aftermath

Few hard details about 24 schools as city prepares legal action

Mayor Bloomberg speaks at a press conference this afternoon in Union Square.

The city canceled meetings with the teachers and principals unions today as its lawyers prepare to seek a restraining order against a ruling that reverses thousands of hiring decisions at 24 struggling schools.

Both the United Federation of Teachers and the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators planned to meet with city officials this afternoon to figure out what would come next for the schools, which had been slated to undergo an overhaul process called “turnaround.” The process involved radically shaking up the schools’ staffs, which total more than 3,500 people. But the arbitrator’s ruling undid all of the changes.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew said the meeting was already on his agenda by Friday afternoon, just hours after the arbitrator ruled that the city’s staffing plans for the schools violated its contracts with the unions.

A main agenda item would have been figuring out a mechanism for staff members who were not rehired at the schools to reclaim their positions. Another issue, Mulgrew said on Friday, was whether the city and unions might instead try to hash out a teacher evaluation agreement for the 24 schools so they could undergo less aggressive overhaul processes and still qualify for federal funding.

But this morning, the city told the unions that the meetings were off.

Mayor Bloomberg explained this afternoon that he thinks the city should not have to abide by the arbitrator’s ruling until the arbitrator explains his reasoning.

The arbitrator, Scott Buchheit, released only his conclusions, not the legal rationale he used to get there. That would come separately, he wrote. The city and unions agreed to fast-track the arbitration, which was binding, on the grounds that schools would be harmed if hiring decisions were not made before the end of the school year.

“I have no idea what was going through the arbitrator’s mind,” Bloomberg said after a press conference about a city greenmarket initiative.

“I can just tell you, there are 24 schools, [and] almost all students there are minorities, single-digit-proficiency levels,” Bloomberg said. “These kids, if they’re there for one more year, will never recover in their entire lives.”

City lawyers are preparing papers to present to a judge as early as this afternoon — but more likely tomorrow — that will make Bloomberg’s case.

The lawyers are not at all assured success: They will be seeking a restraining order in New York State Supreme Court, the same court that urged the city and unions into the binding arbitration in the first place. Plus, they will be asking to put on hold the results of a refereeing process the city willingly entered, with a referee that the city and union both approved.

Meanwhile, teachers at the schools are weighing their options. Any teacher who was rehired as part of the turnaround staffing process will automatically keep his or her job, and any teacher who took a job in another school for the fall can choose whether to keep that position or retake his spot at his former school, according to a message from the UFT to teachers at the schools distributed on Friday.

Teachers who weren’t rehired will be able to reclaim their spots and slide right back into the seniority rank they occupied before. Seniority will come into play if the schools lose students and must shed teachers, which contractually must be done according to the principle of “last in, first out” in each subject area.

All of the principals who were in place last week are also entitled to stay on, even if they had been told they would not return this fall. But a handful of principals who left their schools early in the turnaround planning process this winter — including Barry Fried at John Dewey High School and Anthony Cromer at August Martin High School — will not share that right, according to a principals union spokeswoman.

And staff members at the schools are worrying that even if the rehiring reversal stands, the uncertainty that has hung over the schools since last fall will not abate.

A teacher from Long Island City High School who listened in on the hearing where the city and unions agreed to arbitration said at the time that the turnaround schools would be harmed regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome. “It’s like they’re pushing Humpty Dumpty off a wall,” the teacher said. “You will have a lot of trouble putting [the schools] back together again.”

A teacher at Lehman High School said he’s moving on to another school and expects many of his former colleagues to make the same choice. “The administration and principal completely ignored the school these past few months while they planned for next year,” he said. “I believe that it is very likely that our stats went down from last year.”

Among the unanswered questions is whether the nonprofit organizations that had been working with a dozen of the schools will continue to play a role in their operations. The city had hoped to use federal School Improvement Grants to pay the groups, but the grants are almost certainly off the table because the arbitrator’s decision will mean few if any schools meet federal and state eligibility rules.

“Everyone is nervous about what happens next,” said Lisa Jimenez, a teacher at Newtown High School, which has been working with a group called Diplomas Now. “Do we need to worry about getting closed next June? Do we continue with the original plan of these schools having three years to improve?”

Student activist

With Townsend Harris in turmoil over interim principal, one student quietly takes a leading role

PHOTO: The Classic
Alex Chen walks the hallway during a student sit-in he helped organize at Townsend Harris High School.

While students across the nation have taken to the streets to protest President Trump, some are fighting battles closer to home. Just ask Alex Chen, the student union president at Townsend Harris High School who is helping to lead a high-profile fight against Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda.

Chen spent much of his February break rallying fellow students, alumni and parents from the elite Queens high school to demonstrate in front of City Hall on Friday, asking the city to remove Jahoda from consideration for the permanent post. The controversy has put the 17-year-old in the uncomfortable position of going against his school’s top official.

But Chen insists this isn’t a student vs. principal situation.

“It might have felt like that sometimes, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it more as a community that’s rising up,” he said.

Opposition has mounted against Jahoda since September, when she stepped in to lead the school. More than 3,500 people, including self-identified parents and alumni, have signed a petition against her, claiming that she has harassed faculty, changed course offerings without proper input and that she has been “aloof or even combative” toward students.

In a statement, Jahoda said: “While I am frustrated by many of these inaccurate allegations, I remain 100% focused on serving students and families at Townsend Harris and working to move the school community forward.”

Meanwhile, Chen has been thrust into the spotlight. In December, during a student sit-in he helped organize, he had a tense standoff with Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” the superintendent quipped to Chen in a livestream broadcast by the student newspaper. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Chen spoke slowly, his voice a near whisper. Even when the superintendent suggested Chen had invaded her personal space, Chen stayed quiet and calm.

“I really just wanted to be able to communicate with her,” he later told Chalkbeat.

He returned to class, replaying the scene in his head and wondering whether he had handled it right. When he walked in the door, his classmates burst into applause.

“He’s become this symbol for everyone involved. And I think he earned it,” said Brian Sweeney, an English teacher and newspaper advisor who has Chen in his journalism class. “When you’re in that video with everyone watching, and you’re willing to keep talking and keep saying what you think … there’s a lot of trust for everyone involved.”

Since the sit-in, the School Leadership Team at Townsend took the unusual step of making Chen a co-chair of the board, made up of teachers, parents and union reps.

“I believe it was a matter of trust and productivity. We needed co-chairs who could move forward with the issues at the table, rather than be stuck in tension,” Chen said.

Even while he fights to make sure Jahoda isn’t appointed permanently, Chen said he has maintained a “very professional relationship” with her. In SLT and student union meetings where Jahoda is present, Chen said he makes an effort to “stick to the agenda.”

“We still have to keep the school running,” he said. “In the hallways, I’ll say good morning. I’ll say hello. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

The Department of Education opened applications for a permanent principal on Feb. 1 and said the process takes up to 90 days. The pushback against Jahoda means many are watching the department’s next moves. This week, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz wrote a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña about the matter.

“Accusations and troubling accounts are occurring on a daily basis,” she wrote. “The students of our system deserve to know that the DOE is providing the tools, atmosphere and attention needed to fulfill our responsibilities to them.”

Chen has responsibilities of his own. At home in Hollis Hills, he helps take care of his younger sister and is expected to finish his chores. He’s looking for a job to have a bit of his own money. And with senior year winding down, he spends a lot of time chasing scholarships. Chen hopes to study business at University of Pennsylvania, though lately many people have asked him whether he’ll go into politics.

“I don’t think I will for now, because there’s a lot that goes on in politics that kind of disturbs me,” he said. “After high school, after college, after your youth, it seems like people [tend] to be more self-interested than to help in the community.”

under study

No longer at the bottom: These 20 schools are Tennessee’s model for turnaround

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Whitehaven Elementary School students work on a robotics project. The Memphis school has moved off of the state's list of lowest-performing schools.

When Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment this week of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, she cited a small number of schools as the exception.

Twenty have improved enough in the last five years to move off of the state’s list of “priority schools” that are in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent.

Of those, the State Department of Education has conducted case studies of 10 former priority schools in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Hardeman County:

  • Chickasaw Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Douglass K-8, Shelby County Schools
  • Ford Road Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Gra-Mar Middle, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Hamilton Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Treadwell Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Hamilton County Schools
  • Whiteville Elementary, Hardeman County Schools
  • City University Boys Preparatory High, Shelby County Schools
  • Springdale Elementary, Shelby County Schools

The first six are part of state-supported innovation zones in Memphis and Nashville. Two schools — in Chattanooga and Hardeman County — have received federal school improvement grants. The last two did not receive federal or state interventions but were studied because their scores improved at a faster rate than 85 percent of schools in 2015.

Ten other former priority schools, all in Shelby County Schools in Memphis, have improved with only local or philanthropic support. The state plans to examine these closer in the coming months:

  • Alcy Elementary
  • Cherokee Elementary, Innovation Zone
  • Hickory Ridge Middle
  • Manassas High
  • Manor Lake Elementary
  • Memphis Academy of Science & Engineering High (charter school)
  • Memphis School of Excellence High (charter school)
  • Oakhaven Middle
  • South Park Elementary
  • Whitehaven Elementary
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A classroom at Ford Road Elementary in Memphis, which is among those that have exited the state’s list of lowest performing schools.

McQueen told lawmakers Tuesday that it’s “a little embarrassing” that only 16 percent of priority schools have moved off of the state’s 2012 and 2014 lists that identify 126 failing schools.

The case studies, in part, have informed the school improvement component of Tennessee’s new plan for its schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“… We have learned that a combination of school leadership, effective teaching with a focus on depth of instruction around standards, and services focused on non-academic supports has led to strong outcomes in these schools,” McQueen said in a statement Wednesday.

Tennessee’s proposed new plan for turnaround work would gives more authority to local districts to make their own improvements before the state-run Achievement School District steps in.

One ASD school — Brick Church in Nashville — also has moved off of the state’s priority list, but was excluded from the state’s analysis because there were not enough years of test data to compare since its takeover by the state-run district.

“What we can’t do as a state is support — in terms of funding and time — district interventions that don’t work,” McQueen said. “We have to learn from what is working because we know we have much more work to do and many more students that have need.”

Chalkbeat reporter Grace Tatter contributed to this report.