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

To and Through

Newark’s post-grad paradox: More students are entering college, but few earn degrees

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka wants 25 percent of residents to have college degrees by 2025, up from 19 percent today.

When it comes to college, Newark faces a good news-bad news paradox.

More students than ever are graduating high school and enrolling in college, according to a new report. Yet fewer than one in four Newark students earns a college degree within six years of graduating high school — leaving many with limited job prospects in a city where an estimated one-third of jobs require a four-year college degree.

Now, city officials are promising to build on the report. They want to ramp up the rigor of high-school classes and create more early-college programs to increase the odds of students entering college and leaving with a degree.  

“How do we teach our children to perform — to graduate?” Mayor Ras Baraka asked at a press conference Wednesday to mark the official release of the report of Newark students’ college outcomes. “We got them in the door,” he said of students who attend college. “Now how do we make them stay?”

The city’s plans, to which Superintendent Roger León is lending his support, reflect a growing recognition that simply getting students into college is not sufficient — and can even backfire if they drop out before graduation, leaving them with college debt but no degree.

Until recently, the charge given to high schools in Newark and across the country was to foster “college-going cultures.” And these efforts showed promising results: On average, 51 percent of Newark Public School students who graduated high school between 2011 and 2016 immediately enrolled in college, up from 39 percent who did so between 2004 and 2010, according to the report by the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, or NCLC, and Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.

But entering college didn’t guarantee its completion. Of those students who started college straight after high school, only 39 percent earned a degree within six years, the report found.

As a result, educators and policymakers have begun to think harder about how to help students “to and through” college — to ensure they actually earn degrees. Toward that end, Baraka and the NCLC — which includes roughly 40 colleges, schools, nonprofits, and corporations — has set a goal of 25 percent of Newark residents earning college degrees or comparable credentials by 2025.

Today, just 19 percent of Newark adults have associate degrees or higher — compared to 45 percent of adults across New Jersey and 40 percent nationally.

Superintendent León, who began overseeing the city’s schools on July 1, said his main strategy for supporting these efforts will be to expose students to challenging work early on.

“If we don’t do something dramatically in classrooms to improve instruction and make it rigorous,” León said after Wednesday’s event, then students are “getting into college but they’re not completing it.”

Source: “Post-Secondary Outcomes of Newark High School Graduates (2011-2016)” report. Note: The four-year rate is an average of the classes of 2011 to 2013. The six-year rate is from the class of 2011. Graphic: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

For starters, León said he wants high schools to offer more college-level classes. In the 2016-17 school year, just 21 percent of Newark students were enrolled in one or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes — compared to 42 percent of students statewide.

He also vowed to raise the quality of instruction in the district’s traditional high schools. Only 14 percent of their graduates earn college degrees within six years, compared to 42 percent of graduates from the city’s selective magnet schools, the report found.

To do that, León said he will create specialized academies within the traditional schools modeled on the magnets, which have specialized themes such as science, technology, or the arts. The academies, which will partner with colleges, will most likely feature admissions criteria similar to those of magnet schools, which select students based on their academic and attendance records, León added.

And, for the first time, all ninth-grade students this academic year will take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, León said Wednesday. An additional 1,100 eighth-graders who passed at least one of their seventh-grade PARCC exams will also take the PSAT when it’s administered on Oct. 10.

Since 2016, the district has provided the PSAT to all 10th and 11th-grade students. But León said that giving the test to younger students will focus their attention on college and help identity those who are ready for advanced classes. The PSAT is designed to help students prepare for the SAT, which is used in college admissions, and to qualify for National Merit Scholarships.

The district, which was under state control for 22 years until February, is getting some assistance in its effort to improve students’ college outcomes.

For instance, KIPP, the national charter-school network with eight schools in Newark, is sharing its strategies for helping students choose the right college with guidance counselors at three district high schools.

And the higher-education institutions in the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, including Essex County College and Rutgers University-Newark, plan to create more “dual-enrollment” programs that allow high-school students to earn college credits, said NCLC Executive Director Reginald Lewis.

“We’re all going to do a better job,” Lewis said, “of making sure that once Newark residents get in our doors, that we help them persist.”

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”