loyal welcome

A warm reception greets King and the Common Core in Brooklyn

Supporters of the Common Core standards greeted State Education Commissioner John King at the forum in Brooklyn Tuesday. Many members of the parent advocacy group, StudentsFirstNY, arrived early to the meeting, snatched up many of the speaking slots and hoisted similar signs during the forum.
PHOTO: Monica Disare
Supporters of the Common Core standards greeted State Education Commissioner John King at the forum in Brooklyn Tuesday. Many members of the parent advocacy group, StudentsFirstNY, arrived early to the meeting, snatched up many of the speaking slots and hoisted similar signs during the forum.

A well-organized coalition of parents, teachers and advocates turned out in full force to public forums Tuesday night to support Commissioner John King and his push for tougher learning standards that have sparked opposition in most other parts of the state this fall.

The groups, which included StudentsFirstNY, Families for Excellent Schools and Educators 4 Excellence, used the hearings in Brooklyn and the Bronx to make arguments in favor of the Common Core standards that they feel have been left out of recent debates. In particular, some parents argued that the tougher standards are urgently needed to improve the quality of struggling schools, while some teachers said they enhanced their instruction.

“To those of you who are calling to slow it down or stop the movement for these high standards, you do not speak for me or many of these parents,” said Mery Melendez, a charter-school parent and organizer with Families for Excellent Schools who spoke at the Brooklyn hearing. “We’re tired of waiting for change.”

The supportive presence was most apparent in a packed Medgar Evers College auditorium in Crown Heights where the Brooklyn forum was held. A much smaller audience showed up in the Bronx, though it offered more mixed reviews of state education policies.

Critics at the events – who in Brooklyn were vastly outnumbered – challenged the notion that the standards benefit students. Others argued they were too quickly incorporated into the state tests and that they leave some students behind.

“I believe it is imperative that we find another tool to monitor the progress of ELLs and students with disabilities,” middle school parent Angela Rodriguez, who otherwise supported the Common Core, said at the Bronx meeting.

Asha Hargrove, holding her 15-month-old daugther, Najah, defended the Common Core standards at a public forum in Brooklyn Tuesday evening. Hargrove, who is a member of StudentsFirstNY, said she had considered putting her daughter in private schools because she was unsure of the quality of the local public schools in Crown Heights. "But when I learned that the Common Core was going to be implemented, I thought, 'Maybe I will send her to public school.'"
Asha Hargrove, holding her 15-month-old daugther, Najah, defended the Common Core standards at a public forum in Brooklyn Tuesday evening. Hargrove, who is a member of StudentsFirstNY, said she had considered putting her daughter in private schools because she was unsure of the quality of the local public schools in Crown Heights. “But when I learned that the Common Core was going to be implemented, I thought, ‘Maybe I will send her to public school.'”

The friendly turnout for King was a break from some of the hostile crowds that have greeted him in other parts of the state on his six-week tour, which has included 10 community forums and four televised events. King and the education department organized the forums after a first attempt to meet with parents became too disruptive, he has said.


A question coming into the city hearings was whether King would face the same opposition as elsewhere in the state. Some allies, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, have suggested that criticism comes mainly from affluent parents with students in suburban schools, not low-income parents in urban school systems.

Thanks to the organizing efforts, which included matching signs and monopolized speaking slots, King encountered virtually no push back. Many parents and teachers framed their support for the Common Core as a civil rights issue about holding schools to the same standards regardless of the student populations they serve.

“I think it’s a cruel injustice to expect less from our minority students than we do of their more affluent peers,” said one teacher.

A press release passed out by StudentsFirstNY before the forum used some of the same language, calling the Common Core a “lifeline” and a “critical civil rights issue” for “communities with failing schools.”

“Across the state there’s a lot of good work happening around the Common Core, so it’s encouraging to hear teachers and parents describing that work,” King said after the forum.

“It doesn’t change that there are undoubtedly challenges and places where we need to make adjustments,” he added, citing plans to increase funding for teacher training and to allow students with disabilities to take tests at their level of instruction rather than their age.

Some objected to the organizing tactics, complaining that supporters showed up well before doors opened to fill out the first speaking spots, which essentially froze out any chance for there to be an opposing view. They also said that their message was unnecessarily polarizing.

Sarah Porter, a parent at Brooklyn’s P.S. 132, called it a “false dichotomy,” which says “if you’re against any part of the Common Core, then you are therefore against educational equity.”

Not everyone to speak shared a rosy view, however. Katie Lapham, a teacher at P.S. 214 in Brooklyn, showed up early enough that she was able to beat the crowd of supporters.

“The Common Core has led to scripted curricula that do little more than prepare students, beginning in kindergarten, for high-stakes Common Core standardized tests,” Lapham said.

Class Size Matters' Leonie Haimson testifies about the state's student data policies at the Bronx forum. She wants the state to give parents the option to opt out of sharing their children's data with some third-party vendors.
Class Size Matters’ Leonie Haimson testifies against the state’s plan to share student data with inBloom, Inc. at the Bronx forum.

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch encountered a smaller audience, but stronger opposition, at Evander Childs school campus in the Bronx. One speaker called for Tisch’s resignation, some criticized the state’s use of student data, while many decried raised anxieties caused by new high-stakes tests.

Some teachers, as well as Educators 4 Excellence founder Evan Stone spoke in support, offering examples of how the standards had helped them craft more challenging lessons for students.

Tisch also took heat for the state’s late notice of the event, which several parents complained made it difficult to get more people to attend.

“For the love of god, you people told us late last week,” said parent Eileen Markie.

Unlike the charter school parents represented at the Brooklyn forum, Markie was part of a contingent from the Bronx Community Charter School that raised the negative impacts that the Common Core was having on their school.

“The intense emphasis on nonfiction technical reading, at the expense of literature, strikes me as diabolical,” Markie added, referring to a literacy shift toward nonfiction text required in the new standards.


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.