draining the pool

New York City’s Absent Teacher Reserve could get pricier as teachers collect raises, bonuses

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

The controversial Absent Teacher Reserve is set to become even more expensive for New York City as educators in the pool build years of experience and earn bonuses.

That’s according to a report released Thursday by the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission, which estimates the reserve will cost $136 million this school year.

The reserve is comprised of teachers who don’t have a permanent position because their schools were closed, or because they face legal or disciplinary problems. Many serve as roving substitute but others do deskwork or administrative tasks — or, critics say, nothing at all — while collecting a full salary.

The commission dug into the costs of the reserve just as the city’s contract with the United Federation of Teachers is set to expire in November, and the report adds to calls for the city to negotiate major changes regarding teachers in the pool.

“We as taxpayers have to ask: Are we going to ensure their payment and job protection indefinitely?” said Maria Doulis, Vice President of the Commission. “I think, for most people, that answer is no.”

But that is easier said than done, with the union fighting hard to keep job protections for its teachers. In response to the report, a UFT spokeswoman said that the commission should be “checking its numbers” and argued the reserve actually saves the Department of Education money.

“Teachers are assigned to schools to replace other teachers out on medical or other leave, which allows the DOE to save tens of millions of dollars each year on the cost of hiring long-term substitutes,” the union said in an emailed statement.

Here are highlights from the commission’s report.

The average ATR is more experienced and earns a higher salary than other teachers.

Teachers in the reserve have an average of 18 years of experience and earn a salary of $98,126, according to the committee. Across the system, teachers are slightly less experienced, with about 10 years in the classroom, and make $84,108.

The report finds that paychecks have increased for teachers in the reserve, compared with city figures that were released in summer 2017. Ana Champeny, who oversees city budget analyses for the committee and authored the ATR report, said that’s likely because educators continue to collect salary boosts and bonuses just like any other teacher.

“That’s increasing the cost to the city,” she said. “And it’ll get even more expensive as more raises are awarded.”

In the meantime, a 3 percent salary increase goes into effect this week, under the terms of the city’s current contract with the UFT. With the boost, educators with 18 years of service will earn an extra $14,084 total.

Still, the commission’s report found that the Absent Teacher Reserve overall will cost less than previous years. Figures from the Independent Budget Office show that the city spent almost $152 million on the pool in the 2016-17 school year — $16 million more than this year’s estimate. The reduction could be because there are about 100 fewer educators in the reserve this year compared with Oct. 2016.

The city has saved millions through efforts to drain the reserve.

The reserve was created under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a bid to give principals more control to hire their own staff, scuttling union rules that previously allowed senior teachers who were laid off by their current school to transfer into new positions.

At the beginning of this school year, the budget committee found that 1,202 teachers were in the reserve. Current Mayor Bill de Blasio has tried to cut the pool in half, partially by offering severance payments to entice teachers to leave the system.

Many teachers took a deal offered this year: A lump sum payment of $50,000. The commission found that 170 teachers opted for the buyouts — costing the city $8.5 million. Still, the city will save $23 million a year by offering the payments, according to the report.

The de Blasio administration has tried to drain the reserve in other ways, such as by offering budget incentives to principals who hire from the pool, or placing reserve educators into schools even without principal approval. The latter effort has been controversial — with some principals vowing to hide vacant positions — and not nearly as effective as the city had hoped.

While officials had planned to place 400 teachers from the pool into permanent positions, only 75 openings were filled with reserve teachers. That will generate $7 million in savings by 2020, according to the commission.

But the city should negotiate more substantial changes, the commission argues.

Cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C., have managed to tamp down on some teacher seniority rights that critics say make it difficult to lower the number of teachers in the reserve. Both cities limit the amount of time a teacher can remain on the payroll while looking for a permanent job.

The commission said New York City should fight for similar measures, and cap a teacher’s stint in the reserve to six months. Past and present administrations have struggled to strike an agreement with the union that would significantly weaken job protections for teachers, but Doulis said that the reserve is likely a priority on the city’s agenda as the two sides hash out an agreement.

“How you get to compromise and work out a solution, that’s a different story,” she said. “But I do think it’s something that will be discussed.”

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”