Q&A

At P.D. day, teachers discuss challenges of their profession

Across the city yesterday, high school teachers hunkered down for a day of extra training. Some sat in on sessions at their schools, while others scattered across the city for sessions held in the offices of educational consultants.

I stopped by the Midtown offices of Math for America, a fellowship program for math and science teachers, and saw teachers working on student work to better understand why they thought the way they did. Here’s what some said about some of the topics dominating the policy agenda these days (interviews edited for clarity and brevity):

Bill Lamonte, Millennium High School
Subject: Science
Years: 10 (eight in New York City)

How long will you be a teacher for?

I may be a different case because I know I’ll be teaching until I die. But it is hard to see colleagues that start out putting in that time and then get frustrated and end up leaving.

I am challenged professionally, but some people don’t want to deal with the bureaucracy of the system. The DOE is a tough place. It’s very top-down. It’s hard. But if you have a supportive administration and you’re in a school that has ideals that you believe in, it’s easier to stay because you feel you can work with people and that you can actually make a difference.

Would you ever consider a school leadership position?

I know I’ll be teaching, but I steer clear of the administration path just because I see what happens to teachers when they become administrators. They take on another personality, in a way. Again, it’s very top-down, so they have to meet certain requirements themselves. In order to do that you have to put a lot of pressure on your teachers. When you have to have a checklist – are they doing this, this, and this? – I can see how it can become a struggle to balance.

Although I do find that a lot of schools struggle with having good administrators. There are a lot of weak principals out there. I’ve seen it first hand, especially at my old school in the Bronx. Luckily now I do feel that the administration is batter and that does make a huge difference. To feel supported in a school is really what’s going to keep a teacher there.

Do you think financial incentives are a good way to improve instruction?

I think it’s dangerous because it starts to put teachers against each other. We’re supposed to be helping each other grow as a community. I do see the value of incentives, but it’s also like, ‘okay kids, I’ll give you a treat if you pass this test.’ It’s not really authentic.

At the same time, there’s a lot of fat to be trimmed, too. There’s a lot of teachers who don’t do what they’re supposed to and should be targeted, but the union does protect them. But the incentive factor, it’s tough. I see the pros and cons on both sides, but I don’t think it’s going to fix the problem. I don’t think throwing money at it is going to fix it. I think smaller class sizes is important and I think just getting a whole school community on board is important. I think that’s how KIPP schools do pretty well, simply because every body is so invested in it. But again, the burnout there is probably pretty high.

Pete Diamantis, Urban Assembly for Design and Construction (and MfA fellow)
Subject: Math/Algebra.
Year: Six

Why do you think there is high attrition in your profession?

I definitely feel there’s something to be said about the public perception of the profession – the esteem with which we view the profession and the people who do the job. And closely related to that is what I’ve come to realize, more and more, is the general disparity between what people think it takes to be a good teacher and what it actually takes to be a good teacher. So you have this public opinion that teaching should be a relatively easy task, when in fact we should be viewing it as something as hard as medicine or economics.

The MfA program gives its teachers up to $15,000 more than the average NYC teacher. Is that why you’re still in the profession? 

No. I think a big component (for people staying in the profession) would be the role that Math for America is playing for someone like me; an outside source that’s providing cutting edge professional development that helps me to be in this constant state of reflection of what I’m doing, how effective it is and how much better I can get.

For me, being part of Math for America is less about the compensation that comes with it as it is about the support that I feel from the organization. And I can speak from a pretty unique standpoint in that I’ve been around for five years and I’ve seen the evolution of Math for America as a program that is supporting public school teachers and the responsiveness to our feedback.

Stephen Jackson,  PS/MS 278
Subject: Science
Years: 18 (eight in NYC)

How long will you be a teacher for?

Always. I taught in another country for over ten years, so when I came here, I think my love for teaching kept me in there. I love working with kids, to see them them grow. You know, the whole process. I think that helps bring out my creativity also in terms of different challenges working with different groups of kids, the gifted kid, the ones who are struggling, the ones in the middle.

Why do teachers deserve to be paid more? 

On any given day you’re not just a facilitator for learning, but you also need to deal with their social needs, their sociological needs. There’s so many different things you have to deal with. It’s not just presenting the information.

Should teachers be paid more based on teacher evaluations? 

I’m not sure where my position is. I think if you’re going to think about performance, there are some schools that get some very good kids. In these areas you have excellent parental support, you have a lot of social support. These kids are going to do extremely well even when they get out of the classroom.

There are also some very challenging schools where there are a lot of factors outside the classroom. I know there are excellent teachers who really work hard in these schools with some of the basic skills that are lacking, but you really can see growth over a period of time with these kids.

I think if we’re going to be fair across the board, if teachers are working in certain schools where they get all the good quality kids so to speak – the level threes, level fours – that school is always going to do well. What about teachers who are working at the bottom who chose to stay in those areas to really help those kids? They may not necessarily be reflected in a score in a short period of time, but in the long term they can turn things around.

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.