Tardy start

Memphis educators: First days of school matter

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
Alissiya, 6, and Tynesha, 13, wait with their mother to be registered for the first day of school.

Clutching immunization records in one arm and her infant son in the other, Stephanie Smith shrugged when asked why she was registering her two daughters for school on Tuesday at Riverview, a K-8 school in Memphis.

It was 9:30 a.m., two hours after the day’s first school bell rang and a full six days since the school year began. Tynesha, 13, and Alissiya, 6, waited alongside their mother to complete the registration process.

Teachers at Riverview School aren’t shrugging. This year, the staff must aggressively raise test scores that have languished among the worst in the state for decades. They are using the first days of school to explain rules and expectations and roll out an aggressive curriculum. For every three dozen or so children who wait past Labor Day to show up to class, the school loses a staff member. And for every day a child misses school, that’s eight fewer hours a teacher has with the student.

“If they miss the first day, they’ve already missed valuable instruction time,” said Riverview principal LaTasha Harris.

By the end of the first week of school, an estimated 9,000 students across Shelby County were still not registered, a chronic problem of late registration that has stumped Memphis educators for decades.

To address to issue, Riverview administrators dispatched staff members to call parents’ phones and knock on relatives’ doors before the first school bell even sounded.

Likewise, the district made an unprecedented push to get kids registered early. It extended the registration period, placed the process online, and organized special events to help families without computers or Internet service — all in an effort to widen access.

Next month, the district will celebrate National Attendance Month in grand fashion, complete with appearances by NBA players from the Memphis Grizzlies, billboards and public service announcements.

“I think that some parents just don’t understand that the first day of school is an important day,” said Angela Hargrave, the district’s director of attendance and discipline. “They think that if their students miss the first couple of days, they’re really not missing that much. What we plan to do is continue getting the message out to the community that school starts on the first day, and it’s critical for them to be there. When your child misses the first day, … they’re like the new kid on the block.”

Tracking students

District administrators were not able to provide attendance numbers from this time last year, despite repeated requests by Chalkbeat. The numbers would show whether the shift to an online registration process has helped.

Hargrave said this week district staff are working to track thousands of missing students who may have begun attending several new charter schools or ventured to the outskirts of the county where six municipal districts have begun their second year of operations. With each student who leaves or moves, the Memphis-based district loses accompanying education funds.

“We don’t have clean numbers to tell us how many students have gone somewhere else,” Hargrave said.

Administrators are working diligently to check surrounding districts’ enrollment records to see if missing students are registered elsewhere or if, as many teachers think, the students are still on summer vacation.

School leaders who have worked in high-poverty schools with transient populations offer a long list of reasons for why parents wait so long to send their child back to school.

In the last few decades, service-industry jobs have become more temporary, lasting just a handful of months and prompting parents to move to look for work. Instead of owning homes as many families did decades ago, the vast majority of Memphians, many with bad credit, rent or use housing vouchers, signing leases that last six months to a year.

The district has closed several dozen under-enrolled schools in the last five years in an attempt to right-size the district, and several new charter schools have opened in their place, some serving different grades and starting at different times of the school year.

By August, many parents simply don’t know what school their family is zoned for.

There are other reasons, too. In order to register, parents have to show two forms of identification and proof of residency. But many Memphians either don’t have two forms of identification or have recently had their drivers’ license suspended. Many live with family or friends, so proving residency requires a notary public.

Others want to miss the large crowds and long lines associated with the first day of school.

Reaching out

At Riverview, the staff started the registration process early in the wake of the recent closure of crosstown rival South Side Middle School. Those students are now zoned for Riverview, a move that sparked loud protests and even a lawsuit from one group of South Side parents and teachers. Riverview, they argued, is located in a gang-ridden neighborhood also besieged by prostitution and shooting.

As school principal, Harris knew it would be challenging to convince parents otherwise and launched a campaign to absorb South Side students and convince their families not to transfer them to charter schools.

During the summer, the staff broke up into teams of five and canvassed the surrounding neighborhoods, urging parents in person to register their child. They held a series of open houses and gave out free uniforms, hotdogs and haircuts.

“Many say they don’t have uniforms or school supplies,” Harris said. “We want to get rid of every excuse possible.”

For parents without the necessary proofs of residence or immunization shots, administrators sent the students to class anyway and sent a letter home to parents warning about suspension if they didn’t bring in the necessary forms by the next week.

By Tuesday, the school had 516 students registered, just one shy of its projected number. And in this era of accountability, where standardized tests matter more than ever, teachers aren’t wasting time.

"I think that some parents just don’t understand that the first day of school is an important day."Angela Hargrave, director of attendance and discipline

Having covered classroom rules including how to walk in the hallway — hands by your side and no talking — third-grade math and science teacher Jerreca Saulsberry was distributing notebooks on Tuesday for holding worksheets and tests. Soon, she’ll be administering assessments to determine academic levels and begin teaching to the state’s standards.

“Those first few days, we’re setting the culture of the school,” Saulsberry said. “If you’re not here, you’re missing out.”

Last year, Saulsberry had just five out of her 20 students show up on the first day of school, a jarring experience. She since has created a system to accommodate the steady stream of new students who show up in her class. She’s designated two “student ambassadors” who orient new students on classroom rules, and she created a folder of important forms and worksheets to send home with them.

When 15 students were in her classroom on the first day of school this year, the improved showing elicited cheers in the faculty lounge.

As for Tynesha and Alissiya, both said they were excited about their first day of class, albeit more than a week late. And their mom was happy too about the registration process.

“It was much easier than I thought it’d be,” she said.

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.