New language

Meet the charter leader signing up to teach kids with no English skills — and the student who inspired her

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Edgardo, who came to Nashville from Honduras, stands with STEM Prep Middle School principal Kristin McGraner, who was inspired to start a special program for students like Edgardo who are new to speaking English.

Edgardo showed up in the office of a Nashville charter school in 2014, unable to speak a word of English. He was 12, and he was terrified.

Without telling any adults and without any money, Edgardo had run away from his home in Honduras, frightened at the prospect of becoming embroiled in the violence rocking the Central American country. He had been sent to Nashville to live with his father by U.S. immigration officers, who collected him in Houston.

In Honduras, “I didn’t even know if I was going to finish sixth grade,” he later said about his decision to leave home. “I had a lot of bad friends there.”

Once he was safe in Nashville, though, Edgardo thought he’d made a terrible mistake. He missed his mom. His little sisters, who were born in the U.S., could speak English far better than he could. And he couldn’t understand anything going on at school, where all of his classes were in English.

It was sink or swim — and he was sinking.

“I was like, oh my God, I am never going to learn anything this year, because they are not even showing me the English I have to know,” Edgardo remembers.

That’s why his father took him to Kristin McGraner, the principal of STEM Prep Middle, a Nashville charter school known for welcoming immigrant students: Could she help?

McGraner enrolled Edgardo at her school and quickly assigned a teacher to work with him on his English. But his case got her wondering. What if there were a program truly tailored to kids like Edgardo — one where students could learn English without feeling isolated and without falling behind? How much better would he do?

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Metro Nashville Public Schools, Tennessee’s second-largest school district, is home to more than 12,000 students who aren’t proficient in English, and about a third of the students learning English across the state.

Four schools have special programs for newcomer students who had interrupted schooling in their home countries. But for the most part, students like Edgardo go to their neighborhood schools and attend normal classes, with a class period of specific English instruction.

So McGraner, a charter-school leader, decided to start a more intensive program — and forged an unlikely set of alliances along the way in a city where the expansion of charter schools has sparked bitter debate.

Critics often have accused charters of avoiding parts of Nashville with lots of non-English speaking families. But McGraner made clear that she wanted to do the opposite, and would even take on needy students sent her way by the local district.

That won her crucial support. Then-Mayor Karl Dean earmarked more than $700,000 for a larger facility for STEM Prep, with room for the Nashville Newcomer Academy and language learning equipment. This spring, the district told middle school students with minimal English proficiency about the program, and officials said they hoped that it would serve as a citywide model.

McGraner even won over school board member Will Pinkston, who jokingly calls himself “Public Enemy No. 1” of the charter movement.

“STEM Prep has been one of the only charter schools that has been a true partner to the district,” Pinkston said. “Kristin McGraner has always opened her doors and given the opportunity for us to learn from each other.”

In August, STEM Prep welcomed 100 students to the Nashville Newcomer Academy, a one-year program for middle-schoolers new to the United States and to English, like Edgardo once was. (Edgardo himself is now a sophomore at the adjacent high school.)

“People do think I’m crazy,” McGraner said. “Do I anticipate we might have a dip in [test scores]? Yes. Do I think our kids are going to outperform peers, whether it’s in Nashville, Tennessee or some other city in the United States? Yes. I do.”

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McGraner’s confidence comes from experience.

Nashville Newcomer Academy is housed within STEM Prep, where nearly all of the school’s English language learners have achieved proficiency after one year, according to data provided by the school. But not all of them came from as far behind as the Newcomer students. Many had simply struggled in local schools since kindergarten.

Still, Newcomer wants to get its students to English proficiency in one year, while also helping them get closer to understanding grade-level work. That’s ambitious: Research has shown that students in that age group take longer, on average, to become proficient in English.

McGraner says the key is making sure students get effective teaching and benefit from teachers’ high expectations. Students also take elective classes and have lunch with students outside the Newcomer Academy.

“Our little people can master language pretty darn fast,” McGraner said.

Another key is funding. Newcomer’s classes and coursework are in English, as they are at any school in Nashville. But each class has two co-teachers, for a ratio of about one teacher to 13 students. That’s considerably lower than what the state offers funding for — one teacher for 25 English language students. (Metro Nashville Public Schools is currently suing the state specifically over funding for English learners.)

McGraner says she has the money for extra teachers because of creative budgeting — the school has a lean central office and doesn’t spend big on technology — as well as some philanthropic support. For the first time, STEM Prep is also receiving some federal funds meant for English learners.

Creative teaching matters, too. Ruben Vargas, a science and math teacher at Newcomer, says his colleagues look for different ways to convey information, so they aren’t just relying on English to help students master grade-level material.

Teachers work from a curriculum that includes teaching reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills in all subjects, and get extra help from Alice Nie, the program’s academic dean. Nie, like Vargas, was once an English learner herself.

In a recent coaching session, Nie helped Vargas think of ways to explain cube roots visually so students could show that they understood the concept even if they couldn’t express it.

“You realize you make a lot of assumptions as a teacher,” Vargas said. “Even providing a picture makes a huge difference on knowing if students know what a cube is or a square is.”

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McGraner and the Newcomer faculty won’t know if they’ve achieved their goal until the end of the school year. But students — many of whom have striking stories of being transplanted to Nashville from across the world — say the first few months have felt comfortable.

Jules, a fifth-grade student who moved to Nashville with his family from Congo this spring, is one. Before he moved, “There was no fridge, no electric, and at the school the teachers and the principal, they was not good,” he said. “If you were late at school, they beat you with a stick.”

“Here, I like it because they teach us new things,” he added.

For Edgardo’s part, he is proud to have inspired McGraner. He says he loves school now and is making his highest grades ever at STEM Prep’s high school. His lowest grade is in English, an 85. After high school, he wants to join the U.S. Army for the benefits and to protect his new country and family.

“Before I feel like nothing here, and now I feel like something, like I’m a person here, like I’m a student at STEM Prep,” he said. “I have a lot of friends and my teachers are my friends, too.”

Big gains

No. 1: This Denver turnaround school had the highest math growth in Colorado

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
University Prep Steele Street students at a celebration of their test scores Friday.

Denver’s University Prep faced a gargantuan task last year: Turn around a school where the previous year just 7 percent of third- through fifth-graders were on grade level in math and 6 percent were on grade level in English.

On Friday morning, dozens of those students — dressed in khaki pants and button-up sweaters — clustered on the lawn to listen to officials celebrate their charter school, University Prep Steele Street, for showing the most academic growth in Colorado on last spring’s state standardized math tests.

The high-poverty school also had the eighth-highest growth on state English tests. Another Denver charter, KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy high school, had the first-highest.

“I want to say clearly to all of you that no one is ever going to tell you what you can and can’t do — ever,” University Prep founder and executive director David Singer told his students. “You’re going to remind them what you did in a single year.”

By the end of last year, 43 percent of University Prep Steele Street third- through fifth-graders were at grade level in math and 37 percent were at grade level in English, according to state tests results released Thursday.

University Prep Steele Street students scored better, on average, than 91 percent of Colorado students who had similar tests scores the year before in math and better than 84 percent of students who had similar scores in English.

As Singer noted Friday, that type of skyrocketing improvement is rare among turnaround schools in Denver and nationwide.

“This might be one of the biggest wins we’ve ever seen in our city, our state and our country of what it truly means to transform a school,” he said.

Many of the kids were previously students at Pioneer Charter School, one of the city’s first-ever charters. Founded in 1997 in northeast Denver, Pioneer had struggled academically in recent years, posting some of the lowest test scores in all of Denver Public Schools.

In 2015, Pioneer’s board of directors decided to close the school, which served students in preschool through eighth grade. University Prep, an elementary charter school a couple miles away, applied to take it over. But unlike many school turnarounds, it wouldn’t be a gradual, one-grade-at-a-time, phase-in, phase-out transition. Instead, University Prep would be responsible for teaching students in kindergarten through fifth grade on day one.

“When Pioneer Charter School became an option and we looked at our results up to that point of time and what we believed to be our capacity … we saw an opportunity,” Singer said

A former math teacher at nearby Manual High School, which has itself been subject to several turnaround efforts, Singer started University Prep after becoming frustrated with the reality faced by many of his teenage students, who often showed up with gaps in their knowledge.

“When you walk into school at 14 or 15 and have a huge gap, the likelihood you get to be whatever you want to be is diminished,” he said.

The key to changing that, Singer realized, would be to start students on a path to success earlier. That’s why University Prep’s tagline is, “College starts in kindergarten.”

“It’s a significantly better pathway than the one of intense catch-up on the backend,” Singer said.

University Prep Arapahoe Street opened as a standalone charter school in 2010. Last year, its fourth- and fifth-graders outperformed district averages on both the English and math tests.

Several teachers and staff members from the original campus helped open Steele Street in 2016. The school started with 226 students, 89 percent of whom qualified for subsidized lunches. Ninety-seven percent were students of color and 71 percent were English language learners, more than twice the percentage in the district as a whole.

The biggest difference from the year before, Singer said, were the expectations. The work was more rigorous and there was more of it: three hours of literacy and more than 100 minutes of math each day as part of a schedule that stretched from 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Lauren Argue was one of the teachers that moved from the original campus to Steele Street. She and Singer said the other big difference was the honest feedback students received from their teachers. That included sharing with students the fact that they were several grade levels behind, and starting the year by re-teaching second-grade math to fourth-graders.

“We had conversations of, ‘Here is where you’re at,’ but also expressing our unwavering belief that, ‘By the end of the year, you will grow a tremendous amount,’” Argue said.

While those hard conversations may have been uncomfortable at first for students and their families, Argue said they embraced them once they saw the progress students were making — progress that teachers made sure to celebrate at every opportunity.

“Kids learned the joy of what it means to do hard academic work and get through to the other side,” Singer said. “That became a source of pride.”

Ten-year-old Abril Sierra attended Pioneer since preschool. This year, she’s a fifth-grader at University Prep. On Friday, she said that while at times she thought her brain might explode, it felt good to tackle harder work. She credited her teachers with helping her achieve.

“The things that changed were definitely the perspective of how the teachers see you and believe in you,” Sierra said. “…They make you feel at home. You can trust them.”

By the numbers

NYC announces it will subsidize hiring from Absent Teacher Reserve — and sheds light on who is in the pool

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Ever since the city announced a new policy for placing teachers without permanent positions into schools, Chalkbeat and others have been asking questions about just who is in the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve.

Now we have some answers.

The education department released figures on Friday that show a quarter of teachers currently in the the pool were also there five years ago, and a third ended up in the ATR because of disciplinary or legal issues. The average salary for teachers this past year was $94,000, according to the data.

The city also said it would extend budget incentives for schools that hire educators from the ATR, a change to its initial announcement. Principals have raised concerns about the cost of hiring from the ATR, since its members tend to be more senior, and therefore more expensive, than new teachers.

The ATR is comprised of teachers who don’t have regular positions, either because their jobs were eliminated or because of disciplinary issues. It cost almost $152 million in the last school year — far more than previously estimated — and currently stands at 822 teachers.

In July, the city announced a plan to cut the pool in half by placing teachers into vacancies still open after the new school year begins — even potentially over principals’ objection.

Critics have argued that the city’s new placement policy could place ineffective teachers in the neediest classrooms. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis called the move “shockingly irresponsible” in a statement.

“There are reasons why no principal has chosen to hire them and this policy is bad for kids, plain and simple,” she said.

But Randy Asher, the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School who is now responsible for helping to shrink the pool, called the new policy “a common sense approach to treating ATR teachers like all other teachers,” since they now have the opportunity to be evaluated by a school principal.

Here’s what the latest numbers tell us about who is in the pool.

How did educators end up in the Absent Teacher Reserve?

Most of the educators in the ATR were placed there because their schools had closed (38 percent) or due to budget cuts (30 percent.)

Another 32 percent entered the pool because of a legal or disciplinary case.

How effective are they?

A majority — 74 percent — received an evaluation rating of “highly effective,” “effective” or “satisfactory” in 2015-16, the most current year available. Current ratings for teachers citywide were not immediately available, but in 2014-15, 93 percent of teachers overall were rated effective or highly effective, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Twelve percent of teachers in the pool received an “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” rating in 2015-16, and about 7 percent received a “developing” rating, one step up from ineffective.

Some teachers in the ATR say evaluations can be unfair since teachers are often placed in classrooms outside of the subjects they are equipped to teach and because they are bounced between classrooms.

Asked whether teachers with poor ratings would be placed in classrooms, Asher said “all” teachers in the ATR have traditionally been placed in school assignments.

“They’re in schools, no matter what. It’s a question of what is their role in the school, and how are they supported and evaluated,” he said. “Obviously we will look at each individual teacher and each individual assignment on a case-by-case basis.”

How experienced are they?

Teachers in the ATR have an average of 18 years of experience with the education department, and earn an average salary of $94,000. By comparison, the base salary for a New York City teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000.

How long have they been in the pool?

Almost half the educators who are currently in the pool were also there two years ago. A quarter were in the ATR five years ago. That doesn’t mean that teachers have remained in the ATR for that entire time. They could have been hired for a time, and returned to the pool.

Still, the figures could be fuel for those who argue educators in the ATR either aren’t seriously looking for permanent jobs — or that the educators in the pool are simply undesirable hires.

How will schools pay for them?

Teachers in the ATR have argued that their higher salaries are one reason principals avoid hiring them — a concern that principals voiced in a recent Chalkbeat report.

“This is part of the injustice of the ATR placement,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “Schools might not want them and they will cost schools more in the future, taking away from other budget priorities.”

Under the policy announced Friday, the education department will subsidize the cost of ATRs who are permanently hired, paying 50 percent of their salaries next school year and 25 percent the following school year.

Where have they worked previously?

This question is important because the answer gives a sense of where educators in the ATR are likely to be placed this fall. The education department’s original policy called for an educator to be placed within the same district they left, but the change announced in July allowed for placement anywhere within the same borough.

Almost half of ATR members, as of June 2016-17, came from high schools. That isn’t surprising: Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein targeted large high schools for closure, breaking them up into smaller schools as part of a turnaround strategy.

Of the school districts serving K- 8 students, District 19 in Brooklyn’s East New York and District 24 in Queens had among the most educators in the ATR. Each had 26.

What subjects do they teach?

The largest share of teachers in the ATR — 27 percent — are licensed to teach in early childhood or elementary school grades. Another 11 percent are licensed social studies teachers, 9 percent are math teachers and 8 percent are English teachers.

Questions have been raised in the past about whether the teachers in the pool had skills that were too narrow or out of date. A 2010 Chalkbeat story found that a quarter of teachers then in the pool were licensed to teach relatively obscure classes like swimming, jewelry-making and accounting.