leadership lessons

In the district with the most ‘Renewal’ schools, a leader sets out to fix them

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
District 9 Superintendent Leticia Rodriguez-Rosario (center) with two of her former assistant principals who are now her deputies: Director of School Renewal Jasmin Varela (left) and Principal Leadership Facilitator Claudy Makelele.

One of New York City’s toughest jobs belongs to Leticia Rodriguez-Rosario.

As superintendent of District 9 in the southwest Bronx, she oversees an area with more students than the city of Buffalo, which sits within the country’s poorest congressional district.

A fifth of those students have disabilities, about a quarter are still learning English, and their state test scores rank among the city’s lowest. And when the education department rounded up 94 of the city’s most troubled schools last year to participate in a high-profile improvement program, eight fell within Rodriguez-Rosario’s purview — the most of any superintendent.

But rather than despair, the Bronx native and former District 9 principal says she celebrated the news. The new “Renewal” program meant extra resources and attention for those schools, while a recent school-system restructuring meant more authority for her as superintendent to set those schools on a different path.

“This was an opportunity,” said Rodriguez-Rosario, who is responsible for the district’s 51 elementary and middle schools, “an opening of doors for our work.”

The former principal of P.S./I.S. 218, a dual-language school where classes are taught in both English and Spanish, Rodriguez-Rosario was one of several superintendents whom Chancellor Carmen Fariña installed last year in an effort to fill those positions with seasoned educators. Rodriguez-Rosario sustained her educator’s instincts in her new role: She moved the district office into an elementary school building, and hired two of her former assistant principals as deputies.

Fariña had instructed her district chiefs to form relationships with local parents and to earn their subordinates’ trust. Rodriguez-Rosario quickly set out to do both.

Superintendent Rodriguez-Rosario led District 9 teachers in a cheer during a mentor-training session in March.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Rodriguez-Rosario led District 9 teachers in a cheer during a mentor-training session in March.

In her first week on the job, she met with members of a parent-advocacy group that has spent the past 20 years agitating for improvements to District 9’s schools through a series of rallies, public forums, and detailed reports. Later, she gathered together the district’s principals and urged them to participate in the parent group’s latest initiative, a program to train successful teachers how to mentor less-experienced colleagues. An organizer with the group, the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, said the superintendent has been remarkably accessible, sometimes sending the organizer text messages late into the night.

That is a departure from some past superintendents who viewed the group more as an adversary than a partner, said group member Angel Martinez.

“I have to say, it’s a weird feeling: She is more at the table than I have ever seen from our district office before,” said Martinez, whose daughter attends the district’s P.S. 294. “We were always so used to having a fight instead of a conversation.”

Rodriguez-Rosario also began regularly visiting schools, meeting with everyone from principals and teachers to custodians and the staffers who handle parent concerns, she said. In those encounters, her style is more coach than commander. At one of the mentor-training sessions this spring, she led a huddle of teachers in a cheer: “Go District 9!”

“She’s really described us as a team,” said Principal Edgar Lin of the Renewal school J.H.S. 22, “with her being a part of that team, and we as a team winning or losing together.”

Another aim of hers and Fariña is to get educators to trade ideas and troubleshoot problems together.

She paired each principal with colleagues from two other schools and had them meet occasionally, in a scaled-down version of the chancellor’s signature Learning Partners program. During one session, she asked the trios to brainstorm ways to “brand” their schools by offering robust art or science programs or classes related to particular careers — one solution she sees to the challenge of retaining students in a low-performing district where an estimated 4,300 students applied for just over 800 charter school seats last year.

“That’s what charter schools go on: They have these themes and people buy into them,” Rodriguez-Rosario said. “So we’re learning, we’re getting smarter.”

A whiteboard in Rodriguez-Rosario's office with plans for an intricate monitoring protocol for Renewal schools this year.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A whiteboard in Rodriguez-Rosario’s office with plans for an intricate monitoring protocol for Renewal schools this year.

She also ordered the eight Renewal principals to gather twice a month to discuss common challenges and sent them to visit higher-performing schools in the district. When the schools had to craft state-mandated improvement plans this year, she hosted a joint planning session with teams from each school, her district staff, and city and state education officials — a far cry from the process at many schools, where principals write the bulk of those plans alone in their offices.

Now that each Renewal school has an improvement plan, Rodriguez-Rosario said the second year of the three-year program be focused on bringing them to life.

To make sure that happens, she has devised an intricate monitoring system. Her staff will periodically review each school’s plan with the principal, tour the school to see how it’s being enacted, then come up with a handful of recommendations. Four weeks later, the team will return to check whether the school acted on that feedback. If the school is falling short, Rodriguez-Rosario said the relationships she has developed with her principals will allow for frank conversations.

“I’m at the point now where I can say to a principal, ‘You’ve been saying that twice now, stop talking, and I want to see that,’” she said.

So far, she said the Renewal principals have met her expectations. But if they start to stumble, she said she will talk to them about whether they are up to grueling task of turning around a troubled school.

“They understand that there is an urgency, that this is non-negotiable.” she said. “And they understand that if they can’t cut the work, then that conversation will be had.”

Jasmin Varela, a former principal who began her leadership career as an assistant principal under Rodriguez-Rosario, now works for her former boss again as District 9’s Renewal school supervisor. (Because the district has so many of those schools, the city is bringing in another person next month to share her duties.) Varela said that if her team’s tactics can help rehabilitate those schools, then they could ripple out and spur similar changes in other schools.

“Then it spreads beyond Renewal,” she said. “It’s going to reform the entire district.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

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.