Roll call!

Why some Tennessee students skipped school for ‘A Day Without Immigrants’

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students mill outside of Kingsbury High School in this 2016 photo. Kingsbury serves a significant number of immigrant students in Memphis, and many participated Thursday in nationwide protests to highlight what “A Day Without Immigrants" is like.

Daniel Casas said he stayed home from school Thursday to show Memphis what life would be like without immigrants.

A senior at Kingsbury High School, Casas was among hundreds of students across Tennessee who joined “A Day Without Immigrants,” a nationwide boycott organized in response to President Trump’s crackdown on immigration. His family and many of his friends participated too.

“We want to show that we make a difference,” said Casas, who was born in Mexico and has lived in Memphis for 17 years. “We contribute to society; we run stores and shops; we fill classrooms with students who want to work hard.”

Daniel Casas, right, with Kingsbury High School Principal Terry Ross

It’s uncertain how many students participated across Tennessee, as districts were still compiling their absentee reports on Thursday. But based on conversations with students and educators, the boycott was felt in numerous schools in Memphis and Nashville, which have growing populations of immigrant students.

At Kingsbury, there were reports that about half of the student body stayed home.

The protest was also felt at Aurora College Academy, where about 30 percent of the Memphis charter school’s 275 students were absent.

“We knew there were rumblings of this, but to be missing this many students is a surprise for us,” said Principal Grant Monda, whose school population is about half Hispanic. “We’re close to a 96 percent attendance rate for any given day.”

Knowledge Academies High School, located in Nashville’s Antioch community, recorded absences for about half of its 200 students, though the impact was felt more in some classes than others. “We have one science class that usually has 20 students, but today it only had five,” said Martel Graham, director of the charter school.

Across America, the boycott’s effect was also visible at construction companies, restaurants and other businesses.

Some educators said they began hearing earlier this week about #adaywithoutimmigrants and tried to prepare.

In Nashville, Chief of Schools Sito Narcisse emailed all principals on Wednesday to remind them of the district’s policy related to unexcused absences. The bottom line: While Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools understands the uncertainty and confusion being experienced by immigrant families, the best place for students to be is still in school. Absences due to the protests will not be excused.

“While we respect the democratic right to participate in peaceful protest, our responsibility as a school district is to ensure students are in school receiving a great education every day,” Narcisse wrote. “For that reason, all students and staff are expected to be in school throughout the day on Thursday so that teaching and learning can continue.”

Officials with Shelby County Schools declined to comment on communications to their schools or how the Memphis district was handling the absences.

Graham said Nashville’s Knowledge Academies sent emails and robocalls to staff and students’ families in advance of the protest.

“We told them we will be here to educate any students who come into the building. If you don’t come to school, it will be counted as an absence and students are expected to make up their work,” Graham said.

While the boycott was scheduled for a single day, the event will continue to be part of the conversation about what immigrant students are going through in America. At Aurora Collegiate in Memphis, the principal plans to use a school-wide staff meeting on Friday to “talk about the importance of what today represented for a significant portion of our student population.”

“We want to have conversations with our students that make them feel safe and assure them that we will keep learning here regardless of whatever policies are created on a state or federal level,” Monday said. “We want them to know they are safe here.”

Casas, 18, said he hopes his absence Thursday was noticed — and that his school and district will be more vocal in supporting immigrants as a result.

“I hope that what comes from today’s protests is that the schools realize they can’t take us for granted,” he said, “and that they will listen to our voices.”

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.

share your story

Teachers: How does your district handle family leave? How did it affect your life?

PHOTO: Logan Zabel

New York City is in the news because a petition there is calling for the city to create paid family leave for teachers, who currently must use accrued sick days if they have a child and are limited to six paid weeks off.

Chalkbeat wants to know: How do other districts and schools compare? What implications do these policies have for educators and their families?

If you have an experience to share, or can simply explain how this works where you work, please tell us here. Your answers will help guide our reporting.