slow cooker

In a change, city is steering aspiring principals off the fast track

Realizing that its strategies for stocking the city’s ever-expanding supply of schools with excellent principals have fallen short, the Department of Education is launching new programs aimed at slowing down the transition from teacher to administrator.

The largest of the new initiatives is the Teacher Leadership Program, aimed at developing leadership skills in hundreds of teachers who are still working in the classroom. Other initiatives are meant to prepare leaders to handle the special challenges of running middle schools and to capitalize on the leadership skills of principals who are already in the system.

And a foundation that helped the city underwrite a fast-track principal training program is now paying for educators to earn degrees in school administration at local universities.

“Most of our principal training work that we’ve done historically is focused on that last year before you become a principal,” Chief Academic Office Shael Polakow-Suransky said. “It’s the last step in the process, and what we’ve come to understand is that there [are] a lot of steps that happen before that in someone’s career. … We want to begin to do that kind of training.”

The new programs represent a strong shift away from the Bloomberg administration’s early approach to cultivating school leadership at a time when the city is losing about 150 principals a year, even as it has ramped up new school creation. Together with existing programs, they are set to produce 134 new principals and engage 300 teachers this year, according to the department.

When Joel Klein became chancellor in 2002, launching an era of rapid-fire, corporate-influenced policy changes, one of his first moves was to create a fast-track principal training program. Former GE executive Jack Welch chaired the NYC Leadership Academy, which was aimed at developing leaders who would be the CEOs of their schools: free to make major management decisions with minimal bureaucratic interference, but accountable for improving performance. By 2009, 15 percent of principals were Leadership Academy graduates.

The program quickly drew criticism. Parents and teachers at some schools headed by graduates complained of heavy-handed management tactics, while others questioned how people who had taught for only a short time, or not at all, could supervise experienced educators. Some graduates left the system or were later demoted. A 2009 study of the program found some positive impact on student test scores, but a different analysis found higher teacher turnover and lower progress report grades at schools run by Leadership Academy graduates.

Now, nearly two years after Klein left the Department of Education, there are fewer than 30 people in the Leadership Academy. One reason for the decline, officials say, is that the department could not sustain the costs in a faltering economy. But they also say a different strategy is needed.

The department has “not done a great job” of recruiting principals, Deputy Chancellor David Weiner told a group of principals in January. He added, “Starting at the end of the process might not be the best place.”

The new programs, which Chancellor Dennis Walcott discussed today at a panel on principal and teacher training, aim to develop leadership in educators while they are on the job and well before they might run a school of their own. In recruiting participants, the department emphasized that applicants should be committed to steering their schools toward instructional excellence.

The application for the Teacher Leadership Program, for example, asked teachers to write a short essay describing their role in implementing last year’s citywide instructional expectations and how their experience would inform their teaching this year. Promotional materials billed the program as best for teachers who wanted to learn more about new learning standards and teacher observation models that the city is rolling out.

One thousand teachers applied, city officials said, and 250 were selected to attend 11 training sessions this year, which will start next month. Over the course of the year, they will practice using new leadership skills at their schools, under the supervision of their principals. At the end of the year, some participants might choose to apply to formal principal training programs, but others will stay on at their schools to help their colleagues improve.

“Philosophically, the idea is that distributed leadership is really important,” Polakow-Suransky said. He added,”That’s an edu-speak term that means principals are empowering teacher-leaders in their schools … to help to lead other adults.”

Other new programs will in fact culminate in the credentials needed to run a school. A $12.5 million gift from the Wallace Foundation — which provided some of the startup funds for the Leadership Academy — is sending some prospective principals to selective leadership programs at Columbia University’s Teachers College and the Bankstreet College of Education. Polakow-Suransky said Relay Graduate School of Education, which launched only in 2011, could become another partner in the future.

Later in the year, the Leadership Academy will partner with the City University of New York to launch a program for people who particularly want to become middle school principals. Last year, Walcott said the city would start to push more aspiring principals to middle schools, which tend to have a harder time attracting and retaining strong leaders.

The department is also ramping up a mentoring program that has paired experienced principals with educators in their schools who want to start schools of their own. In the last two years, mentoring has produced 15 principals of new schools, and the department said it is in the process of selecting as many as 40 mentees for this year, when Mayor Bloomberg has vowed to open more new schools than ever.

An early graduate of the Leadership Academy said today that he was heartened to hear that the department was slowing down the process of becoming a principal.

“In a perfect world somebody who has not had administrative experience should not be placed in a fast-track program,” said the graduate, who asked to remain anonymous because he currently runs a school in the city.

The department official who oversees principal training suggested that the academy had enrolled some people who were not up to the job.

“A more manageable number [of Leadership Academy participants] has allowed an opportunity for us … to be much more careful about who gets into the program,” Anthony Conelli, deputy chief academic officer for leadership, told GothamSchools in August. “We want to make sure the folks are actually ready to come out of the programs as principals.”

As the department reduced its reliance on the Leadership Academy in recent years, it ramped up the Leadership in Education Apprenticeship Program, with which the new programs share some characteristics. In LEAP, assistant principals and teachers undergo a six-week summer training course that borrows heavily from the Leadership Academy’s curriculum, then attend weekly classes that count toward the credit requirements of principal certification.

But in a major difference from other principal training programs, LEAP participants remain in their schools and work with their principals throughout the year, and in fact they cannot be selected unless their principal is experienced and willing to act as a mentor. This year, about 80 people are enrolled in LEAP, according to department officials.

LEAP’s structure solves one of the Leadership Academy’s biggest drawbacks: It is phenomenally expensive, because participants are paid principal salaries despite not yet doing the job. And having multiple department-approved pathways to becoming a school leader will solve another, according to Eric Nadelstern, who retired as the department’s second-in-command in 2011 and now runs the principal training program at Teachers College.

Nadelstern said the Leadership Academy never created the volume of effective school leaders the city needs, even at its peak.

“The solution wasn’t as extensive as it needed to be,” he said. “It’s taken this long to acknowledge the fact that it’s time to go beyond the Leadership Academy to work with other organizations and institutions in the city and beyond to ensure the quality of leadership that city schools need.”

But Nadelstern said the Leadership Academy had induced important changes in other principal training programs, including his own. Now, practitioners teach more classes and college faculty members teacher fewer, he said.

“The Leadership Academy said that until the schools produced reform-minded leaders capable of running challenging urban institutions then the district would step in and attempt to do the job themselves,” Nadelstern said. “I think that was an important message and a lot of principal preparation programs did get the message.”

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.