time and money

City invests in new efforts to help struggling readers, but some say more is needed

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Ashley Gonzalez with her mother, Brenda Brazell. Ashley, who has dyslexia, now attends a private school in New Jersey after falling far behind in two city schools.

After five years in a Bronx grade school, Ashley Gonzalez’s reading problems only seemed to grow worse.

Frustrated, Ashley’s mother Brenda Brazell transferred her in sixth grade to a Harlem charter school. But Ashely, who has dyslexia, could not keep up with the work at her new school, so Brazell sought out advocates who argued in a city hearing that the public school system had not met Ashley’s special needs.

The judge agreed, and as a result Ashley now is in the seventh grade at a private school in Teaneck, New Jersey, for bright students with learning disabilities. The city pays for her daily journey from the Bronx, her lunch, and the school’s tuition, which will cost $39,999 next year.

“If I wasn’t diligent, if I didn’t beg and plead and literally cry for someone to give me assistance,” Brazell said, “I would have never got the help I needed.”

Under city schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who has said she aims to get every student reading at grade level by the second grade, the education department is hoping that fewer struggling readers will have to go to such lengths to get the help they need. In an effort launched in December, speech therapists have been asked to assist young students with their basic reading skills, and the department is planning a new partnership with Manhattanville College to train teachers how to help dyslexic students.

Still, advocates have pointed out that funding for the training initiative — $3.2 million over five years — amounts to about $3 per year for each of the city’s more than 186,000 special-needs students, many of whom struggle with reading. In contrast, the city spent more than $222 million last year on private-school tuition in cases like Ashley’s, where judges found that public schools had not met students’ needs, according to a City Council analysis.

Meanwhile, as Ashley’s experience shows, effective interventions for students with serious reading problems are costly: Schools must either hire reading specialists or pay for teachers to take high-priced and lengthy training courses.

“It all boils down,” said Lori Podvesker, a program manager at the advocacy group Resources for Children with Special Needs, “to time and money.”

When reading goes wrong

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Theresa Perry with her daughter, Ayanna. Perry paid for private tutoring for her daughter, who has dyslexia, and eventually moved her from a public to a private school.

It is unclear exactly how many city students have serious reading problems. The city does not track the number of students with dyslexia, a learning disorder that involves difficulty reading, since federal education law does not classify that as a separate disability. However, experts estimate that between 5 and 17 percent of school-age children nationwide have dyslexia, and an influential 2004 report said that 70 percent of older students require reading remediation.

When city students experience reading challenges, they often do not get all the help they need — often despite schools’ best efforts. Experts and educators cite many reasons: teachers who lack expertise in reading disorders, crowded classrooms where students may have a range of special needs, and tight school budgets that prohibit intensive interventions.

Ayanna Perry, who has dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, attended Baychester Academy in the Bronx for several years. Ayanna, 11, soon fell far behind in reading: She mixed up letters, had trouble sounding out words, and failed the state English exams.

Her personal education plan called for a full-time special education class, but the public grade school did not offer any, so she was placed in a class alongside students without disabilities but given extra help for parts of the day, according to her mother, Theresa Perry. (The school’s principal, Cristine Vaughan, did not respond to requests for comment, but it is not uncommon for schools to provide special-needs students with different supports than those mandated by their personal learning plans based what is available at the school.)

The school also tried a remedial reading program called the Wilson Reading System, but only offered it twice a week for thirty minutes, Perry said, even though the education department has said the lessons should be given five days a week for at least 45 minutes. Perry eventually paid for private tutoring at a cost of $119 per hour. This year, she enrolled Ayanna in a private school in Queens, whose tuition Perry is hoping the city will cover.

“All those years, they did what they could,” Perry said about the public school system, “but not what was needed.”

How to help struggling readers

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Two approaches to help struggling readers are to hire specialists or to train classroom teachers to use intervention programs. Both approaches are expensive and can have drawbacks.

The first way to deal with struggling readers is to catch them before they fall, experts say, providing strong early-years reading instruction and assessing students often to spot any learning gaps.

When students start to show signs of significant reading difficulties — they struggle to make sense of individual words and whole texts — then experts say they need frequent, specialized help with their basic reading skills. But that demands highly trained teachers and well-structured programs.

“For kids who need extra help, you can’t just leave it to the teachers to figure out,” said Maggie Moroff, special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children, the nonprofit that represented Ashley’s mother, Brenda Brazell, in the administrative hearing. Moroff is working on a study of effective literacy interventions in city schools. “If there’s anything consistent I’ve seen in all the programs that work, it’s very, very directed and focused — it’s not haphazard at all.”

One way to run such programs is to hire reading specialists who coordinate the school’s reading interventions and work directly with students. But several observers said fewer schools hire such specialists today than in the past, perhaps because of budget limitations.

“A lot of those positions have been reassigned so that schools don’t have a sufficient number of trained reading specialists,” said Professor Dolores Perin, who coordinates a reading specialist advanced-degree program at Teachers College, Columbia University. She said the program’s graduates often fail to find jobs in city schools because many principals choose instead to have classroom teachers take on that role.

Such teachers are “doing their best,” she said, “but they don’t have the preparation.”

Another approach is to pay for classroom teachers to receive specialized training in programs like Wilson, the approach tried at Ayanna’s former school. Wilson is a multi-year remedial program for students who struggle with basic reading skills.

But such programs require big investments. For instance, a typical Wilson certification course costs $4,000 and includes 90 hours of online learning, 60 in-person sessions, and classroom coaching. Once teachers are trained, the schools must keep their class sizes small: Daily Wilson lessons are meant to include no more than 12 students, and only six if they have learning disabilities.

Meanwhile, schools run the risk of losing their investments. The previous administration trained thousands of teachers in Wilson, but many eventually took their skills to higher-paying districts. And at high-needs schools that often have an outsize number of struggling readers, turnover is a perennial problem.

Lori Wheal, a sixth-grade English teacher at I.S. 131 in the Bronx, said she tries to work with small groups of struggling readers during class while other students read independently. In the past, the school had two Wilson-trained specialists who would have targeted such students.

“Now neither of them are here,” Wheal said. “So we don’t do that anymore.”

A promising literacy initiative for middle schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
J.H.S. 144 reading intervention teacher Katie Ivers (left) with Ellen Barrett-Kelly, the school’s new principal. The school paid for Ivers to be trained in two intensive reading remediation programs.

As costly and complicated as it can be to catch up struggling readers, schools like J.H.S. 144 in the Bronx show how it is possible when schools get the resources and support they need.

Soon after taking over the floundering school in 2011, then-Principal Jeremy Kabinoff joined the Middle School Quality Initiative, or MSQI. With more than 80 schools today, the city’s four-year-old effort to boost low-performing middle schools by focusing on literacy is likely the largest such program in the country.

At J.H.S. 144, the program quickly took root. Teachers periodically assessed students’ reading levels, ran highly structured reading-strategy and vocabulary courses during 90-minute literacy blocks, and sent the lowest readers to newly trained specialists. To do all that, the school received nearly $500,000 over three years, which funded teacher training and coaching, classroom libraries, computers, and licences for online reading programs.

Katie Ivers, a former math teacher who was licensed to teach English, was trained in Wilson and a similar program, Just Words. Since September, the struggling readers in her intervention classes have already improved an average of 6.33 points on a reading assessment used by MSQI schools. Nationwide, the typical growth for an entire year is 3 to 4 points.

“I believe in it,” Ivers said about the school’s reading approach, “and it works.”

Budding programs target struggling readers

The education department is currently reviewing MSQI to determine its effectiveness and whether it should be expanded, an agency spokesman said.

In addition to that, the city started the initiative in December where speech therapists spend three periods each week collaborating with kindergarten and first-grade teachers to help students with basic reading and speaking skills, according to officials. The effort, which was expanded in February, now includes 148 schools. (The city has not yet released details about the new teacher-training program centered on dyslexia, and Manhattanville College declined to discuss the partnership before it is finalized.)

The city has also hosted more than 100 literacy trainings for educators this year, including workshops on the Wilson program, and principals will be able to request extra help for their reading programs from new borough-based support centers that will open this summer, said spokesman Harry Hartfield. Those various efforts reflect Chancellor Fariña’s commitment to struggling readers, he added.

“By stressing rigorous teaching and vocabulary development,” Hartfield said in a statement, “the chancellor will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that every student is able to read at or above grade level.”

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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.