the big squeeze

In District 3, parent council recommends only minor rezoning

The New York Times reported yesterday that anxiety over an impending rezoning of the Upper West Side had families frantic about whether their assigned neighborhood school could change overnight. Last night, the parent group that ultimately gets to approve any change took a step toward eliminating the worries, recommending a scaled-down rezoning that would affect only a small number of families.

Since the Department of Education first proposed rezoning the area in late September, some Upper West Side families feared being shut out of their neighborhood school, and at least one school, the Center School, railed against a plan that would require a handful of schools to relocate.

In a meeting last night that was closed to public comment, the Community Education Council for District 3 recommended that the Center School vacate the building it shares with PS 199, in which classes must be held in hallways, and move seven blocks south to PS 9. Space would be made available there by relocating the citywide gifted school, Anderson, to a middle school building on West 77 Street.

Center School administrators and parents oppose such a move, saying that the school has thrived in its current location, despite its tight quarters. But if the Center School doesn’t move, PS 199 would be able to have just two kindergarten classes next year, meaning that 75 percent of prospective families would be shut out, according to CEC 3 member Jennifer Freeman. “That’s too many kids to leave out” of a zoned school, Freeman said.

The school relocations appeared in one of the DOE’s two original proposals. But the CEC’s draft resolution departs from the DOE’s proposals by delaying the timeline for even the minor rezoning it recommends — a reduction in the size of the zone for PS 199, which this year had to open seven kindergarten classes — to 2010.

And the resolution reiterates the council’s call for a new school building to accommodate families moving into new buildings at the southern end of the district. The city’s new capital plan, released yesterday, doesn’t include any new schools for District 3, but Freeman told me she is “hopeful” that the DOE will still commit to building a new school.

Eric Shuffler, whose 4-year-old son would attend PS 199 next year, told me that parents are “grateful” that the CEC “clearly recognizes that the neighborhood children should receive priority to their neighborhood zoned school.”

At a CEC meeting next week, the DOE will present a new plan and the public will be able to comment on both the CEC’s and DOE’s proposals. The council will vote on a finalized plan at its Nov. 19 meeting, concluding the process in advance of the DOE’s Nov. 30 deadline.

Until then, parents at PS 199 and the Center School are likely to continue sparring. A message posted to the Center School’s parent Yahoo group this morning urged parents to write letters to the New York Times opposing the school’s relocation. In response, a parent zoned for PS 199 e-mailed a group of neighbors who have been active in fighting for the school: “I think we should go on a similar writing campaign thanking the CEC for doing the right thing.”

The full text of CEC 3’s draft resolution:

DRAFT * * * Resolution on School Overcrowding * * * DRAFT
District 3 Community Education Council (CDEC3)

Whereas, CDEC3, as per CDEC3 Resolution of July 16, 2008, and New York State Education Law 2590-e.11, has worked with the New York City Department of Education (DOE) and the District 3 community to address overcrowding in the district through a process of working and public meetings, information gathering and public comment.

Whereas, the District 3 Community Education Council (CDEC3), has read, listened to and carefully analyzed reports and comments on the DOE school relocation and rezoning proposals, including those submitted verbally and in writing by parents, school community representatives, elected officials, and other community organizations, such as Community Board 7, and

Whereas, CDEC 3 agrees that making room for children to attend their neighborhood zoned schools and keeping families with siblings together are both high priorities, and

Whereas, CDEC 3 agrees that causing disruption to the smallest number of people for the shortest amount of time, while benefiting the largest number of people and adjusting school spaces and zones to match those schools’ expected level of enrollment, is a high priority, and

Whereas, CDEC 3 values allowing movement among district schools in order to maintain access to the rich tradition of educational choices already in place, and

Whereas, CDEC agrees that crowding/charter school issues in District 3 above 110th Street must be addressed, and

Whereas, CDEC 3 recognizes the need for pragmatic solutions to overcrowding to be implemented by September 2009; now therefore be it

Resolved that in light of the values expressed above, CDEC 3 recommends acceptance of a plan involving both relocations and zone changes, specifically: Relocation of MS 243 (The Center School) to the PS09 building; and relocation of PS/MS 334 (The Sarah Anderson School) to the MS 44 (O’Shea) building, with the understanding that DOE will demonstrate that adequate space exists for the Computer School and MS44 in their current location, and the Center School and the Anderson School to remain in their new buildings without any further disruption caused by population growth; and be it

Resolved that CDEC 3 recommends that the zone of PS199 be modified, effective in the 2010-2011 school year, so that its zoned population can fit into six kindergarten classes, providing that any zone line changes will take into account the ability of neighboring schools PS 191 and PS87 to expand their zoned populations slightly, and be it

Resolved that CDEC 3 recommends that other school zone lines be redrawn only where necessary to relieve current overcrowding and establish sustainable zone size (approval subject to analysis of DOE data), and be it

Resolved that CDEC 3 recommends that sibling preference be retained in the admissions system, while in the event that families are zoned out of their current school under this plan, siblings from those families will still be considered as siblings in the zone, and be it

Resolved that CDEC 3 recommends that any redrawing of zone lines fit a pragmatic pattern of serving specific community needs, rather than following a standard formula, and be it

Resolved that CDEC 3 recommends that the school relocation and rezoning be implemented in stages, with the relocation occurring in the summer prior to the 2009-10 year, and the minor rezoning the next year, in consultation with CDEC3, and be it

Resolved that CDEC 3 recommends that new schools be built and/or space be leased to accommodate the anticipated student population resulting from residential development in District 3, and that this be factored into the capital plan, and be it

Resolved that CDEC3 warmly thanks all those who joined in this difficult process of balancing the choices available.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.