Interstate View

In New Haven's experience, validators don't lead to teacher firing

The city’s new process for managing low-rated teachers might result in more of them leaving the system — but not because they have been fired, if New Haven’s experience using a similar model is any indication.

When city and union officials announced a deal on a key sticking point in teacher evaluations talks, the appeals process for teachers who get low ratings, both said they had been inspired by a system in place since 2009 in New Haven, Conn.

A key component of that system is the use of third party “validators” to observe teachers considered ineffective and either corroborate or contradict the principal’s assessment. In New York City, validators would work with teachers in the year after they receive a low rating according to a not-yet-finalized evaluation system.

New York City officials said they expected the new process to result in more teachers being terminated. If the validator supports a principal’s assessment of a teacher, they note, the teacher would enter termination hearings under a presumption of incompetence — a major shift from the current system, in which the city must prove that the teacher is not up to par.

But New Haven’s system has not produced many firings. Instead, officials there say it has encouraged teachers to leave on their own. Thirty-four New Haven teachers designated “in need of improvement” — less than half of whom had tenure — exited the system last year, but they had chosen either to retire or resign, according to the officials.

“They came to an understanding once they saw that it wasn’t just one person saying that they weren’t performing, that the validator was also seeing the same thing,” said Michele Sherban-Kline, who oversees New Haven Public Schools Teacher Evaluation and Development. “Most of them came to the realization that it was better that they not fight it because all of the evidence was there.”

Sherban-Kline said the separation agreements happened after both school administrators and the validators held extensive conversations with the teachers. She called these opportunities for teachers to leave on their own terms – instead of being terminated – a “respectful and professional way” of treating people.

This year, of the 50 New Haven teachers targeted as “In Need of Improvement,” five have already put in for retirement or resignation.

“Some of them don’t want to put in or don’t have the capacity to put in the amount of work that is necessary to improve the amount that we’re looking for,” Sherban-Kline said.

According to Sherban-Kline, validators have been a well-received addition to the evaluation procedures, especially by teachers who participated in developing the system through a collaborative process.

“They’re finding it useful in that it gives the teachers more of a sense that the process is fair. The most objective part of the whole process is the observation of classroom practice,” Sherban-Kline said.

David Cicarella, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, agreed that teachers have bought into the process and feel assured by the independent set of eyes.

“We’re not looking to fire people, in fact it’s just the opposite,” Cicarella said, noting that the goal is to help teachers improve and to ensure that all teachers are meeting certain standards. ”It’s a protection for the teacher and it’s a protection for the school district.”

New Haven’s validators visit teachers under their watch at least three times, the same number as New York City’s validators will observe teachers, and some of those visits are unannounced. Both the administrator and the validator observe the lesson together and submit a written evaluation to Sherban-Kline after each visit.

At the end of the year, if both the administrator and validator agree that there has been improvement, all is good. If they both agree that the teacher is still “In Need of Improvement,” a strong case is made for termination. If there is a discrepancy, then there is further investigation into the quality of the teaching and the supports that were provided.

There are key differences between the system that exists in New Haven and the one proposed for New York City. Here, validators will be appointed when a teacher actually receives an ineffective rating. But in New Haven, they are assigned when a principal deems a teacher likely to get a low rating — and termination proceedings can start at the end of the same year.

Also, New Haven doesn’t reserve validators for just the most struggling teachers. Ones who appear likely to be headed for “exemplary” status are also observed, to judge whether they might be promoted to leadership positions.

And New Haven’s experience doesn’t answer a major open question here in New York: whether the system can afford the contractor fees for a large number of validators to visit potentially large numbers of teachers with low ratings. Fewer than 1,900 teachers received evaluations in New Haven last year.

 

Newcomers

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.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director