In the Classroom

For parents picking schools, Indianapolis continues to offer a guide

PHOTO: James Vaughn
Lesvi De La Cruz speaks to a small crowd Tuesday at Central Library about how GreatSchools.org helped her find the best school for her son when she moved to Indianapolis in 2012.

In some ways, the debut of the fourth edition of the annual School Chooser Guide for Indianapolis is old news, but not for parents looking for a school for their children this year.

“Why do we have to do this year after year after year? Because the families change year after year after year,” said Judi Goldberg, a spokeswoman for the website GreatSchools.org, to a small crowd that gathered at Indianapolis’s Central Library today. “This is an ongoing community effort and it has to be embedded in the community forever because there’s new people every year looking for new opportunities.”

Mayor Greg Ballard’s office and GreatSchools, a non-profit organization that offers profiles of more than 200,000 schools across the country, collaborated on the latest version of the 160-page paper guide. Indianapolis boasts the highest percentage of families who use the organization’s website, according to Goldberg. About 165,000 unique visitors looked at schools in Indianapolis last year, including some who didn’t live in the city.

Lesvi De La Cruz, 27, was one of those people back in 2012.

De La Cruz’s son, Jason, sat out two weeks of school during Chicago’s teacher strike. So when she decided to move to Indianapolis, she did a quick Google search to find the best school for her now eight-year-old son, and she immediately stumbled across GreatSchools.org.

“I looked online because I didn’t know anyone here in Indianapolis, and it sent me right away to the GreatSchools website,” De La Cruz said. “It was very efficient because I just put in my address and a lot of the neighborhood schools came out, and I was able to make an informed choice.”

She landed on Indiana Math and Science Academy, a charter school on the city’s Northwest side, because she liked the school’s focus on science and math, and she was impressed that it was one of the few schools rated seven out of 10 near her new home in Lafayette Square.

“By where I lived, that rate was really good,” she said. “Most of (the neighborhood schools) are under that.”

De La Cruz later transferred Jason to the new Christel House Academy West when she moved to Haughville, just west of downtown.

“I was just lucky enough to have it open up in my backyard,” she said. “The classes are very small, so he gets a lot of individual attention from the teacher. He’s a leader, so he’s definitely in a place where he can show his potential.”

Christel House West doesn’t have a profile in the School Chooser Guide, but most of the city’s schools do. More than 600 schools are featured in Indianapolis’s guide.

“Because (Indianapolis) has worked so hard to get 97 percent of its schools, it’s a really useful tool,” Goldberg said. “The tool is obviously driven by the information that you get. Each school has their own school account that they can go in and add all of the different touchy-feely things that parents really care about – all that stuff that isn’t recorded because it’s not academic-focused, but it’s that stuff that really matters to parents.”

GreatSchools initially worked with advocacy group Stand For Children to create the guide, but eventually transitioned to the mayor’s office.

“They have such a wonderful connection into the community,” Goldberg said. “It’s a nice neutral way to give good information to parents.”

GreatSchools was founded 25 years ago in San Francisco. The teacher who launched the first guide wanted families who moved to Northern California to be able to learn more easily what they needed to know to choose schools for their children. The guide later became a website and began adding information about schools in cities across the country.

But few cities have extensive paper guides like Indianapolis. GreatSchools has only done that in cities with extensive school choice options. Indianapolis has 11 school districts, charter schools sponsored by the mayor, the state and Ball State University, and an array of private schools that accept publicly-funded tuition vouchers.

The School Chooser Guide provides information such as school addresses, principal names, test scores and graduation rates. The guide, which is available in English and Spanish, is distributed at all Indianapolis public libraries, Kroger stores and Indy Parks locations for free.

“We didn’t really change it much this year,” Goldberg said. “We finally landed on a pretty good combination of what parents need to know.”

Ballard said summer is the best time for parents to weigh their options when it comes to choosing a school for their child.

“Our highest quality schools fill up very quickly,” he said. “Parents need to know how to sign up.”

showdown

McQueen’s deadline looms for Memphis and Nashville to share student info with charter schools — and no one is budging

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A request for student contact information from Green Dot Public Schools to help with enrollment efforts sparked a fight between the state and Shelby County Schools.

As Tennessee’s two largest school districts fought an order to share student information with charter schools, the state education commissioner set a deadline last week.

Candice McQueen told the superintendents of Shelby County Schools and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools they had to provide the data to charter schools that asked for it by Sept. 25 — or the state would “be forced to consider actions to enforce the law.”

But with just three days until the deadline, neither district has said it will budge. The consequences “will be determined Monday,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on Friday.

McQueen has not offered more information about what those consequences could be, though some lawmakers have worried it could mean funding cuts. There is some precedent for such a move: The Nashville district lost $3.4 million in state funding in 2012 when it refused to approve a controversial charter school, according to The Tennessean.

The clash comes after the Nashville and Memphis districts refused to turn over student contact information to charter networks, who argue that information is vital to their operation. Many Memphis schools, including those in the state-run school district, have been struggling with under-enrollment.

An amendment to an untested U.S. Department of Education rule suggests local districts can withhold information like phone numbers, addresses and email addresses — but a new state law requires Tennessee districts to hand it over to charter schools within 30 days.

The state department of education asked the attorney general’s office to weigh in. Last week, the attorney general said the districts had to turn the information over, but also that districts could take a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents about their right to opt out.

Shelby County Schools posted opt-out forms for parents on its website the next day, and gave parents until Oct. 22 to fill them out. The form allows parents to keep their information from charter schools specifically or from outside entities more broadly, including companies like yearbook providers, for example.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The school boards for the two districts have been in lockstep in defying the state’s order, with the Memphis board even offering to write a legal opinion if Nashville were to go to court over the issue.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said his legal team is still reviewing the attorney general’s opinion.

“We still want to make sure parents know what their options are,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Tuesday. “When we [McQueen and I] talked, she understood that our opt-out forms were out there.”

Anna Shepherd, board chair for the Nashville district, said the board met with its attorney this week to discuss the issue but took no action.

“We have not had any further conversation with the state concerning the release of data for MNPS students,” Shepherd said by email. “I’m not anticipating any action [before Monday].”

Reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

deep cuts

New York City teachers don’t get paid maternity leave. Their paychecks prove it.

PHOTO: Emily James/Courtesy photo
Brooklyn high school teacher Emily James with her children.

Susan Hibdon opened her front door and saw nothing but white.

It was a day that would go down in tabloid headline history after schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña declared it “absolutely a beautiful day,” despite a forecast calling for 10 inches of snow. For Hibdon, a Brooklyn high school teacher, it was memorable for a different reason. It was exactly six weeks after she had given birth, which meant it was time to go back to the classroom.

She kissed her infant goodbye and headed into the wet February weather.

“If you want to pay your rent, you have to go right back to work,” she said. “That’s not just bad for the mother who just gave birth. That’s bad for everybody.”

New York City teachers have no paid maternity or family leave, a policy that takes a toll on teachers’ paychecks and creates deep gender inequity in an education workforce that is about 77 percent women.

Hibdon and fellow teacher and mother Emily James recently launched an online petition calling on the United Federation of Teachers to negotiate for paid leave, which is not included in any of the city’s contracts with unionized workers. Almost 78,000 people have signed on, and the women will present their request at the union’s executive board meeting on Monday.

“I think the irony of it sticks out to many people: These are women who are paid to raise children and they aren’t paid to raise their own children,” Hibdon said.

As it stands now, teachers who want to take paid time off after having a baby must use their sick days. The policy only applies to birth mothers, putting a strain on those who become parents through adoption or surrogacy, and fathers who want to take a leading role in the earliest moments of parenthood.

“We talk so much about parents being active in their child’s education,” said Rosie Frascella, a teacher who has also pushed for paid leave policies. “Well, let’s let teachers be active in their child’s education.”

For teachers, the policy packs a financial blow on multiple levels.

If a mother wants paid time off after giving birth, the only option is to use sick days. Women are limited to six weeks of sick time after a vaginal birth, and eight weeks after a C-section.

Teachers earn one sick day per school month. In order to save up for an eight-week leave, a teacher would have to work about four years without using any sick days.

Many women haven’t accrued that many days, so they can “borrow” sick days they haven’t yet earned. Teachers run into problems, though, if they actually get sick — or their children do — since they can only borrow up to 20 sick days. Once they hit that number, any additional time off is unpaid. And if a teacher leaves the education department, she must repay any sick days she borrowed.

Hidbon learned that the hard way. She has three children — and precious few sick days in the bank. Hidbon remembers a time that she completely lost her voice, but still had to go to work.

“No one could hear me. I had to conduct my entire class writing notes on the board,” she said. “I’m supposed to be teaching and I can’t do my job because of the way the system is set up — and my students are getting the short end of the stick.”

The crunch for sick time could lead to a financial blow later in a woman’s career. Teachers are allowed to accrue up to 200 sick days, and receive a payout for unused time when they retire. The city could not provide numbers for how many sick days men versus women retire with. But it makes sense that men would rack up far more since women with children are more likely to get stuck with a negative balance.

James, a Brookyln high school teacher and co-starter of the online petition, still has a negative balance of 16 sick days — almost three years after giving birth. The problem is compounded by the fact that women are more likely to take time off when a child is sick or there are other family obligations, a pattern that is seen in professions across the board.

“There were many times when I was so sick at work the kids were like, ‘Why are you here? Miss, go home,’” she said. “But it costs a lot of money to stay home.”

Even when women don’t have to borrow sick days, they can still lose financially. The city only allows women to use up to eight weeks of their banked time. Any additional days off are entirely unpaid.

Amy Arundell, a former director of personnel for the UFT, said many mothers stay home longer because of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides job protections for 12 weeks of leave.

“The people who don’t take 12 [weeks] obviously have real financial commitments” that make taking unpaid time off impossible, she said.

Women who take that time get hit with a double-punch to their salaries. Because of the way summer pay is calculated, unpaid time off results in a smaller summer paycheck, too. Arundell said the hit is usually equivalent to one paycheck.

Same sex-couples and those who become parents through surrogacy or adoption face many of the same financial setbacks, since only birth mothers are allowed to use sick time after having a baby.

After years on a waiting list, Seth Rader and his wife had only weeks’ notice that their adoptive baby was on the way. Since his wife was in grad school, the couple decided Rader would stay home with their new son — even though Rader, a Manhattan high school teacher, is the primary breadwinner at home.

“In a lot of ways, I’m much more bonded with him as a father, and him to me,” Rader said. “Are we really in a place where we want to discourage fathers from taking that role?”

At the time, the couple were saving for a down payment to buy a place of their own. After the expense of Rader taking off from work, they still are.

“I think all of this has to be affecting the sustainability of teaching,” he said. “If we create a system where people can’t imagine being teachers and parents at the same time, then that’s a loss.”

When it comes to the push for family leave, teachers have been left behind even as strides are made elsewhere. New York State recently passed a mandatory paid leave policy that will cover private employees. Last winter, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a paid leave act for city employees.

But that benefit isn’t extended to workers with unions, like the United Federation of Teachers. Currently, no union in New York City has paid maternity leave, according to a city spokeswoman.

Teachers across the city are fighting to change that. The petition started by Hibdon and James calls on UFT President Michael Mulgrew to “fight for our teaching mothers.”

“They’re supposed to really care about what teachers are struggling with and they’re our voice,” James said. “I just wish that they would take this seriously.”

Both the city and the United Federation of Teachers say they have held talks to extend similar benefits to teachers. In an emailed statement, Mulgrew called family leave “an important issue for the UFT and its members.”

“In our talks so far, the city has failed to come up with a meaningful proposal,” he said.

In an article published in the UFT journal, which ran shortly after the city passed its parental leave policy, the union pointed out that gaining that benefit came at the cost of a scheduled raise for managers and fewer leave days for veteran employees.

According to the article, Mulgrew said he “looked forward to negotiations with the de Blasio administration for an appropriate way to expand parental benefits for UFT members.”