Future of Teaching

Displaced by job cuts and school closings, Shelby County teachers share stories of frustration

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Shelby County Schools teacher Shanda Hunt wipes her tears as she talks about how hard it has been to be unemployed and in search of a teaching job. She was laid off last year, in May 2014.

After staff cuts last year that left hundreds of educators scrambling to find new jobs, one former Shelby County Schools teacher is close to losing her home. Another has depleted her savings after a summer of job searching.

“I honestly do not know what I’m going to do,” said Betty Smith. She worked at Cypress Middle, which was one of the 10 schools closed by the district at the end of the 2013-14 academic year. Smith has worked in education for 28 years in Tennessee and three years in Mississippi. She’s certified to teach math and music, and as a guidance counselor.

“I think I’ve applied to more than 100 positions,” said Smith, who was assigned to Cypress after her previous school, White’s Chapel Elementary, closed last year. She has not received a call back from any.

The Memphis-Shelby County Education Association filed a lawsuit on August 4 on behalf of tenured teachers such as Smith, whose positions have been cut and who have not found new jobs in the district. The association contends that those teachers should be hired for teaching jobs before new or non-tenured candidates. This is the second lawsuit the association has filed on behalf of teachers from schools that have closed.

Displaced teacher Paul Banks has had trouble finding a new position.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Displaced teacher Paul Banks has had trouble finding a new position.

In a change from previous years, Shelby County Schools is not assigning teachers to particular schools or jobs. Instead, it has adopted a hiring policy known as mutual consent, which means that teachers are selected by principals by jobs they apply for rather than placed by the district in a given school.

All of the displaced teachers are on a list the district is referring to as its “reemployment list,” which consisted of those who were displaced by school closings or staff cuts. District principals were encouraged to consider them as candidates.

The district’s site still lists dozens of teaching jobs as open. Hundreds whose jobs were initially cut have found new positions in the district. Others may have found employment in charter schools, in one of the state-run Achievement School District’s schools, or in one of the six new suburban school systems in the county.

Displaced teacher David Johnson is close to retirement, but still wants to work in the classroom
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Displaced teacher David Johnson is close to retirement, but still wants to work in the classroom

But some are still searching for jobs in Shelby County Schools. Today, the association invited several teachers who had not yet found positions to share their experiences with local media. Keith Williams, the association’s president, said litigation is one recourse for the teachers, but he also encouraged them to make their stories and frustrations public.

“I can’t live off $275 a week with unemployment, if I get it,” said Shanda Hunt, who worked at Lanier Middle, which closed in May. “My best friend filled up my tank with gas and gave me $20. It’s odd being at home. I’m bored and I’m not able to do all the things I need to do for my son. I’ve been a good teacher and I’m trying to stay optimistic.”

Hunt worries the pool of teachers looking for jobs will grow once the district receives its first school-by-school enrollment figures.

“What happens then? Some more teachers might lose their positions. And then there are even more teachers out there looking at the same positions,” Hunt said.

Shelby County Schools did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the new lawsuit on Friday afternoon.

Earlier this summer, the district declined to comment on the previous lawsuit involving teachers from closed schools.


Below: Teacher Betty Smith describes her search for a new job in Shelby County Schools:

 

 

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teacher diversity

Indiana spends $3M on scholarships for future teachers, but few students of color win them

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum
A teacher leads an activity at the 100 Black Men of Indianapolis' Summer Academy at IPS School #74.

For the second year in a row, very few students of color received a prestigious Indiana scholarship designed to attract new teachers.

Out of 200 high school seniors and current college students who received the Next Generation Hoosier Educators Scholarship this year, only five come from under-represented minority groups, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education said.

It’s a “disturbing” problem, education leaders say, that both perpetuates the dearth of diversity in the teaching ranks and shows the state’s efforts to reach students of color are falling short.

“As hard as it is to talk about these numbers, I’m actually grateful that we’re looking at them,” said Teresa Lubbers, the state higher education chief. “We really are committed to trying to do more, but we could use help.”

The scholarship, aimed at top academic performers, is worth $7,500 per year — $30,000 over four years, which would cover most of the tuition at a state university — and comes with a commitment to teach in Indiana for five years. It was created in 2016 to address Indiana’s teacher shortage by encouraging high-achieving students to go into teaching by ensuring they could graduate with less debt.

But last year, in the scholarship’s inaugural year, just 11 out of 200 students were students of color. And this year’s class is even less diverse.

It’s a microcosm of the overall lack of diversity among teachers in Indiana and across the nation, and it highlights the challenges states face in attracting a diverse teaching staff. In 2016-17, only about 5,000 of Indiana’s 71,000 public school teachers — or 7 percent — were teachers of color, according to state data.

But, in contrast, about 20 percent of Indiana’s population is nonwhite, according to the most recent Census numbers. Indiana’s public schools are about 32 percent nonwhite. Even in Indianapolis Public Schools, which serves mostly black, Hispanic, and multiracial students, most teachers are white.

Research shows that students of all races benefit from having teachers of color, and that black students who have even a single black teacher are more likely to graduate.

Experts say the lack of teacher diversity makes it harder to recruit future teachers of color. Without many teachers who look like them, students of color might not aspire to teach, might not be encouraged to teach, and might be deterred by the implicit biases and lack of cultural competency in less diverse schools. For some of the same reasons, schools often also struggle to recruit male teachers.

That’s all in addition to other obstacles to drawing people to teaching, including the low pay, lack of respect for the profession, and chronically changing mandates on what teachers are supposed to teach.

“Frankly, people admire what they see,” said Mark Russell, education director for the Indianapolis Urban League. “If they don’t see blacks in positions of authority or being teachers, it sort of reinforces a myth that they are inferior. That under-representation has negative implications.”

Russell criticized the state for not doing enough to reach diverse teaching candidates.

“It does not seem like they made a concerted effort,” he said. “To me, that’s not acceptable. You have to show real intent to be diverse. It has to be intentional — not just, ‘Oh, if we can get that along the way, that would be fine.’”

Lubbers said the state partnered with organizations to promote the scholarship among students of color, including the Indianapolis Urban League, the Center for Leadership Development, and the Indiana Latino Institute.

“I think there are definitely more people who could qualify for the scholarship,” she said. “I think it’s more a matter of getting the applications.”

The state also reached out to all of the recipients of the Minority Teacher Scholarship, a need-based grant named after longtime black lawmaker William A. Crawford. The scholarship, which the state awarded to 164 students in 2016-17, is worth up to $4,000 each year with a lesser postgraduate teaching commitment and less stringent academic requirements.

But many recipients of the Minority Teacher Scholarship did not meet the academic standards for the Next Generation Hoosier Educators Scholarship, the state said.

Recipients of the Next Generation Hoosier Educators Scholarship must be in the top 20 percent of their high school graduating classes, or have ACT or SAT scores in the top 20 percent. They need to enroll in college full-time and maintain a 3.0 grade-point average. If they don’t fulfill their commitment to teach in Indiana after graduation, they must repay the grant.

The state spends $1.5 million each year on each class of scholarship recipients. This year, with two classes, that’s a $3 million public investment.

Ken Britt, senior vice president and dean of the Klipsch Educators College at Marian University, questioned why more students of color did not receive the scholarship. He noted that several prospective Marian students from diverse racial backgrounds did not win the scholarship.

More than 500 students applied for the Next Generation Hoosier Educators Scholarship, the state said, including 32 minority candidates.

“Everyone is well deserved,” Britt said. “They’re in the top 20 percent of their class. So it would be interesting to see why some of these minority students didn’t get the final scholarships.”

Marian has used the scholarship as a tool to encourage students to pursue teaching, Britt said. But he added that the state should put a greater emphasis on attracting minority candidates during its application process, which includes in-person interviews.

“There are really talented minority students out there who want to become educators,” Britt said, adding that there needs to be “collective efforts to identify those students and push them into the classroom.”

Indiana’s teacher preparation programs at state universities are overwhelmingly white. But Marian has recently tried to improve its recruitment of minority teaching candidates in order to better prepare educators to work in Indianapolis schools, and it is about halfway to its goal of an incoming freshman class made up of 40 percent students of color, Britt said.

For Next Generation Hoosier Educators Scholarship recipient Dayla Bedford, her experience as a multiracial student in Indianapolis schools is both what led her to teaching — and what will help her connect with students, because she can tell them, “I’ve been there.”

Dayla, 18, switched schools often but kept coming back to Howe High School because of the teachers who helped guide her during times of instability. She wants to make changes in education, she said, after seeing how labeling a school as “failing” discounted the intelligent students inside the building.

As a first-generation college student, Dayla said the scholarship — along with others — made it possible for her to afford to attend Indiana University-Bloomington.

Dayla said she wants to return to Indianapolis to teach in the same community where she grew up.

“I’m a product of public education in Indianapolis, and I see the need, specifically in urban communities,” Dayla said. “And I know that’s where I want to be as a teacher.”

It takes a village

Here’s why Indianapolis teachers are walking away from the opportunity to own an affordable home

PHOTO: Shelby Mullis
The Educators' Village is a two-block cluster of 22 new and restored bold-colored homes in the St. Clair Place neighborhood. Though marketed to teachers, the homes are set at below-market prices for anyone within a low- to middle-income cap.

When Jack Hesser learned about a local nonprofit’s efforts to retain and recruit teachers to Indianapolis through an affordable housing project, he saw an opportunity to buy a house in the neighborhood he serves.

“Knowing that I really wanted to buy a home in Indianapolis, I definitely wanted to be somewhere near my school and near my students,” said Hesser, a seventh-grade science teacher at Harshman Middle School. “The teachers’ village seemed like a really great opportunity.”

As soon as applications for the new housing initiative, Educators’ Village, were available, Hesser was at Near East Area Renewal’s office with his bank statements and pay stubs in hand. But, several months later, after not hearing back from the community development group, Hesser backed out.

“I wanted to move forward with purchasing a home and wasn’t getting a lot of communication back,” he said.

The aim of Educators’ Village was to provide affordable housing to teachers, who often make low salaries that prompt them to leave teaching, while revitalizing a neighborhood. But despite dozens of people applying to purchase the homes after NEAR and city officials broke ground last November, only one teacher has bought a house in the village.

At least 11 teachers, including Hesser, have pulled out of the process, either because construction has gone slower than expected or teachers found out they earn too much money to qualify for the homes. This has led some critics to wonder whether the Educators’ Village can live up to its promises.

“It’s kind of a missed opportunity in terms of the people that could’ve really utilized a program like this and could have benefitted from a program like this,” Hesser said. “Teachers so often are a big force in their communities.”

What is the Educators’ Village?

Keeping teachers in the state is a problem.

Indiana ranks among the lowest states for teacher recruitment and retention, according to a 2016 Learning Policy Institute study. Teachers cited the pressure around student performance on standardized tests, large class sizes, and starting salaries lower than the national average as reasons why they leave the profession.

Enrollment in teacher preparation programs is also declining, making it more difficult to recruit experienced educators.

The study found that teacher turnover is higher in cities than in suburban or rural districts in most regions. An average of 500 teachers leave Indianapolis Public Schools each year out of about 2,400 teachers, according to district spokeswoman Carrie Cline Black.

But the Educators’ Village is an effort to keep teachers in Indianapolis.

It was introduced in September 2017 as a partnership between Near East Area Renewal, the Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership, and the City of Indianapolis.

In his 2016 campaign for mayor, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett said he wanted to sell city-owned homes for little or no cost to teachers, in the hopes of enticing educators to stay and drawing new teachers to move to the city.

“On a lot of different levels, it checks boxes across the board,” Hogsett told Chalkbeat. “Number one, I believe that as a community, education is probably the single most important issue that will help Indianapolis get to the next level.”

Hogsett said the project rehabilitates neighborhoods, increases property and income tax revenues, and promotes teacher recruitment.

Several cities nationwide have implemented their own variation of a teachers’ village. In Newark, New Jersey, teachers can rent an apartment in a $150 million, 400,000-square-foot complex, dubbed the “Teachers Village.”

John Franklin Hay, executive director of NEAR, worked with district and city leaders to identify a cluster of homes for the Educators’ Village close to schools on the near east side. That’s when they found several unoccupied homes and lots on North Rural Street where the neighborhood had a 70 percent vacancy rate.

“Instead of a teacher not being able to find housing in the urban core where they serve, teachers locate out to suburban areas and begin the daily commute of 25 minutes to 90 minutes a day,” Hay said. “The idea would be to develop a cluster of houses that would be much closer to the schools in the school district, but would also be a really cool place to live.”

The housing development is a two-block cluster of 22 new and restored bold-colored homes in the St. Clair Place neighborhood. Though marketed to teachers, the homes are set at below-market prices for anyone within a low- to middle-income cap.

When the village is complete, nine homes starting at $136,000 will be available to anyone at 80 percent of area median income or less. For example, a single-person household is capped at $43,250.

Source: Near East Area Renewal’s income qualification restrictions. (Image by Sam Park)

“That income range is really right within particularly starting teachers — first, second, third-year teachers,” Hay said. “In Indianapolis Public Schools right now, for instance, teachers start at about $40,000, and 80 percent of area median income currently is a little over $43,000 dollars [for one person].”

The other 13 homes will be open to anyone at 120 percent of the area median income, meaning a single-person household must make $64,875 or less. Those homes range in price from $170,000 to $193,000.

Finding educators for the village

Since the application became available last fall, 34 people have applied. But so far, only one person has purchased homes in the village. NEAR did not provide additional details about the buyer.

Of the 17 teachers who applied, three are in underwriting and one is awaiting the sale of an existing home. At least 11 teachers are no longer in the process — three purchased a home elsewhere, three were denied credit, four qualified for a home but backed out, and one was approved but couldn’t afford a house, according to Hay.

Hay is confident, however, that all the homes in the Educators’ Village will sell within 90 days of being listed. He said he’d like at least one-third of homebuyers to be teachers, but is happy to welcome others to the community.

Over the last two years, Hay said NEAR has invited the district and local charter schools to buy into the project. Hay said IPS said it could not provide funding, but would consider finding a way to incentivize teachers. After several conversations with district and charter school leaders, Hay said nothing materialized.

“We are still hopeful,” he said. “We think financial incentives from school leadership will send a great signal to teachers who want to serve in the urban core, where they are so needed.”

In response, district spokeswoman Carrie Cline Black said the Educators’ Village is an incentive in itself for teachers to stay connected to the local community.

“IPS values collaboration and welcomes a formal proposal to consider additional creative ways to recruit and retain talented teachers in our learning community,” Black told Chalkbeat in an email.

The district is also facing a $45 million budget deficit next school year, which may contribute to the lack of incentives.

Facing limitations

Ronak Shah, a seventh grade science teacher at KIPP, thought the Educators’ Village would be the perfect place for him to create a space for teachers to gather and share stories and ideas.

“My goal in purchasing there was: Let me turn my garage into a space with a bar and have chalkboards and everything and invite teachers from anywhere in the city in and have social events there,” Shah told Chalkbeat.

Shah is president of Teachers Lounge Indy, an informal support group for local teachers. Teachers Lounge Indy partners with Chalkbeat on story slam events.

From the beginning, Shah said he was very upfront with NEAR about the need for a garage. In an early conversation with the organization, he learned about an company NEAR partnered with that could build a garage for free with an apartment above.

“The way they framed it, it sounded like it was guaranteed this was a possibility,” Shah said.

But because the Educators’ Village is a government-funded project, Shah said the future buyer is limited to what specifications they can request. He said those limits started being enforced.

In April, he found out the garage would no longer be an option, but said Shah could build one himself. By the beginning of May, Shah reconsidered his interest and pulled out of the process on May 2.

“I ended up having to make a lot of caveats and it ended up not being what I really wanted anyways,” Shah said. “What I really want is the space for teachers to come together, and I couldn’t have that there, which is ironic because if I could have it anywhere it should be there.”

A sense of community

While only one educator has purchased a home in the village, the initiative is still enticing to a lot of people, even those who aren’t teachers. Kelsey Wolf drives past a house in the development nearly every day on her way to and from work.

“I am in the market for a house,” said Wolf, a social worker for HealthNet Healthy Families. “I work in the community. It’s great that they’re trying to revitalize it and bring people like me who work here and give them an opportunity to own something in the community we work in.”

After touring the home and others in the neighborhood at NEAR’s June 30 open house, the former school teacher wanted to apply as soon as she could.

PHOTO: Shelby Mullis
Near East Area Renewal hosted an open house for the Educators’ Village on June 30. Several homes were open to the public to tour.

Wolf took a look at her financial situation. She recently finished school and stepped into a new career, and said she isn’t in the financial state she would prefer. Wolf met with NEAR Tuesday to learn more about the village and what her options are.

Although she’s not a teacher anymore, Wolf stills works with families on the near east side. She said sharing a community with her families will strengthen the bond they share.

“It connects all of us. It makes all of our experiences shared,” Wolf said. “It gives us an opportunity to not only work together, but live amongst each other so we can really start to form a sense of community.”