a day in the life

Fist bumps and a war room: A day in the life of a community school director

Fiorella Guevara, left, looked at student writing samples with a bilingual teacher at M.S. 50 in Williamsburg.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Fiorella Guevara, left, looked at student writing samples with a bilingual teacher at M.S. 50 in Williamsburg.

Around 4 p.m. on a recent Friday, Fiorella Guevara got around to eating her lunch.

Then she leaned back in the student-sized chair where she was sitting in an empty classroom and let out a long sigh.

“Oh man I’m tired,” said Guevara, the new community school director at M.S. 50 in Williamsburg. “This is why I never sit down for too long.”

Instead, she bounds from room to room, checking on the classes she oversees, meeting with the principal or calling up parents, pausing just long enough to hug one of the students whose affection she’s earned in her few months on the job.

“She is a fireball,” said Franklin Tapia, the parent of an eighth-grader at M.S. 50, whom Guevara recently hired to work as a mentor and soccer coach. “I don’t know how she does it. She’ll come in 9 o’clock in the morning sometimes and she won’t leave until 9:30, 10 o’clock at night.”

Community school directors like Guevara play a key role in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to revitalize 94 of New York City’s low-performing schools — including M.S. 50, where just one in 10 students passed last year’s state English tests, and 40 percent of students are considered chronically absent. Each school has a director responsible for coordinating the activities, social services, and parent workshops that the mayor is hoping will help set the schools on a different path.

That’s a tall order. But if anyone seems up to the task, it’s Guevara, who taught elementary school for five years before working with an advocacy group dedicated to creating service-rich schools that partner with parents.

“I truly, 100 percent believe in community schools,” she said.

Chalkbeat stopped by M.S. 50 recently to see how the job really worked. Here are highlights from Guevara’s day.

Guevara worked with a student during an art class.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Guevara worked with a student during an art class.

11:20 a.m. — Troubleshooting

The mission of community schools is to treat students’ physical or emotional ailments so they can focus on learning. For Guevara, that means switching from nurse to counselor to administrator.

When she walked into a bilingual class, where the children were eating a lunch of chicken and rice, she found a boy who had hurt his ankle. In fluent Spanish, she told him to get some ice and elevate it.

Then she read a letter a girl had received from the health department saying she was missing a mandatory physical exam, though the girl said she’d already had it. Guevara promised to investigate.

Next, she dropped by a peer-mediation class that she started at the school this year. She listened in as the students, munching on pizza, discussed the need to stay neutral when settling disputes between classmates. Then Guevara, whose iPhone is always on hand, took a snapshot of the attendance list: A few students were missing.

“My day-to-day is ensuring that the vision we’ve laid out is going,” she explained. “And also troubleshooting when there’s something that’s not going right with the plan.”

Moments later, she was in the main office showing the health department letter to Benjamin Honoroff, the principal brought in this year to spearhead the school’s turnaround. Then she stepped into the crowded hallway as students returned from lunch.

She hugged a girl, told a boy to spit out his gum, then pulled aside a girl wearing a “M.S. 50 is a bully-free zone” shirt — she was one of those who had skipped the peer-mediation class. Without scolding, Guevara told her how important it is to show up for class, then sent her on her way.

“Alright kids,” Guevara said, speed-walking to her next appointment, “get back to class.”

Guevara led an attendance meeting.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Guevara led an attendance meeting.

12:40 p.m. — Partnerships and pressure

Guevara and Honoroff sat down in a science room with two representatives from El Puente, a 34-year-old community organization headquartered in a former church around the corner from the school.

At the heart of each of the city’s new community schools is a marriage between the school and a nonprofit. With input from Honoroff, El Puente choose Guervara to run its operations at M.S. 50.

One of the group’s main initiatives is to send artists to work with classroom teachers to help students produce a creative project, like a play, that combines academic content with the arts. At the meeting, Guervara recounted a recent conversation with a boy who is struggling academically, but who had shined in his role as Hades in a play last year about Greek mythology.

“I love doing that,” she recalled the boy saying.

But, in a roundabout way, the group acknowledged that the program was struggling to stay on course as some classroom teachers focused their energy on other work. Honoroff pointed out that an official review of the school, and state exams, were both around the corner. The school’s results are sure to be scrutinized for signs of progress — or backsliding.

“There’s a bunch of pressure on the teachers coming up,” Honoroff said.

Frances Lucerna, El Puente’s executive director, said she understood.

“I get it,” she said. “There’s so much that’s at stake right now.”

J.H.S. 50 Principal Benjamin Honoroff at an attendance team meeting.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
J.H.S. 50 Principal Benjamin Honoroff at an attendance team meeting.

1:40 p.m. — The war room

Guevara perched on the edge of a desk in the computer lab, her attendance team assembled around her. It was the school’s equivalent of a war room, and the battle was getting kids to show up to class.

One of the central goals of the city’s community-school program is improved attendance. The idea is that no amount of instruction will get struggling students caught up if they don’t attend class.

Guevara asked for an update from Tapia, the parent and mentor. He described a “chill room” he’d set up, complete with posters of Beyoncé and Malcolm X, where students could hang out with their mentors during lunch.

Then Guevara read through a list of the most frequently absent students, asking each team member to choose a few to keep close tabs on.

Next, they went over the results of a survey of 15 students whose attendance had improved dramatically this year. In explaining why they had missed so much school last year, nine students cited illness and 11 mentioned “appointments.”

“Part of what this triggers for me is the health aspect of community schools,” Guevara told the group, saying the responses showed the need for a school-based health clinic.

Honoroff, who’d sat in the back of the room as Guevara led the meeting, found the results encouraging. If the appointments included parents taking their children with them to an immigration lawyer, he suggested, perhaps the school could offer free legal clinics.

“Great stuff, guys,” he said.

3:02 p.m. — Jumping jacks and fist bumps

The school day lasts an extra hour this year at the 94 struggling schools, part of the mayor’s plan to turn them around. But at M.S. 50, students weren’t complaining.

That’s because, in addition to receiving help with math or reading, they get to play soccer, learn to crochet, practice debating, try jazz dancing, or record podcasts, among other options.

Usually Guevara moves from room to room. But an art teacher was absent, so Guevara oversaw her mural-making class. The task that day was for students to sketch the signatures they would use to sign the mural, which will be painted in a third-floor hallway. At the end of the period, Guevara had the students unwind by doing jumping jacks, squats, and running in place.

After that, Guevara headed upstairs to meet with Carolina Hidalgo, the bilingual teacher. The two are experimenting with an alternative to parent-teacher conferences called “academic parent-teacher teams.”

Instead of the typical report-card meetings, this model has parents come into the school for three workshops throughout the year, where the teacher explains the skills that students must learn and gives parents tips for helping. It’s designed in particular for parents with limited formal educations and those still learning English, who want to be involved in their children’s learning, but don’t know how.

“It’s like you’re building your team,” Guevara explained. “Who’s going to be the support structure for the student in all their learning spaces?”

After the pair finished looking at student writing samples, Guevara stopped by Honoroff’s room to say goodbye before the break. They went over some last-minute business, then bumped fists.

“Get some rest,” she said.

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.