MORE CORE

Teachers union faction wants to shake up electoral status quo

Longtime teachers union members Norm Scott (left) and Michael Fiorillo give a brief history lesson to potential MORE members Thursday.

Factions from various corners of the city’s educational activism scene are coming together to challenge the Unity Caucus’s political might.

Calling themselves MORE, the Movement of Rank-and-file Educators, members of the fledgling group held their first public meeting in a Lower East Side Bar on Thursday evening. There, they discussed the history of the United Federation of Teachers and floated plans for  a minority caucus they hope could wrest some power from the union’s political majority.

The meeting was led by Norm Scott, Michael Fiorillo, Gloria Brandman and Sam Coleman, retired and current teachers who have been active in union politics for years. Attendees also included a mix of union chapter leaders, Occupy the Department of Education organizers, some of the teachers union’s younger members, and retirees.

As they introduced themselves, many described their disillusionment with a teachers union almost entirely controlled by Unity. Unity has dominated union politics for decades and supported Randi Weingarten and Michael Mulgrew in their bids for the union’s presidency. Both won their elections by huge majorities.

Close to forty teachers turned out to the bar, which also hosts meetings of the New Teacher Underground, an activism off-shoot of the New York Coalition of Radical Educators. Mike Schirtzer, a teacher at Leon M. Goldstein High School who introduced himself as the caretaker of MORE’s Twitter account, said one way MORE will set itself apart from other union caucuses will be by using social media to organize teachers.

“We are not going to wait for Unity to organize actions,” he said.

Some MORE members said they hoped to inspire younger teachers who do not participate in union elections. Voter turnout to union elections is typically low (30 percent), and a large portion of those votes come from retired members. Union officials have speculated that this is because younger members are less interested in the union’s governing process.

Unity’s members, “Are aging out,” Kelly Wolcott, an Occupy organizer, said. “They’re dying for new members. But I said, I’m not giving you my $25. It’s not the Occupy spirit, I’m sorry.”

Schirtzer told me his first brush with activism came in 2010, when he and other teachers organized protests around their concerns that citywide budget cuts would spell the end of the Brooklyn school’s after school clubs.

“I’m an organizer at my school now, but I’m the least radical person you’d ever meet,” he said. “This is all kind of new to me.”

“The thing that will be different about us is that we will go into schools and neighborhoods and educate our members,” Coleman said, on topics ranging from race to charter schools.

Opposition caucuses have struggled to gain a foothold in the United Federation of Teachers. the Independent Coalition of Educators, or ICE, one prominent caucus, unsuccessfully supported James Eterno in a run against Mulgrew in 2010. Meanwhile, New Action, another caucus, managed to capture several seats on the union’s board by agreeing to cross-endorse candidates with Unity.

Peter Goodman, a longtime teachers union member who is not involved with MORE, said these caucuses have had a tough time attracting members because many union members consider Mulgrew to be the only person up for the task of fighting Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s most controversial school policies.

“The Unity Caucus certainly dominates everything now, but I think that’s simply a function of the fact that Bloomberg is the enemy of everyone. If you don’t support Mulgrew, you’re really supporting Bloomberg,” he said. “And with the union’s recent victories, the members see Mulgrew as fighting the mayor and winning.”

Goodman predicted that greater factions could divide the union over education policies once Bloomberg’s final term ends next year. The teachers union has won several key face-offs against the Bloomberg administration in recent years over plans to shutter schools.

Scott said MORE has yet to decide its stance on educational policies, but he noted that there were many points of contention between its members and current union leaders, particularly around school closures and charter school co-locations.

“We think the UFT has aided in the closing of schools, and the UFT supports charters,” he said. “We are absolutely opposed to closing schools; we are absolutely opposed to the teacher data reports; we absolutely oppose mayoral control, whereas the UFT hedges its bets.”

Many of the evening’s attendees brought other ideas for how MORE could get involved in city activism, a la such mainstays as the Grassroots Education Movement, an advocacy group to which some of them also belong. One man passed around petitions opposing the creation of the teacher evaluation system. A handful of teachers described joining Con Edison strikers last week to show solidarity, and others said they were planning a trip to a vigil for a young man in the Bronx who was shot and killed by a police officer in February.

Several attendees talked about the example the Chicago Teachers Union Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators (CORE) has set in Chicago by engaging community members, as GEM does, to keep public opinion somewhat favorable even as members voted to authorize a strike.

“We should be supporting them,” Coleman said.

One of the biggest challenges, Coleman added, will be attracting members and election candidates to create momentum and a necessary show of support before next year’s union elections. MORE leaders are planning their first fundraising event on September 29.

“We need many, many people, hundreds,” Coleman said. “It doesn’t cost anything, maybe show up to a meeting at your school, get some signatures. Anyone who thinks the UFT should be different, please consider running on the MORE ticket in the spring.”

Leo Casey, the teachers union’s vice president for high schools, said MORE could be poised to generate more substantive policy debates within the union. But he is skeptical that it will have much success opposing Unity, which supported his election.

“In so far as MORE seems to be running on a slate or on a platform that says Muglrew and the leadership of the UFT haven’t fought strongly for the members, I just think that that’s not going to be taken seriously,” said Casey, who is leaving his post in September to head the Albert Shanker Institute. “Of the people they’re bringing together, some of them are good at making principled political criticisms, but with some of them it’s just a steady stream of personal attacks. I don’t think that would have much resonance.”

Earlier this year Casey accused GEM teacher activists of attacking the union after they disagreed on how best to protest a winter Panel for Educational Policy meeting.

Scott said MORE hopes to bring together teachers who supported ICE, and members of GEM and NYCORE, with those who have been uninvolved in union politics or city social justice issues.

“All the groups are coming together in one organization, plus a lot of people who have not been involved before,” he said. “Last night, I didn’t know a lot of people.”

Scott said the similarities between MORE and CORE will hopefully go beyond their names. “CORE wasn’t even a group four years ago, and two years later they won the election [in Chicago],” he said. “It is unlikely that we’d win the election in two years, but the inspiration is how they organized, got into the grassroots, found teachers who were never active before and got them to become active. My hope is to get people who really want to do something different, and need a place to go.”

 

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.