Shelby County Schools

Shelby County board considers teacher and leader, nursing contracts

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Shelby County Schools since the 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools and the legacy Shelby County district.

 Shelby County Schools board members discussed at a work session on Tuesday whether contracts for some components of its teacher evaluation and professional development programs were the best use of the district’s resources.

The bulk of the contracts are ongoing agreements for programs the district has been using for years. But board members wondered whether some of the programs, including Tripod surveys provided by Cambridge Education and an online professional development video library provided through Teachscape, Inc., are actually effective and being used by teachers and district staff.

The Tripod survey counts for five percent of Shelby County teachers’ evaluations. Students in kindergarten through 12th grade are surveyed about classroom climate and teacher effectiveness several times each year. Board members were skeptical about whether the survey is effective, and whether it is worth a $635,000 contract. “Is there not some other way to do that?” asked Billy Orgel.

Some teacher groups, including the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, have questioned the accuracy of the survey and said it is inappropriate to have students make high-stakes decisions about their decisions. District chief innovation officer Bradley Leon said research has shown that the survey tends to line up with other measures of teacher quality.

Board member David Reaves then asked Leon why, if the survey is so useful, it is worth just five percent of a teacher’s evaluation. Leon said that the five percent target had been reached with the help of the Memphis Shelby County Education Association. He said other districts include student feedback as between five and 15 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

Leon said the district could consider using a different, less-expensive survey, but that would require approval from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which specified that funds be used for Tripod as part of a major grant for the district’s Teacher & Leader Effectiveness program. (Chalkbeat also receives some funds from the Gates Foundation.)

Meanwhile, the $415,000 contract with Teachscape allows teachers to upload videos of their teaching. Teachers can choose—but are not required—to have videos used in their evaluations. Some principals in the district use the program so they can, for instance, share best practices teaching math or English language arts Common Core lessons. Teachscape has been in use since 2009, when it was piloted as part of the Gates-funded Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Project.

Leon told board members that 5,000 videos of Shelby County teachers teaching had been uploaded, and 9,000 videos had been viewed this year.

Reaves said, “if this is a key tool we’re using, I don’t understand why we’re not requiring every teacher to use it [as part of their evaluation].”

Superintendent Dorsey E. Hopson II said that some teachers did not want to have the videos as part of their evaluations. “In the spirit of making sure people can use it and feel safe, we haven’t necessarily required it. We have to change the culture so people don’t feel like this is a punitive measure.”

Reaves also questioned whether the number of views and videos actually represented significant usage. The district had some 9,000 teachers overall this year, but some teachers may have uploaded multiple videos. “Can we actually make it part of our culture? If people aren’t using it, I will not vote for it.”

Orgel asked district staff to share with the board how many teachers were actually using the program, and how those teachers were ranked on the district’s evaluation system before next week’s meeting.

Board members will also vote next week on contracts with Curriculum Associates and Renaissance Learning to screen students in the district in math and in reading; with K-3 Reading Foundations to train teachers in reading; with My Learning Plan for systems to evaluate online educators; with Insight Education Group to train teacher observers; and with the Center for Educational Leadership for training for instructional leadership developers.

School nurses and facilities questions

In other actions, board members also previewed and discussed a slew of other contracts related to facilities and health issues that it will vote on at its business meeting next Tuesday.

The board will also vote next week on a $1.9 million contract with Well Child to provide 42 nurses to the district. Shunji Woods, the district’s director of coordinated school health, described the district’s overall distribution of nurses to board members.

The district has 166 nurses overall. The majority focus on working with children with disabilities or chronic health conditions, while others, including the contracted nurses, deal with chronic issues like allergies or diabetes at the school level. The contracted nurses will be assigned to five schools each, and will visit one school each day of the week.

Board chair Kevin Woods said that having quality nurses in schools ties to the district’s so-called “80-90-100 plan,” which is focused on raising student achievement and graduation rates in the district.

Shunji Woods said the high rates of absence due to chronic health issues like asthma might be alleviated by proper management encouraged by school nurses.

Board chair Woods suggested that the district consider expanding the number of nurses in its schools next year. The municipal school districts plan to have one school nurse per school.

The fate of several closed schools in the district was also discussed on Tuesday. Hopson told the board that two separate charter schools have expressed interest in the former Lanier Middle school building. He said the board may meet before July to determine which school will go in the building.

The board will vote next week on whether to approve contracts with a number of architects, including one to design a new building for the former Westhaven Elementary School. Board members also discussed plans to revisit the district’s list of contractors and providers to make sure it is up-to-date and includes woman- and minority-owned businesses.

Contact Jaclyn Zubrzycki at jzubrzycki

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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.