a matter of time

Newark Teachers Union calls for end to extended-school-day programs, citing contract violations

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon said the district has agreed to restore a "time-tested" system of rewarding teachers for advanced degrees and to eliminate a performance-based bonus.

The head of the Newark Teachers Union is calling on the district to abolish school-improvement efforts that ask teachers at certain schools to work longer hours in return for extra pay.

About 30 district schools have extended days, which teachers must agree to in writing each year. According to an email that the union president sent to the district’s interim superintendent on Tuesday, some principals pressured teachers to sign those agreements this week before they have had a chance to look for positions at other schools.

But the union chief, John Abeigon, has decided to use that grievance to renew past calls to dismantle all of the district’s extended-time programs entirely. In his email to Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory, Abeigon called the programs “the last vestiges of a failed reform model” enacted by Cami Anderson, a former state-appointed superintendent with whom the union clashed bitterly.

Now that Newark’s elected school board has regained control of the schools, Abeigon said the district should restore an after-school initiative favored by the union and scrap the extended-day model.

“It’s a failure,” Abeigon said in an interview. “Now we’re trying to take advantage of the return to local control to get rid of it.”

The extended time was built into a 2012 contract negotiated by Anderson and the teachers union, which was hailed nationally as a model of district-labor cooperation. Under the contract, the superintendent could designate a limited number of so-called “Turnaround” schools whose academic performance needed to improve. In exchange for a $3,000 bonus, teachers who signed an annual agreement would work up to an hour longer each day and attend training sessions in the summer and on some weekends. The schools also were freed from some contract rules around scheduling, making them similar to charter schools that generally are not restricted by teachers contracts.

Some schools were insulted by the Turnaround label, sparking student protests. In some cases, teachers who refused to sign the agreements were transferred to other Turnaround schools, where they reportedly operated on different schedules than teachers who had signed on.

Still, about two-thirds of surveyed teachers said the extra time with students was valuable, according to a 2016 study commissioned by the district that looked at schools — including Turnaround schools and those in another school-improvement program, called “Renew” — where teachers agreed to extended schedules. Last year, the union and district negotiated a new teachers contract that goes to 2019 and includes both the Turnaround and Renew programs.

In response to Abeigon’s call Tuesday to do away with extended schedules, district officials pointed to last year’s agreement.

“The district signed a contract in 2017 with the Newark Teachers Union that included the opportunity for schools to provide extended learning time, because we believe that more learning time can help improve learning outcomes for students,” said Larisa Shambaugh, the district’s chief talent officer, in a statement. “We look forward to working with the NTU to continue to ensure that this portion of the contract is implemented in a way that allows for all of our students and educators to be successful.”

The union has long raised doubts about whether the extra time is actually improving school performance. But the latest outcry appeared to be prompted less by fundamental concerns about the model than about how it is being carried out.

According to the union, some school administrators have revised the “election to work agreements” that outline teachers’ responsibilities at extended-time schools without consulting the union. Teachers would likely welcome some of the revisions — such as fewer trainings during the summer or on Saturdays — but union officials said they must still sign off on any changes.

In addition, some principals ordered teachers to sign next school year’s agreements this week. The union said that is unfair because the district has not yet hosted its annual job fair, meaning teachers are being asked to commit to stay at their current schools without being able to explore other options first.

As evidence, the union supplied an email from the principal of McKinley Elementary School to her staff saying that teachers who did not sign the agreements by Friday “will be removed from the McKinley Roster” and that teachers who do sign “obviously can’t change your mind to transfer later on.”

Another email provided by the union showed that the staff at Luis Muñoz Marin School for Social Justice had been told to sign their agreements by this Monday. However, they were informed Tuesday that the agreement had been modified and were told to sign the revised agreements by the end of that day.

Marin is part of the Renew program, while McKinley is a Turnaround school. Neither principal responded to emails seeking comment.

In his message to Interim Superintendent Gregory — which was titled “Turnaround Schools Dead: End the EWA threats now!” — Abeigon said that multiple principals had sent similarly “coercive” emails to teachers in recent weeks. He said the changes to the agreements violated the teachers contract. And he called on Gregory to “discuss replacing” the extended-time model with an after-school program that would only target students who need extra support.

“Dozens of your dedicated employees are crying out for help and your leadership,” Abeigon wrote, “as their backs are up against a wall you have the power to take down.”

Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”

reunion

Jubilation, and some confusion, as Denver schools begin their post-strike recovery

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Lupe Lopez-Montoya greets students at Columbian Elementary School on Thursday after Denver's three-day teacher strike.

Lupe Lopez-Montoya got the text message at 6:15 a.m. The strike was over, the colleague who’d been keeping her up to speed on news from her union told her.

And so as district and teachers union officials celebrated their deal at the Denver Public Library, Lopez-Montoya on Thursday resurrected her regular commute to Columbia Elementary School, the northwest Denver school where she’s the longest-serving tenured teacher.

For the past three days, Lopez-Montoya had stayed out of school as Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association sparred over how teachers in Denver are paid. She still had unanswered questions about the future. But first, it was time to greet students.

One girl ran across the sidewalk to give a hug. “Ms. Montoya’s back,” she shouted, burying her face in the teacher’s side.

Lopez-Montoya began to welcome students into the building. “Line up and you can go get breakfast,” she told one boy. “I’m happy you’re here today.”

The moment kicked off what was a not-quite-normal day in Denver schools. With a deal coming just an hour before some schools were due to start for the day, teachers and families had little time to adjust their plans. The district also had too little time to reopen early childhood classes that have been closed all week; those will reopen on Friday, officials said.

Building principals got an email around 7 a.m. telling them that the strike was over and that many teachers would be coming back to work. In some buildings, central office staff and substitutes who had been filling in for teachers were already on site when teachers returned to work. And some students who commute long distances didn’t get the word in time to go to schools.

By early afternoon, about 81 percent of teachers in district-run schools had shown up to work, and about 83 percent of students had, according to Denver school district spokesman Will Jones.

In the parking lot outside Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, a west Denver elementary school, teachers still clad in the red of their cause gathered in the parking lot to walk in together. Asked what the mood was, reading intervention teacher Denise Saiz said, “Relief!” and her colleagues responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

“We’re really excited to get back to the kids,” said fifth grade teacher Emily Mimovich.

While strike participation was high at the school — it was founded with support from the state and local union as a teacher-led school — the teachers said they did not believe there would be hard feelings between those who walked and those who didn’t.

“We have such a good relationship,” said Reyes Navarro, who teaches Spanish to kindergarten and first-grade students. “We understand that you have to do whatever is right for you.”

Parents also said they were eager to have their children get back to school.

Sarah Murphy, who has a third-grader and a 4-year-old preschool student, said this morning was a “bit of a scramble, albeit a welcome one.” She had both children signed up for a day camp at the University of Denver and was unsure if she should send them to school or to camp because she wasn’t sure teachers would be back at school. Then she got word that camp was canceled for both children — but Denver Public Schools preschools are still closed.

“We were left trying to figure out what to do with our ECE4 since they were still closed,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “We know how hard this has been on everyone, but this morning proved that the ECE program was the hardest hit, short notice every step of the way. We very much look forward to tomorrow when both are back in their normal school routines.”

Not everyone returned to school. Some teachers said they needed a day to collect themselves after an emotional experience. Judy Kelley, a visual arts teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, said she and many of her colleagues live too far away from the school to get there on short notice.

But the majority of teachers who went back to work Thursday describe positive experiences returning to their schools. Ryan Marini, a social studies teacher and football coach at South High School, called it the “best day” in 17 years of teaching.

Suzanne Hernandez, a first-grade teacher at Westerly Creek Elementary in Stapleton, said she and other teachers gathered to walk into school together at 7:45 a.m.

Teachers thanked the subs from central office who were in the building. They headed back to their roles in central offices.

Early in the morning, Hernandez sent a message to her students’ parents to let them know teachers would be back in school. The reaction from students as she greeted them was “overwhelming,” she said.

With the help of paraprofessionals who had prepared lessons, Hernandez said teachers were able to jump right back to where they left off last week.

As far as Valentine’s Day, that celebration will be pushed back until Friday afternoon, she said. For now, teachers are having their own celebration, happy to be back in the classroom.

“I think if there’s any sort of effect from the strike, it’s been a positive one,” she said. “It’s been a very unifying experience.”

Allison Hicks, a teacher at Colfax Elementary, said returning teachers were greeted with hugs, music, smiles and tears.

“After finding out an hour ago we were going back to work, I scrambled home to get ready,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “I am exhausted, but so excited to be back with my students. This day won’t be normal, but knowing I did my part to put my students first is the best feeling to have.”

Kade Orlandini, who teaches at John F. Kennedy High School, said most of the teachers are back in her building, despite the short notice.

“Teachers were ready, and we are jumping right back into instruction,” she wrote. “Attendance seems lower than normal, but students who are here are ready to learn. The atmosphere in the school is very positive all around.”

What was your experience going back to school? What other questions do you have? Take our survey

Chalkbeat’s Ann Schimke, Erica Meltzer, and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this article.