Chalkbeat collaboration

When schools add teaching time, planning and coordination can suffer

Teachers gathered in New York City

Michelle Gunderson used to look forward to her weekly training sessions about how to work with struggling readers.

One morning per week, she and her fellow first-grade teachers at Nettelhorst Elementary School in Chicago would cycle through each other’s classrooms to discuss useful strategies and to see the visual aids others were using up close.

But then Mayor Rahm Emanuel mandated a seven-hour school day for all students, pointing to research tying more time in school to better academic outcomes. Under pressure to spend more time in front of students, teachers had to abandon the training sessions.

With 840 students to instruct, the school’s hectic schedule hasn’t allowed for shared planning time to serve as a replacement. And teachers also have less time during the school day to complete essential responsibilities such as writing lessons and grading tests.

“The nature of teaching is that you have to pace yourself so you have enough energy to get up and do it the next day,” Gunderson said, a veteran with 20 years of experience in the classroom. “If you spent all night planning and grading papers, what do you have to give the children the next day? We have to be able to reserve our energies so our instruction is effective.”

Gunderson’s experience reflects a fundamental tension in schools with expanded learning time for students: Research suggests that more time in school boosts students’ skills and long-term prospects, but adding productive time to students’ days often means cutting time from their teachers’. And that lost teacher planning and training time, research shows, also matters.

“It really is a balance. More time is only as good as it’s being used,” said Scott Barton, the principal of a California charter school whose model includes additional time for students and teachers alike. “To use that time wisely, we have to make sure that our teachers are prepared.”

New York’s new direction

New York City’s recent experience highlights the tug of war that can play out around learning time.

The city’s 2005 contract with its teachers union added 150 minutes per week of small-group instruction for struggling students, in keeping with then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “Children First” education agenda. “We are taking 300,000 children who are performing below average, and as of today they are going to have an extra period, four days a week in classes of 10 or less,” he said at the time.

But when Bloomberg’s successor, Bill de Blasio, negotiated a new contract with the union in 2013, he took a different approach and rolled most of that time back to make way for teacher training and collaboration.

The teachers union hailed the change. “We have to train teachers so that the time they’re spending with students is much more effective and valuable,” union chief Michael Mulgrew said at the time. “Versus doing, once again, this political punch line — more time with the student. Let’s make it better time with the student.”

But the tradeoff left some educators scratching their heads. “I honestly have never met one teacher who thinks the solution to the educational crisis is less time with students and more time in PD,” one teacher wrote on his blog.

The same balancing act is playing out in thousands of schools across the country that have extended the school day, according to Jennifer Davis, co-founder and president of the National Center on Time and Learning, a nonprofit that advocates for expanded learning time.

Davis said schools that are strategic about how to allocate time can optimize their schedules to meet both student and teacher needs. About half of the 2,000 schools her group tracks offer additional time for students and teachers alike, she said.

“I’m not saying it’s easy,” Davis said. “There are hard trade-offs, but there are ways to work it out.”

A charter school makes planning a priority

The Preuss School, the charter secondary school in La Jolla, Calif., that Barton runs, is one school where managing those tradeoffs has been a goal from the beginning. Founded in 1999 with more time for students and teachers as a key part of its model, Preuss requires students to be in school for 198 days a year, rather than the more typical 180 days.

In addition, Preuss teachers teach for six of the eight class periods per day. A teacher’s two free periods are blocked together for a daily 90-minute prep period, which is frequently used as collaborative planning time across departments or grade levels.

And the school has a later student start-time each Friday, providing all teachers with 105 minutes to collaborate and learn from one another every week.

“We felt from the beginning that there has to be time for teachers if we have more time for students,” Barton said. “Teachers need time and we need to build it in — not make it after school.”

Janis Gabay, an English teacher at Preuss and the 1991 National Teacher of the Year, serves as her department’s chair and said the Friday professional development sessions are unlike anywhere else she’s worked.

“When I worked in the large school district, staff development was kind of a monthly thing, if that, where you trotted out a speaker and you had people who sat in the back and wanted to grade papers,” she said. “Here, it’s a way to stay connected with one another. It’s where we’re encouraging the reflective teacher and asking things like ‘What have you struggled with? What are you curious about?’”

Charter schools like Preuss tend not to be bound by union contracts and so have the most flexibility in reworking schedules to balance the needs of students and teachers.

But traditional schools are finding ways to split the difference, as well.

Making better use of the summer in Oakland

Oakland, Calif., has found a way to resolve the tension by combining expanded learning time offerings in the summer for both.

Typically, summer school is a time for bare-bones instruction to ensure that students get the basics that they did not pick up during the school year. But last summer, Oakland hired coaches to work with English and math teachers as they worked to tie their teaching to the Common Core standards for the first time.

Tamrya Walker, who is a math teacher and instructional coach in Oakland, said one of the benefits of training during the summer is the smaller class size and fewer requirements placed on the teachers.

“There’s not as much stress in terms of assessment,” she said. “Teachers can focus on helping kids.”

A new program in Denver is taking the same approach. The district recently launched a three-week laboratory summer program for teachers to try out new strategies, particularly around how to tailoring instruction to individual students.

Unions get involved in Boston, Philadelphia

Signs of balance are even emerging in contracts between districts and their teachers union, traditionally an arena for tugs of war over time because they set parameters for how teachers’ days are spent. In December, Boston negotiated a new contract that added 40 minutes a day at dozens of schools and also doubled teachers’ planning and training time.

“Boston public schools have been saying for many years that we need a longer school day,” said Michael O’Neill, chairman of the city’s school governing board, said when announcing the contract terms. “But a longer day isn’t effective unless you also transform the quality of the education.”

Boston teachers at participating schools saw nearly $5,000 raises as a result of the added time.

In districts with less fiscal flexibility, figuring out how to balance teacher and student time has been more of a challenge.

In Philadelphia, School Reform Commissioner Bill Green is advocating for a longer school day in the district’s next teacher contract. “It’s fairly simple,” he said. “All of the research indicates that longer school days or years have a positive impact on the achievement of urban students.”

Green is also arguing that state law requires Philadelphia to increase instructional time by nearly half an hour a day — an interpretation of the law that the teachers union is contesting. But he has said the cash-strapped district cannot pay teachers any more.

“To expect that the district is going to be able to attract and retain teachers as long as they totally disrespect them as professionals is unconscionable,” Philadelphia teachers union president Jerry Jordan said earlier this year, reacting to Green’s longer-day push. “It’s not going to happen.”

A better balance in Chicago?

Back in Chicago, where the 2012 contract resulted in the city’s first teachers union strike in 25 years, teachers hope a new contract will better balance time for students and time for teachers.

Time isn’t the biggest issue in ongoing negotiations, which appear likely to extend beyond the June 30 contract expiration. Instead, the city and teachers union are locked in conflict about how teachers should be evaluated and how likely layoffs will happen.

Still, Gunderson said she hopes an eventual contract adds resources so that teachers can work together to make the longer school day effective.

“Without the time we have together, I don’t have as much of a chance to connect with my fellow teachers in terms of mentoring,” she said. “Here I am with years of craft knowledge that I would love to be able to give to my fellow teachers, but I’m not afforded the time to anymore.”

This story was produced as a collaboration among all news organizations participating in the Expanded Learning Time reporting project.

Immigration fears

Chicago on Trump administration changes: ‘A sicker, poorer and less secure community’

PHOTO: Scott Olson/Getty Images
A scene from an August immigration rally in downtown Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel submitted a public comment on the proposed public charge rule changes on Monday.

The possibility of tougher rules on immigration and citizenship has provoked “tremendous fear” and plummeting participation in publicly funded daycare programs and afterschool care, according to a federal memorandum the City of Chicago submitted Monday.

The Trump administration has proposed changes that would weigh participation in programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, or housing assistance when granting residency and citizenship.

The changes could be devastating, the Chicago memorandum warns.

They could affect 110,000 Chicago residents, according to the filing. One in three Chicago residents receives Medicaid benefits, which the proposed changes would affect.

Chicago and New York led a coalition of 30 cities that filed comments to the Department of Homeland Security over changes to the so-called “public charge” rule, which is used by immigration officials to decide who is allowed entry and permanent residency in the United States.

“History teaches that, given this choice, many immigrants will choose to forgo public aid, which will make them a sicker, poorer, and less secure community,” according to the City of Chicago’s comments. You can read the entire document below.

Already, the city said, a group called Gads Hill that operates child care centers in Pilsen and North Lawndale has struggled to enroll children because of families’ worries about the impending rules.

Another operator, Shining Star Youth and Community Services in South Chicago, saw families start to keep children home since the proposed changes were announced.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago told the city that participation in its after-school programming also has taken a hit, the filing said.

The changes to the proposed rule do not specifically mention Head Start or any of the publicly funded child care programs. But many families are fearful that participation in anything offered by the government — from child care to health care to even food programs — would bring them to the attention of immigration authorities.

Early childhood advocates shared similar concerns at a November meeting of the Early Learning Council, an influential group of policymakers who help set the state agenda for children ages birth to 5.

“Families are very confused about the changes,” Rocio Velazquez-Kato, an immigration policy analyst with the Latino Policy Forum, told the group. “They think that by enrolling in Head start or free and reduced-price lunch at school — that it will factor against them.”

Public comment on the proposed rule change was due Monday. The 60-day public comment period is required by law before the federal government delivers a final recommendation.



on the move

Lack of transportation, conflicting deadlines put school choice out of reach for some, study finds

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

More Colorado students use school choice to opt into traditional district-run schools than use it to attend charter schools. Those who do so are more likely to be white and middle- or upper-class than their peers. And transportation continues to be a barrier for students who want to go somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

Those are the findings of a report on choice and open enrollment in the traditional public school sector put out by Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform advocacy group that supports greater access to school choice.

The report, “Open Doors, Open Districts,” looked at the roughly 49,800 Colorado students who attended school in a district other than the one in which they resided during the 2016-17 school year and another 95,600 who used school choice within the 12 largest districts in the state. Together, these 145,400 students make up roughly 16 percent of all Colorado students. Another 13 percent of state students attend charter schools.

Since 1990, the School Choice Act has allowed students to enroll in any public school they want, without paying tuition, provided there is room — and that the school provides the services that student needs, a sticking point for many students who require special education services.

The number of students using this system to attend school in another district increased 58 percent over 10 years to 49,800 in 2016. Roughly 6,000 of those students attend multi-district online schools.

The students taking advantage of inter-district open enrollment are more likely to be white than Colorado students as a whole — 58 percent are white compared with 54 percent of all students. They’re also less likely to come from low-income families (36 percent, compared with 42 percent of all students), to speak a language other than English at home (8 percent compared with 14 percent statewide), or to have a disability (8 percent compared with 11 percent).

“It is important to understand these differences so that policy leaders and educators can work to ensure that open enrollment opportunities are more accessible for all Colorado families,” the report said. “The underrepresentation of Hispanic/Latino students and English learners suggests there may be some unmet needs in Spanish-speaking communities around inter-district choice — either in information, accessibility, or appropriate services for students.”

The report highlights two major barriers to more students using school choice.

Most districts don’t have the kind of common enrollment system that Denver pioneered or that Jeffco is rolling out each year. Most districts require parents to turn in paperwork at a particular school. Not only do districts not share the same deadlines as each other, often different schools in the same district have different deadlines.

The other is transportation. 

“Time spent driving students to school can conflict with work schedules for parents, and public transit options can be scarce in many areas, making open enrollment functionally impossible for families without a transportation solution,” the report said. In one rural district, a group of parents banded together and hired their own school bus to take students to another district.

A bill sponsored last year by state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, would have addressed both issues, encouraging the creation of more consistent deadlines across the state and allowing districts to cross boundaries to provide transportation. That bill was defeated in the Democratic-controlled House after some school districts said it would set the stage for larger, wealthier districts to poach students.

The transportation provision was later added to an unrelated bill in the final days of the session, a move that led to a lawsuit in which a judicial decision is pending.

Democrats now control both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly, and it’s not clear how any attempts to expand school choice would fare. Both school choice and charter schools have enjoyed bipartisan but not universal support in Colorado.

By highlighting the prominence of traditional public schools in how Colorado students use the choice system, advocates hope to separate choice and the popular idea that parents should be able to find the school that best meets their child’s needs from the more divisive debate about charter schools, which critics see as siphoning scarce dollars from other schools while not serving all students.

The report recommends developing more consistency between and within districts, providing more information to parents, and removing barriers to transportation.

Districts with higher ratings, which are determined primarily by results on standardized tests, tend to get more students than those with lower ratings, but some districts, particularly in the Denver metro area, send and receive large numbers of students, reflecting that parents and students are making decisions at the school rather than at the district level.

Metro area districts that have struggled to raise student achievement are losing large numbers of students to other districts. A quarter of students who live in Adams 14, whose low test scores prompted a state order for external management, attended school in neighboring districts in 2016. In Westminster, which just came off a state watchlist for low-performing schools this year, that number was 29 percent.

Ready Colorado found no clear relationship between districts that spent more per student and districts that attracted more students — but districts with higher enrollment get more money from the state for each student, creating incentives to compete for students.

Read the full report here.