aftermath

Few hard details about 24 schools as city prepares legal action

Mayor Bloomberg speaks at a press conference this afternoon in Union Square.

The city canceled meetings with the teachers and principals unions today as its lawyers prepare to seek a restraining order against a ruling that reverses thousands of hiring decisions at 24 struggling schools.

Both the United Federation of Teachers and the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators planned to meet with city officials this afternoon to figure out what would come next for the schools, which had been slated to undergo an overhaul process called “turnaround.” The process involved radically shaking up the schools’ staffs, which total more than 3,500 people. But the arbitrator’s ruling undid all of the changes.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew said the meeting was already on his agenda by Friday afternoon, just hours after the arbitrator ruled that the city’s staffing plans for the schools violated its contracts with the unions.

A main agenda item would have been figuring out a mechanism for staff members who were not rehired at the schools to reclaim their positions. Another issue, Mulgrew said on Friday, was whether the city and unions might instead try to hash out a teacher evaluation agreement for the 24 schools so they could undergo less aggressive overhaul processes and still qualify for federal funding.

But this morning, the city told the unions that the meetings were off.

Mayor Bloomberg explained this afternoon that he thinks the city should not have to abide by the arbitrator’s ruling until the arbitrator explains his reasoning.

The arbitrator, Scott Buchheit, released only his conclusions, not the legal rationale he used to get there. That would come separately, he wrote. The city and unions agreed to fast-track the arbitration, which was binding, on the grounds that schools would be harmed if hiring decisions were not made before the end of the school year.

“I have no idea what was going through the arbitrator’s mind,” Bloomberg said after a press conference about a city greenmarket initiative.

“I can just tell you, there are 24 schools, [and] almost all students there are minorities, single-digit-proficiency levels,” Bloomberg said. “These kids, if they’re there for one more year, will never recover in their entire lives.”

City lawyers are preparing papers to present to a judge as early as this afternoon — but more likely tomorrow — that will make Bloomberg’s case.

The lawyers are not at all assured success: They will be seeking a restraining order in New York State Supreme Court, the same court that urged the city and unions into the binding arbitration in the first place. Plus, they will be asking to put on hold the results of a refereeing process the city willingly entered, with a referee that the city and union both approved.

Meanwhile, teachers at the schools are weighing their options. Any teacher who was rehired as part of the turnaround staffing process will automatically keep his or her job, and any teacher who took a job in another school for the fall can choose whether to keep that position or retake his spot at his former school, according to a message from the UFT to teachers at the schools distributed on Friday.

Teachers who weren’t rehired will be able to reclaim their spots and slide right back into the seniority rank they occupied before. Seniority will come into play if the schools lose students and must shed teachers, which contractually must be done according to the principle of “last in, first out” in each subject area.

All of the principals who were in place last week are also entitled to stay on, even if they had been told they would not return this fall. But a handful of principals who left their schools early in the turnaround planning process this winter — including Barry Fried at John Dewey High School and Anthony Cromer at August Martin High School — will not share that right, according to a principals union spokeswoman.

And staff members at the schools are worrying that even if the rehiring reversal stands, the uncertainty that has hung over the schools since last fall will not abate.

A teacher from Long Island City High School who listened in on the hearing where the city and unions agreed to arbitration said at the time that the turnaround schools would be harmed regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome. “It’s like they’re pushing Humpty Dumpty off a wall,” the teacher said. “You will have a lot of trouble putting [the schools] back together again.”

A teacher at Lehman High School said he’s moving on to another school and expects many of his former colleagues to make the same choice. “The administration and principal completely ignored the school these past few months while they planned for next year,” he said. “I believe that it is very likely that our stats went down from last year.”

Among the unanswered questions is whether the nonprofit organizations that had been working with a dozen of the schools will continue to play a role in their operations. The city had hoped to use federal School Improvement Grants to pay the groups, but the grants are almost certainly off the table because the arbitrator’s decision will mean few if any schools meet federal and state eligibility rules.

“Everyone is nervous about what happens next,” said Lisa Jimenez, a teacher at Newtown High School, which has been working with a group called Diplomas Now. “Do we need to worry about getting closed next June? Do we continue with the original plan of these schools having three years to improve?”

Big gains

No. 1: This Denver turnaround school had the highest math growth in Colorado

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
University Prep Steele Street students at a celebration of their test scores Friday.

Denver’s University Prep faced a gargantuan task last year: Turn around a school where the previous year just 7 percent of third- through fifth-graders were on grade level in math and 6 percent were on grade level in English.

On Friday morning, dozens of those students — dressed in khaki pants and button-up sweaters — clustered on the lawn to listen to officials celebrate their charter school, University Prep Steele Street, for showing the most academic growth in Colorado on last spring’s state standardized math tests.

The high-poverty school also had the eighth-highest growth on state English tests. Another Denver charter, KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy high school, had the first-highest.

“I want to say clearly to all of you that no one is ever going to tell you what you can and can’t do — ever,” University Prep founder and executive director David Singer told his students. “You’re going to remind them what you did in a single year.”

By the end of last year, 43 percent of University Prep Steele Street third- through fifth-graders were at grade level in math and 37 percent were at grade level in English, according to state tests results released Thursday.

University Prep Steele Street students scored better, on average, than 91 percent of Colorado students who had similar tests scores the year before in math and better than 84 percent of students who had similar scores in English.

As Singer noted Friday, that type of skyrocketing improvement is rare among turnaround schools in Denver and nationwide.

“This might be one of the biggest wins we’ve ever seen in our city, our state and our country of what it truly means to transform a school,” he said.

Many of the kids were previously students at Pioneer Charter School, one of the city’s first-ever charters. Founded in 1997 in northeast Denver, Pioneer had struggled academically in recent years, posting some of the lowest test scores in all of Denver Public Schools.

In 2015, Pioneer’s board of directors decided to close the school, which served students in preschool through eighth grade. University Prep, an elementary charter school a couple miles away, applied to take it over. But unlike many school turnarounds, it wouldn’t be a gradual, one-grade-at-a-time, phase-in, phase-out transition. Instead, University Prep would be responsible for teaching students in kindergarten through fifth grade on day one.

“When Pioneer Charter School became an option and we looked at our results up to that point of time and what we believed to be our capacity … we saw an opportunity,” Singer said.

A former math teacher at nearby Manual High School, which has itself been subject to several turnaround efforts, Singer started University Prep after becoming frustrated with the reality faced by many of his teenage students, who often showed up with gaps in their knowledge.

“When you walk into school at 14 or 15 and have a huge gap, the likelihood you get to be whatever you want to be is diminished,” he said.

The key to changing that, Singer realized, would be to start students on a path to success earlier. That’s why University Prep’s tagline is, “College starts in kindergarten.”

“It’s a significantly better pathway than the one of intense catch-up on the backend,” Singer said.

University Prep Arapahoe Street opened as a standalone charter school in 2010. Last year, its fourth- and fifth-graders outperformed district averages on both the English and math tests.

Several teachers and staff members from the original campus helped open Steele Street in 2016. The school started with 226 students, 89 percent of whom qualified for subsidized lunches. Ninety-seven percent were students of color and 71 percent were English language learners, more than twice the percentage in the district as a whole.

The biggest difference from the year before, Singer said, were the expectations. The work was more rigorous and there was more of it: three hours of literacy and more than 100 minutes of math each day as part of a schedule that stretched from 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Lauren Argue was one of the teachers that moved from the original campus to Steele Street. She and Singer said the other big difference was the honest feedback students received from their teachers. That included sharing with students the fact that they were several grade levels behind, and starting the year by re-teaching second-grade math to fourth-graders.

“We had conversations of, ‘Here is where you’re at,’ but also expressing our unwavering belief that, ‘By the end of the year, you will grow a tremendous amount,’” Argue said.

While those hard conversations may have been uncomfortable at first for students and their families, Argue said they embraced them once they saw the progress students were making — progress that teachers made sure to celebrate at every opportunity.

“Kids learned the joy of what it means to do hard academic work and get through to the other side,” Singer said. “That became a source of pride.”

Ten-year-old Abril Sierra attended Pioneer since preschool. This year, she’s a fifth-grader at University Prep. On Friday, she said that while at times she thought her brain might explode, it felt good to tackle harder work. She credited her teachers with helping her achieve.

“The things that changed were definitely the perspective of how the teachers see you and believe in you,” Sierra said. “…They make you feel at home. You can trust them.”

By the numbers

NYC announces it will subsidize hiring from Absent Teacher Reserve — and sheds light on who is in the pool

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Ever since the city announced a new policy for placing teachers without permanent positions into schools, Chalkbeat and others have been asking questions about just who is in the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve.

Now we have some answers.

The education department released figures on Friday that show a quarter of teachers currently in the the pool were also there five years ago, and a third ended up in the ATR because of disciplinary or legal issues. The average salary for teachers this past year was $94,000, according to the data.

The city also said it would extend budget incentives for schools that hire educators from the ATR, a change to its initial announcement. Principals have raised concerns about the cost of hiring from the ATR, since its members tend to be more senior, and therefore more expensive, than new teachers.

The ATR is comprised of teachers who don’t have regular positions, either because their jobs were eliminated or because of disciplinary issues. It cost almost $152 million in the last school year — far more than previously estimated — and currently stands at 822 teachers.

In July, the city announced a plan to cut the pool in half by placing teachers into vacancies still open after the new school year begins — even potentially over principals’ objection.

Critics have argued that the city’s new placement policy could place ineffective teachers in the neediest classrooms. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis called the move “shockingly irresponsible” in a statement.

“There are reasons why no principal has chosen to hire them and this policy is bad for kids, plain and simple,” she said.

But Randy Asher, the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School who is now responsible for helping to shrink the pool, called the new policy “a common sense approach to treating ATR teachers like all other teachers,” since they now have the opportunity to be evaluated by a school principal.

Here’s what the latest numbers tell us about who is in the pool.

How did educators end up in the Absent Teacher Reserve?

Most of the educators in the ATR were placed there because their schools had closed (38 percent) or due to budget cuts (30 percent.)

Another 32 percent entered the pool because of a legal or disciplinary case.

How effective are they?

A majority — 74 percent — received an evaluation rating of “highly effective,” “effective” or “satisfactory” in 2015-16, the most current year available. Current ratings for teachers citywide were not immediately available, but in 2014-15, 93 percent of teachers overall were rated effective or highly effective, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Twelve percent of teachers in the pool received an “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” rating in 2015-16, and about 7 percent received a “developing” rating, one step up from ineffective.

Some teachers in the ATR say evaluations can be unfair since teachers are often placed in classrooms outside of the subjects they are equipped to teach and because they are bounced between classrooms.

Asked whether teachers with poor ratings would be placed in classrooms, Asher said “all” teachers in the ATR have traditionally been placed in school assignments.

“They’re in schools, no matter what. It’s a question of what is their role in the school, and how are they supported and evaluated,” he said. “Obviously we will look at each individual teacher and each individual assignment on a case-by-case basis.”

How experienced are they?

Teachers in the ATR have an average of 18 years of experience with the education department, and earn an average salary of $94,000. By comparison, the base salary for a New York City teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000.

How long have they been in the pool?

Almost half the educators who are currently in the pool were also there two years ago. A quarter were in the ATR five years ago. That doesn’t mean that teachers have remained in the ATR for that entire time. They could have been hired for a time, and returned to the pool.

Still, the figures could be fuel for those who argue educators in the ATR either aren’t seriously looking for permanent jobs — or that the educators in the pool are simply undesirable hires.

How will schools pay for them?

Teachers in the ATR have argued that their higher salaries are one reason principals avoid hiring them — a concern that principals voiced in a recent Chalkbeat report.

“This is part of the injustice of the ATR placement,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “Schools might not want them and they will cost schools more in the future, taking away from other budget priorities.”

Under the policy announced Friday, the education department will subsidize the cost of ATRs who are permanently hired, paying 50 percent of their salaries next school year and 25 percent the following school year.

Where have they worked previously?

This question is important because the answer gives a sense of where educators in the ATR are likely to be placed this fall. The education department’s original policy called for an educator to be placed within the same district they left, but the change announced in July allowed for placement anywhere within the same borough.

Almost half of ATR members, as of June 2016-17, came from high schools. That isn’t surprising: Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein targeted large high schools for closure, breaking them up into smaller schools as part of a turnaround strategy.

Of the school districts serving K- 8 students, District 19 in Brooklyn’s East New York and District 24 in Queens had among the most educators in the ATR. Each had 26.

What subjects do they teach?

The largest share of teachers in the ATR — 27 percent — are licensed to teach in early childhood or elementary school grades. Another 11 percent are licensed social studies teachers, 9 percent are math teachers and 8 percent are English teachers.

Questions have been raised in the past about whether the teachers in the pool had skills that were too narrow or out of date. A 2010 Chalkbeat story found that a quarter of teachers then in the pool were licensed to teach relatively obscure classes like swimming, jewelry-making and accounting.