Future of Teaching

Teachers kept quitting this Indianapolis school. Here’s how the principal got them to stay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teacher Abby Campbell works on math with her 4th grade class at Lew Wallace School 107. May 3, 2018.

When Jeremy Baugh took the helm as principal of School 107 three years ago, staff turnover was so high that about half the teachers were also new to the struggling elementary campus, he said. For his first two years, the trend continued — with several teachers leaving each summer.

“In the back of my mind,” he said, “I just kind of had assumed that that was going to be the norm — that I was going to have to always be on the lookout for good talent.”

But when he surveyed his staff this year, Baugh got some unexpected news: about 97 percent of teachers said they plan on returning. “I was thrilled,” he said.

Staff say the change is heavily driven by a new teacher leadership program Indianapolis Public Schools has rolled out at 15 schools. Known as opportunity culture, some teachers are paid as much as $18,300 extra per year to oversee and support several classrooms. Educators at School 107, which is also known as Lew Wallace, say opportunity culture helps retain staff in two ways: It gives new teachers, who can often feel overwhelmed, support. And, it allows experienced teachers to take on more responsibility without leaving the classroom.

As districts across the country struggle to hire teachers — particularly in hard-to-fill specialties such as math and science — many schools are especially interested in retaining the teachers they have. Although there is little research directly linking leadership opportunities with retention, there is some research suggesting one reason teachers leave the profession is because they feel they don’t have influence in their schools and they have few opportunities to advance.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Principal Jeremy Baugh has been at Lew Wallace for three years.

At School 107, which began the program last school year, there are three multi-classroom leaders who each oversee several classroom teachers. Their role is to offer advice, training, and support to their peers. They are ultimately responsible for the test data in all the classrooms they oversee.

One of those teachers is Deanna Schmidt. With five years of experience and a masters degree, she was looking for a job where she could train teachers and continue to work with students.

“I loved teaching but I just wanted to do something different. I had kind of tossed around the idea of maybe going back for an admin license,” she said. But “I don’t really want to be a principal.”

Instead, Schmidt left her job at the Butler Lab School to work as a multi-classroom leader at Lew Wallace. “I think I found the perfect fit,” she said.

Lew Wallace is one of the most diverse campuses in the city. The neighborhood it draws from, near Lafayette Square, is full of recent immigrants and refugees. And that’s reflected at the school, where 38 percent of students are learning English.

That’s just one of the challenges facing students and teachers. Over 80 percent of students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free lunch, according to state data. And mobility at the school is so high that more than half of its 606 students are new this year, Baugh said.

The result is that teaching at School 107 can be particularly hard, Baugh said. In one classroom, for example, there might be several students who are learning English — who the teacher struggles to communicate with — and four children with difficult behavior, he said.

“Those four children create kind of this shaken pop bottle syndrome in the classroom where everybody feels on edge,” he said. “That can be difficult to teach in because you don’t have this sense of calm all the time.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
About half the students in Abby Campbell’s fourth-grade class are learning English.

School 107 has long struggled on state tests. Fewer than a quarter of students passed the state ISTEP exam in 2016-2017. Over the last two years, however, individual students have made gains in test scores from one year to the next. Those improvements began before the school started using opportunity culture. But a recent study of three districts using the teacher leadership model found multi-classroom leaders raised student math scores — although they did not appear to raise reading scores.

The idea behind opportunity culture is that teachers — especially newer teachers — are not alone in handling challenges. They have mentors helping them in a range of ways — including modeling lessons, pulling small groups, and working on lesson plans.

Abby Campbell, who is in her first year teaching, has 31 students in her fourth grade class. Her students run the gamut from those who are far below grade level to those who are above it. Close to half of them are English language learners, and about five have special education plans, she said.

When she started teaching, she was overwhelmed. “I had a lot of nights with tears, and not sure if I was going to survive the year,” she said.

Campbell not only survived the year but plans on returning in the fall. One of the main reasons, she said, is because of the support she’s gotten from her multi-classroom leader, Jessica Smith. Smith helps Campbell with nearly all the pieces of her job — from lesson plans to emotional support, said Campbell.

“I can’t even imagine doing it without Jessica,” she said. “I would’ve been a hot mess.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teacher Abby Campbell works on math with her fourth-grade class.

Initially, some teachers at Lew Wallace were uncomfortable with having multi-classroom leaders essentially overseeing their classes. But the classroom leaders are supposed to be team members, and most teachers are more at ease now that they’ve gotten to know them, staff said.

“I was wary,” said Steve Carr, who teaches sixth-grade math. But Brandon Warren, the classroom leader he works with, helps him without being prescriptive, Carr said.

“It’s not me telling you what to do. It’s what we’re going to do together,” Warren said.

Multi-classroom leaders also lead regular training for teachers. After struggling to tackle everything during teacher training, the multi-classroom leaders at School 107 eventually decided to focus on a small number of issues. This year, they are working on strategies for improving student writing and for keeping students engaged — particularly English language learners, who may not feel comfortable answering questions in front of the class.

Because so many of their teachers are returning next year, they will be able to move on to new focus areas — strategies for teaching math and English language learners — instead of repeating the same teacher training, said Smith, one of the classroom leaders.

“It’s so hard to keep training new teachers all the time,” she said. “If we can keep our teachers, they are going to be such a higher caliber because we’ve put our time into them, and we’ve invested in them.”

First Person

We work at Denver’s Title I schools, too. Here’s why we’re ready to strike.

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Students in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy.

We are a group of teachers representing schools in the far northeast region of Denver. Many of us now receive “incentives” for working at Title I schools where many students live in poverty — and we are also willing to strike in support of the union’s proposed salary structure, which moves some of the money used for those incentives into long-term base pay.

Why? In short, we would rather have our base pay prioritized than earn bonuses that are not reliable, may not be working, and may also take the pressure off the district to solve systemic problems our schools face.

Issue #1: The current bonuses can’t be relied on. The “hard to serve” school label is based on free and reduced-price lunch percentages, which vary on an annual basis. Teachers at Marie L. Greenwood Academy, for example, could lose their “hard to serve” label because their school dropped just barely below the threshold. Additionally, John Amesse Elementary School and McGlone Academy are less than two miles apart, serve similar populations, and are a part of the same network; however, due to ambiguous calculations based on test scores, free and reduced-price lunch numbers, and teacher turnover rates, McGlone teachers receive larger bonuses than John Amesse teachers. This is not fair nor equitable. Teachers need money they can depend on.

Issue #2: It’s not clear that the current bonuses are working. We have not seen conclusive evidence that the incentives we receive for working in hard to serve schools have affected teacher retention or recruitment. Every year, schools in our area are hiring for positions that often get filled by first-year teachers. Many of the schools that receive these incentives still suffer from the same high turnover rates the bonuses were meant to remedy.

Issue #3: The current bonuses let the district off the hook. Some have argued that teachers in Title I schools deserve significant bonuses because the challenges faced in our work are difficult and taxing. However, many of these issues are due to systemic problems that the district would be better off trying to solve directly.

We know that increasing incentive pay to work at “hard to serve” schools will not fix the issues around segregation in Denver Public Schools. Increasing incentive pay to work at “hard to serve” schools will not fix the issues around some schools lacking nurses, social workers, counselors, support for Spanish speaking and emerging bilingual students, and support for special education programs. It will not solve issues around the lack of reliable technology, funding for arts, comprehensive neighborhood schools, or the flood of issues that we all feel in our schools on a daily basis.

We support the union’s proposal because we want the decisions we make as educators to stem from a love of our schools, a desire to serve our students, and a hope to support our community. We want teachers to seek out and stay at our schools because they believe in our vision, our mission, our students, and our community.

We are also passionate about a clear and transparent pay schedule. We want that structure to recognize our dedication to the field and our commitment to furthering our education – not a system that provides one-time bonuses that are in our checks one year and absent the next due to circumstances outside our control.

Anyone who enters our classrooms will see that we are doing our best with the resources we have in order to lift up the students in Denver who are most impacted by systemic racism and poverty. Let us come together on this idea: Fair pay for teachers means better outcomes for students. If we can stand together on this, then we can help improve the lives of so many more students, teachers, and families.

This piece was written by Jessica Schneider, Noel Community Arts School; Tanessa Bass, John H. Amesse Elementary; Rebecca Roberts, John H. Amesse Elementary; Valerie Henderson, Sandra Todd Williams Academy; Brian Weaver, Florida Pitt Waller ECE-8; Michelle Garrison, Farrell B. Howell ECE-8; Michael Sitkin, DCIS @ Montbello; Cory Montrieul, DCIS @ Montbello; and Nik Arnoldi, Escalante-Biggs Academy.

Last minute

Teachers union continues voting on possible Denver strike

PHOTO: Michael Ciaglo/Special to the Denver Post
Eagleton Elementary School first grade teacher Valerie Lovato, left, and East High School French teacher Tiffany Choi hold up signs as the Denver teachers union negotiates with district officials.

Denver teachers resumed voting Tuesday evening on whether to go on strike, a decision that will touch tens of thousands of people in Colorado’s largest school district.

The vote comes after months of negotiations left Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association still $8 million apart and with serious philosophical disagreements about how teacher compensation should be structured. Denver teachers are riding a wave of activism by their peers across the country that began last year and continues to build. Teachers in Los Angeles just reached a tentative deal with their district after more than a week on strike.

Members of the teachers union began voting on a strike Saturday. A final round of voting began at 4 p.m. Tuesday and will end at 9 p.m. Union officials said Tuesday evening that results would be announced at 9:30 p.m.  

On Tuesday evening, a steady stream of teachers bundled against the cold made their way into a Knights of Columbus Hall in downtown Denver where the last voting session is taking place.

Maria Cruz, an early childhood education teacher for the past two years who previously worked as a paraprofessional in the district, said she voted “yes” to strike hoping it will push the district to close the gap between its offer and what the union is seeking.  

“Teachers come and go and come and go and they never stay because there is not enough pay,” she said. “It doesn’t validate the teaching profession.”

The earliest a strike could start would be Jan. 28. On Tuesday evening, district families received a robocall from Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova making clear that classes would go on as normal on Wednesday, and that district officials intend to keep schools open for the foreseeable future.   

Cordova has said she’ll ask for state intervention if the vote is yes, which could delay a strike. If teachers do walk out, the district intends to keep schools open and students learning by relying on substitutes, tapping central office staff with past teaching experience, and using pre-packaged lessons plans for every grade and subject area. 

A Denver strike would affect roughly 71,000 students in district-run schools.

District officials went on the offensive over the weekend, making the argument that their offer was generous and responsive to longstanding teacher complaints about stagnant salaries.   

The district also published its new salary schedule online alongside the salary schedules of other Denver metro area districts.

The two sides disagree on how much new money the district should put into teacher compensation and also on how that compensation should be structured. The district has said it will not compromise on offering bonuses to teachers at high-poverty and hard-to-serve schools. The union wants smaller bonuses and more money to go into base pay.

This would be the first teacher strike in Denver in 25 years.