In the dark

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Craigmont High School teacher Wayne Oellig helps his students with a biology experiment related to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Sitting on the hot sidewalk outside of Craigmont High School in Memphis, ninth-graders wearing paper lab coats carefully connect a gas sensor to a plastic bottle filled with fresh spinach — a biology experiment that they’ll repeat on Monday during the great American solar eclipse.

The objective is to measure the difference in carbon dioxide emission from a plant on a normal day and during a total solar eclipse.

“That’s crazy we’re experiencing history,” said an enthusiastic Elisha Holmes as he worked Friday with his lab partners. 

Only steps away, a significant teaching tool that’s tailor-made for such an event sits idle. Craigmont’s 40-year-old planetarium is outdated and in need of a modernization costing up to $400,000. Shuttered since 2010, the space is used now as an occasional gathering place for school meetings and for the football team to watch game films.

Principal Tisha Durrah said the excitement of getting 500 safety glasses for students to watch this month’s rare solar phenomenon is bittersweet because the school’s planetarium isn’t being used.

“It’s a missed opportunity, and we don’t want to keep missing it,” she said.

Tennessee is among 14 states in the direct path of the total eclipse, where observers will see the moon completely cover the sun. For Memphis viewers in the state’s southwestern tip, they’ll see about 90 percent of the sun covered. It isn’t likely to happen again in the U.S. until 2024.

“Hopefully for the next solar eclipse, we’ll have it up and running,” Durrah joked this week as her science teachers found other ways to integrate the eclipse into their lessons.

Money raised so far to reopen the planetarium is a drop in the bucket. Craigmont has taken in about $6,000 toward the goal of fully revamping the space, updating technology and making the planetarium sustainable for years to come.

In the meantime, Durrah has contacted alumni and other potential donors in Memphis and beyond, including the New York planetarium of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Shelby County Schools has started a fund-raising account and is looking into other ways to help.

Durrah wants her students to participate in a penny drive as well. “Many of them don’t even know the planetarium is here,” she said of the unique theater.

Even though he’s found other ways to use the eclipse as a teachable moment, biology teacher Wayne Oellig wishes he could have produced simulations in the school’s planetarium on what a solar eclipse looks like from places like the moon or Mars. With the right software, he could help his students, many of whom come from low-income families, experience what a rainforest or historic battlefield looks like, too.

“You can use it for a whole school experience,” he said.

But the screens on the large dome are stained, and the antiquated projector in the center of the room is stuck in its base. A large device by the control panel looks like a first-generation computer, not a high-tech device that could help the school advance studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Craigmont could get away with about $60,000 in repairs to make the planetarium operational, but it would be a short-term fix, the principal says. With a full renovation, the district could host tours from other schools, with their fees covering maintenance costs.

Durrah is confident that the investment would pay off. “When our students can relate to real-world experiences, it can enhance what’s going on here at our school,” she said.

Below, watch a video showing teacher Wayne Oellig talk about Craigmont’s planetarium and its possibilities.

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

talking SHSAT

Love or hate the specialized high school test, New York City students take the exam this weekend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a town hall this summer in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has been both lauded as a fair measure for who gets accepted to the city’s most coveted high schools — and derided as the cause for starkly segregating them.

This weekend, the tense debate is likely to be far from the minds of thousands of students as they sit for the three-hour exam, which currently stands as the sole admissions criteria for vaunted schools such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.

All the debate and all the policy stuff that’s been happening —  it’s just words and there really isn’t anything concrete that’s been put into place yet. So until it happens, they just continue on,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their school options.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer ignited a firestorm with a proposal to nix the SHSAT and instead offer admission to top middle school students across the city. Critics say the test is what segregates students, offering an advantage to families who can afford tutoring or simply are more aware of the importance of the exam. Only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent of all students citywide.

For some, the uproar, coupled with a high profile lawsuit claiming Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, has only added to the pressure to get a seat at a specialized school. Asian students make up about 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, and families from that community have lobbied hard to preserve the way students are admitted.

One Asian mother told Chalkbeat in an email that, while she believes in the need for programs that promote diversity, the SHSAT is “a color blind and unbiased” admissions measure. Her daughter has been studying with the help of test prep books, and now she wonders whether it will be enough.  

“In my opinion, options for a good competitive high school are very limited,” the mom wrote. “With all the recent news of the mayor trying to change the admission process to the specialized high schools and the Harvard lawsuit makes that more important for her to get acceptance.”

Last year, 28,000 students took the SHSAT, and only 5,000 were offered admission. Among this year’s crop of hopeful students is Robert Mercier’s son, an eighth grader with his sights set on High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

Mercier has encouraged his son to study for the test — even while hoping that the admissions system will eventually change. His son plays catcher on a baseball team and is an avid debater at school, activities that Mercier said are important for a well-rounded student and should be factored into admissions decisions.

“If you don’t do well on that one test but you’ve been a great student your whole career,” Mercier said, “I just don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s necessarily a complete assessment of a student’s abilities or worth.”

recruitment and retention

School districts counting on public support for higher teacher pay to pass new tax increases

Teacher Christina Hafler and her two-year-old daughter Emma join hundreds of other educators at a rally outside the State Capitol to call for increased eduction funding on April 16, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Most school districts asking voters to approve local tax increases for schools this November have one thing in common: They are promising that money will go to raise teacher pay.

Polls show voters are inclined to support increasing teacher pay this year, following several high-profile walkouts across the country where teachers shared their struggles with working multiple jobs, and paying out of their own pocket to outfit their classrooms or help feed hungry students.

“Right now you got a pretty clear majority of people saying, teachers deserve more,” said Keith Frederick, who conducts polls for school districts and other government bodies to determine if they should put requests on the ballot. “Voters are very interested, these days anyway, they’re interested in their community schools, higher teacher pay.”

Many officials from those districts say the pay they offer simply isn’t keeping up with nearby districts, meaning a harder time recruiting and retaining teachers. Salaries and employee benefits take up the largest chunk of school district budgets.

School districts in Aurora, Jeffco, Westminster, Douglas County and Sheridan are among the districts making a local request this November. Ballots have been mailed out this week, and voters will start to decide if the request is worth a local tax increase.

Statewide, teacher pay in Colorado ranks below national average.

But measuring how competitive teacher compensation actually is among districts can be complicated. Surveys and studies show that salaries alone do not account for what keeps teachers in their job or what makes them leave. And how teachers get paid in some districts is complicated, based sometimes on their evaluations, or performance of their students, or school, or the difficulty in filling the job they’re in.

Then there are other work conditions that can be considered benefits. The school district based in Brighton moved this year to a four-day school week after failing to pass several tax measures. Although the change will only result in small savings, the district claims it’s a new way to attract teachers without having to raise pay.

But looking at state data for last year, most districts that have the highest starting salaries or average pay for teachers, including Cherry Creek, Boulder, and Poudre, also have the lowest teacher turnover.

Average teacher pay and teacher turnover rates

 

DISTRICT Average Pay Percent Teacher Turnover
Thompson $49,572 16.8 %
Poudre $54,140 9.7 %
Douglas County $53,080 13.4 %
Elizabeth $40,471 23.2 %
Littleton $66,399 9.5 %
Aurora $54,742 26.2%
Cherry Creek $71,711 10.1 %
Sheridan $49,535 35.9 %
Denver $50,757 20.3 %
Jeffco $57,154 14 %
Westminster $58,976 19.1 %
Adams 12 $59,511 12.8 %
Boulder $75,220 10.33 %
Pueblo 60 $47,617 18.3 %
Pueblo 70 $49,328 13.6 %

*Source: Colorado Department of Education. Districts in bold have a tax request tied to teacher pay on this November’s ballot.

None of those three districts are requesting local tax increases this year, but their neighboring districts, including in Douglas County, Elizabeth, Jeffco and Thompson, are.

The contrasts between districts can be large. In the neighboring Poudre and Thompson districts, the difference in the average pay is about $5,000, and the difference in starting salaries is even larger. Higher-paying Poudre has a teacher turnover rate of less than 10 percent. In lower-paying Thompson, the turnover rate is about 17 percent.

The Thompson district is requesting a $13.8 million mill levy override to raise teacher pay, and to purchase new books and technology. The district is also requesting a $149 million bond for building maintenance, security improvements and a new school.

Some of the districts requesting tax increases this year have failed to win voter approval before, including Thompson, Westminster and Jeffco. Although several factors including the political culture of the districts influence the vote, highlighting what voters value — like boosting teacher salaries — might improve the chances of voter approval.

Although most of the local tax measures don’t face organized opposition, criticism of a statewide tax measure for schools might impact other questions down the ballot. Critics of the statewide school measure have said that districts are not under obligation to use the money to pay teachers more, and worry that new money could go into administrative costs instead.

Some districts are trying to create assurances for voters.

Aurora Public Schools agreed to language in its contract with the teachers union that requires the district to set aside at least $10 million from new mill levy revenue, if approved, to give teachers a 3 percent raise starting in January. Remaining money would go into creating a new teacher salary schedule.

The Jeffco school board passed a resolution that commits a certain percentage of new tax revenue for teacher pay. The tax measure also includes language prohibiting use of that revenue for administrative budgets.

Even if districts do use the money for increasing salaries, most districts likely have to negotiate with their employee unions to decide just how to do it — whether it’s raising base salary, giving across-the-board raises, or creating new systems that reward certain teachers.

Several school boards across the state also passed resolutions committing to certain items that would get funding first if voters approve the state ballot request for new school funding. One common, top priority among those is improving salaries.

Denver’s school leaders said they would use the largest portion of the proposed new state revenue for teacher salaries. Negotiations there have been heated, as district leaders insist the state measure needs to pass in order for the district to come closer to meeting the union’s demands.