draining the pool

NYC’s plan to place teachers from its Absent Teacher Reserve pool could take a bite out of school budgets

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
StudentsFirstNY staged a protest outside the mayor's gym last week to protest the new policy.

When city officials announced a plan to place hundreds of teachers without permanent positions into classroom vacancies this fall, an immediate question arose: Could schools afford them?

That’s a critical question because the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve, has historically been made up of teachers who are more senior than average, and therefore more expensive. Some principals say that makes an already bitter pill — having a teacher they didn’t choose — even tougher to swallow.

What we do know: Under the new policy, schools will incur the full cost of the new hires, without incentives the city has provided in the past.

And over the last school year, these teachers cost the city a total of $151.6 million, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. That means, on average, each of the 1,304 teachers in the pool last fall received $116,258 in salary and fringe benefits. By comparison, the base salary for a city teacher is $54,000. The city has said that roughly 400 teachers would be placed into open slots this fall.

“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.”

Per city policy, a school’s budget for staff is based on its number of teachers and the average of their salaries. During a new hire’s first year, his or her salary isn’t factored into the school’s average teacher salary. But after that year, it is. Since a school’s budget is capped based on the number and type of students it serves, if a school’s average salary goes up, principals could be forced to cut from other parts of their budgets to fund personnel.

“If you hire a senior person, the first year, you have no effect, but the second year that affects your average,” said Mark Cannizzaro, executive vice president of the city’s principals union. “So it does catch up to you.”

But Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, isn’t buying it. “Principals have historically exaggerated the impact on their school budget of hiring someone from the ATR pool,” he said in a statement. “We have found the impact of hiring a more experienced teacher, whether from the open market or the ATR pool, does not derail a school budget.”

Ironically, this is an issue the UFT set out to tackle in its 2014 contract with the Department of Education. A provision in the contract states that schools that hire an ATR teacher would not have that teacher’s salary included in the school’s average teacher salary calculation. That agreement stood for both the 2015–16 and 2016–17 school years.

“Principals no longer have a reason to pass over more senior educators in favor of newer hires with lower salaries,” the UFT promised in a statement on the 2014 contract posted online.

During the 2016–17 school year, the DOE also offered two options for subsidizing the salaries of ATR members. The first subsidized the costs of permanent ATR hires by 50 percent the first year and 25 percent the next. The second allowed principals to have the full cost of the teacher’s salary subsidized for the 2016–17 year. Ultimately, a total of 372 teachers were hired with those incentives last year.

But starting in the upcoming school year, neither of those policies will be in place. Schools will not receive the incentives and the salaries of ATR teachers will be included in a school’s average teacher salary once they are permanently hired.

The UFT declined to comment on the apparent flip-flop, and neither the UFT nor the city’s Department of Education could estimate the average number of years of experience of teachers in the pool.

According to city education department officials, the majority of most schools’ budgets can be used at principals’ discretion. For example, principals can choose to hire more newly minted teachers, or a smaller number of veteran teachers. Or, they can hire fewer teachers overall and use the remaining money on things such as professional development or after-school programs, the officials said.

But critics say forced placement of teachers takes some of that freedom away from principals. Multiple principals said that, because new hires do not alter a school’s budget until the second year, some of their peers might be tempted to rate ATRs placed into their school “ineffective” so as to not have to hire them permanently and cause their average teacher salary to rise.

Under the city’s new policy, ATR teachers placed by the city only become permanent hires if they are given a “highly effective” or “effective” rating in the observation portion of their evaluation at the end of their first year in a school.

At the very least, one Bronx principal said, he’d be wary of the hire. “If someone automatically puts an ATR into my school,” he said, “I would go in there and observe them quite a bit.”

City education officials said it isn’t so easy to rig an evaluation since it relies on a “well-defined rubric based on evidence.” In general, they noted, budget concerns are likely misplaced.

“The number and salary of teachers at a given school changes significantly as schools do regular hiring from year to year,” said one official. “We work with schools to ensure they have the budget to fund the teachers they hire.”

grant money

Denver charter Compass Academy wins $2.5 million to “reimagine high school”

PHOTO: Courtesy Compass Academy

A Denver charter middle school devoted to bilingualism and founded with help from City Year, an AmeriCorps program that deploys young adults to mentor and tutor at-risk students, has won a $2.5 million grant to help design and launch an innovative high school model.

The money is from the XQ Institute’s Super School Project, an initiative backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple’s Steve Jobs. XQ aims to “reimagine high school” by funding novel ideas. Last year, it gave $10 million each to 10 schools across the country.

Compass Academy in southwest Denver applied for one of those big grants. It didn’t win, but XQ gave the school a second look as part of an effort to bring more diversity in geography and school type to its “super schools,” said Monica Martinez, senior school support strategist for the California-based XQ. Compass will receive $2.5 million over the next five years.

“Their idea stood out to us,” Martinez said.

That idea is to pair personalized, community-based learning — dance classes at local studios, science classes at local hospitals — with the type of social and emotional support City Year corps members provide, such as checking in with kids who were absent the day before.

“There’s joy and love in this building,” said executive director Marcia Fulton. Compass students, she said, “feel that somebody understands, and they feel worth.”

Compass also aims to have every student graduate with a seal of biliteracy, a new credential that proves to colleges and employers they can communicate in at least two languages. That goal, Fulton said, was born of a desire expressed by families in the community.

The school opened in 2015 with just sixth grade. When classes begin again next week, Compass will be a full middle school with more than 300 students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Last year, 98 percent of students were students of color, 96 percent were eligible for subsidized lunch and 64 percent were English language learners.

Academically, Compass has struggled. Its first year, 14 percent of sixth-graders met or exceeded expectations on state math tests and just 8 percent met that bar in English. The school’s academic growth scores, which measure how much students learned in a year compared to their academic peers, also lagged behind school district averages.

XQ didn’t take the school’s test scores into account, Martinez said. The XQ grants, she said, “are based on a vision and an idea, and Compass was the same way.”

Fulton said the school “did not land where we wanted to land” on the state tests. But she said Compass has made shifts in its scheduling, staffing and approach that she hopes will drive higher academic achievement going forward. The school is currently rated “red,” the lowest category in Denver Public Schools’ color-coded school rating system.

“When you’re lifting up so many powerful components of design, it takes time,” Fulton said. “The funding is about an acknowledgement of the path we’re on. … We are being supported to say, ‘Keep doing what we know is important for all learners in the community.’”

Compass’s charter is for sixth through 12th grade. But Compass does not yet have a building for its high school. The Denver school board voted in 2015 to place Compass’s middle school in underutilized space on the Lincoln High School campus, a controversial decision that drew intense pushback from some Lincoln students, parents and teachers.

Compass has not asked DPS for space for its high school. In fact, Fulton said, the Compass board of directors has not yet decided when the high school will open. She said the board is “committed to identifying and investing in a private facility.”

Earlier this week, 13-year-old student Davonte Ford was at Compass, helping teachers set up their classrooms before the start of school. The rising eighth-grader came to Compass last year from a school where he said he “used to get in a lot of physical altercations.”

“I used to get frustrated sometimes,” he said. “If I got frustrated, I had no one to talk to.”

But at Compass, Ford said, it’s different.

“At this school,” he said, “I have someone to help me.”

mental health matters

Mental health services in Manhattan schools are ‘falling short,’ says report from borough president

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty / © 2013

Mental health services in Manhattan schools provide only a “patchwork” of care that is “falling short” of what students and educators need, according to a report released Wednesday by Borough President Gale Brewer.

Almost 237,000 New York City children under the age of 18 have a diagnosable mental health condition, according to Citizen’s Committee for Children of New York. In schools, mental health services are provided to students in a range of ways, including via school social workers, on-site clinics and mental health consultants.

But too often, the report notes, these services are inadequate.

“Our school mental health system, if you can call it that, is a quilt of mismatched pieces slapped together to do more with less,” Brewer said in an emailed statement.

More than 100 of the borough’s 307 public schools, the report notes, have no mental health services other than consultants provided through ThriveNYC, an initiative started by New York City’s first lady, Chirlane McCray. The consultants are licensed social workers who are supposed help schools assess their mental health needs and connect them with community organizations that can meet those needs.

Yet many counselors and assistant principals interviewed for the report didn’t even know their schools had been assigned a mental health consultant through the program. Others said the training and resources the consultants provided for staff were “a waste of time.”

The city has paid for 100 consultants over the last two years, but these mental health professionals may be stretched too thin, the report notes. Each is assigned to up to 10 campuses and can serve as many as 8,000 students.

“Staff in multiple schools expressed that the mental health consultant’s impact was minimal and that the resources they provided could have easily been found online,” the report notes.

Social workers also face heavy loads. In Manhattan, there is one social worker for every 800 students, the report calculates. Citywide, the ratio is one for every 900 students. But social workers are mostly funded through money set aside for students with special needs and often can’t adequately serve the general school population. In some needy neighborhoods, the education department provides additional counselors through its Single Shepherd initiative.

School-based health clinics, meanwhile, are facing budget cuts due to changes in how they are funded.

In an emailed statement, the education department disputed some of the study’s findings. Spokesman Michael Aciman wrote that evaluations of school sites show that not every campus needs a dedicated mental health clinic, and the current system allows targeted supports where and when they’re necessary.

“Under this administration, we have made unprecedented investments in mental health resources and, for the first time, made mental health supports and services available to every city school,” Aciman wrote. “We know kids can’t learn if they are facing an unaddressed mental health challenge.”

The borough president’s report calls on the city to change the way social workers are funded, waive certain permit fees for school-based health clinics and study the effectiveness of ThriveNYC in schools. At the state level, the report recommends changes in the way clinics are funded and how they bill for services.