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UFT moves quickly to build coalition with a clear target: Cuomo

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Elected officials and teachers join UFT President Michael Mulgrew at a press conference to spotlight enrollment inequities at charter schools.

The city teachers union is gearing up to fight a lobbying battle on many fronts this year.

A lobbying day is on the calendar (March 4), a social media hashtag is being heavily promoted (#invitecuomo), and messages are being crafted for teachers, parents, and other allies invested in helping the union beat back Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education agenda.

“We’re going to go have a fight,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew summarized Thursday at the union’s headquarters.

The strategy for that fight is beginning to take shape. Mulgrew spent the day urging parent advocates and community leaders to join the UFT for an all-out campaign against Cuomo, whose recent budget proposal was seen as an attack on teachers unions around the state.

Cuomo’s proposal calls for changing tenure rules, tougher teacher evaluations, more charter schools, state-managed takeovers of struggling schools, and overhauling the state’s due process law to make it easier to fire teachers who are underperforming or accused of misconduct, changes the governor said are necessary to improving the state’s education system. Mulgrew said those policies would drive teachers away from working with high-needs students, likening Cuomo’s approach to that of an old nemesis.

“I spent five years working with parents fighting against really bad polices in education with the Bloomberg administration,” Mulgrew said. “Well, we’re going to have to do what we did before.”

But the teachers union is in a newly vulnerable position as the legislative session in Albany gets underway. The state teachers union was outspent in last year’s election by charter-school backers and fell short of its effort to help Democrats win control of the state Senate. The news that Sheldon Silver will vacate his position as speaker of the Assembly, which has often served as a liberal backstop against policies the union opposes, means the UFT has also lost a uniquely powerful ally.

“They used to be in the driver’s seat in Albany and they’re no longer in the driver’s seat,” said New York City Charter School CEO James Merriman, who often clashes with the union.

Mulgrew acknowledged the perception that “the chessboards are lined against us,” but said he had no intention to cave on issues that teachers oppose.

To make that opposition more visible, the unions have created an #invitecuomo social media campaign and the UFT is asking members to take to Facebook and Twitter to urge the governor to increase school funding.

Behind the scenes, Mulgrew was working to build support among parent leaders, advocacy organizations, and clergy members on Thursday. At a morning meeting that included NAACP’s Hazel Dukes, parents from community education councils, and representatives from Class Size Matters and Alliance for Quality Education, Mulgrew was clear about what he was looking for, according to an attendee.

“He wants parent support to go after Cuomo,” the attendee said. Specific education issues were raised, but “he kept bringing it back to Cuomo.”

The union has also scheduled a lobbying day in Albany for March 4, and leaders said they are hoping for a larger turnout than in previous years. Steve Juliano, a teacher and union delegate who attended one of the union’s “emergency” meetings on Thursday, said the union will be trying to position that event as “more of a grassroots campaign.”

“A lot of parents want to get involved, so it’s a little different,” Juliano said.

Union leaders got specific about what they are looking for on one issue, charter schools, at a press conference on Thursday.

Cuomo wants to raise the state’s charter-school cap by 100 schools, but Mulgrew said that number should be frozen until charter schools show they are serving a greater share of at-risk students, as required by law.

To ensure they serve more of those students, Mulgrew said charters should be required to give preference in their admissions lotteries to new groups of at-risk students and required to give district superintendents the power to to fill empty seats that open up in charter schools. The union also began circulating an analysis of enrollment data showing charter schools in many districts serve an especially small share of students living in temporary housing and students with disabilities who require self-contained classes than the average district school.

Teachers union delegates had their own meeting on Thursday afternoon, where members received a two-sided flyer that summarized Cuomo’s proposals with a few sardonic lines on each issue.

“Are you kidding?” begins one description of Cuomo’s proposal to pay top-rated teachers a $20,000 bonus. “Teachers are motivated by seeing their students succeed, not by corporate bonus-style merit pay.”

Teachers who attended said that Mulgrew was angry but focused on how to promote a positive message pushing back against Cuomo’s suggestion that the system is filled with poor teachers who need to be removed from the classroom. Mulgrew stressed that progress was already being made under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration.

“In New York City, we can feel this energy that we’re moving education forward the right way,” Mulgrew said.

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.