teachers unite

A new union of teachers forms over happy hours and Facebook

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Sydney Morris (left) and Evan Stone (right), two teachers in the Bronx, founded Educators 4 Excellence to give teachers frustrated with how they're evaluated a voice in policy debates.

New York City’s teachers union likes to say that it speaks for all teachers. But two young teachers at a Bronx elementary school are starting an organization with a distinctly different point of view.

Both in their third year of teaching at P.S. 86 in the Bronx, Evan Stone and Sydney Morris started “Educators 4 Excellence” last month out of frustration with how their work is supported and evaluated.

One of their first battles will be against the state’s “last-in, first-out” law, which forces the city to lay off newer teachers in advance of their more experienced colleagues.

“We want it to be the ostensible solution to a lot of screaming on both sides,” said Stone, 25.

Only a few weeks old, the organization mainly exists though its website, which asks teachers to sign a petition in favor of repealing the last-in, first-out law. So far, the group has 520 fans on Facebook. The organization is  holding happy hour gatherings on Fridays, unconsciously modeling some of the United Federation of Teachers’ founders, who gathered for whiskey sours in Al Shanker’s one-bedroom apartment on Friday nights.

Educators 4 Excellence is also generating enthusiasm from more established advocates such as Democrats for Education Reform founder and board member Whitney Tilson.

Beyond advocating for the legislature to overturn the law — something Chancellor Joel Klein supports and the union strongly opposes — Stone and Morris said they want Educators 4 Excellence to become an independent think tank for teachers who want to overhaul how they’re evaluated and what’s done with that information. Part of that includes supporting merit pay and using students’ test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations.

For the moment, the organization is entirely unfunded and run by full-time teachers.

Stone and Morris, both of whom entered the classroom by way of Teach for America, said they spent their first two years catching their breath, and when their third year came around they felt settled and accomplished, but dissatisfied. Aside from getting a once-a-year rating of satisfactory or unsatisfactory, they didn’t know how well they were doing or how to improve, and they began to talk about leaving their school.

“Why are we thinking about leaving this job that we’re both pretty good at and is really rewarding for us?” said Stone. “We want to be pushed, we wanted to be evaluated, and we wanted someone to come into our classroom and tell us how to be better.”

One solution they discussed was going to work for a charter school, where they felt the likelihood of having a principal devoted to improving teaching would be higher, said Morris, 24. But that felt like a cop-out.

“I think charter schools are a necessary part of the solution, but for me to leave a traditional public school was almost in a way giving up on the students I’d been working with for the last three years,” Morris said.

Both maintain that the problem is not with their school’s administration or with the union as a whole, but with the policies dictated by state laws and teachers union contract.

“We’re not anti-union,” Stone said. “We’re big fans of the benefits that teachers get and we like the pensions and collective bargaining, but we also need to look out for the prestige of the profession.”

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”