tried and true

Teachers union lawsuit takes aim at 22 school closures

For the second time in two years, the city teachers union is suing to stop the Bloomberg administration from closing schools and opening new ones in their place.

The union’s lawsuit, which it filed along with the NAACP and a host of elected officials and parents, challenges plans to close 22 of the 26 schools that education officials hope to phase out this year.

Last year, the union successfully stopped the city from closing 19 schools by persuading a State Supreme Court judge that the closures violated various requirements in the state’s education law. These ranged from not following the law about public notification of hearing dates to failing to failing to map out the predicted impact of school closures.

This year, the city took pains to follow public notification rules, beginning the process earlier in the year, and by last month, 26 schools had ended up on the chopping block.

Perhaps as a result, the United Federation of Teachers’ argument against closures this year is broader and more complicated. And unlike last year, the union is also seeking to prevent charter schools from moving into public school buildings, charging that the city did not prove the co-locations would be equitable.

“The department continues to insist that phase-outs and closures of schools and co-locating untested schools is the answer, while depriving the remaining students in those designated, 22 schools of the resources to succeed academically,” said Kenneth Cohen of the NAACP at a press conference this morning.

Chancellor Dennis Walcott — who said he learned about the suit not from UFT President Michael Mulgrew but from a reporter this morning — said he was “saddened” by the suit. As deputy mayor, Walcott decried the NAACP last year for its involvement in the school closure lawsuit because he said the group prevented the city from improving school choices.

“We totally disagree with the union,” Walcott said. “We have met the letter of the law and we will continue to meet the letter of the law as far as these schools are concerned.”

The new suit offers a suite of justifications for why the city’s plans should be stopped. It argues that the city did not keep its promises to help the schools that were originally slated to close last year avoid closure next year. Extra staff and support services that the city promised to provide in a settlement agreement with the union often did not surface, the suit alleges.

(In fact, academic performance at some schools on last year’s closure list has improved so much that the department did not try to close them again this year.)

The suit also argues that Panel for Educational Policy was wrong to approve charter school co-locations when the city had not provided enough information about the co-locations’ impact. And it charges that schools on the state’s lists of failing schools require state approval for closure — a step that has not been a public part of the closure process in recent memory.

This year’s lawsuit includes 15 of the 19 schools in last year’s suit and adds seven more. Four schools that are slated for closure this year are not included in the lawsuit. “These 22 were the strongest cases we have,”  said Dick Riley, a UFT spokesman.

Because the lawsuit comes so late in the school year, city officials say that it threatens to upend enrollment and space plans set to go into effect within months. Students have already been admitted to high schools, which make up 15 of the schools named in the lawsuit, and the 18 charter schools the union is seeking to limit have also admitted new students for next year.

“Students who have been accepted will have to wait and wonder,” Walcott said.

Walcott promised that the city would push hard to carry out its plans.

“We’re going to litigate it,” he said. “We will fight to make sure we’re going to phase out those schools.”

UFT School Closure Suit 2011

First Person

First Person: Why my education nonprofit is bucking the coastal trend and setting up shop in Oklahoma

PHOTO: Creative Commons

“Oklahoma?! Why are you expanding to Oklahoma?!”

The response when I told some people that Generation Citizen, the nonprofit I run, was expanding to central Texas and Oklahoma, quickly became predictable. They could understand Texas, probably because our headquarters will be in the blue-dot-in-sea-of-red Austin. But Oklahoma?

My answer: Generation Citizen is expanding to Oklahoma City because no one would expect us to expand to Oklahoma City.

Our nonprofit is dedicated to empowering young people to become engaged citizens by reviving civics education in schools. We help middle and high school students learn about local politics by guiding them as they take action on issues they care about, like funding for teen jobs or state resources for teenage moms.

I founded the organization after graduating from Brown University in Rhode Island in 2009. Since then, we’ve expanded our programming to Boston, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area. All are urban areas with wide swaths of low-income young people, unequal schools, and disparate power dynamics. Our work is needed in those areas.

At the same time, all of these areas have predominantly liberal populations. In fact, according to The Economist, they are among the 10 most liberal cities in the country.

Generation Citizen is a non-partisan organization. We do not wish to convince young people to support a particular candidate or party — we just want them to engage politically, period. But the fact that we are preparing low-income young people in liberal urban centers to become politically active complicates this narrative.

So despite the fact that we could work with many more students in our existing cities, we made a conscious decision to expand to a more politically diverse region. A city that had real Republicans.

As we started talking about expansion, I realized the extent to which the dialogue about political and geographic diversity was a rarity in national nonprofit circles. While several large education organizations, like Teach for America and City Year, have done an admirable job of in working in conservative and rural regions across the country, a lot of other organizations follow a more predictable path, sticking largely to cities on the east and west coasts and sometimes, if folks feel crazy, an Atlanta or Miami.

There is nothing wrong with these decisions (and we were originally following this trajectory). A big reason for the coastal-focused expansion strategy is the availability of financial resources. Nonprofits want to raise money locally to sustain themselves, and those cities are home to a lot of people and foundations who can fund nonprofits.

But a more problematic reason seems related to our increasing ideological self-segregation. Nonprofits lean toward expanding to places that are comfortable, places that their leaders visit, places where people tend to hold similar values and political views.

One of the fault lines in our democracy is our inability to talk to people who disagree with us (highlighted daily by this presidential election). And non-profits may be exacerbating this reality.

This schism actually became more apparent to me when our board of directors started having conversations about expansion. Oklahoma City had come to the top of my proposed list because of my personal and professional contacts there. But I quickly realized that no one on my board lived more than five miles from an ocean, and save a board member from Oklahoma, none had stepped foot in the state.

“Are we sure we want to expand there? Why not a gateway city?” (I still don’t know what a gateway city is.)

“We can hire a Republican to run the site, but they can’t be a Trump supporter.”

“Are we sure that we can raise enough money to operate there?”

It wasn’t just my board. Whenever I talked to friends about our plans, they’d offer the same resistance.

The stereotypes I heard were twofold: Oklahoma was full of bigoted conservatives, and it was an incredibly boring location. (The dullness narrative got an unquestionable boost this year when star basketball player Kevin Durant left the hometown Thunder. It became quite clear that a main rationale for his leaving the team was Oklahoma City itself.)

But as I met with folks about Generation Citizen’s work, I met citizen after citizen who was excited about our mission. The state is facing tremendous budget challenges, and its voter participation rates amongst the worst in the country. Given these realities, there seemed to be widespread recognition that a program like ours could actually be helpful.

I did not talk about national politics with most people I met. Indeed, we might disagree on whom to support. But we did agree on the importance of educating young people to be politically active, shared concerns about public school budget cuts, and bonded over excitement for the Thunder’s playoff chances.

Still, the actual expansion to Oklahoma will be a challenge for our organization. Despite our local ties, we are coming in from the outside, and we do have the perception of being a progressively minded organization. What will happen if one of our classes wants to advocate for open carry at schools in response to a shooting? How will my board handle working in a site where they wouldn’t ordinarily visit?

I am excited to tackle all of these challenges. And I would push other similarly sized non-profits to think about working in a more diverse set of areas. It is not possible to be a national organization and avoid entire swaths of the country. But more importantly, given these tenuous political times, it feels important to interact with people who may not hold our beliefs.

Nonprofits can’t fix our national dialogue alone. But by expanding where we work, we might help improve the conversation.

honor system

Meet Derek Voiles, the Morristown educator who is Tennessee’s newest Teacher of the Year

PHOTO: Tennessee Department of Education
Derek Voiles, Tennessee's 2016-17 Teacher of the Year

Derek Voiles, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher in Morristown, is Tennessee’s 2016-17 Teacher of the Year, the State Department of Education announced Thursday.

One of nine finalists for this year’s award, Voiles teaches at Lincoln Heights Middle in Hamblen County Schools in East Tennessee. He received the top teacher honor at a banquet in Nashville.

Voiles, who has been teaching for six years, has long shared his teaching practices publicly — on Twitter, through a blog he wrote with a colleague, and as a state ambassador for the Common Core standards. In recent years, according to a state news release, his classroom became a hub as teachers from across his district observed his teaching in hopes of replicating his practices, which often improved the performance of students far behind their peers.

“All students are capable of achieving great things, and all students deserve a teacher who believes this and will do whatever it takes to make it happen,” Voiles said in the release. He is also a doctoral candidate at East Tennessee State University.

Now, Voiles will gain an even wider stage, as Tennessee’s representative to the National Teacher of the Year program. He will also share insight from the classroom as part of committees and working groups with the Tennessee Department of Education.

All nine Teacher of the Year finalists, representing each of the state’s regions, will serve on the Commissioner Candice McQueen’s Teacher Advisory Council during the 2016-17 school year.

The department also recognized two division winners from Middle and West Tennessee. Cord Martin, a music education and enrichment teacher at Whitthorne Middle School in Maury County, was recognized for his innovative teaching strategies and connecting content to contemporary culture. Christy McManus, a fifth-grade English language arts and social studies teacher at Chester County Middle School in Henderson was honored for equipping her students with the end goal in mind: a college-ready twelfth grader.

Voiles follows Cathy Whitehead, a third-grade teacher from Chester County, who served as Tennessee’s 2015-16 Teacher of the Year. Whitehead teaches at West Chester Elementary School in Henderson in West Tennessee.