on second thought

UFT chief Mulgrew doubles down on private remarks, with one concession

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

UFT President Michael Mulgrew doubled down on blunt remarks he made privately to his  members this week, defending his role in last year’s failed teacher evaluation deal and vilifying opponents of the union.

“They wanted to use teacher evaluations to take teachers down,” Mulgrew said in an interview on Friday, explaining why he fought to implement a more complex teacher rating system than the one the city wanted.

The sentiments echo his remarks to the teachers union’s delegate assembly on Wednesday night, where he said that the union pushed to require supervisors to rate teachers on 22 skills as a way to “gum up the works” and spoke disparagingly of the Bloomberg administration. Chalkbeat reported those comments Thursday, which critics pounced on as proof the union did not fully support changes meant to increase accountability for teachers.

Mulgrew also raised eyebrows with a critique of education “reformers” who oppose teacher tenure and support charter schools, whose ideas he said were destroying public education. On Friday, he said it was merely the latest showdown in a lengthy battle and said he no longer wanted to associate himself with the term “reform.”

“We’ve been fighting with these folks for years,” Mulgrew said. “This has been a non-stop fight.” 

When Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked on Friday whether the union president’s remarks indicated an unwillingness to support change, the mayor defended Mulgrew. The union leader was “front and center” in pushing for the biggest changes in the proposed contract, de Blasio said, including higher salaries for top teachers who agree to take on leadership responsibilities, bonuses for teachers in high-need schools, and the creation of “innovation schools” that will be freed from certain scheduling restrictions.

“These are all fundamental reforms, so Mr. Mulgrew was front and center in making those reforms happen with us and I respect him for it,” de Blasio said.

The comments capped a whirlwind week for Mulgrew, who announced a tentative agreement with the city on a new contract last Thursday. Though some members have criticized the way the union communicated the contract’s terms, Mulgrew has successfully steered the union’s ratification process through two preliminary rounds of approval. All that is left is a vote by the union’s 100,000 members, which is expected next month.

But Mulgrew has been criticized by advocates who said his comment are symbolic of the union’s resistance to change. Others said Mulgrew’s comments offered proof that he was negotiating in bad faith over teacher evaluations—especially significant because the city’s failure to negotiate a teacher evaluation system last year cost schools $290 million in state aid.

Mona Davids, a parent activist who is suing the state to recoup some of that money, said that she planned to add Mulgrew and the teachers union to the lawsuit in the wake of his comments.

“He admitted to gumming it up so there was no way possible, no matter what, for this thing to work,” Davids said. “He had no intention to negotiate with Michael Bloomberg. He knowingly cost our children $290 million.”

When State Education Commissioner John King settled the dispute, he sided with the union on its request to require that all 22 elements be used to rate teachers.

This year, principals have said the mandate has been the most frustrating part of the resulting evaluation system. They’ve said that rating teachers on all 22 elements is overly burdensome and that the emphasis on completing the entire rubric has made it difficult to focus on supporting teachers in specific ways. It has also led to more work for teachers because they’ve had to collect paperwork and submit it to supervisors to be rated on some of the 22 competencies.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña also singled out the 22 components as a flaw in this year’s teacher evaluation system, calling them “a bit overwhelming” last week.

But the evaluation system Mulgrew signed onto for next year closely resembled the one he so vehemently opposed during last year’s negotiations, with fewer skills to be assessed. Six of the seven components the city wanted last year will be used next year.

Asked if he felt responsible for any of these implementation hurdles, Mulgrew said the alternative would have been even worse. Trust had eroded so dramatically between the union and the Bloomberg administration that he assumed the metrics would have been used more punitively, he said.

“They would have turned it into a complete disaster this year,” Mulgrew said. “It would have completely damaged education this year.”

Speaking about Wednesday’s Delegate Assembly meeting, Mulgrew said that he wished some of his comments about the contract had gotten more attention. For instance, he said, the new contract expands the definition of sexual misconduct, a fireable offense, so that it includes inappropriate texting between a teacher and student.

“The [delegate assembly] was wholeheartedly endorsing it,” Mulgrew recalled from Wednesday’s meeting, “and we’re proud of it.”

And though Mulgrew didn’t back away from his remarks about the teacher evaluation negotiations, he did admit to second thoughts about another recent rhetorical addition: the use of the phrase “education reform.”

He and Mayor de Blasio touted their tentative contract agreement as being “truly in education reform mode” less than a week ago. But in Friday’s interview, Mulgrew said he was retiring the word “reform” from his vocabulary altogether.

“I thought about it for the last couple of days, and I thought, you know what, I’m not going to call it education reform,” Mulgrew said.

 “What we’re doing is innovation,” he continued. “We are innovating education.”

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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.