Community leaders recall Amos Brown's big influence on education

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Amos Brown attended a Chalkbeat event in 2014 and he answered our question about what was ahead for him that school year by saying he would be "learning empty nest syndrome."

With the unexpected death of WTLC radio host Amos Brown over the weekend, Indianapolis has lost an analytical mind and a journalist with a passion for schools.

Brown’s popular afternoon radio show was known for challenging city and state leaders on issues that mattered to the city’s black community, often putting education at the top of the agenda. He used his platform as a journalist to quiz school district and state education leaders about their decision-making and expose issues affecting schools, often just by opening up his phone lines.

(Read Bureau Chief Scott Elliott’s remembrance of Amos Brown from our morning newsletter here. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

He also dipped his toe into policymaking, serving more than four years on the state’s Education Roundtable.

The Roundtable was created in 1998 with the goal of uniting legislators, educators and business and community leaders on education policy, and Brown was appointed by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels in 2009. The Roundtable was phased out by the legislature earlier this year. Among its duties were setting academic standards and college course requirements.

After former state Superintendent Tony Bennett’s emails were made public in 2013, it was revealed that Todd Huston, then on Bennett’s staff and now a state legislator, suggested appointing Brown to the Roundtable in hopes of keeping his “loud mouth” in check.

It didn’t work.

Brown continued to be a maverick on the Roundtable. In 2014, for example, he was one of just three to vote no among the 23 Roundtable members who voted on Indiana’s new academic standards, which had the unusual support of both Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

His independence earned Brown respect, even from people or organizations he sometimes criticized.

Stand For Children, a group that organizes parents and pushes for change in education in Indianapolis, was often a target of skepticism from Brown, who worried about the influence of the money it spent on school district elections. Nevertheless Justin Ohlemiller, the group’s executive director, praised Brown in a statement for his dedication to local communities.

“Amos was a believer in the power of grassroots communities, knowing that change is more sustainable and powerful when it’s driven from the bottom-up,” Ohlemiller said. “Neighborhoods grow stronger when more people have a stake in shaping them, and that’s a lesson Amos consistently taught us in his words and with his deeds.”

Ritz remembered the way Brown connected political leaders with citizens to hear their real concerns.

“I was always struck that every time I went on his show, I would leave with the name and phone number of one of his listeners that needed help in some manner or another,” she said in a statement. “Amos always made it a point to ensure that his listeners got the help they needed from their elected leaders and his presence will be greatly missed.”

State board member Gordon Hendry, a parent with children in IPS schools and former Indianapolis deputy mayor, said Brown would be sorely missed.

“We agreed on many things, but Amos was never shy about letting me know when he didn’t like something that was happening in our community,” Hendry said in a statement. “He was always kind, though. He was always willing to hear me out, and that’s a rare thing in this current political climate. “

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee tweeted his condolences after hearing of Brown’s passing.

“Devastated about the loss of longtime community activist and radio host Amos Brown,” Ferebee said. “He challenged me and all for excellence.”

The Indianapolis Public School Board also issued a statement praising Brown’s role as a communicator in Indianapolis on school issues.

“He always supported our schools and kept his finger on the pulse of the community we serve,” board members said. “We will miss his institutional knowledge, his devotion to our students and families and most of all his commitment to making Indianapolis a great place to live.”

Brown was also sometimes critical of The Mind Trust, a non-profit advocating for educational change that helped bring groups like Stand For Children and Teach for America to the city. Even so, CEO David Harris called Brown an “unwavering crusader and champion for the lost, the least and the last.”

“”In so many ways, Amos Brown was the conscience of the Indianapolis community,” he said in a statement. “Whenever there was a wrong, he tried to right it. Whenever there was injustice, he shone a light on it. And whenever someone in this city needed help, Amos was there to lead the way.”

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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