IPS leaders face pushback on plan to overhaul teacher pay, promotion

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Union leaders and fellow board members questioned a plan for overhauling teacher pay proposed by board member Caitlin Hannon at Tuesday's meeting.

A major overhaul of how Indianapolis Public Schools evaluates, pays, and promotes teachers hit a snag today when some board members, and the teachers union, expressed concerns about the district’s plan to hire consultants to do part of that work.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee first announced at a board retreat in late May that the district might spend $2.35 million to work with three groups over the next two years to help it roll out “Project Elevate,” an initiative to boost teaching in Indianapolis.

The district wants private funders to cover much of the costs, but Ferebee asked the school board to allocate $274,000 in public funds to kick off the work this summer.

That request encountered some opposition at Tuesday’s board’s meeting.

IPS teachers union president Rhondalyn Cornett and some board members said they were uncomfortable with the fact that IPS chose the organizations it wants to work with before putting out an open call for vendors. They argued that a public bid process of the type that the district typically uses when hiring outside vendors would ensure that IPS is fully transparent — and gets the best deal.

“I would have liked a more transparent process in terms of vetting people that we are giving millions of dollars to,” board member Gayle Cosby said. “I need to point out that a couple weeks ago I submitted an email to the entire board suggesting we … give other vendors a chance.”

The plans for Project Elevate — which would cause changes at up to two dozen schools by 2016 — call for IPS to contract with three nonprofits: IUPUI, Education Resource Strategies, and Public Impact.

Public Impact, based out of North Carolina, would help IPS identify high-performing teachers so that they can be paid to extend their reach, according to the plans. The group has played a role in local education policy in the past, issuing a scathing review of IPS’s internal operations in 2011 as part of a collaboration with The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis advocacy group.

Boston-based Education Resource Strategies would work with the district to map out existing resources and come up with a plan to reallocate dollars from the central office to the classroom. Board member Caitlin Hannon said the work is necessary if IPS wants to give teachers pay raises.

But the teachers union argued Hannon’s position as executive director of TeachPlus, a group that has worked with Education Resource Strategies, is a conflict of interest. Hannon, who has worked with district officials to shepherd the Project Elevate plan through to the board, recently worked with Education Resource Strategies on an event that brought 100 IPS teachers together to discuss pay structure issues.

“It makes me suspicious of the reason why this company was selected,” Cornett said at the meeting. She said the relationship between Hannon and ERS suggested that the board’s “toes are getting very close” to ethical lines.

Noting that no contracts are yet in place, Hannon said she would support sending out a request for proposals for the work that was initially proposed for ERS and Public Impact.

“If there are concerns about partners, we could do an RFP for phase two and phase three,” she said. “That’s certainly an option.”

After the meeting, Hannon emphasized that TeachPlus receives no benefit, financial or otherwise, from IPS contracting with the two organizations.

“I don’t have any financial relationship with ERS and I would not benefit directly or indirectly from their work,” she said. “My hope is simply that their work would benefit teachers and students, which is what excites me most about Elevate: the opportunity to focus our resources where they matter the most.”

Ferebee said he was surprised by board members’ concerns with the Project Elevate contractors. He said he appreciated the desire for transparency but emphasized that the district must start tackling its pay structure now if it is to prepare for formal contract talks with the teachers union, set to begin Aug. 1.

“You’d like to do it soon rather than later, but I understand the board’s perspective on making sure that you explore all options,” Ferebee said. Still, he added, “If we don’t get a provider before August first, we’re still going to go into the negotiation process.”

At the very least, Ferebee urged, the board should at its next meeting sign off on hiring IUPUI to draw up a new teacher assessment tool to be used in evaluations.

“It is so important that we address our performance management,” said Ferebee, who noted that IUPUI has worked successfully with the district in the past. “We’ve gotten feedback that teachers are not receiving proper feedback from administrators as it relates to evaluations and observations. We know that compensation is tied to our evaluation instrument.”

Board member Diane Arnold said it would be a mistake to approve only a “fragment” of Project Elevate, rather than the whole plan. “It’s imperative we begin to move on this,” she said. “What hasn’t worked in the past needs to be changed.”

That argument did not resonate with Cosby.

“Time is of the essence, but teachers have waited to get a raise,” she said to applause from the audience. “I’m sure they would rather get it right than rush it and get it wrong.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.