As Bronx district churns through new teachers, mentors learn how to help

PHOTO: Courtesy of New Teacher Center
A South Bronx parent advocacy group helped start a mentor-training program in the Bronx's District 9. Esperanza Vazquez, center, a member of the parent group, led one training session about how educators can collaborate with parents.

Caitlin Tchaikowitz, a fifth-grade teacher at P.S. 35 in the South Bronx, sat in a circle with colleagues from her district one snowy afternoon last week and told them about the time she helped save a first-year teacher.

Observing the new fourth-grade teacher’s lesson one day, she had noticed that just two of 13 students actually did their work during partner time, Tchaikowitz told the other teachers in her mentor-training program. She thought to herself: These kids aren’t learning.

After an assistant principal observed the teacher and was alarmed, Tchaikowitz asked for some extra time to help her mentee. The two met during lunch, free class periods, even during their morning commute. They planned lessons together, talked about classroom discipline, and practiced speaking in a firm teacher tone, with Tchaikowitz playing the role of an inattentive student.

When Tchaikowitz returned to her mentee’s classroom a month after that first lesson, she now found that 11 of 12 students were doing their work.

“To find that one little point of growth was exactly what she needed at that point,” Tchaikowitz told the group, adding that the teacher soon received a positive evaluation from her principal. “It’s like she’s built back up from a point where she was very, very low.”

District 9 teacher-mentors swapped stories during a recent training.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
District 9 teacher-mentors swapped stories during a recent training.

New teachers, or at least the frazzled novices who feel under-trained and overwhelmed, pose a challenge for the entire school system: More than a third leave within their first five years, according to a report last month by the city teachers union. The problem is even more acute in an area like the Bronx’s long-struggling District 9, where P.S. 35 is located and where there are more new teachers and greater turnover than in most districts.

Tchaikowitz and the 75 other teacher-mentors in her training program represent one answer: Train skilled educators to coach their new colleagues as a way to improve the mentees’ craft and make them less likely to quit, while at the same time sharpening the mentors’ skills and giving them a taste of leadership.

While the District 9 program is funded by the city and in tune with the schools chancellor’s focus on teacher training and collaboration, it was hatched outside the system through an unusual partnership between a nonprofit teacher-training firm, a parent advocacy group, and the local superintendent. If it works, officials said it could be spread to other parts of the city. But for now, the idea is for the South Bronx district to harness the power of its best educators to lift their peers.

“You’re what’s going to turn this district around,” Superintendent Leticia Rodriguez-Rosario told the mentors last week before leading them in a District 9 cheer. “You’re the engine and the gas that’s going to move this wonderful work.”

The plan to turn District 9’s top teachers into mentors started with the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, or PAC, a two-decade-old South Bronx advocacy group that published a 2013 report calling on Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio to prioritize the chronically low-performing district. (Last year, its state math and English test scores were far below the city average, as was its graduation rate, and it is home to 13 of the 94 struggling schools in the city’s new turnaround program.) One of the group’s recommendations for the new mayor was to create a mentorship program for the district’s many novice teachers.

Many district parents have watched new teachers receive little support as their classrooms spiral out of control, until sometimes they “got desperate and would explode,” PAC member Karen Jimenez said through an interpreter. The district has a way of churning through such teachers, she added.

“There are many new faces,” said Jimenez, whose children attend P.S. 114 and KAPPA middle school, “and they don’t last long.”

New Teacher Center, a national nonprofit that trains teacher mentors, saw the parent group’s report and proposed a partnership. Together, they approached the city education department, which agreed to provide a $265,000 grant that would let any elementary or middle school in the district send teachers to the trainings.

Out of about 50 such schools in the district, 45 chose to participate in the mentor program, with 43 also opting into a separate but related training series for school administrators. The goal is develop a common approach to teacher development in those schools, while giving seasoned educators some leadership experience and staving off the exodus of overwhelmed novices, said Thandi Center, New Teacher Center’s New York City director.

“These schools are bleeding teachers,” she said, adding that the schools could retain more of their new hires if they had help supporting them, since many schools don’t know how best to do that.

Dianne McNamara, a New Teacher Center presenter, leads a session for the District 9 teacher-mentors.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Dianne McNamara, a New Teacher Center presenter, leads a session for the District 9 teacher-mentors.

Following state law, the city requires first-year teachers to be mentored at least two periods each week by experienced educators in their schools. (The city stopped sending full-time mentors to schools several years ago.) While the education department offers optional training courses for those part-time mentors, some teachers say the mandated help can amount to brief observations and informal chats.

“It felt more like a compliance thing,” said Fatima Jernigan, a seventh-grade teacher at M.S. 145 who is part of the training program.

The District 9 mentors, who are not paid extra for their coaching, attended eight full-day trainings and four half-day sessions. They learned how to gather valuable data by watching their mentees in action and scouring their students’ work, how to guide a new teacher toward solutions without feeding them answers, and how to build trust so that the mentees would welcome their feedback rather than resent it. Members of the Parent Action Committee led one session in Spanish — it was translated into English through headsets the teachers wore — about how to team up with students’ families even when they speak different languages.

Education department officials called the District 9 mentor trainings a pilot program, which they will evaluate after this year to decide whether to continue it in that district and perhaps expand it to others. They added that the early feedback from the educators and parents who participated has been positive. New Teacher Center already has it sights set on two other districts that struggle to attract and retain new teachers.

Tyson Strang, a literacy coach at J.H.S. 22 who works with 18 first and second-year teachers, said the training has given him the right words and approach to push his mentees forward. That is essential in a district where most students are behind academically, he added.

“Every second is extremely important,” he said to his fellow mentors last week. “These teachers need to be effective now.”

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.