Back to school

This school year in NYC: extra guidance counselors, computer science classes, literacy coaches and more

First Lady Chirlane McCray (far left), walks with guidance counselor Rashida Sealy (left), student Chyna Huertas (center), Mayor Bill de Blasio (right) and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

More than a million students flooded New York City classrooms on Thursday, the first day of classes for 2016-17.

In what has become a back-to-school tradition, Chancellor Carmen Fariña went on a five-borough tour to showcase the education department’s priorities and new initiatives. Mayor Bill de Blasio joined for a few stops, and made others on his own, to highlight the department’s Equity and Excellence agenda.

7:55 a.m.: The day started with a stroll to I.S. 392 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, with de Blasio, first lady Chirlane McCray and Fariña accompanying Chyna Huertas, a seventh-grade student, to school.

Also along for the walk was Rashida Sealey, a Single Shepherd guidance counselor who will keep an eye on Chyna as she works her way through middle school.

The Single Shepherd initiative is new this year. It brings about 100 additional counselors to schools in District 23 in Brooklyn and District 7 in the South Bronx — both of which have among the lowest graduation rates in the city.

The ratio of students to counselors in those schools will be 100 to one — a potentially heavy load in a challenging community, but still below the nationally recommended limit for guidance counselors.

“Sometimes, all it takes is an additional adult in a young child’s life,” McCray said. “The Single Shepherd program is going to be so helpful with that.”

Each middle- and high-school student in the targeted districts will be paired with a counselor who will do “whatever it takes,” Fariña said recently, to make sure the student ultimately graduates and goes to college. That means working not only with students, but families too.

“This is going to make a real difference for our school,” said I.S. 392 Principal Ingrid Joseph.

Students in Claudia Ramirez's third-grade class at P.S. 254 The Rosa Parks School in Queens learn the basics of computer programming.
Students in Claudia Ramirez’s third-grade class at P.S. 254 The Rosa Parks School in Queens learn the basics of computer programming.

10 a.m.: Claudia Ramirez wasted no time. Within the first hours of the new school year, her third-graders at P.S. 254 The Rosa Parks School in Queens were busy learning computer programming.

Groups of students arranged colorful sheets of construction paper in a grid on the floor. Under one of them, a picture of Superman was hidden. One student gave directions to help another move forward and backward, left and right, to find the hidden image.

Though the lesson was “unplugged” — students didn’t touch a computer or look at a screen — it was designed to demonstrate a basic aspect of computer programming: the concept of an algorithm.

“We are growing our kids to ultimately be programmers,” Fariña said.

Ramirez was trained over the summer in how to deliver these kinds of lessons and said the experience had an immediate impact on her teaching. Without it, she explained, she would probably be doing a simple get-to-know-you activity on the first day of school.

“As a teacher, you see the interest of students is video games, Minecraft and technology, and I wanted to get better [at reaching them],” she said.

The Department of Education is launching its Computer Science for All program in 200 additional elementary, middle and high schools this year, bringing officials closer to their goal of offering the subject in every school by 2025.

Schools Chancellor Carmn Fariña reads to second grade students at PS 218 Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School in the Bronx.
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña reads to second grade students at P.S. 218 Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School in the Bronx.

11:15 a.m.: Ronny Veloz was excited to talk to his partner. He had some ideas about why David, a character in the book their literacy coach was reading aloud, was making a mess in the lunchroom.

“Maybe because he didn’t wait his turn,” Ronny guessed.

Later the coach, Yokasta Sanchez, would coax Ronny to use complete sentences when sharing his reasoning with the whole class. It was one of the strategies that Sanchez was trained in over 15 days this summer before starting her new position at Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School in the Bronx.

The Department of Education has flooded Districts 9, 10, 17 and 32 — which have among the lowest reading scores in the city — with additional literacy coaches this year. They will support teachers by providing tips and modeling lessons to help build better readers. Their focus will be on kindergarten through second grade.

“They are not assigned to school to do coverages or be substitutes. They are there for one purpose only, and that is to be literacy coaches assisting teachers,” Fariña said. “And that is a real shift from things in the past.”

De Blasio and Fariña have set ambitious literacy goals for the city’s young learners. By 2026, they aim to have every third-grade student reading on grade level. When de Blasio first took office, only about 30 percent of city students were proficient in English by third grade.

Lucia Herndon, a seventh-grade student at Washington Heights Academy M.S. 366, talks about her college plans.
Lucia Herndon, a seventh grade student at Washington Heights Academy M.S. 366, talks about her college plans.

Noon: Lucia Herndon just started seventh grade, but she is already thinking about college.

On the first day of school, Lucia was in a college advisement class at Washington Heights Academy M.S. 366, thinking about careers she might want to pursue. She has already visited Barnard College and several others.

“I like the idea of going to a women’s college that encourages female empowerment,” she said.

After a pilot this spring, the Department of Education is rolling out College Access for All at 167 middle schools across 10 districts this school year. Designed to get students thinking about college and careers early, the program aims to eventually include campus tours for all middle schoolers, advising sessions like the one Lucia was in Thursday, and family supports like workshops on how to apply to schools.

“It’s really important to have a goal in your mind, and know where you want to go,” Fariña told the students in Washington Heights.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña touted their "community schools" model at Port Richmond Community High School in Staten Island on the first day of the 2016/2017 school year.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña touted the “community schools” model at Port Richmond Community High School on Staten Island on the first day of the 2016-17 school year.

1:45 p.m.: The day ended at Port Richmond Community High School on Staten Island, a community school that partners with organizations to offer students health care and mentoring along with family assistance like a food pantry and parent fitness programs.

“This is one of the things that really typifies community schools: The notion of reaching a child, every part of them, everything they need to excel,” Mayor de Blasio said at a press conference after touring the school.

De Blasio has made community schools a key feature of his effort to turn around struggling schools. There are more than 100 already throughout the city, and plans to add another hundred by the end of 2017. The model has been lauded nationally, though there are questions over whether the added supports translate into academic gains.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Indiana’s push to raise teacher pay is creating some unlikely allies

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Middle school math teacher Eliana Moore, left, gives Armando Flynn, 13, some extra attention to help with a lesson in algebra.

It’s not every day that the state’s teachers union, Republican leaders, and education advocacy groups find themselves working toward the same goal. But this year, as Indiana puts teacher pay at the forefront of its legislative priorities, there seems to be an all-hands-on-deck approach to make it happen — and that means some unlikely allies.

During Tuesday’s ceremonial first day of the legislative session, House Speaker Brian Bosma announced in a speech to fellow lawmakers that Republican Reps. Bob Behning and Todd Huston — as well as representatives from the Indiana State Teachers Association, advocacy group Stand for Children, and the educator organization Teach Plus — were working on a plan to ensure teacher raises are part of the state’s next two-year budget.

“The most important profession for the future is those that serve in our classrooms,” Bosma said, adding that although the state has made increases over the past few years in school funding, pay for teachers has not kept pace even as administrative spending has increased.

It’s an unusual partnership because the teachers union has frequently had tension with Republicans who favor school choice and expanding the state’s charter school and private school voucher programs. The union, which staunchly advocates for traditional public schools, has also clashed over charter partnerships with districts, a model that Teach Plus and Stand for Children have supported, even though they aren’t inherently partisan.

Why now? The combination of local districts struggling to hire teachers and keep them in the classroom and a larger national conversation about teacher compensation has put raising teacher pay in the spotlight, both in Indiana and across the country. Last week, teachers in Portage, Indiana, picketed to push for larger raises as they negotiate a new contract.

“It’s been a crisis that’s been coming — we’ve seen it coming … and finally people are starting to connect the dots between compensation and retention,” said Teresa Meredith, president of ISTA, the state’s largest teachers union. “We finally had to take a step back and say, obviously fighting each other is not getting anything done.”

Meredith said state-driven policies that have led to more testing and dialed up the need for schools to compete for students naturally has resulted in increased spending on staff members who aren’t in the classroom. Now, she said, lawmakers are seeing how that’s affecting school budgets, and, in turn, making it difficult to attract and retain teachers.

The desire to figure out ways to keep teachers in the classroom also brought Teach Plus to the table, said Rachel Hathaway, program manager for the national organization’s Indiana arm. Teach Plus helps train teachers to be policy advocates.

“There is a moment happening this year that can bring folks together to really elevate the profession and support teachers to make sure they are able to stay in the classroom,” Hathaway said. Teach Plus has “a history of knowing the importance of teacher recruitment and retention and ensuring we have high-quality teachers in front of our students.”

And it’s that impact at the classroom level, Stand for Children Indiana executive director Justin Ohlemiller said, that speaks to his group’s mission. Stand is an organization that aims to help parents learn how to advocate for their children in schools, but the group has been criticized, such as during the recent Indianapolis Public Schools board election, because they do not have to disclose their spending.

“At the end of the day, data shows one of the most important single factors in children’s education is the educator at the front of the room,” Ohlemiller said.

Indiana’s plans for how to boost teacher salaries are expected to come into sharper focus over the next few weeks. But Bosma cautioned again Tuesday that there might not be much extra money to work with, casting some doubt on the state’s ability to raise pay enough to make a meaningful difference for educators across the state.

“We’re going to have more needs, more critical needs, than we have available dollars,” Bosma said.

Bosma wouldn’t offer details about how much money House Republicans would add for teacher pay, but said after funding obligations to the Department of Child Services, that state would have an optimistic $50 million per year in new revenue for other funding requests. If teacher pay were to receive just a piece of that, it would be far less than the $81 million per year or so that Senate Democrats have called for — which they figure would amount to a 5 percent raise for teachers and counselors over the next two years.

And if curbing teacher shortages is as much of a priority as the state’s majority is now pushing, state Democrat leaders say, Indiana needs to prove that come January by making it a meaningful part of the budget.

“We have the resources,” Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson, said on Friday when his caucus presented its 2019 priorities. “We can make that sacrifice to make sure our teachers know we respect and appreciate them.”

cry for help

View from the child care trenches: ‘Those of us cleaning the poop are not making it’

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat

At the end of three hours of briefings Monday on advancing care for Illinois’ tiniest residents, an on-the-ground provider’s 3-minute plea shook awake a gathering of the state’s top early childhood leaders and reminded them why they were there.

“We are in a crisis and unable to get help,” said Holtz, who in seven years has cycled through 147 staff members at her two day care centers in south central Effingham.

Turnover in that time among her 35 employees has been enough to staff the two centers more than four times over.

Speaking to the early learning council that directs how the state funds services for children from birth to age 5, Holtz said half of those departing sought better-paying jobs in other fields. Others headed to public school districts that pay better. Some she let go.

“Down here in the trenches, those of us who are cleaning the poop and plunging the toilets — we’re the ones who are not making it,” said Holtz, ticking off how well-intentioned Illinois directives make it tough to run a childcare business. She listed state policies like raising degree requirements for jobs that pay $8.50 to $10.25 an hour in her area, an endless stream of “health and safety” trainings, and lead and radon tests that cost her $1,000 apiece.

In a meeting that focused mainly on future ambitions, Holtz redirected attention to a present hazard: a critical shortage of qualified staffers to work in infant centers, daycare programs, and community-based preschools.  

The issue threatens to undercut any sort of universal pre-K program, which governor-elect J.B. Pritzker pledged to pursue as a candidate.

Preschool expert GG Weisenfeld said Illinois meets many established early learning benchmarks. But the state lags in salary parity. Other shortcomings: a revolving door of the state’s top leadership in early learning and a lack of full-day programs.   

“For preschools housed within public schools, those teachers have salary parity with other teachers,” said Weisenfeld, the lead author of a new state preschool policy scan from the National Institute for Early Education Research. “Unfortunately, when programs are housed in community-based centers, those teachers do not.”

But the state’s powerful Early Learning Council barely touched on that topic at its quarterly meeting Monday.

Holtz, one of only two people to address the council, said she drove several hours from Effingham for her three minutes at the mic. She said she supports the state’s push for better quality, but that effort doesn’t pencil out for her and other caregivers. One state subsidized program for low-income families reimburses her only $23 per day per child. That’s not enough to pay a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree.

“When we do hire them, they uniformly all leave for better pay and benefits — and less stress. The stress is up there with the reasons for leaving, along with pay.”

As Illinois focuses on raising the quality of early learning throughout the state by requiring bachelor’s degrees for lead teachers in preschools, it faces a conundrum: Teachers with college degrees want to and can earn more than minimum wage elsewhere. (A 2017 state report said the median hourly wage for a licensed childcare center teacher was $12.50. Assistant teachers and infant caregivers generally made less.)

Jill Andrews, another downstate center director who heads up the Southern Illinois Child Care Assistance Task Force and made the trek with Holtz, handed out folders with her own set of recommendations.

Among them: raising state reimbursement rates for publicly funded child care programs, helping child care providers qualify for state health insurance, and offering community college credit as an incentive for workers to pursue training.