MERGE AHEAD

Merging two small East Harlem schools makes sense on paper. So why has it sparked a backlash?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Global Tech Prep community members spoke out about plans to merge the school at a recent public hearing.

When students returned this fall to Global Technology Preparatory, a small middle school in East Harlem, everything seemed off. The principal and most of the teachers had been replaced, and their classrooms were now crowded with unfamiliar students in green uniform shirts, instead of blue like theirs.

The new students were from P.S. 7, a K-8 school in the same building, and people at Global Tech say the joint classes were part of a long-planned consolidation of the two schools that began unofficially last fall — months before the city’s Panel for Educational Policy officially approved the merger on Wednesday.

The threat of the consolidation was partly to blame for the exodus of Global Tech’s teaching staff and principal. After students began taking classes together this fall, clashes were common, along with calls to the police. Now, a school once known for its tight-knit community, intimate class sizes, and focus on technology has been transformed — and not for the better, according to students, parents, and staff.

“It felt more like a community,” said eighth-grader Scarlet Rivas. “Now we don’t have any of that.”

The merger of Global Tech and P.S. 7 follows 21 previous consolidations that Carmen Fariña, New York City’s retiring schools chief, has ordered during her tenure. They reflect her skepticism of the small-schools movement, which led to the creation of hundreds of new schools during the tenure of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg under the premise that they offer more personalized attention and better results than the typical large campus. (Several studies have shown that students had better outcomes at the city’s small high schools than students who attended larger schools.)

Instead, Fariña has argued that very small schools cannot sustain enough teachers and programming to provide students a rich experience, since funding is allocated partly based on enrollment. Consolidation allows schools to pool their resources, slash administrative costs, and put money back into classrooms.

Global Tech was a prime candidate for consolidation. Already small, its enrollment shrank to 120 students this year — too few for the school to afford such basics as a licensed technology teacher, a foreign language instructor, or a parent coordinator, according to education department officials.

Michael Aciman, a department spokesman, disputed the claim that the merger informally began this fall, saying the joint classes represent the kind of collaboration between schools on shared campuses that the city encourages. After the merger officially occurs, it will benefit students at both schools, he added.

It will “address challenges with low enrollment, and create a stronger school option for families with more robust resources and academic programming,” he said in a statement.

But even if the merger makes logistical sense, it has still sparked a backlash.

Since Global Tech opened eight years ago, its staff has prided itself in offering students a portal to the world outside East Harlem, working with organizations that connected students with corporations, allowed them to perform on a Broadway stage, and created opportunities to learn coding skills at Google’s New York offices.

Now, as Global Tech’s faculty and students prepare to be absorbed by P.S. 7, they fear the partnerships, mission, and culture that defined their school will vanish. To them, that feels less like a consolidation than a closure.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Kayla Hamilton, a former Global Tech teacher, criticized the merger.

“Even if you still close down Global Tech, please process what these young people are saying,” Kayla Hamilton, a former Global Tech teacher, told a panel of city officials at a recent hearing, speaking through tears. “These are people’s lives.”

Word of the city’s plan to combine Global Tech and P.S. 7 first trickled out about three years ago, around the time Fariña instructed local superintendents to flag small schools that could be candidates for consolidation. Superintendent Alexandra Estrella, who oversees East Harlem’s District 4 and has clashed bitterly with another school in the past, told former Global Tech Principal David Baiz about the merger plan in 2015, he said.

After failing to convince Estrella to drop the merger, Baiz said, he lobbied other education department officials to keep the school open — a move that landed him in hot water.

“All of a sudden I was labeled as problematic,” he said, adding that he began being summoned to disciplinary meetings. “I got the picture, so I left.” (He is now earning a doctorate in education leadership at Harvard.)

After he resigned at the end of last school year, 14 of the school’s 16 teachers followed suit. The exodus shook the school, stripping it of much of its institutional memory and sense of community, parents and students said.

The proposed merger was not the sole reason teachers fled; several said that Estrella had denied their tenure applications, raising fears that their careers could be jeopardized if they stayed. However, some connected the tenure decisions to the merger, suspecting that the superintendent wanted to bring fresh faces into the newly combined schools.

“She wanted us out,” said Arnold Kim, a former Global Tech teacher who said his tenure application was blocked. “She can’t do a full makeover if all of the teachers are still there.”

An education department spokesman said Estrella made tenure decisions “after thoroughly reviewing the recommendations and carefully observing classroom instruction.”

Whatever the causes, the mass departure of teachers and the joint classes with P.S. 7 appear to have destabilized Global Tech.

Students with disabilities have received less individual attention this year due to a shortage of special-education teachers, according to school personnel and parents. (Aciman, the education department spokesman, said that Global Tech and P.S. 7 work together to meet the needs of students with disabilities.)

And police have responded to 911 calls involving the campus 31 times since September, while five people have been arrested on campus, according to the police department — a greater number of calls and arrests than during the entire 2016-17 school year.

“When you go there it’s just complete chaos,” said Jasmine Carrasquillo, whose two sons attend Global Tech, recalling a recent visit where she saw students roaming the hallways. “That would never have happened before.”

rethinking the reprieve

No Indiana school could receive a more generous ‘growth-only’ grade under an expanded plan

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A panel of Indiana lawmakers took a first step Monday to stop giving new and overhauled schools more generous state A-F grades that consider only how much students improve on tests and cut schools slack for low test scores.

The House Education Committee was initially looking to clamp down on Indianapolis Public Schools’ innovation schools, barring them from using student test score improvement as the sole determinant in their first three years of A-F grades. The more generous scale has boosted IPS’ performance as it launches a new strategy of partnering with charter operators, by allowing some innovation network schools to earn high marks despite overall low test scores.

But lawmakers expanded the scope of the bill to stop all schools from receiving what are known as “growth-only grades” after Chalkbeat reported that IPS’ overhauled high schools were granted a fresh start from the state — a move that would allow the high schools to tap into the more lenient grading system.

“I want to be consistent, and I felt like (grading) wasn’t consistent before, it was just hodge-podge,” said committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “We need to be transparent with parents.”

Read: Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

The committee unanimously approved the bill. If it passes into law, Indianapolis Public Schools stands to be one of the districts most affected. Growth-only grades for innovation schools have given the district’s data a boost, accounting for eight of the district’s 11 A grades in 2018. All of its high schools could also be eligible for growth-only grades this year.

Indianapolis Public Schools officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In the past, they have defended the two-tiered grading system, arguing that growth on state tests is an important window into how schools are educating students. Growth-only grades were originally intended to offer new schools time to get up and running before being judged on student test scores.

IPS was also the target of another provision in the updated bill that would add in stricter rules for when and how schools can ask for a “baseline reset” — the fresh start that its four high schools were recently granted.

Read: IPS overhauled high schools. Now, the state is giving them a fresh start on A-F

The resets, which districts can currently request from the state education department if they meet certain criteria that show they’ve undergone dramatic changes, wipe out previous test scores and other student performance data to give schools a fresh start. The reset schools are considered new schools with new state ID numbers.

The state determined a reset was necessary for IPS’ four remaining high schools because of the effects of decisions last year to close three campuses, shuffle staff, and create a new system a new system for students to choose their schools. Each school will start over with state letter grades in 2019.

But Behning and other lawmakers were skeptical that such changes merited starting over with accountability, and they were concerned that the process could occur without state board of education scrutiny. If passed into law, the bill would require the state board to approve future requests for accountability resets.

A state board staff member testified in favor of the change. The state education department did not offer comments to the committee.

Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary, said he didn’t like the fact that a reset could erase a school’s data, adding that he had concerns about “the transparency of a school corporation getting a new number.”

The amended bill wouldn’t remove the reset for IPS high schools, but by eliminating the growth-only grades, it would get rid of some of the incentive for districts to ask for a reset to begin with. Under current law, reset schools are considered new and qualify for growth-only grades. But the bill would require that reset schools be judged on the state’s usual scale, taking into account both test scores and test score improvement — and possibly leading to lower-than-anticipated state grades.

The amended bill would still offer a grading grace period to schools opening for the first time: New charter schools would be able to ask the state to give them no grade — known as a “null” grade — for their first three years, but schools’ test score performance and test score growth data would still be published online. Behning said he didn’t include district schools in the null-grade measure because they haven’t frequently opened new schools, but he said he’d be open to an amendment.

The bill next heads to the full House for a vote.

Frequently asked

New Denver teacher contract: We answer the most common questions about the tentative pact

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Students in class at Dora Moore ECE-8 during the second day of the Denver Public Schools teachers strike.

One reason many Denver educators didn’t like the district’s old ProComp pay system was that it was too complicated and unpredictable. Both sides agree that the deal reached early Thursday morning creates a much simpler pay system for teachers.

But educators — and the general public — still have a lot of questions about the tentative ProComp agreement, which still needs to be ratified by union members and the Denver school board. Here we’ve answered some of the most common questions we’ve heard since the end of the strike.

How do I place myself on the salary schedule?

The salary schedule is made up of “steps” and “lanes.” The “steps” represent years of service for which a teacher had a positive evaluation. The “lanes” represent levels of education. The new schedule has 20 steps and seven lanes.

Worked in Denver Public Schools for five years and have a master’s degree? Go to step five and then slide your finger over to the master’s degree lane. That’s your base salary.

Did you have a year when your evaluation wasn’t good? Go back one step. Have an additional 18 credits on top of your master’s degree? Go up one more lane.

Teachers can also go up a lane once they hit the 10-year mark because the district wanted to reward longevity. Other milestones that merit a lane change: earning national board certification or an advanced license, or completing six “professional development unit” training courses.

Still not sure? Denver Public Schools plans to put a salary calculator on its website soon.

What if I have more than 20 years of experience?

If you have 20 or more years of experience, you’re placed at the top of the salary schedule, on step 20. After step 20, you’ll get yearly cost-of-living raises. You’re still eligible to change lanes, but you won’t get any more step raises.

Does the district know everything it needs to know about individual educators to pay them the correct salary?

Denver Public Schools plans to send letters or emails this spring to every teacher and special service provider (nurses, counselors, and others) covered by the contract, laying out where the district believes that employee falls on the schedule based on information they have on file. Educators will have a certain amount of time to correct any wrong information and get on the correct step and lane for the 2019-20 school year.

Under the new salary schedule, it looks like I’ll earn less next year than I do now. Am I taking a pay cut?

No. The agreement includes a “hold harmless” clause that ensures everyone will get a raise next year. Those whose salaries are higher now than they would be under the new schedule will get a cost-of-living raise each year until the salary schedule catches up with them.

How are bonuses and incentives different under the new contract?

The bonuses and incentives are different in three ways: There are fewer of them, the dollar amounts are different, and the dollar amounts won’t change year to year.

This year, there are six bonuses and incentives offered by the district: one for educators who work in Title I schools where 60 percent or more of the student population qualifies for subsidized meals; one for educators who work in hard-to-fill positions; one for educators who work in “hard-to-serve” schools; one for educators who work in one of 30 “highest-priority” schools; one for educators who return year over year to those schools; and one for educators who work in schools deemed top-performing or high-growth, as based on school ratings.

Here’s what’s left in the new contract: Teachers in Title 1 schools and those in hard-to-fill positions, such as secondary math, will get $2,000 a year. Teachers who return year over year to 30 highest-priority schools will get $3,000 a year. Teachers in 10 schools deemed “distinguished” will get $750 a year, with the criteria to be determined by the district and the union.

Why aren’t the district and the union tying bonuses to test scores anymore?

Unions have traditionally been skeptical of paying teachers based on student test scores because the scores are so closely correlated with factors like race and household income. In Denver, these bonuses were also less predictable for teachers because the district often changed the criteria it used to rate schools and award “top-performing” bonuses.

The district also came to see these bonuses as canceling out the effects of bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools. A teacher could get nearly the same kind of monetary reward by moving to a more affluent school or by staying in one where students face more challenges. The new bonus system provides clearer monetary benefits to working in a high-poverty school.

Why did the union agree to keep the incentive for highest-priority schools, when that had been such a sticking point?

In any negotiation, there’s give and take and a lot of moving pieces. 

Here’s what lead negotiator Rob Gould said to district officials during bargaining: “We are open to the incentive because we know it’s important to you. And we’re willing to entertain your ideas if we can get the base salary schedule that our teachers need. Because if we can get the base salaries we need, we can keep our teachers in Denver.”

This was also an issue that divided teachers, with some teachers at schools that received the highest-priority incentive pushing to keep them.

Did teachers get a better deal out of the strike than the district’s last offer before the strike?

Teachers were getting a raise no matter what. The district was offering an average 10 percent raise before the strike (this included a cost-of-living raise that was agreed to back in 2017). Now teachers will get an average 11.7 percent raise, though individual teachers will see a wide range.

The district is putting the same amount of new money — $23.5 million — into teacher compensation as it was offering before the strike. It can give a larger average raise with that same amount of money because the incentives are smaller than under the previous proposal and because of limits on how teachers can use training to get raises. That gives the district more predictability about how many teachers will get raises each year.

Union leaders call the deal a win. They secured more opportunities for teachers to earn raises and move into higher categories on the salary schedule, including through completing training partially during work hours at no additional cost. And teachers can get to $100,000 in 20 years, rather than the 30 years in the last district proposal.

However, individual teachers aren’t necessarily getting more base pay next year than they would have under the district’s last offer. Early-career teachers without advanced degrees would have earned more in base pay under the district’s last offer. The teachers who do better under the deal reached after the strike are veteran educators with more education.

To take two examples: A second-year educator with a bachelor’s degree and no extra credits or training would have earned $47,550 in base pay under the district’s last offer before the strike but will earn $46,869 under the deal reached this week.

But a 20-year educator who has a master’s degree and an advanced license who has been with the district for 10 years will earn $88,907 in base pay under the new agreement, compared with $87,550 under the district’s last proposal before the strike.

The union fought for this kind of salary schedule in part to address a longstanding complaint that teachers have little reason to stay in a district where base pay levels off.

You can see the salary schedule from the district’s last offer here and the schedule from the tentative agreement here.

Is this deal financially sustainable for the district?

Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino says that is the “million-dollar question,” perhaps closer to the “half-billion-dollar question,” since that is roughly how much the district spends on educator compensation.

Ferrandino believes the answer is yes, with the standard caveat that all projections are just that.

What will be cut to pay for this?

The district plans to cut $20 million from administrative costs over the next two years. That includes cutting 150 jobs in the central office and ending all executive bonuses. The bulk of it — $13 million — will go to fund the ProComp agreement.

District officials have not yet said which central office jobs will be cut, though Superintendent Susana Cordova has said cuts will be to “discretionary” departments. Departments that will not be cut include special education, English language acquisition, and transportation, she said.

Teachers will get a raise. What about paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers?

These other district employees, much lower paid than teachers, are not covered by the contract that was the subject of the strike. Cordova has said these workers also deserve raises and a portion of administrative cuts will go to pay for them.

But how much of a raise will they get? That will all be worked out over the next few months and include discussions with the unions that represent these employees.

Will striking teachers get back pay?

Not according to district officials. After this story was published Friday, we asked for further clarification on this. We received this statement Saturday morning:

Superintendent Cordova understands that when teachers make the choice to strike, they are doing so to make a statement and bring attention to the importance of the issue at hand. Foregoing pay during the time that a teacher is not working is a challenging decision that no one makes lightly, and consequently, brings with it an impact that is intended to push for change.

DPS did not feel that it would be fair or appropriate to provide back pay to striking teachers when many others — including more than 40 percent of classroom teachers — chose to remain at work this week. However, DPS is working with the DCTA to offer all teachers the opportunity to attend a Saturday session to replace the professional development day that was cancelled in the days leading up to the strike. Any teacher who attends will be paid a day’s salary.

When will the new agreement go into effect? How long will it last?

Assuming both sides ratify it, the new agreement technically (and retroactively) went into effect Jan. 19, the day after the old one expired. But educators won’t start receiving the new salaries, incentives, and bonuses negotiated under it until Aug. 1. The agreement expires Aug. 31, 2022.