staying on

Middle schools start longer days with a focus on participation

Students at I.S. 30 play the strategic game of tag called one step on Thursday during their extended day.
Students at I.S. 340 played a strategic game of tag called “one step” on Thursday during their extended day, part of a city pilot program.

After dismissal on the first day of school at I.S. 30, sixth-graders filed into the auditorium, where Principal Carol Heeraman asked an important question: How many had permission to stay for two and a half more hours?

Only a handful of students raised their hands, and the rest were dismissed with instructions to have their parents sign the permission form by the next day. “This is your homework assignment,” Heeraman said.

I.S. 30 is one of 20 city middle schools to pilot an extended day this year as part of the Department of Education’s two-year-old Middle School Quality Initiative. Some schools started the year with near-perfect attendance, but others are learning that getting all students who are eligible for the programming to attend can be a complicated endeavor.

In I.S. 30’s auditorium, one student raised his hand and asked, “What if my mom doesn’t want me to stay?”

Heeraman told the student, Emad Rabah, to have his mother speak directly to her. “This is a phenomenal opportunity for each of you,” the principal said.

Afterward, Rabah said his mother needs him to pick up his younger brother from school. If he doesn’t leave I.S. 30 at the regular dismissal time, no one will be able to take his brother home.

Rabah’s family’s needs represent some of the many challenges that schools are facing in trying to get all sixth-graders to stay after the regular school day ends. In the pilot, which city officials announced in April, students will split their time between getting literacy tutoring from tutors trained by Harvard University’s EdLabs, a research institute, and participating in activities such as drama and debate that are run by the community-based organization that is partnering with each school.

In the coming weeks, schools will screen students’ literacy skills to determine which students should get the intensive tutoring, which Daniel Levitt, EdLabs’ regional director, will aim to help middle performers who struggle with reading comprehension rather than fluency. For now, students are getting to know each other through team-building activities.

At I.S. 340 on Thursday, students played games such as “one step,” a strategic game of tag where participants do not run. “Take five giant steps and two hops… and remember who’s on your team! Don’t tag your teammate!” shouted the adult leading the activity.

The sixth graders eyed one another and carefully plotted their moves so that they could tag someone on the opposite team and make sure they wouldn’t get tagged. While the activity was fun, it was also “getting them to think about critical thinking, being strategic and staying focused — all of those 21st-century ‘soft’ skills,” said Tameeka Ford-Norville, the director of after-school programs for University Settlement, which is working with I.S. 340.

Ford-Norville said University Settlement is going to great lengths to make sure that all sixth graders can participate. When a father told her that he gets physical therapy during the time his daughter would be ending the extended day and he doesn’t want her to walk home alone, she started working on a solution.

“We’re currently trying to devise a plan so we can support that family, which might mean a staff person escorting the student home,” Ford-Norville said.

The city will provide late busing for students with disabilities who require it, but other students are on their own for travel from school, which will happen after dark during the winter months. Students at only two of the 20 schools typically are bused, and they will receive Metrocards for their extended day travel, a Department of Education spokeswoman said.

Other schools have encountered different obstacles to full participation. At J.H.S. 123, City Year School Partnerships Director Annie Kessler said about 120 of the 147 sixth graders have signed up, while about a dozen families have decided to opt out. Families cited needing their older children to supervise younger siblings, past negative experiences with after-school programs, and just having a preference for going straight home after school.

“We’re currently working with the school to troubleshoot around as many of these reasons as we have control over,” Kessler said. She and other program coordinators said they think once the literacy tutoring begins, schools will be able to make a more convincing case for participation.

The efforts appear to be paying off. Less than a quarter of I.S. 30’s sixth graders stayed for the first extended day, but just three days later, more than half the grade was enrolled. Annette Scaduto, director of operations with the NIA Community Services Network, the nonprofit providing the after-school programming, said the numbers are encouraging.

But she said a couple of families had asked to opt out and she planned to strategize with Heeraman about how to get them to change their minds.

“We can’t force a child to stay … but if it’s a family that we know would be a great candidate for the program, and there isn’t much standing in the way for them to participate, then we’ll continue to communicate with them and encourage them to try it out,” Scaduto said.

At some schools, families needed little prompting to sign off on the extended day program. At Thurgood Marshall Academy, half of sixth graders had had an extended day in elementary school, according to Vanessa Portillo, who works with the community organization Abyssinian Development Corporation. At the newly opened Highbridge Green School, where parents played an instrumental role in getting the school opened and wanted the extended day for their children, said Davon Russell, who works at WHEDco, the school’s community partner. Both schools have 100 percent of sixth-graders enrolled.

At other schools, officials are promoting the idea that the extended day is just part of the normal routine. Russell refers to the extended day as “periods 9 and 10.” At I.S. 240, CAMBA’s director of youth development Christie Hodgkins said, “The message that families have gotten is that the school day ends at 4:45.” (She said about 224 out of 270 sixth-graders have enrolled.)

And at M.S. 43, the Child Center of New York’s program director Jacqueline Gutierrez said while the school can’t make the extended day program mandatory, it has told parents that it’s part of the sixth grade curriculum and the child must attend. So far, about 50 sixth graders have enrolled out of about 100 to 120, she said.

Some parents did not need much convincing during the programs’ first week. On Thursday at I.S. 340, Zuleika Johnson said she likes that school ends later because she works late and would have to pay for a babysitter to look after her daughter. But, she said, more importantly, the extra time at school would help her daughter get the academic help she needs.

On Monday, Filiez Yumasak got to I.S. 30 at the regular time to pick up her daughter. When her daughter ran out of the school and presented the permission slip to let her participate in the extended day program, Yumasak was shocked. But she quickly smiled when she saw how excited her daughter was. She said she would let her daughter stay, because her daughter loves school and would stay there all day if she could.

“It’s good because it will create more opportunities for her,” Yumusak said.

This story is part of a multi-city series on expanded learning time, with funding from the Ford Foundation, which supports “more and better learning time” in high-need communities. Also participating in the series are the Notebook (Philadelphia), Catalyst ChicagoEdSource (California), and GothamSchools’ sister site EdNewsColorado.

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.