Trade offs

Indianapolis is experimenting with a new kind of teacher — and it’s transforming this school

PHOTO: Teachers and coaches meet at Indianapolis Public Schools Lew Wallace School 107.
Paige Sowders (left) is one of three multi-classroom leaders who are helping teachers at School 107.

Teachers at School 107 are up against a steep tower of challenges: test scores are chronically low, student turnover is high and more than a third of kids are still learning English.

All the school’s difficulties are compounded by the struggle to hire and retain experienced teachers, said principal Jeremy Baugh, who joined School 107 two years ago. At one of the most challenging schools in Indianapolis Public Schools, many of the educators are in their first year in the classroom.

“It’s a tough learning environment,” Baugh said. “We needed to find a way to support new teachers to be highly effective right away.”

This year, Baugh and the staff of School 107 are tackling those challenges with a new teacher leadership model designed to attract experienced educators and support those who are new to the classroom. School 107 is one of six district schools piloting the opportunity culture program, which allows principals to pay experienced teachers as much as $18,300 extra each year to support other classrooms. Next year, the program will expand to 10 more schools.

The push to create opportunities for teachers to take on leadership and earn more money without leaving the classroom is gaining momentum in Indiana — where the House budget includes $1.5 million for developing educator “career pathways” — and across the country in places from Denver to Washington. The IPS program is modeled on similar efforts in North Carolina led by the education consulting firm Public Impact.

At School 107, Baugh hired three new teachers, called multi-classroom leaders, who are responsible for the performance of several classes. Each class has a dedicated, full-time teacher. But the classroom leader is there to help them plan lessons, improve their teaching and look at data on where students are struggling. And unlike traditional coaches, they also spend time in the classroom, working directly with students.

As classroom leaders, they are directly responsible for the test scores of the students in their classes, said Jesse Pratt, who is overseeing opportunity culture for the district.

“They own that data,” Pratt said. “They are invested in those kids and making sure they are successful.”

At School 107, the program is part of a focus on using data to track student performance that Baugh began rolling out when he took over last school year. It’s already starting to bear fruit: Students still struggle on state tests, but they had so much individual improvement that the school’s letter grade from the state jumped from a D to a B last year.

Paige Sowders, who works with classes in grades 3 through 6, is one of the experienced teachers the program attracted to School 107. After 9 years in the classroom, she went back to school to earn an administrator’s license. But Sowders wasn’t quite ready to leave teaching for the principal’s office, she said. She was planning to continue teaching in Washington Township. Then, she learned about the classroom leader position at School 107, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to move up the ladder without moving out of the classroom.

“I wanted something in the middle before becoming an administrator,” she said. “I get to be a leader and work with teachers and with children.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The multi-classroom leaders meet regularly with teachers and district coaches to review data and plan lessons.

The new approaches to teacher leadership are part of a districtwide move to give principals more freedom to set priorities and choose how to spend funding. But those decisions aren’t always easy. Since schools don’t get extra funding to hire classroom leaders, Baugh had to find money in his existing budget. That meant cutting several vacant part-time positions, including a media specialist, a gym teacher and a music teacher.

It also meant slightly increasing class sizes. Initially, that seemed fine to Baugh, but then enrollment unexpectedly ballooned at the school — going from 368 students at the start of the year to 549 in February. With so many new students, class sizes started to go up, and the school had to hire several new teachers, Baugh said.

Some of those teachers were fresh out of college when they started in January, with little experience in such challenging schools. But because the school had classroom leaders, new teachers weren’t expected to lead classes without support. Instead, they are working with leaders like Sowders, who can take the time to mentor them throughout the year.

With teachers who are just out of school, Sowders spends a lot of time focusing on basics, she said. She went over what their days would be like and how to prepare. During the first week of the semester, she went into one of the new teacher’s classes to teach English every day so he could see the model lessons. And she is working with him on improving discipline in his class by setting expectations in the first hour of class.

Ultimately, Baugh thinks the tradeoffs the school made were worth it. The extra money helped them hold on to talented staff, and they have the bandwidth to train new teachers.

“If I’m a novice teacher just learning my craft, I can’t be expected to be a super star best teacher year one,” he said. “We learn our skill.”

School shootings

Parkland teacher to future Indiana educators: Don’t be afraid to become a teacher

PHOTO: Provided by Indiana University Communications
Indiana University alumna Katherine Posada, an English teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, speaks to IU School of Education students on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. Posada survived a mass shooting at the Parkland, Florida school where 17 students and teachers were killed by a former student.

Anxious students about to embark on their teaching careers might be even more worried about life in the classroom after the recent shootings at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

But after surviving last week’s attack that killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, teacher Katherine Posada wanted to ease the fears of education students at her alma mater, Indiana University.

On Friday morning, she spoke to an auditorium of about 200 people in Bloomington about huddling with her 22 students while the school was on lockdown.

Posada acknowledged hard truths: that teachers can do their best to help struggling students, but there will be some — like alleged shooter Nikolas Cruz, who had been expelled from the school — who they won’t be able to save.

But her clear passion for teaching, and her hope for change for safer schools, rang through.

“Please don’t let this type of event discourage you or make you be afraid to become a teacher,” Posada said. “Because in this world, it is more important now than it ever has been to be able to give these messages to our students, and to be able to prepare them for the world they’re about to go into.”

Here are some excerpts from Posada’s talk:

On why she thinks arming teachers is a “terrible idea”:

“Teaching is about relationships, and it’s about respect. And if I am armed, and I have a weapon, my students no longer respect me. They respect my weapon. They fear my weapon. And I become a threat to them, or a potential threat to them.”

Posada said she supports safety measures such as requiring students to wear IDs and limiting access to schools by keeping entrances locked. But she said she believes it could have been dangerous for her to have a gun on the day of the shooting, particularly when law enforcement cleared the building.

“The first thing that we saw was the barrel of a rifle pointed at us,” she said. “I understand that they had to assess whether or not there was a threat in the room, but they’re pointing guns at us, and they’re shouting, and they’re saying, ‘Hands up! Get in the middle of the room!’

“If I’d had a gun at that moment, they would have shot me. Because they’re there to assess a threat. They’re not there to say, ‘Hmm, this person looks like a mild-mannered 10th-grade teacher who’s not a threat to me.’ … I don’t ever want them to wonder if I’m a threat to them.”

On Parkland students’ gun-control activism after the shooting:

“They are articulate and inspiring and educated. And they didn’t get there by accident.

“They got there because of people like you in this room. Because of their teachers. Because of people who have taught them to think critically about important issues. Because of people who have taught them how to formulate their words and given them the opportunity to practice those things, and educators who have told them they can change the world.”

On how teachers can prepare for school shootings:

“Many of you are wondering if you will ever be able to be prepared for a situation like a school shooting. Yes, you can be logistically prepared. You will do trainings, and you will do the drills, and you will talk to students, and you will know exactly what to do in those situations. But I will tell you, you can never be emotionally prepared for what that is like.”

But Posada said even if you’re in shock, your instincts will kick in.

“You do what you have to do to protect your kids. And that’s what they are: Every student who comes into your classroom, as an educator, is your kid. You form relationships with them, and you’ll do whatever it takes to protect them. You’ll know what to do.”

On what she really teaches in her 10th-grade English class:

“Empathy and the ability to relate to other people.

“Any time you pick up a book, you are putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. You are looking at the world from someone else’s perspective for that 300 pages, or whatever it is that you’re reading. That’s such an important thing to be able to do in this world where we are so polarized. It’s so ‘us versus them.’ ‘If you don’t agree with what I say, you must be a terrible, horrible person.’ I think we get caught up in that way of thinking far too often. … It’s OK to disagree with each other, you just have to do so respectfully.”

Posada said she teaches students to think critically by articulating their own arguments — and understanding other perspectives.

“I really try not to let my own personal views come across in the classroom. It’s not my job as an educator to tell my students what to think. It’s my job to teach them how to think for themselves.”

On how she plans to go back to school after the shooting:

“In many ways, I don’t think it will ever be the same.”

Posada expects students’ first days back will be devoted to talking about the shooting.

“I was in the middle of reading Macbeth when we left. How am I going to do that? How am I going to go back and read Macbeth to them at this point? Would anybody care? I don’t think so.”

She said she may shift her lesson plans to be more meaningful, to include a project for students to research and present on issues they feel passionately about.

“I don’t know that we’ll go back to Macbeth. I am going to teach the standards, maybe in just a little bit of a different way. .. I think it would be a disservice to the students to jump back into, let’s do some SAT prep.”

On being “more than just a deliverer of curriculum”:

“I feel like I’m their mom sometimes. I feel like I’m their parent. I think sometimes they’d rather I didn’t feel that way, because I expect a lot of my students, and sometimes I call them on stuff that they’d rather you let slide. … Some of them need an adult who can be a role model, or who can be someone they can talk to, because they don’t have that anywhere else. You feel like a therapist sometimes. So yeah, you’re definitely more than just a deliverer of curriculum. That would be easier, probably, less stressful, but you’re more than that.”

Her relationship with her students, Posada said, helps her see red flags in their behavior, in their writing, or from other students, in cases in which students may need counseling.

“Unfortunately, we can’t catch every single incident,” she said. “But you do the best you can.”

On whether there is “room in our hearts to love kids like Nikolas,” the alleged shooter:

“I think that the answer to things like this is more love, more understanding. More willingness to accept other people and their points of view and the way they might feel and the way they might think and to be open to everyone expressing themselves. So I think there’s room. It might take us awhile to get there, but I definitely think it’s possible.”

Walk it out

NYC mayor encourages school walkouts in wake of Florida shooting: ‘If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out’

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio

In the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said students won’t face serious disciplinary action if they choose to participate in a national school walkout planned for next month to protest gun violence.

“If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out,” de Blasio said Thursday. “This is too important a moment in history to try to hold back the desire of our young people to see fundamental change and to protect themselves.”

Students across the country are planning to walk out of class at 10 a.m. on March 14 “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” according to a Facebook description of the event.  The protest is scheduled to last 17 minutes, one for each person who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And unlike one Texas school district, which threatened to slap students with suspensions if they walked out, de Blasio said students would not face serious discipline. “There’s no negative, lasting impact if they do this,” the mayor said.

De Blasio’s tacit endorsement of the walkout comes just days after he announced that schools across the city would deploy more “rapid-response lesson plans” about current events. On Friday, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that the protests are a “teachable moment.”

We are going to do lesson plans around this issue leading up to that day,” de Blasio said. “We are going to make sure that there’s a real educational impact.”

The city also announced this week that every New York City school will hold a lockdown drill by March 15, and every middle and high school will be subject to at least one random screening with metal detectors this year.

Here’s more on what de Blasio told Lehrer this morning:

For high school students – we are going to be very clear, we want parents to weigh in, to let us know if they are comfortable with a young person walking out. It is supposed to be for 17 minutes. We expect the school day before and after to proceed. For younger folks – middle school, elementary school — the model I’m interested in, we are still working on this, is to have it be within the context of the building, you know to gather in the building for the memorial to the 17 young people lost, 17 people lost I should say. And again that may be silent, that may be with young people speaking, that’s all being worked through.