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.

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.