Teachers organizing against ASD ‘want to do something radical’

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
Teachers held signs protesting the ASD takeover during a community meeting at Denver Elementary

Dozens of teachers are organizing in an attempt to stop the state-run Achievement School District from taking over more underperforming schools, a state-led strategy they say is flawed and has largely failed to improve student achievement.

The Shelby County Teachers Coalition plans to protest at several upcoming meetings, at which the local school board will make crucial decisions about what to do next year with its lowest performing schools. Options include closing schools, expanding Shelby County Schools’ own efforts to turn around low-performing schools —  known as the iZone  — or pulling several hundred students from schools co-located with ASD schools.

Coalition leaders said they oppose ending school colocations because endless changes are disruptive to students and parents.

The group is operating outside the Memphis Shelby County Teachers Association. “They’re supposed to be doing what we’re doing,” one of the members said.

“We want to do something radical but we have to be strategic because they (the ASD) are strategic,” said one of the group’s founders. Several of the group’s members spoke with Chalkbeat on the condition of anonymity because they said they feared losing their jobs.

This flyer was placed on attendees' cars during a community meeting at Denver Elementary School last week.
This flyer was placed on attendees’ cars during a community meeting at Denver Elementary School last week.

While parents and teachers have protested the takeover process in prior years, this year’s protests have been particularly hostile and well-organized, drawing media attention and politicians’ support.  At a series of meetings last week organized by the ASD, teachers passed out glossy pamphlets comparing their schools’ test scores to those of charter schools. They also fed questions to students and parents to ask charter organizations. When the charter officials attempted to answer the questions, teachers frequently shouted them down.

That especially frustrated ASD and charter officials who said the teachers were drowning out the parents’ voices as well.

It’s hard to forecast what sort of impact an organized effort against the ASD might have. The state district’s ability to take over and operate schools academically ranked in the state’s bottom 5 percent, or to hand them over to independently-run charter organizations, is protected by state law.

But after years of mixed academic results in ASD schools, an SCS board members said recently they will push to change that law in this upcoming legislative session. It’s an effort the teacher coalition’s leaders said in interviews they will get behind.

Almost a full third of the district’s schools performed so poorly in recent years that they qualify to be taken over by the ASD. The ASD plans to take over several more schools next year.

ASD officials said that while they have had growing pains, they have also seen successes and their presence has spurred rapid improvement in the traditional public schools.  They’ve said this year’s “matching process” incorporated SCS officials’ input and considered a slew of other factors that they predicted will lead to future success.

“We have an incredibly high bar for authorizing our charters, and the only operators going through matching are those with proven results in Memphis or other cities, or new operators with proven results as educators,” said Elliot Smalley, the district’s chief of staff said in an email Wednesday.

The teacher coalition is made up of a core group of teachers from schools that have been part of the ASD takeover process since the state legislature created the district in 2012.  Over the years, the group’s leaders told Chalkbeat, they have studied the law that created the ASD, the state’s charter laws, and the ASD’s existing schools’ academic records.  They have also spoken with several teachers, parents, and students who currently work at ASD schools or who have left ASD schools.

Elliot Smalley, the ASD's chief of staff
Elliot Smalley, the ASD’s chief of staff

The group argues that dramatic budget cuts by Shelby County Schools in recent years have resulted in large class sizes, few extra-curricular activities and outdated textbooks. These cuts are especially acute at the district’s neediest schools, where a disproportionate number of students qualify for special education, are hungry, and whose parents lack the time or wherewithal to promote their children’s academic success.

To compare these schools’ test scores to suburban or rural schools with more stable environments and resources is simply unfair, the group’s leaders told Chalkbeat.  Further, teachers said, for the state to intervene and hand the schools over to charter schools and make teachers reapply for their jobs at the schools causes more chaos in already chaotic environments.

The coalition leaders pointed out that several of the schools the ASD has taken directly over have performed worse than they were performing when they were operated by Shelby County Schools.  However, some of the schools the ASD has turned over to charters have performed much better.

“We appreciate the (teacher) coalition’s emphasis on results—that’s the essence of this work, ensuring students learn and succeed,” the ASD’s Smalley said.  “It’s far too early to draw major conclusions about our results—we’ve only run schools for two years and two-thirds of our schools were in just their first year last year—but if you look at our first neighborhood charter schools matched with neighborhood priority schools (two years of data), they’re showing real signs of promise, and they’re doing considerably better than the schools under consideration for matching.”

The group said this year’s takeover process is especially confusing. Teachers said when two charter organizations pulled out of the process last week because of capacity concerns, it left the school communities with which they were going to be matched with confused, demoralized, and uncertain about their future. But coalition members said the pullout “energized” the activists.

The ASD plans to announce which schools it will take over in the beginning of December.

Several dozen teachers have expressed interest in joining the group in recent days and the founders say they plan to eventually reach out to parents and community activists, too.  They’re keeping other plans under wraps right now.

The ASD, meanwhile, is moving forward with its plans to engage community members and parents.

“So much of this conversation is right—people asking great questions, voicing support for their schools, and expressing deep emotions about education, schools, and community,” ASD superintendent Chris Barbic said in an e-mail to his community Monday. “We don’t believe authentic community engagement is a neat and tidy process.  Not if it’s done right.  It’s totally understandable that last week’s meetings spurred people’s emotions and generated good, hard questions. We commit to standing with communities and, together with our operators, answering these questions and listening to parents’ input.”


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.