Future of Teaching

Too few teachers? This Indianapolis school district is growing its own

PHOTO: Dana Altemeyer, Lawrence Township
This year's Lawrence Township alternative license program cohort.

Michael Johnson has worked in schools for almost two decades, but he might finally stand in front of his own classroom next year.

Johnson, 45, is one of 14 prospective teachers in a new program designed to help teachers aides and other non-licensed school staff members earn teaching licenses while they work. The goal is to increase the district’s hiring pool while making it more diverse.

“We’re missing the mark on a lot of homegrown (teachers) that we have right within our own four walls,” said Tim Harshbarger, executive director for human resources in Lawrence Township Schools. “These are folks that know us, know our culture — some have been with us for years.”

The “district-based alternative certification” program was formed out of a partnership between Lawrence Township and the Indiana University School of Education at IUPUI. The 18-month program offers classes in the evening so students can work toward an elementary school teaching license while keeping their district jobs.

For Johnson, who has worked at Harrison Hill Elementary School for the past four years as a liaison between students, families, and teachers, the new program lets him move into a more direct role to help students while also teaching him more about what to look for in his own children’s education.

“I started to realize I can only go so far with what I have,” said Johnson, a father of two. “Doing this not only supports you as an individual to get the certification and get into teaching, but it helps you as a parent.”

For years, Indiana has been struggling to find ways to encourage more people to become teachers and keep experienced teachers in the classroom. The state has launched internet campaigns, created scholarships, and given districts permission to award some teachers in high-demand areas stipends, but districts still report that they struggle to hire — especially teachers of color.

That is a particular concern in urban districts like Lawrence Township and Indianapolis Public Schools, where most students are not white. In 2015-16, the most recent year’s data available, 93 percent of Indiana teachers were white, while 4.3 percent were black and 1.3 percent were Hispanic. The state’s enrollment this year shows two-thirds of students were white, and about 12 percent each were black or Hispanic.

Lawrence is hoping a “grow your own” approach could be a more effective solution for hiring that also allows students to learn from teachers with a better understanding of their backgrounds. Research has shown that students can benefit from learning from teachers who look like them.

Twelve of Lawrence’s 14 teacher program participants are people of color, and most of them are social workers, teaching assistants and behavior specialists who have been working in Lawrence Township for years.

“Traditional programs oftentimes tend to attract white women as students, and the research shows us that these alternate certification programs are more likely to attract students of color who will be teachers of color down the road,” said IUPUI professor Paula Magee.

The 18-month teacher certification program includes seven college classes and a semester of student teaching, and it costs about $14,000, with no financial assistance provided by the district or the university. Participants will finish in December with an elementary school teaching license and could be employed as teachers as early as January, although a job is not guaranteed.

They’ll also be six classes short of completing a master’s degree in education and will have the foundation to add-on other license areas, such as special education or English as a new language.

Because the classes are offered in the evenings, students can keep their district jobs during the day — often a hurdle for career-changers who need a full-time income, but only have the option to go to school during business hours. The classes are also held in Lawrence Township, so students don’t have to travel far.

“We’ve tried to make it really accessible for the students,” Magee said. “It makes that entry back into grad school a little smoother for them.”

Several other states have explored similar teaching programs for years, sometimes with mixed results.

Illinois’ effort to educate and license 1,000 new teachers ran into problems early on when students, who could take out loans provided by the state, were found to be dropping out in high numbers, due to poor academic performance or personal reasons. But programs that take students who already have a college degree, like the one in San Francisco, and those that don’t require the state to make a financial gamble, could be better positioned to succeed.

Magee said IUPUI and Lawrence are working on ways to address how to support its prospective teachers even when they leave the program. So far, only one or two students are not expected to move on to the student teaching portion in the fall, officials said.

Lawrence officials said this project has been in the works for years, and they’re excited by the turnout so far. The district is already making plans for a second cohort next year, and Magee said Wayne Township has also shown interest in starting a similar program.

To be eligible, prospective teachers need a bachelor’s degree and must be a full-time employee in the district in a non-certified role. Johnson said it was initially difficult to get back into school mode, but the support from his district and the university made a huge difference. He likens their support to the kind he frequently gives to his students and their families.

“It’s rewarding,” Johnson said. “We are all just meeting each other where we are, and that’s helping us to meet families where they are. And that’s education.”

This story has been updated to reflect the correct number of remaining classes necessary for teachers to earn a master’s degree.

at odds

‘The reckoning has come’: Denver teachers union takes a hard line in negotiations  

PHOTO: Michael Ciaglo/Special to the Denver Post
Denver Classroom Teachers Association deputy executive director Corey Kern speaks to a room full of teachers during a break in negotiations between the union and and Denver Public Schools.

Negotiations grew more tense between the Denver teachers union and the district on Tuesday as the two sides struggled to find common ground over its pay-for-performance system.

Union and district officials appear to literally be at standstill. After a tense exchange before noon, district officials departed the room to regroup — and did not return to the negotiating table. Talks are scheduled to resume Thursday. 

The day’s developments indicate that it may be growing more difficult for Denver to avoid a strike that would upend Colorado’s largest school district and add to a national wave of teacher activism.

On Tuesday morning, Denver Classroom Teachers Association representatives told district leaders that they want a traditional salary schedule, with “steps” corresponding to a teacher’s experience and longevity and “lanes” representing education. The district’s proposal, which would allow teachers who served 10 consecutive years to jump into the next lane, was unacceptable, the union said, and they don’t plan to budge.

“We need you to convert your structure to ours so we can move forward,” said union bargaining representative Robert Gould.

Asked what kind of changes the union might still be open to, Gould responded, “You’re not listening. You’re not listening to what we’ve been saying for the last two weeks, you haven’t been listening to what we’ve been saying for the last two months, you haven’t been listening to what we’ve been saying the last year, nor the last five years. What we’ve been saying is, we need the structure to be our structure. Then we can move forward.”

A long pause followed.

“Well, I don’t honestly know where we go from this ultimatum here,” said Michelle Berge, the district’s general counsel, adding that her team would regroup.

Then Gould continued.

“Denver teachers, they’ve met their limit,” he said. “There’s only so long you can continue to tell people no. And at some point, that’s what you’re going to get back — no. This Saturday, teachers are going to vote. They’re either going to vote yes for a commitment or they’re going to vote yes for a strike.”

“I understand that,” Berge said, explaining the district is struggling to find a way forward when the union hasn’t agreed to changes in months.

Then the room erupted with union supporters noting changes they had agreed to.

“Cut more central administration waste!” parent and education activist Amy Carrington yelled.

District officials said they were cutting central administration. Seven million dollars is being cut, and more is coming, they said.

As talk shifted back to the union, Pam Shamburg, DCTA executive director, said it was time for bigger change.

“The reckoning has come,” she said. “The district is going to have to dig deep. But it’s going to have to happen. And now is the time for the reckoning.”

The two sides went into a break — and didn’t meet again. 

District officials said Tuesday evening that they are processing the union’s position and have work to do before Thursday.

Superintendent Susana Cordova told Chalkbeat district officials entered Tuesday’s negotiations feeling they had come a long way toward the union position. Cordova said the district remains committed to making a deal, but would still like to get a counter-proposal from the union.

“We would like to see something from them,” said Cordova, who took the district’s top job last month. “I am new to negotiating, but that’s generally how that works.”

On Friday, Denver Public Schools officials presented a new proposal that would put an additional $6 million into teacher pay. That’s on top of the additional $17 million the district had already proposed, for a total of $23 million more.

Corey Kern, the union’s deputy executive director, said the two sides need to reach a “fundamental understanding” of how a teacher can qualify to move up “lanes” and potentially earn more money.

“If not, it will be very difficult for us to make a counter to the district,” he told Chalkbeat. “We would like to get back to the table and work on the issue and come to an agreement. But right now, we’re so far apart.”

The union is pushing for teachers to be able to move up in the system not just if they have earned master’s degrees or doctorates, but from other avenues, such as taking taking college courses or completing district professional development units, he said. 

Mark Ferrandino, chief financial officer of the Denver district, said steps and lanes have become a sticking point in part because of how much money it would take to fund the different proposals but also because of philosophical differences. The district believes its proposal actually allows for more flexibility for teachers, while the “very clear table” provides much more transparency than the old ProComp system.

Kern said the union was disappointed the two sides did not reconvene Tuesday — “it felt like we lost a day” — but is hopeful for what’s next.

Cordova said she believes a deal remains in everyone’s best interests, but if one cannot be reached, she will do everything possible to keep schools open. That includes offering more money to substitute teachers, deploying other district staff to classrooms, and preparing lessons for those people to teach.

The union, for its part, is also encouraging parents to send students to school if there is a strike — with the intent of proving how hard it is to run schools without teachers.

Bargaining sessions are scheduled for Thursday and Friday, if necessary. Without an agreement, union leaders plan a strike vote for Saturday, and a strike could start as early as Jan. 28.

Eric Gorski contributed reporting.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that it was a parent, and not a union representative, who shouted, “Cut more central administration waste!”

Seeking substitutes

Wanted: Furloughed federal workers who can step into the classroom

PHOTO: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
Union workers demonstrate Jan. 10 in Washington, D.C., against the partial shutdown of the federal government.

Routinely short of substitutes to fill in for absent teachers, a number of large school systems are appealing to furloughed federal workers to step in and earn some extra cash amid the longest partial government shutdown in the nation’s history.

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools is among the latest to go on a hiring offensive, urging federal employees on Tuesday to apply to be substitute teachers if they’re looking for work.

“We understand this is a tough time for many families impacted by what is happening at the national level,” said Amber Tyus, director of talent acquisition for the 85,000-student district. “We believe this is a way for workers to find employment that benefits them and the thousands of young people we serve in this district every day.”

Closer to Washington, D.C., several districts in northern Virginia and suburban Maryland are targeting federal workers who are currently without a salary.

Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia has held two hiring events in the past week, and “the response has been overwhelming,” said John Torre, a district spokesman.

“We are always in need of substitutes,” he added.

Just over half of the 800,000 government workers impacted by the shutdown are deemed “essential,” and therefore must continue to work without pay; the rest have been furloughed.

The nation appeared no closer to a resolution on Tuesday as the shutdown dragged into its fourth week due to President Trump’s funding impasse with Congress. Trump wants $5 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Federal workers missed their first paychecks last Friday, and many have struggled to pay their bills and feed their families. But that harsh reality also presented an opportunity for school districts needing professionals who can step into a classroom at a moment’s notice.

In Nashville, a substitute teacher can earn upwards of $1,300 every two weeks. There’s also a big need to support the district’s 5,200-plus certified teachers.

The school system must place substitutes in about 550 classrooms every day as teachers miss school due to illness, vacation, professional development, or other reasons. Tyus says about 900 more people are needed to round out the district’s 1,300-member substitute pool, noting: “We recognize our substitute teachers play an integral part in educating the students of MNPS.”

In Tennessee, substitute teachers must have a high school diploma or their GED, and some districts require a bachelor’s degree.

Applicants in Nashville must complete an online application, submit official college transcripts, clear a background check, and pass an online training course. The paperwork can take less than two weeks to process.

Requirements vary from state to state and district to district, so not all furloughed workers are eligible to work for their local school. For those who are, the American Association of School Personnel Administrators views hiring them as a win-win.

“There is a massive shortage for teachers and substitute teachers, so being creative and making lemonade out of lemons is a fabulous idea,” said Kelly Coash-Johnson, the association’s executive director.

Nationally, teachers miss an average of 11 days a year, according to a 2014 analysis of large districts by the National Council on Teacher Quality.