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.”

the one to watch

Inside the three-candidate battle for northeast Denver’s school board seat

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

Of the Denver school board races on the November ballot, none packs more intrigue than the fight for District 4.

The three-person slate of candidates features an appointed incumbent who’s never run for office and supports the district’s current path, an outspoken recent high school graduate who sharply disagrees, and a former charter school educator with a more nuanced view and — in what on its surface may seem surprising — the endorsement of the teachers union.

The seat represents a large swath of northeast Denver with a wide range of income levels, including areas that are gentrifying quickly and others that have been home to some of the district’s most aggressive school improvement strategies.

The Nov. 7 election is high stakes. Four of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs. If candidates who disagree with Denver Public Schools’ direction win all four races, they’ll have the political power to change key policies in the state’s largest school district and one nationally recognized for its embrace of school choice and autonomy.

Tay Anderson is one of those candidates. The 19-year-old graduated from Denver’s Manual High School last year and is now a student at Metropolitan State University. On the campaign trail, he has doggedly criticized the district for what he describes as weak community engagement efforts and a move to “privatize” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run (in Denver, by nonprofit operators).

He also has led the charge in attempting to tie the current school board and the incumbent candidates to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose stance on school choice — and especially private school vouchers, which DPS does not support — have made her a controversial figure.

    This is the first of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire. Check out our coverage of the campaign’s first campaign finance reports here.

When DeVos came to Denver in July to give a speech to a group of conservative lawmakers from across the United States, Anderson organized a protest against her. In front of a crowd of hundreds, he called out the current Denver school board members.

“We can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’” he said.

Anderson has a compelling personal story. The teenager struggled in high school before becoming a leader at Denver’s Manual High. He was student body president, chairman of the Colorado High School Democrats and a member of the Student Board of Education.

Anderson was also homeless for a time and has said his own challenges give him valuable insight into the lives of other Denver students living in difficult situations. About two-thirds of the district’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty.

“I have had nobody in my corner when I was a homeless student and when I was in and out of foster care,” Anderson said at a recent televised candidate debate. “And now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”

His candidacy has attracted more local and national press attention than is usual for a school board race. But while Anderson has said his young age would bring a fresh perspective to the board, his opponents have questioned whether he has the experience to serve.

“It’s one thing to swing a hammer at a frustration, but it’s another to know where to swing it,” said candidate Jennifer Bacon, one of Anderson’s two opponents.

Anderson is running against Bacon, 35, and incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 48. Espiritu was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in May 2016. The appointment process was long and marked by controversy. The first appointee, MiDian Holmes, stepped aside after details about a misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.

Both Espiritu and Bacon were among the finalists for the position. But Bacon withdrew, explaining at the time it was “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position, as well as my interests in supporting the board.”

Asked recently to elaborate, Bacon said she withdrew because she sensed she wasn’t going to be appointed. She said she, too, had an arrest in her background: for stealing a necklace from Macy’s when she was in college. Bacon said the charge was dropped and she was not convicted. (No charges showed up in a background check done by Chalkbeat.)

Bacon, who attended college in Louisiana, said the arrest was a turning point at a time when she was struggling to find her purpose. She went on to join the Teach for America corps, teaching for a year in New Orleans and a year in Miami.

After teaching, she went to law school and then moved in 2010 to Denver, where she worked first as a dean for the city’s largest charter school network, DSST, and then in alumni affairs for Teach for America. She is now a regional director with Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes.

Bacon said she wondered whether her positions on key issues also made her an unlikely appointee. For instance, she has said she’s not opposed to charter schools but believes Denver has reached its threshold and should focus on shoring up its traditional schools.

“People ask me if I’m pro-charter,” Bacon said in an interview. “I’m pro-community.”

Since Espiritu was appointed, she has largely voted in line with the rest of the school board. But she chafes at the idea that the board is monolithic or a rubber stamp for the administration. Much back-and-forth occurs before a decision, she said in an interview, and each board member brings a unique background and set of life experiences to the table.

Espiritu often says on the campaign trail that she’s the only immigrant to serve on the board in the last century. She was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a toddler. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder and helped found a small business called Change Matrix that assists organizations with planning, putting into place and monitoring change. She and her family moved to Denver in 2012.

Espiritu has two sons. Her oldest goes to DSST: Stapleton High, a charter school. Her youngest goes to William (Bill) Roberts School, a K-8 district-run school. She has said that in choosing schools for her children, she focused on quality and not on type.

As a member of the board, Espiritu has paid particular attention to efforts to improve student mental health. She recently encouraged DPS to become a “trauma-informed school district.”

“I want us to be a district that addresses student and educator trauma in a proactive or preventative way that’s culturally sensitive and systematic in fashion,” she said at a September board meeting. “…We need to shift our thinking from asking what is wrong with a child to what happened with a child.”

Parts of northeast Denver have struggled academically. The region is home to the district’s biggest-ever school turnaround effort, as well as two of three schools the board voted unanimously last year to close due to poor performance.

The candidates’ disparate views on school closure offer a window into what differentiates them. Espiritu voted for the closures, though she noted at a subsequent board meeting that doing so was “a painful process … and such a difficult decision.”

Anderson has said he opposes closing any more traditional, district-run schools. Bacon, meanwhile, has said that while she doesn’t believe in “trapping kids in failing schools,” ideas about how to turn things around should originate with affected families.

Two local groups that traditionally endorse candidates and contribute large sums of money struggled this year with who to support in District 4. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed Bacon, but a progressive caucus of the union chose to separately support Anderson. The pro-reform group Stand for Children did not endorse any candidate, explaining that both Bacon and Espiritu surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Of the three candidates, Espiritu had raised the most money — $73,847 — as of Oct. 11, when the first campaign finance filing period ended. Bacon had raised $59,302, including $10,000 from the teachers union, while Anderson had raised $16,331.

Espiritu and Bacon have also benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Brighter Futures for Denver spent $139,000 on Bacon. Two other groups, Students for Education Reform and Raising Colorado, which is associated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent a total of $73,229 on Espiritu.

Sorting the Students

As Nashville heads to court over sharing student information with the state, here’s why Memphis probably won’t

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville's Davidson County Chancery Court building where the state filed against Metro Nashville Public Schools over sharing contact information with charter schools.

Tennessee’s two largest school districts are often in lockstep on key issues. But in a recent tiff with the state about sharing student information with charter schools, the two districts are poised to part ways.

Leaders of Nashville’s school district have repeatedly defied an order from Tennessee’s education commissioner to share student addresses, phone numbers, and other information with the state’s controversial turnaround district, as required by a new state law. The state filed a lawsuit this week in response.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Memphis district have spoken out about the rule — but are preparing to comply. The district has given parents until Sunday, Oct. 22 to opt out of sharing their contact information with charter schools.

Instead of outright rejecting McQueen’s deadline last month like Nashville did, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sought a compromise and the district has indicated contact information after the opt out window could be shared.

“… we respectfully request you extend your deadline until October 23, 2017 to allow our families the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding their rights and to give our board an opportunity to vote on the release of the data,” Hopson said in a letter to McQueen.

The state education department says it is holding off filing a similar suit against that district, for now. The Memphis district “is still deciding whether to comply, whereas Metro [Nashville] has made its decision already,” state spokeswoman Sara Gast said. “Given that, it is appropriate to file here and then review Shelby’s decision to decide if litigation is necessary.”

Shelby County Schools declined to share how many parents have chosen to opt out so far, but said it plans to share information with its board about the effort next week.

The fight has ignited long-simmering tensions around enrollment and the state’s influence in local schools, and comes on the heels of Metro Nashville Public Schools board voting to join Shelby County Schools in its landmark funding lawsuit against the state.

Memphis leaders have also said that the issue at hand is student privacy, though a robocall to Memphis parents indicated that the main goal of the opt-out process was not to lose students to charter schools.

Memphis’ compromise stance will be good news to groups like parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, which says it has gathered about 1,200 parent signatures urging Shelby County Schools to release the contact information.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The legal questions at stake are the first challenge to a slight, but significant, amendment to federal rules

The Nashville school board cited two reasons for defying the state’s order in late August: One is U.S. Department of Education rule that allows districts to have discretion on who gets student directory information. The second was that when state lawmakers crafted the law that requires school districts to share student information, they did not intend for that information to be used for recruitment.

According to Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida, said the lawsuit could have national implications.

“What we’re about to see is the first test of whether the U.S. Department of Education amended rules in 2011 are enforceable or not,” he said. What it comes down to, he said, is if a federal rule can give local districts the permission to violate state law.

The Nashville board’s second justification reflects concerns from State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a key House education committee. He says the state is misinterpreting the law he helped create.

The state said in a statement that Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to confirm her interpretation of the new state law, “ensuring that families can be informed of all public education opportunities available to them.”

Below is a copy of the state’s court filing: