Relationship Building

New Aurora union president: We need to look out for young teachers, improve relations with the district

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

Bruce Wilcox is settling in as the new president of the Aurora teachers union at a crucial time.

Aurora Public Schools is coping with budget challenges and declining student enrollment. Teachers are concerned about growing class size, their pay and more.

Meanwhile, a school board election this fall could change the direction of the 41,000-student district, which has undertaken a number of reforms to improve student achievement.

The union has opposed some of the reform efforts — including bringing high-performing Denver charter network DSST to Aurora — but to little effect.

Still, Wilcox said he hopes to forge a more cooperative relationship with district leaders.

Bruce Wilcox (Handout photo)

Wilcox has held various positions with the district. He started working in Aurora as a paraprofessional and then spent 17 years as an elementary school teacher. He also has worked in district positions helping run programs in multiple schools.

Wilcox has attended meetings all over the district to hear from teachers and employees as he begins his term. He sat down with Chalkbeat to discuss the state of the district and the union:

Why did you decide to take this leadership role with the union?
I think we need to do so much more together. I know that was what I believe was Amy Nichols’ (his predecessor) intention — for us to work collaboratively with the district. I think I wanted to make sure that continued and hopefully that it improved. It’s so critical that we take the young teachers that we have and develop them into long-range teachers — the long-term teachers that stay with our district and have a great relationship with our district. Right now, I just see a lot of turnover.

What do you think of the current relationship between the district and its teachers?
I think it’s a condition that can be improved. There are three sides to this. There are teachers, administrators and then there’s the district level, all of which want what’s best for kids, and all of which want to improve the outcomes for kids. I just don’t think right now we’re all working together to do that.

What do you think are the major challenges facing Aurora schools right now?
I think teacher retention and development is a huge one. The biggest challenge with our student base is the declining enrollment, which affects teacher retention, which affects the ability of the district and the association and teachers to get better at what we do.

Do you have goals for what you would ideally like to change or accomplish in this role?
As far as the organization itself goes, that we move into a role where we are more supportive of our younger teachers. That we take on some of the professional development the district isn’t able to do, or isn’t doing, so that we can develop those young teachers, develop those new teachers. Or take teachers who are struggling but who may not be new, and help them all become the best they can be. That we advocate for the best learning conditions for our students.

What are your thoughts on the budget problems the district is facing with decreasing enrollment and the process the district used this last school year to solicit input?
As far as the solicitation of input, I don’t know how effective that was in getting to everyone. It’s one thing to say we provided opportunities, but then the other is what effect that input really had. There may be another source of input that outweighed it, so that’s a concern. As far as the budget itself, last year was particularly difficult because of the reduction in force. We attempted to work with the district last year in formalizing that process. It is in the agreement and in state statute. There is some area where I believe it is vague and as a district and an association we should be able to come to agreeable terms. Right now I believe there’s some room for arbitrary decisions that we need to remove in order to be fair.

Part of Aurora’s reforms have included adding charter schools, including DSST, which the school board just approved. Many teachers spoke at board meetings against that charter. Do you also feel it was a bad idea to bring the school? And if so, why?
I was one of those people who spoke at that meeting. There is obvious concern that we are bringing in a school, and that we don’t know how it fits into the long-range plan.

We also are at a point where we’re seeing a declining student enrollment and now you’re going to be bringing in a charter school which will decrease not the overall district enrollment but certainly the enrollment to the traditional piece of the Aurora Public Schools. In addition, DSST was the second school that’s being brought in different from past practice, so I would say I have more of an objection to how it came. Charter schools in the past have had to find their own location. Now we are saying that we have placed into the bond money to assist in building that building (for DSST). In the past if charter schools wished to come to the Aurora, they applied. In this particular case the district, the superintendent, reached out to them. I think there are some concerns about the process that was used.

Charter schools do not have the same public accountability that traditional schools do. They also do not have the same constraints, so they operate much differently.

The board had some discussion early last school year about the fact that per a new contract, teachers in Aurora received a pay raise, while the district was planning serious budget cuts. Do you think the pay raises were necessary, and if so, what’s the proper way to find balance between those needs and the needs for budget cuts?
That’s a much bigger issue and I think if we want to ask about should teachers receive pay raises, we should also ask how money has been spent in the district in general. We need to look at the big picture. If you want to retain teachers, then you have to have a means by which to pay teachers and to retain them and reward them for the service that they have.

We’ve had two pay freezes where we did not get steps and lanes (annual pay increases for years of experience or added education), something that is in the contract. We negotiate salary every year, and so those steps and lanes are not guaranteed just by being in the contract.

We understand there are tough economic times but it seems as if the increase or decrease of compensation for employees, and that’s all groups, seems to be the last thing the district considers in the budget.

Do you really think it’s becoming attractive for Aurora teachers to leave for other districts?
It’s certainly attractive to leave Aurora for other districts if you are concerned there are going to be pay freezes. If you are going to get those incremental increases in other districts and you’re not going to get them here, that certainly makes it attractive for some teachers to leave the district. The biggest thing here is the cost of living in the city of Aurora. By the numbers that were given (by district officials at a board meeting) our first and second year teachers cannot afford to live in the town they work in without economic hardship. So certainly if they have any kind of student loan it makes it extremely difficult for them to live here.

As prices increase, it affects not only our families but it affects our young teachers who are at the beginning of their careers. I have an awful lot of younger teachers who work multiple jobs. They don’t take summers off. They just get a different position for the summer. They work two jobs during the year so they can pay student loans and afford to live. So I think compensation is a huge issue. It’s a large reason people stay or leave. And whenever we don’t have stability in how we compensate our people, then it creates this doubt.

Is the job of Aurora teachers also changing?
Our population of students depending on where you are in the district is always in flux, which is always requiring teachers to learn and adapt, to acquire new skills and to do things that certainly I didn’t have to do 20 years ago when I started. Now I need to be knowledgeable about mental health and well-being of students. I need to know the resources that are available in order to do what’s best for my students.

The other thing we’re going to see is increasing class sizes as a result of the reduction in force. We really don’t know what that’s going to look like. The district will adjust as student counts are different than they anticipated.

When you have a classroom and you increase it in size that adds a lot of work. It’s not just that you have to prepare for more students. You have to prepare for more students that are at different levels of need.

Powerful Parents

‘Sharing their hearts’: Why these parents became advocates for Memphis students

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy organization, is training its ninth cohort of public advocate fellows.

While their children are out of school for the summer, a local parent group is using this time to hit the books.

Memphis Lift, a non-profit organization in North Memphis, aims to amplify the voices of those who, some say, have historically been excluded from conversations surrounding their schools. Many of those conversations, said organizer Dianechia Fields, have made out parents like her to be “scapegoats” for students’ struggles in the classroom.

“It’s easy to blame someone who’s not there in the room,” she said. “Instead of blaming parents as the problem, we’re inviting parents to the table to be part of the solution.”

Fields is the director of the program’s Public Advocate Fellowship, which was created three years ago by Natasha Kamrani and John Little, who came to Memphis from Nashville to train local parents to become advocates for school equity. Funded in part by the Memphis Education Fund, the program pays fellows $500 when they graduate the course. (Chalkbeat also receives support from local philanthropies connected to Memphis Education Fund. You can learn more about our funding here.)

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
The Public Advocate Fellowship was created three years ago. This year, the program will have trained 300 fellows.

On Tuesday, Lift held the first of ten sessions for its ninth cohort of fellows. This month, 19 parents and grandparents will learn about topics such as the history of education in Memphis and school funding. At each session, they’ll receive coaching from special guests and alumni fellows, and they’ll also make connections with local education leaders.

In order to better communicate with decision-makers, the group will complete public speaking exercises with the help of coach Darius Wallace. His focus this week: getting fellows to “share their hearts.”

In Wednesday’s class, Wallace asked the cohort to think hard about who they’re advocating for, what pain that person may feel, and what their dream is moving forward. Here’s what a few of them had to say:

Jerrineka Hampton, a Shelby County Schools teacher, is advocating for her students at Treadwell Elementary, who often lack access to the materials they need, like pens or paper. Her dream is to “close the economic and academic gap” in schools like hers, and to help train others to do the same.

Shanita Knox, a mother of two, is advocating for her 10- year- old son, who struggles with his speech and is often bullied because of it. Her dream for him is to “do whatever he wants in life without having to work a dead-end job.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
The parents are asked to share with each other their hopes for their children.

Patricia Robinson is advocating for her granddaughter, whose father is incarcerated. Robinson’s dream is for her to take the pain and loneliness she feels and “learn how to talk about it.”

Violet Odom, a mother of two, is advocating for her daughter, a soon-to-be middle schooler who is dealing with mental health challenges. Odom’s dream is for her daughter to “be able to live a normal life and use her voice to explain how she feels.”

Aimee Justice, a mother of three, is advocating for her son, who comes from a multiracial family. Her dream is for Memphis schools to become places where students of all nationalities can learn from each other.

Trenika Bufford is advocating for other kids in the system who, like her college-aged son, have been belittled by school officials. Through tears, she said she wished she listened to her son when he was younger. Her dream is to have a relationship with him again.

As the women shared their stories, Wallace and the group gave feedback on their delivery. As they practiced more, the fellows began to make more eye contact, speak louder and more directly, and use body language.

“People make decisions when they’re emotional,” Wallace reminded them. “Facts tell. Stories sell.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Ahada Elton smiles at her son. A mother of four, Elton said she wants to advocate for parents unaware of the opportunities schools offer, especially for children with special needs.

Effective communication will become even more important as the cohort prepares for their last session. That’s when they’ll work together to create a plan of action to tackle an issue in their community. This year, the group is already discussing taking steps toward unified enrollment, a centralized system that allows parents to easily compare schools in the same district.

And while that’s no small feat, it wouldn’t be the first time the group has tackled a project this large. Two years ago, graduating fellows knocked on about 1,200 doors throughout the city to inform other parents about local priority schools assigned to the state-run achievement school district.

That’s when alumna Kiara Jackson heard about the fellowship. Jackson, 24, was pregnant at the time with her third child, and she was living with her father in the North Memphis neighborhood when director Sarah Carpenter knocked on her window and told her about the program.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Kiara Jackson, an alumna fellow, shares her testimony with the new cohort.

“I was a concerned parent,” she said, “but I didn’t even know the types of questions to get answers to.”

Shortly after, Jackson started going to Lift’s weekly classes, where she learned about quality schools in the area. Since joining the fellowship’s fourth cohort last year, Jackson had the opportunity to travel to Cincinnati and advocate for charter schools such as the one she’s working to get her daughter into.

“I enjoy the power that I have as a parent,” she said. “… With us being from low-income communities, they try to deny us our rights as parents. But our kids can get better educations”

When the class graduates next month, the fellowship will have trained 300 members, mostly women, since it launched in 2015. This past year, the group offered training for Spanish-speaking parents led by alumna Carmelita Hernandez. Now, the program is working on creating its first all-male cohort for fathers and grandfathers.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.