president in waiting

Meet Mulgrew, the new power broker you probably don't know

Mulgrew discussing a teacher stipend used to purchase school supplies in May of this year.
Mulgrew trying to save a teacher stipend used to purchase school supplies in May of this year. Full NY1 report ##http://www.ny1.com/content/news_beats/education/99037/classroom-stipend-cuts-fuel-brooklyn-rally/Default.aspx##here##.

The man who is on the brink of becoming one of the city’s top power brokers nearly got lost in a crowd earlier this week.

Michael Mulgrew is the designated successor to teachers union president Randi Weingarten, who will announce her departure from the union today. If union leaders select him to fill her shoes, as is expected, he will become the president of America’s largest union local and one of the most influential labor unions in the state.

On Monday afternoon, at a press conference where Mayor Bloomberg announced the city’s rising graduation rates with a pack of advocates, the mayor ticked off every one of their names in gratitude but one.

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein leaned in to Bloomberg’s ear. “And Michael Mulgrew,” he reminded the mayor.

The tall, bald man with a bouncer’s build hardly registered the oversight.

Bloomberg can be forgiven for not remembering Mulgrew’s name. Unlike other top brass at the teachers union, Mulgrew is a relative newcomer. Just four years ago he was teaching English and filmmaking to high school students in Staten Island. He was not seen as a possible successor to Weingarten inside the union until she abruptly vaulted him into the limelight last year, making him one of three candidates in a dramatic internal run-off race.

Even now that he’s on good terms with deputy mayors and had his photograph pasted across the pages of the union’s most recent newspapers, Mulgrew remains obscure. He would be the first non-Jewish president of a union that over the years has been stereotyped as a Jewish haven. A trained electrician and carpenter who ran a contracting business on the side for several years, he would also be the first vocational teacher to become interim president of the UFT. (Vocational teachers represent just a small fraction of the union.)

All this makes him a far cry from the stature of the woman whose shoes he’ll fill.

“Anybody who thinks that they can just walk into New York City and become the next Randi Weingarten is smoking something,” Weingarten warned last year, amid speculation about her successor.

Mulgrew, 44, also couldn’t be more different from Weingarten. Tall and apple-cheeked, he has the physical presence of Mr. Clean (both shave their heads) and a quiet charm. “Women seem to like him,” noted one union member.

Still, he’s often bullish and he gained renown in the union for being one of a small number of people to stand up to Weingarten. At a City Council hearing on mayoral control in early June, Mulgrew barked his testimony. Weingarten’s critics, who sometimes criticize her for favoring the middle ground, like Mulgrew’s puggishness.

“He comes across as a non-waffler,” said union activist Norm Scott. “For people who despise Weingarten, there’s already a sense of, ‘Oh, maybe Mulgrew will be better.’ But while this change in style will work for him for a while, it is a change in style not substance.”

Mulgrew grew up on Staten Island and still lives there, a fact he can hold responsible for his heavy New York accent. He graduated from St. Peters High School, an all-boys Catholic school, and then went to the College of Staten Island, the borough’s CUNY school.

In 1990, while doing construction work as a member of the carpenter’s union, he began working as a substitute teacher at the William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School in Brooklyn. After several years, he began working full time, teaching English and then an audio-visual class for at-risk students. He taught how to use recording equipment and computers to write, produce, and edit films.

Colleagues from his teaching years describe Mulgrew as a natural leader who has found himself  reluctantly thrust into power by virtue of being in the right place at the right time.

Tom Dorso, a social studies teacher and the current UFT chapter leader at Grady High School, shared a classroom with Mulgrew. They became such close friends that Mulgrew built Dorso’s kitchen cabinets for him.

According to Dorso, Mulgrew was hesitant to run for chapter leader, a position he won in 1999. “He went in kicking and screaming,” Dorso said. “He took the chapter leader’s position because no one was really running. We had a principal at the time who was trying to get away with some stuff and Michael said, ‘I just won’t allow it.'”

From then on, Mulgrew was “relentless,” Dorso said. He took a “divide and conquer” approach to the school’s new principal and the assistant principals, playing them off each other to his benefit.

“Whenever one of the suits was coming into the building, Michael would always make sure he was well dressed, and would barge into the meeting and introduce himself. He was very proactive,” Dorso said.

“When Mr. Mulgrew ran for chapter leader and won, the staff embraced him,” said Christopher Manos, a shop teacher at Grady High School who took over as chapter leader when Mulgrew became a vice president in 2005. “Everybody knew that he was very smart, he was articulate, and very personable.”

While serving as chapter leader, Mulgrew established himself as one of the more vocal members of the delegate assembly. “He made himself noticed,” Dorso said, and he soon attracted the attention of Frank Carucci, then vice president for vocational and technical high schools. Mulgrew began working for Carucci after school, stuffing envelopes, answering phone calls, and running errands. Following the UFT tradition of naming a successor before the members vote, when Carucci decided to retire, he endorsed Mulgrew as interim vice president.

Once again, Mulgrew wasn’t certain he wanted the job, but he ran after others egged him on, and he “won big,” Dorso said.

As vice president, Mulgrew also quickly crashed meetings with men in suits. When Klein seemed uninterested in his passion for “career and technical education” — next-generation vocational schools that emphasize academic rigor — Mulgrew took his case directly to then-Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff. Soon, Mayor Bloomberg was announcing a new initiative to expand career and technical education.

A question Mulgrew and those watching his ascent face is whether he’ll be able to hold his own against Weingarten.

Supporters have characterized Mulgrew as having an independent mind and a forceful personality, but critics suggest that he rose through the ranks by being a loyal foot soldier to the party that supports Weingarten, the UNITY caucus. They say he will not stray from party line.

“He’s demonstrated his total loyalty to her and that’s what you get when you’re loyal,” said Jeff Kaufman, a member of ICE’s steering committee. “He’s going to sit there and give a couple of sound bites and the heavy lifting is still going to be done by Randi.”

Some of Mulgrew’s colleagues from his early days in the union saw him as an obvious choice for the UFT’s top job.

“I was calling him Mr. President about a year ago,” Dorso said. “I teach social studies, I know how politics works, he’s the fair-haired boy even though he shaves his head.”

Mulgrew declined to comment for this story.

“I think he’s a great person. I think he has a lot of guts,” Weingarten said. “He’s a great teacher, came up through the ranks. … He’s willing to break a lot of glass.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.