Future of Teaching

This Indianapolis charter school has a solution to its teacher shortage: ‘Grow’ its own educators.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
A teacher at Christel House Academy South works outside with a student.

When new teachers step through the doors of Christel House Academy, they are seldom prepared for the challenges of working in a school dedicated to educating students in poverty.

That’s why leaders at the Indianapolis charter network are trying a new approach: Training their own teachers.

Next year, Christel House is piloting a new teacher training program called IndyTeach. Student teachers will work in the classroom alongside experienced educators at Christel House, with additional teacher training each week. At the end of the year-long apprenticeship, which pays $30,000, students will earn teaching licenses from the state. The program will start with just four students, but it is expected to grow in later years.

In part, Christel House is launching the program to help create a steady stream of teachers for the network’s schools, said Tracy Westerman, who will lead IndyTeach.

“We need more. We need better teachers,” Westerman said. “This crazy idea stemmed from, how do we get more teachers? … Alright, let’s create them and grow them in house.”

The idea of giving new educators more practice in the classroom is gaining interest in Indianapolis and across the country. IndyTeach recently received a grant from the Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit that supports school reform and charter schools, and it is modeled on a teacher training program at a California charter network.

The program will include a year in the classroom instead of the 16 weeks of student teaching that is typical for many education programs, said head of school Carey Dahncke. Students will work with mentor teachers, and as the program progresses, they will take on more teaching responsibility.

There is “much, much less emphasis on any kind of academic preparation, and a much greater emphasis on doing the work,” Dahncke said. “It is designed to be sort of just in time instruction.”

In the past, Christel House leaders have had a deep pool of applicants to choose from, Dahncke said. The teachers they hired were more experienced, and newly licensed teachers filled support roles where they had a chance to acclimate to the school before taking on their own classrooms.

But as the economy has improved, Christel House has had fewer applicants to choose from, Dahncke said. Now, many of the teachers they hire are not only brand new, but also unfamiliar with the school’s intensive approach to educating students in poverty.

The data offers a hint at the challenges facing teachers at Christel House: Nearly 90 percent of students are poor enough to get meal assistance and more than one in four children at the network’s two schools are learning English. Many parents didn’t complete high schools and hardly any continued on to college, said Dahncke.

Christel House teachers are focused on character education and instilling strong work habits, Dahncke said. Unlike in suburban schools, teachers don’t expect parents to track student progress, and they make home visits so they have a sense of the environments where students live. That approach is unusual, and many new teachers don’t get the right skills when they are studying education in college, he said.

“What tends to happen with traditional programs out there is they prepare teachers to teach sort of in any environment,” Dahncke said. “We are trying to prepare teachers for an urban environment.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Carey Dahncke said teachers typically have about 16 weeks of student teaching.

Future of Teaching

Indiana lawmakers want a renewed focus on workforce in schools. What role should counselors play?

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For years, Indiana lawmakers and education leaders have grappled with a major shortage in school counselors, and this week that conversation will dovetail with one of Indiana’s favorite topics lately: workforce.

A committee of lawmakers is set to discuss on Thursday how Indiana can improve how it counsels students for life after high school, a topic that neatly aligns with Gov. Eric Holcomb’s recent push to get more people trained and ready for available jobs. Legislators urged discussion of workforce counseling in an education bill passed during the last legislative session, where workforce issues were central, even to education.

This focus on counseling comes amid a major shift in the state’s graduation requirements, which now include new “pathways” that aim to offer students more ways to show they’re ready to leave high school and pursue college or jobs. As part of those changes, also included in the overarching education bill, lawmakers were asked to explore how the new graduation pathways rules could affect counselor workloads and what current funding levels are like for counselors.

Rep. Bob Behning, House Education Committee chairman and the bill’s author, has been a strong proponent of initiatives bridging workforce issues and education, especially ones that mirror programs he’s observed in other countries, such as Germany and Switzerland.

“The rest of the world does a much better job in terms of leading (career and technical education) than what the U.S. does,” said Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “The reality is that kids only know what they know, and if they don’t know what the universe is out there, they are much less likely to choose that.”

Behning said that on a recent trip to Switzerland he talked to an American woman living there who said her 11-year-old nephew was already deciding on a job-shadow opportunity. When Behning came back to the U.S. and participated in a mock job interview at a local charter school, he was struck by the difference in how American students and European students thought about future jobs.

In the school’s mock interview group of eight 12-year-olds — five boys and three girls — all but one of the boys wanted to be basketball players, he said. It was a signal that Indiana needs to do more to support how schools counsel students and help them discover their options, including ones that might not necessarily lead to a four-year college.

“When I was in school, factory work … you were working in dirty, hot conditions,” Behning said. “A lot of that has changed, and our perceptions haven’t. How do we help coach these students so that they might be better prepared for that kind of job?”

In Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-15, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor — more than the recommended 250 students per counselor according to the American School Counselor Association.

Indiana’s counselor shortage has been well-documented and the focus of major donations over the past several years. The Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy, launched the Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students in 2016. The more than $50 million-effort aims to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

In the past, when legislation about increasing school counseling staffs has been brought up, it’s been tough to move any of the policies forward. Part of that stems from the complicated nature of what school counselors are expected to do — they are part social-emotional support, part college advisor, and often a catch-all for other school tasks, such as standardized testing planning and oversight.

Many counselors said in their Lilly Endowment grant applications that they were so caught up in social-emotional issues that it was difficult to find time to focus on students’ futures.

But this conversation, which could result in recommendations for lawmakers to consider next year, isn’t just about giving schools the means to hire more counselors, Behning said. He hopes the discussion includes brainstorming about how to more efficiently use existing counselors and thinking about how new career-oriented counselors could function.

In Switzerland, Behning said, “career coaches” are based in different regions, not in individual schools. They travel and talk with employers to learn about what kinds of options are available for students. And they then work with students to figure out how to get there.

Behning said both areas — future planning and wraparound support — are important, and he’s aware of the fact that educators probably don’t need one more new thing to be responsible for. That’s why he’s hoping this week’s discussion, which will include presenters from Ivy Tech Community College, can move beyond what counselors are already expected to do.

“Today, with the serious concern over school violence and over the things that have occurred in our schools, the role of counselors, social workers, and psychologists are probably elevated even more,” Behning said. “To assume that you can just say, ‘OK, you have this role and we’re going to dump another thing on you,’ may be more than what is appropriate. But I think that’s one of the reasons we’re studying this.”

Lawmakers will meet at 9 a.m. Thursday in Senate Chambers at the Indiana Statehouse.


Are Children Learning

Chicago schools to delay plan for tackling the gifted gap

PHOTO: Frederick Bass

Chicago Public Schools wants to delay for a year a plan to make gifted services available to more children outside of selected enrollment, or test-in, schools.

On Wednesday morning, the Chicago Board of Education is holding a hearing on a request for a one-year extension to comply with a new Illinois law that compels school districts to better accommodate gifted children. The public can sign in to comment beginning at 8:30 a.m. in advance of the 9:30 a.m. meeting.

The law requires Illinois districts to identify students who are gifted using “multiple, reliable and valid indicators” and put programs in place to challenge them. That could include offering the chance to start kindergarten and first grade early, accelerating a child in a single subject, or having the child skip a whole grade.

But those steps are a big undertaking, one that Chicago wants to delay for a year. Emily Bolton, a spokeswoman for CPS, said the district is seeking the extension to “allow us more time to thoughtfully develop and execute” a plan to comply with the scope of the new law.

The law, which went into effect July 1, also stresses that district approaches should be “fair and equitable”—and in Illinois, gifted services have been anything but. In the early 2000s, the state was considered a leader in gifted education. But by 2017, only 33 percent of high-poverty schools statewide offered gifted programs, lower than the national average of 69 percent.

Carolyn Welch, policy and advocacy committee co-chair of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children, says the new law is a “critical step” — especially for low-income students, who tend to be underrepresented in gifted programs if their schools offer them at all. In high-poverty public school districts like Chicago, many families don’t have the resources to pay for classes or enrichment activities outside of school. So students depend on public schools to meet their needs.

Prior to the new law, which is called the Accelerated Placement Act, about 55 percent of Illinois districts lacked policies allowing early entrance to kindergarten and first grade and 46 percent lacked policies for accelerating students in specific subjects. Only one in 10 allowed kids to skip a grade, according to a study by the Illinois Association for Gifted Children and the Untapped Potential Project.

In Chicago, students can test in to competitive academic centers, classical schools, and other gifted programs, but outside of those, program offerings are ad-hoc. Like at a lot of big urban districts, what’s available at individual schools can vary quite a bit throughout Chicago schools, said Eric Calvert, associate director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University. And there are more children in Chicago than the centers can serve, with three applicants vying for every seat, he said.

Elementary gifted programs also don’t accommodate students who might be gifted at one subject but average at another. And when you look at who attends those programs, they tend to be on the higher end of the socio-economic scale and disproportionately white. Some of that, Calvert added, “is a product of the fact that resources make a difference in achievement.”

Calvert said it’s important to have ways to identify and accommodate gifted students at neighborhood schools because it’s a way that, without new resources or special programs, “schools can provide something to students who need it.”

“If you’re a second grader ready for third grade content that has an option the school can provide, that doesn’t cost any more than serving that student as a second grader.”

A 2016 study titled the Untapped Potential Report examined the gifted gap in Chicago and found that white students, who make up 10 percent of the district, occupied one in four gifted seats. Hispanic students, meanwhile, were particularly underrepresented, comprising 46 percent of total CPS students, but only 25 percent of seats in elementary gifted programs.

Low-income students, more than 82 percent of the district, only comprised 60 percent of gifted seats, according to the report.

The risk of an approach like Chicago’s, which leans on a small number of gifted and classical programs, is that a lot of kids slip through the cracks “and lose their potential,” Calvert said. Then high-ability students who are chronically underchallenged and see school as a waste of time are more likely to underachieve and even drop out.  

Students who are supported in elementary school are more likely to track into advanced coursework in high school, which increases their chances of graduating from college, enjoying more social mobility, and having children who graduate college as well, Calvert said. He pointed out that the largest ethnic group at CPS is Latino students, but that a disproportionately low number of those students are at advanced high schools, and that they matriculate into college at lower rates than their white and Asian peers.

About 65 percent of students at CPS are enrolled at Level 1-plus or Level 1-rated schools, but the population in those schools don’t reflect the school districts’ racial mix, according to a draft of the school district’s Annual Regional Analysis. Only 45 percent of black students and 72 percent of Latino students are in those top-rated seats, compared with 91 percent of white students.