Talent office

With the alarm sounded statewide over shortages, Chicago forges ahead with a teacher experiment

PHOTO: Getty Images

Katrina Johnson was working as a special education classroom assistant in a Greater Grand Crossing school when she received an email several months ago with an intriguing proposal. Chicago Public Schools was seeking applicants for a pilot program that, in two years, would earn her full-fledged teacher status and a master’s degree. 

But there was a hitch. Johnson, who’s 41, would have to juggle graduate-level courses while teaching in a classroom four days a week under a mentor teacher. And she’d be picked out of a pool of applicants to train in one of several high-poverty, “opportunity” schools — places where fewer teachers apply, and educators come and go at rates higher than the district average.

Undeterred, she put in an application. So did about 200 others for 26 positions. And in the end, CPS selected Johnson for the test run of a teacher residency pilot it plans to scale in conjunction with National Louis University and Relay Chicago’s Graduate School of Education. The latter has developed similar programs in charter schools.

Teacher residencies are the shiny new thing in education, with programs up and running in at least a dozen states. But in Illinois, where education advocates say the teacher shortage has become dire, residencies have the potential to address a host of problems, from filling critical vacancies in special education to building an on-ramp for career changers and community members who have deep ties to their neighborhood schools.  

“I thought, I can’t pass this up,” said Johnson, who grew up in a family where you went either into education or the family funeral business. Johnson did neither, choosing finance and only later hearing the call of the classroom.

For career changers like her, the teaching profession can be difficult to crack despite shortages in Chicago and rural areas downstate. A sober report called Teach Illinois, shared this week with the Illinois State Board of Education, stresses that relying on traditional teacher preparation programs to crank out annual batches of freshfaced hopefuls is not enough: The statewide percentage of candidates completing teacher prep programs declined by half from 2000 to 2016.

And while school enrollment statewide is dipping, the number of teachers is declining at an even steeper rate, leaving thousands of vacancies even as students return this fall. When school started last week, 4 percent of the positions in Chicago were unfilled compared with slightly more, 5 percent, at the start of 2017, according to a district spokesman.

Like other districts, Chicago struggles to fill vacancies in special education and bilingual instruction. It also is challenged to find and retain diverse candidates. The residency pilot presents an opportunity there, too. Of the initial 26 Chicago residents, 20 identify as persons of color, according to CPS.

Matt Lyons, CPS’ chief talent officer, said the first cohort drew primarily from paraprofessionals, special-education assistants, and other people who’ve been working in Chicago schools; only a handful came from the community. “There was far more interest among our current employees than we anticipated,” he said.

But as the program grows, he expects it could draw more broadly from the communities around the district’s highest-need schools — another strategy that education experts are hopeful can quell turnover in high-poverty districts.

“Let’s think about how school districts have typically acquired talent,” said Kent Fischer, the communications director for the National Center for Teaching Residencies, which is based in Chicago. “They put out an online notice. Go to college and job fairs. Collect resumes that come in and sift through them. The residency model flips that and puts the school district in charge of creating its own talent pipeline.”

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Chicago has big plans for its teacher residency pilot, which so far works this way: Residents start master’s-level courses over the summer, then apprentice in classrooms the first year alongside a master teacher. They teach Monday through Thursday and attend grad courses on Fridays and in some evenings, depending on the program. The second year, they teach on a provisional license and finish their coursework and specialty endorsements to earn the master’s.

The first year of the pilot has no strings. But for the 2019-20 class (for which applications are currently open), residents must agree to stay with the district for two years.

“The goal is to grow the program to 60 then to 80 then to 100 in three years,” said Lyons, whose pilot group is currently concentrated in 14 Chicago schools.

Fischer, from the national center, points to early research that shows retention rates above 80 percent among grads from residency programs, compared with closer to half from traditional programs. That stat is welcome news to talent officers like Lyons. “When we looked at the data of the 50 hardest-to-staff schools, they experienced two times as much turnover and were two times as likely to start the school year with vacancies” than the district as a whole, he said.

Residencies, he acknowledged, are but one strategy to address the problem. The district is hiring earlier than usual at its 50 opportunity schools, staffing them with teacher coaches, and building an exclusive professional development program for staff.

Despite all the potential, it’s too early to definitively call residency programs a categorical success. They are costly to establish, and costly to maintain. There’s also conflicting research about how adequately they prepare teachers.

Chicago pays each participant an initial stipend of $35,000, but that’s not enough to cover living expenses plus tuition. There are grants that can chip away at the cost for those who qualify, but some participants have to take out loans to fund tuition.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Yesenia Francois
Chicago teacher resident Yesenia Francois

The stipend doesn’t fully cover Yesenia Francois’ tuition at National Louis, but she’s still “forever grateful.” A resident this year in a bilingual first-grade classroom at Marvin Camras Children’s Engineering School in Belmont-Cragin, Francois, 37, gets a discounted rate at NLU, she says, and she’s on a three-part payment plan.

A former paraprofessional at a North Side magnet school, she’s fine with that — she stresses the opportunity to fast-track her career, boost her earning potential, and finally get the master’s degree she’s been trying to earn for a decade, while practically having a job guaranteed on the other side. Her son has special needs, and the responsibility of caring for him has twice derailed her education. This time, it feels different, she says.

“I’m like a sponge,” she said. “As a paraprofessional, I supported diverse learners, but there was a general-education teacher who laid the foundation. As a resident, I’m working with a mentor and starting from scratch. I’m building the lessons and adding in these layers. I have ownership.”

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Unlike other cities that have relied solely on philanthropy to foot the bill, Lyons said Chicago’s program is designed to be sustainable, with a portion coming from CPS in combination with a federal grant and a small group of philanthropies. “We’re cognizant that we are building something,” he said, “and we want to be intentional about it.”

The other crucial ingredient is cooperation from a traditional teacher prep program, one aspect of the residency model that could limit adoption by districts in, say, more rural areas that don’t have access to colleges.

Chicago split its pilot group into two, with bilingual teachers attending classes at National Louis University, which is building something similar in East St. Louis, and special education teachers going through Relay Chicago.

Janet Lorch, the resident program director at National Louis, thought carefully about how to refashion her general curriculum to fit into summers and Fridays, when resident teachers were available for classes. She stresses building off actual experiences — one assignment, for example, requires residents to organize a family engagement event at the school. She also places high importance on coaching mentor teachers.

“Instead of a traditional (teacher prep) supervisor going in and saying something, like, you need to smile more, we go in and work with the mentor teacher so there is recursive feedback role. There’s a core practice of modeling — we spend time talking to mentors about that.”

Robert Muller, the dean of the College of Education at National Louis, said professors want to guard against burnout. After all, the teacher hopefuls can end up fried by the prospect of the dueling demands of graduate school and their day jobs. That’s where a four-day program design — four days in the CPS classrooms, with Friday as a day at NLU — appears to ease the pressure.

“It’s the design here that is powerful. It’s practice, theory, practice, theory. In some ways, what we do with residencies could inform our more traditional program.”

In fact, it’s Fridays that Yesenia Francois looks forward to — and not just because TGIF. She says her cohort, which started its classes over the summer, has formed an intense bond that extends to chat sessions midweek over group texts. “We’ll share if we have a successful lesson or an experience with a book or video,” she said. “It’s like an extended family.”

Recently, one NLU resident heard about an organization that was giving away classroom supplies. That resident shared it with Francois and the others, and the request snowballed. Just like that, the residents were able to do something good for a district that’s investing in them.

take note

Aurora is rolling out new curriculum to catch up with how teachers teach writing

A fourth grader in Aurora's Peoria Elementary takes notes while reading. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

After fourth-graders at Aurora’s Peoria Elementary read “Tiger Rising” as a group last week, several excitedly shot up their hands to explain the connections they had made.

“It’s not just a wood carving, it represents their relationship,” one student said about an object in the book. Others talked about another symbol, the lead character’s suitcase, while one student wondered about the meaning of the story’s title.

Nick Larson’s class rushed back to their desks, excited about what they had learned and ready to look for symbols in their own books during independent reading time. As they read, students filled their books, including the “Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye,” “Because of Winn-Dixie” and “Super Sasquatch Showdown,” with sticky notes about what they were noticing in the text.

It’s one small way Aurora teachers are integrating writing and reading, a practice officials refer to as “balanced literacy.” It means reading about writing, and writing about reading. It’s not a new teaching practice, but the district has spent $4.7 million on new literacy curriculum from two different sources — schools get to pick one — to help teachers combine those lessons.

The materials replace curriculum adopted in 2000.

At Peoria, a school of about 429 students, of which approximately 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty, teachers were using some of the new curriculum last year. Larson, who also coaches other teachers half of the day, said he pushes students to think about what the author might have wanted them to feel. He asks students to write about the characters in the books they read, to better understand them.

“We’re trying to make connections throughout the day,” Larson said.

The previous literacy materials called for teaching reading and writing separately, and some didn’t include writing. They also no longer aligned with standards that the state changed in 2010.

An internal Aurora audit found different schools using a wide variety of resources as they supplemented the out-of-date curriculum.

And this fall, district staff found another reason why the new curriculum was necessary.

In dissecting state test results, Aurora discovered that about 40 percent of its third-through-eighth-graders earned zero points on certain writing sections of the test.

“We’ve got to address that,” said Andre Wright, Aurora’s chief academic officer. “You can’t leave that level of opportunity on the table. We just can’t do that.”

Starla Pearson, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, explained that she expects to see changes soon.

“With the literacy curriculum that is in place right now, I have great confidence,” Pearson said. “We did not have something that specific, looking at writing instruction.” All of the curriculum now, she said, does include writing resources.

“This gives me such encouragement on the one hand because it’s a pretty simple fix … you’re seeing a real clear path to increasing points,” said Debbie Gerkin, an Aurora school board member. “The discouraging part is why wasn’t this happening?”

But about three-quarters of Aurora schools were already using the writing half of the curriculum before this year. Now all elementary and middle schools will use both the reading and writing parts of the district’s newly adopted curriculum. The district is now reviewing potential changes to high school curriculum.

District officials told the board that it’s possible the change in state tests in 2015 may have also contributed to the low scores. Previously, students took separate reading and writing tests and earned separate scores. The new state tests ask students to read a passage, and then respond to it in writing, combining the subjects.

Aurora officials said they didn’t have a way to compare the results they found with other districts. Colorado and most districts do not have comparable detailed results on segments of the state tests.

Wright said this information has prompted him to ask many questions internally. For starters, Aurora will focus training for teachers on combining reading and writing lessons. The district has spent $180,000 to provide teacher training on using the new resources.

But Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that teachers have been concerned about the limited time they had to learn and explore the new materials, which were only provided to them a few weeks before classes started.

Pearson said early anecdotal feedback has been positive.

“Teachers are saying, ‘thank you, we have a resource,’” she said.

Larson, who was one of 36 teachers from 10 schools who got to review and recommend which curriculum the district should adopt, said he likes several aspects of the materials.

“I feel like I’m being pushed as a teacher,” Larson said.

The district plans to survey teachers about the materials, and will look at internal test data throughout the year, as well as writing results next year to look for improvements.

“We will see a difference,” Pearson said.

out of pocket

Pencils, shelving, wiggly chairs: What Colorado teachers bought for their classrooms — and why

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry provided the pencil totes, floor dots, balls and wiggle seats, and everything you see on the shelves out of her own pocket.

The rugs and bean bag chairs, the workboxes full of hands-on learning games, the file folders that help her track student progress — all came out of special education teacher Laura Keathley’s own pocket.

Robyn Premo, a high school science teacher, buys styrofoam and cans, glass rods and balloons, patches of fur and s’mores ingredients — just about all the materials except beakers that her students need to do hands-on experiments.

Marcea Copeland-Rodden, a middle school social studies teacher, bought an air-conditioning unit for her classroom because it was so hot students were getting bloody noses.

And everyone buys loads and loads of pencils.

“I don’t think that not having a pencil is a reason a kid should not learn today,” Premo said.

There’s nothing new about teachers spending money on their classrooms, but as rising housing prices and stagnant wages put more pressure on working families and as academic expectations rise even in kindergarten, teachers have to dig deep to meet their students’ basic needs and outfit their school rooms.

A national survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that 94 percent of teachers spend their own money for their students, with the average teacher spending $479 in the 2015-16 school year, the most recent data available.

When the Colorado Education Association surveyed more than 2,000 members in 2017, they reported spending an average of $656 out of their own pocket on classroom supplies.

The usual caveat applies: These numbers are self-reported.

To better understand what this looks like in Colorado classrooms, Chalkbeat reached out to teachers around the state to ask how much they spent out of pocket, what they bought, and why.

The teachers who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey work in districts large and small, urban and rural, and spent anywhere from $75 to $2,000. Most respondents spent several hundred dollars, and the majority said they do not get a stipend for school supplies.

Their spending covers the most basic of classroom supplies — pens, pencils, glue sticks, crayons, paper, folders, notebooks — but also the things that make classrooms feel inviting, that make learning engaging, that help a kid get through the day. Teachers bought snacks and spare clothes, earbuds for students to listen to audio books as part of reading lessons, wiggly chairs and yoga balls for fidgety learners, classroom decorations, tissues and wipes, prizes for good work and good behavior, fish for the fish tank, storage bins and shelving and fabric for makeshift blinds.

Premo teaches chemistry and physics at Westminster High School. Her department gets a $3,000 supply budget for the high school’s 2,400 kids. She emphasizes that she thinks her school is doing everything it can, but if she didn’t reach into her own pocket, her students would mostly experience science in online simulations.

“That is not, in my opinion, sufficient for rigorous, authentic science instruction, so I make the personal contributions to give my kids those learning opportunities,” she said.

Premo spent $2,000 getting ready for the school year, the most of any teacher who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey. She said she’s able to contribute more than many teachers, so she does.

“There are some fantastic online simulations, but kids learn better when they get to put their hands on things,” she said.

Fur patches help demonstrate static electricity, and s’mores help illustrate principles of chemical reactions. All these materials add up, and many of them are consumed in the process of lab work.

If Premo didn’t spend her own money, “we would run out of pencils very quickly. And we would run out of lab materials, and they would not be able to do anything hands-on. And we would lose our ability to be creative. We would work very bare-bones. It would be a lot of listening, a lot of videos.”

Laura Henry teaches kindergarten in Aurora Public Schools. It’s her 29th year in the classroom, and as kindergarten has moved away from play and more toward academics, she’s spent more and more of her own money on curriculum supplies.

Her school provides $500 a semester to each grade level, which has to be shared among three teachers, and the money goes fast. Teachers also get $10 a month for copying, which she burns through quickly, so she bought her own printer just for school use.

Because most of the students come from low-income families, the school tries to keep the school supply list modest, closer to $25, but only about three-quarters of the students bring in supplies.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry’s classroom after it has been cleaned during the summer. With the exception of the red shelf, a few alternative seating items, and the pencil coat rack, these items are school purchased.

She spent about $500 of her own money getting ready for the school year, on everything from folders to hold student poems to snacks and wipes to materials for dramatic play, building toys, puppet theater, books, and more.

“Kindergarten is supply-heavy because we use construction paper and glue like there is no tomorrow,” she said.

Many of our survey respondents said they don’t use online fundraisers like Donors Choose because the only people who donate are friends and family, and teachers feel bad hitting them up over and over again. Henry encounters the same dilemma, but she did turn to it this year for $550 in science and engineering supplies: gears, a light table, animal X-rays, a microscope and more.

Another advantage of Donors Choose: The money she puts into it herself is tax deductible, unlike the rest of what she spends on her classroom.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Kindergarten teacher Laura Henry purchased the housekeeping table and chairs, everything on the wall and shelves, the books in the bin, tool bench, and playground buckets for her Aurora classroom.

Henry said she used to sometimes feel resentful about spending her own money, when her friends get reimbursed for their work expenses, but now she “rolls with it” as part of the teaching profession.

But she sees the lack of supplies as one more stumbling block for young teachers.

“I see these new teachers come in, and they’re so ready and eager to make a difference, and they don’t know how they get supplies or how they get copies,” she said. “I don’t know that our school board is even fully aware of how much we’re lacking at the classroom level. I don’t need 8,000 consultants to help me. I need my classroom funded.”

Keathley runs a multi-needs special education room with two paraprofessionals at Avery-Parsons Elementary in the Buena Vista district in the Arkansas Valley. She spent $485 getting the classroom ready this year. A lot of that money went to filing systems that help the teachers keep track of each student’s needs and progress. It also went to bulletin board supplies. These boards serve as the “411 wall” with everything kids need to know for the day, from what their classroom job is to what outside appointments they have.

PHOTO: Laura Keathley
The bulletin board in Laura Keathley’s Buena Vista classroom serves as a 411 wall for her students. She purchases all the supplies for the board herself.

Keathley and her team used their own money to outfit the “crash corner,” where students go when they need to decompress with fidget toys in a giant bean bag chair, and to make workboxes with activities that students can work on independently throughout the day.

Keathley said she hardly asks her parents for any school supplies.

“We know that a lot of times parents of kids with disabilities, we know their money goes other places and they spend so much on special things for their kids, we don’t want to ask them,” she said.

Without her own investment in the classroom, it would be a very different place.

“I could go with what the school provided me and stay within my budget, but my classroom would not be the place I would like it to be,” she said. “We wouldn’t have rugs. We wouldn’t have nearly the supplies to give snacks or do cooking in the classroom. Our desks would be much more utilitarian, and we wouldn’t have much on the walls.”

Copeland-Rodden teaches seventh grade social studies at Pueblo Academy of the Arts in southern Colorado.

She spent $500 this year, more than most, because she dropped $350 on the air conditioning unit. It might seem like an extravagance, but after years of buying more and more fans, for minimal relief, it felt like a necessity.

“It’s just really hot in the classroom,” she said. “We have kids get bloody noses, that’s how bad it is. By sixth and seventh period, everybody is done. They don’t do their work. They fall asleep. They get cranky and angry at each other. It makes it tough on everyone.”

She also bought materials for Civil War shadow puppets and other projects that will make history come alive, but most of her classroom spending is on basic supplies. She doesn’t feel like she can ask parents, most of whom are low-income, to pay for supplies when she only has their child for one period a day. Out of 130 students, one brought in a box of tissues at the start of the school year.

“I spend so much on pencils,” she said. “It’s not just once. I go through a big 50-pack of pencils every month. Every class there’s at least one kid who has lost a pencil. I’ve given up trying to get back the pencils.”

She used to ask kids for something in exchange for the pencil to prompt them to return it, but too many kids had nothing to give.

“One boy said, ‘Here’s a shoe,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want your shoe,’” she said. “I have kids walking from class to class with nothing.”

Teaching has been this way for a long time, and the teachers who talked to Chalkbeat don’t see it changing anytime soon.

“If we all collectively agreed we weren’t going to pay for school supplies, maybe eventually someone would do something,” Premo said. “But I don’t want to risk this year’s kids to make that point.”