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Data privacy protection bills die in committee

EdNewsColorado - Tue, 02/10/2015 - 01:03

The House Education Committee late Monday killed two Republican-sponsored data privacy protection bills following a meeting that lasted more than eight hours.

Monday’s marathon session featured often-emotional testimony from parents expressing fears about intrusive school surveys and the dangers of detrimental information following children for life.

The bills were supported by a long list of witnesses, most of them parents with passionate arguments about what they consider to be intrusions on student and family privacy, particularly surveys that ask information about drug and alcohol use, sex, suicidal thoughts, and other personal matters.

“There’s a lot of mistrust, and there’s a lot of anger,” said Cheri Kiesecker, a Fort Collins activist. “This is profiling them forever.”

Both bills were “postponed indefinitely” on 6-5 votes, with majority Democrats opposing them.

Democratic committee members agreed that data privacy and security need to be dealt with, but in another way. “There are issues that need to be addressed. I just don’t believe this bill does it,” said Rep. John Buckner, D-Aurora and chair of the committee. “I am hopeful still that there will be a bill this session.”

The defeat of HB 15-1108 and House Bill 15-1199 leaves only one data privacy bill currently alive in the 2015 session, Senate Bill 15-173. That measure, introduced late last week, has bipartisan sponsorship and seeks to impose new privacy, distribution, and security requirements on outside vendors, such as database companies, that handle and process student information.

The two House bills sought to broaden parent control over student data and set new requirements on school districts.

“We need this bill to protect the personal and constitutional privacy rights of students,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument and prime sponsor of HB 15-1108.

But Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, testified, “It is far too prescriptive … and will tie the hands of our educators.” Other witnesses who opposed the bills warned they could hamper collection of data needed to identify and provide services to at-risk and special education students, as well as other special populations.

HB 15-1108 would have set new rules for protection of data privacy. It would have required individual parent consent to surveys and assessments and allowed parents to restrict distribution of data and have data destroyed. (Read unamended bill here.)

HB 15-1199 would have set detailed parent consent requirements, imposed limitations on vendors, restricted disclosure of data to third parties, required destruction of most data five years after students have left school, and set criminal penalties for violations of the bill’s provisions. It also would have set requirements for protection of teacher data (read bill).

School district witnesses who testified against the second bill warned that it could completely disrupt compiling data from statewide tests.

The committee Monday also killed a third Republican-sponsored measure, House Bill 15-1037. That bill from would have prohibited state colleges from denying student religious groups access to campus facilities and funding based solely on a group’s requirement that its leaders hold certain religious beliefs or standards of conduct.

The backstory to this bill is controversy over whether colleges and universities should support student groups that, because of religious convictions, discriminate against gays. Testimony and committee discussion on the bill consumed more than four hours. A similar bill by Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, was killed by House Education early in the 2014 session.

Categories: Urban School News

Colorado, find your school’s immunization compliance and exemption rates

EdNewsColorado - Tue, 02/10/2015 - 00:05

Updated Feb. 10, 11:45 a.m.: This story and database have been changed to reflect the addition of immunization data for Adams County School District 50. 

It’s well known that Colorado has lower immunization rates and higher exemption rates than most other states, but those numbers are based on small survey samples and don’t reveal much about the risk in individual schools and communities. That’s why school-by-school rates can provide a valuable yardstick for parents, particularly in households with immunosuppressed family members or infants and young children who haven’t yet been fully vaccinated.

Now you can use Chalkbeat’s database—the first of its kind in Colorado–to look up immunization compliance and exemption rates for individual schools in the 20 largest districts in the state. These districts enroll around three-quarters of the state’s students.

Under House Bill 14-1288, which took effect last July 1, schools are required to disclose immunization and exemption rates upon request. No state agency currently collects or compiles this data.

Here’s some information about terminology in the database:

Compliance rates include the percentage of students who have gotten all required immunizations, have signed exemption forms, or are “in process” of getting up to date on their immunizations. High compliance rates indicate that schools are doing a good job collecting immunization and exemption paperwork, and ensuring that students are complying with state law. High compliance rates do not necessarily indicate that all those student are fully immunized.

Exemption rates represent the percentage of students whose parents have opted them out of some or all required shots. In Colorado, there are three types of exemptions: medical, religious, and personal belief. The majority of parents who excuse their children from immunizations use personal belief exemptions.

High exemption rates—around 10 percent or higher–can have serious implications when there are outbreaks of contagious diseases like measles and whooping cough. That’s because herd immunity usually requires immunization rates of 90-95 percent. If too many students in a school have opted out of shots, the spread of disease is more likely. The same may be true when compliance rates drop below 90 percent, even if exemption rates are low.

To find immunization and exemption rates for schools not listed in this database, make a direct request to the school or district of interest. Then let us know that information and we’ll add it to our database.

Note: Most districts provided compliance and exemption rates for their charter schools, but a few, including Poudre School District, did not. If you would like to add your school’s or district’s rates, please send an email to

Categories: Urban School News

Question of the week: What role should teacher-leaders have in schools?

EdNewsColorado - Mon, 02/09/2015 - 19:35

Denver is expanding its teacher leadership program, which means some teachers will have both classroom and administrative responsibilities.

Teachers and principals told us that teacher-leaders offer support to and play a bridging role between administrators and teachers.

Mandy Israel, a high school history teacher who is in her second year as a teacher-leader said this:

“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.”


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.”

That brings us to our question of the week: How might schools benefit from this split role, and conversely, what are the biggest risks of the teacher-leader model? 

Each week, we ask readers a question about a timely or timeless question about their experiences in education. Readers who want to share their opinions should leave a response in the comment section below, tweet us @ChalkbeatCO, send an email, or leave a comment on our Facebook wall. Every Friday we round up the responses. Here’s last week’s.

Categories: Urban School News

One parent’s plea for accountability

EdNewsColorado - Mon, 02/09/2015 - 18:56

On January 21, The U.S. Senate Education Committee conducted a hearing on a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB, in Washington DC.

I was there as a Denver Public Schools parent. Being in Washington was a very powerful experience to me. I had never been in our nation’s capital and to know that I was sitting in a U.S. Senate hearing room, where some of the laws of the most powerful nation of the world are debated, was a moving and deeply meaningful experience for me.

I was happy first and foremost to be supporting a law that will continue to help our nation’s less fortunate children — children who will help determine shape our country’s future.

Also representing Denver at the hearing was Superintendent Tom Boasberg, one of five experts testifying before the Senate panel. He presented a series of promising student-achievement trends in our city: increased graduation rates, decreased dropout rates, and more families trusting the city’s public schools with their children’s education.

He said “a both/and” strategy has led to those improvements. Both strengthening district-run schools and offering new schools. Both using tests to make sure students are learning the basics and providing arts and other enrichment programs.

That’s what I want as a parent: a well-rounded education that includes a tough standardized test every year that tells me how my child is doing. And yet I also believe we need our students to explore problems that have far more complex solutions than a multiple choice test can measure.

I’m optimistic that the new online-based PARCC tests that are coming this spring will challenge our students more and will help them develop stronger critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. We shouldn’t keep testing our students as we have been for so many years. We need better tests, and maybe fewer of them. We need higher expectations.

And — most important — we need to be sure that our cities and states are accountable for providing good schools to all children. That vital responsibility should not be left up to individual states alone. The federal government should ensure that happens.

The outcome of the NCLB reauthorization debate will affect millions of children who attend public schools, especially those from lower income families.

A ranking education committee member, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, expressed the feelings of many of us in attendance when she said, in her closing statement: “Fixing No Child Left Behind should not be a partisan issue. It should be one we work hand in hand, not as Democrats or Republicans — but as Americans. This is an issue that isn´t about politics — it´s about what´s best for kids.”

As an artist and a father of four, I can attest to the great benefit this law brings to my children and our family as a whole. To know that part of our tax money goes to an education system that monitors the achievement and the progress of our children through testing gives me as a parent the confidence to know that our public school teachers are performing their work well.

I hope our lawmakers make the right decision, one that is made with the future of our children as their top priority. And I especially hope they take into account the advancements in technology and rapid global economic changes.

We are moving into a new and more challenging era for our society. The demands on our children will only increase in a more globalized economy.

Categories: Urban School News

DPS announces new principal for Manual High School

EdNewsColorado - Mon, 02/09/2015 - 17:49

Nick Dawkins, currently the principal at Hamilton Middle School in Denver, will take the reins of Manual High School starting next school year.

Dawkins was one of two finalists for the job who met with community members last month.

Don Roy, who replaced former principal Brian Dale a year ago January, will lead Manual through the end of the 2014-15 school year.

This is the latest in a series of changes at Manual, a school with a storied history that has fallen on hard times in the past two decades. Manual has been the focus of several failed attempts at school improvement efforts by DPS.

DPS officials announced early this school year that they were searching for a new principal to lead the school. The news came as the district abandoned a tentative plan to merge Manual with nearby East High School.

District officials told board members last December that finding a new principal for the school was part of an effort to address a recent decline in academic performance and rapid staff turnover at Manual. Officials also highlighted a partnership with City Year and announced the introduction of a new career and technical education program funded by Kaiser Permanente.

In a letter to Manual students and parents, Chief Schools Officer Susana Cordova and Assistant Superintendent Greta Martinez wrote that “Mr. Dawkins has deep roots in the Manual community and he has a track record of success as an instructional leader at the middle and high school level.”

Dawkins will be introduced to Manual’s students on Feb. 11. There is a community reception at the school later this month.

Chalkbeat investigated principal turnover in Denver Public Schools earlier last fall, and the rocky history of school improvement efforts at Manual in early 2014.

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Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Colo. might lower the bar for high school seniors to graduate

EdNewsColorado - Mon, 02/09/2015 - 10:41

Welcome home

Chalkbeat Colorado's homepage has been redesigned. Check out the changes here. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Human Resources

Denver Public Schools is announcing plans this week to expand a teacher leadership program, which is still being tweaked in year two, officials say marks a fundamental shift in the way school staffs are structured. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Getting the diploma

Colorado officials are contemplating significant changes to graduation guidelines approved in 2013, including giving more local control over ways students can prove themselves, lowering the bar in some cases, and eliminating subject matter requirements except for English and math. ( Denver Post )

Words of caution

Gov. John Hickenlooper told the state's school leaders that “there are no quick fixes, there is no magic wand out there" to improve funding classrooms. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Healthy schools

School immunization records show more than 12 percent of students in Denver Public Schools and 18 percent of students in Boulder Valley schools are not up-to-date on their vaccinations. ( The Denver Channel )

Denver Public Schools is asking families to prioritize what they believe are the most pressing health concerns facing students. ( Denver Post )

Privacy matters

A new bipartisan student data privacy bill would impose requirements on outside vendors such as software and database companies that handle information about Colorado students. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Dateline, Jeffco

Jeffco Public School's executive director of special education left her post Friday after parents and community members voiced their anger and concerns over a proposal to remove two registered nurses from a special needs school. ( 9News )

The historic Fruitdale school building in Wheat Ridge won't be used by students any time soon. The Mountain Phoenix governing board opted not to relocate to the campus. ( Denver Post )

Chalkbeat readers said school board members should keep their emails. Suggestions ranged from 30 days to seven years. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Beautiful mistakes

Learning from mistakes was the point at a Saturday engineering competition, where students from 40 Colorado middle and high schools tried to get underwater vehicles through an obstacle course. ( Gazette )

Mascot makeover

Loveland High School has asked the Lakota Sioux tribe for help to create a new mascot and a hands-on lesson in history and culture for the school. The school's mascot has been the Indians for 90 years. ( Longmont Times-Call )

Two cents

Does the DSST charter network have an unfair advantage over public schools? Nope, suggests Vincent Carroll. ( Denver Post )

Colorado should not scale back its education reform efforts — including standardized tests — opines a former newspaper editor. ( Denver Post )

But the executive director of the Donnell-Kay Foundation thinks Accountability 2.0 could look radically different and greatly improved — at both the state and federal level. ( Denver Post )

Categories: Urban School News

DPS to expand teacher leadership program

EdNewsColorado - Mon, 02/09/2015 - 08:00

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 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.

Categories: Urban School News

Welcome to our new homepage

EdNewsColorado - Mon, 02/09/2015 - 01:03

Dear readers,

For the past few months, we’ve listened to your feedback about our homepage and we’ve made some changes. Here’s a brief rundown of a few of the changes we’ve made:

  • We’ve added a section called “Best of Chalkbeat,” which we’ll be updating to feature content we’re most proud of and special projects that we’ve published.
  • We’ve also added a comment count to our stories that link directly to our article’s comment section. We hope this makes our comment section easier for you to access so that you can share thoughtful comments about the education issues we cover.
  • We’ve also added excerpts to our top stories so that you as readers have more information to decide whether to click a story you may be interested in reading.

Please let us know what you think! You can send feedback to or leave a comment below. And of course, please let us know if you have any ideas about how we can improve your reading experience on our site.

Categories: Urban School News

Data privacy bill focuses on vendors

EdNewsColorado - Fri, 02/06/2015 - 18:15

A new bipartisan student data privacy bill would impose requirements on outside vendors such as software and database companies that handle information about Colorado students.

The bill would prohibit vendors from doing targeted advertising based on student information, creating student profiles, selling student information or disclosing student information in most circumstances. Vendors could disclose student information as allowed by state and federal law.

Senate Bill 15-173 also maintains current state law about parent rights and consent relative to school surveys, assessments and other data gathering. (See bill text here.)

The bill is more narrowly focused than two measures introduced earlier, which are more concerned with strengthening parent consent requirements.

Those two bills have the potential disadvantage of being Republican in origin, introduced in the Democratic-controlled House. In contrast, SB 15-173 has bipartisan prime sponsors, Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, and Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver. It was developed through discussions between school district representatives and parent advocacy groups.

The two Republican data bills are scheduled to be heard by the House Education Committee on Monday afternoon.

House Bill 15-1108 would set new rules for protection of data privacy, including the requirement that a super-majority of parents provide written consent for certain surveys and other things that would include collection of personal information about students. (Read bill here.)

House Bill 15-1199 sets detailed parent consent requirements, imposes limitations on vendors, restricts disclosure of data to third parties, requires destructions of most data five years after students have left school and sets criminal penalties for violations of the bill’s provisions (read bill). Holbert is a cosponsor of this measure.

After testing, data privacy is a key concern for some parent groups. Conservative groups also don’t like district questionnaires that ask personal questions about issues like drug use. The 2014 legislature passed a law that codified Department of Education data privacy policies. That law didn’t impose requirements on school districts, which have resisted new rules as unnecessary and as a financial burden that the state likely won’t pay for.

Categories: Urban School News

Weekend Reads: How many hours do American teachers actually work?

EdNewsColorado - Fri, 02/06/2015 - 17:13
  • Is one of the most common proxies for poverty in schools — free- and reduced-price lunch enrollment — actually a good measure? It’s complicated. (NPR)
  • One Michigan private Montessori school has begun excluding unvaccinated students, and more — including public schools — could follow. (Atlantic)
  • Former Vermont governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean argues that the debate over education reform, encapsulated by the debate over Teach for America, presents a series of false policy choices. (Salon)
  • A new report from a Columbia University Teacher’s College researcher suggests that American teachers don’t work as many hours as scholars have long believed. (Slate)
  • Writers at a centrist think tank argue that though No Child Left Behind has deep flaws, its fundamental precepts worked and should not be abandoned. (Third Way)
  • How a controversial for-profit online charter network used legislative fine print and a “posse of lobbyists” to work around opposition and open a school in North Carolina. (Buzzfeed)
  • The U.S. Department of Education issued new guidance around how states can use School Improvement Grant funds. (Politics K-12)
  • NPR’s team of education reporters and editors talk about their favorite teachers. (NPR Ed)
Categories: Urban School News

Readers: School board members should keep emails

EdNewsColorado - Fri, 02/06/2015 - 14:46

On Monday, we asked our readers, “Should school boards be required to keep electronic correspondence for a certain amount of time? If so, how long and why?”

The question was prompted by a recent discussion between the Jeffco Public Schools board and its lawyer, Brad Miller. Miller said the district needed to adopted a policy that outlines how it retains electronic files, including emails. But that policy could say emails do not need to be kept.

Reader Kelly Johnson pointed out that if emails are deleted, they’re no good to the public.

If the emails — using either personal or district email addresses — talk about Board business, they’re a public record. And what good is a public record if it isn’t actually archived?

Reader Jim Earley left this comment:

Any public entity should be required to have retention policies for all correspondence, digital or otherwise. For email, I would urge a minimum two year retention policy.

But Tina Gurdikian, in a comment, said emails should be maintained for the public official’s career.

Any emails directly pertaining to board/district business and decisions/decision-making should be retained for the duration that an elected board official is in office.

That’s not long enough for Twitter user Gail Kramer

@ChalkbeatCO School board members should keep school board related emails for 7 yrs like US citizens keep tax returns.

— Gail Kramer (@Kramerreads) February 4, 2015

But Paula Reed said a shorter length of time would be fine with her.

Thirty days is a reasonable length of time. Should a situation occur that requires public oversight, that allows time to ascertain just what is needed and file a CORA (Colorado Open Records Act request). When a school board candidate runs on transparency during his or her campaign, he or she should be in favor of such a reasonable policy.

As always, we invite you to join the conversation on our website, Facebook page, or on Twitter.

Categories: Urban School News

Hick: TABOR repeal “a doomed effort”

EdNewsColorado - Fri, 02/06/2015 - 14:11

Gov. John Hickenlooper told a large audience of school administrators Friday that he “can’t imagine” the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights being repealed and that instead the state needs to “modify the different parts of the constitution to put them more in harmony.”

Hickenlooper’s message to the annual winter meeting of the Colorado Association of School Executives probably wasn’t quite what some of the group wanted to hear, on TABOR or on other issues.

After the governor had finished his 20-minute speech, Boulder Superintendent Bruce Messinger asked Hickenlooper if he would lead a campaign to repeal TABOR. “We will need the governor to lead that charge.”

“To take on that battle … right now, that would be a doomed effort,”Hickenlooper said. “We’d be better served to look at modifying TABOR. I’m not politic, but at least I’m honest.”

Here are the highlights of what the governor said on other key issues.

School spending: He touted his proposed increase of about $380 million in state funding for 2015-16, but he warned about future years. “We’re at a serious turning point” in the following budget year, 2016-17, Hickenlooper said. For that year required K-12 spending increases “will more than eclipse all the projected new money for every other purpose in the state.”

Reducing the shortfall in K-12 spending “should be a priority for all of us,” he added. “But to create a system where no other part of the state [government] is able to grow is going to be a very great challenge.”

“There are no quick fixes, there is no magic wand out there.”

Testing: “I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had over the past 12 months on testing,” the governor told the group.

He didn’t refer to any specific possible changes in testing but broadly cautioned against radical changes. “We are seeing an international jobs war. The key to winning that competition is going to be education, and we’ve got to have some way to measure our success.”

He continued, “I get it – the volume of assessments has taken too much time away from teaching. That’s something we should be able to solve.”

But, he cautioned again, “Streamlining can’t come at the expense of maintaining fairness and consistency across every Colorado community.”

Community dialogue: On both finance and testing Hickenlooper stressed the need for expanded community dialogue across the state. “All of us need to do a better job of listening. … No one’s going to get everything they want.”

How schools are doing: “Despite all the budget cuts … there has been a lot of good news coming out of Colorado schools,” Hickenlooper said, citing achievement gains in districts like Adams 12-Five Star, Denver Public Schools and Edison in El Paso County.

“I think we are beginning to close the opportunity gap in Colorado,” he said. “Colorado is the greatest state … I think our education system is well on its way to being a reflection of that.”

After the governor left, a panel of six superintendents reacted to the speech and discussed other issues.

“I would agree with the governor that I think the repeal of TABOR is a fool’s errand,” said Walt Cooper, superintendent of the Cheyenne Mountain district.

But, as the session closed, Messinger said, “I think we have to be very resistant about accepting this as the new normal.” Changing TABOR “may be impossible, but only if we believe it’s impossible. … We can accept this as the new normal … or we can create the new normal and move a lower tax state into a higher tax state.”

The TABOR amendment requires voter approval for all state and local tax increases. It also sets limits on how much new revenue that state can spend in a given year. Rising state revenues are pushing the state budget toward that ceiling and may require tax refunds as early as the next budget year.

The legislature could submit a ballot measure to voters asking to retain the extra revenues, but it’s considered unlikely that will happen this session.

A second constitutional provision, the Gallagher amendment, sets limits on property tax collections and acts in combination with TABOR to limit local district revenues, shifting the burden of K-12 funding to the state. And a third provision, Amendment 23, requires school spending to increase by inflation and enrollment growth every year.

What superintendents are asking

A large group of Colorado superintendents came together to push for reduction of what’s called the negative factor, the shortfall in K-12 spending that began building after the 2008 recession.

They had some success with that lobbying effort, and this year superintendents are pushing for addition of $70 million to 2015-16 K-12 spending on top of Hickenlooper’s plan. The proposal would allocate $50 million to districts for at-risk students and $20 million to small rural districts.

A statement proposing that idea was signed by 174 superintendents in November, and several dozen of the district leaders gathered at a news conference Thursday to publicize the idea. (Read full statement.)

“This proposal is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson said.

Superintendents pose for group portrait at CASE convention.
Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Superintendents plead for more money

EdNewsColorado - Fri, 02/06/2015 - 10:44

Healthy schools

Colorado students are becoming increasingly vulnerable to infectious diseases due to large number of parents opting their children out of vaccines, according to a new health report card. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

And Michele Lueck, president and CEO of the Colorado Health Institute, said there is no political will to reverse that trend. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

School funding and finance

Colorado superintendents are renewing their push to restore funding to their schools. They're meeting this week in Westminster to discuss the issue. ( CRP, 9News, Daily Camera, KKTV )

Bridge to real life

A new program in the Cherry Creek School District aims to get special-needs students into the booming electronics recycling industry via the district’s Transition Program, which serves 18 to 21-year-old students who have graduated from high school but still receive services. ( Aurora Sentinel )

Capitol Report

Bills that would allow state tax credits for private school tuition and guarantee parent rights in educational and medical decisions were passed Thursday by the Republican majority on the Senate Education Committee. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Turning around turnaround policies

States can now develop their own turnaround plans for low-performing schools using federal dollars and submit them to the U.S. Secretary of Education for approval. These remedies would not necessarily have to follow turnaround principles in the department's waivers. ( Ed Week )

Marijuana and teens

A panel of experts including physicians, law enforcement, a recovery specialist and a mother and son team with a personal story of marijuana addiction were on hand to help Colorado Springs parents understand what their students might be dealing with now that marijuana is legal for adults. ( KOAA )

Human Resources

A social studies teacher at Community Prep School in Colorado Springs was recognized the Colorado League of Charter Schools as teacher of the year. ( Gazette )

Vista Peak P-8 Exploratory in east Aurora this fall implemented a national program to encourage men to volunteer in schools. ( Denver Post )

Jennifer Giles, the bilingual 3rd grade teacher at Longmont's Columbine Elementary, advanced to the semifinals of the Jeopardy! Teachers Tournament Thursday night. ( Longmont Times Call )

Social issues

Denver civic leaders and students discussed issues of homelessness and ways in which teens in Denver could get involved in helping those experiencing homelessness. ( 9News )

In real life

Volunteers in the Spellbinders program go into Douglas County schools and tell personal stories or oral histories to engage young students and link to teachers' curriculums. ( Denver Post )

Categories: Urban School News

Tax credits, parent rights bills advance in Senate

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 02/05/2015 - 23:22

Bills that would allow state tax credits for private school tuition and guarantee parent rights in educational and medical decisions were passed Thursday by the Republican majority on the Senate Education Committee.

The 5-4 vote on the tax-credits measure marked the first time in several sessions that such a bill has moved out of committee.

The five hours of hearings drew an overflow crowd, and the meeting was punctuated with sometimes-emotional testimony on the parent rights bill.

Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud and prime sponsor of the tax-credits measure, Senate Bill 15-045, argued that the bill is needed to give more support to private schools and home schooling. The current system “encourages in every way public schools and pretty much tolerates private schools and home schooling. This bill is intended simply to change that policy,” he said.

The witness list for the bill was surprisingly short, and committee members took more time discussing the bill than advocates did supporting or opposing it. Democratic committee members took up a fair amount of time with unsuccessful amendments designed to make points about other issues like education funding and non-discrimination.

There also was a bit of back and forth among committee members about whether tax credits, as opposed to vouchers, actually involve public funds and therefore have constitutional problems.

The bill would allow a tax credit equal to half of statewide per-pupil public school spending for taxpayers with children enrolled full-time in a private school. A tax credit of $1,000 would be allowed for full-time home-schooled students. People who donate to private school scholarships could claim a credit of half of statewide per-pupil funding or the amount of the scholarship, whichever is smaller.

The bill moves next to the Senate Finance Committee, where testimony and discussion is supposed to focus on the possible fiscal impacts of the bill.

Legislative staff analysts estimate the measure would cost the state $12.1 million in 2015-16 and $37 million in 2016-17, involving 35,891 students in that second year. It’s estimated the loss in tax revenues could reach $318.3 million by 2028-29.

K-12 funding is projected to drop by $44.1 million in 2016-17 and $81.3 million in 2017-18. Total K-12 spending currently is about $5.9 billion a year. (Read the full financial analysis here.)

Parent rights bill sparks emotional responses

Parent’s bill of rights sponsor Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, said those rights are under “assault” and that his bill would “reinforce” the rights of parents to raise and educate their children as they see fit.

Representatives of  the Colorado Bar Association and children’s advocacy organizations testified against the bill, warning of possible unintended consequences.

Much of the testimony from both sides focused on medical consent issues and alleged problems with family courts. There also was testimony from anti-vaccination activists.

Schools were less of a focus. Witnesses representing the Colorado Education Association, Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Association of School Executives said the bill isn’t necessary because existing laws cover parent rights to opt their children out of lessons they object to, or out of sex education.

But anti-testing activist Anita Stapleton of Pueblo complained of students being coerced to take state tests and required to answer questionnaires that asked about drug use and sexual habits.

Senate Bill 15-077 declares that parents have the fundamental right to raise, educate and provide medical care for their children and that government cannot interfere with that unless there’s “a compelling interest.” It sets out a long list of parental rights, including withdrawal of children from classes whose content they find objectionable, receiving information about opting out of sex education classes, access to textbooks, and consent to medical and diagnostic procedures and to video and audio recording of children.

Read the bill text here.

It’s possible that both bills will pass the Senate, where Republicans hold a 18-17 majority. If that happens their chances are dim in the House, where Democrats have majority control. That’s what happens when there’s split legislative control – strongly ideological bills passed in one house tend to die in the other.

Categories: Urban School News

CO Health Institute CEO: Political will lacking to tighten immunization law

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 02/05/2015 - 17:32
"It doesn't seem like it's going to have the political will in Colorado to go very far."
– Michele Lueck, president and CEO of the Colorado Health Institute

That’s Lueck’s take on why efforts to make it harder for parents to claim “personal belief” exemptions from childhood immunizations are unlikely to succeed. She made the comment after a briefing Thursday on the 2015 Colorado Health Report Card, which revealed the state has lost ground when it comes to childhood immunization rates. (Read Chalkbeat’s coverage of the report card here.)

Unlike most of the other 38 health indicators on the report card, immunizations are one area where the numbers go down as income goes up, said Lueck.

“It’s not an issue of cost and it’s not an issue of access.”

Colorado’s legislature tried last year to make it harder for parents to obtain personal belief exemptions by requiring them to be briefed first by a health care professional or complete an online education module. That provision was ultimately stripped from the bill.

Categories: Urban School News

Report card: Low immunization rates ding state’s health grade

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 02/05/2015 - 13:00

With the national resurgence of measles making headlines in recent weeks, Colorado’s latest health report card highlights the state’s vulnerabilities to such infectious diseases.

The state lost ground on toddler immunizations since last year, moving from 18th to 30th on the report card’s state-by-state ranking. That drop is based on a continuing decline in the percentage of Colorado toddlers who are up to date on six key vaccinations. (In 2013, 69.2 percent of toddlers got the six immunizations, down from 75.8 percent in 2011.)

Immunization rates are one of five indicators that figured into Colorado’s C grade—the same as last year– on the “Healthy Beginnings” category of the 2015 report card, which is published by the Colorado Health Foundation in partnership with the Colorado Health Institute. (The Colorado Health Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat Colorado).

Update: See what the head of the Colorado Health Institute had to say about immunization rates here

Analysts from the Institute said Colorado would have earned a C+ this year if its immunization ranking had stayed at 18th. Others indicators in the “Healthy Beginnings” category include prenatal health care, smoking status during pregnancy, low birth weight, and infant mortality.

The state also earned a C in the “Healthy Children” category for the second year in a row. Overall, there was little change in that category’s indicators, which include insurance coverage, obesity rates, poverty status, and dental care. Compared to other states, Colorado ranks particularly poorly when it comes the percentage of children without health insurance (7.1 percent) and the percentage with a medical home (55.3 percent).

Given the state’s lackluster grades in the two earliest life stages, the report card’s authors recommended a focus on improving the health of babies and children in the state. Three older groups received better grades, with “Healthy Adolescents” earning a B, “Healthy Adults” a B+ and “Healthy Aging” an A-.

Categories: Urban School News

Take 5: Lifting charter cap, Dyett plans, youth programs cut

Catalyst Chicago - Thu, 02/05/2015 - 10:35

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the only concrete education proposal Gov. Bruce Rauner announced in his first State of the State address was to lift the cap on charter schools. Rauner singled out a Roseland parent who sends her children to charters because they “offer longer school days, enhanced learning opportunities and variety for her kids.” The current statewide cap stands at 120 schools, including 75 in Chicago, some of which are replicating charters. The cap has been raised multiple times since 2003.

Without going into detail, Rauner repeated his commitment to increase K-12 funding with an eye toward improving “our most disadvantaged school districts” and promised to beef up funding for technical and vocational training programs in high schools and community colleges.

Rauner also gave a shoutout to anti-testing advocates. He said that students and teachers are “overwhelmed by too many tests” and called on policymakers to “ensure that the amount of time we test our students doesn’t get in the way of high-quality instruction.” He stopped short of mentioning the controversial PARCC exam, though, a topic on which he’s been silent since becoming a candidate.

2. Speaking of the PARCC… As promised, newly elected State Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, introduced a bill last week to allow parents to opt their children out of taking state assessments -- such as the PARCC -- while protecting students, their teachers, schools and districts from any negative consequences in terms of grades or evaluations. So far, the bill has only attracted one co-sponsor: a fellow Democrat, Jaime Andrade, Jr., from Chicago.

Guzzardi told Catalyst he was meeting with Illinois State Board of Education officials this week to discuss the language in the bill and “to make sure they’re not concerned about risking federal dollars [...]. We shouldn’t be concerned about jeopardizing school funding because seven states already done it and have seen no loss of federal funds as results,” he added, referring to California, Pennsylvania, Washington, Wisconsin, Oregon, Nebraska and Utah.

But ISBE opposes the bill for just that reason. States are required to assess 95 percent of all students, and “we are concerned that if we allow an opt out we may fall below the federal requirement which could lead to some real consequences in terms of federal money and our ESEA/NCLB waiver,” says ISBE spokeswoman Mary Fergus. “This is not a risk we are willing to take.”

Similar legislation is being drafted elsewhere. Last week New Jersey assemblyman introduced a bill to require schools to develop opt-out procedures beginning next school year and provide students with an alternative learning opportunity if they refuse the test, while Louisiana’s Gov. Bobby Jindal issued an executive order allowing parents to opt-out of the PARCC, while urging that state’s education department to protect districts from consequences.

3. Taking over Dyett… The Coalition to Revitalize Dyett once again sounded the alarm outside of Ald. Will Burns (4th Ward) office to bring attention to the fact that the door has been opened for a private contractor to move into the school. In a statement, Coalition members were joined on a webinar about the pending request for proposals for Dyett by representatives of Little Black Pearl Art and Design Academy High School. Little Black Pearl currently runs a contract school for dropouts and those at risk of dropping out. The district has said that whatever school goes into Dyett must be an open enrollment high school.

Jitu Brown, a community organizer for KOCO, and other coalition members are insistent that Dyett High School, which is being phased out, be reopened as a district-run high school. “We do not want to compete for this school,” said Brown. “We want a CPS school just like they have Lakeview or Lincoln Park.”

In a statement, Burns accused the action of being politically timed to undermine his reelection. Burns said he feels as though the RFP process being pursued by CPS insures that all proposals are “fairly and impartially evaluated.”

Though acquiescing to the community by committing to reopen Dyett, CPS officials refused to go along with the coalition’s plan to run it as a school focused on “global leadership and green technology.” Representatives from five groups attended the required webinar, according to CPS. Among the participants was someone from Brinshore Development, which is building mixed income housing on the land once occupied by Robert Taylor Homes, and someone from the Digital Youth Network. These representatives could not be reached to find out if they are interested in starting a school or listened in for some other reason. Last week, letters of intent were due, but CPS Spokesman Bill McCaffrey said those are not public.

4. Austerity in IllinoisChicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown reports that Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration sent word to organizations to halt job training, after school and other “youth development” programs. According to the e-mail reportedly received by organizations, Rauner blamed former Gov. Pat Quinn for signing an unbalanced budget.

But a group of African American and Latino state lawmakers called Rauner out on these cuts. “You tell us you want Illinois to become the most competitive and compassionate state in the nation,” said Jacqueline Y. Collins (D-Chicago) in a press release. She invited Rauner to her Southwest Side neighborhood to discuss the decision. “We are asking you – where is the compassion? And without mentoring, job training and a chance to work, how can the next generation of low-income minority youth hope to compete?”

Cutting the $8 million program may just be a sign of what is to come. Brown says that voters can’t be too upset because they voted for Rauner who promised to cut his way to a balanced budget.

Just last year a University of Chicago study found that a summer jobs program lowered violent crime arrests by 43 percent over a 16 month period. Also, youth in poor neighborhoods are the least likely to have jobs, according to a study released last week.

5. Learning to like math … A new individualized math tutoring service has brought unexpected benefits to students at low-income CPS high schools, according to a report released by Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research. Doubling down on a pilot study conducted in 2013, researchers followed about 600 ninth and 10th graders enrolled in Chicago Match, a two-on-one math tutoring program folded into the curricula of many low-income schools across the city. Not only did the program significantly boost math scores, the report found, but it had a ripple effect on students’ confidence and academic well-being. A survey at the end of the study found that participants in Match were much more likely to say they enjoy math and think they’re good at it, and that they don’t think their friends study enough. Students in Match also registered a spike in non-math test scores.

“We think this pushes back on the prevailing belief that it’s too late to intervene with adolescents who have fallen behind, that we should focus more on early childhood education instead,” said Jonathan Guryan, a professor with Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy who contributed to the study. “What we’re seeing is that when you use individualized programs like [Chicago Match], it can be an effective--and cost-effective--investment in adolescents.”

It’s no secret that individualized attention leads to better outcomes for kids, but Guryan says the key distinction here is Match’s affordability to the district. At $3,800 per student, the report found that the program’s per-dollar effectiveness for raising math scores is more than quadruple that of Head Start. Chicago Match pays tutors part-time to teach specific subjects, and it can be offered as a substitution for an elective during the school day. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a big fan of the program, announced last year that he’d work to expand it.

By the way, the Sun Times followed on Catalyst's story about CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett's claim that only seven students were accounted for after the school closings, when it was really several hundred.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Pre-K reduces special education placement, study says

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 02/05/2015 - 09:07

Talking TFA

A panel discussion at the University of Colorado Boulder today highlighted tensions between Teach For America and traditional teacher preparation programs that persist even as TFA’s priorities and practices evolve. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Future in doubt

For decades, Fletcher Middle School in Lakewood has served "medically fragile" special needs students. Now its future is in doubt. ( 9News )

Measles scare

Poudre School District's vaccination rate for kindergartner's exceeds the state average, but lags the national average. ( Coloradoan )

Special Pre-K

Attending state-funded prekindergarten substantially reduces the likelihood that students will end up in special education programs later on, according to a new study by researchers at Duke University. ( KUNC/NPR )

Finger-Liechtenstein good

A culinary team including four ThunderRidge High School students, teacher Katy Waskey and Douglas County School District executive chef Jason Morse are spending the week showcasing their talents in Vail, cooking for the Liechtensten ski team. ( Douglas County News-Press )

Charter champ

The Colorado League of Charter Schools has named Eric Trujillo from Community Prep Charter School in Colorado Springs its 2015 "Outstanding Teacher." ( The Gazette )

Book review

Longtime education journalist Anya Kamenetz’s new book, “The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed With Standardized Testing — But You Don’t Have to Be,” acts as a guide for the “small, yet growing group of parents” revolting against standardized testing. ( New York Times )

Bush pushes Common Core

Jeb Bush doubled down on his support for the Common Core State Standards during an impassioned speech Wednesday at the Detroit Economic Club ( The Hill )

testing testing

The head of the U.S. Department of Education's office of English-language acquisition, says she's working with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to ease the burden of testing for English-learners and their teachers. ( EdWeek )

Categories: Urban School News

Teach For America, Boulder researchers trade volleys over program’s approach

EdNewsColorado - Wed, 02/04/2015 - 21:46

A panel discussion at the University of Colorado Boulder today highlighted tensions between Teach For America and traditional teacher preparation programs that persist even as TFA’s priorities and practices evolve.

As part of an effort to build relationships between Teach For America and academic researchers, Raegen Miller, TFA’s vice president of research partnerships, told a room full of doctoral students and faculty that the organization is hoping to dig into a set of questions that is broader and deeper than just asking whether corps members help students’ test scores improve.

“It’s boring to talk about how much better teachers score,” Miller said. “TFA has got to be a valuable lens into getting into some of these bigger questions.”

“If you’re interested in having the U.S. be more selective about teachers…if you’re looking at whether diversity among those serving low-income students matters…policymakers can’t lean in without good evidence,” he said.

Teach For America is a 25-year-old nonprofit that recruits teachers-to-be and places them in high-needs schools for a two-year commitment, after a six-week-long summer training. TFA has been in Colorado since 2007, and currently has 235 teachers in Colorado schools.

Miller was joined by Jennie Whitcomb, Associate Dean of Teacher Education at CU’s School of Education, and Terrenda White, an assistant professor at the school and a Teach For America alumna who describes herself as a “critical friend” of TFA. The conversation was hosted by Kevin Welner, the director of the National Education Policy Center, a national research center housed at the school.

Miller said that there has been a perception that TFA is most interested in publishing research that casts it in a favorable light.

“There’s some kernel of truth to the observation. But it’s not the way things work now going forward,” he said.

But the conversation at today’s event surfaced a continued skepticism among much of the audience about TFA’s approach to teacher recruitment, training, and placement—and about what kinds of projects TFA would want to work with researchers on.

Miller said that over time, TFA has increased its focus on recruiting teachers from low-income backgrounds and teachers of color; beefed up its training; given its local offices more decision-making power; and, perhaps most significantly, taken the official stance that it is good for teachers to stay in the classroom for longer than their two-year commitment through TFA, he said.

He also noted that the organization has for the first time begun to take stances on political issues. TFA recently announced its support for the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) which would grant permanent residency status to certain immigrants who arrived in the country illegally as minors.

Still, White said she wondered if the organization would welcome research about whether it was recruiting educators with different attitudes toward teaching, and whether it would change its training model now that it aims to keep more teachers in the classroom.

An audience member asked how committed TFA is to keeping teachers in the classroom for longer than two years, pointing out that the short commitment is still a prominent part of TFA’s advertising.

Miller said he thought the two-year commitment was likely to be part of the program for the foreseeable future, but that TFA still sees part of its mission as creating change in education systems through people who go on to become leaders in systems as well as through those who remain in classrooms.

The pointed questions directed at Miller were likely not a surprise to anyone: NEPC is often skeptical about current education reform efforts, and last year released a piece questioning Teach For America‘s claims that corps members are more effective than other new teachers.

The brevity of the program’s training, the fees districts pay to bring in TFA recruits, the cultural competency and temporary commitment of recruits, and TFA’s marketing of teaching as a stepping stone to graduate school or a higher-paid profession have all been called into question as TFA has grown. The program has also garnered attention for having an admissions rate comparable to elite colleges.

In general, TFA has been fielding more criticism in recent years, some from its own alumni, as a report released earlier this week highlighted.

“In terms of partnering with critical friends, I don’t think there’s really a choice,” Miller said. “This is how you’re going to address questions that relate to the deepest issues around eliminating education inequity.”

This article was updated to clarify Ms. White’s comments and TFA’s current Colorado membership. 

Talk to us: What types of research projects would you like to see focused on Teach For America? Let us know in the comment section, on Facebook, or on Twitter @chalkbeatco.


Categories: Urban School News

Growing your own teachers worth the wait

Catalyst Chicago - Wed, 02/04/2015 - 18:08

Grow Your Own Teachers helps low-income people of color who have the desire to become teachers earn a bachelor’s degree in Education—a goal that would otherwise be almost impossible for them to achieve. Yet a recent news article falls short by viewing the program as a conveyor belt, and failing to capture what I and many other graduates felt by becoming the first person in our family to graduate from a university and get a job as a CPS teacher.

It also fails to capture how important it is for children in my classroom to have a teacher who looks like them and who shares their life experience. (“Illinois falls short in $20 million effort to develop 1,000 teachers,” Jan. 16, Chicago Tribune.)

I am a Hispanic female, born to Mexican immigrant, working parents.  I was born and raised in Chicago, one of five siblings.  I attended four different CPS elementary schools and, given the bad timing of my parents’ divorce, graduated with a very low GPA from a low-performing, low-income high school on the Northwest Side.  I can count on one hand how many of my fellow high school graduates went on to complete a bachelor’s degree.  With a lot of struggle, I earned an associate’s degree from a community college, and at the age of 19, seven months before receiving that degree, I gave birth to my first child. 

While growing up, my parents constantly reminded me of the hardships and poverty they endured in their small village in Guerrero, Mexico.  My mom is the oldest of eight siblings and completed school through 6th grade. My father had to help my grandfather work the land and attended school only up to 3rd grade.  My parents would always tell me and my siblings how important it was for us to take advantage of the opportunities of this great country.  Unfortunately, I was missing two of the most important factors that impact college attendance:  financial support and, most importantly, informed guidance.  I knew I was going to graduate from a university one day but I had no idea how to make that a reality.

Crucial support to overcome hurdles

That’s where Grow Your Own Teachers comes into play.  By the age of 31, I had gone back to school at Northeastern Illinois University.  I was a part-time student and a stay-at-home mother of two, studying for a degree in elementary education. But it was a constant struggle, especially when it came to math. Pre-algebra, for instance, was one of three math courses that I had to pass before I was eligible to take college math--but it would not earn me any credits toward graduation. I also struggled to pay for books since my loan did not cover them and my husband’s income was barely enough to cover the family expenses. 

That same year, I was a parent volunteer at my son’s CPS preschool. An assistant preschool teacher there told me about a program called Grow Your Own Teachers that could help me. The program was for parent volunteers and school paraprofessionals who wanted to get a degree in elementary education at Northeastern Illinois, where I was already enrolled.  I applied and got in.

I became a full-time student, attending year-round.  During the summer, I took four classes—the maximum number of classes allowed.  That was difficult because my husband worked and my children were out of school.  On some occasions, my children would wait for me outside of my classroom in the study area.  The professor knew I was a mom and did not object to my frequent breaks to check on my children. Other times, Grow Your Own Teachers provided child care and I was able to focus in the classroom.

Another hurdle was passing the Basic Skills Test.  Now known as TAP or the Test of Academic Proficiency, it is one of three state tests that teachers have to pass before they can earn a teaching license.  Grow Your Own Teachers provided me with a math tutor and test workshops.  I finally passed the five-hour test on the second try. 

Those were just a few of the many hurdles that Grow Your Own Teachers helped me to overcome.

After three and a half years, I graduated with honors from Northeastern Illinois University. One of the best moments in my life was having my mom watch me walk across the stage to receive my degree. 

Understanding heritage, inspiring students

Today, I am proud to say that I am a kindergarten teacher at a low-income CPS school.  Every day I go to my classroom ready to inspire my students.  Most of them are amazed that my background is similar to theirs. For example, no one in our families has a college degree, our parents do not speak English and they were born in another country. The children get a kick out of the fact that I also secretly ate hot Cheetos for breakfast when I was young because my parents left early for work and they didn’t have time to make breakfast.   

During the 12 years that I attended CPS, I encountered very few minority teachers and no teachers with a Mexican background like me.  I always wished for one. I felt that a teacher who shared my background would understand my heritage and would inspire me.  Now, I can be that teacher who has a positive influence on the children I teach. Our common background provides me with tools and references that facilitate making connections. The other day, I read Gary Soto’s “Too Many Tamales” to my students and they were excited to learn that my family also makes tamales for Christmas.

The hurdles that I had to overcome to earn my degree were few compared to my fellow Grow Your Own members.  Some of them are working full-time or part-time and have been in the program and attending classes part-time for more than five years.  One woman told me how she had to leave school temporarily to take care of a sick, elderly parent.  Some have to cut back on their own studies so they can earn extra money to pay tuition for children who are starting college.  I admire their resilience. Most participants stick with the program, working and studying hard and knowing that they will achieve their goal one day.  To them I say, “Keep trying, because earning a college degree is worth it.”

So many people around me now see me as a role model—my children, my family, my fellow Grow Your Own members, my students, my students’ parents, my para-professional colleagues.  I am only one of the many graduates who can inspire others like me.

It reminds me of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.”

Idalia Vasquez is a 2013 graduate of the Grow Your Own program and a CPS teacher.

Categories: Urban School News

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