Collaboration Celebration

Fariña celebrates collaboration as Learning Partners gets set to expand

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has been touting her signature school-collaboration program since April. But the enthusiasm reached new heights this week, as teachers and principals from 21 schools gathered to celebrate the 10-week pilot program at the Brooklyn Marriott on Monday night.

“Carmen, this is a genius plan,” said Christina Fuentes, head of the city’s new Office of Inter-School Collaborative Learning, in her opening remarks.

Fuentes went on to congratulate principals for instituting a variety of changes over the course of the pilot version of the Learning Partners program, which groups schools into triads to share ideas. The program will expand to 72 schools this September, and is an outgrowth of one of Fariña’s guiding principles: that collaboration, not competition, is the way to improve schools.

“I still don’t know what your school report card is,” Fariña said during the event to a table of educators. “I never checked because I don’t care.”

Before the event, the Department of Education released statistics showing that almost all of the participating schools said they plan to make changes in the next academic year based on their experience. How exactly classrooms will be improved—and to what measurable extent—remains to be seen, given the short length of the pilot program.

One English teacher at a co-located school in the Bronx said she had found it helpful to simply communicate with the schools she shares the building with. “Isolation doesn’t work,” she said.

Other educators said they were excited to have been given the chance to visit other classrooms, but acknowledged that it’s not always easy to apply the lessons learned, especially when one school has more resources than another.

The event’s celebratory atmosphere was in line with one of Fariña’s stated priorities as she shifts the department away from the Bloomberg era: to publicly praise schools that are doing well, rather than focus public attention on where the system is struggling. At Panel for Educational Policy meetings, parent town halls, and in emails to principals, she has noted schools that she says are flying under the radar but succeeding with students.

Fuentes, who oversees the Learning Partners Program, did the same on Monday night.

“Way to go, you’re so courageous,” Fuentes said to one principal. “That’s really brave,” she said to another school leader, praising his integration of technology into his school. (The principal, who broke his leg recently, also rolled up to the podium in a wheelchair and stood up to address the group.)

Much of what teachers shared had to do with school atmosphere and culture. For Grace Ballas, a first grade teacher at P.S. 159 in Queens, the takeaway was seeing real teacher collaboration at her host school, P.S. 503 in Brooklyn.

To better apply those lessons to her school, Ballas said she is planning to participate in a book club reading of “The Power of Protocols.” The literacy coach at the same school with Ballas, Allie Myers, explained that it could help teachers trust one another.

“Trust that their opinion matters,” Myers said. “That it’s OK to disagree. That it’s OK to take risks.”

At the end of the remarks, before the triads broke into groups to present what they had learned, Fariña joked with the crowd about the program.

“There is no pressure, but this is my signature program,” Fariña said, amid laughter. “I said, there was no pressure!”

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

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