First Person

This week's teaching & learning tidbits

LATEST BUDGET NEWS

As cuts continue in D-11, school closures could return

School closures and realignments may not be over in Colorado Springs School District 11, but there won’t be any for this year. Despite having to make $13 million in cuts to the 2011-12 budget, officials promised not to close schools. Read more in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Jeffco latest to announce cuts

GOLDEN – Colorado’s largest school district announced plans Friday to close two schools, cut all employees’ pay by 3 percent and trim two days from the school year in the face of nearly $40 million in cuts for 2011-12.

Jefferson County Public Schools’ budget proposal also includes charging students to ride school buses, reducing graduation requirements by a single credit and suspending a popular outdoor lab program that’s been a rite of passage for sixth-graders since 1962. Read more in Education News Colorado.

Aguilar school facing $224,000 in cuts

Members of the administration, teaching staff and part of the school board for Aguilar School District Re-6 met Monday evening to discuss potential budget cuts for the coming year in areas that include administration, instruction, transportation, athletics and the district’s vocation-technical automotive program.

The district has about $224,000 to cut from its $1,336,895 total program funding for the following year, with $163,398.74 expected in the form of state funding cuts and about $61,000 in debt from transportation-related penalties from the Colorado Department of Education. Read more in the Trinidad Times.

Community raises $500,000 to save two schools

GRAND COUNTY, Colo. – A community group has raised $500,000 to save two elementary schools in Grand County. The East Grand County School District has a projected $1 million shortfall because of state budget cuts. Watch 7NEWS.

Adams 12 releases budget plan

THORNTON – Adams 12 Five Star Superintendent Chris Gdowski announced plans Wednesday to cut 180 jobs, including 94 classroom teachers, for 2011-12 and to ask remaining employees to pay more in medical and pension costs as the state’s fifth-largest district tries to close a $30 million budget gap. Read more in Education News Colorado.

Parents protest Adams 12 Schools’ budget cuts

Hundreds of families turned out for a candlelight vigil in front of Adams 12 Five Star Schools Wednesday. The group said they were mourning the educational losses for their children in the district, and protesting the state cuts to education. Watch Fox 31.

D-49 ideas for change include 4-day week, more technology

A four-day week for most students, a shift from books and papers to online tools and exit exams were among the ideas presented Wednesday night at the third innovation convention in Falcon School District 49. Read more in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

New measures emerge in Aurora’s bid to balance budget

The Aurora Public Schools Board of Education took another step toward finalizing cuts for the coming school year during its meeting Tuesday, offering staff guidance in the form of a list of specific reductions. Increased class sizes, mandatory furlough days, wage freezes, increased health care costs for employees and reductions equaling about 23 teacher coach positions are all on the table. Read more in the Aurora Sentinel.

Parents hand-deliver worries about school budget cuts to lawmakers

Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-Colorado) and other state lawmakers each got a special delivery on Monday. A group of concerned parents wrote them a letter, hundreds of pages long, with hopes of convincing the governor not to cut millions from schools as a way to balance the state budget. Watch more on 9News.

60 MINUTES profiles school paying teachers big bucks

The principal of a new experimental charter school where well-paid teachers cannot get tenure and, unlike in unionized public schools, can be fired easily if they don’t measure up, says he shouldn’t keep his job either if his students’ test scores don’t improve in the first four years.  Zeke Vanderhoek, founder of The Equity Project charter school in New York City, spoke to Katie Couric for a 60 MINUTES story that explores the raging issue of unions and tenure in education.

One of the reasons teachers want to work at The Equity Project without a union contract or tenure is the salary – $125,000 per year. It’s among the highest pay for teachers in the U.S. and the big idea behind the school.

“If you want to attract and retain talent, you have to pay for it,” says Vanderhoek, who attracted hundreds of applicants with that salary, from which he hired a small fraction. Watch 60 MINUTES.

Cherry Creek eyes stimulus cash for iPod language programcolorful iPods

Speech pathologists from the Cherry Creek School District could soon draw on 100 new wireless devices to address language disabilities in students from all grade levels. Read more in the Aurora Sentinel.

Florida set to replace teacher tenure with merit pay

Florida lawmakers gave final legislative approval on Wednesday to a bill aimed at replacing teacher tenure with a merit-based system, in the latest clash between a U.S. state government and public employee unions. Read more in Reuters.

Dougco parents clamor for private school vouchers

CASTLE ROCK, Colo. – Now that Douglas County Schools have approved a plan to let students use public funds to pay for private school tuition, the phone are ringing off the hook with parents wanting first dibs, a school spokeswoman said. Watch more on 7NEWS.

Thompson students gearing up for annual CSAP exams

Today, Lucile Erwin Middle School students are wearing red to get red-y to take their annual assessment tests over the next two weeks. Tuesday, they’ll come in with crazy hair, followed by a team jersey the next day. Read more in the Loveland Reporter-Herald.

Concurrent enrollment smooths high schoolers’ path to college

In evolving attempts to smooth the path to college, the number of students enrolled in college classes concurrent with their high school studies is growing. Read more in the Denver Post.

Obama: Rewrite No Child law before next school year

President Obama asked Congress on Monday to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law by fall, escalating the urgency of his campaign for an overhaul of public education. Read more in the Washington Post.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.