Relationship Building

New Aurora union president: We need to look out for young teachers, improve relations with the district

Stanley Teacher Prep resident Lily Wool works with kindergartner Samori McIntosh at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Bruce Wilcox is settling in as the new president of the Aurora teachers union at a crucial time.

Aurora Public Schools is coping with budget challenges and declining student enrollment. Teachers are concerned about growing class size, their pay and more.

Meanwhile, a school board election this fall could change the direction of the 41,000-student district, which has undertaken a number of reforms to improve student achievement.

The union has opposed some of the reform efforts — including bringing high-performing Denver charter network DSST to Aurora — but to little effect.

Still, Wilcox said he hopes to forge a more cooperative relationship with district leaders.

Bruce Wilcox (Handout photo)

Wilcox has held various positions with the district. He started working in Aurora as a paraprofessional and then spent 17 years as an elementary school teacher. He also has worked in district positions helping run programs in multiple schools.

Wilcox has attended meetings all over the district to hear from teachers and employees as he begins his term. He sat down with Chalkbeat to discuss the state of the district and the union:

Why did you decide to take this leadership role with the union?
I think we need to do so much more together. I know that was what I believe was Amy Nichols’ (his predecessor) intention — for us to work collaboratively with the district. I think I wanted to make sure that continued and hopefully that it improved. It’s so critical that we take the young teachers that we have and develop them into long-range teachers — the long-term teachers that stay with our district and have a great relationship with our district. Right now, I just see a lot of turnover.

What do you think of the current relationship between the district and its teachers?
I think it’s a condition that can be improved. There are three sides to this. There are teachers, administrators and then there’s the district level, all of which want what’s best for kids, and all of which want to improve the outcomes for kids. I just don’t think right now we’re all working together to do that.

What do you think are the major challenges facing Aurora schools right now?
I think teacher retention and development is a huge one. The biggest challenge with our student base is the declining enrollment, which affects teacher retention, which affects the ability of the district and the association and teachers to get better at what we do.

Do you have goals for what you would ideally like to change or accomplish in this role?
As far as the organization itself goes, that we move into a role where we are more supportive of our younger teachers. That we take on some of the professional development the district isn’t able to do, or isn’t doing, so that we can develop those young teachers, develop those new teachers. Or take teachers who are struggling but who may not be new, and help them all become the best they can be. That we advocate for the best learning conditions for our students.

What are your thoughts on the budget problems the district is facing with decreasing enrollment and the process the district used this last school year to solicit input?
As far as the solicitation of input, I don’t know how effective that was in getting to everyone. It’s one thing to say we provided opportunities, but then the other is what effect that input really had. There may be another source of input that outweighed it, so that’s a concern. As far as the budget itself, last year was particularly difficult because of the reduction in force. We attempted to work with the district last year in formalizing that process. It is in the agreement and in state statute. There is some area where I believe it is vague and as a district and an association we should be able to come to agreeable terms. Right now I believe there’s some room for arbitrary decisions that we need to remove in order to be fair.

Part of Aurora’s reforms have included adding charter schools, including DSST, which the school board just approved. Many teachers spoke at board meetings against that charter. Do you also feel it was a bad idea to bring the school? And if so, why?
I was one of those people who spoke at that meeting. There is obvious concern that we are bringing in a school, and that we don’t know how it fits into the long-range plan.

We also are at a point where we’re seeing a declining student enrollment and now you’re going to be bringing in a charter school which will decrease not the overall district enrollment but certainly the enrollment to the traditional piece of the Aurora Public Schools. In addition, DSST was the second school that’s being brought in different from past practice, so I would say I have more of an objection to how it came. Charter schools in the past have had to find their own location. Now we are saying that we have placed into the bond money to assist in building that building (for DSST). In the past if charter schools wished to come to the Aurora, they applied. In this particular case the district, the superintendent, reached out to them. I think there are some concerns about the process that was used.

Charter schools do not have the same public accountability that traditional schools do. They also do not have the same constraints, so they operate much differently.

The board had some discussion early last school year about the fact that per a new contract, teachers in Aurora received a pay raise, while the district was planning serious budget cuts. Do you think the pay raises were necessary, and if so, what’s the proper way to find balance between those needs and the needs for budget cuts?
That’s a much bigger issue and I think if we want to ask about should teachers receive pay raises, we should also ask how money has been spent in the district in general. We need to look at the big picture. If you want to retain teachers, then you have to have a means by which to pay teachers and to retain them and reward them for the service that they have.

We’ve had two pay freezes where we did not get steps and lanes (annual pay increases for years of experience or added education), something that is in the contract. We negotiate salary every year, and so those steps and lanes are not guaranteed just by being in the contract.

We understand there are tough economic times but it seems as if the increase or decrease of compensation for employees, and that’s all groups, seems to be the last thing the district considers in the budget.

Do you really think it’s becoming attractive for Aurora teachers to leave for other districts?
It’s certainly attractive to leave Aurora for other districts if you are concerned there are going to be pay freezes. If you are going to get those incremental increases in other districts and you’re not going to get them here, that certainly makes it attractive for some teachers to leave the district. The biggest thing here is the cost of living in the city of Aurora. By the numbers that were given (by district officials at a board meeting) our first and second year teachers cannot afford to live in the town they work in without economic hardship. So certainly if they have any kind of student loan it makes it extremely difficult for them to live here.

As prices increase, it affects not only our families but it affects our young teachers who are at the beginning of their careers. I have an awful lot of younger teachers who work multiple jobs. They don’t take summers off. They just get a different position for the summer. They work two jobs during the year so they can pay student loans and afford to live. So I think compensation is a huge issue. It’s a large reason people stay or leave. And whenever we don’t have stability in how we compensate our people, then it creates this doubt.

Is the job of Aurora teachers also changing?
Our population of students depending on where you are in the district is always in flux, which is always requiring teachers to learn and adapt, to acquire new skills and to do things that certainly I didn’t have to do 20 years ago when I started. Now I need to be knowledgeable about mental health and well-being of students. I need to know the resources that are available in order to do what’s best for my students.

The other thing we’re going to see is increasing class sizes as a result of the reduction in force. We really don’t know what that’s going to look like. The district will adjust as student counts are different than they anticipated.

When you have a classroom and you increase it in size that adds a lot of work. It’s not just that you have to prepare for more students. You have to prepare for more students that are at different levels of need.

By the numbers

NYC announces it will subsidize hiring from Absent Teacher Reserve — and sheds light on who is in the pool

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Ever since the city announced a new policy for placing teachers without permanent positions into schools, Chalkbeat and others have been asking questions about just who is in the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve.

Now we have some answers.

The education department released figures on Friday that show a quarter of teachers currently in the the pool were also there five years ago, and a third ended up in the ATR because of disciplinary or legal issues. The average salary for teachers this past year was $94,000, according to the data.

The city also said it would extend budget incentives for schools that hire educators from the ATR, a change to its initial announcement. Principals have raised concerns about the cost of hiring from the ATR, since its members tend to be more senior, and therefore more expensive, than new teachers.

The ATR is comprised of teachers who don’t have regular positions, either because their jobs were eliminated or because of disciplinary issues. It cost almost $152 million in the last school year — far more than previously estimated — and currently stands at 822 teachers.

In July, the city announced a plan to cut the pool in half by placing teachers into vacancies still open after the new school year begins — even potentially over principals’ objection.

Critics have argued that the city’s new placement policy could place ineffective teachers in the neediest classrooms. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis called the move “shockingly irresponsible” in a statement.

“There are reasons why no principal has chosen to hire them and this policy is bad for kids, plain and simple,” she said.

But Randy Asher, the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School who is now responsible for helping to shrink the pool, called the new policy “a common sense approach to treating ATR teachers like all other teachers,” since they now have the opportunity to be evaluated by a school principal.

Here’s what the latest numbers tell us about who is in the pool.

How did educators end up in the Absent Teacher Reserve?

Most of the educators in the ATR were placed there because their schools had closed (38 percent) or due to budget cuts (30 percent.)

Another 32 percent entered the pool because of a legal or disciplinary case.

How effective are they?

A majority — 74 percent — received an evaluation rating of “highly effective,” “effective” or “satisfactory” in 2015-16, the most current year available. Current ratings for teachers citywide were not immediately available, but in 2014-15, 93 percent of teachers overall were rated effective or highly effective, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Twelve percent of teachers in the pool received an “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” rating in 2015-16, and about 7 percent received a “developing” rating, one step up from ineffective.

Some teachers in the ATR say evaluations can be unfair since teachers are often placed in classrooms outside of the subjects they are equipped to teach and because they are bounced between classrooms.

Asked whether teachers with poor ratings would be placed in classrooms, Asher said “all” teachers in the ATR have traditionally been placed in school assignments.

“They’re in schools, no matter what. It’s a question of what is their role in the school, and how are they supported and evaluated,” he said. “Obviously we will look at each individual teacher and each individual assignment on a case-by-case basis.”

How experienced are they?

Teachers in the ATR have an average of 18 years of experience with the education department, and earn an average salary of $94,000. By comparison, the base salary for a New York City teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000.

How long have they been in the pool?

Almost half the educators who are currently in the pool were also there two years ago. A quarter were in the ATR five years ago. That doesn’t mean that teachers have remained in the ATR for that entire time. They could have been hired for a time, and returned to the pool.

Still, the figures could be fuel for those who argue educators in the ATR either aren’t seriously looking for permanent jobs — or that the educators in the pool are simply undesirable hires.

How will schools pay for them?

Teachers in the ATR have argued that their higher salaries are one reason principals avoid hiring them — a concern that principals voiced in a recent Chalkbeat report.

“This is part of the injustice of the ATR placement,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “Schools might not want them and they will cost schools more in the future, taking away from other budget priorities.”

Under the policy announced Friday, the education department will subsidize the cost of ATRs who are permanently hired, paying 50 percent of their salaries next school year and 25 percent the following school year.

Where have they worked previously?

This question is important because the answer gives a sense of where educators in the ATR are likely to be placed this fall. The education department’s original policy called for an educator to be placed within the same district they left, but the change announced in July allowed for placement anywhere within the same borough.

Almost half of ATR members, as of June 2016-17, came from high schools. That isn’t surprising: Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein targeted large high schools for closure, breaking them up into smaller schools as part of a turnaround strategy.

Of the school districts serving K- 8 students, District 19 in Brooklyn’s East New York and District 24 in Queens had among the most educators in the ATR. Each had 26.

What subjects do they teach?

The largest share of teachers in the ATR — 27 percent — are licensed to teach in early childhood or elementary school grades. Another 11 percent are licensed social studies teachers, 9 percent are math teachers and 8 percent are English teachers.

Questions have been raised in the past about whether the teachers in the pool had skills that were too narrow or out of date. A 2010 Chalkbeat story found that a quarter of teachers then in the pool were licensed to teach relatively obscure classes like swimming, jewelry-making and accounting.

real-world experience

Meet the Memphis educator leading the charge to take down her city’s Confederate monuments

PHOTO: Andrea Morales
Tami Sawyer and Earle Fisher lead a rally in response to a white supremacist march in Charlottesville last weekend.

Hours after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Tami Sawyer’s phone was abuzz.

Some Memphis teachers wanted to talk over their plans to discuss the weekend’s violence with their students. She was also fielding questions from local news outlets about efforts to remove Memphis’ own Confederate statues — the issue that drew white supremacists to the Virginia college town.

The first messages were part of Sawyer’s role at Teach for America, where she serves as the local director of diversity and cultural competence. The others came out of her own activism — and her flurry of responses illustrate what life looks like for many educators stepping outside of the classroom to advocate for social justice.

“It’s a constant wheel,” she said. “I will go to bed probably about 1 a.m. because I stay up on social media and firing off emails and I wake up and I do it all over again tomorrow.”

Sawyer, a 35-year-old Memphis native, is the face of #takeemdown901, the newest campaign to remove two Confederate monuments from parks in downtown Memphis.

It’s a messy fight: The city owns the land, but can’t remove the statues on its own. State officials, angered by a 2015 Memphis city council vote to remove one, took control over what the city can do with its monuments.

And though the city has vowed to sue the state if it blocks the removal of the other monument, Sawyer and others aren’t satisfied with that pace.

“Jefferson Davis is known to have said that it is the duty of the white Christian man to own black people because they are unintelligent,” Sawyer said. “So, why is it important for me? It’s because a man that told me that I was dumb and needed to be picking his cotton can’t stand in my city. My nieces can’t come up under that shadow.”

But the fight against the Confederate monuments is just the latest facet of a longer, and personal, campaign for Sawyer.

She grew up in Memphis and went to St. Mary’s Episcopal, a private school. After graduating from the University of Memphis and spending about a year in law school at Howard University, Sawyer worked for U.S. Navy in Washington focusing on diversity hiring practices.

She returned to Memphis in 2013, as the uproar surrounding the merger and subsequent de-merger of its suburban and city schools was at its height. But local activism, she thought, seemed to be too much talk and too little action.

When 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, she decided to organize a local protest.

“Next thing I knew, I had a lot to say and people listened,” she said. “And I didn’t know what to do with that except to keep talking and keep organizing.”

PHOTO: Andrea Morales
Memphis reacts to the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville and the violence against counter protestors by gathering at the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue.

In 2015, Sawyer organized a vigil for a black Memphis teen, Darrius Stewart, who was killed by a white police officer. About 200 people gathered, including a large contingent of Teach for America teachers.

TFA teachers “came of their own accord,” Sawyer recalled, “and that was just impressive to me.”

Earle Fisher, a Memphis pastor and activist who is always within arm’s length of Sawyer at rallies or press conferences, noted that day was when the two “met on the battlefield.”

“As has been the case ever since, she was directing me on how things were meant to go at the rally she had organized,” he said. “There’s a reason we call her Tami Lou Hamer.”

Soon after that vigil, Sawyer joined TFA, overhauling the local chapter’s curriculum to help teachers understand how racism and poverty affect their students and their community.

Teach For America is not affiliated with Sawyer’s activism, but her work to remove statues of Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest is in keeping with organization’s recent efforts to connect more with the black and Hispanic communities they serve in.

Athena Turner, the group’s executive director in Memphis, came to the city 11 years ago when 85 percent of the city’s public school students were black and 88 percent of the TFA teachers working in the city were white. Now, about half of TFA teachers are people of color.

“From when I was a corps member to now, the organization has gotten a lot more explicit about the ways in which our commitments and values of diversity and equity and inclusion play out in all aspects of our work,” Turner said. Sawyer’s work, she said, “demonstrates those values pretty explicitly.”

TFA, like many other education organizations, has also grappled with how to help teachers address racism in the classroom in the years following the death of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager killed in 2012. The organization has deep ties to the Black Lives Matter movement that has emerged since: Prominent activists, including DeRay Mckesson and Brittany Packnett, were TFA teachers and later worked for the teacher training organization.

Sawyer herself sees helping teachers understand students’ culture and the broader fight for equity in Memphis as deeply connected. That desire fueled her decision to run, unsuccessfully, for state representative last year.

More recently, just after Sawyer launched an online petition to remove the Confederate statue — a petition that came out of a goal-setting exercise at a TFA summer staff retreat — Sawyer spoke to a group of students at GRAD Academy, a local charter school.

The conversation quickly turned from issues in the classroom to problems in their city.

“I told them you have to self-advocate,” Sawyer recalled. “And then someone said, ‘Is that what you’re doing with these statues?’ And I said yes. We have to advocate for ourselves. No one is going to take these statues down for us, right?”

The next week, several teens from that program showed up at a community meeting she organized.

“I don’t understand why we still have statues of people who didn’t want us to be anything,” 15-year-old Beyonce Cox said. “They didn’t want us African-Americans to have power, they wanted us to stay down.”

Helping students gain that sense of citizenship and agency — for Sawyer, that’s the point of her work.

“You raise an engineer in South Memphis who can figure out how to run a metro through Memphis because he’s going to remember how his mom and grandma couldn’t get around and carrying groceries in the rain,” she said.

“In the grand scheme of things, taking down the statues won’t change transportation. It won’t change access to fresh foods or economic justice. But it will teach us how to advocate for ourselves.”