Future of Schools

Best of 2015: A behind-the-scenes look at one school’s struggle to improve

Brooklyn Generation School has committed teachers, but a 50 percent graduation rate. It was created to replace a massive, troubled school, but its statistics still lag far behind the city average. It has long tried to help students cope with their out-of-school problems, but trauma at home still finds its way into classrooms.

The school’s struggles raise a question that has stymied districts across the country: Can a low-performing schools where most students arrive ill-prepared to learn become a high-performing school? And if so, how?

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to improve schools centered on shutting down struggling schools and replacing them with new ones. Now, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new “Renewal” program for Brooklyn Generation and 93 other low-performing schools is designed to show that there can be another way, offering a combination of academic help and resources to meet students’ non-academic needs alongside a mandate to improve by 2017.

Chalkbeat reported from inside Brooklyn Generation as the Renewal program rolled out over the past five months. During that time, various city and state officials visited the school, consuming the time and energy of administrators who desperately wanted good reviews. New funding for student counseling and arts programs was put to quick use, but hands-on help for teachers has yet to materialize.

Meanwhile, two sophomores, Iszzy and Elodie Oriental, are counting on their school to help rocket them from Canarsie, Brooklyn, to the elite universities of their dreams. For Brooklyn Generation and the 15-year-old twins, will all their hard work be enough? And will they get the help they need to reach their goals by 2017?

Reporting by Patrick Wall • Photography and video by Stephanie Snyder • Editing by Sarah Darville

A pivotal moment for a school and the program designed to improve it

As the Renewal program rolls out in February, Brooklyn Generation’s leaders and teachers get a sense of the tests ahead, while the twins continue their uphill climb to college.

Waiting for help and worn out by the status quo

By March, Brooklyn Generation is in the middle of a series of high-stakes reviews, each one concluding the school’s academics must improve. But as the teachers keep working with the same needy students, they have yet to receive clear direction.

A community grows stronger

As the year winds down, the school has found new ways to help students deal with trauma but little has changed in the classroom, raising questions about how the program will deliver on its long-term promises. And as the twins head into their junior year, their future remains tied to their school’s.

Meet the sophomores of Brooklyn Generation

 

More about the Renewal program

Support for this series was provided by The Equity Reporting Project: Restoring the Promise of Education, which was developed by Renaissance Journalism with funding from the Ford Foundation.

Future of Schools

After a political showdown, the Indianapolis district approves SUPER School for innovation

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Indianapolis Public Schools Super School 19.

Despite bitter opposition from some teachers and community advocates, the Indianapolis Public Schools Board narrowly approved a measure Thursday to give the principal at School 19 more freedom by converting the school to innovation status.

The board voted 4-3 to convert School 19, which is also known as SUPER School, to an innovation school.

Principal John McClure had applied for the school to voluntarily convert to innovation status, which gives a new nonprofit oversight of daily management at the school. Some members of the board were skeptical of whether McClure, who is in his first year as principal, is ready for the responsibility and whether the school needs the additional freedom to meet his goals. But ultimately, a majority of the board members deferred to the judgment of the administration, which recommended the proposal.

“We’ve created a process, and that process entrusts people who are highly qualified to do the work evaluating that this board can’t do,” said board member Mary Ann Sullivan. “In order to maintain the integrity of the process, we need to let the process work.”

Sullivan voted in support of the measure, along with board members Michael O’Connor, Dorene Rodriguez Hoops, and Diane Arnold. Kelly Bentley, Elizabeth Gore, and Venita Moore voted against the conversion.

“I’m trying to understand what would be the difference in the education of our children,” said Moore Tuesday. She also raised concerns about the fact the school currently has a D rating from the state. “Shouldn’t we be trying to provide you with additional supports in order to achieve what you need to?”

This was the second time McClure made his case to the board. In March, the request was removed from the agenda before board members could vote because some were skeptical of the proposal.

In the three years since the district started creating innovation schools, four have chosen to convert and four more have been restarted by the district as innovation schools managed by outside charter operators.

McClure pitched the conversion to innovation as a way for the magnet school to double down on its theme of action based learning, which incorporates physical activity throughout the school day on the premise that movement helps students learn.

The model was successful when it rolled out about six years ago, McClure said, but in the years since the school adopted this focus, there has been significant staff turnover, and many current teachers have not been trained in the model. By becoming an innovation school, he said, it will have access to extra funds for training — specifically about $25,000 out of a $125,000 startup grant from The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports innovation schools.

That pitch, however, did not persuade all of the school board members.

Board member Kelly Bentley said Thursday she was voting against the proposal because of concerns that other innovation schools were not supportive district partners. But she also said that the principal had not made a compelling case for the innovation conversion.

“I am concerned that this has created a lot of division in the school,” Bentley added. “I worry about that — that it has created some real conflict in the school.”

While this was an especially contentious debate, other school leaders have abandoned plans to seek innovation status. Last fall, the principals at School 58 and School 105 sent letters expressing interest in conversion. But the schools, which are both rated F by the state, never appeared before the board.

Aleesia Johnson, who oversees innovation schools for the district, said the administration looks at whether schools have the capacity and desire to convert to innovation status before making a recommendation. She said the principal at School 19 has been able to win support from a core group of staff.

“It’s our belief that you can use a transition to innovation as a lever to accelerate student achievement,” Johnson said Tuesday.

The school also has the support of The Mind Trust, which works closely with the district in recruiting and preparing innovation school leaders. Brandon Brown, CEO of the nonprofit, said the group backed the application because the principal had the capacity to run an innovation school and there was enough support at the school that many high-performing teachers would remain.

“We’ve learned that the key to a conversion is that you have a school leader that has demonstrated the desire and the skill set to effectively manage a nonprofit,” Brown said.

Innovation schools are an unusually controversial strategy, in part because most teachers at the schools are employed by the nonprofits or charter operators that run them, and they are not represented by the district teachers union.

Even given the normal level of controversy, the campaign to convert the SUPER School to innovation status was more heated than usual. The board meetings on Tuesday and Thursday were crowded with teachers, parents, and advocates speaking on the issue.

At the meeting Tuesday, Chrissy Smith said teachers were afraid to speak out against the change. A member of the IPS Community Coalition, which is critical of the current administration, Smith read a letter she said was from an anonymous teacher that claimed parents at the school were misled into signing a petition in support of the conversion.

On Thursday, advocates who are critics of the administration again read letters they said were from teachers opposed to the conversion.

“There are SUPER School teachers who are afraid to come and speak to you in person,” said MaryAnn Schlegel Ruegger, one of the advocates. “It’s obvious that the fear is there.”

Eric Vanveelen, a second grade teacher, said that he is leaving the school because the principal chose to pursue innovation.

“It seems as if our new administration wants to tear down the place I hold so dear in order to build it up,” he said. “I and many of my colleagues disagree.”

Special education teacher My-Lan Martinez told the board that the process was not transparent. The school, she said, does not need to convert to meet the needs of its students because it already has significant flexibility.

“Our students do not need their teachers to attend additional professional development,” Martinez said. “They need their teachers there, in the classrooms, to be supported and empowered to teach them.”

Others, however, spoke in favor of the conversion.

On Thursday, several people read statements in support of innovation from parents who were not able to come to the meeting.

Holly Combs, a parent at the SUPER School and a staffer at School 57, said she supports innovation. Her son has dyslexia, but the school still celebrates his gifts, she said. As an innovation school, she said, it “will have more choices and have an ability to better serve my son.”

Nancy Stewart, a teacher who spoke Tuesday, asked the board to vote in favor of the conversion because she believes teachers need more training to incorporate action-based learning into classes. As an innovation school, they will also be able to modify the school schedule, and create new positions, she said.

“We have been named an action based learning program, however, action based learning is not a constant within our building,” Stewart said. “Teachers do not understand how to incorporate it effectively or are unwilling to.”

What 'underfunded' means

What you need to know to follow the money debate behind the teacher walkouts

Colorado teachers wearing "Red for Ed" gather in front of the Capitol on the first of two days of protest around school funding. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Colorado teachers are marching at the Capitol this week for more school funding and better pay. Advocates for more education funding will point to the $7 billion that the state has withheld from schools since the Great Recession, while fiscal conservatives point to the billions the state has spent on schools in those same years.

Here’s what you need to know to follow the money debate behind these teacher days of action.

What does it mean when people say Colorado schools are underfunded?

Back in 2000, Colorado voters approved a constitutional amendment that said the state had to increase K-12 education funding every year based on inflation and population. It was meant to reverse years of budget cuts in the 1990s.

When the Great Recession hit and revenues declined, state budget writers didn’t think they could meet that obligation and pay for other functions of state government, so they started holding money back. This reduction is known as the budget stabilization factor or the negative factor.

The negative factor ballooned to more than a billion dollars in the early aughts as the lagging effects of the recession hit government revenue.

Impact of the negative factor on Colorado education spending

Source: Joint Budget Committee legislative staff *Does not include federal money or local mill levy overrides.

State spending on K-12 education actually declined in some years, and many school districts froze pay and cut programs. More recently, lawmakers have reduced the negative factor and increased education spending, but the state continues to hold money back.

So that’s one thing people mean when they say Colorado schools are underfunded.

Republicans dispute this characterization. The Colorado Supreme Court, in a split decision in 2015, ruled that the state’s school funding and use of the negative factor is constitutional. Schools have other sources of revenue, including federal dollars and local property tax revenue.

The National Education Association’s 2018 state rankings puts Colorado 28th in per-pupil funding, when federal, state, and local dollars are included.

There are other considerations. Analyses that look at equity – how fairly Colorado distributes money among students and districts – give the state low marks. There’s major variation in per-student spending around the state. Colorado also spends much less money on education than most states with similar levels of wealth and economic activity.

At the same time, the state is paying a larger share of K-12 costs than ever because tax provisions in the constitution have reduced local property taxes in many parts of the state.

What about local property taxes?

After state officials calculate the amount of money each school district should get, they collect that money first from the local property taxes. If that doesn’t meet the amount set by the formula, the state fills in the rest.

School districts don’t actually benefit much from increases in property values. If a school district collects more money because homes are worth more, the state holds back a corresponding amount.

This arrangement would seem to benefit the state at the expense of local districts, but in many rural communities, two conflicting provisions in the state constitution have had the effect of reducing assessed value. Because the state fills in the lost revenue, the state’s share of education spending is going up.

There are two ways local school districts can raise additional local money, but both require voter approval. Some communities, including Denver and Boulder, have passed significant tax increases to give their schools more money. Other communities in the state have never been successful in asking their voters for more local funding. Greeley’s District 6 had never passed a mill levy override until this November. District 27J in Brighton made the decision to go to a four-day week after voters turned them down for a 16th time.

How much do Colorado teachers make?

According to the Colorado Department of Education, the average teacher salary for 2017-18 is $52,708.

However, there’s considerable variation across the state and even within districts.

Teachers in the Cherry Creek and Boulder Valley districts have average salaries above $70,000. Many small rural districts have average salaries close to $30,000, an amount that’s hard to live on anywhere.

Colorado districts with the highest average teacher salaries

Source: Colorado Department of Education

Colorado districts with the lowest average teacher salaries

Source: Colorado Department of Education

The highest paid teacher in Aurora makes $102,115, and the highest paid teacher in Denver Public Schools makes $115,900. Those teachers would be veteran employees with decades in the classroom. Starting salaries in those districts are $39,757 and $41,689 respectively.

Starting salaries for new teachers and average salaries in 2017-18:

DISTRICT Starting salary Average salary
Denver $41,689 $50,757
Jeffco $38,760 $57,154
Dougco $37,160 $53,080
Cherry Creek $39,405 $71,711
Aurora $39,757 $54,742
Westminster $42,859 $58,976
Adams 14 $38,194 $57,394
Sheridan $35,029 $49,535
Deer Trail $33,660 $41,582

Teachers’ ability to get raises also varies considerably. Districts have salary schedules that provide for raises after a certain number of years of service or for getting more education, but in some districts, the range is narrow, with veteran teachers stuck close to $50,000.

Some districts, like Denver, also have performance incentives or offer additional money for working in schools where students have high needs.

Many teachers experienced pay freezes during the Great Recession but are starting to get raises again. However, when adjusted for inflation, teacher’s salaries have declined in many districts.

A look at teacher salary over time:

DISTRICT 2007-08 average pay 2017-18 average pay Percent change 2007-08 wage in 2018 dollars Percent change when adjusted for inflation
Denver Public Schools $47,197 $50,757 7.54% $57,794 -12.18%
Jeffco Public Schools $52,512 $57,154 8.84% $64,310 -11.13%
Dougco $52,078 $53,080 1.92% $63,771 -16.76%
Cherry Creek $57,152 $71,711 25.47% $69,985 2.47%
Aurora Public Schools $52,755 $54,742 3.77% $64,600 -15.26%
Westminster Public Schools $54,466 $58,976 8.28% $66,695 -11.57%
Adams 14 $46,679 $57,394 22.95% $57,160 0.41%
Sheridan $45,467 $49,535 8.95% $55,676 -11.03%
Deer Trail $36,654 $41,582 13.44% $44,884 -7.36%

 How does that compare to other states?

For many years, Colorado ranked in the bottom tier for teacher salaries, but the most recent ranking from the National Education Association put Colorado at No. 31. The rise in the rankings might reflect some districts giving raises after years of pay freezes as education funding slowly increases or as voters approve new local taxes.

Colorado teacher salaries are still well below the national average of $60,483.

And a recent report ranked Colorado dead last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries. The report compared how much teachers earn compared to other people who also had college degrees. The study adjusted for number of hours worked.

That is, teachers in Colorado take the biggest hit for choosing to go into education as opposed to some other profession.

What does PERA have to do with all this?

Colorado’s public employee retirement system, in which teachers participate, has an unfunded liability of somewhere between $32 billion and $50 billion. As lawmakers try to address this, various proposals have called on both employees and employers to pay more.

Retirement benefits, like health insurance, make up a growing share of school districts’ personnel budgets, so if they have to pay more into PERA, that’s less money for other education needs, including teacher pay.

And teachers who feel like their paychecks are already too small also don’t want to pay more.

Proposed solutions also call for reducing cost-of-living increases for retirees, raising the retirement age, and putting more of taxpayers’ dollars into the system.  

Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on the right balance, and whatever they decide will have implications for district budgets and teacher paychecks.

Teachers don’t get Social Security benefits, and many of them say that solid retirement benefits are an important part of compensation. They fear that a less generous package will make it even harder to hire and keep teachers.

What about the marijuana tax money?

The bulk of marijuana tax revenue for education goes to a program that helps schools pay for buildings and construction repairs. Districts apply and compete for grant money from the program, and in most cases have to put up some portion of the project’s cost. This money can’t be used for things like teacher salaries or books.

This year there’s bipartisan legislation to dramatically increase the amount of marijuana money that goes to fund this capital construction. Currently, only the first $40 million in marijuana tax revenue goes to the program. This change would set aside the first 90 percent of marijuana tax revenue for the construction grant program, up to $100 million.

Starting this year, 12.59 percent of marijuana tax revenue is also set aside for the regular education budget. That’s about $20 million a year at current rates.

Other marijuana money is set aside for various grant programs including one that schools can get to help pay for health professionals such as counselors or nurses. As the state collects more marijuana revenue, the amounts set aside for the grant programs has increased.