right to know

Bills on table take diverse approaches to teacher rating shield

With just weeks left in the legislative session, bills to shield teachers’ ratings from public scrutiny are still on the table in Albany. But no consensus has yet formed about exactly what that shield would look like — if one is constructed at all.

Albany lawmakers are hung up on one key issue that distinguishes at least three proposed versions of the legislation: Should parents be allowed access to teacher ratings?

Republican Senator Greg Ball and Democratic Assemblywoman Sandra Galef, both of Westchester, have proposed bills that say they should not.

“I just feel very strongly that this is a part of a teacher’s personal and confidential record and that the grades should be handled appropriately,” said Galef, whose bill has so far collected 24 co-sponsors.

Twenty lawmakers, including Education Committee Chair Cathy Nolan, a Democrat, have signed onto a third bill in the Assembly that would give parents limited access to evaluations. The bill would require parents to make a special request for the evaluations.

Ellen Jaffee, who proposed the third bill, said the Assembly bills would eventually be whittled down into one.

“What we tried to do is put forward a variety of proposals that the governor would consider,” said Ellen Jaffee, who proposed the third bill. Jaffee said that Assembly lawmakers were considering a fourth version that would put a moratorium on releasing teacher evaluations until after statewide systems are implemented next year.

The differing versions reflect the unsteady agreement among politicians, advocates, union leaders and education officials that New York City’s release of performance rankings for 18,000 elementary and middle school teachers was not handled well. The reports, which were published by several New York City media organizations, quickly became front-page fodder for the city’s tabloids, which sought out the highest and lowest rated teachers. The city said that the ratings should not be taken as a complete picture of a teacher’s quality since it was only based on student growth in one category, test scores.

The lead sponsors on each bill are from upstate New York districts, although many of the lawmakers who have signed on as co-sponsors are from New York City.

The precedent of releasing information to the public was widely objected to by a broad base in February – Bill Gates and Michael Mulgrew were in agreement – prompting state officials into a conversation about a law to block the release in future years.

Ball proposed his bill on March 22, but even with a weeks-long head start, the bill has yet to garner any co-sponsors from his Senate colleagues. Mayor Bloomberg, a major donor to state senate campaigns, has been a staunch defender of releasing the performance data.

Unlike Bloomberg, Albany leadership has signaled that widespread release of the performance data would be imprudent, but they have also insisted that parental access to the data should be a priority in any legislation.

“Information and evaluation should be out there for parents to know,” Silver said in March. Cuomo used similar language when he was asked about it. “I believe in the case of teachers, the parents’ right to know outweighs the teachers’ right to privacy,” Cuomo said.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who has not taken a firm stand on the issue, did not respond to requests for comment.

And while Jaffee’s bill is the only one that so far leaves open an option for parents to view their teacher’s information, it comes on limited terms. According to the bill’s language, parents would have to file an official request through the Freedom of Information Law, a complicated procedure that does not yield an immediate result. Once the request is granted, the parents would not be allowed to obtain any documents. Instead, they would be able to view the ratings “at a private meeting with the building principal.” Plus, the law would give an out for districts that have qualms about the ratings: The superintendent and the state education chief would have to sign a document certifying that the district’s teacher evaluations are accurate.

Despite the restrictions, union officials are hoping that Cuomo and the Senate and Assembly leadership would see Jaffee’s bill as a compromise.

“Clearly, what we desire is total confidentiality, but there is a political reality and a parent’s right to know has to play into what legislation has the best possibility of passing, ” said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. “For a parent, it’s more than a right to know. It’s a right to know more about their own child.”

Lawmakers and state insiders said they remained optimistic that resolving the issue of teacher data reports are on Cuomo’s list of priorities for this session, which ends at the end of the month.

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

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.