Future of Schools

Parents, teachers rally to bring Project Restore to School 93

School 93 parent Lechess Taylor gets a parent to sign a petition to bring Project Restore to the school. (Scott Elliott)

While other School 93 parents pulled up to the building wearing knit hats and heavy jackets against Tuesday’s unusually bitter cold at the school day’s end, a coatless Kesha Harris chased along behind them, clipboard and pen in hand.

“Have you signed our petition yet?” she asked, staying warm apparently only from her frenetic movements.

Harris was in a group of parents working the sidewalk, aiming to collect just 11 more signatures so they could present to the Indianapolis Public School Board with 100 names in support of their mission: to bring the district’s Project Restore program to their school.

“We’re at the F level,” Harris said. “If that isn’t a reason to bring them here, what is?”

The effort to overhaul School 93, also called George H. Fisher Elementary School, has several elements that are potentially groundbreaking for IPS.

In this case, the impetus for change is coming not from the central office, but is driven by parents and teachers. They’ve been aided by a new initiative of an outside group, Stand For Children. And the reform they are aimed squarely at adopting is not a national model or magnet theme. It’s a homegrown, IPS-invented program with a track record of success at the kinds of low performing neighborhood schools that plague the district.

Facing tough challenges

School 93 is deeply troubled, ranked in the bottom 15 percent of schools in one of the poorest performing school districts in the state. Only six of 56 IPS schools that took ISTEP had a lower passing rate than School 93’s 30 percent in 2013.

The school’s trend line is even more concerning. Between 2005 and 2009, School 93 actually earned two A’s and a B. But since then it has been rated an F three consecutive years and this year landed on Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s list of 11 high priority schools targeted for extra attention because of low and declining test scores. School 93’s passing rate has fallen by an alarming 23 percentage points since 2008.

School 93 parent Kesha Harris helped lead the signature gathering effort at school 90 on Tuesday. (Scott Elliott)
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
School 93 parent Kesha Harris helped lead the signature gathering effort at school 90 on Tuesday. (Scott Elliott)

Why?

Special education teacher Kevin Ludwig has some theories. The school’s population has changed over his three years there, he said. Ludwig remembered an unusual influx of more than 100 new students from other schools in a single year, possibly driven by redistricting or another school being closed. That’s a lot of new students for a school of just 349 kids.

The school’s students face significant challenges and troubled home lives. This year alone, Ludwig said, two students at the school have been shot in incidents in their homes. Another significant subset of its students are homeless or in foster care.

“Every teacher up here can tell you of situations where they are simply at a loss as to how to reach and inspire our children to learn,”Ludwig told the school board Tuesday night. “To be clear, it is not the fault of our young people. Our students walk into school every day with terrible, tragic and overwhelming challenges.”

Some of School 93’s other numbers: 89 percent of its children are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, 90 percent are minorities and 20 percent are in special education.

Similar schools see more success

Even so, another East side school with similar challenges just a couple miles away is on an opposite trajectory — getting the better results School 93 teachers and parents covet.

School 99, also known as Arlington Wood Elementary School, was an F school in 2009 when two of its teachers, Tammy Laughner and Dan Kriech, created what became Project Restore and ultimately persuaded the rest of the school to try it. Project Restore is a schoolwide reform model aimed at improving discipline through consistent rule enforcement and promoting better student learning through frequent testing and review of what’s been taught.

School 99, where it all began, has a profile that is much the same as School 93: 88 percent of School 99’s kids are poor, 93 percent minority and 16 percent in special education. Like School 93, its students had trouble with low test scores and disruptive behavior.

Laughner and Kriech’s approach had several distinctive features. For discipline, they outlined 20 common, serious offenses — 10 that result in suspension and 10 that earn students a trip to the discipline office. Discipline deans handle it all, including calling parents.

“Teachers just keep on teaching,” Laughner said. “Teachers like that.”

There is also a system of rewards when students do well and competitions to earn prizes for good academic work. Every class routinely posts its test scores, for example, identifying the top scoring classrooms.

School 99 dramatically improved under Project Restore. (Scott Elliott)
School 99 dramatically improved under Project Restore. (Scott Elliott)

Instruction in math is an example of how Project Restore works. Cumulative tests Laughner and Kriech created add new concepts as students learn them and the tests get longer each time. But students are always tested on what they had previously learned, building in review.

“They are constantly reinforcing the curriculum,” said Ludwig, who previously taught at School 99. “Kids prepared for ISTEP this way. They walked in to ISTEP with heads high and were like, ‘I got this.’ And they did.”

In five years, School 99 went from 31 percent passing to 60 percent passing before a slight dip to 58 percent last year. Still, the school remains in the top quarter of IPS schools when it comes to passing ISTEP. It reached an A in 2012 before sliding to a C last year after the test score drop.

Just a few miles down the road, however, Project Restore’s second turnaround story did the flagship school one better.

School 88, named the first Project Restore expansion site in the fall of 2012, jumped from an F to an A in one year on the strength of a 19-point jump on ISTEP to 56 percent passing. Its profile compares strongly with Schools 99 and 93: School 88’s students are 90 percent poor, 78 percent minority and 18 percent in special education.

Ferebee said he’s been impressed with Project Restore’s track record.

“We do choice really well between charters and magnet schools in Indianapolis,” he said. “But this is a promising model for neighborhood schools that we should explore.”

Getting outside help

Lechess Taylor had never heard of Project Restore before she started attending Stand Up classes. But she liked what she heard. Her son, Anthony, is in first grade and has a long way to go before he’s done at School 93.

“I want my son to learn more and to get him ready for college,” she said.

School 93 is rated an F and has among the lowest ISTEP passing rates in IPS. (Scott Elliott)
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
School 93 is rated an F and has among the lowest ISTEP passing rates in IPS. (Scott Elliott)

Stand Up is an initiative of Stand for Children, a group that advocates for educational change in IPS. Parents at three IPS schools signed up for its 10-week course, in which they learn how to be better informed advocates for their children.

In the class, parents learn about how to analyze school test data, how to assess whether their kids are on a track to be ready for college and other skills. One presentation was on Project Restore.

“We found if you provide parents with information on how their school is doing and how it relates to their child’s future they want to take action,” said Stand’s executive director, Justin Ohlemiller. “We saw the lightbulb go off that their kids’ lives are at stake.”

Harris was among the parents who quickly saw value in Stand Up for herself and her children.

“I joined immediately,” she said. “My question was, what a I supposed to do as a mom?”

School 93’s poor performance was quickly identified by parents in the group as a concern to be addressed. They didn’t like their school being rated an F.

“You can’t go any further down,” said Eugenia Murray, mother of three students at the school. “My children do well here but it’s not just about my children.”

With 100 parent signatures gathered and near unanimous teacher support, the group came to Tuesday night’s school board and asked for an endorsement their plan. Ludwig spoke for a group of six teachers who made the plea.

“We believe Project Restore is exactly what we need to change the trajectory of our school and to provide our students with the confidence and structure necessary for them to succeed in the classroom,” he said. “We’ve put in countless extra hours trying to turn our school around. But we’re not getting the results we want or our young people deserve. So we respectfully request your help.”

Ferebee was pleased by the strong support of teachers and parents.

“When you have community support, and the number of signatures they had, we should give an opportunity to hear more,” he said. “I’m inclined to be very supportive of it.”

The biggest questions in Ferebee’s mind are logistical. The district has already announced plans to seek a new principal for the school. Among his questions:  Is there a potential candidate to lead the school with Project Restore experience who would be a good fit? Should the school be part of IPS’s “innovation school” network that is trying out new ideas? Or should it operate independently under a new law just passed by the Indiana Legislature?

Whatever the set up, Murray said parents are ready to support the turnaround push.

“Hopefully we can get it turned around from an F school to an A school,” she said. “It’s going to be a collaborative effort.”

Frequently asked

New Denver teacher contract: We answer the most common questions about the tentative pact

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Students in class at Dora Moore ECE-8 during the second day of the Denver Public Schools teachers strike.

One reason many Denver educators didn’t like the district’s old ProComp pay system was that it was too complicated and unpredictable. Both sides agree that the deal reached early Thursday morning creates a much simpler pay system for teachers.

But educators — and the general public — still have a lot of questions about the tentative ProComp agreement, which still needs to be ratified by union members and the Denver school board. Here we’ve answered some of the most common questions we’ve heard since the end of the strike.

How do I place myself on the salary schedule?

The salary schedule is made up of “steps” and “lanes.” The “steps” represent years of service for which a teacher had a positive evaluation. The “lanes” represent levels of education. The new schedule has 20 steps and seven lanes.

Worked in Denver Public Schools for five years and have a master’s degree? Go to step five and then slide your finger over to the master’s degree lane. That’s your base salary.

Did you have a year when your evaluation wasn’t good? Go back one step. Have an additional 18 credits on top of your master’s degree? Go up one more lane.

Teachers can also go up a lane once they hit the 10-year mark because the district wanted to reward longevity. Other milestones that merit a lane change: earning national board certification or an advanced license, or completing six “professional development unit” training courses.

Still not sure? Denver Public Schools plans to put a salary calculator on its website soon.

What if I have more than 20 years of experience?

If you have 20 or more years of experience, you’re placed at the top of the salary schedule, on step 20. After step 20, you’ll get yearly cost-of-living raises. You’re still eligible to change lanes, but you won’t get any more step raises.

Does the district know everything it needs to know about individual educators to pay them the correct salary?

Denver Public Schools plans to send letters or emails this spring to every teacher and special service provider (nurses, counselors, and others) covered by the contract, laying out where the district believes that employee falls on the schedule based on information they have on file. Educators will have a certain amount of time to correct any wrong information and get on the correct step and lane for the 2019-20 school year.

Under the new salary schedule, it looks like I’ll earn less next year than I do now. Am I taking a pay cut?

No. The agreement includes a “hold harmless” clause that ensures everyone will get a raise next year. Those whose salaries are higher now than they would be under the new schedule will get a cost-of-living raise each year until the salary schedule catches up with them.

How are bonuses and incentives different under the new contract?

The bonuses and incentives are different in three ways: There are fewer of them, the dollar amounts are different, and the dollar amounts won’t change year to year.

This year, there are six bonuses and incentives offered by the district: one for educators who work in Title I schools where 60 percent or more of the student population qualifies for subsidized meals; one for educators who work in hard-to-fill positions; one for educators who work in “hard-to-serve” schools; one for educators who work in one of 30 “highest-priority” schools; one for educators who return year over year to those schools; and one for educators who work in schools deemed top-performing or high-growth, as based on school ratings.

Here’s what’s left in the new contract: Teachers in Title 1 schools and those in hard-to-fill positions, such as secondary math, will get $2,000 a year. Teachers who return year over year to 30 highest-priority schools will get $3,000 a year. Teachers in 10 schools deemed “distinguished” will get $750 a year, with the criteria to be determined by the district and the union.

Why aren’t the district and the union tying bonuses to test scores anymore?

Unions have traditionally been skeptical of paying teachers based on student test scores because the scores are so closely correlated with factors like race and household income. In Denver, these bonuses were also less predictable for teachers because the district often changed the criteria it used to rate schools and award “top-performing” bonuses.

The district also came to see these bonuses as canceling out the effects of bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools. A teacher could get nearly the same kind of monetary reward by moving to a more affluent school or by staying in one where students face more challenges. The new bonus system provides clearer monetary benefits to working in a high-poverty school.

Why did the union agree to keep the incentive for highest-priority schools, when that had been such a sticking point?

In any negotiation, there’s give and take and a lot of moving pieces. 

Here’s what lead negotiator Rob Gould said to district officials during bargaining: “We are open to the incentive because we know it’s important to you. And we’re willing to entertain your ideas if we can get the base salary schedule that our teachers need. Because if we can get the base salaries we need, we can keep our teachers in Denver.”

This was also an issue that divided teachers, with some teachers at schools that received the highest-priority incentive pushing to keep them.

Did teachers get a better deal out of the strike than the district’s last offer before the strike?

Teachers were getting a raise no matter what. The district was offering an average 10 percent raise before the strike (this included a cost-of-living raise that was agreed to back in 2017). Now teachers will get an average 11.7 percent raise, though individual teachers will see a wide range.

The district is putting the same amount of new money — $23.5 million — into teacher compensation as it was offering before the strike. It can give a larger average raise with that same amount of money because the incentives are smaller than under the previous proposal and because of limits on how teachers can use training to get raises. That gives the district more predictability about how many teachers will get raises each year.

Union leaders call the deal a win. They secured more opportunities for teachers to earn raises and move into higher categories on the salary schedule, including through completing training partially during work hours at no additional cost. And teachers can get to $100,000 in 20 years, rather than the 30 years in the last district proposal.

However, individual teachers aren’t necessarily getting more base pay next year than they would have under the district’s last offer. Early-career teachers without advanced degrees would have earned more in base pay under the district’s last offer. The teachers who do better under the deal reached after the strike are veteran educators with more education.

To take two examples: A second-year educator with a bachelor’s degree and no extra credits or training would have earned $47,550 in base pay under the district’s last offer before the strike but will earn $46,869 under the deal reached this week.

But a 20-year educator who has a master’s degree and an advanced license who has been with the district for 10 years will earn $88,907 in base pay under the new agreement, compared with $87,550 under the district’s last proposal before the strike.

The union fought for this kind of salary schedule in part to address a longstanding complaint that teachers have little reason to stay in a district where base pay levels off.

You can see the salary schedule from the district’s last offer here and the schedule from the tentative agreement here.

Is this deal financially sustainable for the district?

Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino says that is the “million-dollar question,” perhaps closer to the “half-billion-dollar question,” since that is roughly how much the district spends on educator compensation.

Ferrandino believes the answer is yes, with the standard caveat that all projections are just that.

What will be cut to pay for this?

The district plans to cut $20 million from administrative costs over the next two years. That includes cutting 150 jobs in the central office and ending all executive bonuses. The bulk of it — $13 million — will go to fund the ProComp agreement.

District officials have not yet said which central office jobs will be cut, though Superintendent Susana Cordova has said cuts will be to “discretionary” departments. Departments that will not be cut include special education, English language acquisition, and transportation, she said.

Teachers will get a raise. What about paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers?

These other district employees, much lower paid than teachers, are not covered by the contract that was the subject of the strike. Cordova has said these workers also deserve raises and a portion of administrative cuts will go to pay for them.

But how much of a raise will they get? That will all be worked out over the next few months and include discussions with the unions that represent these employees.

Will striking teachers get back pay?

Not according to district officials. After this story was published Friday, we asked for further clarification on this. We received this statement Saturday morning:

Superintendent Cordova understands that when teachers make the choice to strike, they are doing so to make a statement and bring attention to the importance of the issue at hand. Foregoing pay during the time that a teacher is not working is a challenging decision that no one makes lightly, and consequently, brings with it an impact that is intended to push for change.

DPS did not feel that it would be fair or appropriate to provide back pay to striking teachers when many others — including more than 40 percent of classroom teachers — chose to remain at work this week. However, DPS is working with the DCTA to offer all teachers the opportunity to attend a Saturday session to replace the professional development day that was cancelled in the days leading up to the strike. Any teacher who attends will be paid a day’s salary.

When will the new agreement go into effect? How long will it last?

Assuming both sides ratify it, the new agreement technically (and retroactively) went into effect Jan. 19, the day after the old one expired. But educators won’t start receiving the new salaries, incentives, and bonuses negotiated under it until Aug. 1. The agreement expires Aug. 31, 2022.

Teens Talk Back

‘Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait.’ Teen group says New York City diversity plan doesn’t move fast enough.

PHOTO: Courtesy/Teens Take Charge
Teens Take Charge members at a "virtual" press conference in New York City on Thursday

A teen group representing students from more than 30 New York City high schools sharply criticized a recent report from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group as offering no real solutions for increasing integration in the city’s starkly segregated high schools.

At a virtual press conference on Thursday, broadcast live on Facebook by Teens Take Charge, students expressed support for the report’s broad policy aim of achieving greater integration but also disappointment that the findings offered few specifics for how to reach this goal. The mayor’s Diversity Advisory Group has said a follow-up report will provide more details later this year.

“We have been told to wait, to be patient, that change is coming soon,” said Tiffani Torres, a junior at Pace High School in Manhattan. “Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Teens Take Charge has long advocated for greater efforts to end segregated enrollment patterns in the city’s high schools. Sokhnadiarra Ndiaye, a junior at Brooklyn College Academy High School, said that students’ expectations of the mayor included his announcing “a comprehensive plan” — even if it took years to realize — “to racially, socioeconomically, and academically integrate high schools before the end of this school year,” she said.

Among Teens Take Charge’s specific recommendations are doing away with academic screens for admission to the city’s high schools, a more transparent process for applying to them, and more resources for low-income schools. Early last year, the group produced an Enrollment Equity Plan for increasing educational opportunities for low-income black and Hispanic students.

And because concrete plans for increasing integration would take time, Ndiaye said the teen organization supports several interim measures as well to address inequities in the school system. These include providing more college and career counseling for junior and seniors at low-income, under-resourced high schools. The teen group would also like to see the city provide vouchers to low-income families to access extra-curricular activities and programs offered by private companies or the ability to participate in such programs at other public schools if theirs don’t offer them. (Some city teens joined a class-action lawsuit against the education department and Public School Athletic League for allegedly denying black and Hispanic students equal opportunity to play on school sports teams, in violation of local human rights law.)

Torres described how Teens Take Charge has had “several meetings and phone conversations with Department of Education officials over the past year,” and schools chancellor Richard Carranza has stated that students have his ear. “We’re listening,” he tweeted in response to a Chalkbeat story with excerpts of the students’ views.

In December, the city’s education department posted a new job listing for a “Student Voice Manager” who would gather students’ thoughts on education policies. But while acknowledging this seat at the table, several students expressed frustration at the slow pace of change.

Bill de Blasio’s office declined to comment about Teens Take Charge’s concerns or their specific recommendations, beyond referencing remarks the mayor already made about the School Diversity Advisory Group report.

Doug Cohen, an education department spokesman, said in a statement, “We’ve taken real steps toward school integration,” pointing to initiatives such as a $2 million diversity grant program for school districts and communities citywide to develop their own local diversity plans, and a program that enables middle-schoolers to visit college campuses. “We know there is more work to do, and we thank Teens Take Charge for its continued advocacy on these issues,” he added.

Students at the group’s event urged swift change. “They know our plan; they have our information,” said Sophie Mode, a sophomore at Brooklyn Millennium. “They need to take action now.”