state of tenure

City parents plan to join lawsuit against teacher job protections as union vows to fight

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Keoni Wright, right, one of the parents expected to file a lawsuit against job protections for teachers. Wright spoke at a StudentsFirstNY rally outside City Hall in 2012.

A lawsuit designed to challenge state laws governing how teachers are hired, fired and laid off is growing out of New York City.

It’s not just the midtown law firm that’s offering free legal expertise, or the new, city-based advocacy group created to support the effort to weaken the state’s teacher job protection laws. Four of the six students whose families have agreed to join the case also go to school in the city, according to lawyers involved in the case.

Some of the parents are seasoned advocates like Keoni Wright, an East New York father of five who’s spoken at rallies and penned an op-ed in the Daily News pushing for tougher teacher evaluations. Wright’s twin girls had different kindergarten teachers at P.S. 158, which he says resulted in the two developing reading skills at different paces.

Two other New York City parents who have agreed to join the suit are Ginet Borrero and Raymond Diaz, Sr., who live with their three children in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. The lawyers wouldn’t release the names of other parents who plan to join the case, but the other two expected plaintiffs are from Buffalo and Rochester, respectively.

The planned legal effort, which is being supported by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown and was announced Tuesday, looks to imitate the challenge brought in a Los Angeles Superior Court. The judge in that case, Vergara v. California, ruled that the state’s teacher tenure laws disproportionately left poor and minority students with lower-quality teachers.

At the heart of the lawsuit in New York will be the question of whether laws providing job protections to teachers prevent schools from being able to remove ineffective teachers and, as a result, harm a student’s constitutional right to a “sound, basic education.”

But New York is not California, and officials say differences in New York’s laws will make it much harder to prove that point.

New York’s tenure law requires teachers to be reviewed for three years before becoming eligible for tenure, not two, as in California. And New York’s new teacher evaluation law is intended to identify ineffective tenured teachers and allow principals to quickly fire them without facing long and costly appeal hearings—though 92 percent of teachers statewide received “effective” or “highly effective” ratings last year.

“We will vigorously and aggressively defend the basic due process that teachers deserve,” said Carl Korn, a spokesman for New York State United Teachers.

In New York City, the percentage of eligible teachers who received tenure has also declined steeply in recent years, as the Bloomberg administration delayed many teachers’ tenure decisions in an effort to make the protection less automatic.

“The methodology for helping someone out of the profession who does not belong in the profession is also better than it’s ever been,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday. “So I think we’re on the right track, and I don’t think we need a lawsuit muddying the situation.”

State education officials, who have faced a year of fierce public opposition to the state’s education policies, were quieter on Tuesday, unwilling to wade into a sensitive debate on the final day of the year’s last Board of Regents meeting.

For his part, State Education Commissioner John King said he agreed with the Vergara decision, but said that its goals are being accomplished in part by the state’s new teacher evaluation system.

“Certainly, the Vergara decision in California reflected the notion that students’ civil rights are best vindicated when they have access to excellent teaching,” King said.

Some Regents declined to comment on the case. Kathleen Cashin, a former Brooklyn superintendent and union supporter, found a middle ground. Teachers still deserve due process rights, Cashin said, but it takes too long to decide if a tenured teacher should be fired—one of the points that lawyers representing the student plaintiffs plan to make.

Brown said that their case will challenge the argument that New York’s teacher evaluation law is an effective tool for ushering ineffective teachers out of the classroom. A detailed breakdown of how teachers were evaluated last year has been delayed for months, and Brown said that data will become evidence.

“You can’t just tweak and work around the edges if you’re going after the heart of the problem,” Brown said. “You have to challenge the underlying law itself.”

Team Memphis

How do you get teacher candidates to fall in love with Memphis? Shelby County Schools is taking them to a Grizzlies game.

PHOTO: Nikki Boertman/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis Grizzlies fans raise their growl towels during an NBA game at the FedEx Forum on April 25, 2013.

Home to one of the nation’s 25 largest school districts, Memphis has stepped up efforts in recent years to attract talented new teachers to a fast-changing education landscape, and now is including the city’s popular NBA basketball team as part of its playbook.

Shelby County Schools will kick off its hiring season this weekend by treating teacher candidates to dinner and a free game between the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks on Friday night at FedEx Forum.

A networking event will follow on Saturday at the Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education, a new downtown venue operated by the Orpheum Theatre to put arts and education center stage.

The activities are part of a first-ever “preview weekend” to fill openings for next school year in Tennessee’s largest district. Shelby County Schools typically hires between 600 to 800 teachers each year and is especially in need of special education and math teachers, said district spokeswoman Kristin Tallent.

Historically, the district has simply held recruitment fairs,” Tallent said Monday. “Through the weekend events, the district is hoping to expose potential teachers to our school district and some of the best that Memphis has to offer, which includes the Memphis Grizzlies.”

Teacher recruitment, development and retention has been a centerpiece of school reform efforts in Memphis since 2009 when the district won a seven-year, $90 million Gates Foundation grant that came to a close this school year. That grant, in partnership with the local nonprofit SchoolSeed, is helping to fund this weekend’s recruitment event. (To learn more about the influence of the Gates Foundation on Memphis public schools, read our special report).

The preview weekend comes as Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has proposed a budget without a shortfall or layoffs for the first time in years. The spending plan also includes $10.7 million for teacher raises to address inequities in the pay structure and shift to performance-based pay.

The district is asking teacher candidates to RSVP by Friday.

Parent-to-Para

How the Adams 14 school district is empowering parents to join the classroom

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A parent volunteer works with two kindergarteners on reading as part of a pilot program at Dupont Elementary School that is training parents to become paraprofessionals.

Raeann Javier would like to know what she can do to help her second-grader read better. Sometimes, sitting with her daughter, the best she could offer was, “You know how to do this.”

Javier, a single mother, also would love to land another job to earn more for her family.

A pilot program launched by Adams 14 School District in Commerce City may help her with both.

The school district is trying to build more knowledgeable, active parents through classes and volunteer time working with young students struggling to read. For those who are interested, the program also provides parents a path to become paraprofessionals, or teacher’s aides.

The initiative is one way the nearly 8,000-student suburban district — facing state intervention this year after years of poor academic performance — is trying to turn things around.

District surveys found parents were looking for ways to become more supportive.

Javier, one of 17 mothers in the program, said she already feels like she has become a more patient parent less than a month in. She also is interested in becoming a paraprofessional to supplement the income she earns as an at-home nurse.

“It’s a little bit tough. I make it work,” Javier said. “But this would really, really help.”

Other parents taking part in the pilot program already were volunteers at their kids’ schools.

“They usually just did the normal things like helping with copying or sorting papers,” said Jesse Martinez, Adams 14’s director for family and community engagement. “But we really wanted to change that dynamic. We wanted to pull in our parents to tap their potential and bring them in to support their children.”

One of the parent volunteers, Susana Torres, was an elementary school teacher for 10 years before coming to the United States. Now with three children in district schools, Torres jumped at the opportunity to get back into a classroom.

“This is my thing,” Torres said. “I love the program.”

Torres also helps other Spanish-speaking moms who are part of the program. She said that even though they don’t have the teaching background she does, the program has made it easy for all of them to learn to help kids. “All you need is a passion to make change,” she said.

Pat Almeida, the principal of Dupont Elementary, where the program is being piloted, said the goal is also to help more students become proficient in reading before third grade — especially those who are not far behind but just need a boost to get to grade level.

“We’re able to give them more repetition so they can apply that to their reading,” Almeida said. “If they’re able to have more repetition, their progress is going to be accelerated.”

Dupont Elementary is among the Adams 14 schools that is struggling, though the school isn’t yet facing sanctions like the district as a whole is this year.

District officials have been working on setting up reforms all year to present to the state as a suggestion for their corrective action, including getting help from an outside company for developing curriculum and testing. Increasing parental engagement through this and other new efforts, like having teachers visit families at home, are part of the work to improve the district.

The parent-to-para program is being funded with money from the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation (Rose also supports Chalkbeat) and Climb Higher Colorado, a coalition of advocacy groups that support strong academic standards and tests.

At Dupont, while the parent volunteers work with almost 75 students that they pull out of class for about an hour, teachers can spend the time in class working with students who need the most help.

An instructional coach supervises the moms to work with groups of two to six students and helps them plan lessons each day for kids.

During one lesson this week, parents were helping kindergarteners learn how to differentiate between capital and lowercase letters and how to sound out words. Some students were still having trouble identifying letters, while one boy was writing words so quickly he was standing up, moving around and at one point fell.

The volunteers said it’s rewarding to see the kids catching on.

“Knowing that just a little bit of our time can help them is a good feeling,” said volunteer Adelaida Guerrero. “It’s an excellent opportunity for them and for us.”

For Maria Rodriguez, the program has unexpectedly given her another benefit — bringing her closer to her teenage daughters. She said she joined the program because when a bilingual program for her two oldest daughters was removed seven years ago, she had stopped being able to help them on their school work.

When Rodriguez heard about the program, she thought she could prepare to help her younger children, a second and third grader, before they too required more help than she could offer.

“It’s brilliant,”Rodriguez said. “I’ve been helping them work on their vowels.”

Within the last week, the two older girls came to Rodriguez complaining that she hadn’t ever worked to help them in the same way, and asking to join in during the at-home lessons. Over time, the girls had kept their ability to speak Spanish, but never learned how to write it. Now they were asking to learn alongside their younger siblings.

“They have that apathy of adolescence that makes them not always want to get close to us as parents,” Rodriguez said, tearing up as she recalled the moment. “I honestly felt really good.”