There's an AP for that

At summer seminar, teachers learn advanced courses aren’t just for some

Three AP environmental science teachers work together on a lab assignment their students could do during the school year. At the AP for All Summer Institute, about 500 teachers showed up to the Metropolitan State University of Denver to learn about new teaching techniques to entice more kids to take AP courses.

When Miranda Schaelling started an Advanced Placement environmental science course three years ago at Harrison High School in Colorado Springs only 16 students enrolled. But next fall, her class roster will boast 126 students.

Her key to increasing enrollment? Encourage everyone to join, regardless of science proficiency, and to not worry about the end-of-year test many students take for college credit.

“I tell them all the time, especially after the first exam…it’s not about passing the test, it’s not about making a qualifying score, it’s about learning how to handle the workload,” she said. “Especially because a majority of my students are sophomores, it’s about learning study skills, learning accountability, learning what college is actually like.”

More than 60,000 Colorado high school students were in enrolled in at least one AP course during the 2012-2013 school year. That’s 7,000 more than just five years before, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education.

But according to data from College Board, only half of the students who could potentially succeed in an AP course took one. Even a smaller percentage of students of color, who could be successful in an advanced course, enrolled in those classes.

“So for every five black adolescents who has a very high potential to pass an AP exam, only one will ever take the course,” said Greg Hessee, the director of Colorado Legacy Schools for the Colorado Education Initiative, which provides grants to schools to pay for AP tests for students who can’t afford the fee.

In the past, schools haven’t pushed AP courses on all students.

They worry that by pushing all students to take rigorous courses, regardless of how prepared they are in the subject, could dilute the course for more advanced students or that those unprepared students could feel overwhelmed. In addition, some are skeptical that students who take these courses actually benefit from them if they don’t pass the end of year exam.

But these problems shouldn’t arise if AP programs are implemented correctly, said Kevin Welner, the director of the National Education Policy Center.

“If [expanding access to AP programs] is done poorly, yes this is problem,” Welner said. “If you have teachers who haven’t been prepared to teach a more diverse class of students and they try teach to the ‘middle’ of the class [and don’t] teach in a way that is engaging and challenging to all levels of kids, then yes, there could be a problem. But if you have the supports for students and teachers built into it, then no, it’s not a problem.”

That’s why the AP for All Summer Institute is important, Hessee said. About 500 teachers from around the world, hoping to replicate Schaelling’s success at enrolling more students in rigorous high school courses, participated in this week-long conference in Denver. The emphasis of this program is that advanced classes should be open to all students, regardless of proficiency in the subject, race, or socioeconomic status.

“I think that’s why it’s important to have it here in Denver. To give teachers those support systems as well as strategies…so they know how to handle this when they get back in their classroom,” Hessee said. “I believe we’re building momentum to change the historic notion of AP just being for that top five percent of students to something that all students deserve to receive support with.”

A student’s readiness for AP classes can be determined by a number of factors, such as their grade in a prerequisite class or their scores on a preliminary SAT exam. Some schools use an online tool, known as AP Potential, to identify students with a 60 percent or higher likelihood of succeeding in particular AP subjects.

Hessee said AP courses, and the resulting skills in college readiness, are especially important at a school like Schaelling’s Harrison, which serves a high-risk population: 71 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch and more than 60 percent of the students are Hispanic or black.

“Every student who has the will should be allowed to engage in Advancement Placement courses,” Hessee said. “That’s not how all AP programs have been run but more and more frequently it is. It’s not just the honors students…it’s any student who wants to learn at an advanced rate regardless of whether or not they can pass an Advanced Placement exam.”

At the summer workshop, teachers learned tactics to identify students with potential to thrive in AP courses, even if they might not pass the end of year test. Teachers were told by workshop leaders that if students challenge themselves, they can benefit from the advanced courses by getting a taste of college rigor.

“If they increase enrollment in their course they can also increase college readiness, even for students who aren’t your typical AP kids, kids who aren’t considered ‘AP worthy’ or ‘AP ready,’” Hessee said.

The idea that AP courses can be for all students is something Schaelling tries to implement at Harrison.

“We’re trying to get a lot more kids [to take AP classes], and I teach at more of a lower socioeconomic school, so AP for us is a really big deal,” she said. “Teaching them those college skills is essential for them because I know they’re going to go to college. They’re on their way. They just need the skills more than they need the passing test scores.”

Charter strike

On Chicago charter strike, how far will the teachers union go?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Picket signs used by protesting strikers from the Chicago International Charter Schools, who were targeting charter network CEO Elizabeth Shaw on Feb. 11, 2019.

Chicago’s second charter strike has now stretched over nine days. Beyond picket lines and hashtags on social media, the Chicago Teachers Union has blocked a lobby of a Loop high rise, delivered labor-themed Valentines to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office at City Hall, and even wrangled appearances from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth.

How hard will the union push and what’s at stake in its efforts to win a new contract for teachers?

Related: Multiple CEOs, multiple layers: Strike puts charter management under microscope

It could be the future of charter organizing in Chicago, experts say. A victory could “buoy a local wave of new charter school strikes,” said Bob Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But if the contract doesn’t bring home the goods, failure could cast a pall over future organizing at dozens of Chicago charters — and untold numbers elsewhere.

Bruno expects in coming days to see increased pressure on members of Chicago International’s board, and possibly even a civil disobedience confrontation that ends in arrests. “They’ll look for ways to demonstrate that the ownership and leaders of this charter operator are not people who are invested in schools,” Bruno said, while “looking for ways to move the employer at the bargaining table.”

But the union’s strategy is risky.

Private employers can permanently replace strikers because its teachers are governed by the National Labor Relations Act, not the Illinois Labor Relations Act which protects public employees.

Chicago International, where teachers at four schools are on strike, has dug in its heels, arguing that granting union demands would bankrupt the network within a few years. “They want a compensation that is fiscally irresponsible for us to agree to,” said LeeAndra Khan, CEO of Civitas Education Partners, one of a handful of management companies contracting to run some of the network’s 14 schools.

The strike also comes in the final weeks of Chicago’s mayoral election. The union has backed Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle for mayor, but critics wonder if the union’s effort in maintaining the strike means it’s paying less attention to getting Preckwinkle into office.

But the union has tried-and-true tactics, Bruno said, including political pressure and escalating protests that have helped win tough contract battles in the past. It’s become more combative since the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, or CORE, won leadership of the union in 2010 with a promise to fight against educational inequalities.

That approach helped teachers in the 2012 strike, when thousands of union members went out on a weeklong strike that captured national headlines and pushed their demands beyond just wages and benefits to broader school-quality factors.

Union political pressure also worked in December, when 500 unionized teachers at Acero charter schools in Chicago walked off the job during the nation’s first-ever strike of charter teachers.

Along with pickets throughout the four-day strike at schools across the city, the union also brought attention to how the network had used its political connections to expand. Strikers stormed the office of powerful Alderman Ed Burke, who represents areas thick with Acero schools. Burke then called the network’s CEO and pressed for an agreement. The strike ended shortly afterward.

The Chicago Teachers Union is also known for its staying power in strikes. In 2012, teachers stayed on strike an extra day to make sure that most members were able to review line items of the new contract before it was signed, despite pressure from Emanuel to end the strike. That strike lasted a total of seven days.

In the case of the Chicago International strike, Bruno said the charter network may shoulder the greater risk. The network, which oversees 14 schools run by five charter management organizations, some of which subcontract management to a third operator, has argued that meeting the union’s demands for wages could push the entire network into bankruptcy.

A strong contract that benefits teachers could also push teachers at the network’s 10 non-unionized schools to push for higher wages, Bruno said. “That could be a problem for the employer.”

While the union may be using tactics it has found successful in the past, management of Chicago International doesn’t respond to the same pressures, organizers acknowledged.

If the campaign doesn’t win raises for teachers, or results in cuts to the classroom, Bruno said it could risk slowing down the broader movement to unionize charters. “It gives teachers across the charter school system pause. They are no less interested in having a collective voice but they will remain somewhat uncertain that the union is the appropriate venue for that,” he said.

Richard Berg, an organizer in the Chicago Teacher Union’s charter division, said that because Chicago International and Civitas aren’t political in the same way that Acero is, the union has shifted to focus to the network’s unusual management structure and its connection to big business.

“If you look at their board, it’s not education people or community people. It’s corporate lawyers and money people,” Berg said. “Our strategy has been to say: OK, well, what is going to influence money people to care about children? The morality of it.”

A federal mediator already attends negotiations between Chicago International and the union.  The network requested federal mediation a month and a half ago, and since then a representative from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has been present both at bargaining and in the discussions held independently on each side.

Both teachers and management blame the delay in coming to an agreement on the other side.

“We are determined to make these schools right for our students,” Berg of the union said. “We hope [management] will do the right thing sooner rather than later, because we have thousands of students that are missing school because of management’s intransigence.”

The network, meanwhile, said it’s focused on finding an agreement in negotiations to get back to the classroom. “We are focused on trying to end the strike so that our kids can get back in school,” Khan said.

Career readiness

Lee announces plan to beef up science, tech offerings in Tennessee schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Lee has proposed two legislative initiatives focused on K-12 education and workforce development in his first month in office.

Gov. Bill Lee said Wednesday that he wants to expand science, technology, engineering, and mathematics offerings in Tennessee’s K-12 schools — and he’ll set aside $4 million in his proposed budget to pay for his so-called Future Workforce Initiative.

His proposal would launch new STEM-focused career and technical education programs at 100 middle schools and would triple the state’s number of STEM-designated public schools by 2022.

“The Future Workforce Initiative is a direct response to the emerging technology industry and making sure our students are first in line to be qualified for technology jobs,” the Republican governor said in a statement.

Lee also wants to grow the number of educators qualified to teach work-based learning and advanced computer science courses as Tennessee prepares to launch its first-ever computer science standards this fall for elementary and middle schools.

“[Fifty-eight] percent of all STEM jobs created in the country are in computing but only 8 percent of graduates study computer science in college,” Lee said. “By exposing Tennessee students to computer science in their K-12 careers, we are ensuring our kids have every chance to land a high-quality job.”

The legislative initiative is Lee’s second focused on K-12 education since taking office on Jan. 19. Last week, he announced a $30 million proposal to expand access to vocational and technical training for high school students who are soon to start college or career.

In conjunction with that, Lee wants to expand postsecondary STEM opportunities in high school with greater access to dual credit, advanced placement courses, and dual enrollment.

The goal of Lee’s Future Workforce Initiative is to make Tennessee one of the top 25 states for job creation in the technology sector by 2022.

Last year, Tennessee was ranked 39th in the nation and fourth in the Southeast on technology job readiness, based on a composite index released by the Milken Institute, an economic policy think tank. When workforce was considered independent of other factors, Tennessee ranked 42nd.

During Lee’s campaign, the Williamson County businessman promised to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow by elevating vocational and technical education in public schools. He frequently pointed to the employee training program he started at his family’s $250 million home services company, which provides plumbing and HVAC work.