social studies

Lawmakers want a whole semester of Tennessee history — but aren’t sure how schools can fit that in

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
A first-grader at Nashville Classical Charter School wears a Colonial-era hat after history class. A new proposal would require all Tennessee students take a full semester of state-specific history at some point in their education.

Lawmakers are gearing up to require a semester of Tennessee history, just as the state is poised to adopt new social studies standards that include fewer state-specific facts.

But first, they have to figure out which classes to cut to make way for a new one.

The Senate last week passed a bill requiring that all students take a semester of state-specific history between grades 4 and 8. But on Thursday, Rep. Art Swann of Maryville confirmed that he won’t push for the measure in the House in the waning hours of this year’s General Assembly.

Though 83 out of 99 House members signed on as co-sponsors, he said too many lawmakers are concerned about the logistics of such a change. Swann plans to use the coming months to determine how to fit a Tennessee history requirement into students’ jam-packed schedules.

The proposal emerged in the 11th hour of the legislature, soon after the State Board of Education approved new social studies standards for Tennessee in the first of two votes.

Those standards, which were developed during an intensive year-long review, are about 14 percent shorter than the current set — a response to teachers who want to go more in-depth with their students. But the reduction comes at the expense of some Tennessee history such as the Chickamauga Indians, “Roots” author Alex Haley, and the New Madrid earthquakes.

The proposed standards would continue Tennessee’s practice of “embedding” state-specific facts across all grades and units, instead of requiring a separate unit or course, something Tennessee hasn’t done for nearly two decades.

The addition of a new course would require new standards, as well as an update to school schedules statewide.

“My argument all along has been it’s all a matter of priority,” Swann said. “All of the things they’ve got is important, but there are few things that are as important as Tennessee history, where kids learn who they are and where they’re from.”

The Senate sponsor, Ferrell Haile of Gallatin, said last week that the intention is not to complicate the lives of educators.

“We do not want to place additional burdens on our teachers, but we do want our students to be aware of Tennessee history going forward,” he said.

While Haile’s version of the bill places the required course in grades 4-6, Swann would rather see students focus on Tennessee when they are older and able to retain more information. Ultimately, he said, the change would affect grades have the most “wiggle room,” but he also might draft the bill so that local districts could decide.

The proposal is the latest twist for social studies in Tennessee.

The new standards, which face a second and final vote in July, were developed after reviewing tens of thousands of comments from hundreds of Tennesseans, as well as about 100 hours of meetings by a review committee appointed by lawmakers.

Most members of the Standards Recommendation Committee believe they’ve struck the right balance. But Bill Carey, who sells Tennessee history materials through his nonprofit Tennessee History for Kids, was the sole committee member to vote against some of the standards. He was mostly concerned with the reduction of Tennessee historical facts in grades 1-5 — not for the later grades, which would be impacted by Swann’s proposal.

Architects of the new standards say teachers still could cover such topics, but that decisions about how should be made at the local level.

The state spearheaded its social studies review in January 2016, after critics charged that seventh-grade standards addressing the Five Pillars of Islam amounted to “proselytizing.” Members of the recommendation committee say all religions would be taught in a uniform way under the proposed standards.

Who Is In Charge

CPS to enforce nine training sessions for local school council members

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Local school council members at a training session on Tuesday

In a classroom at Bogan High School Tuesday, trainer Jose Ortiz quizzed four local school council members on why they have to hold public meetings before approving their school improvement plan, a key document outlining school priorities and direction. The room fell silent.

“Because,” he answered himself, “the worst thing that the local school council could do is not consult the community.”

Ortiz’s training session illustrated the challenges that Chicago Public Schools faces in ensuring that all members of the powerful councils understand their roles and responsibilities.

The district requires those who help govern its 646 schools each attend around 18 hours of in-person training, or nine online modules. But not everyone complies: Ortiz said that last week, around 10 people attended each module he taught, and on Tuesday, only four people sat through his class. Most council members take the training online, but the effectiveness of those modules is questionable, council members said.

In a district whose school board is appointed by the mayor instead of elected by city residents, the councils, as Ortiz pointed out, serve as important channels enabling residents to drive the direction of their children’s education. Normally consisting of 12 members, including the principal, teachers, parents, and community members, the councils hire and evaluate the principal, approve the budget, and help craft two-year school improvement plans for their schools.

Chicago schools have another problem with the councils: 47 percent of schools have failed to field enough candidates to fill seats, which then allows sitting council members to fill the vacancies. That means less electoral control for residents. It’s unclear if the training requirement deters people from seeking council seats.

Nevertheless, district officials said that this year they will enforce the training requirement and will contact members who fail to finish it.

“We are going to start removing people this year, but it will be after contacting them by email, through phone and then giving them an opportunity before we schedule a hearing, and then we will consider removing them,” said Guillermo Montes de Oca, director of the Office of Local School Council Relations.

As Ortiz continued with his training, he asked if members remember approving their school improvement plan in the past school year. The attendees looked at him with puzzled faces.

“Oh yes, I remember now,” said Andrea Sanchez, a council member at Richard J. Daley Elementary Academy. But, she added, “it’s just overwhelming because you’re looking at numbers and pages, especially when you’re not used to seeing it.” Sanchez has been a council member since December, but she had attended only one out of the nine mandatory training modules before Tuesday, because most of the two-hour sessions were held in various locations throughout the city far from her home.

According to the Illinois School Code, council members must finish all modules within six months of taking office, so newly elected members who take office on July 1 have until Dec. 31 to complete the modules. CPS has never removed a council member for not finishing the training, said Guillermo Montes de Oca. However, that’s changing.

This year, CPS has also been encouraging council members to finish the modules by July 31, he said, because “if you’re going to be seated, discussing the budget and everything, you need to be informed.”

Sanchez said she didn’t know know about the six-month deadline until Tuesday. She wishes the nine modules would be held all at once at her school. “The information in the modules should be given to us right away [upon joining the council],” she said.

Montes de Oca said that the Office of Local School Council Relations encourages council members to take the training online. Especially because the office only offers a few modules per month, to meet the July 31 deadline, council members would have to take most of their training online.

But the attendees Tuesday seemed to prefer the in-person trainings . Denishia Perkins, a council member at Shields Middle School for almost two years, said that she had taken all the training modules online, but they “didn’t do much for me.” The online training consists of clicking through slides of bullet-pointed information and then taking a short quiz at the end of each module.

“It’s so possible to get elected and not know about this stuff,” Perkins said. So she decided to attend the in-person training on Tuesday.

Sanchez said of Ortiz’s class, “It felt one-on-one, and he’s really explaining it to you.”

The trainings are not the only impediment to filling local school council seats.

A representative from the parent group Raise Your Hand told the Sun-Times that people may not want to run for a council position because “people are a little frustrated at the weakening of the local school council.” Currently, 50 percent of principals’ evaluations rely on CPS’ data and metrics, when previously the evaluations relied solely on the council members’ judgment.

Sanchez said that the work of councils are just not advertised enough, and many parents like  her already are involved with jobs or other organizations.

“I don’t think the parents know that we’re that important,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t know either.”

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”