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On NY1, "turnaround" survivors discuss the possible aftermath

When three teachers and a city principal sat down with NY1 reporter Errol Louis on Tuesday evening, they had just learned that the city’s final chance to “turn around” their schools had fallen short.

The decision meant that, contrary to the city’s intention, their schools’ names won’t change. And even if the teachers had been told not to return — none of them had been — they could. It also means that a two-year experiment in using federal funds to fuel extra programs at the struggling schools has almost certainly come to an end. Receiving the funds, called School Improvement Grants, was contingent on turnaround, but an arbitrator concluded that the city’s plans violated its contracts with the teachers and principals union.

Appearing on Inside City Hall, the teachers — all part of an advocacy group that has clashed with the unions — said picking up the pieces would require more than simply blaming the UFT for suing over turnaround, and one even gave an impassioned defense of the union.

The teachers also warned that the schools might actually be in worse shape this fall than before they first received the federal funds in 2010.

“Morale just crashed when we got those letters” telling teachers they had to reapply for their jobs, said Lori Wheal, a “master teacher” who was told she could stay on at M.S. 391 but is leaving for the policy arena instead. “We lost several effective educators.”

Dan Mejias, a math teacher at M.S. 22 in the Bronx, said the federal funds had paid for textbooks, technology, and extra personnel. With four educators in his classroom last year, the number of students who failed the state’s math exam fell by half, he said.

“It’s kind of scary going into this school year that we had a lot of systems in place that were actually helping our kids — it wasnt just being talked about or on paper, these are things we actually saw in practice — and now we might not have all of those things accessible to us in the upcoming school year,” Mejias said.

And Mike McQuillan, a history teacher at Brooklyn’s School for Global Studies, said his school — which was removed from the turnaround list earlier this spring — was bracing for a fall.

“Now, we have high turnover, a greater number of first-year teachers coming, funding for special program pulled in a school that has the largest proportion of English language learners and special needs kids in District 15,” he said. “So we’re all left wondering — did they pull the plug on our progress? Can we keep climbing up that hill? Is there a danger that we’re going to slide back?”

Wheal, Mejias, and McQuillan are all part of Educators 4 Excellence, an advocacy group that promotes teachers as policy-makers. The group has butted heads with the teachers union for pushing policies that the union opposes, such as merit pay for effective teachers and ending seniority-based layoffs.

So McQuillan’s answer to Louis’s question about why the city is having difficulty executing its chosen education policies was surprising.

“The business model — someone with the business background of the mayor, rather than a school, grassroots, community background — accounts for it as well,” he said, echoing criticism that union officials have leveled at the Bloomberg administration.

McQuillan also pushed back when M.S. 22 Principal Linda Rosenbury, who has been a vocal advocate of turnaround, said weak teachers should be fired if they don’t improve after a single year. Currently, the city can try to fire teachers rated “unsatisfactory” two years in a row and is not always successful. The state’s new teacher evaluation system, which the city and UFT have not yet adopted, would streamline that process. (The city, Educators 4 Excellence, and the UFT alike have said the state’s system is a good starting point for tougher evaluations that provide useful feedback to teachers.)

“It just doesn’t make sense when you tell anyone in any other industry what happens when a person isn’t effective,” Rosenbury said.

Louis started to move on to his next question, but McQuillan interrupted with an impassioned defense of the longer timeline.

“Those were hard-won due process rights. They exist for a reason, going back into the history of the labor movement, to try to equalize the relationship and the playing field between management and faculty,” he said. “And I wonder, when we talk about comparisons with other industries, do we make the same negative assumption of the vast majority of workers in any industry other than teaching? We’ve had a relentless drumbeat against teaching as a profession in this city, which kids and teachers are internalizing.”

Rosenbury shot back, “But as a principal, I think it’s the least effective teachers who are being protected that are giving the public that impression. And I actually think that the way that the UFT is defending all teachers regardless of their performance is hurting teachers.”

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