teachable moment (with video)

A teacher evaluation panel dissolves early after dissent

A panel discussion that featured officials on each side of the teacher evaluation stand-off was halted abruptly last night after a disagreement escalated. The disruption did not stem from the teachers union and Department of Education official on the panel, but from a small group of audience members protesting the event itself.

“Okay, I’m going to cut it off,” said moderator Evan Stone, following a crescendo of interruptions that built up for nearly five minutes. Stone is a founder of Educators 4 Excellence, which hosted the event. “Clearly, we’ve broken a lot of norms of respectability.”

The interruptions came from at least three people in an audience of more than 100, most of them teachers. They began in response to Stone’s handling of the panel and then escalated into an airing of grievances that targeted Educators 4 Excellence and its teacher evaluation recommendations, released yesterday, which the protesters said did not reflect their views.

“I am a teacher and I have never been asked what I thought,” yelled out Stuart Kramer Kaplan, one of the protesters.

(Click here for video of the exchange.)

Educators 4 Excellence is an advocacy group of teachers who hold shared views on education policy, many of which — like the group’s position against seniority-based layoffs — challenge traditional teachers union orthodoxy. Led by Teach For America alumni who are no longer in the classroom, the group has quickly gained a high profile with the support of national philanthropists, including the Gates Foundation.

The group organized the panel as part of its efforts to influence the teacher evaluation debate. Panelists included Shael Polakow-Suransky,  the senior deputy chancellor at the Department of Education, and Leo Casey, the vice president of the United Federation of Teachers. Their respective organizations have not been able to hammer out an agreement on details of a teacher evaluation system. The panel also included a teacher, principal, and education consultant.

Earlier in the day, E4E released its own set of recommendations, which served as a major talking point for much of the evening.

For at least the first 90 minutes, those efforts created a productive dialogue. Polakow-Suransky and Casey engaged in a polite and wide-ranging conversation about best practices for improving instructional performance.

They reached consensus on the urgency for establishing new evaluation guidelines as well as the importance of more frequent classroom observations by school leaders and colleagues.

Polakow-Suransky stopped short of endorsing a recommendation by Educators 4 Excellence that teachers should be observed by outside consultants. He said that the estimated costs would reach upwards of $75 million annually. The cost of consulting contracts is a major target of City Council members pushing to avoid teacher layoffs by suggesting other cuts.

Towards the end of the evening, a brief dispute between Polakow-Suransky and Casey seemed to trigger the outbursts.

After Casey argued for keeping lawyers out of negotiations, Polakow-Suransky swiped back, reminding him that hours earlier the UFT filed a temporary restraining order to prevent the DOE from moving forward with any closure or co-location plans. (We’ll have more on the restraining order later today.)

“One arrives at litigation when the education process breaks down,” replied Casey.

Kramer and Michael Friedman, a union chapter leader, then intervened and went on to criticize the research methods of E4E.

“They didn’t ask us for our opinions. The leadership just came up with a position without any other teachers,” Friedman said.

Two research surveys were sent to E4E members by the policy team, according to Stone.

With the floor now unintentionally open to public comment, many audience members jumped to the defense of E4E and the panel.

“You have to leave. You have to go,” said one man, to applause.

After the panel broke, organizers downplayed it as an isolated incident. Others said they were shocked.

“I thought it was totally inappropriate,” said Emily Bisso, a teacher at Ocean Hill Collegiate, a Brooklyn school within the Uncommon Schools network.

A group of young charter school teachers said that they had mixed feelings about the panel, but agreed that it ended on a low note.

“I guarantee that was just pent-up frustration,” said Miatta Massaley, a teacher at  Harlem Success Academy 5 charter school. “It was inappropriate how they went about it, but they had legitimate concerns.”

“That’s exactly the opposite of what we teach our kids,” said Jarell Lee, a teacher at the Excellence Boys Charter School in Bedford Stuyvesant. “We teach them that there are better strategies to handle situations where they feel frustrated.”

Correction: The originally published version of this article characterized the majority of the audience as being charter school teachers. The report was based on interviews with teachers who identified as charter school teachers. According to a survey conducted by people who RSVP’d for the event, the characterization is not accurate. Ten charter school teachers attended the event, according to the survey, out of a total of 117 people.


This mom came to the newcomer school ready to stand up for son. She left with a job.

PHOTO: Provided by Javier Barrera Cervantes
Charlotte Uwimbabazi is a bilingual assistant at the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program.

When Charlotte Uwimbabazi showed up at Indianapolis Public Schools’ program for new immigrants, she was ready to fight for her son. When she left that day, she had a job.

A native of the Congo, Uwimbabazi fled the war-torn country and spent nearly a decade in Cape Town, South Africa waiting for a new home. Last spring, Uwimbabazi and her four children came to the U.S. as refugees.

(Read: Teaching when students are full of fear: Inside Indiana’s first school for new immigrants)

When the family arrived in Indianapolis, Uwimbabazi’s youngest son Dave enrolled at Northwest High School. But he wasn’t happy, and a volunteer helping to resettle the family suggested he transfer to Crispus Attucks High School. When the school year started, though, Crispus Attucks turned him away. Staff there said he had been assigned to the newcomer program, a school for students who are new to the country and still learning English.

There was just one problem: Dave was fluent in English after growing up in South Africa. Uwimbabazi said it’s the only language he knows. So Uwimbabazi and her son Dave headed to the newcomer school to convince them he should attend Crispus Attucks.

That’s when Jessica Feeser, who oversees the newcomer school and programing for IPS students learning English, stepped in — and found a new resource for the district’s growing population of newcomer students.

Feeser immediately realized that Dave was fluent in English and should enroll in Crispus Attucks. Then, Uwimbabazi started talking with Feeser about her own experience. With a gift for languages, Uwimbabazi speaks six fluently, including Swahili and Kinyarwanda, languages spoken by many African students at the school.

“Where are you working right now?” Feeser asked. “Would you like a job here?”

Uwimbabazi, who had been packing mail, took a job as a bilingual assistant at the school. Her interaction with the district went from “negativity to positivity,” she said.

The newcomer program has seen dramatic growth in enrollment since it opened last fall, and it serves about three dozen refugee students. Students at the school speak at least 14 different languages. As the only staff member at the school who speaks Swahili and Kinyarwanda, Uwimbabazi is a lifeline for many of the African refugees it serves, Feeser said.

She works alongside teachers, going over material in languages that students speak fluently and helping them grasp everything from simple instructions to complex concepts like graphing linear equations, Feeser said. She also helps bridge the divide between the district and the Congolese community on Indianapolis’ westside, going on home visits to meet parents and helping convince families to enroll their children in school.

When students in the newcomer program don’t share a language with staff members, the school is still able to educate them, Feeser said. But it is hard to build community without that bridge. Uwimbabazi has played an essential role in helping the school build relationships with families.

“She believes that all of our families are important, and she’s working diligently to make sure that they feel that their voices are heard,” Feeser said. “It was a gift from God that she joined us.”

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.

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director