Deep Thaw

Principals can now hire new teachers in most subjects, ending five-year freeze

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Principals can now hire new teachers in almost every subject area and grade, officials said this week, effectively ending a half-decade hiring freeze that cut costs by shrinking the labor force but also frustrated would-be teachers and accompanied growing class sizes.

Another signal of the city’s rebound from the depths of the recession, the hiring thaw should slow a five-year decline in the number of city teachers but will also mean new competition for educators already in the system who have struggled to find placements.

The new policy reverses rules the city enacted in 2009 that permitted principals to fill vacancies only with teachers already on the city payroll, except in select high-demand areas like special education or science. It also bolsters Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s pledge to re-empower principals and to boost the arts and support services in schools, since art teachers and guidance counselors have been removed from the restricted list.

Now principals are free to hire new teachers in English, social studies, health, foreign languages, and other subjects, along with school psychologists, social workers, and librarians, as staffing begins for next school year.

“That’s a wonderful thing,” said Serapha Cruz, principal of M.S. 331 in the Bronx. She said her school takes in talented student teachers every year who cannot always be hired because of the restrictions.

“That’s who we want to hire because they can hit the ground running,” Cruz said. “Now we’ll be able to do that.”

Still, the city is taking steps to control costs even as the restrictions are eased.

To prevent schools from replacing lots of existing staff members with new hires, which could cause the city’s payroll to balloon, any effort to displace current employees must pass a “strict review,” principals were told this week. Assistant principals and parent coordinators in particular cannot be “excessed” this year, city officials said. And the officials are urging school leaders not to overlook teachers in the system just because they can now hire outside it.

“Because we have more flexibility in hiring, that should not be seen as an opportunity to rush out and hire all new people right away,” Larry Becker, the Department of Education’s human resources chief, told principals in a webcast this week.

Cautioning principals not to remove too many staff members, Becker added that the new flexibility “is contingent on the overall number of excessed teachers” and could be curtailed at any time. Also, schools still cannot hire new paraprofessionals, school aides, secretaries, or teachers in a few areas, including home economics and vocational courses.

Former Chancellor Joel Klein instituted the hiring freeze amidst budget cuts brought on by the financial downturn. By limiting hires to existing department employees, the city was able to shrink its payroll as teachers retired or left the system while avoiding layoffs. The policy was also intended to drain the expanding pool of teachers who had lost their permanent positions — often because the city was closing their schools — but kept earning salaries.

That absent teacher reserve pool has shed about 700 teachers since 2009, and there are about 5,000 fewer total teachers in the system than before the freeze, even as the rate of educators leaving their posts has slowed. At the same time, class sizes have climbed steadily over the past five years.

The hiring freeze was never absolute and has become less restrictive over time. The city has allowed schools to hire teachers of certain subjects if demand was high and the number of qualified teachers in the excessed pool was low. New schools and those in hard-to-staff areas also faced fewer hiring restrictions, and some principals reportedly sidestepped the rules by filling vacancies with long-term substitutes or hiring teachers for non-restricted grades or subjects and then placing them in other classes.

The new hiring policy is likely to pose a challenge to the pool of 1,200 teachers without full-time positions. As of last spring, nearly 60 percent of teachers in the absent teacher reserve had been in the pool for two or more years. The new competition may make it even harder for those ATR teachers seeking permanent placements to get hired.

Here is the full list of teachers that can now be hired from outside the school system and those that still cannot:

Permitted:
· Special education
· Speech
· Sciences
· Mathematics
· English
· Social studies
· Common branches
· Early childhood and middle school generalist
· Bilingual (all of the above licenses)
· English as a second language
· Physical education and health
· Arts licenses including visual arts, music, theater and dance
· Most foreign languages including Spanish, Chinese, Latin and French
· Guidance counselor
· School social worker
· Librarian
· School psychologist

Restricted:
· Reading
· Business licenses including accounting, business practices, and distributive education
· Typing and stenography
· Home economics
· Most vocational licenses
· Attendance
· Paraprofessional
· School Aide
· School Secretary
· Community-series titles

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.