teacher leaders

To keep top teachers, principals of struggling schools offer bigger paychecks

Like other principals of low-scoring schools with many needy students, Sean Licata faces the twin challenges of holding onto his best teachers and wooing skilled new hires.

But because his Bronx middle school is part of the city’s “Renewal” program for struggling schools, he had a secret weapon this summer: $27,500 for raises for top teachers willing to take on leadership roles. The promise of the extra money helped him convince a veteran educator to join his staff and provided a new way to recognize the hard work of his strongest teachers, whom he encouraged to apply for the raises.

“You could see a little more pep in their step,” said Licata, principal of School of Diplomacy.

The raises are part of a new, $4.9 million teacher-leadership program that some Renewal school leaders say is helping them hold onto top staff members, though it has limitations. Several principals said it has not been much help as they try to recruit teachers from other schools, but it has provided a considerable reward for their best existing educators.

The stakes are high for New York City’s bottom-ranked schools, which are receiving an infusion of funding and support as they try to rapidly improve student performance. But the high-profile effort has also focused greater scrutiny on those working in the schools, which could face state takeover or closure unless they quickly improve. All that has raised the prospect that the already hard-to-staff schools could see an exodus of teachers whose replacements might be tough to recruit.

Looking to prevent that, the city has retooled the teacher-leader roles embedded in last year’s teachers contract into incentives to help Renewal schools keep and attract strong educators. This year, each Renewal school has received funding for up to three teacher-leaders, whose pay increases will range from $7,500 to $20,000.

At the same time, the program offers schools a way to get more staffers invested in the improvement process, said Paul Asjes, a math teacher at a Bronx Renewal school who will take on one of the leadership roles this fall.

“There’s so much work that needs to be done, and a small group of administrators can’t do it on their own,” said Asjes, who teaches at the School of Performing Arts. The position, he added, helped convince him to remain at his school.

The threat of high teacher turnover loomed this year over many Renewal schools, where some teachers were subjected to a steady stream of official observations and asked to work an extra period each day. At the two Renewal schools where all staffers were forced to reapply for their jobs, the majority of teachers did not return.

An education department spokesman said turnover rates at the other Renewal schools for last year were not immediately available. But a survey of five Renewal schools found some variation: three saw more teachers retire or switch schools than in past years, while the others had average turnover. Serapha Cruz, principal of the Bronx School of Young Leaders, said nine teachers left at the end of the school year — up from the usual three.

“It was way worse than it’s ever been since I’ve been principal,” she said.

At the same time, it took more salesmanship than usual to attract new hires. “It’s hard for people to believe that this school could be well run if you’re on the list” of Renewal schools, Cruz said.

To help principals fill those openings, the city organized Renewal-only recruitment fairs and sent them lists of top candidates. In the end, according to principals and people who work at Renewal schools, many teachers applied for jobs at those schools, likely a reflection of New York’s competitive teaching market.

Haven’t I heard of this before?

    The city has tried offering higher-paid teacher-leader roles to match troubled schools with strong teachers in the past.
    In a 2010 pilot program under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “master” and “turnaround” teachers who committed to work for three years at certain low-performing schools earned extra pay in exchange for supporting their colleagues. The city abruptly ended the program two years later after it lost federal school-improvement funds due to a legal battle with the teachers union.
    In 2014, the teachers union negotiated with the de Blasio administration to get the latest version of the leadership program into the new teachers contract.

“The challenge was not in getting people to apply for the positions,” one Renewal high school principal said, “but finding people who were suitable.”

The city is deploying the teacher-leader program to help solve that problem, too. Only highly rated teachers were eligible to apply, and those who did sat for interviews before a joint city-union panel that reviewed lesson plans and student work. The city sent a list of any teachers who made it through the vetting process to Renewal school principals in mid-July.

But Renewal principals had trouble using the program to hire vetted teachers from other schools, according to several people who work in those schools.

Some said that many candidates had already accepted positions elsewhere by the time the Renewal principals received the teacher-leader list this summer. Others noted that Renewal schools had to compete with higher-performing schools for the same relatively small pool of vetted teachers. Licata, the School of Diplomacy principal, said his one approved teacher fielded job offers from several schools, since all principals had access to the same candidate list.

“A lot of principals reached out to her about accepting a new position,” he said, adding that the teacher was “a hot commodity.”

Still other principals said they hesitated to hire outside teachers for a position that would have them coaching colleagues and running demonstration classrooms in a school where they had just arrived.

“I’m very wary of hiring someone to do a leadership position when they don’t understand the school,” said Cruz, the Bronx School of Young Leaders principal.

The leadership program has showed more promise as a tool to retain strong teachers, principals said. Research has shown that higher pay alone is often not enough to keep teachers from leaving, but offering extra authority and more collaboration with colleagues can be strong incentives to stay.

The “model teacher” role, which comes with a $7,500 raise, requires teachers to open up their classrooms for others to observe their lessons. The “peer collaborative teacher” role, which brings a $12,000 pay hike and replaces the “lead teacher” position that existed for a decade, has teachers coach their colleagues and lead school-wide trainings. They get at least one period off from teaching each day to do that work. (A “master teacher” role, which the city said will be available for only a few teachers, comes with a $20,000 raise.)

The education department spokesman would not provide the number of teachers who were approved for the leadership roles, and said that hiring for those positions is ongoing.

In addition to Renewal schools, the city is also helping fund these positions at more than 140 schools in the Learning Partners and Learning Partners Plus programs, in which educators visit partner schools. Other schools that chose to hire teachers for the leadership roles had to use their own money.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.