sold

An initiative that helps teachers buy a home is expanding to 15 Colorado districts

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Carissa Travis is an early bird. She’s usually at school by 6 a.m., two hours before her second-graders arrive, because she does her best work when the hallways of Denver’s Steele Elementary are quiet. She spends seven hours on her feet teaching and then sometimes several more after school in training sessions or PTA meetings.

When she gets home from what can be a 12-hour day, Travis needs some space. It’s one reason the 29-year-old was eager to buy her own home. She also wanted to leave behind the revolving roommates and rising rent that caused her to move four times in five years.

But she found her teacher’s salary didn’t go far in a gentrifying city where the median home price is now more than a half-million dollars. It’s a familiar problem that’s especially acute in Colorado, which a recent study ranked dead last among states for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries. The average Denver teacher earned $57,753 last year, according to the district.

Just as Travis was ready to give up, she got an email about a novel program that helps teachers buy homes in the communities where they work. In June, she became the first Denver teacher to seal a deal through it when she closed on a remodeled one-bedroom condo just a five-minute drive from her school. Hers was not the highest offer, but the previous owners liked her story.

PHOTO: Courtesy Carissa Travis
Carissa Travis teaches a lesson at Steele Elementary.

“They were excited to sell to a teacher,” Travis said.

The program that helped her is called Landed. Using philanthropic dollars, it pays for part of an educator’s down payment with the understanding that the educator will pay that amount back, plus a percentage of the increase in the home’s value.

The most common scenario is that the educator puts down 10 percent of the home price and Landed kicks in 10 percent to get to a down payment of 20 percent, said Paula Davis, a former teacher who helped bring the program to Colorado and is the company’s representative here. But the bar to qualify is lower: Educators have to put down just 5 percent and Landed will pick up the rest, up to $70,000 in Colorado.

Landed pays for its portion with more than $15 million in donations from foundations including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, funded by Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan; and the Zoma Foundation, funded by Walmart heir Ben Walton and his wife Lucy Ana. (Chalkbeat also receives funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Waltons.)

Landed is not a non-profit but rather a mission-driven for-profit that reinvests the money teachers pay it back into the down payment fund, and makes its money by taking a fee from the realtors’ commissions. It was founded in San Francisco in 2015, and expanded to the Redondo Beach Unified School District near Los Angeles and Denver Public Schools earlier this year.

Landed is working with employees of these Colorado school districts:
    Denver
    Jeffco
    Aurora
    Adams 14
    Westminster
    Adams 12 Five Star
    Sheridan
    Englewood
    Mapleton
    27J in Brighton
    Cherry Creek
    Littleton
    Douglas County
    Boulder Valley
    St. Vrain Valley

Last week, Landed grew its reach in Colorado even further by making its services available to employees of 14 additional school districts, including Aurora Public Schools, Jeffco Public Schools, Westminster Public Schools, and the Adams 14 district in Commerce City.

Employees – including teachers, principals, bus drivers, custodians, and others – must have worked for the district for at least two years, and must agree to stay for two more. Part of Landed’s mission is to help districts recruit and retain teachers, Davis said.

Educators who leave the profession voluntarily before then have up to a year to pay Landed back. Educators who fulfill the two-year commitment must pay Landed back when they refinance or sell their home, or earlier if they want.

The idea differs from most others aimed at helping Colorado teachers find affordable housing in that it focuses on buying rather than renting. Some small, rural districts own housing units that they rent to teachers on the cheap. The school district in pricey Aspen does the same. Denver briefly considered converting a vacant elementary school into teacher housing, but pushback from the neighborhood caused the district to shelve the idea.

Thus far, Landed has helped more than 90 educators with their down payment, Davis said. That includes the first three to buy homes in Denver: a longtime teacher with grown children who owned a house in Aurora but wanted to move closer to where she works in the Green Valley Ranch neighborhood, a young couple who bought their first home near Stapleton, and Travis, who bought a condo in Capitol Hill. The home prices ranged from mid-$200,000 to mid-$500,000, Davis said.

“What we hoped it would be is a tool that would empower people to do what they wanted to do,” Davis said. “It’s nice to see we’re meeting people where they are.”

For Travis, who is single and loves to travel, that meant buying a small place in good shape that she could lock up and leave over the summer with few worries. During her second weekend of house-hunting with the realtor Landed recommended, she found it in a fifth-floor one-bedroom with air conditioning, hardwood floors, and a view of the gold Capitol dome.

She began her sixth year at Steele Elementary a homeowner. The daughter and granddaughter of teachers, Travis said she enjoys having a job she feels is important, and she relishes getting to know each of her students and watching them grasp a new concept or learn a new skill. Despite the relatively low pay, she hopes to be in the profession for the long haul.

“The stress of modern teaching keeps increasing,” Travis said. “If some of the stress around pay and living situations could go down, it would make it a much more tenable profession.”

Exiting

Tennessee schools chief Candice McQueen leaving for job at national education nonprofit

PHOTO: TN.Gov

Tennessee’s education chief is leaving state government to lead a nonprofit organization focused on attracting, developing, and keeping high-quality educators.

Candice McQueen, 44, will step down in early January to become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

Gov. Bill Haslam, whose administration will end on Jan. 19, announced the impending departure of his education commissioner on Thursday.

He plans to name an interim commissioner, according to an email from McQueen to her staff at the education department.

“While I am excited about this new opportunity, it is hard to leave this team,” she wrote. “You are laser-focused on doing the right thing for Tennessee’s students every single day – and I take heart in knowing you will continue this good work in the months and years to come. I look forward to continuing to support your work even as I move into this new role with NIET.”

A former teacher and university dean, McQueen has been one of Haslam’s highest-profile cabinet members since joining the administration in 2015 to replace Kevin Huffman, a lawyer who was an executive at Teach For America.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy.

But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Haslam, who has consistently praised McQueen’s leadership throughout the rocky testing ride, said Tennessee’s education system has improved under her watch.

“Candice has worked relentlessly since day one for Tennessee’s students and teachers, and under her leadership, Tennessee earned its first ‘A’ rating for the standards and the rigor of the state’s assessment after receiving an ‘F’ rating a decade ago,” Haslam said in a statement. “Candice has raised the bar for both teachers and students across the state, enabling them to rise to their greatest potential. I am grateful for her service.”

McQueen said being education commissioner has been “the honor of a lifetime” and that her new job will allow her to “continue to be an advocate for Tennessee’s teachers and work to make sure every child is in a class led by an excellent teacher every day.”

At the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, she’ll work with states, districts, and schools to improve the effectiveness of teachers and will operate out of the organization’s new office in Nashville. The institute’s work impacts more than 250,000 educators and 2.5 million students.

“Candice McQueen understands that highly effective teachers can truly transform the lives of our children, our classrooms, our communities and our futures,” said Lowell Milken, chairman of the institute, which has existing offices in Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Santa Monica, Calif.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, McQueen said numerous organizations had approached her about jobs this year as Tennessee prepared to transition to a new administration under Gov.-elect Bill Lee. She called leading the institute “an extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said.

McQueen’s entire career has focused on strengthening teacher effectiveness and support systems for teachers. Before joining Haslam’s administration, the Tennessee native was an award-winning teacher; then faculty member, department chair, and dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville. As dean from 2008 to 2015, Lipscomb became one of the highest-rated teacher preparation programs in Tennessee and the nation. There, McQueen also doubled the size and reach of the college’s graduate programs with new master’s degrees and certificates, the university’s first doctoral program, and additional online and off-campus offerings.

As Haslam’s education commissioner the last four years, McQueen stayed the course on Tennessee’s 2010 overhaul of K-12 education, which was highlighted by raising academic standards; measuring student improvement through testing; and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable for the results.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been commissioner of education for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam since 2015.

One of the plan’s most controversial components was teacher evaluations that are tied to student growth on state tests — a strategy that McQueen has stood by and credited in part for Tennessee’s gains on national tests.

Since 2011, Tennessee has seen record-high graduation rates, college-going rates, and ACT scores and steadily moved up in state rankings on the Nation’s Report Card.

Several new studies say Tennessee teachers are getting better under the evaluation system, although other research paints a less encouraging picture.

Her choice to lead the national teaching institute quickly garnered praise from education leaders across the country.

“The students of Tennessee have benefited from Candice McQueen’s leadership, including bold efforts to ensure students have access to advanced career pathways to lead to success in college and careers, and a solid foundation in reading,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Louisiana Education Superintendent John White said McQueen brings ideal skills to her new job.

“She is not just a veteran educator who has worked in higher education and K-12 education alike, but she is also a visionary leader with a unique understanding of both quality classroom teaching and the systems necessary to make quality teaching possible for millions of students,” White said.

Read more reaction to the news of McQueen’s planned exit.

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.