system shakeup

City launches school-support centers, a key element of Fariña’s system shakeup

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s redesigned system for supporting and overseeing schools entered a new phase Wednesday with the official launch of seven new help centers where schools will turn for guidance on everything from budgeting to teacher training.

The centers have been slowly coming to life over the past several months, as their directors hired about 600 staffers who have helped principals craft their budgets for next year. With their formal kickoff July 1, the centers officially replace the previous administration’s system of about 55 smaller support teams called “networks.”

The education department sent notices and hosted informational sessions to prepare principals for the changeover, and several reported a smooth budgeting process at the centers. But even as the centers officially open their doors, some work remains to get them up and running: Their leaders must still fill about 15 percent of their positions and plan trainings available to schools this summer, officials said.

As hundreds of people transition into their new positions, basic logistics of the centers are still being hashed out. An employee at one center said staffers without desks or computers are working in conference rooms on Blackberries, and Bernadette Fitzgerald, director of one of the Brooklyn centers, said her team was still figuring out “where people will be sitting, how they’ll be collaborating,” but that things were proceeding as planned.

“It’s busy,” she said Tuesday, “and very exciting.”

The centers spring from the shakeup Fariña announced in January, a bid to create more uniformity across the city’s 1,600 district schools and equalize the support they receive. The overhaul shifted new authority onto the system’s 45 superintendents to supervise schools, and also made it their duty to get schools the help they need. But because each superintendent has a staff of just six to serve dozens of schools, they must outsource help for schools to the new “borough field support centers.”

While most of the networks served schools spread out over multiple boroughs, each new center — two in Brooklyn and Queens, and one in each of the other boroughs — will focus on schools in the same area. The centers range in size from 150 employees in the Bronx to 50 staffers on Staten Island, depending on the number of schools they will serve and those schools’ needs, officials said. The center directors hired some personnel from schools or outside the education department, but most came from the previous system of support networks and groups of networks called “clusters.”

Many of those former network employees who assisted schools with instructional matters such as analyzing student data or meeting the needs of students with disabilities only recently learned at which centers and in what roles they will now work. (Some who were unhappy with their placements are appealing them; officials said they will work with those people to find the right positions.) In an email last week, Fariña thanked those veterans of the previous system for their “patience, professionalism, and eagerness to help during this eventful year.”

“As we move ahead with our reorganization,” she wrote, “I will continue to turn to you in your new roles for support.”

Some of the first hires were former network staffers with experience helping schools with budgeting and hiring. They began calling principals into their centers last month to work on next year’s budget — a change for many who were used to network employees traveling to their schools or other nearby locations. To some, that signaled a larger shift: Whereas principals chose their networks and paid for their services, they are now assigned to their borough centers, which answer only to the education department.

“When someone works for you, it’s different,” a Queens principal said. “They want to make the customer happy.”

Still, that principal and several others said they received the same quality of service from their center when setting next year’s budget as they had from their networks. Nigel Pugh, principal of the Richard R. Green High School of Teaching in Manhattan, said he was impressed when the center staffers asked him to talk about his school before they began crunching numbers.

“I’ve found the people to be highly responsive, well-selected and knowledgeable,” Pugh said.

Principals have yet to see how the centers help them with them with day-to-day business, from coaching teachers to handling discipline issues to running programs for non-native English speakers. The centers officially take over that role Wednesday, though most of those issues won’t arise until the new school year begins.

However, principals are already asking who at the centers will work with them on those issues, and how their superintendents will fit in. In the past, schools contacted the networks directly, but now superintendents are expected to be principals’ go-to people.

“Some of my members are still trying to figure out who’s doing what,” said principals union President Ernest Logan. He added that, in conversations with city officials, the union has “made it abundantly clear that we’re holding superintendents accountable for supporting schools.”

The new structure is designed to give schools more uniform guidance. To that end, the officials overseeing instructional support at each of the centers have been training together at education department headquarters, explained Kevin Moran, director of the Staten Island center.

They will then run workshops for principals and school staffers using a common training curriculum. While some principals have already started grumbling about the prospect of one-size-fits-all trainings, Moran said this approach offers “consistency and coherence.”

“There will be standard threads woven through all the curriculum” used in the trainings, he said. “These are the non-negotiables.”

In the past, the networks offered summer training sessions for schools. Officials said the centers will run workshops this summer, but first their directors must meet with superintendents and central office officials to determine what trainings are already being offered.

Some principals said it would be hard to take advantage of those offerings since teachers have already made travel plans. Julie Zuckerman, principal of Castle Bridge School in Manhattan, said her network used to run two-dozen or so workshops each summer on topics ranging from special-education teaching methods to math curriculum design. With her network now defunct and her new support center still getting off the ground, she said her teachers are left with less help to prepare for next school year.

“This is a lost summer,” she said.

Logan, the union president, said the centers and superintendents have the potential to serve principals better than the networks did by offering an additional layer of oversight, but only if the new system works as it’s designed to.

“This is very, very different,” he said, “and the jury is still out on what is going to happen.”

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.