pick me pick me

Candidates vie for UFT support, with varying degrees of success

Six of the mayoral candidates attended the United Federation of Teacher's mayoral debate on Saturday during the union's spring conference.
Six mayoral candidates attended the United Federation of Teachers mayoral debate Saturday during the union’s spring conference. Left to right: Bill Thompson, Adolfo Carrión, Jr., Christine Quinn, Bill de Blasio, Sal Albanese and John Liu.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn fought hard to distance herself from the Bloomberg administration during a mayoral debate hosted by the teachers union on Saturday, but she could not escape being the only candidate to be booed by union members angry at the mayor’s education policies.

When UFT officials asked the mayoral candidates at the teachers union’s spring conference whether they believed the next chancellor needs to be an educator, Quinn’s answer stood out from the chorus of “yes” responses.

“Not necessarily,” she said.

It was not a new stance for Quinn, who has said for months that she believes a qualified non-educator could successfully lead the school system. But when she cited as someone who fit the bill U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, whose agenda overlaps with Bloomberg’s, she drew loud boos from the crowd.

It was a major misstep for Quinn, the Democratic frontrunner, as she worked to hit the right notes during the United Federation of Teachers’ mayoral debate, which came a month before the union — one of the city’s most powerful political forces — plans to endorse a mayoral candidate for the first time since 2001.

Like the other candidates who attended — the rest of the leading Democratic candidates and one independent, Adolfo Carrion, Jr. —  she pledged to take the city’s schools in a new direction as mayor. But the challenge was greatest for Quinn, who as the head of the City Council under Bloomberg rarely challenged the mayor’s most divisive education policies.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew has characterized education under Bloomberg “a decade of disaster.” In a speech at the conference, he called for a “truth commission” to scrutinize Bloomberg’s claims of education success, which he said had been dramatically inflated.

After the debate, Mulgrew said he thought all of the candidates who attended had gotten the union’s message.

“It was clear that all these candidates have made the position that what has gone on is wrong, and that we need to make significant changes,” he said. “We heard very positive responses and things that would probably be favorable with just about all of us.”

Quinn won points with the union when she said she would reduce the weight of test scores in calculating schools’ annual grades and allow a “sunset clause” into the city’s teacher evaluation system. Bloomberg said he spiked a deal with the UFT on evaluations late last year over the union’s demand for an expiration date.

She also joined the other candidates in criticizing Bloomberg’s strategy of closing low-performing schools, in saying that the state does not need to give permission for more charter schools to open, and in criticizing charter school operator Eva Moskowitz. Quinn said Moskowitz, who once headed the City Council’s education committee, had “ripped us apart” with her fierce criticism of the union.

But she and Carrión stood apart from the other candidates when asked whether they would continue to use Bloomberg’s letter grading system for schools. When asked to explain her decision to maintain the evaluation system, Quinn said she would revise the system by making sure standardized testing didn’t account for such a large percentage of the grades. Carrión agreed, saying, “At the end of the day, we need to give an honest assessment to parents of the school they’re sending their children to.”

Other candidates landed closer to union positions when they said charter schools should not be able to open in public school space without community approval and that the city school board should be altered to provide a more substantive check on the mayor’s power. Former Comptroller Bill Thompson, who ran against Bloomberg in 2009, became the first candidate to say he would cede the majority on the board, known as the Panel for Educational Policy.

All of the candidates highlighted their commitment to the union and the educators it represents. Quinn, who mentioned that her father was in a union, said union contract negotiations would not be public and she would stay in a room with the UFT “until we get a fair contract.” Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said the union “saved us in the 1970s” and now in Mulgrew, “we have another great leader here who’s going to help us out of this crisis.” Former city councilman Sal Albanese reiterated his 11 years as a public school teacher and dues-paying UFT member, while Carrion also highlighted his experience as a public school teacher, and Liu pointed out that he is a public school parent.

Mulgrew also asked candidates how they would restore workers’ job security after the school bus strike, which he said Bloomberg had forced. Comptroller John Liu said Bloomberg’s administration thinks all workers, whether they are bus drivers or teachers, are “commodity items,” which drew cheers from the crowd. Thompson went even further and said the strike was “a great example of this administration union busting.”

When audience members were given the chance to ask questions, two different teachers asked how the candidates would support the community schools pilot program that the UFT launched last year. (All the candidates said they would expand the program). Championed by Mulgrew as the ideal school model, community schools offer children and parents access to healthcare, tutoring, counseling, and social services. The four Democratic frontrunners — Liu, Quinn, Thompson and de Blasio — have all accompanied Mulgrew on trips to visit a community school in Cincinnati, while Bloomberg’s administration hasn’t shown much interest in the idea.

The debate did not leave the hundreds of educators who attended the union’s spring conference with a clear picture of which candidate would be best for city teachers.

Mavis Yon, an elementary school teacher from Brooklyn, said she was most concerned about how the next mayor would handle the curriculum teachers need to teach the new Common Core standards. She said she hasn’t decided which candidate she’ll support yet, but “I think that they all in their own way understand that what we have is broken and it needs to be fixed.”

Evelyn Negron, a special education teacher in Queens, said she liked what she heard from de Blasio. “We have a lot of senior teachers who feel like they’re getting the shaft,” she said. “The way he’s been talking, it really seems like he’ll be supporting our teachers the way we need to be supported.”

For Cynthia Dowdy, a counselor at a Brooklyn elementary school, Liu and Thompson are her two favorites so far. “I don’t know about Quinn … there’s too much of a connection with Bloomberg,” she said.

Vandeen Campbell and Geri Ryan, two Queens teachers, said they enjoyed hearing Albanese and Thompson speak but they haven’t decided who they’re voting for yet.

“They all know what they should say because they’re talking to a group of teachers and they know what the controversies are,” Ryan said. “But I think anybody would be better than Mayor Bloomberg.”

Campbell jumped in, “Well, not anybody. I think Quinn would be continuing what Bloomberg did.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.