First Person

Voices: Listening to teachers on licensure reform, part two

As part of an ongoing series on recruiting, training and supporting teachers, Donnell-Kay fellow Sarah Jenkins interviews teacher Sarah Casaletto about her work with the LEAD Compact. 

bigstock-Casual-Student-Or-Teacher-In-A-2033065_edited-1Earlier this week, I shared excerpts of my conversation with Mark Sass, one of the teacher members of the LEAD Compact, a group taking on the behemoth task of reforming teacher licensure, including elements of recruitment, training, induction, professional development, and retention. Today, I am pleased to share pieces of my conversation with Sarah Casaletto, another teacher participating in the LEAD Compact.

Casaletto is in her third year as a teacher in Colorado, focusing on Secondary Special Education and Literacy Development at Battle Mountain High School in Eagle County. Before entering the classroom formally, Casaletto worked in the experiential education field, most recently directing an environmental education program in Seattle.

Why did you want to be part of the LEAD Compact?

It was posted on a district website, and it sounded interesting to be part of the policy side because I hadn’t done that before. I’m dual certified as a special education and general education teacher, so I was intentionally trained and educated to be an inclusive educator and to work with a variety of populations in my classroom, but some kids get overlooked in policy creation, given the diversity in our classrooms. I got into the LEAD Compact with that lens and as an opportunity to learn more.

As a teacher, what are your core values that guide your participation in the LEAD Compact? How is your perspective unique during licensure conversations?

My core value is protecting the integrity of the profession and ensuring what we do on the policy side is meaningful for those in the classroom.  How do we look at ourselves as professionals, how do we maintain and grow that, and should that have a role in policy? Whatever ends up coming out of this should make sense for teachers, not just on paper. It should translate into real, honest, meaningful change for teachers. I also understand the student perspective, especially the students who struggle and the students who have disabilities. I do believe all students can learn, but we also have to face the realities of the students who are cognitively delayed and take a bit longer to learn. How do we honor that and protect those students in the policies that we make?

What were your main concerns around licensure before joining the LEAD Compact?

I disagreed with the fact that any teacher who has a license can just take a test and be able to work as a special education teacher. There are a lot of skills that get missed: teachers struggle with paperwork, legality issues, and collaboration. Another concern is that that there are not very many specializations within special education or other content areas like science. 

How has your perspective changed since participating?

It’s evolving. For example, getting people into a classroom through an alternative certification route allows for diversity of candidates and allows for on-the-job training in context. Yet, there are a lot of issues that go along with that, the most important (being) the impact on the students. Also, the idea of opening up the floodgates to allow lower standards for getting a license and putting inexperienced people into the classroom right away could be a dangerous one. If we’re trying to elevate the profession and make it professional, then we should not lower the standards for licensure. I like the idea that access should be rigorous; you have to work hard to be a teacher because it’s a challenging profession. I’m really wrestling between the two, the idea that we can train up teachers in the classroom while they’re teaching versus really going through and putting in what needs to be put in.

Thinking three years into the future, if you could choose one thing that would be different about licensure, what would that be?

Licenses would actually mean something. I have an initial license, and I could have my professional license here in Colorado, but I don’t see the point in applying until my initial license expires. Currently, the only difference between an initial license and a professional license is an induction certificate. Since induction programs are state mandated, yet left to individual districts to design, each program is different. Our program was not differentiated based on teacher experience or even specialty area, meaning teachers could be in a class with a school psychologist learning about classroom management. For me, I felt it was a review of what I learned in graduate school. This model doesn’t seem to be an adequate way to support teachers, as it requires them to be out of the classroom for multiple days per school year, nor does is differentiate based on educator strengths and weaknesses. I feel my certificate allows me to teach, and it’s just a paperwork thing. They need to make licenses mean something, either by distinction or compensation.

Thank you, Sarah for sharing the unique perspective that you are bringing to the licensure conversation in Colorado. Mark and Sarah are examples of the type of collaboration and respectful dialogue between the policy and teaching world that will create lasting reforms that will have a real impact in classrooms across Colorado.

**The Donnell-Kay Foundation is among several funders supporting the work of the LEAD Compact.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.