In the Classroom

With its jackpot $28.5 million grant, Warren Township pushes career programs, online learning and teacher training

PHOTO: James Vaughn
Davoni White (left) and Chris Patterson (right) rush to set up a camera in one minute during an advanced studio production class at Warren Central High School. The FrontRunner studio (pictured here) was funded by the Race to the Top grant.

Three years ago, Warren Township got a lucky break when it was one of just 16 school districts nationwide to win a big federal Race to the Top grant.

The district walked away with $28.5 million for its goal of more closely connecting what its schools teach to the individual needs of its students.

The district has used the money to try out a host of new ideas. It added state-of-the-art facilities to the career center at its high school, added a computerized system to keep students learning even if they are kicked out of school and poured money into training teachers.

But the district isn’t stopping there. Before the grant dries up in 2017, Warren hopes to use the money to add “blended learning,” a system that mixes teacher-led lessons with individual work on the computer, to all of its elementary, intermediate and middle schools.

“The grant has helped us build the wings of the plane before we take off rather than try to take that plane off and build the wings at the same time like a lot of districts around us are forced to do,” said Ryan Russell, assistant superintendent of educator effectiveness.

Warren Township has the fifth largest enrollment of the 11 Marion County school districts with 12,100 students, many of which face the same learning barriers that students in other high-poverty districts battle.

More than 70 percent of students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, which for a family of four means less than $43,500 in annual income. In IPS, by comparison, about 75 percent of students qualify, and statewide the figure is about 49 percent.

Three of its nine elementary schools earned a D letter grade from the state for low test scores, including the once high-rated Sunny Heights Elementary School. Two of its three middle schools earned a D. Warren Township High School earned a C on its last state report card.

The grant was intended to spark innovation in school districts with these sorts of challenges and help them turn the corner to better student outcomes. Race to the Top school district winners were expected to find ways to personalize learning for students, especially using technology, that other districts around the country could learn from.

“The goal with Race to the Top was to really gain some momentum and spearhead this effort to personalize learning for students,” Russell said. “We’re not talking about a magnet school. We’re not talking about just one school out of our 18 sites. We’re talking about, as a district, committing to personalized learning.”

One example are changes at the Walker Career Center, which is attached to the high school.

A ‘real-world’ experience

Gabbi Mitchell stood shoulder to shoulder with professionals and did exactly the same work to produce videos during the VEX Robotics competition in November at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

She’s not getting paid, but you could argue her work is semi-professional. Mitchell has a job with a tiny student-run video production company called FrontRunner, which is housed at the career center.

Last week, FrontRunner was gearing up for its second time covering Gen Con, an annual gaming convention that takes over Downtown Indianapolis each August.

The school district spent $1.7 million from the Race to the Top grant to build a state-of-the-art studio equipped with a green screen, seven high definition cameras and a production trailer for students working in the field.

The idea for FrontRunner originated with Dennis Jarrett, who spent about a decade working in television at RTV6 before transitioning to teaching.

Students were doing live broadcasts and “real journalism” before the grant, Jarrett said. But he wanted to add a layer to the real-world experience they were getting. Now, organizations like Gen Con and VEX Robotics actually pay FrontRunner to produce videos during their events – money Jarrett hopes will keep the program going once the grant runs out.

“After this year, we have to be self-sufficient,” Jarrett said. “So what we’re able to do with the monies that we’re making is ensure that we can sustain this after the grant is done.”

For the students, Jarrett teaches video production classes during the school day. After school, they apply what they’ve learned in their work for FrontRunner.

“We’re outfitted on the level of any other production company or TV facility here in Indianapolis,” Jarrett said.

The Walker Career Center is home to more than 20 career-focused electives, from engineering to cosmetology. There is a fully functioning restaurant on site where students create, prepare and serve the food.

“It exposes these kids to something while they’re in high school and maybe it’s not for them,” Jarrett said. “Maybe they don’t like the fact that TV isn’t all glamour. Maybe they don’t like the fact that they have to spend four hours setting equipment up. So it exposes them to a career path while they’re still in a position to make a decision – they can change.”

Mitchell, 17, said she hopes to study broadcast journalism at Syracuse University – one of the best programs in the country – and would love to work at a network like CNN as an anchor or correspondent.

“I can do anything around here,” Mitchell said, sitting in the studio’s control room. “I can be on camera. I can use the camera. I can edit. I can do replay. But the thing I enjoy the most is capturing a story. I feel like everybody has a story and it just takes the right person to see it.”

An alternative to expulsion

By the end of the 2013-14 school year, Warren Township schools had expelled nearly 70 students and Superintendent Dena Cushenberry was frustrated.

The district needed an alternative to kicking kids out.

“My charge was, ‘How do we keep these students in school?’” Cushenberry said. “Maybe not in the school environment, per say. But how do we continue their education even though they’re not in the four walls of Warren Central High School or a middle school?”

Now they have an alternative thanks, again, to Race to the Top.

Today, when students are suspended and facing expulsion, the district’s Director of eLearning John Keller offers them a choice: stay in school by agreeing to take online courses or continue down the road to expulsion.

No longer are those students missing out on an education. For some of them, they’re even making it to graduation.

Since the program launched in October, 26 students have agreed to take online classes rather than be expelled. Two graduated on time this past spring. Seven earned credits.

But not doing the work is equivalent to agreeing to the expulsion.

“It doesn’t always work,” Cushenberry said. “You have some students that don’t want that. We try to make sure that everyone still has access to an education even when they think they don’t want it.”

Most of their school work can be completed at home, but the students take all of their tests at the district’s central office. Some students find the program suits them and they communicate with Keller often, he said. But he doesn’t hear from others after a mandatory orientation.

“The ball is very much in the student’s court,” Keller said. “We’re saying, ‘Hey, this track goes over the cliff to expulsion and this track stays on the rails. But it’s pretty much all you now in the sense that this is your time to be an adult about your learning and it’s going to take some initiative. I’m not going to call you and get you out of bed.”

A new kind of teacher

"I personally believe the best way we can support our students is to invest in our teachers. And so the biggest positive impact I believe Race to the Top has had is truly giving us an opportunity to invest far more in them than we ever could have imagined without it."Ryan Russell

Making greater use of online learning has also meant more learning for teachers, some of whom are more adept at using new technologies for instruction than others.

In the past two years, the district has paid for more than 50,000 training hours for its teachers and administrators.

“I personally believe the best way we can support our students is to invest in our teachers,” Russell said. “And so the biggest positive impact I believe Race to the Top has had is truly giving us an opportunity to invest far more in them than we ever could have imagined without it.”

Most of the money from the grant has been spent, one way or another, on the more than 700 teachers in the district.

Russell said Warren wants students working at their own paces and seeing real-time results.

In many cases, that means teachers have to change the way they teach, which is the most challenging part of the process, he said.

“We as teachers were trained to kind of command and control a classroom – to be up front, a sage on the stage,” Russell said. “But personalization and blended (learning) really requires you to shift your role into more of a facilitator and a coach.”

Younger children, the district has learned, actually have a lot of understanding about how technological tools work and quickly learn how to use them for school work. So the district wants to connect that understanding directly to their lessons.

“We know that kids right now in kindergarten – all they know is technology,” Cushenberry said. “We had to figure out, ‘How do you make education relevant for the students of this generation?’”

Ending the churn

A splintered system and lack of teachers have created instability for Detroit schools. Now, leaders are craving solutions.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames learned that his former school took summer paychecks back from teachers who quit in August when money disappeared from his bank account.

Like many school leaders in Detroit, Danielle Robinson spent the month of August doggedly searching for teachers.

Robinson is the top Detroit official for Phalen Leadership Academies, a nonprofit charter school network that took over three Detroit schools from another manager in July.

By late August, with the start of school just days away, Phalen still needed 34 teachers to staff Murphy, Stewart and Trix elementary schools.

And there wasn’t much time.

“We did $5,000 retention bonuses,” Robinson said. “We did  $5,000 signing bonuses. We did $1,000 referral bonuses … We needed to make sure we had enough teachers because that’s a huge thing for students when they come back — a permanent teacher in the classroom. ”

Phalen’s challenge was extreme — a problem exacerbated by management changes and by the dissolution of the state-run recovery district that had been overseeing the three schools. They’re now overseen by a Detroit district unsure of its plans for charters.

But the schools’ scramble for teachers is hardly unusual in a city where liberal school choice laws, a decentralized school system and a shrinking pool of available teachers have so destabilized the teacher labor force that many school leaders say they’re constantly looking for new educators to hire.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this in my career,” said Mark Ornstein who heads the seven-campus University Prep charter school network in Detroit. “There’s just not enough people to fill the number of vacancies …. We’re all seeing more and more teachers leaving in the middle of the year.”

So many schools are looking for teachers — in August, September and throughout the year — that educators can wait for bonuses and enticements to grow before accepting an offer. And every time a teacher takes an offer and leaves, that creates a vacancy likely to be filled by a teacher from another school. That other school then has a vacancy to fill.

As teachers leave, students suffer. Research shows that teachers hired during or just before the school year are less effective than those who’ve had more time to prepare and to properly learn their school’s curriculum.

Experts say the teacher churn is driven in part by the fierce competition between schools in Detroit that has intensified as charter schools have expanded — they now comprise nearly half of the city’s schools — and as more suburban schools actively recruit city kids. Parents often enroll in multiple schools while weighing their options and schools are left to guess how many students they’ll have and how many teachers they’ll need.

“It’s another consequence of this hyper-competition that has been created by our charter school programs and laws here in Michigan and it’s really working to the detriment of everybody involved,” said Mike Addonizio, a professor of education policy at Wayne State University.

“The schools are competing for students,” he said. “The students will dictate the revenues and that dictates their budget and therefore their ability to hire staff … And if a school is plagued with high teacher turnover, that makes it difficult for students. Outcomes won’t be good and as that information becomes public, those schools don’t do well in school choice decisions and enrollment will drop.”

Some Detroit schools are now pushing back on teachers who quit mid-year by putting financial penalties into teachers’ contracts that discourage them from leaving, but advocates say real solutions will require major changes.

Among them: improving conditions in schools so that teachers want to stay and creating partnerships between district and charter schools to minimize instability.

“In other states, schools set their budgets and know their enrollment so much further ahead that they can come to a [spring] job fair and know exactly who they need to hire,” said Karey Henderson, the director of the Metro Detroit Charter Center who was the assistant superintendent of a 10-school Michigan charter network called Global Educational Excellence.

In Michigan, enrollment “doesn’t really get fleshed out often until Count Day [in October],” Henderson said. “Teachers are nervous and they’re applying around …. We would be trying to train new teachers but then a public school would get more kids and need more teachers and our teachers would get a call … We would have to start out the year with long-term subs in the classroom.”

Then, if parents see a substitute in the classroom, they might move their child to another school — and the churn continues.

Much of the attention this year has focused on the difficulties facing Detroit’s main school district as it works to fill scores of vacancies  in its 106 schools, but the problem is playing out somewhat differently in charter schools where teachers tend to be younger and are more likely to change jobs — or to the leave the profession entirely — from one year to the next.

A recent report from the state education department found that charter school teachers are twice as likely to leave their jobs compared to teachers in traditional public schools. The same report found a higher teacher turnover in Michigan as compared to the national average and put the price tag of replacing a teacher at nearly $10,000.

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent Michigan Department of Education report shows that Michigan teachers — especially those who work for charter schools — are more likely to leave their jobs than their peers across the country.

Another state report shows the problem for all schools could get even worse in coming years as the number of people applying for teacher certifications drops precipitously — much faster than the number of students who need a teacher.

School leaders say they’re taking steps to attract more teachers. Detroit school  superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he’s working to build a “teacher pipeline” that would encourage district graduates to go into education, do their training in Detroit and work here when they graduate.

Charter school leaders say they’re making similar efforts.

Grand Valley State University now provides scholarships to education students who do their training in Detroit charter schools overseen by Grand Valley, said Rob Kimball, who heads the university’s charter school office.  

Leaders from Grand Valley charter schools have also been meeting with their counterparts from schools overseen by Central Michigan University to discuss a “coordinated talent strategy,” Kimball said.

“There’s definitely an interest in coming up with a shared solution,” Kimball said. “We need to design a solution to really stabilize the marketplace for teacher talent and to develop a pipeline [for future teachers].”

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent report from the Michigan Department of Education warns that number of new teacher certifications is dropping much faster than the number of students in the state.

In the absence of a citywide solution, individual schools are doing whatever they can to fill classrooms.

In the case of the Phalen Leadership Academies, Robinson, the top official, said her schools  applied for emergency certifications to put some people without teaching credentials into classrooms. The new teachers will get extra coaching to help them succeed, Robinson said, but it was a tough choice for an Indiana-based network that prides itself on hiring only highly qualified staff.

“None of our other schools in our network use emergency permits,” Robinson said.

Some charter schools have created bonus systems that require teachers to return for the next school year in order to collect last year’s bonus.

Others — including the University Prep schools — have contracts that don’t allow teachers to get their full summer pay unless they return for the new school year.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames said he learned that the hard way when he resigned his job at the University Prep Academy Middle School on Aug. 18 to take a position with a different school.

Suddenly, he said, his last paycheck disappeared from his bank account.

“I looked at my bank account one day and saw a negative $900,” Ames said.

University Prep had paid him on Aug. 15 but took the money back when he quit three days later.

Ornstein said his teachers’ contracts begin on Aug. 1. If they resign before teacher training begins on Aug. 21, it means they didn’t do any work and shouldn’t have been paid.

Ames was furious. “It kind of make me want to quit teaching,” he said. “They should find a way to keep teachers honestly instead of trying to punish us for leaving.”

Contract provisions that seem designed to penalize departures are becoming increasingly common in Detroit charter schools, teachers union leaders say.

“At one charter school, the teachers call it the ‘death tax,’” said Nate Walker, an organizer and policy analyst with the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in the main Detroit district and in a handful of city charter schools. “They’re loading up penalties on teachers to try to deter them from leaving so close to the beginning of the school year … but that’s not going to fix the problem because the labor market in Detroit is destabilized and decentralized.”

Walker called for schools to give teachers contracts earlier in the year and to coordinate with each other so that teachers can know they’ll have income and health insurance over the summer even if they plan to change jobs in September.

The current structure encourages teachers to hold on to last year’s job until the insurance for next year’s job kicks in in August or September, Walker said.

“This is a lot easier said than done because of the multi-operator system that we have right now, but if employers were to make the commitment that any time they’ve given someone an offer to work in the fall, they’re also willing to turn on insurance for that employee, that could solve at least part of the problem,” Walker said.

The only way to fix the rest of the problem, Addonizio said, is to address the reasons that teachers leave in the first place.  

“The best thing that a school or a school district can do to combat the teacher turnover problem is to improve working conditions in the school,” Addonizio said. “For new teachers, their compensation might mean something, but more than anything, they want some mentoring, assistance from veteran teachers. They want some help.”

Henderson said schools need to find a way to start working together — instead of just poaching teachers from each other.

“Get everyone in the room,” she said. “I know everyone is protective over how they manage their schools and run their H.R. but if you get enough H.R. people together in the same room, I think you can come up with a solution.”

disaster ready

Here’s how New York City schools are preparing to serve students impacted by Hurricane Maria

Just weeks after Hurricane Maria traced a deadly path across the Caribbean, The New American Academy Charter School in Flatbush, Brooklyn got a call.

It was a family member looking for a school for two young relatives after their home on Dominica was wrecked, along with most of the small island.

Before long, the students were enrolled in kindergarten and first grade. The school quickly gave the family a scholarship for after-school care and provided free uniforms — even including new shoes, socks and underwear.

“They lost everything,” said Lisa Parquette Silva, the school’s headmaster. “As soon as I heard these two students needed a place, it was not a question.”

New York City is preparing to potentially welcome an influx of students fleeing Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands after the powerful hurricane struck in September, knocking out power grids and flattening homes. The leaders of the country’s largest school system insist they are ready for whomever comes.

“We are going to do whatever we can to support and accommodate them,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a recent press conference, “starting with our public schools.”

Hundreds of thousands could flee Puerto Rico. As home to some of the largest Caribbean communities on the mainland, New York City is a logical place for many of those people to land. They are likely to bring with them an untold number of children who need to enroll in schools — though officials say it’s hard to know how many until they actually arrive.

Already, the Orlando school system reported enrolling almost 300 students from Puerto Rico as of last week. In Miami-Dade, the number was around 200, according to The 74.

In New York City, schools have not yet seen a significant uptick in enrollment, officials said. The few students who have arrived have landed in Bronx and Brooklyn schools, they added.

Serving those students will likely require a host of extra resources. The Miami-Dade school system is expecting to spend $2,200 for every student the district takes in, according to the Wall Street Journal.

New York City schools chancellor Carmen Fariña said the city has sent representatives to Puerto Rico to understand how the situation there could impact schools. Meanwhile, the education department has begun to survey principals here to find out which schools have space to take in new students — and assured those schools that they would get extra funding. Guidance counselors are being trained to meet storm survivors’ unique needs.

“Money will be allotted to those schools to be able to service those children,” Fariña said at the press conference, “understanding in many cases there may be extra support needed for families and trauma.”

The state education department recently put out guidance for schools, saying children who have fled a disaster are likely protected by federal law for homeless students. Under the law, districts can waive documentation requirements for school enrollment — which the city is doing at its Family Welcome Centers — and students are eligible for free meals.

Nicholas Tishuk, executive director of Bedford Stuyvesant New Beginnings charter school in Brooklyn, said he is already fielding calls from people who are looking for schools as they consider whether to bring over family members from Puerto Rico.

The independent charter school recently packed a van with donated lanterns, batteries and water to be shipped to the island. School leaders have also put the word out that they are ready to enroll students impacted by the storm.

If the school runs out of space, Tishuk hopes it can still serve as a clearinghouse to put families in touch with other local options.

“A school can be a very powerful place to get extra resources,” he said, noting that New Beginnings has a bilingual staff that regularly collaborates with social-service agencies. “Even if it’s not our school, you should reach out to a school that can help you connect to those resources.”

Schools that take in displaced students will most likely have to offer bilingual classes and provide counselors who can support children who have been separated from their parents and are living in the city with relatives.

Eve Colavito, director of schools for DREAM charter school in East Harlem, said one of the most important things schools can provide is stability. The pre-K through ninth-grade school enrolled a middle school student from Puerto Rico this week.

“Our goal initially,” she said, “is to make school as normal and predictable as possible for them.”