Adult learning

DPS to expand teacher leadership program

As a teacher leader at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, Mandy Israel teaches history but also coaches and mentors fellow teachers.

Denver Public Schools is announcing plans this week to expand a teacher leadership program officials say marks a fundamental shift in the way school staffs are structured.

In year two, the district is still tweaking a program it intends to offer to every school by 2018-19.

Both teachers and principals say teacher-leaders, who teach some classes while taking on additional responsibilities, offer support to and play a bridging role between administrators and teachers.

“It’s not always easy to go to the principal or assistant principals, so I like that I’ve been able to take on that role. I can really stand up for what teachers need so students can achieve and be successful,” said Mandy Israel, a high school history teacher who is in her second year as a team lead—one of the new hybrid roles for teachers—at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy.

Introducing a brand-new role has required adjustment. Administrators must plan for how to fit an entirely new position into their schools’ systems and structures. Teacher-leaders must navigate new dynamics within their schools while balancing classroom and administrative duties. And teachers who are not new “team-leads” must adapt to having a new coach and evaluator.

“This is an enormous paradigm shift from the traditional way we’ve done school,” said DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg. “We’re still learning and there are bumps along the road. But it’s been extraordinarily positive so far.”

A learning organization

Students in a mixed-grade high school history class at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy work on a "Document-based question."
Students in Mandy Israel’s mixed-grade high school history class at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy work on a document-based question.

Boasberg said that the district introduced the “differentiated roles” pilot teacher leader program in an attempt to make schools more like other knowledge-based professions, where, he said, leaders tend to work with smaller teams of five, six, or seven.

In the more traditional school model, a principal might be responsible for managing dozens of adults, including teachers, nurses, and paraprofessionals. In recent years, principals’ responsibilities have grown even more unwieldy, as they must evaluate teachers, guide schools through changes in standards and instructional practice, and manage the demands of the district’s central office, all while also working with families and communities.

“This is about saying, we need to put the power in the hands of the people who best understand the work, getting teachers back in the position of being true leaders, and allowing the principal the space to be the organizational leader of the school,” said Justin Darnell, the district’s senior manager of teacher leadership and a former Colorado teacher of the year.

Nicole Veltze, the principal of North High, said that the new role was helping. “As a principal, having to manage 70 teachers is unrealistic if I’m really trying to improve their practice,” she said. “It’s done a lot to create ownership for professional learning and built relationships among teachers.”

The program also aims to give teachers more time with their evaluators and coaches, and to create a path to professional growth for teachers, both those who hope to become administrators and those who want to stay in the classroom but are interested in having a bigger role in their school.

“Teaching is such a challenging profession. The traditional structure of isolating teachers in their classrooms doesn’t help give them the learning they need,” Boasberg said.

Growing and changing

DPS’s differentiated roles pilot started in 14 schools in 2013-14 and expanded to 40 this year. Starting next year, 72 of the district’s schools will have a role that includes teaching and administrative responsibilities.

The program is partly funded by a federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant, which offered money to districts that created financial incentives for teachers to take on new roles. DPS plans to allocate up to $4.5 million to the program in 2015-16.

DPS’s teacher leadership program has garnered national attention: The U.S. Education Department chose Denver as one of three cities to host a national conference focused on teacher leadership this school year.

Darnell said the district is making changes as the program grows. For instance, administrative teams in the new batch of schools will have more time—six months instead of one—to plan for how they will structure their leadership programs.

Martha Burgess, a teacher leader at Kunsmiller, said that at her school, second year had gone more smoothly than the first.

Burgess said she and her peers had pushed for the administration to be clear about what qualified someone to be a teacher-leader. Lack of clarity about who was chosen “made it hard to build rapport,” she said.

“This year, it was way more clear,” she said. “It helped that everyone had had a year, they had had a chance to see that this is really helpful in serving a need in our building.”

At at time when DPS is struggling to reduce teacher and principal turnover, none of the 54 people who had participated in the pilot last year left the district, Darnell said.

A too-big role?

The teacher-leader role currently exists in two versions: Team leads receive a $3,000 stipend and are responsible for part of their teams’ evaluations. Senior team leads are entirely responsible for their teams’ evaluations and receive a $5,000 stipend. Both might also have additional responsibilities, such as supporting teachers working with new technology or standards. Teachers apply for the jobs, and only those with higher scores on LEAP, the district’s evaluation, are eligible.

All schools who will have eventually have the equivalent of a senior team lead, responsible both for coaching and evaluating their team, Darnell said.

Mixing those two jobs can be difficult, said Shelley Zion, the director of the Center for Advancing Practice, Education, and Research at the University of Colorado Denver’s education school. In general, she said, “when you try to link a coaching and mentoring role with evaluation, you often don’t get authentic results.”

Sarah Baird, who trains teacher-leaders and others in the district in coaching, said that it’s possible to strike a balance: “Research shows that the same person can do both, but there has to be trust in the person and the process, and there has to be a distinction between which is happening when—when I’m being coached and when I’m being evaluated.”

But both Burgess and Israel said the biggest challenge of the role was not in evaluating peers but in finding the time to complete their new tasks while also managing to plan and grade for their classes.

At Kunsmiller, Kate Claassen, a high school literature teacher, said she appreciated getting feedback from someone who is also teaching. “Mandy [Israel]’s observations are far more aligned with the LEAP framework but also with my practice.”

“I think the teacher leader program has allowed practicing teachers to get additional feedback, which is really crucial for our practice,” Claassen 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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