First Person

How We Cross The Charter-District Divide

Over the course of the mayoral race, if you listened to the candidates discuss public education, one of the most pressing issues facing our education system today is whether schools should be able to share space, or co-locate, in public school buildings.

There are fundamental and meaningful differences between district-run schools and charter schools, which can include curricular choices, autonomy and level of union involvement. But the political fights focusing on the differences draw attention away from another important conversation that needs to be taking place, about what we have in common.

The goal of providing the best education possible is a shared goal, and teachers in both kinds of schools tend to check politics at the door and focus on educating students. The debate over real estate does little to recognize what’s happening in schools every day: the very difficult challenges educators confront and the hard work they’re doing to improve education for all students, no matter what kind of school they attend.

Last year we joined NYC Collaborates, an initiative designed to bring district and charter school educators together to identify what is working well in our respective schools and discuss if and how we could scale these best practices quickly and effectively from classroom to classroom, creating a higher number of quality seats. The group organizes regular school tours where educators visit highly successful schools and see how they approach challenges such as curriculum structure, classroom design and management, teacher training, and structuring of the school day. From our point of view, what works in one classroom can succeed in another — regardless of what kind of school those classrooms are in.

Some of us school leaders also attend meetings of a Collaboration Council where we discuss our various perspectives, dispel myths and misinformation, and identify policy improvements that would benefit all types of public schools. The Collaboration Council is a group of about 20 educators who represent all types of schools, including large district schools, small high schools, charter schools, specialized schools, charter management organizations, and networks.

The council offers a chance to unite leaders who may not know each other otherwise; it’s an opportunity to pool resources and tips, create solutions, and share best practices. Sometimes, we tackle difficult policy questions, too.

For instance, charter schools are prohibited by law from enrolling students mid-school year unless they come off a wait list, while district schools are usually required to take any student who shows up at their doors. This “over the counter” enrollment, as it’s called, creates a division between districts and charters. On one hand, it lets charters off the hook on a challenge district schools face, but it also creates a challenge that for an arbitrary reason, district schools must face alone: accommodating students who come into a new school midyear. Would changing the policy level the playing field? It’s among the many questions we want to explore.

We already know from experience that when schools work together, children benefit.

At Explore Exceed, a charter school in Crown Heights, for instance, we share space with two district schools. We regularly host each other for instructional walk-throughs to see how each approaches similar curriculum challenges. The schools have co-sponsored building-wide events including a food drive to create a sense of community among students and staff. And we’ve even begun sharing costs to make “home improvements” like buying a new flag and two-way radios for our building’s nurses.

But there are other ways to collaborate. Exceed’s third graders were doing a unit on Mexico and putting together “all about Mexico” books. The third grade teachers noticed that P.S. 705’s bulletin board featured work from their first graders who were also learning about Mexico. They invited the first-grade classes at P.S. 705 to visit their third-grade classes so students could share with each other what they had learned. During this visit, students from both schools shared with each other the pamphlets about Mexico they each had made and talked about what they learned.

It was a mutually beneficial experience both academically and developmentally for both schools. The P.S. 705 first graders got to present their work to older students and learn from the older students, which was motivating for them. The third graders got to present their work and act as role models for the younger students.

School of the Future, a district school, has implemented a program called ZAP, Zeroes Aren’t Permitted, inspired by a similar program we observed at a particularly inspiring school visit and observation session at North Star Charter School in Newark. If students do not complete their homework or complete it insufficiently, they have to make it up that day at lunch or after school. This gives educators the time and space to have immediate, one-on-one conversations with students about choices that are getting in the way of better work habits. It also encourages students to work through challenging assignments rather than avoiding them.

School of the Future worked directly with fellow educators at North Star and learned from them how they structured their successful program. In order to fit directly with the needs and culture of our school, we made slight adjustments to North Star’s approach, including framing it as an opportunity to develop better coping skills when faced with difficult work and tracking ZAP numbers at team meetings. Since then, ZAP has become a mainstay of our culture. This is just one of many reasons why school visits and classroom observation are so important — we learn from one another and are able to expand practices that work across schools and school types to create stronger classrooms.

As with any story, there is always more to it, and that is certainly the case when it comes to district and charter schools in New York City. Still, the current debate about what “types” of schools we should operate and where they should be housed needs to be joined by the all-important question of how charter and district schools can work together to help all schools get better. For anyone hoping to lead the city and its 1,700 public schools, stimulating more ways to collaborate would be a good place to start answering.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.