Building Better Schools

Shrink classes or hire a counselor? IPS principals will get more power — and face tough choices

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When principal Tihesha Guthrie realized how many of her students were struggling with attendance and discipline, she made an unusual choice: She decided increase class sizes.

It might sound counter-intuitive but Guthrie, who runs School 99, a northeast side elementary school, said increasing class sizes by five students per class freed up enough money to hire a student discipline specialist, a math coach and a teacher who specialized in teaching social skills like relationship building and self-control. Guthrie credits those hires, along with the extra 30 minutes she added to the school day, with creating more stability for students and improving attendance.

“Our flexibilities have increased outcomes,” Guthrie said.

Most Indianapolis Public Schools principals would not have been allowed to make the kinds of sweeping changes Guthrie made this year — but that’s about to change.

School 99 was one of just six schools that piloted the district’s new “autonomy” program this year in which principals were given a set amount of cash per student and allowed to spend the money in any way they thought made sense for their school.

Now, that same method is expanding to every traditional school in the district on the theory that principals know what their schools need — not central office administrators.

“Once we give the dollars, it’s really about the use of those dollars,” said Weston Young, the district’s chief financial manager. “We are trying to … talk about the quality of the decision, the quality of the person, the quality of the resource.”

Autonomy is part of a broader shift in IPS that aims to reduce the role of the central office in daily school management and give principals more control over their buildings.

The program is not related to the “innovation” school program in which schools are turned over to private managers who run their schools independent of the district with non-unionized staff members who are are not IPS employees.

Teachers and staff at autonomous schools still work directly for IPS and are part of district unions. The district will continue to pay some expenses like utility bills and the cost of educating students with special needs. But principals will have full control over their main general education budgets.

Guthrie said the change opened up the choices she could make at School 99.

The new staff that autonomy has enabled her to hire, she said, has helped the school put a new focus on positive rewards for good behavior. And the extra 30 minutes have given teachers more time to plan.

Guthrie said the changes are starting to pay off. The number times students were sent the principal’s office for discipline problems fell from 202 in August to 162 in November, she said.

Attendance is also a lot better, according to Guthrie. Last fall, 53 students missed 10 or more days of school. This year, just 9 students have attendance problems that severe.

taking a stand

Colorado education leaders sign petition asking Washington officials to protect undocumented youth

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg reads with a student at an event called Power Lunch.

Superintendents from Colorado’s two largest school districts have signed a petition asking President Trump and Congress to extend temporary protections for young undocumented immigrants — some of them teachers.

Denver’s Tom Boasberg and Jefferson County’s Dan McMinimee joined more than 1,000 educators from across the country in signing the petition drafted by the nonprofit education advocacy group Stand for Children.

The petition asks that officials keep alive former President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and help pass the DREAM Act.

The DREAM Act, first introduced in Congress in 2001, would create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.

The petition reads in part:

Out of concern for children and the strength of our nation, we respectfully call on officials at the highest levels of power to address this issue in an urgent way. Students must be able to attend school and graduate with a clear path toward a productive future, and teachers who were brought here as children must be able to continue to strengthen our schools and our nation.

Many in the education community raised concern after Trump was elected in November. Trump ran on a promise to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and end Obama’s deferment program. On Thursday, some of Colorado’s Latino lawmakers sent a letter to Trump asking him to back away from that promise.

Other education leaders in Colorado who signed the petition:

  • Savinay Chandrasekhar, executive director of Minds Matter of Denver, which provides tutoring and other support for low-income youth.
  • Kimberlee Sia, executive director of KIPP Colorado Schools, part of a national charter school network.
  • Lauren Trent, director of education partnerships of CareerWise Colorado, which is developing an apprenticeship program for Colorado youth set to debut this fall.
  • Michael Clough, superintendent of Sheridan School District, southwest of Denver.
  • Patricia Hanrahan, deputy superintendent of Englewood Schools.

Numerous Denver Public Schools teachers also signed the petition.

working on the weekend

Teacher by day, waitress by night: Colorado teachers work second jobs to make ends meet

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Three days a week, Denver teacher Kendall Finch leaves her first-grade classroom after the final bell and heads to her second job at a local gym, where she works the front desk until 7 p.m.

Soon, the first-year teacher will add another job on the weekend — helping coordinate beer festivals and other events.

For Finch, the second and third jobs are a necessity — covering groceries, her gym membership and helping repay the $20,000 loan she took out last year to make ends meet during her unpaid teaching internship.

The 27-year-old isn’t alone in working extra jobs on top of teaching full-time. Many teachers nationwide take on second jobs outside the school system — 16 percent, according to a 2014 report from the Center for American Progress. The report only looked at data for one year.

The proportion is even higher in Colorado — about 22 percent — putting it among the top states where teachers take on extra employment. They’re bartenders, babysitters, deejays, tutors, cashiers and waitresses, to name a few.

The prevalence of teachers with second jobs is one symptom of larger, systemic problems — the steady erosion of teacher pay, Colorado’s perennial school funding crunch and skyrocketing housing costs. But some teachers and observers say it’s also a problem in its own right, sapping teachers’ energy, diverting their focus from the classroom and contributing to decisions to leave the profession altogether.

In interviews with more than a half-dozen Colorado teachers who have second and sometimes third jobs during the school year, the consensus was that teaching alone doesn’t pay the bills.

Teachers in rural, suburban and urban districts — those with children and those without — all voiced concerns about meeting their financial obligations. They cited the cost of housing, health care and student loans as their biggest burdens. Several described the scramble from teaching jobs to second jobs as draining and distracting.

One Jefferson County teacher, a father of three who works as a bike mechanic and property manager on the side, half-joked that he drinks ten cups of coffee a day.

Abby Cillo, a second-grade teacher at Fletcher Community School in Aurora, said her after-school jobs tutoring and nannying add another layer of logistics to her day.

“It’s one more thing for me to think about and plan for and do,” she said.

Some experts say it’s uncommon for such a large percentage of educated workers in a single profession to have second jobs.

“It’s really an important marker that we’re not treating teachers like the professionals they are,” said Lisette Partelow, director of teacher policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

“I’ve never met a doctor who had a side gig as a waiter or waitress,” she said.

The teacher pay gap

Experts and teachers alike say lagging salaries are at least partly to blame for the prevalence of second jobs among teachers.

Nationally, teachers earn about 17 percent less than similarly educated professionals, according to a 2016 report from the Economic Policy Institute. Even when teachers’ benefits — typically more generous than other workers — are added to the equation, teachers receive 11 percent less in total compensation.

Digging into Colorado data, the statistics become gloomier.

In a state-by-state ranking of average 2014-15 teacher salaries compiled by the nation’s largest teachers union, Colorado ranked 34th. Its average salary of nearly $50,000 was well below the national average of more than $57,000.

In addition, the Economic Policy Institute report revealed that Colorado teachers earn about 65 percent of what similarly educated professionals earn here.

“I was a little bit shocked that Colorado was so far behind,” said Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley and co-author of the report.

She noted that some other states with comparable numbers, such as Alabama and Virginia, have laws granting workers the right to avoid labor union membership or dues as a condition of employment. Those states have histories of low public sector wages.

In Colorado, school budgets and teacher pay in many districts have been impacted by a complicated web of constitutional amendments and laws that contribute to the state frequently ranking near the bottom in per-pupil funding.

Teaching wasn’t always like this. Back in 1994, teachers nationally only made a bit less than other professionals, and when you figured in benefits, there was almost no difference in compensation. But since then, what researchers call the “wage penalty” has grown significantly for teachers while their “benefits advantage” has not grown enough to offset it.

Part of the reason for this trend was huge wage growth for non-teacher college graduates between 1979 and 2002. Teachers didn’t enjoy the same surge because they work based on long-term contracts and because public sector wages don’t go up or down as dramatically as private sector wages do, researchers say.

Cillo, whose mother was a teacher and whose father was a principal, is keenly aware of the changing financial landscape for educators.

During her growing-up years, she said, “We weren’t super-rich, but we definitely didn’t want for things.”

“Teachers used to be middle class.”

This month, Cillo started a master’s degree program in organizational leadership.

“As much as I love teaching … I need to be prepared for something other than education,” she said.

Going solo

During the week, Nikki Fitterer, 40, is a math teacher at Falcon Bluffs Middle School in Jefferson County. On the weekends, she spends 10 hours serving sandwiches, tacos and stews from a local food truck.

She got the extra job several months ago — the first time in her 17-year teaching career she felt the need for extra income. One factor was the rising cost of living, she said. Another was the medical bills that piled up after she had back surgery last spring. Even with her $69,000 salary, Fitterer, who has a master’s degree, couldn’t keep up.

Things were different when she first started teaching. At the time, wages for female teachers were more comparable to those of other female college graduates — lagging by only about 4 percent. Today, female teachers nationally make about 14 percent less than similarly educated women, according to the Economic Policy Institute report. (The gap is even worse for male teachers.)

And while Fitterer was married when she became a teacher, she has since divorced.

“I’m a single person. I don’t have a second income in my home,” she said.

Other teachers echoed the sentiment.

Finch, the first-grade teacher from Denver, is single right now, too. She makes $39,000 a year and pays $850 a month to share an apartment with two roommates. She doesn’t see an end to working extra jobs unless she finds a partner to help shoulder the burden. But contemplating that kind of safety net feels anti-feminist, she said.

“I want to be self-sufficient,” she said. “But I’m not sure that can necessarily be a reality unless I have other jobs.”

Community conversations

It’s difficult to broach the topics of eroding pay and second jobs, without also touching on how the public views teachers.

“I think the compensation issue is intertwined with the status issue,” said Partelow, of the Center for American Progress.

Several teachers interviewed said while they often hear flattering comments about their noble career paths and the good they do, they feel the broader world sees them in a different light — ensconced in cushy jobs and undeserving of higher pay.

For some Jefferson County teachers, voters’ recent rejection of two school district tax measures was a stinging reminder of that reality.

Troy Rivera, a teacher at a Greeley charter school who also teaches at a local community college, said a friend of his likes to say, “Oh, you’re a teacher you’ve got it made.”

But his friend, a car salesman, doesn’t see him staying home to grade papers and create lesson plans on school holidays or taking classes to get recertified in the summer.

“There’s a lot more to the job than people think,” Rivera said.

In fact, most teachers interviewed for this story reported working 50-60 hours a week for their teaching job. Second and third jobs took about 10-15 hours a week.

What kind of salary bumps would make it possible for teachers to jettison their extra jobs? Answers vary. A couple teachers said $10,000 a year. One said $20,000. Rivera said while his side job keeps him from living paycheck-to paycheck, he believes his $51,000 salary is fair.

Caitlin Snarr, a first-grade teacher at Pagosa Springs Elementary School in southwest Colorado, took a diplomatic approach to the question.

“We could be paid a little bit more,” she said. Later in the conversation, she added, “I would never want to come across as whining.”

Snarr, a fourth-year teacher, earns $35,500 a year through her teaching job, plus enough to cover her car payment by running the school’s afternoon tutoring program four days a week.

“Down the road eventually it would be nice not to have to have a second job,” said Snarr, who has a daughter in third grade and a baby on the way.

Getting there, at least by way of a locally generated salary increase, will take community conversations about the feasibility of ballot initiatives like a mill levy override or a sales tax measure.

Snarr wants to be part of those conversations, driving the point home that extra school revenue — whether it’s for teacher salaries or anything else — “goes back to having really great opportunities for our kids.”