At out-of-town training, IPS board also tries to resolve discord

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier, Chalkbeat TN
Memphis Teacher Residency Director Robin Henderson shares how they prepare teachers to work in urban schools.

Why did the Indianapolis Public School Board spend nearly two days together last weekend among the rolling hills of southern Indiana?

The stated reason was for training, and board members have been careful not to describe the get-together as a general meeting that would be required to be open to the public under Indiana’s Open Door Law.

But board members also acknowledged that getting away from Indianapolis also allowed them a chance to talk frankly behind closed doors to try to resolve some personal issues after a tense year that saw several close votes and three incumbent board members defeated in the November election.

Indiana’s Public Access Counselor Luke Britt, who provides advice, assistance and education on the state’s laws requiring open government, said the board was perhaps a bit “sloppy” by not more fully describing the session as an orientation, not just training. But as long as board members discuss no public business they are allowed to hold out-of-town retreats under state law.

“The whole team-building, kumbaya stuff, I don’t have a problem with,” Britt said. “It’s not really authorized under executive session. It’s more under the lines of an orientation, which aren’t considered meetings.”

The board spent an estimated $1,500 on lodging and travel to stay at Scenic View Lodge in Bloomington, and did, indeed, get training. Don McAdams of the Houston-based Center for Reform of School Systems coached the board members on their roles leading the district and how they differ from Lewis Ferebee’s job as superintendent, said board president Diane Arnold. McAdams’ bill for that message is expected to be about $4,000, board members said.

McAdams, the trainer, was an education adviser to former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and Texas Gov. Rick Perry and is best known for leading the Houston school board through a massive reform while Paige was the district superintendent in the 1990s. The Houston reform helped lay the groundwork for wider testing and accountability-based reform in Texas. Then Gov. George W. Bush regularly used Houston as an example of reform done right while in Texas and later as president while shaping his signature education bill, No Child Left Behind.

Board members said no public business was discussed at the training. There will be no meeting minutes because IPS does not take minutes at executive sessions.

Why wasn’t the training held in Indianapolis? Arnold said holding it elsewhere in the state allowed board members to commit a full day to the training without distractions.

“I kept thinking, ‘Boy, I wish we would have done this last year,'” Arnold said. “Maybe we wouldn’t have had some of the personal problems we did.”

Board member Gayle Cosby, who at times last year sided with the three board members who were defeated in November, said she first resisted the training when others suggested it last year because she thought it was too expensive.

“I thought it was expensive as hell,” Cosby said. “Was the money well spent? Yeah. It was a good training. It really did define the work that needs to be done. It’s a big job.”

Board member Caitlin Hannon said she hopes the training eliminates a culture from last year’s board that she described as micromanaging.

“I’d talk about (what our role is) and you’d get seven different answers,” Hannon said of last year. “Spending time getting on the same page and talking about those things was the first step in getting away from micromanagement. We’re going to stay at the 30,000-foot level.”

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?