expanded learning time

Fariña: Books are the answer to everything

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Emolior Academy Principal Derick Spaulding, speaking with Chancellor Carmen Fariña, is among 1,000 city principals whose evaluations will be based on student growth score data, which the state sent to districts on Friday.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña, back from a two-week vacation, is already thinking about her next book.

Last year, she had just begun a “bucket list” reading project—to read a biography of every American president, in order—and was in the middle of “a very thick book” about George Washington when she got a call from Bill de Blasio asking her to take over the school system.

“I’m really, really excited about re-retiring someday and finishing it all,” Fariña told students at an event at Barnes & Noble in Union Square on Wednesday. “Because to me, books are the answer to everything.”

Students from seven middle schools and three community-based centers were at the event with Fariña to celebrate the end of a reading pilot program called SummerSail, which aims to stem the “learning loss” that affects many students from low-income families when school is out. The implied goal: to make the students enjoy reading as much as Fariña does.

“Reading is not work,” Fariña said. “Reading is pleasure.”

Students in the SummerSail program, a partnership between the city and LightSail were given iPads with access to e-books that they were expected to read for about 30 minutes a day, and then answer questions while teachers who monitored their progress. (Gideon Stein, a member of Chalkbeat’s board, is CEO of LightSail, the company that provided the e-book software to the Department of Education for the pilot.)

Narrowing the summer learning gap is a persistent challenge for the city. The SummerQuest program, a much-touted summertime learning initiative, is growing and popular among students because it offers free access to camp-like activities in addition to academics, but has yet not shown universal learning benefits.

Jenna Shumsky, senior director of the department’s Middle School Quality Initiative, which oversaw the pilot, said that the department was going to analyze the SummerSail students’ reading comprehension skills to determine its impact. But the program’s teachers said they could already see a difference in how the students perceived reading.

“It was just really cool to see middle school students get excited about reading,” said Sara Romeo, a teacher at Emolior Academy in the Bronx.

When talking to the students, Fariña stressed the importance of developing a love of books, which she said could “put you in another planet” and “make life exciting.” Her insistence that reading be seen by students as a leisure activity, rather than a compulsory one, reflects her preference for “balanced literacy” approach to teaching reading and writing, which emphasizes students’ independent reading of books they choose.

The event was Fariña’s second public appearance since returning from a two-week vacation to Spain with her family. After her remarks, Fariña chatted with students and posed for pictures, but, as usual, declined to speak with members of the press.

She did note that her family brought a suitcase full of books on the trip so that her grandchildren could keep reading while school was out. One grandson tried to avoid his hour of daily required reading, she said, while the other was more eager for the literary break.

“When they go back to school in September, who do you think is going to be better prepared for school?” Fariña said.

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.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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