfect storm in the state’s teacher corps. Colorado has experienced rapid population growth, increasing the demand for teachers, at the same time that experienced teachers are retiring or changing careers. That means more new teachers in Colorado classrooms, even as fewer students are entering teacher preparation programs.

Colorado’s low teacher pay exacerbates retention problems. Colorado ranks 30th for teacher pay, and when those salaries are adjusted for cost of living, it falls to 44th. The competitiveness of its teacher salaries is the lowest in the nation, meaning that people who go into teaching take a bigger salary hit compared to their peers with similar levels of education. Nationally, 1 in 10 teachers will leave the profession after their first year, and many more never reach the five-year mark.

Districts around the state are asking voters to raise taxes this November in part to raise teacher pay. Better pay for educators is also a major part of the campaign for Amendment 73, a $1.6 billion statewide tax increase for schools that appears on the ballot. But Colorado voters have so far been reluctant to raise statewide taxes for schools, and critics say there is no guarantee the money will make it into teachers’ paychecks.

Atteberry said raising pay would help mitigate these trends. Beyond that, there isn’t a lot of solid research on the best ways to keep teachers in the classroom, she said, but coaching and support from other teachers can make a difference. Denver is trying a new program to ease the transition for novice teachers with more time spent observing and learning from veterans before getting sole responsibility for a classroom. But just as with teacher salaries, providing adequate coaching is expensive. And the more newcomers there are, the harder it is provide meaningful support to novices.

Denver metro area inexperienced teachers

DISTRICT Teachers with less than three years experience Students receiving subsidized lunches
Adams 14 45 percent 87.3 percent
Dougco 39 percent 12.4 percent
Sheridan 33 percent 90.4 percent
27J (Brighton) 33 percent 37.7 percent
Denver 31 percent 67.2 percent
Jeffco 31 percent 31.7 percent
Aurora 29 percent 68.7 percent
Englewood 29 percent 66 percent
Westminster 24 percent 81.4 percent
Mapleton 21 percent 60.6 percent
St. Vrain 15 percent 30.6 percent
Adams 12 11 percent 39.9 percent
Cherry Creek 9 percent 30.0 percent
Littleton 8 percent 16.8 percent
Boulder Valley 7 percent 19 percent

Source: Colorado Department of Education, 2017-18 school year

This year, for the first time, Annalee Peterson has her own fifth-grade classroom in Columbia Elementary in Colorado Springs, where a large portion of the students are homeless or face other challenges. Before starting an alternative certification process, she ran reading groups as a paraprofessional in the same building for four years. And years before that, she dropped out of a Teach for America placement in a Newark high school where she felt alone and unsupported.

Peterson said her certification program includes intensive classroom observation and feedback that has been invaluable as she made the transition from para to teacher. She also has a trusting relationship with her building principal, who encouraged her to become a teacher.

“I think every new teacher should have a mentor,” she said. “I see other teachers come in, and they don’t have it.”

Peterson said she also benefits from her school’s skilled full-time counselor, something many Colorado schools don’t have.

“If we have a kid with a fair amount of trauma, and they get triggered, they have someone they can go talk to,” she said. “And that’s a huge help. They are getting their emotional needs met, and when they come back to the classroom, they’re ready to work and ready to focus.”

The Adams 14 school district, which has spent eight years on a state watchlist due to its low-performing schools, has the highest rate of inexperienced teachers in the Denver metro area. The 7,000-student district has experienced a lot of turnover not just at the classroom level, but at the highest tiers of leadership.

With an urgent need to improve school performance, Mark Langston, the district’s new manager of educator effectiveness, tries to put a positive face on the large number of new educators that arrive each year.

“I’d rather have a phenomenal teacher for one year, than a bad teacher for many years,” Langston said. “Strong systems have a nice blend of experience.”

At the same time, he’s trying to improve the support those new teachers receive by making changes to the district’s five-day induction program to better meet their individual needs. The thinking is that a 40-year-old switching careers after running a business for 20 years might need different training from a 22-year-old recent college graduate. He’s also trying to match new teachers with mentors earlier in the school year.

But sometimes there aren’t enough mentors or he’s had to make exceptions to allow less experienced teachers to become mentors.

“They are mentoring each other,” said Barb McDowell, president of the Adams 14 teachers union, who says the churn takes a toll on teacher and student morale. “There are no veteran teachers there to help.”

Kevin Clark, a senior at Adams City High, said he always felt supported by his teachers in the district, but very few of them are still there as he enters his final year.

“For the seniors, it’s been rough,” he said. “We really value our support systems. The new teachers are trying to adjust and get their footing, but just because you send in a batch of new teachers, doesn’t mean everything is fine.”

The Denver schools with the highest percentages of inexperienced teachers in 2015-16 include a number of alternative high schools, high-poverty district-run schools, and charter schools. Some of the charter schools are part of high-performing networks whose students do well on state tests.

One of them is University Prep. The homegrown Denver network has two elementary schools, one of which posted the most academic progress in Colorado on state math tests in 2017. But in 2015, the network had just one school — and 42 percent of the teachers there were in their first or second year of teaching, according to the federal data.

At University Prep, some first-year teachers have taken part in a teacher residency program or in a program that has college students work as paraprofessionals while earning their degrees.

“When you think about that individual exiting their undergraduate [education] having spent four years in a building with master teachers, getting all the supports they need to grow, they’re ready to teach on Day 1,” said Singer, the network’s founder.

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Students at University Prep Elementary’s flagship school in Denver

Even so, the network provides its first-year teachers with extra support, he said, such as real-time coaching in the classroom, opportunities to observe more experienced teachers, and help with how to plan a lesson or conduct a parent-teacher conference.

Atteberry said successful charter schools with high rates of inexperienced teachers may be doing something different in the hiring process, looking for “spark teachers who really want to make a difference.”

The high rates of new teachers at some charter schools raise questions, though, about how sustainable the work environment is, and some of these same “spark” teachers may never intend to make a lifelong career of it and instead move on to other challenges. Asked about turnover, Singer said some University Prep teachers have left to pursue careers in medicine and law.

Denver metro area data show another exception to the trend in Douglas County. It’s an affluent and sprawling district southwest of Denver where just 12 percent of students get subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty. But in 2015-16, 31 percent of teachers were in their first or second year in the classroom, and in 2017-18, 39 percent had less than three years experience.

Kallie Leyba, president of the Douglas County Federation, the teachers union there, said Douglas used to be a “destination district” that teachers aspired to work for. But political upheaval, the election of a conservative school board that has since been replaced, and a “market rate” pay structure that remains have caused experienced teachers to leave in droves — some for much higher salaries in nearby Cherry Creek schools.

The Douglas County pay scale means that teachers with the same amount of experience might make very different salaries. Leyba herself faced the prospect of a lower ceiling on her salary when her building principal asked her to switch from a first grade to a second grade classroom because first-grade teachers are more in demand.

“Even though I knew this was a crazy system, it really hurt to feel like my value had gone down in the eyes of my principal,” she said.

What could Colorado do to get more of today’s inexperienced teachers to become tomorrow’s veteran educators?

Money is a big part of the answer. As it stands, Colorado teachers can earn significantly more money by moving to another state, and with teacher salaries less competitive here than elsewhere, teachers also look to other professions that offer less stress along with better pay.

“The No. 1 thing we should do is increase the prestige and value of teachers in society, and the way we signal that in our society is through salary and compensation,” Atteberry said. “That has a huge influence on who goes into the profession and on who stays.

“This is not an easy change because it costs a lot of money, and it also requires us to change how we think about teachers, but it is the policy that would be most effective.”

Chalkbeat reporters Melanie Asmar and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this story.