Fresh Start

Incoming principal at troubled school invokes neighborhood roots, promises ‘new day’

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Principal Bakari Posey walked the streets around School 43.

Walking the streets around School 43, Bakari Posey passes the corner where his father used to work as a counselor. He points toward Tarkington Park, where he played basketball as a child.

“I grew up in this community,” said Posey, who is the latest principal to take the helm of the troubled school.

School 43 has been plagued by unstable leadership, out of control students and low test scores. The school’s history has made parents wary of yet another principal showing up, promising improvements.

But Posey’s personal connection to the neighborhood is part of his pitch to frustrated parents. It’s a reason to believe that despite all the troubles at the school, he is here to stay.

“I’m putting my all into this because my reputation is on the line,” said Posey, who left an assistant principal position at Tindley Accelerated Schools charter network to join Indianapolis Public Schools.

Both of Posey’s parents are Indianapolis educators, and although he attended Catholic school, he had cousins and childhood playmates who went to School 43.

Brenda Vance Paschal introduced principal Bakari Posey to families in the neighborhood.
PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Brenda Vance Paschal introduced principal Bakari Posey to families in the neighborhood.

Last Saturday, on a day when the temperature approached 95 degrees and the glaring sunshine baked heat into the pavement, Posey walked the blocks around the school with Brenda Vance Paschal, a longtime resident and member of neighborhood association. The pair passed out flyers for the school’s start-of-the-year bash Saturday 12 to 4pm — and introduced Posey to the community.

“I think he will bring new life into the community,” Paschal said. “He’s from the area. He’s gonna stay.”

Most of the houses were quiet, but several businesses let Posey post flyers. A barbershop down the street offered his staff a deal on haircuts. A mother whose child is too young for school agreed to hang an invite to the school’s carnival in her apartment building.

Finally, after an hour of visiting businesses and putting flyers in mailboxes, a mother stepped out onto her stoop to meet the new principal.

Syreta Thomas lives just down the street from the school and her two children were enrolled in there until last year when she became so frustrated with the administration that she pulled them out and put them in a charter school.

Thomas said her son has learning disabilities and she felt he wasn’t getting the extra help he needed. But one of her biggest problems with the school was the culture — teachers would tell her son that he’s a “bad kid” and principals came and went, Thomas said.

She had a simple question for Posey: “Are you sticking around?”

Bakari Posey discussed the future of School 43 with Syreta Thomas, who pulled her children out of the school last year.
PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Bakari Posey discussed the future of School 43 with Syreta Thomas, who pulled her children out of the school last year.

Thomas is not the only parent who has left School 43 as it has struggled in recent years.

Part of Posey’s challenge as a principal will be not only winning the trust of parents who are still at the school but also winning back parents like Thomas.

“It’s a new day,” he told Thomas. “I’m working on a mindset shift for my staff.”

Standing on her stoop, Posey listened to her concerns with the school and promised that he’s here to stay, and that the school will be different.

Posey sees the frustration that parents have with the school. Discipline problems have knocked the school off track, and some kids have lost years of learning time.

“It sucks,” Posey said. “That makes me angry and sad at the same time.”

But he is also convinced that the school can turnaround.

As principal, he is going to be rolling out a new school culture strategy called Tribes Learning Community, that is used and liked by other IPS schools. It’s a model that emphasizes respect among teachers and students, one of biggest goals Posey has for the school. Respect needs to start with teachers, so they can model behavior for kids, he said.

If teachers are angry or yell at students, even the kids that are not causing trouble will lose respect for them, he said.

As an assistant principal at Tindley, Posey was charged with enforcing the charter school’s strict discipline policies. But Posey said his own philosophy is more moderate. Elementary school teachers should give students quick redirections if they are getting off task or distracting the class, he said.

For more severe issues, the school has six staffers who can help with discipline issues, including a social worker, a school counselor and four staffers dedicated to helping students with behavior problems, Posey said. Those staffers can help in class if a teacher is struggling, so instead of sending a misbehaving student to the office, the teacher can take the time to go into the hall with the child and discuss the problem.

“Now that kid doesn’t feel admonished, that kid doesn’t feel embarrassed,” Posey said. “They still feel connected to the teacher.”

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Indiana’s push to raise teacher pay is creating some unlikely allies

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Middle school math teacher Eliana Moore, left, gives Armando Flynn, 13, some extra attention to help with a lesson in algebra.

It’s not every day that the state’s teachers union, Republican leaders, and education advocacy groups find themselves working toward the same goal. But this year, as Indiana puts teacher pay at the forefront of its legislative priorities, there seems to be an all-hands-on-deck approach to make it happen — and that means some unlikely allies.

During Tuesday’s ceremonial first day of the legislative session, House Speaker Brian Bosma announced in a speech to fellow lawmakers that Republican Reps. Bob Behning and Todd Huston — as well as representatives from the Indiana State Teachers Association, advocacy group Stand for Children, and the educator organization Teach Plus — were working on a plan to ensure teacher raises are part of the state’s next two-year budget.

“The most important profession for the future is those that serve in our classrooms,” Bosma said, adding that although the state has made increases over the past few years in school funding, pay for teachers has not kept pace even as administrative spending has increased.

It’s an unusual partnership because the teachers union has frequently had tension with Republicans who favor school choice and expanding the state’s charter school and private school voucher programs. The union, which staunchly advocates for traditional public schools, has also clashed over charter partnerships with districts, a model that Teach Plus and Stand for Children have supported, even though they aren’t inherently partisan.

Why now? The combination of local districts struggling to hire teachers and keep them in the classroom and a larger national conversation about teacher compensation has put raising teacher pay in the spotlight, both in Indiana and across the country. Last week, teachers in Portage, Indiana, picketed to push for larger raises as they negotiate a new contract.

“It’s been a crisis that’s been coming — we’ve seen it coming … and finally people are starting to connect the dots between compensation and retention,” said Teresa Meredith, president of ISTA, the state’s largest teachers union. “We finally had to take a step back and say, obviously fighting each other is not getting anything done.”

Meredith said state-driven policies that have led to more testing and dialed up the need for schools to compete for students naturally has resulted in increased spending on staff members who aren’t in the classroom. Now, she said, lawmakers are seeing how that’s affecting school budgets, and, in turn, making it difficult to attract and retain teachers.

The desire to figure out ways to keep teachers in the classroom also brought Teach Plus to the table, said Rachel Hathaway, program manager for the national organization’s Indiana arm. Teach Plus helps train teachers to be policy advocates.

“There is a moment happening this year that can bring folks together to really elevate the profession and support teachers to make sure they are able to stay in the classroom,” Hathaway said. Teach Plus has “a history of knowing the importance of teacher recruitment and retention and ensuring we have high-quality teachers in front of our students.”

And it’s that impact at the classroom level, Stand for Children Indiana executive director Justin Ohlemiller said, that speaks to his group’s mission. Stand is an organization that aims to help parents learn how to advocate for their children in schools, but the group has been criticized, such as during the recent Indianapolis Public Schools board election, because they do not have to disclose their spending.

“At the end of the day, data shows one of the most important single factors in children’s education is the educator at the front of the room,” Ohlemiller said.

Indiana’s plans for how to boost teacher salaries are expected to come into sharper focus over the next few weeks. But Bosma cautioned again Tuesday that there might not be much extra money to work with, casting some doubt on the state’s ability to raise pay enough to make a meaningful difference for educators across the state.

“We’re going to have more needs, more critical needs, than we have available dollars,” Bosma said.

Bosma wouldn’t offer details about how much money House Republicans would add for teacher pay, but said after funding obligations to the Department of Child Services, that state would have an optimistic $50 million per year in new revenue for other funding requests. If teacher pay were to receive just a piece of that, it would be far less than the $81 million per year or so that Senate Democrats have called for — which they figure would amount to a 5 percent raise for teachers and counselors over the next two years.

And if curbing teacher shortages is as much of a priority as the state’s majority is now pushing, state Democrat leaders say, Indiana needs to prove that come January by making it a meaningful part of the budget.

“We have the resources,” Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson, said on Friday when his caucus presented its 2019 priorities. “We can make that sacrifice to make sure our teachers know we respect and appreciate them.”

cry for help

View from the child care trenches: ‘Those of us cleaning the poop are not making it’

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat

At the end of three hours of briefings Monday on advancing care for Illinois’ tiniest residents, an on-the-ground provider’s 3-minute plea shook awake a gathering of the state’s top early childhood leaders and reminded them why they were there.

“We are in a crisis and unable to get help,” said Holtz, who in seven years has cycled through 147 staff members at her two day care centers in south central Effingham.

Turnover in that time among her 35 employees has been enough to staff the two centers more than four times over.

Speaking to the early learning council that directs how the state funds services for children from birth to age 5, Holtz said half of those departing sought better-paying jobs in other fields. Others headed to public school districts that pay better. Some she let go.

“Down here in the trenches, those of us who are cleaning the poop and plunging the toilets — we’re the ones who are not making it,” said Holtz, ticking off how well-intentioned Illinois directives make it tough to run a childcare business. She listed state policies like raising degree requirements for jobs that pay $8.50 to $10.25 an hour in her area, an endless stream of “health and safety” trainings, and lead and radon tests that cost her $1,000 apiece.

In a meeting that focused mainly on future ambitions, Holtz redirected attention to a present hazard: a critical shortage of qualified staffers to work in infant centers, daycare programs, and community-based preschools.  

The issue threatens to undercut any sort of universal pre-K program, which governor-elect J.B. Pritzker pledged to pursue as a candidate.

Preschool expert GG Weisenfeld said Illinois meets many established early learning benchmarks. But the state lags in salary parity. Other shortcomings: a revolving door of the state’s top leadership in early learning and a lack of full-day programs.   

“For preschools housed within public schools, those teachers have salary parity with other teachers,” said Weisenfeld, the lead author of a new state preschool policy scan from the National Institute for Early Education Research. “Unfortunately, when programs are housed in community-based centers, those teachers do not.”

But the state’s powerful Early Learning Council barely touched on that topic at its quarterly meeting Monday.

Holtz, one of only two people to address the council, said she drove several hours from Effingham for her three minutes at the mic. She said she supports the state’s push for better quality, but that effort doesn’t pencil out for her and other caregivers. One state subsidized program for low-income families reimburses her only $23 per day per child. That’s not enough to pay a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree.

“When we do hire them, they uniformly all leave for better pay and benefits — and less stress. The stress is up there with the reasons for leaving, along with pay.”

As Illinois focuses on raising the quality of early learning throughout the state by requiring bachelor’s degrees for lead teachers in preschools, it faces a conundrum: Teachers with college degrees want to and can earn more than minimum wage elsewhere. (A 2017 state report said the median hourly wage for a licensed childcare center teacher was $12.50. Assistant teachers and infant caregivers generally made less.)

Jill Andrews, another downstate center director who heads up the Southern Illinois Child Care Assistance Task Force and made the trek with Holtz, handed out folders with her own set of recommendations.

Among them: raising state reimbursement rates for publicly funded child care programs, helping child care providers qualify for state health insurance, and offering community college credit as an incentive for workers to pursue training.