Building Better Teachers

How to attract and keep teachers in Indianapolis? Build them a village.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Teachers and community members gather to hear about plans for a new "teacher village" in development on the city's near-east side.

While he was out biking in his southeast side neighborhood, Joe Mount came across a troubling scene: Two boys were throwing small rocks at a young girl.

He immediately recognized her from the honors English class he had taught at Emma Donnan Middle School. He quickly intervened.

He said he wouldn’t have been there to settle the squabble if he weren’t living nearby, three blocks away in a neighborhood right off Garfield Park. Mount, 24, who was born and raised in Indianapolis, asked to be placed in the city during his stint with Teach for America and knew he wanted to live close to Donnan.

“You get a sense of ownership and involvement with your students that you wouldn’t get if you lived 20 minutes south,” Mount said.

For years, Indianapolis and cities across the country have grappled with how to attract new teachers to the classroom and encourage them to stay. Offering early career educators — particularly those in inner cities — housing that they can afford on their teacher salaries and near their schools could solve two problems: bolster relationships between teachers and students and quell persistent teaching shortages.

To address those challenges, several Indianapolis community groups unveiled a proposal to create a “teacher village” in the center city at an open house Tuesday night. The partnership among the city of Indianapolis; Near East Area Renewal, a nonprofit community developer; and Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership, a nonprofit that helps people prepare to buy homes, would result in 20 or more homes in the 800 to 900 block of North Rural Street, a part of town known as St. Clair Place. The homes would be priced starting around $130,000, but several would be available as rentals.

NEAR anticipates the first homes would be available in May 2018. And although rules around the project’s funding say they must be open to any potential buyer, NEAR wants to market the homes heavily to teachers in Indianapolis Public Schools and inner-city charter schools.

John Franklin Hay, executive director for NEAR, said the project coincides with a larger effort to revitalize the near-east side, where crime and poverty rates are high. But redevelopment is changing the area, with new and rehabbed homes popping up within blocks of abandoned houses.

“We were challenged by Indianapolis Public Schools and Teach Plus and by the city of Indianapolis about a year and a half ago to begin developing a teacher village,” Hay said. “Our intention from the very beginning … was to develop housing and do our revitalizing of St. Clair Place. It would be a mixed-income neighborhood that would be more diverse than when we started.”

The near-east side is home to more than a dozen public and private schools, including 10 in IPS. Teach Plus Indiana, part of a national organization that trains teachers to advocate for policy, researched problems teachers face when trying to find housing. Typically, they found, the houses near their schools are far too expensive even though downtown housing is booming in the city — since 2010, 50 new complexes have been built, and most charge $1,300 per month or more. According to a March 2017 article in Forbes, average rent in Indianapolis is $806.

“The majority of residents within these complexes make $80,000 per year or higher,” the policy brief states. “Given that Indianapolis Public Schools starting salary is half of that, few teachers, if any, can afford to live within the Center Township. Of the teachers who do choose to live within the limits of Circle City, they must sacrifice either safety or savings.”

The problem is not unique to Indianapolis. A report out of New York University cites research showing students benefit from building closer relationships with teachers, particularly those in high-poverty urban schools. Those effects can come later in life, but they also can be as immediate as math achievement over the course of a school year. Living in the community they teach, argues Etta Hollins, a University of Missouri-Kansas City professor, leads to a much deeper understanding of students and the support they need.

Nor is the desire to live and work in the same community unique to teachers. Cities across the country have taken a variety of measures — from restricting where civil servants can live to building housing specifically for police officers, firefighters, sanitation workers and other municipal employees — to place their workforce closer to their jobs.

Other cities across the country, including Philadelphia and Baltimore, have seen success with such models for teachers — for instance, the Philadelphia teacher village was fully rented out six months before it was finished, and district-subsidized housing in Santa Clara, California, has a 30-person waiting list, the Teach Plus policy brief states.

The open house attracted about 30 interested educators. They offered ideas about what amenities were important to them in their homes and a neighborhood, including being close to grocery stores, restaurants and fitness centers as well as having parking, outdoor lighting and storage space.

Many also emphasized safety, which NEAR said it is already addressing. Often, high-poverty urban centers where schools are located have more crime than surrounding suburbs. Every teacher village home would come with a security system, and the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department has installed surveillance in the area.

The teachers also added that some kind of incentive from their schools or district — whether that’s down-payment assistance, longer-term contracts or salary bonuses — would also encourage them to seek out permanent housing in the teacher village.

While some teachers might prefer separating their personal and professional communities, teachers like Mount said he considered himself lucky to be able to live near where he worked. His school, Donnan Middle School, is 43 percent white and 37 percent black and is located in a fairly high-poverty area southeast of the city.

Once he relocated, he said, he regularly walked his dog around his neighborhood, occasionally stopping to chat with students he ran into at a local convenience store where they bought snacks after school. He also stopped driving to work each day, preferring instead to bike.

“The kids immediately picked up on that,” he said, laughing. “That’s something weird and novel … you start getting a reputation in other grades just with that.”

Mount said moving to the neighborhood surrounding his school changed so much about how he interacted with his students, and he’s grateful he lucked into an affordable option. He said he hopes other teachers can have that same opportunity someday.

“It was incredibly important to be able to point to the street behind the school and say, ‘I live on that street. I know what’s going on,’” he said. “I lived in that area, I was their neighbor … it was everything.”

Educator diversity

Aurora Public Schools’ principals more racially diverse this year, but district still lagging behind

File photo of kindergarten students at Laredo Elementary in Aurora.

In the most diverse city in Colorado, school district officials have struggled to hire and retain principals of color.

The issue isn’t unique to Aurora Public Schools. But one change made three years ago to how Aurora hires principals is now slowly increasing diversity among school leaders, officials say.

The revamped hiring process wasn’t aimed at increasing diversity, but rather at increasing quality and minimizing biased or preferential hiring decisions, officials say.

“Systems that are more likely to have bias are less likely to have diversity,” said John Youngquist, Aurora’s chief academic officer. “Systems that are engaging these kinds of processes that allow people to demonstrate behaviors they’ve practiced over time, are ones that allow those high quality candidates to get to the top. I know is this is a practice that increases the level of diversity.”

This fall, 10 percent of Aurora principals are black, and 14 percent are Hispanic, up from 9 percent that were black and 7 percent that were Hispanic last year.

It’s an improvement, but the numbers still represent a gap with the diversity in the district and in the city. Eighteen percent of Aurora Public Schools students are black and more than 50 percent are Hispanic. The city of Aurora has similar demographics, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates.

State data tracking both principals and assistant principals by race showed the Aurora district had lower percentages of school leaders who were black or Hispanic in 2016 than in 2013. Numbers for the current school year are not yet available.

This year, the numbers of teachers who are not white are smaller and farther from representing the student or community demographics than they are for principals.

Research has shown that students of color benefit from having teachers of color. Having diverse and highly qualified principals helps leaders in turn attract and hire high quality and diverse teachers, Youngquist said.

Aurora superintendent Rico Munn said that increasing diversity is a priority but said he isn’t sure how many educators of color Aurora schools should aspire to have.

“For our workforce to mirror the community, I don’t know that there’s enough educators in the state,” Munn said.

Elizabeth Meyer, associate professor of education and associate dean for undergraduate and teacher education at CU Boulder, said all districts should be striving to see an upward trend in the numbers, not necessarily trying to reach a certain percentage as a goal.

She said that issues in diversifying teachers and principal pools are similar, but that teachers of color who are supported can be the ones who can then go on and become principals.

“We’re already limited because teaching demographics are overwhelmingly white women,” Meyer said. “We do need to find ways to make teaching a more desirable profession, especially for people of color.”

Meyer said that while there are nationwide and statewide issues to be addressed, districts need to incentivize teachers by paying higher wages, create environments that are inclusive for teachers already in the district and have visible leaders of color.

“It’s not enough to just want to recruit people in,” Meyer said. “Retention is the other part of the problem.”

When Youngquist’s office led the change in how the Aurora district hires principals, the focus was to increase the quality of school leaders and remove bias that could allow a person to be invited into the process “just with a tap on the shoulder,” he said.

The new process requires a team of district leaders and other principals to observe candidates as they are asked to model practices through scenarios and demonstrations of situations they’re likely to confront as principals.

Yolanda Greer, principal of Aurora’s Vista Peak Exploratory was one of the first to go through that new hiring process three years ago.

Yolanda Greer, principal of Vista Peak Exploratory in Aurora.

“I will tell you at the end of it I certainly felt like I had been through a triathalon of some sorts,” Greer said. “But I do recall saying at every point, ‘I’m so impressed. I’m so appreciative that APS is taking the thoughtfulness that went behind creating this process to make sure we have leaders that are prepared.’ It made me want to be here even more.”

Speaking at a community meeting last month, Munn said the neighboring districts of Denver and Cherry Creek can offer more money, so Aurora must focus on other appeals to hire and retain diverse educators.

“We have to think about what’s the right atmosphere or what’s the right way that we can recruit or retain people in a way that makes them want to be part of what we’re doing here in APS,” Munn said. “Our ultimate winning advantage there is that we have a strong connection to the community. We also demonstrate to potential staff members that we are a district that has momentum. We are a district where there is opportunity. We are a district that can truly impact the community that we serve.”

Greer said she felt that draw to Aurora long before she applied for the principal position.

“I think because there was a public perception that Aurora was an underdog,” Greer said. “It’s a great opportunity to not only impact the school but the district and community.”

Though Aurora district officials are happy with how the principal process is playing out, they started working with a Virginia-based consultant last year to look at all hiring practices in the district. Munn said part of that work will include looking at whether the district is doing enough to increase diversity.

Like most school districts, Aurora has sent officials to recruit new educators from Historically Black Colleges and Hispanic Serving Institutions.

One thing that Greer said is in a district’s control is allowing a culture where issues of inequity can be discussed. In Aurora, she said she feels comfortable raising issues of student equity if she sees them.

For her, seeing other people of color in leadership positions in the district, including the superintendent, also made her feel welcome.

“In Aurora when I walk into leadership meetings, there’s a lot of people that look like me, so there’s that connectivity,” Greer said. “There’s open conversations and people listen.”

Earlier this year, Greer was reminded of the impact that leaders of color can have when her elementary students were asked to dress up for the job they hoped to have when they grew up.

Several of the students came to school dressed as their principal, Greer said.

“I want to make sure students of color can see someone that looks like them,” she said. “When they can see me in the specific role in education and they can say, ‘Wow, that can be something admirable and I want to aspire to that,’ it’s a big deal.”

deep cuts

New York City teachers don’t get paid maternity leave. Their paychecks prove it.

PHOTO: Emily James/Courtesy photo
Brooklyn high school teacher Emily James with her children.

Susan Hibdon opened her front door and saw nothing but white.

It was a day that would go down in tabloid headline history after schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña declared it “absolutely a beautiful day,” despite a forecast calling for 10 inches of snow. For Hibdon, a Brooklyn high school teacher, it was memorable for a different reason. It was exactly six weeks after she had given birth, which meant it was time to go back to the classroom.

She kissed her infant goodbye and headed into the wet February weather.

“If you want to pay your rent, you have to go right back to work,” she said. “That’s not just bad for the mother who just gave birth. That’s bad for everybody.”

New York City teachers have no paid maternity or family leave, a policy that takes a toll on teachers’ paychecks and creates deep gender inequity in an education workforce that is about 77 percent women.

Hibdon and fellow teacher and mother Emily James recently launched an online petition calling on the United Federation of Teachers to negotiate for paid leave, which is not included in any of the city’s contracts with unionized workers. Almost 78,000 people have signed on, and the women will present their request at the union’s executive board meeting on Monday.

“I think the irony of it sticks out to many people: These are women who are paid to raise children and they aren’t paid to raise their own children,” Hibdon said.

As it stands now, teachers who want to take paid time off after having a baby must use their sick days. The policy only applies to birth mothers, putting a strain on those who become parents through adoption or surrogacy, and fathers who want to take a leading role in the earliest moments of parenthood.

“We talk so much about parents being active in their child’s education,” said Rosie Frascella, a teacher who has also pushed for paid leave policies. “Well, let’s let teachers be active in their child’s education.”

For teachers, the policy packs a financial blow on multiple levels.

If a mother wants paid time off after giving birth, the only option is to use sick days. Women are limited to six weeks of sick time after a vaginal birth, and eight weeks after a C-section.

Teachers earn one sick day per school month. In order to save up for an eight-week leave, a teacher would have to work about four years without using any sick days.

Many women haven’t accrued that many days, so they can “borrow” sick days they haven’t yet earned. Teachers run into problems, though, if they actually get sick — or their children do — since they can only borrow up to 20 sick days. Once they hit that number, any additional time off is unpaid. And if a teacher leaves the education department, she must repay any sick days she borrowed.

Hidbon learned that the hard way. She has three children — and precious few sick days in the bank. Hidbon remembers a time that she completely lost her voice, but still had to go to work.

“No one could hear me. I had to conduct my entire class writing notes on the board,” she said. “I’m supposed to be teaching and I can’t do my job because of the way the system is set up — and my students are getting the short end of the stick.”

The crunch for sick time could lead to a financial blow later in a woman’s career. Teachers are allowed to accrue up to 200 sick days, and receive a payout for unused time when they retire. The city could not provide numbers for how many sick days men versus women retire with. But it makes sense that men would rack up far more since women with children are more likely to get stuck with a negative balance.

James, a Brookyln high school teacher and co-starter of the online petition, still has a negative balance of 16 sick days — almost three years after giving birth. The problem is compounded by the fact that women are more likely to take time off when a child is sick or there are other family obligations, a pattern that is seen in professions across the board.

“There were many times when I was so sick at work the kids were like, ‘Why are you here? Miss, go home,’” she said. “But it costs a lot of money to stay home.”

Even when women don’t have to borrow sick days, they can still lose financially. The city only allows women to use up to eight weeks of their banked time. Any additional days off are entirely unpaid.

Amy Arundell, a former director of personnel for the UFT, said many mothers stay home longer because of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides job protections for 12 weeks of leave.

“The people who don’t take 12 [weeks] obviously have real financial commitments” that make taking unpaid time off impossible, she said.

Women who take that time get hit with a double-punch to their salaries. Because of the way summer pay is calculated, unpaid time off results in a smaller summer paycheck, too. Arundell said the hit is usually equivalent to one paycheck.

Same sex-couples and those who become parents through surrogacy or adoption face many of the same financial setbacks, since only birth mothers are allowed to use sick time after having a baby.

After years on a waiting list, Seth Rader and his wife had only weeks’ notice that their adoptive baby was on the way. Since his wife was in grad school, the couple decided Rader would stay home with their new son — even though Rader, a Manhattan high school teacher, is the primary breadwinner at home.

“In a lot of ways, I’m much more bonded with him as a father, and him to me,” Rader said. “Are we really in a place where we want to discourage fathers from taking that role?”

At the time, the couple were saving for a down payment to buy a place of their own. After the expense of Rader taking off from work, they still are.

“I think all of this has to be affecting the sustainability of teaching,” he said. “If we create a system where people can’t imagine being teachers and parents at the same time, then that’s a loss.”

When it comes to the push for family leave, teachers have been left behind even as strides are made elsewhere. New York State recently passed a mandatory paid leave policy that will cover private employees. Last winter, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a paid leave act for city employees.

But that benefit isn’t extended to workers with unions, like the United Federation of Teachers. Currently, no union in New York City has paid maternity leave, according to a city spokeswoman.

Teachers across the city are fighting to change that. The petition started by Hibdon and James calls on UFT President Michael Mulgrew to “fight for our teaching mothers.”

“They’re supposed to really care about what teachers are struggling with and they’re our voice,” James said. “I just wish that they would take this seriously.”

Both the city and the United Federation of Teachers say they have held talks to extend similar benefits to teachers. In an emailed statement, Mulgrew called family leave “an important issue for the UFT and its members.”

“In our talks so far, the city has failed to come up with a meaningful proposal,” he said.

In an article published in the UFT journal, which ran shortly after the city passed its parental leave policy, the union pointed out that gaining that benefit came at the cost of a scheduled raise for managers and fewer leave days for veteran employees.

According to the article, Mulgrew said he “looked forward to negotiations with the de Blasio administration for an appropriate way to expand parental benefits for UFT members.”