state of the union

Teachers at city's first charter school vote to unionize

The teachers union has struck another blow to Victory Schools, a for-profit management group that has bitterly clashed with the union.

All but one of the 28 teachers and other instructional staff at the Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem, which is run by Victory, signed union authorization cards and told the school’s principal and board they intend to unionize yesterday.

Victory operates nine charters in New York City; Sisulu-Walker is the third to try to unionize. The United Federation of Teachers has accused Victory of overcharging its schools for compliance and back-office work while underpaying its teachers and scrimping on class supplies and building maintenance.

Last summer, the union waged a battle with another of Victory’s unionized schools, Merrick Academy, after the school fired 11 staff members, notifying them by Fed-Ex. Three of those teachers were re-hired in September in an agreement with the union. The UFT has also never reached a contract agreement with Merrick’s board since teachers there voted to unionize in 2007.

And Victory’s other unionized school, the New York City Charter High School for Architecture, Engineering and Construction Industries, has also been plagued with problems. Teachers’ request to unionize there is currently in contract negotiations, and the school’s founder has been charged with embezzling from a non-profit company.

The UFT currently represents teachers at 14 other city charter schools.

Sisulu-Walker opened in September 1999 as the city’s first charter school; Victory partnered with a group of Harlem activists, including State Senator Bill Perkins, who has become one of the charter school movement’s most vocal critics.

The school has struggled academically. The school received the 15th-lowest score on this year’s city progress report cards, ranking in the bottom one percent of all schools. Though the school received a “C” on the report card, it received “F’ grades in the school environment and progress categories.  And on a city survey of the school’s teachers (pdf) last year, most of the school’s teachers reported problems with order and discipline.

Teachers at Harlem charter school join the UFT

Sisulu-Walker Charter School educators seek professional voice in their school and a collaborative working environment

Teachers and staff at the Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem announced yesterday that they have decided to join the United Federation of Teachers.

Of the 28 teachers and other pedagogical staff at the school, 27 have signed union authorization cards to indicate their support for creating a UFT chapter at the school.

In letters given to the school’s principal and Board of Trustees, the teachers’ organizing committee explained that they were seeking “recognition of the teaching and professional staff as respected partners” in carrying out Sisulu Walker’s educational mission and expressed a “sincere hope” that both the principal and the trustees would “react positively to our decision, acknowledging the benefits of a strong and stable staff and committing to work with us through the remaining steps of this process.”

The UFT filed a formal petition today with Sisulu-Walker’s board of trustees, and notified the state’s Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) that Sisulu-Walker teachers are seeking union recognition. If Sisulu-Walker’s board does not recognize the union as the bargaining representative within 30 days, the UFT can ask PERB to certify the bargaining unit on the basis of the authorization cards.

“Teachers get into this profession because they care about giving students an excellent education. To do their jobs effectively, they need both support from their school and a professional voice,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “By taking this step, the Sisulu Walker teachers have shown that they are committed to creating the best learning environment that they possibly can for their students. We are proud to welcome them into the UFT.”

“We took this step to ensure that classroom teachers will have a real, professional voice in the decisions that affect the quality of our students’ education,” said Sisulu-Walker teacher Shaquira De La Cruz.

Sisulu-Walker teacher Doris Fleming said “I’m proud to join with my colleagues in seeking to guarantee the collaborative working conditions that we need to make Sisulu Walker an excellent learning environment for the kids.”

The UFT operates two unionized charter schools, and co-operates a third in collaboration with Green Dot, a successful and teacher-friendly charter school management company. The UFT also represents educators at eleven other charter schools in New York City.

The Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem opened in the fall of 1999, as one of the first three charter schools in New York State. It currently serves approximately 250 students in grades K through 5.

The school’s mission is to offer “rigorous and challenging academic curricula taught by a highly-prepared and committed cadre of professional educators.” The school day has extended hours, and students also attend programs on the weekends and during the summer. The school is located at 125 West 115th Street in Harlem.

Sisulu-Walker is run by Victory Schools, a for-profit educational management company based in New York City.

Counselor Comeback

Years after laying them off, Newark brings back attendance workers to track down absent students

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Superintendent Roger León (center) with more than 40 new attendance counselors the district has hired.

A new school-attendance squad is on the job in Newark, ready to phone families and track down truant students.

More than 40 new attendance counselors and truancy officers made their official debut this week — part of a campaign by Superintendent Roger León to curb rampant absenteeism in the district. The linchpin of León’s approach is the rehiring of the attendance workers, who were laid off nearly six years ago amid questions about their effectiveness.

The employees — some new and some returning — will help craft school attendance plans, contact families, and bring truant students back to class with the help of Newark police officers.

They have their work cut out for them: Nearly a quarter of students have already missed about two weeks or more of school since September, according to district officials.

In his drive to boost attendance, León also launched a back-to-school campaign last fall and eliminated some early-dismissal days when students tend to skip class. At a school board meeting Tuesday, León said those efforts have resulted in fewer “chronically absent” students who miss 10 percent or more of school days for any reason. So far this school year, 23 percent of students are chronically absent, down from 30.5 percent during the same period the previous school year, he said.

“Right now, we’re in a really, really good place,” León told the board. “Having hired these attendance officers will get us where we need to go.”

A long to-do list awaits the attendance workers, who will earn between $53,000 and $95,531, according to a district job posting. They will create daily attendance reports for schools, call or visit families of absent students, and make sure students who are frequently out of school start showing up on time.

They will also be tasked with enforcing the state’s truancy laws, which authorize attendance officers to arrest “habitually truant” students and allow their parents or guardians to be fined. Newark’s attendance counselors will gather evidence for potential legal actions, deliver legal notices to students’ homes, and appear in court “when required,” according to the job posting.

The district is also establishing a new “truancy task force” to track down truant students, as required by state law. The task force will include both district employees and police officers who will patrol the streets searching for truants to transport back to school.

The teams will be “going up and down every one of our corridors and getting kids in school,” León said Tuesday, adding that they will eventually be provided buses.

Criminal-justice reform advocates across the country have criticized state laws, like New Jersey’s, which criminalize truancy. As a result of such laws, parents can face fines or even jail time and students can be put on probation or removed from their homes. Meanwhile, a 2011 study found that truant students who faced legal action were more likely to earn lower grades and drop out of school than truant students who did not face those sanctions.

While truancy laws may be on the books, districts have discretion in how they enforce them.

Peter Chen, a policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, has studied absenteeism in Newark and said he did not know how the district’s new attendance workers would carry out the law. But he cautioned against “punitive strategies,” such as issuing court summonses or suspending frequently absent students, which can temporarily boost attendance but eventually drive students further away from school.

“Once the school is viewed as the enemy, as somebody who is out to get the student, it’s incredibly difficult to rebuild a trusting relationship,” he said. “And what we see time and again is that a trusting relationship between a school and a family or student is a critical component to building a school-wide attendance strategy that works.”

Superintendent León declined to be interviewed after Tuesday’s board meeting, saying he would answer written questions. As of Wednesday evening, he had not responded to those questions.

At the meeting, he did not rule out the possibility of the district’s truancy officers making arrests. But he said the police officers’ job was not to arrest truant students, only to protect the attendance workers.

“I need to make sure that any staff members that we hire are safe,” he said.

In 2013, then-Superintendent Cami Anderson laid off all 46 of the district’s attendance counselors. She attributed the decision to budget constraints and limited evidence that the counselors had improved attendance.

The district shifted the counselors’ responsibilities to school-based teams that included administrators, social workers, and teachers. Critics said the district was expecting schools to do more with less, and the Newark Teachers Union — which had represented the attendance counselors — fought the layoffs in court. An administrative law judge sided with the union, but then-State Education Commissioner David Hespe later overturned the decision.

León, who became superintendent in July, promised to promptly restore the attendance counselors. However, his plans were delayed by a legal requirement that the district first offer the new jobs to the laid-off counselors, some of whom had moved out of state. By the beginning of February, all the positions had been filled and, on Friday, León held a roughly 90-minute meeting with the new attendance team.

To create lasting attendance gains, experts advise schools to consider every aspect of what they do — their discipline policies, the emotional support they provide students, the quality of teaching, and the relationship between staffers and families. Simply outsourcing attendance to designated employees will not work, they warn.

Superintendent León appears to agree. In an interview last year, he said he expects all school employees to join in the work of improving attendance.

“The last thing that needs to happen is for people to walk away saying, ‘Oh, attendance is going to be solved because now we have the attendance counselors,’” León said. “No, everyone has to worry about attendance.”

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.”