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

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”