In the dark

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Craigmont High School teacher Wayne Oellig helps his students with a biology experiment related to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Sitting on the hot sidewalk outside of Craigmont High School in Memphis, ninth-graders wearing paper lab coats carefully connect a gas sensor to a plastic bottle filled with fresh spinach — a biology experiment that they’ll repeat on Monday during the great American solar eclipse.

The objective is to measure the difference in carbon dioxide emission from a plant on a normal day and during a total solar eclipse.

“That’s crazy we’re experiencing history,” said an enthusiastic Elisha Holmes as he worked Friday with his lab partners. 

Only steps away, a significant teaching tool that’s tailor-made for such an event sits idle. Craigmont’s 40-year-old planetarium is outdated and in need of a modernization costing up to $400,000. Shuttered since 2010, the space is used now as an occasional gathering place for school meetings and for the football team to watch game films.

Principal Tisha Durrah said the excitement of getting 500 safety glasses for students to watch this month’s rare solar phenomenon is bittersweet because the school’s planetarium isn’t being used.

“It’s a missed opportunity, and we don’t want to keep missing it,” she said.

Tennessee is among 14 states in the direct path of the total eclipse, where observers will see the moon completely cover the sun. For Memphis viewers in the state’s southwestern tip, they’ll see about 90 percent of the sun covered. It isn’t likely to happen again in the U.S. until 2024.

“Hopefully for the next solar eclipse, we’ll have it up and running,” Durrah joked this week as her science teachers found other ways to integrate the eclipse into their lessons.

Money raised so far to reopen the planetarium is a drop in the bucket. Craigmont has taken in about $6,000 toward the goal of fully revamping the space, updating technology and making the planetarium sustainable for years to come.

In the meantime, Durrah has contacted alumni and other potential donors in Memphis and beyond, including the New York planetarium of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Shelby County Schools has started a fund-raising account and is looking into other ways to help.

Durrah wants her students to participate in a penny drive as well. “Many of them don’t even know the planetarium is here,” she said of the unique theater.

Even though he’s found other ways to use the eclipse as a teachable moment, biology teacher Wayne Oellig wishes he could have produced simulations in the school’s planetarium on what a solar eclipse looks like from places like the moon or Mars. With the right software, he could help his students, many of whom come from low-income families, experience what a rainforest or historic battlefield looks like, too.

“You can use it for a whole school experience,” he said.

But the screens on the large dome are stained, and the antiquated projector in the center of the room is stuck in its base. A large device by the control panel looks like a first-generation computer, not a high-tech device that could help the school advance studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Craigmont could get away with about $60,000 in repairs to make the planetarium operational, but it would be a short-term fix, the principal says. With a full renovation, the district could host tours from other schools, with their fees covering maintenance costs.

Durrah is confident that the investment would pay off. “When our students can relate to real-world experiences, it can enhance what’s going on here at our school,” she said.

Below, watch a video showing teacher Wayne Oellig talk about Craigmont’s planetarium and its possibilities.

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

money talks

As battle over education funding divides Democrats, New York City mayor adds $125M to city’s schools

PHOTO: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this year.

New York City schools are about to get a $125 million boost, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Wednesday.

The new money means that all city schools will soon receive at least 90 percent of the money they are supposed to get under the city’s funding formula. The change will allow 854 schools to spend more on things like literacy specialists, tutoring, supplies, and technology, de Blasio said.

Despite the extra cash, many schools will still not reach the level the city considers fully funded. Principals have said in the past that until the city reaches its goal, the neediest schools will struggle to afford crucial services, such as additional academic programs or after-school classes.

“We are fighting against a problem that, bluntly, has been here for decades, even generations,” de Blasio said, flanked by City Council leaders and advocates at City Hall. “But in this generation, we’re going to fix the problem.”

De Blasio’s announcement — the first to include new Chancellor Richard Carranza — reflects the mayor’s vow to pour more resources into education. It also injects the mayor into one of the most divisive issues in New York’s Democratic gubernatorial primary: whether the state is adequately funding schools. De Blasio’s ally, Cynthia Nixon, is pushing for more money, while his adversary, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, argues that the state is helping schools enough.

The city adopted its funding formula, or “Fair Student Funding,” in 2007 as a way to send more money to high-needs schools. Instead of divvying up money based on teacher salaries, the new formula gave schools extra money based on their students’ needs: Students who are poor, struggling academically, have a disability, or just learning English bring their schools additional dollars. The formula also provides extra money to some selective schools in the city on the grounds that their students might require additional resources as well.

But the funding formula has run into a crucial problem: City officials never allocated the total amount of money that they planned to a decade ago. The city blames the state for failing to fully fund schools according to the terms of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit that was settled in 2006. Advocates — including Nixon — have sustained attention to the settlement’s requirements for more than a decade.

At a press conference, de Blasio repeatedly blasted state officials for not fully funding schools under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, and took a swipe at Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s suggestion that school budgeting needs more transparency as opposed to more money.

“The city puts more and more in education and the state puts less and less in,” de Blasio said. “Of course you need more money to educate better.”

Advocates for additional school funding quickly heralded the city’s news — and criticized Cuomo.

“Unlike Governor Cuomo who has consistently blocked Campaign for Fiscal Equity funding, the mayor understands that money matters when it comes to addressing inequity in schools,” said Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director of the Alliance for Quality Education, which formed to advance the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. Nixon is a longtime spokesperson for the group.

Carranza said he plans to continue lobbying Cuomo to increase funding for city schools. “While New York City is not waiting, we cannot do it alone,” he said. “And I look forward to being in Albany next week where I will meet with our state elected officials and I will make that case directly.”

Though schools still lag behind their funding goal, de Blasio has added more money to the system since taking office. At the beginning of his term, schools could see as little as 81 percent of what the funding formula said they should receive. That number has risen to 87 percent since 2014 and will now jump to 90 percent.

School funding in the city has remained uneven. For instance, New Design High School, which serves many needy students, got only 92 percent of what the funding formula said it should receive last year. The High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies, which enrolls a less needy population, got 112 percent of what the funding formula prescribed.

Asked about whether the city would reduce these types of inequities, de Blasio said the city did not plan to reduce school funding to promote equity.

“We have not said let’s take schools that are doing a good job and take resources away from them,” de Blasio said. “We’re in striking range — just a few years away from achieving full equity where every school is at 100 percent.”

Some schools have found other ways to supplement their funding levels. Parents in wealthier neighborhoods often raise funds to help their schools. Also, de Blasio has already committed to fully funding some of the city’s struggling schools, those in his flagship “Renewal” program. But for the rest of the city’s schools, the extra money could be crucial.

Christina Veiga contributed to this report

strike that

This Colorado bill would ban teacher strikes and hit violators with fines and jail time

Colorado teachers march around the state Capitol Monday, April 16, to call for more school funding and to protect their retirement benefits. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Two Republican lawmakers who have long helped shape education policy in Colorado have introduced a bill that would bar teachers from striking and strip unions that endorse strikes of their bargaining power.

This bill stands practically no chance of becoming law. House Democrats already killed a bill this legislative session that would have prohibited any union activity by public employees during work hours, and this measure goes much further in limiting the rights of workers.

However, that it was introduced at all speaks to growing concern that the wave of teacher activism that has hit other states could come to Colorado. Last Monday, several hundred teachers marched at the state Capitol for more school funding and to defend their retirement benefits. Hundreds, perhaps thousands more, are expected for more marches this Thursday and Friday.

Earlier this year, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association threatened to strike before backing off and continuing negotiations over that district’s pay-for-performance system. And Pueblo teachers voted to strike this month after the school board there voted down pay raises.

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According to numerous reports, Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier of U.S. states for both education funding and teacher salaries, though there is considerable variation around the state.

The reaction at the Capitol to teacher activism has fallen largely on party lines, with House Democrats joining teachers in calling for more school funding, and Republicans expressing frustration because this year’s budget already includes an increase for K-12 education. Republicans want to secure more funding for transportation projects, and lawmakers are also arguing over the final form of a proposed overhaul to the public employees retirement system.

The bill sponsored by state Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs and state Rep. Paul Lundeen of Monument would prohibit teachers and teachers unions from “directly or indirectly inducing, instigating, encouraging, authorizing, ratifying, or participating” in a strike. It also would prohibit public school employers from “consenting to or condoning” a teacher strike.

The bill authorizes public school employers to go to court and get an injunction against a teacher strike.

Teachers who violate such an injunction could be fined up to $500 a day and be jailed for up to six months. They would also face immediate termination with no right to a hearing.

Local teachers unions found in contempt could face fines of up to $10,000 a day. More significantly, they would see their collective bargaining agreements rendered null and void and would be barred from representing teachers for a year or collecting dues during that time. School districts would be barred from negotiating with sanctioned unions as well.

Courts would have the ability to reduce these penalties if employers request it or if they feel it is in the public interest to do so.

Teacher strikes are rare in Colorado and already face certain restrictions. For example, the Pueblo union has informed state regulators of their intent to strike, and the state Department of Labor and Employment can intervene to try to broker an agreement. Those discussions can go on for as long as 180 days before teachers can walk off the job.

The last time Denver teachers went on strike was 1994. A state judge refused to order teachers back to work because they had gone through the required process with state regulators. Teachers had the right, he ruled, to reject the proposed contract. That strike lasted a week before teachers returned to work with a new contract.