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.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.