meet the new boss

New Colorado teachers union chief: Spring walkouts raised public awareness of school needs

PHOTO: Courtesy CEA
Colorado Education Association President Amie Baca-Oehlert

Amie Baca-Oehlert, a school counselor from the Adams 12 district north of Denver, recently took the helm of the 35,000-member Colorado Education Association. She’s served as the vice president of the state’s largest teachers union since 2012, working closely with recent president Kerrie Dallman. In that time, union-backed candidates have gained ground on school boards across the Front Range, while at the statehouse, the union fended off efforts to weaken licensure and partnered with conservatives to roll back standardized tests. But the last session ended with a political defeat: Changes to the public employee pension system significantly raised the retirement age for teachers.

Baca-Oehlert was elected as president in April, on the heels of two days of teacher protests at the Capitol that shut down schools across the state. She takes over as the union faces an uncertain political environment. Teacher protests generated renewed engagement, but the union’s preferred gubernatorial candidate lost the Democratic primary. There’s a competitive governor’s race, control of the state Senate is also up for grabs, and a third attempt to raise taxes for education could appear on the ballot. What happens in November could open up new possibilities to advance the union’s agenda or shut doors.

Baca-Oehlert recently sat down with Chalkbeat to talk about her top priorities, whether she has any regrets about wading into the primary, and what the lasting impact of April’s teacher walkouts might be.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been in a leadership position with CEA since 2012. As you take over as president, what are the biggest challenges? What are your top priorities?

School funding certainly is top of mind and something we need to continue to work toward, to make sure that every child regardless of where they live here in Colorado has access to a quality public education.

And teacher voice, ensuring that the professionals … are honored and respected and listened to. That’s something I really value as a leader. They are the ones closest to the students doing the work.

When (immediate past president) Kerrie Dallman took over, she said in an interview that the union couldn’t just be the voice of no, that the union had to present a positive vision of reform. Do you still feel like that’s important politically or do you feel like the political environment has changed?

There is broader understanding that our schools aren’t broken or something that needs to be fixed, but we aren’t necessarily doing right by our schools or by our students, and that gets back to funding. When you look back at the last 10 years of underfunding our schools and what that has done, what that has meant to schools and communities, there is broader understanding that we need to support our schools. We need to resource our schools. We need to give the educators and teachers working with students the tools and resources they need to serve students’ needs, whether that be more mental health supports, things for school safety, down to supplies. We put out a report that teachers are spending on average $656 a year on supplies for their students.

There’s a good likelihood there will be a tax increase to fund education on the ballot in November. We’ve been here before in Colorado. What can you do to have a different outcome this time?

It’s doing that talking to people, sharing our stories. I think one of the most powerful things from the April Days of Action was people were able to tell their stories. It shifted the conversation. People were able to really see and understand what’s happening in our public schools and how educators in Colorado are treated. They definitely have to have bachelor’s degrees. Many of them have master’s degrees, yet they’re working two and three jobs, many of their own children are on free- and reduced-[price] lunch. We were able to help people understand that we have one of the fastest-growing economies in the country, yet we’re treating our educators and our students in this manner. People were able to share those stories and help people understand we can and should do better by the students of Colorado.

You waded into the Democratic primary, not only endorsing Cary Kennedy but also running pretty negative ads against Mike Johnston and Jared Polis. Polis is now the nominee. Do you have any regrets about that?

We didn’t run those ads, that’s an independent expenditure committee that ran those ads. But I don’t regret that we as an organization went into the primary. We wanted to ensure there was a candidate who was a champion for students and public education and that education was going to be something that mattered in this election for governor. I certainly believe there was a lot of talk about education and education became an issue in the governor’s race. I believe it still will be in the general election. We have an internal process for how we recommend candidates, and that process will be going on for the general election.

Just for the record, you were a significant donor to the independent expenditure committee that ran those ads.

Yes, we did contribute.

Do you have any concerns that if there is a Polis administration, he won’t be as receptive to the perspective that you all bring?

No. The union is 35,000 educators across Colorado who are Colorado citizens. I would hope that anyone sitting in the governor’s office would understand the value and the need to listen to educators, to hear their voices and have educators at the table as partners.

Is that true also if Walker Stapleton is the next governor? As state treasurer, Stapleton advocated changes to the Public Employees Retirement Association pension system that were strongly opposed by the teachers union. There’s a challenging history there. What do you see as your job if there’s a Republican in the governor’s office?

My job is to come to the table. No matter if it’s a Democrat or a Republican, it’s about coming to the table to do what’s best for students and public education. My role as president of the CEA would be to share our issues, share our concerns, and hopefully work together to do what’s right.

In the conversation about school funding, many conservatives ask what kind of outcomes we’ll get if we invest more in schools. They also raise the issue of teacher effectiveness and being really rigorous about having a highly effective teacher in every classroom. What’s your answer to that? What improvements can we expect if we invest more?

What we can expect is we can have a system that’s supporting students, supporting their needs, and that in turn leads to greater student success. We’ve seen what the underfunding of our schools has done. We have more students who have significant mental health needs. We have more students who are entering into school without enough food, without school supplies, who sometimes don’t even have shoes. When we can meet students needs, we know it leads to greater student success.

We’ve not been afraid of teacher accountability or teacher evaluation. It’s been an unfunded mandate, and districts have not been able to implement that system well.

In addition to more resources, is there anything you would support to improve student achievement?

Beyond resources? There are certainly things we could look at in terms of teacher recruitment and teacher retention and how we’re providing professional development. And that’s something we’ve been very heavily involved in with our COpilot program, online, teacher-provided, vetted, professional development that meets an individual teachers needs.

I think we also need to look really closely at how we’re supporting educators in those first one to three years. If you look at the medical field, you don’t get a six-week training and then you’re off on your own. You get several years of side-by-side. We could really look at how we support that teacher in their first one to three years and doing more collaboration and more co-teaching before you are off on your own.

One of the other things we need to look at is the whole role of social-emotional needs of students. My background is as a school counselor so I have a lot of experience in that work and knowledge. I definitely believe a child cannot learn if they are not safe socially and emotionally. That has gone out of our curriculum in a lot of places, and we need to look at what we can do in our system so we’re helping the whole child and not just that academic side.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, was recently quoted as saying teachers unions are becoming more political, not less. Do you agree with that?

We just need to maintain what we’ve been doing. I agree that we certainly don’t need to become less political. The nature of public education is political. We elect school board members who make decisions about what happens in our classrooms. We elect legislators who make decisions. It is a political job. In that sense, you have to engage in that work to have some sense of control over what’s happening to you as a professional. Again, we are seeing people really come to realize that. We saw that with the April Days of Action. People are realizing, “I have a voice. We have a process. We live in a democratic country and we have an ability and a responsibility to exercise that voice and come together.” People are not going to sit by and just watch things happen to them. People are going to exercise their voice and come together.

What did you gain by the teacher walkouts in April and how will we see that reverberate going forward?

The biggest gain was the public awareness that came out of that. I think a lot of people were just not aware of what the last 10 years of underfunding our schools has meant, what the impact on individual educators and students has been.

It was very validating for many of our members who often feel like being a teacher is a very difficult job. There are a lot of expectations on you, and sometimes you don’t hear the thankfulness or the gratitude people have. Just the honks and the support and the people saying, “we stand with you,” that gave them a boost. It kind of reinvigorated them to say, “I have a voice, and I can use my voice to make a difference for myself and my profession and my students.”

 

big plans

Four things you should know about the new Memphis plan to expand district support to all schools

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

Shelby County Schools board members heard an ambitious plan Tuesday to expand district support for students across all its nearly 150 schools.

The proposal would expand the district’s flagship turnaround program, the Innovation Zone; test all first-graders for gifted education; give hand-held electronic devices to more high school students; and offer more advanced courses. The recommendations are the first from the district’s new chief academic officer, Antonio Burt, who was appointed in September.

“We’re really focused on system-wide equity,” he said. “We can really switch the conversation from equity to really focusing on equity in action.”

In recent years, Memphis has become a model in Tennessee’s school turnaround efforts. But district officials believe Shelby County Schools has not effectively scaled those lessons up to impact more students more quickly. Burt said his plan will fill in those gaps.

Burt did not break down how much these initiatives would cost, but incoming interim superintendent Joris Ray said the proposals would anchor the district’s budget priorities for the 2019-20 school year.

Here is what you need to know:

All first-grade students would be tested to see if they are eligible for CLUE, the district’s gifted education program.

Currently, teachers pick students to be tested for admittance into a program that promotes higher-level grade work for students from preschool to high school.

Burt said the way students are chosen has led to wide disparities in the racial makeup of the program. Though white students make up 7 percent of the district’s population, they make up 38 percent of the students in CLUE. Black students make up 77 percent of the district’s enrollment, but 45 percent of students in the program.

Nationally, black students are far less likely to be placed in gifted programs, even if they have the same test scores as their white peers, and especially if their teacher is white, according to a 2016 study at Vanderbilt University.

For the first time, all Memphis schools identified by the state as low performing will get additional money.

Eleven schools will be added to the district’s Innovation Zone, known for improving test scores.

The iZone pumps about $600,000 per school for teacher bonuses, for more resources to combat the effects of poverty, and for principals to have more say over which teachers they hire.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Antonio Burt became assistant superintendent in 2017 over the Innovation Zone and other struggling schools within Shelby County Schools. He is now the district’s academic chief.

Some of the schools Burt wants to add have been languishing on the state’s list since it was first created in 2012, but have not received substantial support.

As some schools are being added to the iZone, others have improved their performance, and are no longer eligible for additional state funding. Shelby County Schools, which has covered the reduction in funding, for the first time plans to gradually wean 13 schools off that extra support. Burt vowed to monitor those schools to make sure they don’t slip again.

Scroll down to the bottom of the story to see which schools will be affected.

Burt’s plan also would combine Hamilton Elementary and Hamilton Middle into a K-8 school next year, and separate Raleigh-Egypt Middle/High into two schools again after a charter operator moved out the neighborhood. The Hamilton school proposal is also part of outgoing Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s recommendation to consolidate some schools.

Every student in nine high schools would get a hand-held device or laptop this fall, with a goal to expand to every school by the 2024-25 school year.

The district hasn’t decided whether it would be laptops, tablets, or some other device, but officials say students should have more access to technology.

“I think about children in the municipalities and across the nation… they have a device in their hand,” said Ray. “All their textbooks, they’re loaded to one device. So we need to in Shelby County Schools increase technology and give our students the opportunity to compete worldwide.”

But board members cautioned the district should have a robust learning plan for those devices.

“It’s more than just putting a device in hand,” said board member Miska Clay Bibbs.

Every high school will have two Advanced Placement courses for college credit by school year 2020-21.

Students from poor families are more likely to attend a high school with fewer advanced courses, according to a 2018 district report. Burt wants to change that.

The plan calls for more teachers in every high school to be trained to lead an honors, Advanced Placement, or pre-Advanced Placement class.

Below are the schools that would be added to and removed from the iZone. Read the district’s full presentation below.

The schools that would be added to the iZone are:

  • LaRose Elementary
  • Dunbar Elementary
  • Getwell Elementary
  • Hawkins Mill Elementary
  • Woodstock Middle
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Craigmont Middle
  • Wooddale High
  • Sheffield High
  • Oakhaven High
  • Manassas High

These schools would be cycled out of the iZone:

  • Cherokee Elementary
  • Treadwell Elementary
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Ford Road Elementary
  • Westhaven Elementary
  • Douglass K-8
  • Chickasaw Middle
  • Treadwell Middle
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Hamilton Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Mitchell High
  • Melrose High

text skills

‘My reminders are not spam!’: Teachers and parents protest Verizon over new texting fees

Hell hath no fury like teachers who are told that their direct line to students and parents might soon be cut off.

That’s what Verizon is learning after a text-messaging service used by teachers and parents to share updates about homework assignments and snow days announced that the company would soon make messaging prohibitively expensive.

The service, Remind, emailed users late Monday to tell them that Verizon had decided to treat their messages as spam — a move that would make it impossible to continue distributing messages for free. The change would affect 7 million of the service’s 31 million users, a spokesperson said.

“The Verizon fee will increase our costs of providing text messaging by 11X—pushing our annual costs into the millions of dollars,” the company said in the letter. “This isn’t financially feasible for us to support, and it’s forcing us to end Remind text messaging for everyone who has a wireless plan with Verizon.”

The letter urged teachers and families to download Remind’s app instead — and to lobby Verizon to change its policy.

“If there’s one thing we know, it’s the power of communication,” Remind’s website read. “If Remind’s made a positive impact on how you teach or learn, please call Verizon and ask them to #ReverseTheFee.”

Overnight and into Tuesday, countless educators and parents followed Remind’s lead, posting on Twitter and calling Verizon to explain why free text messaging is essential to their work. Two million educators use the service monthly, and the company says it is used in about 80 percent of U.S. schools.

“My reminders to students and their parents are #NotSpam!!,” wrote Phillip Cantor, a high school teacher in Chicago.  “My district allows ONLY @remind101 to communicate with students via text because it’s safe and free.”

“I bet you didn’t know that 29% of the students that attend the school I teach at rely on the translation tool built into @RemindHQ,” tweeted Beth Small. “Please don’t silence parent/teacher communication!”

“The Remind service is invaluable with my students,” wrote David Bell. “As a high school counselor it helps me build a rapport with my students that wouldn’t otherwise exist.”

Remind officials said the company had been trying to negotiate with Verizon since last summer, when the company first announced the rate increase. (They also said they are locked in a similar conflict with a telecommunications company in Canada.)

Those negotiations are complicated. According to a Verizon spokesperson, Remind contracts with another messaging company, Twilio, that contracts with a firm that has a contract with Verizon, and Remind is not the only service to be caught in a dragnet meant to reduce the number of spam messages that cell phone users receive.

Several of those companies met throughout the day Tuesday with the goal of preserving free text-messaging for teachers and schools. But the night ended without a resolution, and with the social media protest continuing to take aim at the phone company.

“As a student, I use Remind daily and by charging teachers for using its features, that experience will be cut off for me,” tweeted Keegan Ator. “What’s more important, future generations of hard-working students or a few extra pennies in the bank?”