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.

Future of Teaching

Undocumented students face hurdles getting into college. Here’s how Indiana teachers have helped them succeed

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Cinthia, Jessika Osborne, Angela Adams, and Karina Garduño were panelists featured in a discussion moderated by Mike Elsen-Rooney, a reporter with the Teacher Project. The event focused on undocumented students' access to college.

Navigating the college admissions process can be a challenge for any student, but in Indiana, undocumented students can face extra hurdles in pursuing higher learning. That’s because Indiana is one of just six states that prohibits undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition rates at public universities.

Helping Indiana teachers identify pathways to college — and through college — for their undocumented students was a focus of a panel discussion Wednesday, put on by WFYI Public Media and the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School. Educators in the state say that in recent years, they have noticed an increase in undocumented students in their classroom, and many of these students assume that higher education is out of reach for them.

Under federal law, all students must be allowed to attend public K-12 schools, regardless of immigration status. But access to public colleges in Indiana is inextricably tied to immigration status. While it’s possible for undocumented students to be accepted at and to enroll in colleges, entrance exams and figuring out how to cover the tuition, can be tricky, especially because undocumented students can’t receive federal student aid. They also worry that the application process puts themselves and their families at greater risk of deportation.

Wednesday’s event was held at the WFYI offices in Indianapolis and brought out dozens of educators, students, and community members. The gathering was part of an ongoing series about the intersection of education and immigration.

The panel featured Cinthia, an undocumented student who graduated from Emmerich Manual High School in 2015. Cinthia did not provide her last name because of her immigration status. She spoke passionately about how instrumental her English-as-a-new-language teacher, Jessika Osborne, was in eventually getting her to college and ensuring she felt safe once there.

“She’s always been in my life,” Cinthia said. “I felt like Osborne would protect me no matter what.”

Cinthia, Osborne, and two other panelists answered questions and participated in a moderated discussion about advice for other educators struggling with how best to help their students who are undocumented pursue higher education.

Read more: Should undocumented students be afraid? These are their rights.

Work to build trust.

Karina Garduño, IUPUI’s assistant director of multicultural planning and another panelist, said one of the biggest hurdles for teachers is determining which of their students might be undocumented, and therefore might need extra help with the college admissions process.

Garduño said the first step is establishing a good rapport. When students trust you and feel comfortable, they are more likely to disclose their immigration status and open up about whether or not they need assistance with the college process.

“A lot of these students will not share this information with just anybody,” Garduño said.

Making the time to do this outreach is no easy feat for many educators in the state. Garduño said she’s known guidance counselors who are responsible for hundreds of students. Such ratios aren’t uncommon in Indiana or across the country.

“As much as you are well-intentioned and really want to help, your human capacity is not necessarily always there because you have so many students to serve and they each have so many individual needs,” she said.

Osborne said she, too, has felt overwhelmed juggling her classroom responsibilities with the intense needs of her students, especially amid changing policies around immigration and undocumented populations. Still, she’s seen how consistent effort to build trust with students can pay off.

“There wasn’t a time where I remember Cinthia saying, ‘I’m undocumented,’” Osborne said. Rather, there were just hints over time that Cinthia needed help applying for college and getting paperwork that proved she was in school.

To help students like Cinthia, Osborne said she sometimes gives up her lunch hour and planning time. She also makes herself available after school and before sports practices begin.

Don’t panic.

Angela Adams, also a panelist and an Indianapolis-based immigration attorney, said she gets a lot of questions about whether teachers need to report students who disclose they are undocumented, or whether helping them is “aiding and abetting” some kind of crime.

“First of all, don’t panic,” Adams said. “You’re not doing anything wrong by not reporting this person or by having this person in your classroom.”

Adams said FERPA, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act that protects certain information about students, applies here.

“You can’t disclose to third-parties even if you wanted to — you’d probably be losing your job,” Adams said.

Know your limits.

Adams and Garduño encouraged teachers to be supportive, but not to go beyond their roles as educators. For example, they can reassure their students that they won’t tell anyone about their plight without their permission. But they shouldn’t be giving out legal advice. Rather, they can recommend speaking with an immigration attorney.

“Be careful,” Adams said. “Because you don’t know what you don’t know … you could end up getting someone in a worse situation even if you’re trying to do the right thing.”

And in the meantime, panelists advocated that teachers familiarize themselves with available resources, such as the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance, La Plaza, and the Indiana Latino Institute.

In the classroom, Osborne suggested teachers identify when it might be wise to avoid working in large groups on college-related assignments. At Manual, she said, students have been taken in groups to a computer lab to fill out college financial aid forms. But undocumented students might not feel comfortable in that setting — and some just didn’t show up, she said.

Osborne said her department has also held smaller parent nights for information about immigration, the college application process, and the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Most of all, Cinthia said, she appreciated that Osborne and other teachers never made her feel like her dream to complete her education and become a nurse was out of reach — even if she faced more challenges along the way.

“Don’t make them feel like they’re not going to finish,” Cinthia said. “Just help them and support them through the whole way.”

positive discipline

How this Indiana district is rethinking discipline to keep kids in school

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Warren Township administrators are taking a new approach to discipline — often forgoing traditional punishments, such as suspensions, in favor of interventions that better support the children who have gotten into trouble.

It’s called “positive discipline,” and it takes into account that traumatic events, such as a parent in jail, the loss of a family member, or homelessness, may be at the root of a child’s misbehavior. In those cases, experts say making a home visit or providing mentoring — paired with a consequence such as detention — can be more beneficial than forcing a student, who may need help, out of school.

“Children have problems at school because of things that have happened in their background,” JauNae Hanger, president of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana. said. “As educators we’ve got to be cognizant of that.”

The result of these more mindful discipline policies: better care for students, and fewer students missing class.

This softer approach to discipline is gaining traction throughout the United States, particularly as schools confront high suspension and expulsion rates that have been found to unfairly target students of color.

Indiana in particular has grappled with such disproportionately harsh discipline for black students. Now, the state is establishing guidelines for educators to use this new approach in their own classrooms.

“Even one detention in the ninth grade can increase the risk of a child going into the juvenile justice system,” Hanger said. “School discipline data suggests that we do have a problem. It’s a statewide problem.”

Through a new state law passed this year, the Indiana Department of Education is developing a best practice model for districts like Warren Township that are interested in implementing “positive discipline,” which seeks to teach rather than to punish.

The model will provide ways to reduce out-of-school suspension and inequities in discipline, to limit referrals to law enforcement or arrests on school grounds, and to draft or strengthen policies that address issues of bullying on school property.

Schools are not required to adopt the best practice model, nor are they required to reduce their suspensions and expulsions, but the state must provide information and support to districts upon request.

“Operating in the mode of punishment without supports is not productive for families or kids,” said James Taylor, Warren Township’s director of student services. “We want to support families as much as we can because we’re the first line of defense before the juvenile system.”

Warren Township is one of seven Indiana districts that participated in specialized training last year to learn how to respond to misbehavior in a way that considers what’s happening in a student’s life outside of the classroom. Children in poverty are more likely than their peers to experience traumatic events.

The training is hosted by the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, which is known for its efforts around reforming laws, policies, and practices to keep children in school and out of the criminal justice system. Training comprises a two-day summit and four one-day sessions during the course of a year.

Each session is designed for a different group of school employees, including administrators, teachers, and school resource officers. The final session brings everyone together for cross-disciplinary training, team building, and strategic planning.

Jim Sporleder is a trauma-informed coach who helps lead positive discipline training sessions across the U.S., including Indiana. He has seen how adopting a different mindset on discipline can be difficult: “It’s going against tradition,” Sporleder said. “It’s going against how we were raised.”

That was an early challenge for Warren Township schools. The strategy requires “a paradigm shift,” Taylor said.

“Everybody has to be on board, but everybody’s not always on board,” he said. “It’s tough to get people out of that mindset that this kid really painted a black eye for our school, and how do we move past the pain and the hurt of the situation when it happens?”

At Warren Central High School, 584 out of 3,710 students received out-of-school suspensions before the district began taking this new approach in 2016-17. But last year, when the district started the positive discipline training, the number of out-of-school suspensions decreased by more than 15 percent, according to state data.

Warren Township now outlines its approach to positive discipline in its student handbook, which defines discipline on the cover as, “instruction that corrects, molds, or perfects character and develops self-control.”

At the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, Hanger said she uses schools’ discipline data to identify schools with a high rate of suspensions and where leaders are willing to address the issue. She and her team are still collecting data, but they believe suspensions will go down within the first year of training.

Suspensions have long been a problem in Indiana: During the 2012-13 school year, one in 10 Indiana students were suspended. For black students, the number was even greater — one in five.

However, some groups that represent educators have had concerns about how to roll out this approach effectively. Tim McRoberts, associate executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said he doesn’t want schools to restrict how teachers can discipline students. Teachers still need to have a full range of options when dealing with incidents.

Still, he said he supports keeping students in school.

Sporleder, the trainer, said that in order for a shift toward positive discipline to work, the entire school has to change the way it looks at all students.

“Some people separate out who’s trauma and who’s not,” Sporleder said. “We can’t do that because we don’t know. Your most compliant student in classroom could be most traumatized. Trauma isn’t a checklist. It’s who you are.”