safety net

State eases graduation requirements for new immigrants

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Brooklyn International High School students perform a song using an instrument they made from a clock.

Students who arrive in the U.S. during high school and are still learning English could now find it slightly easier to earn a diploma, thanks to a new change to state graduation requirements.

In a nod to the struggles that some English language learners have faced in meeting the state’s more demanding diploma standards in recent years, the Board of Regents voted Monday to make those students eligible for a diploma if they score a 55 on the English Regents exam, down from a 62.

The move has plenty of strings attached, including an appeal process. Students will only be eligible if they arrived in the U.S. as a high schooler during or after the 2010-11 school year, score a 65 or higher on at least three other Regents exams, have a 95 percent attendance rate, and have gotten approval from a teacher or school official.

But the change is one way policymakers are moving to reverse the downward trend for English language learners’ graduation rates, which have fallen continuously since the state adopted more stringent requirements for graduation in 2012. The new requirements phased out a less rigorous diploma that allowed students to graduate with scores of 55 or higher on the exams.

Between 2010 and 2014, four-year graduation rates for the city’s English language learners fell from 41.5 percent to 32.5 percent, even as overall graduation rates rose. English language learners are also more than twice as likely as other students to drop out, according to state figures.

More than 45,000 New York City high school students were classified as English language learners two years ago, according to the city education department, but the number of students who arrived during high school was not immediately available. That number has likely grown in the last year as unaccompanied minors have fled violence and extreme poverty in central and South America.

Claire Sylvan, executive director of Internationals Network for Public Schools, which exclusively serves students who move to the U.S. with limited or no English language skills, praised the change, but had asked officials to make some additional changes. She wanted to broaden the change to include students who arrived in the U.S. as eighth graders and to allow for some flexibility around attendance requirements for students who miss school because they are attending immigration court.

“It was a good decision by the Regents that recognizes the particular challenge that ELLs face,” Sylvan said.

The state is also requiring districts to improve bilingual services and to mandate more training for student teachers, among other changes it’s making to bolster education for English language learners.

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.

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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