hitting the wall

Career and technical education programs are in vogue. So why is it so hard to start one?

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students at Urban Assembly Maker Academy tried to design a straw basket that could catch a falling golf ball on the first day of school in 2015.

At Urban Assembly Maker Academy, Principal Luke Bauer wanted to start a program in “interaction design” — a field that focuses on how users interact with products like computers or phones.

But last year, when he looked into turning his vision into an official, certified career and technical education (CTE) program, he discovered that the idea didn’t fit into any of the typical categories approved by New York state.

“There are plenty of people right here in Lower Manhattan who are getting paid six figures to do that work,” Bauer said. Yet, his program was so foreign to the process, it felt like having “six heads,” he said.

In the end, he decided not to pursue an interaction design program — a disappointment to him and to his industry partners, who hoped it would create a “pipeline of talent” that could potentially lead some of his students to full-time jobs, Bauer said.

Bauer’s experience is emblematic of an ongoing tension. As career and technical education programs expand and morph into a dizzying array of new career fields, many are slowed down by the state’s long and stringent approval process.

That process — a comprehensive review that empowers schools to run a multi-year, career-focused curriculum — has “raised the quality and rigor of courses to better prepare students for college and career,” said Emily DeSantis, a state education department spokesperson.

Yet, others argue it discourages the creation of certified CTE programs and leaves little flexibility for schools trying to prepare students for new, and potentially lucrative, careers. The approval process can take years and often frustrates businesses partnering with schools, critics contend.

Employers involved in CTE programs surveyed in 2015 — including businesses, government agencies and nonprofits — said bureaucracy and slow response time are the biggest challenges in CTE work.

The “sense of urgency at [the State Education Department] doesn’t match the practical demands on the schools of a rapidly changing economy,” said Kathryn Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a coalition of business leaders, which conducted the survey.

Wylde said she has been in contact with state officials and she is confident they are working to solve the problem. But for those trying to launch programs, those changes can’t come soon enough.

THE NEW VOCATIONAL EDUCATION

Over the past two decades, skill-based education has transformed from the traditional “vocational” tracks into “career and technical” education — and it’s more than just a name change.

Vocational ed was designed to help students enter the workforce right after high school with training in fields like auto repair or manufacturing. Today’s career and technical education still includes those fields, but also makes room for newer areas like computer science that often require education after high school. At the school level, that means seeking out partners in emerging industries, who will hopefully help match students with internships or even jobs after high school.

State and local officials have gotten behind CTE as a way to engage students in high school — and prepare them for what comes next.

“A career and technical education is where the strands all meet,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said last year. “And I’m very, very proud that New York City is being used as a model here for this effort.”

The number of city schools dedicated to CTE has more than tripled over the past decade, growing from 15 in 2004 to almost 50 in 2013, according to a recent Manhattan Institute study. Roughly 75 other schools offer CTE programs, with career-oriented courses provided as electives. About 40 percent of high school students take at least one CTE course, and nearly 10 percent attend a dedicated CTE school, according to Department of Education data cited in the report.

In 2009, New York state established a workgroup to rethink CTE and its goals. In part, that meant ensuring that CTE prepares students to go on to college. To help provide new graduation options and expand CTE programs, state officials also created a new regulation in 2014 that allows a technical exam to be substituted for one required high school exit exam, a policy known as “4+1.”

But as CTE programs keep growing — and with these new rules — there are lingering questions over whether a more dramatic shakeup is necessary.

RED TAPE

The problem, critics say, is that high-tech careers are changing all the time — by their very definition they are “emerging” and not conducive to a system that takes multiple years to approve.

State officials said they recommend that schools start putting an application together at least a year before they submit it. Yet, at a minimum, it takes about about four years to build a program the state will sign off on, said Eric Watts, former director of career and technical education at Urban Assembly, an organization that runs more than 20 career-themed schools. It’s not uncommon for it to take close to six years, he said.

In the meantime, schools are typically running the programs anyway.

“You’re getting approved to do something six years after you do it,” Watts said. “That doesn’t really make too much sense.”

If schools choose to forgo the certification process, they may have a tougher time securing federal funding and cannot provide their students with a CTE-endorsed diploma. But the biggest issue, he said, is that without a formal process, it’s harder to tell which programs are most worthwhile.

“That’s the scary part, teachers can do what they want, schools can do what they want,” Watts said.

FINDING TEACHERS

Leigh Ann DeLyser, director of education and research at CSNYC, who helped two city schools focused on software engineering through the approval process, said that overall, the state’s high standards are good for schools.

“The state’s process is rigorous on purpose,” DeLyser said. “It does take a few years because CTE actually is more than just classrooms and tests.”

The problem, she said, is there are not many models for programs like the ones she helped guide. “Being the pioneers makes it really difficult because you can’t just take and borrow from existing programs,” she said.

DeLyser added that teacher certification is especially tricky. CTE teachers are required to complete specific coursework, which means that those who work at tech companies — even teachers, in some cases — often have to go back and take extra classes to earn their certification, she said.

It is difficult enough to find industry professionals in high-paying tech jobs willing to take on CTE teaching positions without these extra requirements, said Principal Bauer from the Urban Assembly Maker School. In some cases, that could mean a $30,000 pay cut and switching to an entry-level job, he said.

State figures show the state was short about 450 CTE teachers in 2014-15 out of about 4,900 total CTE teacher positions.

Even when teachers are willing to take the leap, it’s a struggle for some to get approved because of the state’s current certification categories, critics say. There is only one category for new fields labeled “other/unique & emerging occupations.” Practically, that means a teacher who wants to teach “interaction design,” as Principal Bauer envisioned, might have to become certified in a broader area such as computer science rather than the actual field he or she wants to teach.

“If you go and look at the eligible [certification] titles, the jobs that we want to prepare our students for that are going to put them in the middle class or higher in new technologies, they are not [included in] the eligible CTE titles for the state,” Bauer said.

The result is schools have to “reinvent the wheel” every time they want to create a program outside of the designated list, said Tamar Jacoby, who co-authored the Manhattan Institute report. That can leave schools negotiating with the state and waiting “a long, long time,” to start a program, she said.

Aware of the need for more CTE teachers, the state’s Board of Regents approved more ways that teachers can earn a transitional license, which will allow them to enter the classroom based on various combinations of work experience, industry credentials, and enrollment in teacher-prep programs, giving them extra time to earn additional credits.

GETTING TO GRADUATION

Another hurdle for some CTE programs involves the state’s new 4+1 graduation policy.

Allowing CTE exams to double as graduation requirements was hailed as a big success by CTE advocates. The new policy, approved in 2014, was intended to encourage the creation of more CTE programs and to give students across New York state more ways to graduate.

But so far the policy is not even trickling down to some existing CTE schools. The state has an approved list of technical exams, but those exams do not cover all careers and do not always match schools’ specific programs.

For instance, the Academy for Careers in Technology and Film in Long Island City, Queens offers a CTE exam that yields an additional credential, but it is not approved as part of the 4+1 program, so it doesn’t count toward graduation, said principal Edgar Rodriguez.

A spokesperson for the State Education Department said the department is currently developing an application process for CTE programs to submit assessments that will be reviewed and potentially added to the list of eligible 4+1 graduation exams.

SKIPPING IT ALTOGETHER

In the meantime, these bureaucratic hurdles have left some schools feeling like it’s easier to ignore the approval process instead.

Urban Assembly is starting a new CTE technology-focused charter school, but decided its connections at Google and IBM would be easier to manage without the state’s stringent CTE teacher certification rules, said Eric Rivers, director of institutional advancement at Urban Assembly.

Dealing with the state CTE requirements “definitely makes it more challenging and I think that’s the reason we have decided to take the charter school route in this situation,” Rivers said.

Another teacher, Lane Rosen, who runs a marine science program at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, came to a similar conclusion. He would like to gain some new attention for his program and a few extra perks for his students, but the process of earning CTE approval is too daunting for him to undertake, he said.

“It would be nice to have,” he said, “but I heard there’s a lot of red tape.”

Urban Assembly principal Bauer hopes to overcome the red tape — eventually. Bauer shifted his program’s focus and expects to be eligible to apply for state certification a year from now. Until then, he hopes he will not have to alter his plan more than he already has.

“I don’t know what it will look like two years from now,” he said. “I hope it gets approved.”

How I Lead

This Memphis principal says supporting teachers and parents helped pull her school out of the bottom 10 percent

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Yolanda Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years, and was previously the academic dean.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Principal Yolanda Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

It takes a lot of walking to manage two schools. Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years and was previously the academic dean. She temporarily took over Frayser Achievement Elementary when the schools had to share space this year because of maintenance issues at Georgian Hill’s original building.

“I am constantly on the move,” Dandridge said. “How else can you keep up with elementary students?”

Both schools are part of the Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools but has struggled to accomplish the task.

This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent. In 2016, before Dandridge took charge, Georgian Hills was in the worst 2 percent of schools.

Dandridge was honored by the achievement district for her work.

“She is a real standout among our principals of someone who understands what it takes to turn things around,” said interim achievement district leader Kathleen Airhart.

Dandridge talked to Chalkbeat about how she gets to know her students, her efforts to motivate teachers, and why school buildings are important.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

I tell my teachers to always stay focused on the “why” behind their careers. For me, my “why” was the fact that my little brother got all the way through elementary school without learning to read. He wasn’t able to read until the fifth grade. He came from a family of educators, and he still slipped through the cracks. If that could happen to him, it could happen to so many kids.

I started teaching in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and I taught in that state for more than a decade. I came to Memphis as a teacher, I was asked later to consider taking on the principal role at Georgian Hills. I said, “You want me to do what?” Now, I’m grateful for all those years in the classroom and as an academic dean to prepare me for this role.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

Any chance to get into the classroom, I will. If a substitute teacher doesn’t come, which does happen sometimes, I will teach the students in that classroom for a day. I love getting to know students by helping out in the classroom.

I am also constantly walking the hallways of both schools. That’s how I start the morning — I greet students and their parents by name when they walk into the school. I walk students to their classrooms. I’m constantly monitoring the hallways.

When a new student registers for classes, the first thing the office staff knows to do is call me down so I can meet them.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

I really prefer to always consider the experiences that a child may have had prior to entering our building.  When you approach discipline with a keen awareness of the types of situations a child might have or experience, it really makes you a better educator.  And you understand that the best thing for us to do is to ensure that students know and understand that we have their best interests in mind. When children connect with you and other teachers in this way, discipline is less challenging.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m very proud of what we’ve done at Georgian Hills and now at Frayser to really focus on our teachers.

Every Wednesday after school, we’ll have a period of professional development. I try to be attentive to what my teachers tell me they want to learn more about. There is a lot of coordination on lesson plans in particular. Teachers work together on their lesson planning, and I also will personally give feedback on a teahers’ lesson plans. My biggest, driving question is “What do my teachers need most?” They don’t need to be spending hours everyday lesson planning when they can collaborate. We can help there.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

Evaluating teachers has always provided me with the opportunity to hear and see the creativity and passion that our teachers bring to the classroom.  My thought on evaluations is to take the anxiety out of it and ensure that teachers are comfortable and understand that the overall process is about improving their skills and enhancing the tools in their toolbox.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent of schools in Tennessee.

When I was early in my teaching career in Mississippi, I had a student with a single mom. Her mom was an amazing support system for me and my classroom. She was always wanting to volunteer at the school. But she struggled to provide basic needs for her daughter — she was struggling to get a job. But she was trying so hard. There’s a stigma of parents, especially in low-income communities, not participating or caring about their child’s education. This mom was giving her all, and it changed my view of parental support. The school needed to find ways to also support her.

And so as a principal, I’m always thinking about how I can support my parents and invite them into the school. So that they feel welcome and wanted, and also so they are encouraged in their own role in their child’s education. We hold math and science nights, where parents learn how to do math games or science experiments at home with their kids. We provide them with materials and knowledge so that they can provide enrichment in their own home.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

We, like many schools in Memphis, don’t have the facilities we need for our students. Georgian Hills had to vacate our school building due to an issue with the roof. That created a hard environment for this school year — moving to a new building where we share space, and then me taking on that school as its school leader when the principal left. Honestly, I thought this year could break me as a school leader. But it didn’t, and it didn’t break our school either. We had a culture in place where our teachers felt supported among the chaos of the start of the year. After a year of repairs, we’re planning on moving back to our original building this fall.

But the issue here is that we don’t have the school buildings we need. Schools should be palaces in a community.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

You have to mobilize people’s efforts to “win.” The first secret to this is to love your people. They are here for a purpose and you have to help them understand the higher purpose that they are here to serve.  You have to have the right people in place, be responsible for developing them, and have the courage to let them go when student’s needs aren’t being met. Finally, transparency rules.

oversight

Aurora school board to consider one-year charter contract for school with conflict of interest

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

Aurora’s school board is set to decide Tuesday whether to renew the charter of a well-rated school that long has served children with special needs — but that also has become caught up in questions over conflicts of interest and opaque finances.

Aurora district administrators, concerned about operations of Vanguard Classical School, are recommending just a one-year charter extension rather than the usual five-year contract.

District staff members told the school board earlier this year that they were unsure about the school’s relationship with Ability Connection Colorado, the nonprofit that started the school and provides services through a $350,000 agreement. Not only does that contract lack specifics, but also the nonprofit’s CEO, Judy Ham, serves as the president of the charter school’s board and has signed agreements between the two organizations on behalf of Vanguard.

“You can see the clear conflict of interest concern that arose for us,” Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the school board in February.

The charter school board president disputes the findings of the conflicts of interest, but said the school is going to comply with all of the contract’s conditions anyway.

Vanguard, which first opened in 2007, was created to serve students with special needs in an inclusive model, meaning, as much as possible those students are blended into regular classrooms. Currently, the charter operates two campuses. One, near Lowry, enrolls about 500 K-8 students, and the second, a K-12 campus on the east side of the city, enrolls about 745 students. More than half of the students at each campus qualify for free or reduced price lunches, a measure of poverty.

In reviewing Vanguard, the district found it has a higher percentage of students who perform well on some state tests than the district does. The school also has a good rating from annual state reviews.

But the unclear relationship between the school and its founding nonprofit have raised doubts.

Although the relationship and service agreements the school has with the nonprofit aren’t new, Aurora’s concerns came up during an interview step that was added to the charter renewal process this year. Last time Vanguard went through a review from the district, five years ago, the district’s office of autonomous schools that now oversees charter schools did not exist. Staff describe previous reviews as compliance checklists.

Ham told district reviewers in that new step during the review process, that she never recused herself from board votes involving her employer.

But Ham now says that she misspoke, and meant that she has never recused herself officially because she just doesn’t vote on matters involving Ability Connection Colorado.

“It felt like (it was) a loaded question” Ham said. “But I don’t recuse myself because I don’t ever vote. It’s almost like a foregone conclusion.”

Browne also told the board he was concerned with the lack of detail about the $350,000 service agreement.

“Considering the amount that that contract was for, we were very concerned about the lack of detail regarding those services,” Browne said. He also pointed to school staff’s “lack of clarity with regard to what they were paying for and what they were receiving.”

Ham said the charter school has rewritten and added more detail to the agreements about what Ability Connection Colorado does for the school, which she said includes payroll services, human resources, building management, and risk assessments for students. The school’s west campus also shares a building with the nonprofit.

“We are on-call 24-7,” Ham said. “We wanted to provide everything so that the school could focus on being able to do the most important thing which is educating the children, knowing that inclusive education is hard to do.”

But what the functions of the nonprofit are aren’t clear, according to Aurora administrators.

“The school should not be wondering what services they are or are not receiving from the company,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, Aurora’s charter school coordinator.

Administrators recommend a renewed contract include stipulations such as governance training for the school’s board, meant to address conflicts of interest.

Ben Lindquist, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said that there are laws that could apply to give charter school authorizers like Aurora authority over conflict-of-interest issues.

“It should be within the purview of an authorizer to inquire into conflicts of interest if it perceives they are there,” Lindquist said. “But there’s not just one way to remedy that.”

Among the contract’s conditions, the district will also ask that Vanguard’s board be more transparent about recording board votes on significant decisions. Initially, district staff also said they considered asking Vanguard to remove the current board and replace all members, but officials said they ran into some problems with what they were allowed to ask the school to do.

“There’s a very interesting place we are in where we are the authorizer — we don’t run the school and we want to maintain that delineation,” Browne said. “However if we feel like there is something that could be a potential challenge for the school, we feel like it’s our duty to do what we can to suggest or recommend those changes.”