come together

Charter-district school tours kick off with lessons in creativity

Visiting educators observe students at Bronx Charter School for Excellence. (Team B Productions)

The first round of school tours hosted by a group promoting collaboration between the city’s charter and district schools kicked off last week when more than 20 educators visited a high-performing Bronx charter school.

Tuesday’s tour at the Bronx Charter School for Excellence was organized by NYC Collaborates, an initiative that stems from a compact between the Department of Education and more than 85 charter schools to set aside their differences and work together.

“The impetus for the tours … is that there are just not many formal mechanisms for sharing,” said Cara Volpe, who manages NYC Collaborates, part of a national initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. New York became one of nine cities to join the initiative when then-Chancellor Joel Klein signed the foundation’s collaboration compact in 2010.

This month, the group organized four school tours, all in the Bronx. Each has a different theme: Educators will visit KIPP Academy for lessons in character education and the Eagle Academy to learn how new schools can create traditions to build school culture, for example.

Last Tuesday’s tour focused on creativity in the classroom. Sitting in front of blue plastic desks with notepads and pens in their hands, principals, teachers, and other school officials raised their hands to ask questions as they listened to BCSE’s principal, Charlene Reid share tips on how to foster creativity while also achieving strong test scores.

“High-performing charter schools are not synonymous with creativity,” lamented Reid, who said BCSE switched to project-based learning after April’s state tests. “Children need skills but also need to think flexibly.”

The Bronx charter school is thriving after a rocky start. After opening in 2004, the school initially struggled with low test scores and unsteady leadership. After the board brought in Reid in 2007, performance began inching up, and last year, 96 percent of students passed the state’s math exam and 91 percent passed the English test.

One charter school principal, Curtis Palmore, said he specifically signed up to visit Bronx Charter because of the school’s strong reputation. Until last spring, Palmore led a charter school that performed so poorly that it was selected to be taken over by another charter operator, and now he is set to lead a different charter school, Explore Exceed, starting next month.

After the conversation with Reid, teachers on the study tour spread out to observe elementary-grade classes.

“I wanted to come to this [school] because I’m curious about adding creativity to my lessons. I feel like it’s a big problem in charter schools. Often times the achievement gap is prioritized over lessons being creative,” said a first-grade teacher who wanted to be anonymous to avoid identifying her East Harlem charter school.

Soft instrumental music played in the classroom as the teacher crouched down to speak with kindergarteners who were busy coloring. “I want to make my lessons interesting for the kids,” she said.

Reid said she volunteered to host a study tour out of a desire to see charter-district school relations become less polarized.

“The big wedge that drives schools apart is the lack of communication. We are educating the same students,” she said. “I think if we can create more formal ways to communicate and actually work together and collaborate with each other, our co-existence would be more harmonious.”

Most of the educators who signed up for the Bronx tours are from charter schools, despite Volpe’s efforts to raise interest in district schools as well.

“We made sure to get this in the hands of the district schools, which is challenging for sheer communications reasons,” Volpe explained. “We went painstakingly through public information. We pulled every Bronx principal’s email that we could find and then sent them an email and a hard copy” of an announcement.

The handful of district teachers who visited BCSE included Chana Comer, from Baychester Middle School.

“I came here to see what they were incorporating and what their definition of creativity was,” said the sixth-grade science teacher, who added that her principal invited all the teachers at her school to join the school.

Comer said she was impressed with the advice she received at Bronx Charter and emphasized that she doesn’t believe students’ success depends on the type of school they attend.

“I think it really boils down to the administration,” she said. “I think a school is only as good as the administration, whether it’s a public school or a charter school.”

union power

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

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff
Elementary students at Moving Everest charter school read about fossils.

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 five 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.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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