First Person

ATR — A Simple Twist of Fate

A lot of people think teaching is somehow a job for life — that no teachers can be fired for any reason, no matter what they do, who they kill, or whether or not they sleep in garbage cans. It’s not true. In fact, the Department of Education tries to take away teacher jobs all the time. I recently read about one teacher who’s up on charges for giving watches to kids who scored 90 or above in his class. Clearly, dangerous individuals like that must be dealt with severely.

Those of us who aren’t up on charges have other worries. For example, we can become “ATRs.” ATR is an acronym for “Absent Teacher Reserve.” When Chancellor Klein closes a school, he’s required to retain 50% of “qualified” teachers. This translates to fewer than 50% of actual teachers. If the “reorganized” school doesn’t offer French, for example, 100% of working French teachers say adieu, teaching schedule and bonjour, Absent Teacher Reserve.

The ATR situation started in 2005. Tabloid editorial writers were jumping up and down about the new UFT contract. God bless teachers, they declared. Finally, they said, principals could decide who they wanted to hire. It was morning in America again. Several weeks passed before they went back to vilifying us, as tradition dictates.

In any case, teachers would no longer be sent to schools simply because there were open positions. Instead, they’d become ATRs, teaching whatever, wherever, to whomever. From there, we were assured, they’d easily find jobs. Unless, of course, they didn’t. Personally, I’m very glad I transferred when I could. For all I know, they could be closing my former school this very moment. I’d be very unhappy as an ATR teacher, and I’ve met many ATR teachers who feel precisely the same way.

What principal wants to hire an ancient relic like me when she can get a shiny new teacher who’ll do anything she says for less than half the price? And best of all, most of those teachers will be history well before they hit the five-year mark. They’ll never mature enough to question any program, no matter how pointless, wasteful, or illegal, and they’ll never become burdens on society by retiring and collecting pensions.  

Before the ATR situation, displaced teachers could transfer based on seniority. As a new teacher, I was bumped several times by these senior teachers. No one would help me get a job. Not the city, not the union, not anyone. A UFT rep told me that I’d be glad when I was more senior — the system would then work for me. This notwithstanding, I’m more senior than I’ve ever been, and it doesn’t work for me at all.

For a while, there was also a UFT transfer plan. If you worked in a building for a number of years, you could consult a list of openings in your subject area. You could then select from those openings and move to another school.

Judging from tabloid editorials, the UFT transfer plan was evil. From what I’ve read, it was used exclusively by lazy incompetent teachers who moved around to inflict more misery in new and different places. This notwithstanding, I used the plan because I lacked foresight — I failed to throw a sufficient number of kids out of my classes.

In my last school, the Spanish 1 classes were out of control. The teacher sent the AP kids all the time. This one wouldn’t sit down. That one was chewing gum. This one threw a paper airplane. Twice! The AP was spending a great deal of time on this. How could she solve this problem?

Why not take that ESL teacher who didn’t throw kids out and have him teach Spanish 1? It seemed perfect. But I was appointed to teach ESL, and there was that bothersome UFT contract. She couldn’t force me. I’d already told her I’d been offered a 3:30 class at Queens College and she said it was no problem-so I’d accepted. She decided to make me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

She said, “Mr. Goldstein, I’m going to assign you to teach five Spanish 1 classes in September. If you don’t agree to do it, I’m going to give you a late class and you’ll have to forget about Queens College.”

This was a tough decision for me. What to do? If only I’d thrown more kids out. I was just married, had just bought a house, and I really needed that second job. But I loved teaching ESL.

At the time, of course, there was that UFT transfer plan. If I was at a school enough years (I was), I could transfer to any school that needed an ESL teacher.

I found two schools close to Queens College, Francis Lewis and John Bowne, and neither of them (at the time) had classes after 3 PM. I marked them as choices one and two. I had to get the principal’s signature, and he shook his head grimly, saying, “You’ll never get into Francis Lewis.” Five weeks later, I got a call from the Board of Education to report to Francis Lewis in September.

My new AP at Francis Lewis was wonderful. To this day, I’ve never seen anyone who could handle people quite like she could. One semester, she asked me if I’d mind teaching a Spanish 1 class. I told her sure. I’d have done anything she wished. I’d have put her statue on the dashboard of my car.

She’s gone now, and so is the UFT transfer plan that sent me here. I miss them both.

I hope, if my daughter follows through on her plan to be a teacher, that the job of teaching is at least as good to her as it’s been to me. I also hope there are still some good supervisors around. Many of mine have been excellent, and that’s made a huge difference. I’ve been lucky.

I know teachers who haven’t been so lucky. Their schools closed, they got dumped into the ATR pool, and there they remain. I know one who emailed me regularly, becoming more and more depressed until she finally resigned — a big win for the city, I suppose. I even know one who got tapped for a special mentoring program — a promotion based on merit. When the program closed, that teacher became an automatic ATR.

I love to teach.  It’s exciting to meet new kids and get to know them. It’s even more exciting if you’re an ESL teacher and they come from every corner of the world. I’m very proud I can play some small part in helping them along.

If you take that away from me, I’ll be lost, and that’s precisely the sense I get from ATR teachers I know. I read one writer speculate about how wonderful it would be to not have the day-to-day responsibilities of lesson planning and follow-up, but I’ve yet to meet the real-live ATR teacher who was happy about it.

And whenever ATR teachers tell me their stories, I’m certain of one thing — there but for the grace of God go I.

First Person

I’m an Oklahoma educator who had become complacent about funding cuts. Our students will be different.

Teacher Laurel Payne, student Aurora Thomas and teacher Elisha Gallegos work on an art project at the state capitol on April 9, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

I’ve spent the last 40 years watching the state I love divest in its future. The cuts to education budgets just kept coming. Oklahoma City Public Schools, where I spent the last 10 years working with teachers, had to cut over $30 million in the 2016-17 academic year alone.

Over time, students, teachers, and parents, at times including myself, became complacent. We all did what we could. For me, that meant working with the students and teachers in the most disenfranchised areas of my city.

In the past 18 months, that has also meant working at Generation Citizen, a nonprofit promoting civics education across Oklahoma. We help students deploy “action civics.” Over the course of a semester, students debate what they would change if they were in charge of their school, city, or state, and select one issue to address as a class, which may involve lobbying elected officials or building a coalition.

Their progress has been incredible. But when teachers across the state decided to walk out of their schools and head to the State Capitol to demand additional funding for education, action civics came to life in a huge way. And in addition to galvanizing our teachers, I watched this moment in Oklahoma transform young people.

My takeaway? Over the long term, this walkout will hopefully lead to more funding for our schools. But it will definitely lead to a more engaged youth population in Oklahoma.

These past two weeks have sparked a fire that will not let up anytime soon. With actual schools closed, the Oklahoma State Capitol became a laboratory rich with civic experimentation. Students from Edmond Memorial High School wanted elected officials to personally witness what students and teachers continue to accomplish, and when the walkout started, the students started a “Classroom at the Capitol.” Over 40 students held AP English Literature on the Capitol lawn. Their message: the state might not invest in their classrooms, but classes would go on.

In the first few days of the walkout, the legislature refused to take action. Many wondered if their voices were being heard. That’s when Gabrielle Davis, a senior at Edmond Memorial, worked to rally students to the Capitol for a massive demonstration.

“I want the legislators to put faces to the decisions they’re making,” Gabrielle said.

By Wednesday, the “Classroom at the Capitol” had grown to over 2,000 students. The students were taking effective action: speaking knowledgeably on the funding crisis, with a passion and idealism that only young people can possess.

As students’ numbers grew, so did their confidence. By Wednesday afternoon, I watched as the state Capitol buzzed with students not only protesting, but getting into the nitty-gritty of political change by learning the names and faces of their elected officials.

By Thursday and Friday, students and teachers were no longer operating independently. The collaboration which makes classroom learning most effective was happening in the halls of the Capitol. When students identified the representative holding up a revenue bill, they walked through the line to find students from his home district to lead the charge.

Last Monday, with the walkout still ongoing, the students I saw were armed with talking points and legislative office numbers. After another student rally, they ran off to the offices of their elected officials.

Two students, Bella and Sophie, accompanied by Bella’s mom, made their way to the fourth floor. The girls stood outside the door, took a deep breath, and knocked. State Senator Stephanie Bice was in a meeting. They stepped out to decide their next move and decided to write personal notes to their state senators. With letters written, edited, and delivered, Bella and Sophie were beaming.

“That feels so good,” Sophie said.

A week of direct civic action had turned protesters into savvy advocates.

Until this walkout, most of the participating students had never met their elected officials. But that’s quickly changing. Students have worked collaboratively to demystify the legislative process, understand the policy goals articulated by organizing groups, and advocate for revenue measures that would support a more equitable education system.

Jayke, a student from Choctaw, reflected on this reality. “These last few days at the Capitol I have learned more about life and how to stand up for what I believe.”

That’s no small thing. Over those 14 days, I listened to students use their voices to express their experiences. Many also spoke on behalf of students who were not there. They spoke for the 60 percent of Oklahoma public school students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. They rallied for the students at each of their schools who do not have enough food to eat.

Through this conflict, our students are learning the importance, and the mechanics, of political participation. Our young people are becoming powerful in a way that will outlast this funding crisis. It’s everything a civics educator could hope for.

Amy Curran is the Oklahoma site director for Generation Citizen, an education nonprofit.

First Person

Let’s solve the right problems for Detroit’s students with disabilities — not recycle old ones

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

As Superintendent Nikolai Vitti approaches his first anniversary of leading the struggling Detroit Public Schools Community District, I commend him for his energy and vision. In particular, I applaud his focus on developing a robust curriculum and hiring great teachers, the foundations of any great school district.

However, his recently announced plans to create new specialized programs for students with disabilities are disconcerting to me, given decades of research demonstrating the benefits of inclusion.

Specifically, Vitti has discussed the possibility of creating specialized programs for students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments. The motivation is twofold: to meet students’ needs and to offer distinct programs that will attract parents who have fled Detroit in search of higher quality schools.

I’ve spent 25 years both studying and actively trying to improve schools for students with disabilities, and I can understand why Vitti’s proposal may have appeal. (I’m now the head of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.) But while the specialized programs might fill a critical need immediately, I have seen the downside of creating such segregated programming.

Once the programs are created, parents will seek them out for appearing to be the better than weak programs in inclusive settings. This will reinforce the belief that segregation is the only way to serve students with learning differences well.

This is a problematic mindset that we must continually try to shift. One need only to examine decades of special education case law, or the outcomes of districts designed solely for students with disabilities — such as District 75 in New York City or the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support — to see that such segregated settings can become one-way paths to limited access to a robust curriculum, peers without disabilities, or high standards, even when those districts are created with the best of intentions.

While a small proportion of students with the most significant support needs — typically 2-3 percent of students identified for special education — can benefit from more segregated and restrictive settings, the vast majority of students with disabilities can thrive in inclusive settings.

Vitti is clearly committed to ensuring that students with disabilities have access to essential supports and services, especially students with dyslexia. He has spoken passionately about his own experiences growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia as well as watching two of his four children struggle with dyslexia. And Vitti and his wife started a school for students with dyslexia in Jacksonville, Florida.

However, I would urge him to reconsider his approach in favor of exploring strategies to integrate robust supports and services into existing schools. By integrating, rather than separating, Vitti can ensure that all students have access to the general education curriculum and to teachers with demonstrated subject knowledge.

Furthermore, integrated programs ensure that students with disabilities have access to their typically developing peers and, conversely, that these peers have access to special education teachers’ expertise.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing such inclusive programs in action around the country. For example, at San Diego’s Thrive Public Schools, there is no discernible distinction between students receiving special education services and students who are not. When I visited earlier this year, I saw how special education teachers work alongside general education teachers and share responsibilities for all students, not just those with disabilities.

At Mott Haven Academy in New York, teachers and school leaders preemptively deter behavioral issues and incorporate opportunities for intentional reflection. Students learn in a restorative environment that is safe, stable, structured, and understanding — particularly benefiting students with disabilities.

I’ve also seen programs designed to serve students with learning disabilities benefit many students. Why would we restrict these instructional practices to schools specifically designed only for students with dyslexia, for example?

I’m convinced that separating students based on their learning needs stands to do harm to both groups and reinforce pernicious stereotypes that students with disabilities need to be separated from their peers — a practice that does not prepare any students well to exist in a society that ideally embraces, rather than shuns, differences.

If Vitti cannot create the least restrictive settings for these students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments in the desired timeline, I encourage him to consider an explicitly short-term solution — say, one to three years — with a specific phase-out deadline. This will enable students to receive critical supports and services while Vitti strives to ensure that students with disabilities are able to access high-quality programs in more inclusive settings.

In the long term, Vitti should strive to weave educating the full range of students with learning differences into the DNA of Detroit’s schools.

It is refreshing to hear an urban superintendent explicitly prioritizing the educational needs of students with disabilities. Vitti’s concerns should energize efforts to address the limited capacity, resources, and training for the benefit of all students. That would be truly innovative, and Detroit has the potential to emerge as a leader — an effort for which Vitti could be very proud.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.