Mail Bag

No guarantees, TFA tells corps members, but keep hope alive

Teach for America is reassuring its 2009 corps members assigned to New York City public schools that they’ll likely have spots come September — despite a hiring freeze that prohibits most Department of Education principals from hiring new teachers.

The assurances came in an e-mail message to people who were hired to join schools via Teach For America in September. “Despite some of the uncertainty that exists currently across the city, the NYCDOE and our charter partners continue to provide us with enough evidence to suggest that placing 230 corps members in district schools, and the remaining 100 in charter schools, will be possible,” Jemina Bernard, the executive director of Teach For America’s New York City branch, wrote in the e-mail.

The hiring freeze, announced earlier this month, prohibits principals at district schools that have operated for more than three years from filling vacancies with new teachers. A tight budget situation has already inspired Teach For America to scale down the number of people it recruited to work in New York City, and Teach For America is now sending more of its corps members to city charter schools, which are exempt from the hiring freeze.

Bernard’s e-mail message explains exceptions to the freeze, and it tells prospective teachers that the majority of them cannot be hired “unless and until the restrictions are lifted.”

The Teach For America corps member who sent the message to me said many corps members were calmed by the note. “There’s no evidence to suggest that we can’t hold them to their word,” the corps member said. “If they were going to screw this up, they would know by now.” But the email’s sender was skeptical and thought Teach For America was being overly optimistic.

Kerci Marcello Stroud, a Teach For America New York City spokesperson, said that the organization was “specifically not guaranteeing that every single person would get a job.” “We’ve been talking really closely with the DOE,” she said. ” And from those talks, we think that we’ll be able to support that number of teachers.”

The e-mail also assures the New York City corps that TFA will provide them with financial assistance for 40 days, should the first of school come and go without them being hired.

Here’s the email:

May 8, 2009

Dear 2009 Corps Members,

I hope this message finds you well, in whatever part of the country (or world) you may be. My team and I are all so excited to meet you in June.

I am writing to share with you some news that may impact the placement timeline for many incoming corps members, and I know that those of you who just matriculated at the fourth deadline for this year may have heard some of this already on your placement calls this past week.

Update from New York City
On Wednesday, May 6, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein announced that, given the national financial crisis, there will be substantial cuts to next year’s school budgets. The Chancellor also announced that in an effort to absorb budget cuts to schools and avoid teacher lay-offs, the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) will implement hiring restrictions that limit the hiring of new teachers by district schools. At this time, principals can only fill vacancies with teachers who are currently employed by the NYCDOE.

There are limited exceptions for new teachers with licenses in “bilingual special education” (a dual license) and speech; neither excepted license area applies or will apply to current or new Teach For America corps members. As well, there are exceptions for new schools in their first, second, or third year, which may hire new teachers for up to half of their vacancies, and we will work to prioritize placing 2009 corps members in such positions. As budgets are finalized over the summer, the hiring restrictions will be lifted for subject areas and geographic districts where the need to fill vacancies is not being met by existing DOE employees. The primary implication of this policy is that new teachers, including new corps members, cannot be formally hired into any district school-level vacancy that does not fall under an exception unless and until the restrictions are lifted.

We have continued to work very closely with the NYCDOE and our charter partners to ensure we are making the appropriate decisions regarding the size of the incoming 2009 corps and license areas in which they are to be placed. Please note that public charter schools in New York City and State are considered independent employees and thus these hiring restrictions do not impact any charter schools.

Corps Size and Placement Timeline Implications
As a result of this new information, we are planning to reduce the incoming New York City corps size from our original plan of 350 to 330, down from 550 incoming corps members in the previous few years. Each of you have already been assigned toward this new number of 330 and thus have secured a spot in the New York City corps. Despite some of the uncertainty that exists currently across the city, the NYCDOE and our charter partners continue to provide us with enough evidence to suggest that placing 230 corps members in district schools, and the remaining 100 in charter schools, will be possible.

As the implications of the new hiring guidelines become apparent in the coming weeks, we anticipate that the hiring timeline may be longer than expected, and that–as we saw last year for the first time–some 2009 New York City corps members may not be placed as of the first day of school. At the start of the current school year, about 30 New York City 2008 corps members were still unplaced. We worked aggressively and were able to place half of them within a week and all by mid-October.

Also, for the small number of you who have already secured placements in district schools, your placement associate will be in touch with you shortly to discuss whether or not your placement may change as a result of the new citywide hiring guidelines.

Please note that while the financial crisis is a national one, the implications for placement in New York City district schools are unique to the Teach For America · New York City region. As well, you should know that the New York City regional team is in close and constant communication and coordination with the New York City summer institute team and each of our university partners for the 2009-10 school year.

Financial and Housing Plans
Although we know that all of you reviewed and signed our Corps Member Requirements, Policies, and Procedures and are acquainted with our Assignment and Placement Policies section, we recognize that some of you may have additional questions about how a longer placement timeline might affect your financial planning as well as opportunities and timeline for finding housing.

In the event that any corps members are not placed by the first day of school, we are developing specific plans to provide Teach For America financial assistance to impacted corps members. In the coming weeks, we will be better poised to provide more specific information about this financial assistance. However, we can say now that Teach For America corps members who are not placed as of the first day of school will receive a grant equivalent to 90 percent of our average regional first-year teacher salary, including additional funds to procure an interim basic health insurance policy. Corps members qualifying for grant-based transitional financial assistance from Teach For America may receive a grant equivalent to up to 100 percent of the average regional first-year teacher salary. This financial assistance will extend up to 40 business days, or approximately two months, after the first day of school, though we do not expect any corps members to remain unplaced for that length of time.

Although we are doing everything we can to place you before the first day of school, we are sharing this information with you to reassure you that we continue to approach the placement season conservatively–in the best interests of our students and corps members–given the overall economic climate this year.

As far as housing is concerned, we continue to suggest waiting to secure housing until you have secured a placement. In the event that you need to secure housing before you have secured a placement, we recommend strongly that you choose a location near a subway or bus hub that will enable you to have reasonable access to most if not all of our placement schools. Our placement team is committed to supporting you in figuring out the best such locations.

Working Together to Rise to the Challenge
Lastly, as a follow up to this letter, we will host an optional conference call for any interested corps member on Thursday, May 14, 2009 at 6:30 p.m. EST. In order to join, dial (605) 475-4850, wait for the prompt, and then input 899006#. The purpose of this call is so that we can offer support in answering any additional questions you may have.

As we continue to work closely with the NYCDOE and other key decision makers, we will keep you informed of relevant updates.

Through this experience of joining the corps and signing on for a two-year commitment to teach in a low-income community during such challenging times, you are now part of a collective force of individuals committed to persevering against all obstacles in order to ensure that all children have an opportunity to attain an excellent education, regardless of the color of their skin or their parents’ incomes. Challenges like the budget situation the city is now facing hit our students and families the hardest and it is our responsibility to rise to these unforeseen circumstances in preparing to enter the classroom this fall.

That means staying incredibly focused on the things you can control: your efforts while preparing for institute, engaging fully with our placement team to secure and be prepared for interviews, staying connected to Teach For America and your fellow corps members through the bi-weekly Incoming Corps Member Digest, TFANYConnect, and ensuring that you meet all critical testing and fingerprinting, security clearance, and other deadlines and prerequisites.

On our end, know that we are here to support you through these challenges. If you have any additional questions or concerns, please reach out to your corps member placement associate, Jamie Meltzer (’04 New York City) at [redacted] or Jennifer Barnette (’01 Houston) at [redacted].

Warm Regards,

Jemina R. Bernard
Executive Director


New York City school workforce grows, driven by 40 percent rise in teaching assistants

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A teaching assistant worked with a pre-K student in East Harlem in 2014.

New York City’s public-school workforce grew 8 percent over the past decade, according to a new report, driven largely by the rising number of teaching assistants who work with preschool students and students with disabilities — two populations whose numbers have risen even as overall student enrollment declined.

The education department employed about 131,200 people this June — an increase of 10,200 workers since July 2007, according to an analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office released Tuesday. The expansion comes even as student enrollment in district-run schools fell by 1.5 percent, or some 15,300 students, during that same period, the report notes.

While the number of teachers remained basically flat during that time, the department added nearly 8,600 additional teaching assistants, or “paraprofessionals,” as they’re known within the school system — an increase of over 40 percent.

“This is a story about the use of paraprofessionals — that’s the main thing,” said Yolanda Smith, a senior IBO analyst who prepared the report.

The majority of the paraprofessionals who were added during that period work with students with disabilities. Teachers union officials attributed the increase to a citywide effort since 2012 to place more students with disabilities in classrooms alongside their general-education peers, often with the support of a paraprofessional. (An education department spokesman said students are assigned paraprofessionals based on their unique needs.)

Nearly 2,000 of the paraprofessionals hired over the past decade work in pre-kindergarten classrooms, which are required to have both an assistant and a teacher. The number of assistants spiked after 2014, when Mayor Bill de Blasio rapidly expanded the city’s pre-K program.

Full-time paraprofessionals with a high school degree earn a starting salary of around $22,000. While the number of paraprofessionals focused on special-education and preschool students grew during this period, those assigned to general-education classrooms declined by roughly 1,100.

At the same time, the ranks of other school workers expanded 22 percent during this 10-year period. Those more than 2,200 additional employees include nurses, occupational and physical therapists, and “parent coordinators,” who answer families’ questions and help organize school events.

The number of teachers, principals, and assistant principals barely budged over that period, adding just over 500 additional workers. Union officials noted that there was a teacher hiring freeze from 2009 to 2014, but said that in recent years any new hires were essentially balanced out by teachers who retired or chose to leave the system.

Education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement: “We’re focused on recruiting and retaining talented staff that meet the needs of New York City students and families.”

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”