collaboration continuation

Fariña's big bet on school improvement takes shape

Teachers collaborating at M.S. 88, one of the city's host schools, last year.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s new idea-sharing initiative for schools launched earlier this month with a lot of fanfare, but not many specifics.

The Learning Partners program, set to more than triple in size next year, puts schools in groups of three with one school in charge of opening its doors to share what’s working for its teachers and students. And as the 21 schools now participating in a pilot version have begun those visits, it’s growing clearer how Fariña’s signature program—a big bet on collaboration, rather than competition—will play out.

One thing that’s clear from a two-page memo sent to principals is that the program won’t cost the city much, though it will be a big time commitment for schools.

This spring, principals at the 21 pilot schools will be reimbursed up to $10,000 each for overtime and to pay substitutes filling in for staff who are on school visits. Next year, the reimbursement for the entire school year will be $15,000, which would cost the city a little more than $1.1 million if 75 schools sign up as planned.

And with schools facing a Friday deadline to apply to be involved next year, the city has cast a wide net to attract partner schools. To qualify, the school must have a principal with two to four years experience, or have any one of a list of “high-need” qualities: at least 70 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch or are black or Hispanic; or at least 20 percent of its population are students with disabilities, English Language Learners, or chronically absent, among other factors.

Fariña said she picked the initial group of host schools based on strengths like improving instruction for English Language Learners, fostering “student voice and independence,” and involving parents. M.S. 503 in Sunset Park, for instance, was picked for its use of “teacher teams,” while New Dorp High School was picked for its use of student data.

For the partner schools tasked with visiting host schools, the memo says that “approximately” four staff members will have to plan to spend about 10 hours per month working on the program.

Participating principals acknowledged the burden, but said it could be worth the extra work.

“Really, the learning was more of the incentive,” said Paul Didio, principal at P.S. 159 in Queens, which is participating as a partner school. “I’m only on the job for three years now,” he added.

The school-to-school approach to professional development will be a marked shift from the Department of Education’s approach under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who often brought in outside consultants and coaches. Speaking at the city’s teachers union conference this weekend, Fariña said she wouldn’t be eliminating consultants, but talked up the Learning Partners Program as a shift.

“The idea is that if we find schools that are willing to share with others the secret to their success, we can get better very quickly,” Fariña said.

While Fariña noted many of the schools leading her pilot were once struggling schools at risk of closing, it’s clear that the program won’t be an explicit intervention strategy for failing schools. One of the selection criteria for partner schools is that they are already doing well in a specific area, but want to go “from good to great.” (A department spokesperson said that would be determined through a holistic evaluation of the school’s goals.)

And though Fariña has made it clear she wants to scale the program up quickly, officials haven’t finalized how they will evaluate if it has been successful. Officials said that in June, schools will present to the department what they learned from visiting their host schools. Next year, the department will develop a more comprehensive evaluation for the program.

For now, New Dorp Principal Deirdre DeAngelis said that it would bring a dose of reality to professional development.

“We know our everyday obstacles,” said DeAngelis, whose school was picked to share its celebrated approach to analytical writing and small learning communities. “We’re not walking into some paid PD where someone’s talking philosophically in some general way.”

Fariña has staked the program on the idea that collaboration can be a key driver of school improvement, another break from Bloomberg-era policies. DeAngelis said the current school evaluation system, which measures schools against each other, created a culture of competition.

“It really created this atmosphere of, shut the doors and don’t share,” DeAngelis said. “I’m not going to tell you that when people were here I didn’t feel like, oh, I’m giving away all my secrets.”

Participating principals are also facing a less philosophical problem: how to fit the school visits into their schedules. Host schools were supposed to send teams on 10 school visits and host six visits of their own by the end of the year, but Didio said last week that he had only visited his host, P.S. 503, once so far.

Other principals in the 21-school pilot program said that they too haven’t been able to visit each other’s schools more than once in the three weeks since the launch. Given the state testing season and a 11-day spring break, it’s been difficult to find time to visit schools at the pace that the program will eventually require, they said.

Wake up to a comprehensive round-up of New York City education news by signing up for our Rise & Shine newsletter here.

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.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?