view from inside

‘They talk about you like you’re furniture.’ Three teachers on what it’s like to be in the Absent Teacher Reserve.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / William J Sisti

Fighting to get hired. Teaching subjects they aren’t trained in. Feeling disrespected and stigmatized.

Members of New York City’s pool of unassigned teachers say there’s a lot that people don’t understand about their situation. Though there are about 800 educators currently in the Absent Teacher Reserve, their voice is rarely included in public debate over what to do about the $152 million pool.

The education department recently released figures that shed some light on who is in the ATR, and the numbers could fuel critics who say it’s full of undesirable teachers. About a third of educators entered the pool because of disciplinary or legal reasons, and they are more likely to be poorly rated than teachers citywide, according to city data.

But those figures don’t speak to the day-to-day experience of educators who travel between schools without a permanent position.

Chalkbeat spoke with three teachers to learn what it’s like to be in the much-maligned pool. Here are their stories.

“I do think it’s hopeless.”

Deborah Williams was a literacy coach working with teachers at two schools — one in the Bronx and one in Manhattan. But Williams felt she lacked the support and cooperation she needed from the principals she worked with. She wanted to go back into the classroom as a reading teacher.

Deborah Willliams

Instead, she was unable to find another position and wound up in the ATR pool. That was in 2006. Now, with 25 years of experience and a $110,000 salary, Williams said her relatively high pay makes it impossible to get hired permanently.

“The principals don’t even respond. It’s moot,” she said.

While she feels most qualified to work in early grades, Williams has taught high school English, bilingual students and even trigonometry. Williams said she spent five years at one elementary school teaching reading as an ATR. She pulled students out of class to work one-on-one and coached other teachers.

“I loved it there,” she said. The principal “treated me no differently than any other teacher.”

But Williams said the principal didn’t want to take on her salary, so she was never permanently hired. She still applies for jobs regularly, she said.

“I do think it’s hopeless,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll be hired because of my salary.”

Principals have balked at the cost of teachers in the ATR pool, who tend to be more senior and therefore earn more. Department figures show that teachers in the pool earn an average salary of $94,000 and have 18 years of experience with the city.

The education department recently announced it would help subsidize the salaries of teachers hired from the ATR, but only for the first two years.

‘It’s not fair to the kids and it’s not fair to the teacher.’

Leonard Robertson is a music teacher with a dozen years of experience in New York City classrooms, and multiple masters degrees in his field. None of those qualifications came in handy when he was placed in a Italian classroom last school year.

Leonard Robertson

Robertson doesn’t speak Italian. So facing a month-long assignment to teach high school students the language, Robertson turned to opera.

“How do you break it down to show children they can do this?” he asked himself. “Language has the same thing music has: Meter, it goes over time. You can do things with words.”

Robertson entered the ATR in 2013, after the music program at the Brooklyn Academy for Science and the Environment high school was cut. Since then, he has bounced from school to school, often substituting for teachers in subjects he has no experience teaching.

“It’s not fair to the kids and it’s not fair to the teacher,” he said.

Figures released by the education department show that only 74 percent of ATR teachers were rated effective, highly effective or satisfactory in 2015-16, compared to 93 percent of all city teachers. But Robertson said the evaluation system is stacked against teachers in the ATR, who are often teaching subjects outside of their expertise and given short-term assignments.

Professional development is almost nonexistent for ATR members, Robertson added. In fact, he said, teachers in the ATR are often subbing so that other teachers can go attend training sessions.

“I can’t compete if I don’t know what’s going on,” he said.

Randy Asher, the former Brooklyn Technical High School principal now tasked with helping the education department shrink the ATR, said teachers in the pool have access to trainings, often referred to as professional development or PD. But he conceded that it’s often not sustained or targeted to the teacher’s needs, since they are bounced from school to school.

“I don’t think it’s hard to get PD,” Asher said. “I think it’s hard to get constant PD on a regular basis.”

Robertson said he has received multiple “unsatisfactory” evaluations and been the subject of disciplinary complaints. But he largely attributes those to the difficulties of being in the ATR and feels he’s been unfairly targeted.

Under a new city policy, members of the ATR will be placed in year-long positions in schools that still have openings as of Oct. 15. The change will allow ATR members to engage in professional development and be evaluated by their principals, just like any other teacher in the building, Asher said.

‘They talk about you like you’re furniture.’

Kathy Perez has been teaching for more than two decades. But when she steps into New York City schools, that experience doesn’t seem to matter.

“When I go to work now, I don’t have a name. My name is ‘ATR,’” she said. “They talk about you like you’re furniture. I’ve heard conversations where I’m sitting there and they say, ‘Well, I’ve got the ATR here.’

“It’s like, ‘I’ve been in your building for a month. You can use my name.’”

Before Perez was first relegated to the ATR in 2009, she was a reading specialist in Queens. With a masters degree and certification in reading, she worked with struggling students, many of whom were still learning English. Her position was eliminated.

Perez found a new position at M.S. 72 Catherine and Count Basie in Jamaica, Queens. But Perez said she was pushed and trampled by students there, requiring surgery for her back and knee. She sued the education department and the city settled the case.

Then, Perez said, she was placed right back in the same school. She refused, and ended up back in the ATR. The stigma of being in the pool weighs on many teachers, she said, and makes it difficult to find another position.

“You’re not treated with any sense of dignity or professionalism,” Perez said. “You hear everywhere that you need to get fired and you need to just find a job. I’ll tell you something: I have a job. I go to work every day.”

Perez wants to find another position under her reading license. Otherwise, she would lose her tenure and seniority.

“I teach kids how to read, and I’m darn good at it and Iove it,” she said. “That’s where I want to be.”

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

It takes a village

Here’s why Indianapolis teachers are walking away from the opportunity to own an affordable home

PHOTO: Shelby Mullis
The Educators' Village is a two-block cluster of 22 new and restored bold-colored homes in the St. Clair Place neighborhood. Though marketed to teachers, the homes are set at below-market prices for anyone within a low- to middle-income cap.

When Jack Hesser learned about a local nonprofit’s efforts to retain and recruit teachers to Indianapolis through an affordable housing project, he saw an opportunity to buy a house in the neighborhood he serves.

“Knowing that I really wanted to buy a home in Indianapolis, I definitely wanted to be somewhere near my school and near my students,” said Hesser, a seventh-grade science teacher at Harshman Middle School. “The teachers’ village seemed like a really great opportunity.”

As soon as applications for the new housing initiative, Educators’ Village, were available, Hesser was at Near East Area Renewal’s office with his bank statements and pay stubs in hand. But, several months later, after not hearing back from the community development group, Hesser backed out.

“I wanted to move forward with purchasing a home and wasn’t getting a lot of communication back,” he said.

The aim of Educators’ Village was to provide affordable housing to teachers, who often make low salaries that prompt them to leave teaching, while revitalizing a neighborhood. But despite dozens of people applying to purchase the homes after NEAR and city officials broke ground last November, only one teacher has bought a house in the village.

At least 11 teachers, including Hesser, have pulled out of the process, either because construction has gone slower than expected or teachers found out they earn too much money to qualify for the homes. This has led some critics to wonder whether the Educators’ Village can live up to its promises.

“It’s kind of a missed opportunity in terms of the people that could’ve really utilized a program like this and could have benefitted from a program like this,” Hesser said. “Teachers so often are a big force in their communities.”

What is the Educators’ Village?

Keeping teachers in the state is a problem.

Indiana ranks among the lowest states for teacher recruitment and retention, according to a 2016 Learning Policy Institute study. Teachers cited the pressure around student performance on standardized tests, large class sizes, and starting salaries lower than the national average as reasons why they leave the profession.

Enrollment in teacher preparation programs is also declining, making it more difficult to recruit experienced educators.

The study found that teacher turnover is higher in cities than in suburban or rural districts in most regions. An average of 500 teachers leave Indianapolis Public Schools each year out of about 2,400 teachers, according to district spokeswoman Carrie Cline Black.

But the Educators’ Village is an effort to keep teachers in Indianapolis.

It was introduced in September 2017 as a partnership between Near East Area Renewal, the Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership, and the City of Indianapolis.

In his 2016 campaign for mayor, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett said he wanted to sell city-owned homes for little or no cost to teachers, in the hopes of enticing educators to stay and drawing new teachers to move to the city.

“On a lot of different levels, it checks boxes across the board,” Hogsett told Chalkbeat. “Number one, I believe that as a community, education is probably the single most important issue that will help Indianapolis get to the next level.”

Hogsett said the project rehabilitates neighborhoods, increases property and income tax revenues, and promotes teacher recruitment.

Several cities nationwide have implemented their own variation of a teachers’ village. In Newark, New Jersey, teachers can rent an apartment in a $150 million, 400,000-square-foot complex, dubbed the “Teachers Village.”

John Franklin Hay, executive director of NEAR, worked with district and city leaders to identify a cluster of homes for the Educators’ Village close to schools on the near east side. That’s when they found several unoccupied homes and lots on North Rural Street where the neighborhood had a 70 percent vacancy rate.

“Instead of a teacher not being able to find housing in the urban core where they serve, teachers locate out to suburban areas and begin the daily commute of 25 minutes to 90 minutes a day,” Hay said. “The idea would be to develop a cluster of houses that would be much closer to the schools in the school district, but would also be a really cool place to live.”

The housing development is a two-block cluster of 22 new and restored bold-colored homes in the St. Clair Place neighborhood. Though marketed to teachers, the homes are set at below-market prices for anyone within a low- to middle-income cap.

When the village is complete, nine homes starting at $136,000 will be available to anyone at 80 percent of area median income or less. For example, a single-person household is capped at $43,250.

Source: Near East Area Renewal’s income qualification restrictions. (Image by Sam Park)

“That income range is really right within particularly starting teachers — first, second, third-year teachers,” Hay said. “In Indianapolis Public Schools right now, for instance, teachers start at about $40,000, and 80 percent of area median income currently is a little over $43,000 dollars [for one person].”

The other 13 homes will be open to anyone at 120 percent of the area median income, meaning a single-person household must make $64,875 or less. Those homes range in price from $170,000 to $193,000.

Finding educators for the village

Since the application became available last fall, 34 people have applied. But so far, only one person has purchased homes in the village. NEAR did not provide additional details about the buyer.

Of the 17 teachers who applied, three are in underwriting and one is awaiting the sale of an existing home. At least 11 teachers are no longer in the process — three purchased a home elsewhere, three were denied credit, four qualified for a home but backed out, and one was approved but couldn’t afford a house, according to Hay.

Hay is confident, however, that all the homes in the Educators’ Village will sell within 90 days of being listed. He said he’d like at least one-third of homebuyers to be teachers, but is happy to welcome others to the community.

Over the last two years, Hay said NEAR has invited the district and local charter schools to buy into the project. Hay said IPS said it could not provide funding, but would consider finding a way to incentivize teachers. After several conversations with district and charter school leaders, Hay said nothing materialized.

“We are still hopeful,” he said. “We think financial incentives from school leadership will send a great signal to teachers who want to serve in the urban core, where they are so needed.”

In response, district spokeswoman Carrie Cline Black said the Educators’ Village is an incentive in itself for teachers to stay connected to the local community.

“IPS values collaboration and welcomes a formal proposal to consider additional creative ways to recruit and retain talented teachers in our learning community,” Black told Chalkbeat in an email.

The district is also facing a $45 million budget deficit next school year, which may contribute to the lack of incentives.

Facing limitations

Ronak Shah, a seventh grade science teacher at KIPP, thought the Educators’ Village would be the perfect place for him to create a space for teachers to gather and share stories and ideas.

“My goal in purchasing there was: Let me turn my garage into a space with a bar and have chalkboards and everything and invite teachers from anywhere in the city in and have social events there,” Shah told Chalkbeat.

Shah is president of Teachers Lounge Indy, an informal support group for local teachers. Teachers Lounge Indy partners with Chalkbeat on story slam events.

From the beginning, Shah said he was very upfront with NEAR about the need for a garage. In an early conversation with the organization, he learned about an company NEAR partnered with that could build a garage for free with an apartment above.

“The way they framed it, it sounded like it was guaranteed this was a possibility,” Shah said.

But because the Educators’ Village is a government-funded project, Shah said the future buyer is limited to what specifications they can request. He said those limits started being enforced.

In April, he found out the garage would no longer be an option, but said Shah could build one himself. By the beginning of May, Shah reconsidered his interest and pulled out of the process on May 2.

“I ended up having to make a lot of caveats and it ended up not being what I really wanted anyways,” Shah said. “What I really want is the space for teachers to come together, and I couldn’t have that there, which is ironic because if I could have it anywhere it should be there.”

A sense of community

While only one educator has purchased a home in the village, the initiative is still enticing to a lot of people, even those who aren’t teachers. Kelsey Wolf drives past a house in the development nearly every day on her way to and from work.

“I am in the market for a house,” said Wolf, a social worker for HealthNet Healthy Families. “I work in the community. It’s great that they’re trying to revitalize it and bring people like me who work here and give them an opportunity to own something in the community we work in.”

After touring the home and others in the neighborhood at NEAR’s June 30 open house, the former school teacher wanted to apply as soon as she could.

PHOTO: Shelby Mullis
Near East Area Renewal hosted an open house for the Educators’ Village on June 30. Several homes were open to the public to tour.

Wolf took a look at her financial situation. She recently finished school and stepped into a new career, and said she isn’t in the financial state she would prefer. Wolf met with NEAR Tuesday to learn more about the village and what her options are.

Although she’s not a teacher anymore, Wolf stills works with families on the near east side. She said sharing a community with her families will strengthen the bond they share.

“It connects all of us. It makes all of our experiences shared,” Wolf said. “It gives us an opportunity to not only work together, but live amongst each other so we can really start to form a sense of community.”