all over but the shouting?

Union makes plans to approve an evaluations deal, if one comes

The teachers union has planned a series of meetings to sign off on a teacher evaluation system in the event that union and city officials agree on one by next week.

The union’s negotiating committee on evaluations, a team of about 150 teachers, is meeting this afternoon with union officials. It’s the committee’s second meeting of the school year.

The union has also moved up a meeting of its Delegate Assembly from Jan. 22 to Jan. 17, the deadline Gov. Andrew Cuomo set for districts to adopt new evaluations or lose state funding. The Delegate Assembly is a large group of chapter leaders and union officials that must approve changes to work rules.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew announced the date change in an email to union members this afternoon. The email stressed that union officials planned to participate in negotiations through the weekend and that there is still a chance that a deal might not come.

“If no agreement is reached with the city, the [Delegate Assembly] will serve as a planning and operational meeting to push back against the mayor as we have so many times before,” Mulgrew wrote.

But insiders say they suspect that a deal is imminent — or perhaps even complete except for the final touches to make it official.

It’s a theory that jives with state education officials’ repeated warnings that the state needs a significant amount of time to review plans to make sure they comply with state law and education department regulations. “If we get an application on January fifteenth, it’s going to be hard to say yes to it by January seventeenth,” Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in November.

But Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who set the deadline last year, signaled earlier this week that the two sides still had plenty of time. “Ten days can be a lifetime in this business, as you know,” Cuomo said.

State education officials said they would not offer preliminary approval for parts of plans, which could speed the approval process. “In order for us to review a plan, it has to be signed by all parties,” SED spokesman Dennis Tompkins said today.

It is possible that more informal conversations have taken place to ensure that a plan that is submitted at the last minute is approvable. That’s the only way that an evaluation system approved by the union’s Delegate Assembly late in the day on Jan. 17 could get approval that night, allowing the district to comply with state law.

“It’s all scripted. It doesn’t make any sense if it wasn’t,” said Norm Scott, a union activist who is critical of the union’s leadership. “Every little duck is lined up.”

If, in fact, the particulars of an evaluation system are pretty much set, this weekend’s talks might focus on something different — what the city might have to offer to get the union to sign off on a system that Mayor Bloomberg has said he wants to use to fire more teachers.

Bloomberg did not sound concerned today when he took to the air for his weekly radio appearance, which he has used in the past to attack the union over the evaluations talks. “Six more days, and they’re working on it, right?” host John Gambling asked.

“I think that’s fair to say,” Bloomberg said.

Responding to concerns that the city’s schools could lose $250 million if evaluation talks fell through, Tisch said earlier this week that she was not worried.

“Calm down. Everybody needs to calm down. They’re going to get a deal done,” Tisch told GothamSchools. “The city has led reform for a decade now and it’s really significant for them to continue to lead on reforms of evaluations. And I’m really confident that they’re going to continue to lead with a deal.”

Even if a deal is approved and adopted by Jan. 17, the city could run into a serious implementation issue. Approved plans are supposed to go into effect for this school year, but many city schools are unprepared to produce some required components of teachers’ ratings. Schools have practiced with new observation models, for example, but they have not learned how to measure student growth for teachers in non-tested grades and subjects. And the union has charged that the department has rolled out even portions of the plan that seem mutually agreeable in inappropriate ways.

Micah Lasher, Bloomberg’s former top legislative aide who is now lobbying for new evaluations as the head of StudentsFirstNY, said he thought state officials would be willing to work with the city on its implementation timeline, “if it’s in the spirit of the law.”

The city and teachers unon have had eleventh-hour meltdowns before over teacher evaluations, and one is certainly possible now. But a deal next week would cap off a two-year showdown between the city and union on the issue.

The UFT has at least one more demonstration on its agenda: Mulgrew’s letter invites members to hand out flyers at schools and subway stations on Monday “to engage parents and the community and put pressure on the mayor to get to a fair deal.”

New York City is one of seven districts, out of nearly 700, not to have submitted even a first-draft of its evaluation plan. About 50 districts must submit a revised plan to meet the state’s funding deadline.

Mulgrew’s complete letter to UFT members is below:

Dear colleagues,

Next Thursday is Governor Cuomo’s deadline for New York City and other school districts around the state to submit their plans for a new teacher evaluation system. The governor has said that districts that do not submit plans by Thursday, Jan. 17, will forfeit state school aid. In New York City’s case, we stand to lose upward of $250 million.

The UFT’s position remains unchanged: The current evaluation system is inadequate. Teachers need a new evaluation system — one in which the Department of Education is responsible for supporting the schools, and administrators in the schools are responsible for supporting the work that we do in the classroom.

In the aftermath of the fight you have seen play out in the press, the DOE has come back to the negotiating table. We expect meetings to take place throughout the weekend and into next week, but the outcome of these negotiations is still very uncertain. I am writing to you today so that you and your colleagues can begin preparing for one of two possible scenarios.

If an agreement is reached, we will need to do a lot of work very quickly to stop the spread of myths and misinformation. Communication and collaboration between colleagues will be key. Every school will also need to have a clear understanding about how to proceed.

If no agreement can be reached, it will be because the mayor cannot be brought to accept our position of what a teacher evaluation system needs to be, and he will once again try to blame teachers. If that happens, our work will then center on getting out into our communities to make sure that parents and others know that we, as always, are fighting to make the school system better for the kids we serve.

With all the uncertainty over the negotiations, a lot could happen in the coming days. Earlier today I sent a message to UFT delegates that we have changed the date of our next Delegate Assembly to Thursday, Jan. 17, to align with the governor’s deadline.

If a tentative agreement is reached, it will be up to the DA, the highest decision-making body of the UFT, to decide if we will accept it as a union. If no agreement is reached with the city, the DA will serve as a planning and operational meeting to push back against the mayor as we have so many times before.

We have fought very hard for three years in Albany so that New York City teachers can have an evaluation system that respects and supports the work that we do. An agreement would mean a complete paradigm shift for the country’s largest school system, where every administrator will need to understand that their job is, first and foremost, to help and support teachers.

A great deal of work is being done to make sure our vision is realized, but it will not be easy. We will not come to any agreement unless that vision can become a reality for every school.

We will keep you updated. In the meantime, we will be leafleting outside schools and at major transportation hubs throughout the city on Monday to engage parents and the community and put pressure on the mayor to get to a fair deal. Please talk to your chapter leader to see how you can help.

Sincerely,

Michael Mulgrew

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.”

Trade offs

Indianapolis is experimenting with a new kind of teacher — and it’s transforming this school

PHOTO: Teachers and coaches meet at Indianapolis Public Schools Lew Wallace School 107.
Paige Sowders (left) is one of three multi-classroom leaders who are helping teachers at School 107.

Teachers at School 107 are up against a steep tower of challenges: test scores are chronically low, student turnover is high and more than a third of kids are still learning English.

All the school’s difficulties are compounded by the struggle to hire and retain experienced teachers, said principal Jeremy Baugh, who joined School 107 two years ago. At one of the most challenging schools in Indianapolis Public Schools, many of the educators are in their first year in the classroom.

“It’s a tough learning environment,” Baugh said. “We needed to find a way to support new teachers to be highly effective right away.”

This year, Baugh and the staff of School 107 are tackling those challenges with a new teacher leadership model designed to attract experienced educators and support those who are new to the classroom. School 107 is one of six district schools piloting the opportunity culture program, which allows principals to pay experienced teachers as much as $18,000 extra each year to support other classrooms. Next year, the program will expand to 10 more schools.

The push to create opportunities for teachers to take on leadership and earn more money without leaving the classroom is gaining momentum in Indiana — where the House budget includes $1.5 million for developing educator “career pathways” — and across the country in places from Denver to Washington. The IPS program is modeled on similar efforts in North Carolina led by the education consulting firm Public Impact.

At School 107, Baugh hired three new teachers, called multi-classroom leaders, who are responsible for the performance of several classes. Each class has a dedicated, full-time teacher. But the classroom leader is there to help them plan lessons, improve their teaching and look at data on where students are struggling. And unlike traditional coaches, they also spend time in the classroom, working directly with students.

As classroom leaders, they are directly responsible for the test scores of the students in their classes, said Jesse Pratt, who is overseeing opportunity culture for the district.

“They own that data,” Pratt said. “They are invested in those kids and making sure they are successful.”

At School 107, the program is part of a focus on using data to track student performance that Baugh began rolling out when he took over last school year. It’s already starting to bear fruit: Students still struggle on state tests, but they had so much individual improvement that the school’s letter grade from the state jumped from a D to a B last year.

Paige Sowders, who works with classes in grades 3 through 6, is one of the experienced teachers the program attracted to School 107. After 9 years in the classroom, she went back to school to earn an administrator’s license. But Sowders wasn’t quite ready to leave teaching for the principal’s office, she said. She was planning to continue teaching in Washington Township. Then, she learned about the classroom leader position at School 107, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to move up the ladder without moving out of the classroom.

“I wanted something in the middle before becoming an administrator,” she said. “I get to be a leader and work with teachers and with children.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The multi-classroom leaders meet regularly with teachers and district coaches to review data and plan lessons.

The new approaches to teacher leadership are part of a districtwide move to give principals more freedom to set priorities and choose how to spend funding. But those decisions aren’t always easy. Since schools don’t get extra funding to hire classroom leaders, Baugh had to find money in his existing budget. That meant cutting several vacant part-time positions, including a media specialist, a gym teacher and a music teacher.

It also meant slightly increasing class sizes. Initially, that seemed fine to Baugh, but then enrollment unexpectedly ballooned at the school — going from 368 students at the start of the year to 549 in February. With so many new students, class sizes started to go up, and the school had to hire several new teachers, Baugh said.

Some of those teachers were fresh out of college when they started in January, with little experience in such challenging schools. But because the school had classroom leaders, new teachers weren’t expected to lead classes without support. Instead, they are working with leaders like Sowders, who can take the time to mentor them throughout the year.

With teachers who are just out of school, Sowders spends a lot of time focusing on basics, she said. She went over what their days would be like and how to prepare. During the first week of the semester, she went into one of the new teacher’s classes to teach English every day so he could see the model lessons. And she is working with him on improving discipline in his class by setting expectations in the first hour of class.

Ultimately, Baugh thinks the tradeoffs the school made were worth it. The extra money helped them hold on to talented staff, and they have the bandwidth to train new teachers.

“If I’m a novice teacher just learning my craft, I can’t be expected to be a super star best teacher year one,” he said. “We learn our skill.”