human capital

Comptroller's audit criticizes city's handling of ATR pool

Chart from Comptroller John Liu's audit of the Absent Teacher Reserve.

The Department of Education could potentially be doing more to help teachers whose positions have been eliminated find new jobs.

That’s one conclusion of an audit conducted by Comptroller John Liu of the DOE’s efforts to help members of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers whose jobs were lost to budget cuts, enrollment changes, or school closures. The audit concluded that the vast majority of ATRs — 95 percent — are working full-time in teaching jobs, but that the department doesn’t maintain data sufficient to conclude whether its efforts to help the teachers find permanent positions are paying off.

“Without such information, we believe that DOE is significantly hindered in its ability to evaluate the success of its efforts in helping ATR teachers find permanent positions,” the report concludes.

The audit is not meant to dictate policy and is intended only to draw attention to what the report said was an information gap within the DOE on the ATR pool.

But an unwritten conclusion also seems to be that the city is wasting money by hiring new teachers when ATRs are licensed to do the job.

Two charts billboard the number of positions for which ATRs were eligible that instead were filled by new teachers. Last year, the audit documents, 1,796 new teachers were hired for positions that 273 ATRs could have filled, the charts show. The report estimates that the city could have saved $12.4 million if all 273 ATRs had filled the positions for which they were eligible, and the city hired 273 fewer new teachers.

Under the principle of “mutual consent,” adopted in the 2005 teachers contract, teachers gave up the right to claim positions without principals’ approval, and the city gave up the right to place teachers unilaterally into open positions. The change gave principals more control of their staffs but also created the ATR pool.

In a response appended to the audit, the DOE’s deputy chancellor in charge of human capital, David Weiner, says the charts signal that the comptroller would prefer that the city abandon mutual consent in favor of forced placement.

The audit’s “analysis regards teachers not as individual professionals with unique strengths and/or weaknesses as candidates for teaching jobs in unique schools, but rather as fungible, replaceable parts,” Weiner wrote. He echoed language in the 2009 “Widget Effect” report by The New Teacher Project, which has urged the city to save money by terminating teachers in the ATR pool.

A spokesman for Liu said the charts are merely food for thought in a 20-page audit intended to spur the department to gather and crunch more data about the ATR pool.

“There may be cost-effective ways for placing ATR teachers that the DOE may not have considered,” said Matt Sweeney, a Liu spokesman. “One of the audit functions is to provide the agency as much information as possible that it may have overlooked.”

Other interesting data points uncovered in the audit: the DOE sometimes assigns ATRs back to the schools where they originally worked, despite a policy prohibiting that practice; no formal review took place before the DOE decided to eliminate salary subsidies for principals who hired teachers from the ATR pool; and more than 300 teachers in the pool as of March 1 had landed there after settling or being cleared of misconduct charges, likely many after the city rushed to close the “rubber rooms” several months earlier.

Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew said the audit vindicated the union, which has always said that teachers in the ATR pool were pulling their weight within the system.

“[Ex-]Chancellor [Joel] Klein’s constant public pronouncement that this was costing the city $100 million was fraudulent and that’s the nicest way that I can say it,” he said.

Mulgrew said the biggest force keeping teachers in the ATR pool is the fact that DOE charges principals for the real salaries of their teachers, creating a disincentive to hire senior teachers when newer ones are available.

The ATR audit is one of several audits that Liu undertook into the DOE after a series of town-hall meetings where New Yorkers suggested topics for investigation. At least three other DOE audits are expected to be released this month, according to Crain’s New York.

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.