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UFT president says he’ll fight mayor’s new proposals

More than week after Mayor Bloomberg handed Chancellor Joel Klein a to-do list of items anathema to the teachers union, UFT president Michael Mulgrew is promising a fight.

In an email sent to United Federation of Teachers members this afternoon, Mulgrew said the mayor’s proposals will “damage the schools and the children of this city.” Though the subject matter is well-covered ground, the tone is angrier than usual and there’s a sense that the UFT has been badly burned.

Bloomberg’s announcement, which came mid-UFT contract negotiations, has “raised the temperature” of contract talks,” a source said.

Referring to Bloomberg’s directive to Klein to use test scores in teacher tenure decisions this year, Mulgrew writes that the UFT was already working with the city and the Gates Foundation on a teacher quality study.

“Chancellor Klein was supposed to be our partner in this potentially much more effective approach.”

In the letter, Mulgrew also blames the Department of Education for mismanaging the city’s rubber rooms and pool of excessed teachers, which the mayor has proposed to reduce through layoffs of teachers who’ve been in the pool for more than a year.

He calls Bloomberg’s proposals “simplistic” and “sheer fantasy.”

A response to the letter from DOE spokesman David Cantor follows Mulgrew’s letter.

Dear colleagues:

New York City’s students deserve a high quality education.  What’s more, the students deserve and their parents expect that their mayor and their schools’ chancellor will use their power to enact real reforms and overcome obstacles to learning.

Unfortunately, Mayor Bloomberg’s recent speech in Washington, D.C. did nothing to help meet these goals.

As New York prepares to compete for federal “Race to the Top” incentive funds, all stakeholders in the public schools should be working together to best position us to win this precious new resource. But Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have chosen to focus on and promote fake reforms, simplistic “solutions” and sheer fantasy as the answer to our schools’ problems.

Let’s start with some of the issues you as educators know full well.

ATRs: Hundreds of our teachers are now working in the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR), a pool of educators whose schools or programs have been downsized or closed.  There is no better example of the Department of Education’s mismanagement and failed leadership than this group of dedicated and experienced teachers.

When the ATR pool was created we warned the DOE that faulty implementation of the process would leave hundreds or even thousands of teachers without permanent assignments.  Our warning went unheeded and our prediction has been proven correct. Recently we joined with the DOE to create a policy that in similar circumstances was remarkably successful – the assignment of teachers displaced by the reorganization of alternative high schools to a school with vacancies, subject to approval by both the teacher and the principal.  The DOE has not only rejected our recommendation to expand this to all districts, it has not made substantial efforts to place ATRs;  it has refused to schedule school interviews for them;  it has also demonized them in the press, making it difficult for many to find permanent jobs.  Meanwhile, the department’s continued hiring of new teachers, including paying bonuses to recruiters, has made a bad situation even worse.

Now, when the DOE’s own data has shown dramatic increases in class sizes, it is unconscionable that the system allows over 1,000 teachers now working as substitutes rather than to help bring class sizes down.  This is an inexcusable waste of human capital and mismanagement of resources.

Rubber Rooms:  If the DOE’s ATR policy is the leading example of management ineptitude, the so-called “rubber rooms” are a close second.

We work with children, and we agree that we must err on the side of caution to protect children.  Accusations may lead to people being temporarily removed from their schools while the investigation takes place. But no reasonable observer could find any reason other than gross mismanagement for leaving teachers to sit in rubber rooms without charges for months, or even years at a time.

On average, teachers now wait in excess of 200 days while allegations undergo an initial investigation – all without any formal charges.  There is no reason these investigations can’t be completed in 30 to 60 days, at the maximum.

The rubber room debacle has been wholly created under the stewardship of Chancellor Klein.  Under prior Chancellors, educators who had been removed from classrooms worked in office or non-teaching positions where they could make some contribution to the system during investigations.  That policy should be reinstated.

The rubber rooms do not work for the students or the teachers in NYC, and we have always stood ready to fix them.  Contrary to the picture the Mayor and Chancellor have painted for tabloid editorial pages, the UFT has met with the DOE on numerous occasions to try to make the necessary changes and expedite this process.  But the administration has preferred to grandstand on this issue rather than solve it.

Student test scores:  The idea of using student scores as the principal means to evaluate teachers is a classic political crowd-pleasing stunt. Unfortunately, as anyone who really understands education knows, it’s a cheap shot.

Study after study has shown that tests cover too narrow a field, and there are too many variables in a child’s life, school and classroom, from poverty to health issues to class size, to use one year’s test scores as reliable indicator of student success, much less the success of their teachers.

The Chancellor of the Board of Regents, Merryl Tisch, and the New York State Commissioner of Education, David Steiner, have both said that the current state tests are in effect a broken measurement tool.  Preliminary results comparing the state math scores to the most reliable national test have raised grave questions about their reliability of the state tests, and our members know that the focus on these tests has led to a misguided “teach to the test” approach rather than system-wide academic improvement. In addition, the DOE’s school progress reports, based on the state tests, are highly flawed and questioned by everyone.

We have been working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create a valid, credible and measurable process that would capture the complexities of classroom teaching.  Chancellor Klein was supposed to be our partner in this potentially much more effective approach.

The real problems: At a time when the economy has decimated our city and state budgets, it was the UFT that sounded the alarm about schools being harmed by education budget cuts at the opening of the academic year.  We were the ones who rallied parents, education advocates and community organizations in a successful effort that stopped midyear reductions that would have cut services that schools and children are already receiving this year.

The members of the United Federation of Teachers have always been willing to work constructively with anyone who seeks to improve our schools and help children learn.  But we will fight — with all the resources at our command — anyone whose policies will damage the schools and the children of this city.

Sincerely,

Michael Mulgrew

President

From David Cantor:

“The mayor put forward bold proposals to help New York City win President Obama’s Race to the Top competition, which will provide badly needed funds for our schools and students. While reforming some of these failed practices may make some of our partners uncomfortable, we need to do everything we can to draw down these dollars for the city’s school children.”

Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”

reunion

Jubilation, and some confusion, as Denver schools begin their post-strike recovery

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Lupe Lopez-Montoya greets students at Columbian Elementary School on Thursday after Denver's three-day teacher strike.

Lupe Lopez-Montoya got the text message at 6:15 a.m. The strike was over, the colleague who’d been keeping her up to speed on news from her union told her.

And so as district and teachers union officials celebrated their deal at the Denver Public Library, Lopez-Montoya on Thursday resurrected her regular commute to Columbia Elementary School, the northwest Denver school where she’s the longest-serving tenured teacher.

For the past three days, Lopez-Montoya had stayed out of school as Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association sparred over how teachers in Denver are paid. She still had unanswered questions about the future. But first, it was time to greet students.

One girl ran across the sidewalk to give a hug. “Ms. Montoya’s back,” she shouted, burying her face in the teacher’s side.

Lopez-Montoya began to welcome students into the building. “Line up and you can go get breakfast,” she told one boy. “I’m happy you’re here today.”

The moment kicked off what was a not-quite-normal day in Denver schools. With a deal coming just an hour before some schools were due to start for the day, teachers and families had little time to adjust their plans. The district also had too little time to reopen early childhood classes that have been closed all week; those will reopen on Friday, officials said.

Building principals got an email around 7 a.m. telling them that the strike was over and that many teachers would be coming back to work. In some buildings, central office staff and substitutes who had been filling in for teachers were already on site when teachers returned to work. And some students who commute long distances didn’t get the word in time to go to schools.

By early afternoon, about 81 percent of teachers in district-run schools had shown up to work, and about 83 percent of students had, according to Denver school district spokesman Will Jones.

In the parking lot outside Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, a west Denver elementary school, teachers still clad in the red of their cause gathered in the parking lot to walk in together. Asked what the mood was, reading intervention teacher Denise Saiz said, “Relief!” and her colleagues responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

“We’re really excited to get back to the kids,” said fifth grade teacher Emily Mimovich.

While strike participation was high at the school — it was founded with support from the state and local union as a teacher-led school — the teachers said they did not believe there would be hard feelings between those who walked and those who didn’t.

“We have such a good relationship,” said Reyes Navarro, who teaches Spanish to kindergarten and first-grade students. “We understand that you have to do whatever is right for you.”

Parents also said they were eager to have their children get back to school.

Sarah Murphy, who has a third-grader and a 4-year-old preschool student, said this morning was a “bit of a scramble, albeit a welcome one.” She had both children signed up for a day camp at the University of Denver and was unsure if she should send them to school or to camp because she wasn’t sure teachers would be back at school. Then she got word that camp was canceled for both children — but Denver Public Schools preschools are still closed.

“We were left trying to figure out what to do with our ECE4 since they were still closed,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “We know how hard this has been on everyone, but this morning proved that the ECE program was the hardest hit, short notice every step of the way. We very much look forward to tomorrow when both are back in their normal school routines.”

Not everyone returned to school. Some teachers said they needed a day to collect themselves after an emotional experience. Judy Kelley, a visual arts teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, said she and many of her colleagues live too far away from the school to get there on short notice.

But the majority of teachers who went back to work Thursday describe positive experiences returning to their schools. Ryan Marini, a social studies teacher and football coach at South High School, called it the “best day” in 17 years of teaching.

Suzanne Hernandez, a first-grade teacher at Westerly Creek Elementary in Stapleton, said she and other teachers gathered to walk into school together at 7:45 a.m.

Teachers thanked the subs from central office who were in the building. They headed back to their roles in central offices.

Early in the morning, Hernandez sent a message to her students’ parents to let them know teachers would be back in school. The reaction from students as she greeted them was “overwhelming,” she said.

With the help of paraprofessionals who had prepared lessons, Hernandez said teachers were able to jump right back to where they left off last week.

As far as Valentine’s Day, that celebration will be pushed back until Friday afternoon, she said. For now, teachers are having their own celebration, happy to be back in the classroom.

“I think if there’s any sort of effect from the strike, it’s been a positive one,” she said. “It’s been a very unifying experience.”

Allison Hicks, a teacher at Colfax Elementary, said returning teachers were greeted with hugs, music, smiles and tears.

“After finding out an hour ago we were going back to work, I scrambled home to get ready,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “I am exhausted, but so excited to be back with my students. This day won’t be normal, but knowing I did my part to put my students first is the best feeling to have.”

Kade Orlandini, who teaches at John F. Kennedy High School, said most of the teachers are back in her building, despite the short notice.

“Teachers were ready, and we are jumping right back into instruction,” she wrote. “Attendance seems lower than normal, but students who are here are ready to learn. The atmosphere in the school is very positive all around.”

What was your experience going back to school? What other questions do you have? Take our survey

Chalkbeat’s Ann Schimke, Erica Meltzer, and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this article.