meet the new boss

New Colorado teachers union chief: Spring walkouts raised public awareness of school needs

PHOTO: Courtesy CEA
Colorado Education Association President Amie Baca-Oehlert

Amie Baca-Oehlert, a school counselor from the Adams 12 district north of Denver, recently took the helm of the 35,000-member Colorado Education Association. She’s served as the vice president of the state’s largest teachers union since 2012, working closely with recent president Kerrie Dallman. In that time, union-backed candidates have gained ground on school boards across the Front Range, while at the statehouse, the union fended off efforts to weaken licensure and partnered with conservatives to roll back standardized tests. But the last session ended with a political defeat: Changes to the public employee pension system significantly raised the retirement age for teachers.

Baca-Oehlert was elected as president in April, on the heels of two days of teacher protests at the Capitol that shut down schools across the state. She takes over as the union faces an uncertain political environment. Teacher protests generated renewed engagement, but the union’s preferred gubernatorial candidate lost the Democratic primary. There’s a competitive governor’s race, control of the state Senate is also up for grabs, and a third attempt to raise taxes for education could appear on the ballot. What happens in November could open up new possibilities to advance the union’s agenda or shut doors.

Baca-Oehlert recently sat down with Chalkbeat to talk about her top priorities, whether she has any regrets about wading into the primary, and what the lasting impact of April’s teacher walkouts might be.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been in a leadership position with CEA since 2012. As you take over as president, what are the biggest challenges? What are your top priorities?

School funding certainly is top of mind and something we need to continue to work toward, to make sure that every child regardless of where they live here in Colorado has access to a quality public education.

And teacher voice, ensuring that the professionals … are honored and respected and listened to. That’s something I really value as a leader. They are the ones closest to the students doing the work.

When (immediate past president) Kerrie Dallman took over, she said in an interview that the union couldn’t just be the voice of no, that the union had to present a positive vision of reform. Do you still feel like that’s important politically or do you feel like the political environment has changed?

There is broader understanding that our schools aren’t broken or something that needs to be fixed, but we aren’t necessarily doing right by our schools or by our students, and that gets back to funding. When you look back at the last 10 years of underfunding our schools and what that has done, what that has meant to schools and communities, there is broader understanding that we need to support our schools. We need to resource our schools. We need to give the educators and teachers working with students the tools and resources they need to serve students’ needs, whether that be more mental health supports, things for school safety, down to supplies. We put out a report that teachers are spending on average $656 a year on supplies for their students.

There’s a good likelihood there will be a tax increase to fund education on the ballot in November. We’ve been here before in Colorado. What can you do to have a different outcome this time?

It’s doing that talking to people, sharing our stories. I think one of the most powerful things from the April Days of Action was people were able to tell their stories. It shifted the conversation. People were able to really see and understand what’s happening in our public schools and how educators in Colorado are treated. They definitely have to have bachelor’s degrees. Many of them have master’s degrees, yet they’re working two and three jobs, many of their own children are on free- and reduced-[price] lunch. We were able to help people understand that we have one of the fastest-growing economies in the country, yet we’re treating our educators and our students in this manner. People were able to share those stories and help people understand we can and should do better by the students of Colorado.

You waded into the Democratic primary, not only endorsing Cary Kennedy but also running pretty negative ads against Mike Johnston and Jared Polis. Polis is now the nominee. Do you have any regrets about that?

We didn’t run those ads, that’s an independent expenditure committee that ran those ads. But I don’t regret that we as an organization went into the primary. We wanted to ensure there was a candidate who was a champion for students and public education and that education was going to be something that mattered in this election for governor. I certainly believe there was a lot of talk about education and education became an issue in the governor’s race. I believe it still will be in the general election. We have an internal process for how we recommend candidates, and that process will be going on for the general election.

Just for the record, you were a significant donor to the independent expenditure committee that ran those ads.

Yes, we did contribute.

Do you have any concerns that if there is a Polis administration, he won’t be as receptive to the perspective that you all bring?

No. The union is 35,000 educators across Colorado who are Colorado citizens. I would hope that anyone sitting in the governor’s office would understand the value and the need to listen to educators, to hear their voices and have educators at the table as partners.

Is that true also if Walker Stapleton is the next governor? As state treasurer, Stapleton advocated changes to the Public Employees Retirement Association pension system that were strongly opposed by the teachers union. There’s a challenging history there. What do you see as your job if there’s a Republican in the governor’s office?

My job is to come to the table. No matter if it’s a Democrat or a Republican, it’s about coming to the table to do what’s best for students and public education. My role as president of the CEA would be to share our issues, share our concerns, and hopefully work together to do what’s right.

In the conversation about school funding, many conservatives ask what kind of outcomes we’ll get if we invest more in schools. They also raise the issue of teacher effectiveness and being really rigorous about having a highly effective teacher in every classroom. What’s your answer to that? What improvements can we expect if we invest more?

What we can expect is we can have a system that’s supporting students, supporting their needs, and that in turn leads to greater student success. We’ve seen what the underfunding of our schools has done. We have more students who have significant mental health needs. We have more students who are entering into school without enough food, without school supplies, who sometimes don’t even have shoes. When we can meet students needs, we know it leads to greater student success.

We’ve not been afraid of teacher accountability or teacher evaluation. It’s been an unfunded mandate, and districts have not been able to implement that system well.

In addition to more resources, is there anything you would support to improve student achievement?

Beyond resources? There are certainly things we could look at in terms of teacher recruitment and teacher retention and how we’re providing professional development. And that’s something we’ve been very heavily involved in with our COpilot program, online, teacher-provided, vetted, professional development that meets an individual teachers needs.

I think we also need to look really closely at how we’re supporting educators in those first one to three years. If you look at the medical field, you don’t get a six-week training and then you’re off on your own. You get several years of side-by-side. We could really look at how we support that teacher in their first one to three years and doing more collaboration and more co-teaching before you are off on your own.

One of the other things we need to look at is the whole role of social-emotional needs of students. My background is as a school counselor so I have a lot of experience in that work and knowledge. I definitely believe a child cannot learn if they are not safe socially and emotionally. That has gone out of our curriculum in a lot of places, and we need to look at what we can do in our system so we’re helping the whole child and not just that academic side.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, was recently quoted as saying teachers unions are becoming more political, not less. Do you agree with that?

We just need to maintain what we’ve been doing. I agree that we certainly don’t need to become less political. The nature of public education is political. We elect school board members who make decisions about what happens in our classrooms. We elect legislators who make decisions. It is a political job. In that sense, you have to engage in that work to have some sense of control over what’s happening to you as a professional. Again, we are seeing people really come to realize that. We saw that with the April Days of Action. People are realizing, “I have a voice. We have a process. We live in a democratic country and we have an ability and a responsibility to exercise that voice and come together.” People are not going to sit by and just watch things happen to them. People are going to exercise their voice and come together.

What did you gain by the teacher walkouts in April and how will we see that reverberate going forward?

The biggest gain was the public awareness that came out of that. I think a lot of people were just not aware of what the last 10 years of underfunding our schools has meant, what the impact on individual educators and students has been.

It was very validating for many of our members who often feel like being a teacher is a very difficult job. There are a lot of expectations on you, and sometimes you don’t hear the thankfulness or the gratitude people have. Just the honks and the support and the people saying, “we stand with you,” that gave them a boost. It kind of reinvigorated them to say, “I have a voice, and I can use my voice to make a difference for myself and my profession and my students.”

 

School choice

Secret CPS report spotlights big vacancies, lopsided options for students

The school district says the report will help inform how it invests in and engages with communities. Communities groups worry the document will be used to justify more school closings, turnarounds and charters.

An unreleased report by a school choice group backed by the business community paints in stark detail what many Chicagoans have known for years: that top academic schools are clustered in wealthier neighborhoods, and that fewer black and Latino students have access to those schools.

The report highlights startling figures: About 27 percent of black students are in the district’s lowest-rated schools, compared with 8 percent of Latino students and 3 percent of whites. It also says that while Chicago Public Schools has more than 150,000 unfilled seats, 40 percent, or 60,000 of them, are at top-ranked schools. That surplus will grow as enrollment, which has been plummeting for years, is projected to decline further by 5.1 percent over the next three years. What that means is the cash-strapped district is moving toward having nearly one extra seat for every two of its students.

The document effectively shows that, in many areas of the city, students are skipping out on nearby options, with less than half of district students attending their designated neighborhood schools.

In a city still reeling from the largest mass school closure in U.S. history, this report could lay groundwork for another round of  difficult decisions.

The “Annual Regional Analysis” report, compiled by the group Kids First Chicago on CPS’ behalf, has been circulating among select community groups but has not been made public. It comes on the heels of a report showing students’ high school preferences vary with family income level. Students from low-income neighborhoods submit more applications than students from wealthier ones and apply in greater numbers for the district’s charter high schools.

The group behind the latest report has had many iterations: Kids First is a new name, but its origins date back to 2004, when it started as the charter fundraising group Renaissance Schools Fund. That was during the Renaissance 2010 effort, which seeded 100 new schools across the city, including many charters. The group changed its name to New Schools Chicago in 2011 and again rebranded this year as Kids First, with a greater focus on parent engagement and policy advocacy.

The report has caused a stir among some community groups who’ve seen it. Because the school district has used enrollment figures to justify closing schools, some people are worried it could be used to propose more closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

“To me this is the new reason [for school closings],” said Carolina Gaeta, co-director of community group Blocks Together, which supports neighborhood schools. “Before it was academics, then it was utilization, now it’s going to be access and equity. Numbers can be used any way.”

In a statement on the report, Chicago Teachers Union Spokeswoman Christine Geovanis blasted Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration for policies that she alleged “undermine enrollment at neighborhood schools,” such as the proliferation of charter schools, school budget cuts, and building new schools over the objection of community members.

Reached by phone Thursday, Kids First CEO Daniel Anello confirmed that his organization helped put the report together, but declined to comment on its contents, deferring to the district. CPS Spokeswoman Emily Bolton acknowledged the report’s existence in a statement emailed to Chalkbeat Chicago that said the school district “is having conversations with communities to get input and inform decisions” about where to place particular academic programs. The statement said CPS is still in the process of drafting a final version of the document, but gave no timetable. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office didn’t grant requests for interviews about the Annual Regional Analysis.

Below is a preview of the report provided to Chalkbeat Chicago.

Gaps in access to arts and IB programs

Data released this week from the district’s GoCPS universal high school application clearly shows what academic programs are most in demand: selective enrollment programs that require children to test in;  arts programs; and career and technical education offerings, or CTE.

The Kids First’s analysis puts those findings into context, however, by detailing how supply is geographically uneven, especially when it comes to arts. Maps in the report divide the city into regions defined by the city’s planning department and show how highly-desirable arts programs are not spread equally throughout the city, and are most concentrated along the northern lakefront and downtown.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of fine & performing arts program seats available per 100 elementary school students in each planning area.

Worse, four regions offer 10 or fewer arts seats per 100 students, including the Bronzeville/South Lakefront region that includes neighborhoods such as South Shore, Woodlawn, Kenwood and Hyde Park. They are also scarce in the West Side region, which includes Austin, North Lawndale, and Humboldt Park and in the Northwest neighborhoods of Belmont Cragin, Dunning, and Portage Park.

The report also shows an imbalance in the number of rigorous International Baccalaureate programs.

This map shows the number of IB program seats per 100 students available to elementary and high school students in each planning area.

The highest number of IB seats are in the wealthy, predominately white Lincoln Park area. In contrast, there are far fewer IB seats in predominantly black communities such as  Englewood and Auburn Gresham, Ashburn and in the predominantly Latino Back of the Yards.

When it comes to selective-enrollment elementary school programs such as gifted centers and classical schools, which require students to pass entrance exams, options tend to be concentrated, too, with fewer choices on the South and West sides of the city. This map shows where selective enrollment high school options are most prevalent:

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of selective enrollment high school seats available per 100 students in the city’s planning regions.

STEM programs are more evenly distributed across Chicago than both IB and selective enrollment schools, yet whole swaths of the city lack them, especially on the South Side, including the Greater Stony Island. As the other maps show, that region lacks most of the high-demand academic programs the district has to offer.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of STEM program seats available per 100 elementary school students.

Racial disparities in school quality

The analysis also shows disparities in quality of schools, not just variety.

At CPS, 65 percent of students districtwide are enrolled at Level 1-plus or Level 1-rated schools. But only 45 percent of black students and 72 percent of Latino students are in those top-rated seats, compared with 91 percent of white students.

The disparities are even more severe given that the school district is mostly Latino and black, with fewer than one in 10 students identified as white. 

A page from a presentation of the Annual Regional Analysis showed to select community groups.

In the Greater Lincoln Park region, 100 percent of elementary schools have one of the top two ratings — the highest concentration of them in the city.  The highest concentration of top-rated high school seats, 91 percent, is in the Central Area, which includes Downtown and the South Loop.

The lowest concentration of top-rated elementary seats, 35 percent, is in the Near West Side region, and the lowest concentration of high school seats, 14 percent, is in the West Side region.

Long commutes from some neighborhoods

The number of students choosing schools outside their neighborhood boundaries has increased in recent years.

But the report shows that school choice varies by race: 44 percent of black students attend their neighborhood elementary school, compared with 67 percent of Latino students, 69 percent of white students, and 66 percent of Asian students. For high schoolers, only 14 percent of black students attend their neighborhood school, compared with 28 percent of Asians, 30 percent of Latinos, and 32 percent of whites.

More students enrolling outside their neighborhood attendance boundaries means more and more students have longer commutes, but how far they travel depends on their address. 

Again, this is an area where the Greater Stony Island area stands out.

A graphic from the Annual Regional Analysis executive report that shows how far elementary school students in each of the city’s 16 planning regions travel from their homes to school. The data shows that students on the South and West Sides tend to have longer commutes.

The average distance traveled for elementary school students is 1.5 miles — but K-8 students in Greater Stony Island travel an average of 2.6 miles. The average distance to class for high schoolers citywide is 2.6 miles, but students in the Greater Stony Island region travel an average of 5 miles, about twice the city average. 

A graphic from the Annual Regional Analysis executive report that shows how far high school students in each of the city’s 16 planning regions travel from their homes to school. The data shows that students on the South and West Sides tend to have longer commutes.

Looking forward

The introduction to the Annual Regional Analysis describes it as “a common fact base” to understand the school landscape. It clearly states the intent of the report is to assist with district planning, not to provide recommendations.

It still bothers Wendy Katten, founder of Raise Your Hand, who has seen the report and said it tells little about how kids are actually learning at schools.

“It sounds like some data a company would use to reduce inventory at a manufacturing plant,” she said.

Gaete with Blocks Together said the numbers in the report are also missing important context about how the proliferation of charter schools, a lack of transparent and equitable planning, and a lack of support for neighborhood schools in recent decades has exacerbated school quality disparities across race and neighborhoods in Chicago, one of the nation’s most diverse but segregated cities.

It’s unclear when the final study will be published, or how exactly the school district will use its contents to inform its decisions and conversations with communities.

But an event posting on the website for Forefront, a membership association for “nonprofits, grantmakers, public agencies, advisors, and our allies,” mentions a briefing for the report on Oct. 10.

Kids First Chicago CEO Dan Anello and CPS Director of Strategy Sadie Stockdale Jefferson will share the report there, according to the website.

Q and A

In a wide-ranging interview, Carranza takes issue with admissions to New York City’s gifted programs

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Since becoming schools chancellor, Richard Carranza has questioned city admissions methods that critics say exacerbate segregation. Here, he speaks to a crowd at a town hall about school diversity.

Ever since the city launched a push to scrap the entrance exam for its vaunted specialized high schools, Chancellor Richard Carranza has made it clear that he doesn’t believe a single test should be used to make school admissions decisions.

In an exclusive back-to-school interview with Chalkbeat on Friday, he said that also goes for the city’s gifted and talented programs.

Just like specialized high schools, gifted programs are deeply segregated. Only 22 percent of students in gifted programs are black or Hispanic, compared with 70 percent citywide. And just like specialized high schools, admission to most of the city’s gifted programs hinges solely on the results of an exam.

“I think that’s not a good idea,” Carranza said. “When you look at the disparities in representation across this system, you have to ask the question, ‘Do we have the right way of assessing and making decisions about students?’”

Most students enter gifted programs when they’re in kindergarten, so they are only 4 years old when they take the test — an approach that Carranza questioned.

“There is no body of knowledge that I know of that has pointed to the fact that you can give a test to a 4-year-old or a 5-year-old and determine if they’re gifted,” he said. “Those tests — and it’s pretty clear — are more a measure of the privilege of a child’s home than true giftedness.”

A full transcript of our interview with the chancellor is coming soon. We’ll have interesting insights about Carranza’s relationship with his predecessor, what he thinks about the city’s Renewal turnaround program now that he’s had time to get to know it better, and the problems he’s trying to solve with a recent bureaucratic overhaul. Here are some highlights to hold you over until then.

Why few schools may get shuttered under Carranza’s leadership — even though he’s ‘not scared’ of closures

In one of his very first moves as chancellor, Carranza spared a storied Harlem school that was slated for closure. Since then, he has shaken up the school’s leadership, initiated new partnerships, and brought in a different support structure.

It’s just one example, but it could be a hint of what’s to come during Carranza’s tenure.

The school that won the reprieve is a part of the mayor’s high profile Renewal program, which aims to boost student learning by offering social services and a longer school day. The program has shown mixed results, at best, and many Renewal schools have been shuttered after failing to make progress. 

Carranza indicated there could be more closures ahead: “Let me be clear: I’m not scared of closing a school if it’s not serving the needs of the students,” he said.

But he added: “My experience — nine times out of 10 — has been that we haven’t done all we can do to give schools that are struggling to improve the right conditions, the right resources and the right support to actually improve.”

Did Carranza push City Hall to do something about segregation at specialized high schools?

City Hall has indicated that its plans to overhaul admissions at the city’s vaunted specialized high schools had been in the works for some time. Indeed, de Blasio promised to do something about the stark underrepresentation of black and Hispanic students at the schools during his first run for mayor.

Carranza wouldn’t reveal much about what happened behind the scenes in the lead-up to the city’s June announcement that officials would lobby to scrap the exam that serves as the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The chancellor said he brought up the issue in his talks with the mayor before coming onboard, and said his boss shared the same vision.

“I can tell you the mayor is passionate about making sure that our schools are just as diverse as our city,” Carranza said.

Asked whether he personally played a role in the decision, Carranza would only say that the mayor “knew what he was getting,” when he was tapped to be chancellor.

He later added: “One of the things that I appreciate is, that what the mayor hired was an educator to be the chancellor, and he lets me do my job.”

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.