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A glimpse into one ATR's life complicates the city's policy story

Like all of his colleagues, Joe Nofal begins his work day by 8:05 a.m., when staff members at the Brooklyn middle school hold a morning meeting. But Nofal technically isn’t on the school’s staff.

That’s because Nofal sits in the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers whose jobs have been eliminated but who are still being paid by the Department of Education.

The city assigns teachers in the reserve, known as ATRs, to work as long-term substitutes. But officials say they would rather take ATRs off the payroll altogether. Ex-Chancellor Joel Klein’s last message to principals before he left the DOE took aim at ATRs: He asked for permission to lay off the reserve teachers, saying that the city was spending as much as $100 million a year to support teachers who “don’t care to, or can’t, find a job.”

Nofal’s daily life troubles Klein’s characterization. Having worked as a guidance counselor for six years, Nofal both wants a job in a school and is working in one: The DOE assigned him to a middle school in East Flatbush, where he is one of three guidance counselors offering mandated counseling sessions to 40 students a week. He also sits on a team of teachers that assesses students before recommending them for special education services, has worked directly with parents, and once brought in a representative of the District Attorney’s office to speak about gang activity.

Most of Nofal’s day, like that of many guidance counselors, is spent responding to events as they arise. “A lot of the day is handling crisis situations,” he said. “If a kid is having a hard time in the classroom, we’ll pull them out and speak with them.”

Nofal’s work at his current school closely resembles what he did for four years as a guidance counselor at Brooklyn’s P.S. 114, which cut his position last year: “I’m still in charge of mandated [for special education services] kids,” he said. “I’m still helping in the classroom. It’s basically the same.”

Nofal began his career in Florida after earning a master’s degree in counseling. When he moved to New York, he landed a job at P.S. 114 in Canarsie, a poorly managed school that narrowly avoided closure this year. Last year, Nofal was told his position was being cut for budget reasons and he was being excessed. In debt because a former principal refused to make spending cuts, P.S. 114 excessed two guidance counselors and six teachers last year, a P.S. 114 teacher told GothamSchools in January.

“I was told that they couldn’t afford me in their budget,” said Jessica Shirley, the other guidance counselor excessed from P.S. 114 in 2010. She has spent the year as an ATR at the Brooklyn Generation School.

Nofal and Shirley were among nearly 2,000 teachers excessed last year as city schools slashed their spending. More than half of them, 54 percent, were hired by other principals before school started in September.

But Nofal said he didn’t even know he should be looking for another permanent position. “I wasn’t familiar with being an ATR,” he said. “After speaking with my principal and the union, I was under the impression that I would return to 114 at the end of the summer.”

In fact, principals were told that teachers they excessed would be placed elsewhere this fall, according to Barbara Morgan, a department spokeswoman.

The city has criticized ATRs for failing to use the online job placement process, called the Open Market System, to look for a new position. But Nofal said he didn’t receive information about the online listings. And Shirley said she received only partial information about her future. “I was told by my principal that I would be getting a call,” she said. “I didn’t know the specifics.”

Two days before the beginning of the semester, Nofal was told by email that he would be placed at the East Flatbush middle school. The first time he met his coworkers was while they were planning the year’s schedule of events. “It was extremely uncomfortable,” he said.

From the beginning of the year, Nofal regularly checked the Excess Staff Selection System, a job board created for ATRs, to no avail. “I uploaded my resume to the site, my cover letter,” he said. “But the jobs didn’t change. From September until March the same jobs were up.”

Nofal faces a steep challenge. Most ATRs are licensed to teach subjects that are in demand, such as bilingual and special education, but many are eligible only for jobs that have virtually disappeared in the current budget climate. There were 155 guidance counselors in the ATR pool in mid-April, Morgan said.

Nofal has made the tried to make the best of his temporary position. “After a period of getting used to it here, I feel like I’m getting along with everyone,” he said. “I feel like I’m getting along with the teachers.”

And most importantly, he said, he feels attached to his students: “I have a relationship with the kids. We’re making progress, and I don’t want to abandon that now.”

His hard work might pay off: Nofal and Shirley both say their principals told them in the last week that they would be hired permanently, as long as the schools’ budgets allow.

But after last year’s experience, Nofal said he knows better than to assume that he will continue working with the same students next year. “It’s up in the air whether I will be at the same school, with the same kids,” he said. “With budget cuts, it’s a question mark where I’ll be next year.”

That’s because schools are facing the prospect of once again trimming their budgets and eliminating positions. Their cuts could send additional teachers into the ATR pool and force the city to reshuffle where teachers without permanent positions are working.

“It would be awful to have to start again, but I would do that if I have to,” Shirley said.

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