In the Classroom

School districts use extra state aid to push new services for English learners

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
English language learning teacher Alison Fleischer works with refugee students in a small group at Nora Elementary School in Washington Township last year.

Suddenly having extra money is a good problem to have, and the director of Indianapolis Public Schools’ English language learning programs, Jessica Feeser, had it this summer.

She got busy planning to bolster the district’s support for children who are still learning English.

“It’s been so wonderful to get the increase in funding,” she said.

In April, a joint project by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Star and WFYI Public Media called Lost In Translation revealed dramatic growth in the number of English language learners in Indianapolis. In fact, Marion County has experienced a more than 200 percent growth in English learners since 2001 to about 13,000.

The series caught the attention of lawmakers, who doubled the dollars set aside in the state budget to support English language learning programs to $11 million just before the budget was approved. The new budget went into effect on July 1.

That meant school districts this summer got an unexpected bonus: about twice as much money starting this school year that immediately be used to add support English language learners.

Feeser and IPS quickly developed a plan. The district, which last year spent about $400,000 on English language learning programs, this year has $836,000 in state aid for English language learning.

The first thing the district did was speed up a plan to train teachers in what is known as the “Sheltered Instruction Observational Protocol” or SIOP, an intense program of instruction for classroom teachers that helps them craft lessons that work better for language learners, speak in ways that promote learning and better use non-verbal communication. Other schools have found the approach useful to improve learning as children also learn English.

The district has three English language learning specialists on staff now, Feeser said, but she plans to use some of the new funding to hire two more, including a SIOP and data specialist to help with that roll out.

In addition, Feeser set aside dollars for a project she is developing with Marian University that help district teaching assistants who are bilingual earn teaching credentials.

“I put funds aside, with this increase in funding, to support that to help pay the costs of tuition,” Feeser said. “These are people who work in our district who are committed to our students.”

That’s the sort of progress that state officials hoped to see come from the additional money, said Charlie Geier, who heads up the Indiana Department of Education’s work on English language learning.

“They’re being innovative,” he said. “That’s great. That’s exactly what we had envisioned.”

Haley Frischkorn, the English as a New Language program coordinator at Washington Township, said her district also saw per-student aid for English language learners double to $175 per student from $87 per student last year. Overall the district’s state aid for her program jumped to more than $304,000 this year from about $143,000 last year.

Like IPS, Washington Township used the money to hire new specialists to work as coaches to help teachers learn strategies to better help children who are still learning English at schools with large numbers of foreign-speaking students.

She hired two teachers who will work part time to support four elementary schools — Nora, Greenbriar, Spring Hill and Fox Hill. A third coach will work primarily at North Central High School but also provide support in middle schools.

“I could have hired a teacher, but that teacher can only be in one building,” Frischkorn said. “I thought this year we needed the flexibility to help teachers where needs arise.”

Classroom teachers need support because there just aren’t enough teachers training in English language learning to go around, she said. The ones assigned to elementary schools have caseloads that can exceed 100 students.

That means they can’t always provide as much support as classroom teachers need.

“They are doing their jobs really well but their kids have a lot of needs,” Frischkorn said.

Another outgrowth of the work to improving learning for English language learners is cross-district cooperation. Feeser and Frischkorn have started up a regular meeting of district directors that so far also includes Perry Township and Hamilton Southeastern, Frischkorn’s former employer.

They hope to expand the group so districts can learn more from each other.

“The dream is meeting with all the townships and IPS,” Frischkorn said. “It is so beneficial to hear what other people are doing and what their needs are.”

It’s only been three years that the state began holding collaboration meetings for directors of language learning programs, Geier said, so he’s glad to see the idea spreading to the local level.

The push for more services in Marion County has been mirrored in other parts of the state, he said. Even some of Indiana’s smallest districts are using the extra aid to try to improve the quality of their programs so language learners get proficient at English more quickly and also make faster gains in their academic subjects.

That’s important because Indiana expects to see even more English language learners over the next several years, he said.

“Across the state we are seeing people making really strong investments to meet current demand,” Geier said, “but also thinking about future demand from what the data is telling us that we will continue to see this grow potentially.”

Classroom Lessons

They saw life inside Detroit classrooms — and now some of them want to teach

PHOTO: Geneva Simons Photography
City Year Americorp members close their graduation ceremony with a spirited celebration.

For the 71 young adults who just finished 10 months of service in Detroit district schools, this past academic year was, essentially, a trial by fire.

The City Year Americorps members worked with some of Detroit’s neediest children — tutoring and mentoring them, and assisting their teachers in the classroom. It wasn’t easy. Many rose at 5:30 a.m. and reported working up to 12-hour days for a modest stipend. For many volunteers, the rigor of it all was clarifying: It inspired some to pursue teaching and pointed others toward different career paths.

City Year does not yet have comprehensive data about what percentage of its corps members are interested in going into teaching, or working as counselors or social workers in a Detroit school setting. But the program is beginning to track its alumni; what it finds out could prove instructive for the district, which is still struggling to fill nearly 200 teacher vacancies.

Americorps is a federal volunteer program, whose participants get a $1,000 a month stipend, a $5,800 post-service award. Some also have a chance to be awarded a $5,000 college scholarship. In return, the 18- to 25-year-olds commit to year of full-time service with the goal of keeping public school students on track to graduate.

Chalkbeat caught up with six recent Americorps alumni to discuss what they learned about the challenges and rewards of serving in Detroit schools, and how those lessons shape what they want to do next.

Bryan Aaron, 23, Detroit

Bryan Aaron

When he started tutoring in a class of 5th graders at Noble Elementary-Middle School, Bryan Aaron knew students’ English and math scores were shockingly low, with fewer than 10 percent passing the MSTEP in both subjects. But he was surprised to learn just how much factors outside of the classroom — food and housing insecurities, lack of transportation — affect students’ grades and attendance. In some cases students would be living with a parent one day, and an aunt or grandparent the next.

“It’s a huge factor in their ability to learn,” he said, noting that standardized tests don’t account for these issues. “What is not being taken into consideration is they haven’t had any sleep because they had to move in the middle of the night, and they haven’t had adequate nutrition.”

That helped him understand how much consistency matters for students. In one case, he helped a student with poor attendance figure out how to get to school since his father was using the family car at that time. Aaron arranged for him to ride the bus with an older sibling.

Now, Aaron, a recent college grad, is planning to apply to medical school. As he is working on his application, he’s considering conducting pediatric research on bioethics or the post-operative effects of opiates. He’s hoping to be accepted by a medical school in the region, and aspires to form a partnership between the district and the medical school to expose Noble students to the health sciences.

Blake Wilkes, 23, Detroit

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Blake Wilkes

After spending a school year working in an 8th grade classroom at J.E. Clark Preparatory Academy, Wilkes has decided he’s not suited for a career as a classroom teacher in the long-term because he said he doesn’t “have the patience to deal with what [students] go through.” But he’s not leaving education altogether: The recent college graduate will return to do a second year of service, which corps members have an option to do, then he plans to pursue a graduate degree in psychology, with the goal of becoming a school guidance counselor for the Detroit district.

During his first year in the program, the night owl pushed himself to rise by 5:30 a.m. for the 12-hour workday ahead. He tutored students in core subjects, helped the classroom teacher with lesson plans, and coordinated after-school activities. He said that his work taught him what difficult home lives some students endure, and how much the resulting social-emotional issues  impact their attitude and academic performance. He recalls a once-happy, high-achieving student who started having anger and behavioral issues after her mother died in the middle of the school year. He said he talked it through with her as best he could, and shed empathetic tears for the grieving student.

He also cried on the last day of school, recognizing how transformational the year had been, and how much he had grown and developed on a personal level.

“Seeing the kinds of stuff that the kids have to deal with everyday and how nobody’s on their side, it motivates me to work hard for them,” Wilkes said.

Brea Liggons, 25, Detroit

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Brea Liggons

Working inside a 4th grade classroom at Gompers Elementary-Middle School, a pre-K–8 school in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood, showed Liggons the staggering amount teachers have on their plates.

“Sometimes, it looks like teachers don’t care about their students, but they have one title and multiple roles they have to play everyday,” she said. “They don’t have the capacity to sit down with the students one-on-one, but I did.”

Her Americorps year recalled her own challenging middle school experience, and that increased her resolve to help students with their grades, attendance, and social-emotional skill set.

“Everyday, we had to talk about their struggles, their improvement, and we really needed to pay close attention if they acted out of the ordinary,” she said. “That’s how we knew if they were having a problem like a parent passing away.”

Liggons, who plans to return to her graduate studies at Wayne State University before becoming a counselor of some kind in a district school, taught students how to set goals, and about the power of optimistic thinking.  

“After awhile, they were begging to set their own goals. They were excited,” she said of their goals, such as deciding to let others go first, remembering to raise hands in class, and giving compliments to others and to themselves. “Just by doing that, we were literally able to watch some of our students grow immensely.”

Yazmin Gerardo, 22, Farmington Hills

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Yazmin Gerardo

A self-described introvert, Gerardo found it overwhelming to work with 4th grade students at the Brenda Scott Academy because it was so large. The school in northeast Detroit, which serves pre-K to 8th graders, has more than 700 students. But she stretched, in an effort to understand and assist students.

“It wasn’t about me,” the native Detroit, who attended Detroit public schools, said. “At the end of the day, we were doing this, working with kids, and for good reason.”

Her year of service inspired her to pursue a career in teaching in the Detroit district.

“Having someone to constantly show up and root for them is what I want to do,” she said.

“…They would come to me and say, ‘I wasn’t going to come to school today, but you promised me we would eat together at lunch, we could play a game or you would give me stickers.’”

Daniel Finegan, 25, Sterling Heights

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Daniel Finegan

By the end of the school year, which he spent tutoring, mentoring and assisting the classroom teacher with 7th and 8th graders at Bethune Elementary-Middle School, Finegan was so set on teaching in a Detroit public school, he was already looking for a rental home in the Bagley neighborhood in northwest Detroit. Not only that, he’s had interviews with principals at four schools and has a contingency offer in hand.

“City Year has been my student teaching experience,” Finegan, who has a degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh, said. His Americorps year solidified his decision to teach.

He is working toward his teacher’s certification, and if all goes according to plan, he’ll be ready to start teaching in the district when the 2018–2019 school year begins.

Parker Schimler, 23, Royal Oak

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Parker Schimler

After his year of service in 7th and 8th grade classrooms at Gompers, Schimler understands exactly what it can be like when a school district struggles with teacher vacancies. One teacher he worked with had hip surgery, and substitute teachers were in and out of the classroom for most of the school year. It left students discombobulated and unfocused.

But that gave him an opportunity to take a deep dive into the lives of the students, discovering their strengths and helping them work on their weaker areas. He said he became particularly good at getting shy students to open up to him, and the ones who appreciated him most sometimes drew pictures for him. He was left with a strong appreciation for one student in particular, who set a goal to be a NBA player and an athletic shoe designer. That student made Schimler an origami athletic shoe.

“Without a teacher in the classroom, they weren’t getting the education I did and the education they deserve,” he said. “I worked with them in small groups and gave them worksheets to help them out the best I could.”

Future of Teaching

Five award-winning teachers talk recharging over the summer

PHOTO: Fitzgerald Crame
Fitzgerald Crame celebrates his 2017 Golden Apple Award with his students

As Chicagoland students rejoice at the end of school, teachers also approach the summer with excitement – to be able to relax and recuperate from a busy school year.

Chalkbeat talked with five recipients of the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching to hear about what they do over the summer to recharge for next school year.

The award is granted by the Golden Apple Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting school leaders and teachers. It honors outstanding pre-K-third-grade teachers in the Chicago area, granting recipients a paid spring sabbatical at Northwestern University, in which they can take any course they choose, and also lifetime membership at the Golden Apple Academy of Educators, in which they mentor prospective teachers and help shape education reform efforts in Illinois and nationally.

PHOTO: Meghan Dolan

Meghan Dolan

“Third grade is a benchmark here in Chicago Public Schools, so there’s a lot of pressure put on students to pass. And that pressure we take on as teachers.

“In the summer, sometimes [to recharge] it’s just getting enough sleep, because during the school year, I stay late at work and I come home and I do work. So, [I am] just doing nothing and sitting and watching a TV show – and actually watching it. Even right now, I’m writing notes to my students as I’m watching TV.

“I feel like my mind is freer and, like, when I’m at Target, I’m not like, ‘I need this for my classroom,’ but I can just go to Target and be like ‘oh, I need this just for me.’

“[During the school year,] you work so long, you work at school and then you come home and work and also on the weekends. Just being able to tell myself, ‘hey it’s OK to take a break.’”

Meghan Dolan just finished her 15th year of teaching. She’s a third-grade teacher at Palmer Elementary School in North Mayfair, and she co-teaches reading and math. She previously taught second grade and K-3 special education in Dubuque, Iowa, and Ferguson, Missouri. She was awarded the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2018.

PHOTO: Fitzgerald Crame

Fitzgerald Crame

“This year was a special year because I was participating in the Golden Apple sabbatical. I got to take any class that I wanted at Northwestern University, and one of the classes that I took was a photography class. For the rest of summer, I will continue to take photos.

“I have a philosophy that students should see the world through different lenses and appreciate the wonder that’s around them. Working through this photography class, it forced me to do the same for myself. Through the lens of my camera, I had to manipulate the aperture and shutter speed and all that to see the world differently. It just reaffirmed my ideas that there’s still wonder in the world. I didn’t have to go anywhere, I just had to change the angle of the lens to see the different light, and that just simple idea helped refresh me.

“I noticed as I took this photography class that I had always taken photos of my daughters and used a selective focus so that the background would blur out and the subject would come forward. But I forced myself to use a deeper focus so everything in my photos was sharp focus, and that made me appreciate the surroundings and appreciate every little detail.

“As I progressed through the class, I took a photo of a mural and my wife walked in front it. She was a little blurred out but the picture was still just so much more interesting with her in it, and then I realized the importance of the characters within the settings, not just the settings themselves. The characters – that’s what I was so interested in. It reminded me that no matter where you turn your lens, no matter what you take a picture of, that person is living this incredibly vibrant life with their own settings and their own backgrounds and their own stories.

PHOTO: Fitzgerald Crame
Fitzgerald Crame’s photo of his wife in front of a mural

“And that reminds me as a teacher that every one of the 31 students that are sitting in front of me is the focus of their own photo, or the protagonist of their own story. It helped me appreciate them as characters within their own settings. It’s something that drives the teachers. Like, guess what? They’re living a life as vibrant as the one that I’m living and they come with all these traits that I have to understand better.

“It’s seeing the world through fresh eyes.”

Fitzgerald Crame has been teaching for 22 years. He has taught fourth grade at Edison Regional Gifted Center in Chicago in Albany Park for six years, focusing on STEM and project based learning. He was awarded the Golden Apple for Excellence for Teaching in 2017, and he was honored as a Symmetra Classroom Hero in 2018.

PHOTO: Lisa Buchholz

Lisa Buchholz

“Teaching is like two jobs, almost. Your day job is your time with your kids and your night jobs are your planning and preparing. There’s only so many hours in the day, so in the summer, because I don’t have to be teaching kids, I can just fully focus on planning.

“I’m such a nerd.  I have an ongoing folder of ideas for class projects or activities that last all year long. I bring this folder home and read through the ideas I’ve collected so that I can add a new one for the next school year.

“This summer, I’m very excited to begin an ‘integrating notebook.’ I’m a fan of integrating concepts between subjects because this can help make content more relevant for students. This school year, I kept notes all over the place about times I integrated content.  [For example,] while reading a ‘Fly Guy’ book by Ted Arnold to the class, I realized I could tie it into the engineering design process and review the steps in that process as I was actually reading that book for a character study. Sometimes integrating is planned and sometimes you just seize the moment. That’s the beauty of the elementary model where one teacher teaches the same kids for all subjects. We can do that kind of integrating.

“Even while out and relaxing with my family, I’m like a mad scientist and have to keep a notebook with me at all times because family activities give me great ideas for classroom activities.”

Lisa Buchholz has taught for 27 years. She’s a first-grade teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She first starting teaching preschool while in college, and since graduating, she’s taught in the same district. She’s taught first, second, and third grades, having spent the most time teaching first grade. She was awarded the Golden Apple Award for Teaching in Excellence in 2018.

PHOTO: Daneal Silvers

Daneal Silvers

“It’s reaching out in both ways – spending time as a mom and a Chicagoan, and then also I’m reaching out as a teacher.

“I have two younger kids and as a teacher, there’s not as much time to be a parent or to be a chaperone and spend that kind of day time with the kids, like how a lot of other parents can. So in the summer I spend a lot of time with them – taking them to the park, going swimming with them.

“Also, every summer, I get to work meeting my new group of kindergartners. I reach out to my new families through surveys, orientation, and one-on-one interviews.  At Edison [Regional Gifted Center], we welcome 28 new families into kindergarten from all over the city. Since these families are not all coming from the same neighborhood, it’s essential to build a sense of community at school right from the first moment.

“In this way, my teaching feels cyclical rather than linear, because there isn’t a clear end, so I don’t always feel I need to refresh or recharge, but just move into the next part of the cycle.”

Daneal Silvers has been an early elementary (kindergarten and first grade) teacher for 10 years. She also teaches at Edison Regional Gifted Center. Her early-childhood curriculum emphasizes exploration of the concepts of peacefulness, empathy, grit and growth mindset. She was awarded the Golden Apple Award for Teaching for Excellence in 2018.

PHOTO: Carrie Garrett

Carrie Garrett

“I have a group of teaching friends and colleagues and get together at a friend’s house that has a pool and we just spend the time talking about the year, talking about memories. Those conversations, when they revolve around school, definitely help me reflect on what I’m doing and what else I need to be doing to be a better teacher. And, being in the sun and the pool helps too.

“There are times in my school year when I feel very defeated, and I feel like nothing I’m doing is effective. The thing about teaching is that any day it could be anything. Sometimes I do get frustrated with a mandated curriculum or mandated assessment that I have to give. Other times the frustration comes when you have a student that you have to advocate for and everything that you bring to the table and you know would be best sometimes isn’t necessarily the path that they choose for the child. There are processes that need to take place before the child can get the help that they need and it’s frustrating from the teacher perspective because the process can be very lengthy and time-consuming.

“That’s why my time at the pool with my girlfriends is so valuable to me – the connection that you have with the teachers that you work with or just teachers in general is so powerful, because when I do feel lost and frustrated, and I don’t know if I can teach any longer, just being able to voice your feeling and your frustration to a fellow teaching partner really helps you talk things out and get you back up on your feet.

“That’s the teaching process. You’re going to get knocked down, and hopefully you can stand back up, take one step at a time, push right through. And then the magic happens, and you were wondering why you ever thought why you couldn’t do it.

“When I first began teaching, I didn’t take the small successes, I was always looking for the big things. Now, teaching for as long as I’ve had, I know that there are a lot of things during the school year that can weigh you down. Sometimes you really just need to think, ‘did I do something that made a difference in at least one of my students’ lives today?’ Then in the summer,  you look back on that and you see so much growth.

“You sit back and think, ‘wow this whole time I thought we weren’t going very far very fast, but look at where we ended up.’”

Carrie Garrett just finished her fourth year of teaching first grade at Lynne Thigpen Elementary School in Joliet, Illinois. Before that, she was a reading specialist, a fourth-grade teacher and a fifth-grade teacher. She was awarded the Golden Apple Award for Excellence for Teaching in 2018.