First Person

A retired Dougco teacher's take on tenure

There has been much discussion of late about teacher tenure and whether it impedes reform and the quality of public education by protecting bad teachers. EdNews Parent expert and retired Dougco teacher R. Kim Herrell shares his personal views on the subject.

You would think this would be simple to answer, but in the three school law courses I have taken, the issue of teacher tenure has been one of the most hotly debated. Some folks in the general public, led by others with a clear anti-union agenda, seem to think that it is a magic forcefield that makes teachers untouchable, at least from firing. In my opinion, that is simply not the case.  It has never been that way, but it sure can look that way if procedures aren’t followed.

In my first school law course, we were asked to equate tenure with “due process.”  Teachers who didn’t behave for three years would have to be told why they were being fired and could counter the firing at a hearing.  The administration and district could move for dismissal, though, of a teacher anytime during those first three years:  first week; first semester; first year; second; third.

That doesn’t sound so bad to me.

Due process itself, however, is a little more complicated.  The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that the government may not “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”  In the case of Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that even teachers could expect procedural due process. It listed four distinct steps in due process:

  • Tenured teachers must be given notice of dismissal, written or oral
  • The reasons must be noted
  • An explanation of the evidence must be provided by the employer
  • A fair and meaningful hearing must be given the teacher if requested

So, after three years, a teacher gets to learn why he or she is being dismissed and can present contrary evidence in a fair hearing. I think anyone would want to know why they were being dismissed.  Because due process requires reasons and evidence from the employer, it keeps firings from being arbitrary and capricious.

One long discussion in the first school law class I took centered around a small school district in southeastern Colorado that fired all its teachers after three years, only to rehire them one month later.  This kept all teachers in that district from ever reaching a tenured level.

The second school law course ignited a small celebration over the fact that Colorado labor law extended due process to all workers. Employers had to tell an employee why she was being let go. So where did that leave teacher tenure?  No one really knew. And what about teacher evaluation systems?  No one saw them going away.

The third school law course, the most comprehensive of the lot, explained how through labor agreements, a form of tenure (teacher protection) and teacher evaluation could continue. School district management wanted a way to streamline teacher dismissal, especially in the first three years. Labor leaders agreed. They didn’t want incompetent members, either. The current systems of teacher evaluation in Colorado are supported by both labor and district management.

Enter Colorado Senate Bill 191. Colorado has very little industry from which to gain school funds so we get a piece of property taxes and car sales taxes. So, we passed SB-191 to improve our schools. The main focus of the legislation is to get rid of bad teachers and put an effective teacher in front of all students in the state. Noble, but that has always been the goal of education. It will go through development and trials from now until 2013 and be implemented in 2013-14.

Under the new law, teachers will be able to gain, lose or regain tenure by jumping through the right hoops. School districts, with less money and less evaluators, are to do more evaluation than before, still manage the school, provide vision and leadership, and discipline those few students who need disciplining.  The new legislation wants to get rid of “ineffective” teachers but doesn’t define what that is. I’m dizzy.

SB-191 has left us not knowing what tenure is, if due process will be followed, or how an ineffective teacher is defined. Nor does it provide money to help school districts to evaluate their staffs or hire the most effective teachers (depending on the survey, Colorado is somewhere between 49th and 39th in school funding).

Clear as mud?  Turns out I can’t tell you what tenure is anymore, or whether there will be due process for teachers in the future. The state doesn’t seem to have the answers, either.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.