First Person

Exclusive Excerpt: “Stray Dogs, Saints, And Saviors”

By traditional labor standards, the contract governing Green Dot charter schools is woefully insufficient — there’s no tenure, or right to strike — and the union itself is a misbegotten creation of founder Steve Barr’s imagination (a management, or “yellow” union). But public employee rights and union contracts vary substantially across the country, and public school teachers in many districts — and most charter school teachers — work without any formal collective bargaining authority at all.

So how much contract is enough? Is it all or nothing? This is one of the key issues of my book, “Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors,” which tracks the turnaround effort at a South Central Los Angeles high school called Locke where teachers petitioned to turn the school into a unionized charter school under Green Dot Public Schools. There are a handful of unionized charters already operating in the city (including a Green Dot high school opened with the support of Randi Weingarten), and the New York Times has reported that the city Department of Education is talking with Green Dot founder Steve Barr about doing a turnaround high school next year.

The excerpt below — part of the chapter that Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews referenced in his recent review of the book — gives a peek into how the contract played out that first year at the “new” Locke, when nearly all the teachers were new, hundreds more neighborhood kids had showed up than anyone had expected, and school administrators and Green Dot were scrambling to keep things afloat.

Previously uninterested in union issues, veteran art and drama teacher Monica Mayall became union rep for the building and began communicating teachers’ complaints about class size and other workload issues to the union president and Locke senior management. Campus aides weren’t in the halls when they were needed. Classroom phones didn’t work. The bells rang at random moments—worse than having no bells at all. Counselors and administrators sent notes to students during the middle of class, another bothersome interruption.

‘‘She grieved a litany of things,’’ said Coleman. ‘‘Some things I had bullheadedly gone into, trampling toes. Other things I was like, ‘Come on, Monica. How ticky-tacky are you going to get?’’’

But class size wasn’t a small issue, and wasn’t just a matter of teachers’ workloads. Green Dot was receiving federal class size reduction funds, which ostensibly brought class sizes down to twenty-eight for certain core academic subjects. The school could lose funding if the class sizes weren’t reduced.

For weeks, Mayall bugged everyone who would listen to her about the class sizes being too big. She talked about the issue at faculty meetings. She talked to Coleman. She talked to Green Dot people when they came on campus. Then, in mid-October, Mayall and the union filed a grievance against Green Dot over the class-size issue—the first such grievance filed in the organization’s history. There were thirty-six classes with over thirty-three students.

Officially, Green Dot welcomed concerns from teachers. But in practice, dealing with teachers’ complaints was complicated, and taking action could be expensive. Green Dot wanted to make sure that teachers’ class loads were ‘‘balanced’’—spread so that class sizes were even from section to section—before hiring anyone else. And it had the law on its side. Although the Green Dot talking points were clear about class size, the actual contract language merely set a target of twenty-four kids per class, and required conversations and unspecified relief measures. There was no hard-and-fast requirement that Green Dot hire more teachers or pay its current ones more as compensation (as is done in many districts).

This was no matter to Mayall; she would bother and embarrass administrators into responding even if they didn’t legally have to. She was pesky and persistent—annoyingly polite and impervious to the glances and hints that she should be a team player along with everyone else. She wasn’t giving up, either, sweet and relentless, annoying even those who agreed with her.

Her case was bolstered in early November when a rookie teacher was attacked by a special education student in one of the overstuffed classrooms. ‘‘I did not sign up for this,’’ wrote the teacher in a desperate e-mail, noting that there were several special education students in the classroom but none of the classroom aides that were supposed to be there to help. ‘‘please come to my class.’’ He didn’t come back the next day, and quit shortly thereafter.

Contract or no, it seemed clear after this incident that if something didn’t happen, other teachers would start leaving—at the end of the year if not before. Green Dot claimed a 90 percent retention rate for its teachers in the past. But a mass exodus from Locke could lower that number quickly.

Pushing her case even harder, Mayall finally sent a letter to Coleman, the senior managers at Green Dot, and the union: ‘‘Our students are not getting the intervention or support they need to master the curriculum—due in part to the sheer size of our school and the need for more instructors and smaller class sizes,’’ she wrote. ‘‘This is a disservice to these students as well as a disruption to the classes already in progress which they are entering.’’

The letter hit Coleman hard. She came to Mayall’s classroom after school and—briefly—broke down, blinking through tears and valiantly trying to stop her lip from trembling. Coleman was new at the job. She was doing her best. She couldn’t control the district or Green Dot. It was an impossible situation. ‘‘She was exhausted and overwhelmed, trying to do everything she could manage,’’ said Mayall, who didn’t blame Coleman. ‘‘Green Dot didn’t really have any idea of what they were getting into.’’

After the fact, Coleman was glad Mayall had taken action. ‘‘I’m more desperate for the help than I’m worried about the union thing,’’ she said.

In the end, there was no dramatic response from Green Dot, no sudden hiring spree or ban on oversized classes. The union met with Green Dot to talk about teachers who were over the limit; administrators met with the affected teachers and, eventually, made a handful of additional hires. Teachers with the impacted classrooms ‘‘agreed’’ to retain more than thirty-three students per class. Seniors with enough credits were pulled out of classes and scheduled into ‘‘service’’ positions in various offices around the school, filing papers or answering phones. But these changes were enough. As of February, just two teachers had resigned—far fewer than in previous years—and over 80 percent of teachers would sign up to return for a second year, compared to the past standard of about 50 percent under Los Angeles Unified.

Even those who weren’t directly affected—or who were deeply suspicious of teachers unions from past experiences—were glad to know that teachers’ perspectives were being communicated up the chain of command. ‘‘At least the teacher’s side was being aired,’’ said English teacher Sully.

Whether or not teachers at Locke paid much attention, Green Dot took the contract seriously, creating an invisible safety net under the hard work being done in the classroom. The contract didn’t intrude on school life very much, day to day, but when needed it was there, and proved to be sturdy both during the first year of the Locke turnaround as well as during future years, when growth and consolidation would create an even greater need for established structures.

Alexander Russo is an education writer and creator of two education blogs, “This Week In Education” and “District 299: The Chicago Schools Blog” (sponsored by the Chicago Tribune). During 2008-2009, Russo was a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.