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Walcott to principals: We rejected evaluation deal to protect you

Chancellor Dennis Walcott told principals today that he was thinking about them when he rejected a teacher evaluation deal. Then he warned them that their schools could see budget cuts as a result.

In his first communication with school leaders since months-long negotiations with the teachers union fell apart on Thursday, Walcott said the union had asked to be able to file more grievances over teacher ratings than a previous agreement had allowed.

If the city had acceded to the union’s request, Walcott said, principals would face union attacks over the data they collect from students, the way they communicate with teachers, and what they ask teachers to work on.

“In the end, I could not agree to the UFT’s demands because they would have stripped principals of much of your existing authority,” he said.

The explanation was not the same one Mayor Bloomberg laid out for rejecting the teacher evaluation deal. Bloomberg said he was most aggrieved by the proposal for the system to be authorized only for a fixed term, instead of forever, an issue that Walcott mentioned but did not focus on.

Union officials said on Thursday that their request for additional arbitration was not as extensive as the department was characterizing and would not have cut deeply into principals’ time.

Walcott’s letter came shortly after state education officials informed the chancellor that they would seize control of hundreds of millions of dollars that the city Department of Education typically controls if the department did not find a way to move forward with adopting new teacher evaluations. The threat was in addition to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s vow to withhold about $250 million in school aid from the city for missing his Jan. 17 evaluations deadline.

Walcott said little about the funding issue in his letter to principals. But at the end, he wrote, “The lack of an agreement will have an adverse impact on our budget. We hope to protect schools from these cuts as much as possible, and we will follow up as soon as we have additional information.”

Walcott’s complete letter to principals is below:

Dear Colleagues,

When we signed on to Race to the Top in 2010, we were committed to designing a fair teacher evaluation system that would create meaningful supports and accountability for our teachers. However, despite our hard work over the past two years, as of yesterday’s deadline the UFT failed to accept a fair and reasonable agreement on a new teacher evaluation system.

The UFT had proposed dozens of new rules and a massive increase in oversight by UFT chapter leaders, district representatives, and outside arbitrators on virtually all aspects of the evaluation process. While we were able to come to agreement on nearly every detail required by Education Law 3012-c, the negotiations finally broke down over the union’s demand to double the number of grievances that are brought to arbitration. Agreeing to this demand would have dramatically curtailed principal autonomy and narrowed your ability to exercise professional judgment. It also would have created a complex, time-consuming architecture of procedures, consultations, and grievances that would have been paralyzing for good teaching and learning in our schools.

In the end, I could not agree to the UFT’s demands because they would have stripped principals of much of your existing authority. Every interaction listed below—and many more—would have been subject to this new grievance and arbitration process. Let me be perfectly clear—this new process they insisted on is not required under the law. For example, you could have been grieved about:

  • how you write up and share your observation notes
  • when and how you communicate with teachers
  • how many administrators can enter a classroom at one time
  • the kinds of professional development your school offers
  • what types of data you collect on your students
  • how your school measures student learning
  • how you assess a teacher’s development over time
  • which skills you are permitted to work on developing with your staff

Additionally, one of the promises of Education Law 3012-c was that all teachers would get more support and that ineffective teachers would be removed. Last year we negotiated a New York City-specific provision in the law that makes it easier to discontinue ineffective teachers after two years. In the last stages of our talks, the UFT insisted that the agreement sunset on June 30, 2015—just when the provisions making it easier to remove ineffective teachers are scheduled to take effect.

Through last night, we continued to negotiate in good faith. But ultimately, while we remain committed to the spirit of the law, giving in to the UFT’s demands would have undone many of the gains we have made. As Chancellor, it was my responsibility to make a decision about what was best for our school system. Given the UFT’s unreasonable demands, I could not in good conscience sign on to a deal that goes against the original intent of the law and the value we place on principal empowerment.

While we also made headway in our negotiations with the CSA, our current principal evaluation system is very close to what the law requires, so the impact would have been limited. Nonetheless, what we needed by the deadline was a deal on both a new principal and teacher evaluation system.

The lack of an agreement will have an adverse impact on our budget. We hope to protect schools from these cuts as much as possible, and we will follow up as soon as we have additional information. In the meantime, we will continue to work with you and with teachers across the City on the goals we’ve set to improve teacher practice. We welcome your thoughts and feedback on how to strengthen this work over the course of the coming year.

Sincerely,

Dennis M. Walcott

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 FACE@schools.nyc.gov.

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