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Even with budget crunch, cutting back math teacher Aneesa Parks’ job doesn’t add up

You know the old saw about pennies, wisdom, pounds and fools? Bare bones though the budget may be, someone over at Minneapolis Public Schools’ headquarters might want to do a little of that fancy new math educators are all over and find a way to write Aneesa Parks’ full-time job back into it.

The math coach at Nellie Stone Johnson Community School on Minneapolis’ near north side since the school was “fresh started” in 2007, Parks has been cut to half time this year. Never mind that she’s on the verge of accomplishing the very thing that Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson has said is top priority: She has figured out how to help large numbers of struggling kids with disparate learning gaps make accelerated progress, as well as how to show other teachers the same strategies.

It’s a perennial challenge for teachers whose classrooms have high concentrations of struggling kids: How do you simultaneously teach grade-level material and identify and plug the learning gaps that render those lessons incomprehensible to much of the class?

Over the last three years, Parks has helped countless struggling kids master the skills needed to get up to grade level in math. She’s coached teachers on implementing her “math recovery” techniques in the classroom. Sometimes they watch her teach, sometimes she watches them and doles out feedback.

Aneesa Parks
Aneesa Parks

She’s developed assessments to help those same overburdened teachers determine on the fly precisely which concepts and skills each struggling child needs to be exposed to. She’s even put together a kit bag of lessons for plugging those gaps quickly and effectively.

Parks has crunched more data than entire school district divisions to discern what’s working and what isn’t. In the process, she’s become very efficient.

For example, a pupil’s answer to a single simple question — what do nine and five equal? — can reveal volumes. Parks holds up both hands and starts counting off fingers by way of illustration. Does the child count to nine and then to five or have they mastered the concept of tens?

“My questioning is so much better than it was five years ago,” she explained. “I’m not just getting an answer — I’m getting how they’re thinking.”

Parks offers another illustration: Say there are 20-plus kids in a third-grade classroom but only six are working at grade level. “You can’t stop teaching third grade,” she said. “You have to find a way to reach those kids and help them ‘scaffold’ up.”

At Nellie Stone Johnson, that means spending 60 minutes on grade-level math and another 30 on math recovery.

Math recovery works for a number of reasons, according to Park. For starters, her data suggest that each year a larger percentage of each class starts the year at grade level. In fact, year-over-year proficiency has doubled in some groups she’s worked with.

“But it also should become self-perpetuating,” she said. “Because kids love to be successful and they want their friends to be successful.”

And Parks swears math recovery is fun. “The [kids] are always playing games,” she said. “When kids are in investigative mode, they want to solve that problem. What situational context can we put that in to make them so curious they want to solve that problem?”

This year, the first cadre of kids to benefit from Parks’ coaching is entering the third grade, which means they will take standardized state tests for the first time next spring. Their scores may well make district brass look downright pound-foolish. 

“We have a lot of the right answers,” said Parks. “We know how to do it.”

The first two years she had the job, her salary and those of six other north-side math coaches was paid by a grant from Vanderbilt University. When it ran out last year, the district took over the expense. Faced with a $19 million budget shortfall this year and a projected gap of $20 million in 2011-12, last spring the district cut her position altogether.

Parks is still on the job half-time this year only because her former principal, new Associate Superintendent Mark Bonine, diverted funds from other school-level projects to keep her.

Over the summer, Nellie Stone Johnson had to cut $300,000 from its budget. When Bonine asked teachers to prioritize what to keep, there was universal agreement about Parks’ job.

For the record, Parks has nothing but sympathy for the budget-watchers’ plight and is quick to note that she, personally, will be fine. She’s having a baby in the near future and can stand to work half-time.

It’s Nellie Stone Johnson’s kids who will lose out, she said. “I don’t know how I’m going to do it half-time,” she said. “It’s incredibly hard work to match instruction to an individual child.

Now, about those pennies and pounds …

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/08/2010 - 09:53 am.

    You make a very strong case for retaining Aneesa Parks, Beth.

    It won’t help Parks’ cause, but it would have been helpful to take this opportunity to point out that the district’s hands are largely tied in cases like this.

    Due to the trade labor union rules in place in MPS, Nellie Stone Johnson’s principal is powerless to make hiring decisions that would benefit hard working, successful professionals like Aneesa, because they might adversely affect a union member who has been employed longer, irrespective of any performance deficiencies.

    It’s a failure of the adults, for which the kids pay the price.

  2. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 09/08/2010 - 11:42 am.

    Sorry, Tom, you’re wrong again.

    Did you even bother to read the article?

    “Over the summer, Nellie Stone Johnson had to cut $300,000 from its budget.”

    Hello, Tom, are you out there or are you on another planet.

    It is not the unions, it is the money. School funding has been cut in real terms. And things will be even worse if we continue to operate in the current fashion.

    And the answer is not Emmer, who will cut school funding even more. He’ll have to. His foolish position of putting us further in the hole by unnecessary business tax cuts and refusing to raise additional revenue by having the rich pay their fair share is absurd.

    Did you hear the latest about the GOP complaining that Dayton doesn’t pay his fair share? What hypocrites.

    It is time for folks to kiss Emmer good-bye and make the choice between Dayton and Horner. Your kids deserve better than Emmer.

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/08/2010 - 01:13 pm.

    Partisan bickering aside, I’d like to know more about her methods.

  4. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 09/08/2010 - 02:07 pm.

    I am a Viet Nam veteran. I have paid taxes without cheating for about 45 years. I don’t always agree with my government but I have supported it with my wallet and my life. All these tea party/tax party people that begrudge every single penny they give to support our government just tick me off. What have tom swift and Emmer done to make this a better country? These people and their political friends Whine about how this is supposed to be a Christian nation but I don’t remember all that greed and hypocracy anywhere in the Bible. Where is your charity, your sense of community and your sense of fair play?

    As I remember Swift, Emmer and Pawlenty are all opposed to building that Mosque or whatever it is anywhere near ground zero in New York. I have yet to hear one of them condemn the strip clubs that supposedly exist even closer to ground zero. And now I haven’t heard any of them condemn the Koran burner. Not only is it intolerent but it puts American soldiers at risk. Speak up you phony greedy hypocrites.

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/08/2010 - 02:23 pm.

    Bill, just because someone can’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s wrong; it just means they need to take a little more time to think about it.

    In reading your boiler plate response, the thoughtful reader would agree you lacked sufficient comprehension.

    For instance if I’m not mistaken, and again, I’m not, the GOP isn’t complaining that Dayton isn’t “paying his fair share”, their issue is that Dayton isn’t paying what Dayton claims a “fair share” should be for people with wealth in the amount he himself has….

    It’s an old story, actually; the same sort of thing that applies to leftists of more moderate means who march up to the state capital claiming they are “happy to pay” higher taxes, but decline the invitation to enhance their immediate joy by sending it in voluntarily….

    …or to EdMN members that claim to have nothing but the children’s best interests at heart but none-the-less absolutely refuse to even consider a contract that would allow a principal to keep an outstanding professional such as Beth writes of here, if it means risking any danger to their own irrational, time-in-service based job security.

    To your credit, you did manage to properly identify the presence of hypocrisy; you just pointed it in the wrong direction.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/08/2010 - 03:35 pm.

    Hiya Bill Schletzer, Tom Swift, US Navy vet here.

    I may have missed the news, but exactly how many strippers have flown planes into occupied buildings? I also haven’t heard of any dancers cutting the heads off living human beings with butcher knives….you know, fact is, other than the occasional (and usually well deserved), slap in the head, I’m not aware of dancers causing any harm to anyone.

    Anyway, as far as I’m concerned the nut cases that are set to burn Korans are just as well within their rights to do so as the Muslims are to build a mosque on ground zero….and they just as wrong for doing it.

    Hope that clears things up.

  7. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 09/08/2010 - 04:42 pm.

    You haven’t heard of any Muslims living and working in the United States cutting off heads or whatever have you? Specious arguments with the usual bombastic inaccurate information, but you are true to your hobgoblins, the unions and all public employees who make SO MUCH MONEY.
    Ridiculous

  8. Submitted by Eric Larson on 09/08/2010 - 06:39 pm.

    I would like to challenge the majority of the commentators on this excellent column to address comment #1. With out spinning off into other issues (including the Guv’s Race). Specifically this thought. Wouldn’t it be a better arrangement if the school got to keep the best teachers in tough times, instead of consulting the seniority chart? It’s what I have done in this down period. Please stipulate that #1 is right or make a better case for seniority trumping the future of our children.

  9. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 09/08/2010 - 08:43 pm.

    I’d like to give you an answer, Eric. But I am afraid that it just isn’t possible in this short space.

    Sorry, but it comes down to money. We should not be in the position of throwing out an older teacher because we believe that a younger teacher is better. Aside from the question of how this would be judged.

    I think that we should be able to throw out bad teachers for cause. But not that we should be able to throw out older teachers who are decent.

    You really have to think through the implications of tenure for teaching. Why does someone go into teaching? And why should they, if at 45 they could be thrown out in the street if things didn’t work out.

    It is cruel, but the younger people can more easily adapt to a new career than people in their forties or fifties.

    Just my two cents, having thought about it a lot.

    We are in big trouble in this country. In some respects the same situation holds for engineers. By the time you are 45 a young engineer can replace you at half the cost. Then what?

    Why should someone go into science or technology in this situation? They might as well go into “business.” Sad.

  10. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 09/08/2010 - 08:46 pm.

    Tom, I don’t have time for games this evening.

    You are a hypocrite. You don’t like unions – admit it. This is what your verbigeration above boils down to. I think I made my case correctly and pointed the finger of hypocrisy at the right person – that would be you.

    Ciao.

  11. Submitted by Joe Musich on 09/08/2010 - 09:24 pm.

    Had this fine teacher been so close to earning tenure that she was removed ? And how many other teachers in the end of a three year cycle did this happen to ? So some research would help here and that story could be much bigger. Teachers released before gaining tenure to keep costs down, or teachers released before gianing tenure to fend off gianing employment rights or you get the picture.

  12. Submitted by Aneesa Parks on 09/09/2010 - 07:01 am.

    This is Aneesa Parks the teacher in the story. This discussion has become about tenure and unions. The story is about math achievement.

    To get us back on track to an important discussion, let me clarify. I was not placed in my position due to tenure, nor did I lose my position due to tenure. MPS and MFT have negotiated Interview and Select as a mutual benefit for schools and teachers. I interviewed for my position and was selected based on my qualifications. I lost my position only due to funding cuts.

    As stated in the article, this is not about me. I love teaching, but I am not a super teacher. This is about a position….no matter who fills that full time position it was lost.

    We can wring our hands in the community and pretend we don’t know the answer to closing the achievement gap. Or we can be honest and question whether we want to pay for what we know will create equity in education and provide prepared citizens for our community.

  13. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 09/09/2010 - 11:01 am.

    Thank you, Aneesa.

    Tom, she has confirmed what I wrote above. This is about money. It is not about unions.

    The solution to our educational problems is known: Teachers like Aneesa who are treated civilly and not nickeled and dimed to death and threatened with being kicked out into the street because their students got 49% on an exam rather than 51%.

    Your whole position, Tom, is a smokescreen because you don’t want to face up to the fact that good education costs money. Our children deserve better, Tom.

    “We can wring our hands in the community and pretend we don’t know the answer to closing the achievement gap. Or we can be honest and question whether we want to pay for what we know will create equity in education and provide prepared citizens for our community.”

    If a person like this can’t get a job teaching, then our educational system is truly beyond repair. This is a consequence of the actions like Timothy Pawlenty and they will be continued if Mr. Tom Emmer is elected.

    See you in November, Tom.

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