A third of George Washington High School's teachers won't return

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
George Washington High School.

Indianapolis Public Schools’ George Washington High School has lost more than a third of its teachers this summer after what the district acknowledged was a difficult transition year under a new leader.

Of the embattled West side school‘s 56 teachers, 20 won’t be returning when school starts back up Aug. 3, according to the district. Nine left IPS to take other jobs outside the district.

The change wasn’t confined to teachers. Of the 116 total staff — teachers, administrators and support workers — nearly 40 won’t return, including vice principals, front office secretaries and a dean.

George Washington, a combined middle school and high school, is led by first-year principal and Teach for America alumna Emily Butler.

Jesse Pratt, an academic improvement officer for IPS that oversees George Washington, said the turnover was normal — and expected — under a new leader. This will be Butler’s second year leading the school.

“We’ve got to challenge ourselves, we’ve got to push our students,” Pratt said. “Everything has to be better. We’re changing the culture and the climate of a school. What’s difficult is changing people’s mindsets about things. Educators in particular are very rigid about their beliefs.”

One longtime IPS teacher who decided to leave George Washington said lack of control and oversight was a motivator to look elsewhere.

Debra Aquino, who has taught high school English at the school for 10 years, recently took a job at a Lighthouse Academies charter school in Indianapolis.

“A lot of things were just swept under the rug, safety concerns, fighting,” Aquino said. “The first semester (of last year) was a nightmare. Everyone was in survival mode. I feel bad for the students because I don’t think they’re getting the high school experience they deserve.”

Butler said she was working around the clock — including scheduling multiple interviews on weekends — to get all the positions filled by the first day of school just two weeks from today.

The same problem happened last year, after Butler was hired late in the summer. Students and parents complained of substitutes filling in for months until teachers were hired.

The staff shortage meant that some students, including those receiving special education services, didn’t receive the support they needed. IPS acknowledged teachers were being pulled away from special education students to cover other classes, possibly in violation of federal law. But they said they have since stopped that practice.

That wasn’t the only issue. More than one in five Hispanic students had left the school in a single year, with some citing fights and racial tension. The school — located in one of the city’s most heavily Hispanic neighborhoods — no longer had the district’s highest share of Hispanic students after more than five years at the top of that list.

Nearby community groups called for changes at the school. But IPS dismissed the concerns, releasing a statement written by students calling them “rumors.”

IPS officials say they are looking ahead, not back.

Butler said being fully staffed will ensure the year gets off to a strong start. She’s also looking forward to a staff training session next week for new and returning teachers.

“Obviously, it’s a positive thing,” Butler said. “It’s going to be a great opportunity for all of the staff to get to know each other, to build relationships with each other.”

Pratt said he will be monitoring the school’s progress over the next year but was fully confident he’d see results.

“It will be the best opening in George Washington history,” Pratt said. “We’re expecting great things out of Emily’s leadership. We’re expecting great things out of the teachers. Anything less than that is going to be considered unacceptable.”

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

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