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

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.