junket science

UFT tours get mayoral hopefuls weighing "community schools"

All four of the likely Democratic candidates for mayor, seen here with Republican Tom Allon during an education policy discussion in November, have traveled to Cincinnati with the United Federation of Teachers to view "community schools."

Among the thousand visitors from across the country who streamed through Cincinnati’s Oyler School in the last year were all four of New York City’s likely Democratic candidates for mayor.

They made the trip at the invitation of UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who has been touting Oyler as the epitome of a school model that he hopes New York City’s next mayor will promote.

The trips have been held up as evidence that the candidates are all trying to win the union’s endorsement. But just as significant as why the candidates made the commute is what they saw when they got there.

Cincinnati has turned all of its more than 50 district schools into “community schools” that rely on partnerships with businesses and non-profits to provide an array of services. The school buildings stay open until late into the night and on the weekends, providing early childhood centers, adult education, access to gyms, translation services, tutoring, and food banks to the general public. Local hospitals embed nurses in the schools full-time to provide free health, dental, and vision services.

As one of the first schools in Cincinnati to make the evolution, a decade ago, Oyler is seen as an anchor for the model.

“It’s an amazing thing to walk into a school and to see so many different services, seamlessly aligned,” Mulgrew said of his visits to Oyler in May, when he announced that the union would fund a six-school pilot community schools program in New York City.

Drawing on their campaign funds, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and former comptroller Bill Thompson joined UFT officials at the school last spring. Comptroller John Liu and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn made the trip with the union in October, paying their way with money from their public offices. (Principal Craig Hockenberry, who has been at the school for 14 years, said Quinn’s visit stood out among the 60 he hosted this year because she brought police protection.)

The union’s efforts to promote what has happened in Cincinnati are starting to pay off. In his State of the City speech in December, Comptroller John Liu proposed turning each of the city’s school buildings into a community center after school hours.

“Earlier this year, along with Speaker Quinn, and many of our city’s teachers, I visited the school system in Cincinnati,” he said. “I was very impressed by what I saw there.”

Other candidates have also expressed support for the idea. Even before visiting, Quinn mentioned Cincinnati in her own State of the City address last February. Then, joining city and union officials to kick off the six-school pilot in June, she said, “Look, we’re in New York, and we hate to say that anyone else has a [better] model than we do, but occasionally we just have to swallow our pride and admit that there are some other places in the world that come up with good, interesting, and effective models of how to do this.”

And Thompson told GothamSchools that he agreed to visit because he supports having “wraparound services” at schools. “To see it in practice, I thought it was great,” he said. “It’s making the community school more attractive again.”

The four candidates are competing for the UFT’s endorsement — and the financial support that would accompany it. But backing Cincinnati’s model could be attractive for other reasons. Since Cincinnati’s schools were transformed into community hubs, the city’s high school graduation rate increased from 51 to 82 percent. Officials in that district have said the conversion didn’t cost much, because the model calls for services to be coordinated, not created. And, in an extra bonus for New York City mayoral candidates, creating community schools is seen as easier with a strong executive in charge.

“I see this as the promise of mayoral control — harnessing the power of city agencies,” said Mulgrew’s predecessor at the UFT, Randi Weingarten, in 2009. Weingarten launched a sustained push for community schools when she was elected president of the American Federation of Teachers, a national union, in 2008.

The UFT has continued to press the issue. An article praising Oyler Elementary in the union’s newspaper in May described “growing frustration that New York City has not taken more advantage of the potential to concentrate services at schools and strengthen community ties.”

A union official who had already visited Oyler multiple times, Vice President Karen Alford, told the newspaper, “We’re doing a lot of what they’re doing — clinics, tutoring — but each is a separate program.”

When the law granting mayoral control of city schools was last up for reauthorization, in 2009, the union asked lawmakers to give parents more control over the way schools are run. If the city’s next mayor uses his or her authority over the city’s schools to execute the UFT’s visit, the union could be less likely to push for changes to the school governance law.

Although it joined the union’s community schools pilot after Mulgrew told union members that he would move forward with or without the city’s help, Bloomberg’s Department of Education has shown less interest in Oyler. Chancellor Dennis Walcott has met with Cincinnati officials at UFT headquarters, but he has so far declined an invitation from the union to accompany Mulgrew on one of his visits to the city, a union official said.

State Education Commissioner John King, on the other hand, did make the pilgrimage with the union.

King’s participation could prove crucial. With an eye on 2014, UFT officials have been working to line up support for community schools from more than just mayoral candidates. Testifying before Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission in October, Mulgrew called on state government to help push the model forward, something that he said Ohio did not do for Cincinnati and would be necessary for the model to work at an even larger scale.

“New York is not Cincinnati. Fifty-two schools aren’t directly comparable to 1,700. We’re not blind to the difficulties,” Mulgrew said. But, he went on, “Our mind is fixed on meeting the needs. Cincinnati represents what’s possible when we park egos and the bureaucracy at the curb.”

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.