getting to know you

Back to class: New chancellor takes a tour of five city schools

Today marks Cathie Black’s first official day as chancellor of the city’s public schools and she’s following in former Chancellor Joel Klein’s footsteps by taking a five-borough tour. We’ll be following her throughout the day as she makes her way from Brooklyn to Staten Island and back to Tweed.

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Stephan Zuvich, a student at the Richard Hungerford School gives Black a tour.

3:00: And that’s all folks… We’ll post video once Maura returns from Staten Island.

2:40: Black’s visit to the Hungerford School may seem like a deviation from the rest of the day, but it is, yet again, another high performing school. Hungerford is the only special education school in all of New York State to be recognized as a national blue ribbon school.

In the sensory motor center, aka game room, Black and the remaining reporters watch one student play on a pinball machine while another plays Wii sports and a third shoots a basketball.

“I’m so excited,” Hecht says. “The questions that she [Black] was asking were so poignant and so on the mark for the students that we’re serving. I’d love to see the D75 schools become more integrated, so its not like D75, it’s part of the whole system.”

2:15: The press van has landed at Richard H. Hungerford School, a District 75 school with about 350 students in Staten Island. D75 schools like this one serve students with severe disabilities. Black is led around the school by Stephan Zuvich, a 21-year-old student at the school. She goes into a classroom where half a dozen students, all in wheelchairs, are getting physical therapy, and she walks around introducing herself to each student.

Maura reports that the PT class has Christmas music playing quietly in the background, and the ceiling is draped in white and colored lights, hanging mobiles, and planets. Principal Mary McInerney tells the group that the room is set up this way to stimulate the students.

D75 Superintendent Gary Hecht tells Black that she’s the first chancellor to visit one of his schools on the annual (or this year: biannual) five-borough schools tour. McIerney says that when chancellors have come in the past, it’s always been at the end, not the beginning, of their tenures. Black says that DOE officials picked this school because she told them she wanted to see all the different kinds of schools.

Black visits a second class where students are communicating through a machine called an ACD (augmented communication device).

One student asks her if she was nervous on her first day of work. Another, Sara Watson, compliments the chancellor on her outfit. She asks: “Did you buy it for your first day of work today?” Black says no, it’s not a new dress.

A third student, Anna Incantalupo, shows Black a picture of her family. “And guess what, I’m the prettiest!” she says.

1:20: And now to Staten Island, the very last leg of this tour. Most reporters usually hop out of the press van after three or four schools, but Maura says a surprising number are sticking around for the bumpy ride.

1:00: Black visits a Korean language class, which all Democracy Prep students take. Andrew says that the school chose Korean because it’s phonetic and has an alphabet (unlike Chinese and Japanese where there are thousands and thousands of characters) so it is actually possible to learn to read and write anything in Korean pretty quickly. Also, he figures it will give his students an advantage when they apply to college, as very few black and Latino students have studied Korean.

Maura says the students appear to have studied another language: New York City School Bureaucracy. A tenth grader named Malia Douyon tells Black about her trip to Korea, which was great she says, but would have been better “if we had more money per student.” Another student tells Black that the school “does more with less” — a phrase that has become ubiquitous after two years of continuous budget cuts.

Black is introduced to Daniel Clark Sr., a Democracy Prep parent and field director for the advocacy group Parent Power Now!; Andrew describes him as a “convert.” During Clark’s son’s first year at the school, he had 18 latenesses or absences and teachers called Clark in for a meeting. That was the turning point, Andrew says, and now Clark is one of the most involved parents in the school.

black412:40: Now to Manhattan, where Black visits Democracy Prep, a charter middle school in Harlem. Here’s another high performing school: on last year’s progress report Democracy Prep scored higher than any other middle school or charter school in the city.

On entering, Black meets a group of students who hurriedly tell her why their school is different from other schools. Edgar Sanchez, an eighth grader at the school, gives Black one of the charter school’s signature yellow baseball caps. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Democracy Prep founder Seth Andrew without his on.

Andrew explains that students have to work for their caps. “The scholars have to earn them through civic engagement work,” he says.

12:15: Maura asked DOE spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz which D and F graded schools Black has visited. Ravitz says Black has visited a “a mix so far in terms of progress report grades, mostly A’s, B’s, and C’s I believe.”

All the reporters along for the tour say they heard Black say that she’s visited schools at every grade level. Ravitz denies this and says she’ll check the transcript.

11:45: Black is now sitting down with students for another roundtable, but this one includes a bunch of alumnae. Black is asking the alums how prepared they felt they were for college. One student said she was assigned an eight page paper; for other students, that was a problem, she said, but not for her. Another alum is going to college in Delaware; the principal calls out, “Tell her your GPA.” The alumna says it’s a 3.98.

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Black talks to students and alumnae of the High School for Violin and Dance in the Bronx.

Black asks if there were any particular teachers who stood out. Immediately students begin telling stories about the teachers they loved. One English teacher came to a student’s house to bring books over the summer. Another math teacher is described by a student as being “like a father.”

A student asks Black what her first step will be. “Meeting parents,” she says. “If you see a school with a lot of parental involvement, then it’s a good school. Things are working if the parents are committed to it.”

As she says goodbye, one of the students says, “Remember our school! Don’t forget us!”

Afterwards Black chats with the principal about college preparedness and the school’s curriculum. “I’m pushing Mandarin Chinese,” she says, laughing. The principal tells her that students here can actually take a Mandarin class online.

11:30: Now at the High School for Violin and Dance in the Bronx, Black is getting a tour from two students and Principal Tanya John. Black and the reporters stop into a dance class. Black says to the principal, “I suppose if you told them it was a fitness class, it would be different, right?” John agrees.

After the dance class, the group heads over to watch a violin lesson in action. The students are playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

Violin and Dance opened in 2002 and is one of four small schools in the Morris High School building, which used to hold one large high school that was closed. Students are supposed to take violin and/or dance classes three times a week. Those who don’t take dance have to take gym and those who don’t take violin have to take a technology class. Unlike some arts schools, this high school doesn’t have students audition to get in. It only has about 260 students and, like the first school Black visited, it has earned A’s on multiple progress reports. Last year, it had a graduation rate of 83 percent, which is well above the citywide average.

11:00: While Maura and the other reporters are in the van to the next school, the High School for Violin and Dance in the Bronx, a union spokesman explained the whereabouts of the missing UFT President Michael Mulgrew.

Union spokesman Dick Riley said that Mulgrew turned down an invitation to join Black’s tour because he already had plans to visit two schools today. First he’s going to a school in Staten Island where there’s a PCB contamination problem. Then he’s going to P.S. 114, one of the 26 schools the Department of Education plans to begin phasing out next year.

Riley said Mulgrew was particularly enthused about defending P.S. 114 against closure because the union had petitioned the city to remove what it considered a toxic principal who was dragging the school down. Though supervisors noticed problems with Principal Maria Pena-Herrera as soon as she was hired several years ago, she wasn’t removed until 2009.

By the time she was removed, Pena-Herrera had amassed a reputation as a “principal from hell” who unsuccessfully tried to bully parents into giving her good marks on the city’s survey. According to the report, she ran up a deficit of more than $100,000. None of those problems caused the city to remove Pena-Herrera. Instead, it was failing to follow proper procedure during an evacuation that cost Pena-Herrera her job.

“They put a bad principal in and ran the school into the ground,” Riley said.

10:30: Black sits down with a group of nine North Queens students for a roundtable discussion about their school. She’s just going around asking them how they came to the transfer school and how they feel about it. Student after student is saying that before they came here, school wasn’t a priority and this school — with its heavy counseling and lots of one-on-one teacher-student interaction — has really changed that. Now they want to go to college and have careers.

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Black talks to U.S. history teacher Keith Walter at North Queens Community High School

“How often do you see your counselor?” Black asks.
“Every hour,” more than one student answers in unison. “She calls me at home,” one student says.

A typical response comes from a student named Harmony, who says she only had six credits in her third year of high school when she came to North Queens. “It feels good to know that you know things and you can have a conversation and sound smart,” she says.

All of the students are on a first name basis with principals and teachers.

Black asks the school leaders if they made any tweaks to the school as they’ve gone through the years (they’re now in their fourth year). Principal McCarthy describes the decision to institute a “gateway class” for new students.

10:00: The tour has moved onto its second stop: North Queens Community High School. North Queens is a small transfer school for Queens students who enrolled in a regular high school, but either dropped out after the ninth grade or were constantly truant. It’s relatively new; the school opened in 2007.

Black visits a small 11-student U.S. history class taught by “one of the best teachers in the school,” according to principal Winston McCarthy. Black sits down with Karla Fuentes, 17 and Ryan Rodriguez, 18. Maura notes that, unlike Klein, Black prefers not to interrupt instruction when she walks into a classroom. When Klein toured schools, he liked to pause the class and address students as a group.

Rodriguez and Fuentes are working on an assignment about US industrialism in late 19th century, charting causes and effects of various events.

“How’s your teacher?” Black asks.
“He’s a wonderful teacher.” Rodriguez says. Rodriguez transferred here this year and is a junior. He told Black that he’s taking the Regents in U.S. history later this month.

“I’ve never met a chancellor before,” he says of meeting Black. Black is moving from table to table, talking to the students who are working in pairs or groups of three.

9:30: Asked what her number one challenge will be, Black responds: “Budget.” She says she’s going to spend the next one to two months figuring out what her priorities are and that she expects the coming years to be a “hard slog” financially. “Most important is to keep progress and reform going as aggressively as possible,” she says.

She also tells reporters that by now she’s visited schools that run the full gamut: from A-ranking schools to F schools. As of mid-December she’d only been to schools getting A’s, B’s, or C’s.

When a reporter asks for her thoughts on the classroom instruction she’s seen so far, Black describes that first lesson in a fourth grade CTT class as “clear, strong.” Then she adds that those were students “with a lot of issues — this was not the A class.”

She says she doesn’t have any new ideas for changes she’d like to make to the schools just yet. Asked about the importance of class size in the student performance equation, she says:

“Certainly that class size matters has been a longstanding view…but at the end of the day we would say that an effective teacher is more important than any class size.”

9:12: Black tells reporters that she’s visited about 20 schools and says she’s been impressed with how candid people have been. She talks about how the most important thing is having great teachers and instruction (she mentions the common core.) She says said that she wants to make a big community outreach effort and mentions she’s meeting with Community Education Council members later today. A DOE spokeswoman says Black is meeting with a Staten Island CEC.

Asked how she’s improve schools that aren’t doing as well as P.S. 262, which has gotten A’s on its progress reports for the last several years, Black cites two of the Klein administration’s reforms: data inquiry teams and the proliferation of small schools.

“We must have schools that are successful or are showing promise, otherwise we have to take a different approach,” she says.

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Principals' union President Ernie Logan, Chancellor Cathie Black, and P.S. 262 principal Joeletha Ferguson

8:52: Mayor Bloomberg, who is on hand for this first stop as he usually is on these tours, says he hopes former Chancellor Joel Klein was just a “prelude” to Black’s tenure. Bloomberg says he wants Black to be the best chancellor in the city’s history.

“Joel is holding that title right now but nobody would be more pleased than Joel to pass that title on,” the mayor said.

Maura notes that Bloomberg is still claiming to have narrowed the city’s racial achievement gap. Though it appeared as though there had been progress on this front over the last several years, when the state recalibrated its exams last year, many of the gains were erased. Students who seemed to be meeting standards were actually ill-equipped to move onto the next grade, though the too-easy tests showed they were competent.

Currently, the racial achievement gap is still formidable. Last year, about 40 percent black students and 46 percent of Hispanic students in grades three through eight met the state’s proficiency standards in math, compared to 75 percent of white students. On the reading test, the gap was similarly large. About 33 percent of black students and 34 percent of Hispanic students were deemed competent, whereas 64 percent of white and Asian students met this bar.

Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew has not joined Black, the mayor, and elected officials for today’s tour, as he has in the past (though last September he gave his own tour). Asked why Mulgrew is absent, Bloomberg says: “I think Mulgrew would say he is well represented here and I think that his chapter leader here would agree.”

The mayor doesn’t say whether the teachers union president was invited or not.

8:40: Black has moved onto the next classroom without interrupting the first lesson she stopped by. This one is a fifth grade class. All the students are working on laptops and Black asks one girl to explain what she’s doing but reporters can’t hear her answer because there are so many video cameras filling the room. The visit is brief — now Black is on to the library for a Q&A with reporters.

8:05: New Chancellor Cathie Black is touring five schools today — one in each borough – and she’s making her first stop now at P.S. 262 El Hajj Malik El Shabazz Elementary School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

Maura reports that Black is visiting a collaborative team teaching (CTT) classroom, which means it has two teachers (one with a general education background and one special education).

P.S. 262 is part of the Innovation Zone, or iZone, pilot program, which emphasizes online learning. In the fourth grade classroom Black is visiting, teacher Stephanie Forcer is going over the writing process: prewriting, drafting, and revising. Black is sitting at a table with students and listening.

“You see all the media in here?” Forcer asks reporters.  “They had to learn all this too.”

Foster switches and talks to the students about what she calls “results based” learning.

“We don’t entertain level 2s in here, do we? We shoot only for level 3s and 4s.” She’s referring to the rankings assigned to students based on their scores on New York State’s annual math and reading exams.

“You have to show me that you are meeting your goals. If you were a 2 you should be going to a 3,” she tells the students.

state of the union

New York City teachers union braces for Supreme Court ruling that could drain money and members

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
UFT President Michael Mulgrew (standing) met with teachers during a school visit in 2014.

A few dozen labor leaders gathered recently at the the headquarters of New York City’s 187,000-member teachers union to hear a cautionary tale.

In a glass-walled conference room overlooking downtown Manhattan, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew settled into a chair facing a colleague from Wisconsin. He asked the state teachers union president, Kim Kohlhaas, how her members have fared after an aggressive rollback of labor’s bargaining power there.

She described rampant teacher turnover, fewer job protections, and ballooning insurance and pension costs. In short, a union’s worst nightmare.

For the UFT, Wisconsin is a harbinger of what could result from a Supreme Court case known as Janus, which revolves around the ability of public unions to collect mandatory fees. Oral arguments begin on Feb. 26, and the decision, which is expected in a matter of months, could dramatically alter the landscape for unions across the country.

The impact will be felt especially by the UFT, the largest union local in the country. If the court rules that teachers are not required to pay for its services, the union is likely to shed members and money — a war chest that has allowed the UFT to be a major player in New York politics and to secure robust benefits for its members.

“This is dangerous stuff we’re getting into now,” Mulgrew told Chalkbeat. “They’re trying to take away people’s ability to come together, to stand up and have a voice.”

While the case deals with different issues than Wisconsin’s anti-union policies did, New York City labor leaders say the limits on their membership and funding would weaken their ability to fight against further restrictions on their organizing and bargaining power.

In anticipation of the ruling, union leaders have reportedly already considered downsizing their operations. And they have undertaken a preemptive information and recruitment campaign to hold onto members — who, soon, may be free to choose whether to keep supporting the union financially.

“Much as I oppose Janus, it’s kind of a wake up call for entrenched union leadership,” New York City teacher Arthur Goldstein blogged recently. “People need reasons to pay, and it’s on leadership to provide them.”

At issue is whether public unions can continue to charge “agency fees,” which are payments collected from people who are not members. Sometimes called a “fair share” fee, it is meant to help unions cover the cost of bargaining contracts that cover all workers, regardless of whether they are union members. Only a fraction of New York City teachers currently opt out of the union and pay the agency fees rather than dues — but experts expect many more teachers could leave the union if the Supreme Court bans the fees.

Mark Janus, a government employee in Illinois, is challenging the fee on the grounds that it violates his right to free speech. The Supreme Court deadlocked on a similar case in 2016 after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. With Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, observers expect a conservative-leaning court will side with Janus. If that happens, workers covered by unions — including the UFT — will be able to opt out of paying the fees that help keep the unions in operation.

“What that means is there will be a lot of teachers — potentially a lot of teachers in New York — who do not invest in the union,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of the teacher advocacy group Educators for Excellence. “There will be potential growth in free riders who are benefiting from the work of the union without contributing to it.”

That’s why the UFT is kicking into action. The union has trained scores of members to knock on doors and talk to fellow teachers about the case. In about two months, the union estimates its members have knocked on 11,000 doors, sharing stories about how the union has helped them and hoping to convince teachers to keep financially supporting the work, even if the courts decide they’re no longer required to.

Union leaders are also launching “membership teams” in every school. Tasked with “building a sense of unity,” the union is asking the teams to engage in personal conversations with members, and plan shows of support for the union. Stone said his organization is organizing focus groups across the city to inform members about the case.

New York City teachers automatically become union members. They pay about $117 a month in dues, while social workers, paraprofessionals, and members in other school roles pay different amounts. Members can also choose to contribute to a separate political fund, which the union uses to lobby lawmakers and support union-friendly candidates.

About 2,000 educators opt-out of the union and pay agency fees instead — which are the same amount as regular dues, according to a UFT spokesman.

Ken Girardin, who has studied the potential fallout of Janus for New York’s unions as an analyst for the right-leaning Empire Center for Public Policy, said the number of agency-fee payers is low compared to other unions. But the Janus case could change that.

Girardin looked at what happened after Michigan enacted a “right to work” law, which forbid mandatory agency fees. The result: The Michigan Education Association, among the state’s largest unions, saw a 20 percent drop in dues and fees. Among full-time teachers, membership declined by 18 percent.

Girardin estimates an equivalent decrease in New York would mean the state’s teachers unions would take a $49 million hit annually. The UFT relies on dues and agency fees for about 85 percent of its $185 million budget, according to federal documents.

“It means they’d have to make up a course change,” Girardin told Chalkbeat, referring to the potential impact of the Janus decision. “They would have to treat their members like customers instead of people who are going to pay them regardless.”

Behind the scenes, the union is reportedly making contingency plans to deal with the potential budgetary fall-out. The New York Post recently cited unnamed sources who said union leadership is considering reducing the staff at some of its borough offices and cutting back on discretionary spending.

Girardin said public-sector unions in New York have already begun to fight for state legislation that would make it harder for members to drop out — a potential work-around in case the court sides with Janus.

Some UFT members say the threat of Janus is already being felt. The union recently voted down a resolution to support Black Lives Matter after leadership said it was a divisive issue at a time when the union can’t afford to lose members, according to an NY1 report.

Rosie Frascella, a Brooklyn high school teacher who helped organized Black Lives Matter at School events across the city, said she was disappointed in the leadership’s decision. But despite those internal disagreements, she said the threat posed by Janus should compel all teachers to speak out in support of their unions.

“You need to be in a union because it protects your right to teach,” she said. “And it stands up for our students and it creates the schools our children deserve.”

after parkland

As Trump doubles down on call to give teachers guns, the growing #ArmMeWith movement offers an alternative

Counselors, time, diverse classroom libraries, money — these are some of many things American teachers say they need in their schools instead of guns.

The pleas are coming via a social media hashtag, #ArmMeWith, that has spread quickly this week as teachers grapple with the aftermath of last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Some lawmakers and advocates — including President Donald Trump — have responded to the shooting by arguing that teachers should be armed. That idea has drawn scorn from educators who argue that more guns in schools would make students less safe and do little to address the underlying issues that contribute to violence in schools.

Now thousands of those educators are offering an alternative, using a template that two teachers shared on Instagram on Tuesday. Olivia Bertels and Brittany Wheaton already had substantial social media followings when they asked others to join them in starting a movement.

“My friend @thesuperheroteacher and I think that we should find more practical solutions than giving teachers guns,” Bertels wrote on her post with the template, where she asked to be armed with school supplies. “I hope you’ll take the same stance.”

More than 5,000 people so far have done exactly that on Instagram, and the hashtag is also trending on Twitter, bringing educators together in a cross-country conversation.

“I wish we didn’t have to do this,” wrote one Texas teacher, HowsonHistory, in a comment on a Rhode Island teacher’s post. “But am so glad that so many teachers are. Maybe soon we will be listened to.”

Here are some of the posts that have caught our eye.

“We, the teachers, have a few ideas.”

“#armmewith not guns, but counselors who do not double as test administrators and more than one overbooked, crowded therapist option for families with Medicaid and social workers without overloaded caseloads.”

“#armmewith the liberation of our students, a microphone to speak out against the policies you make from people who aren’t teachers, resources to empower our children, and love to keep our babies safe. We refuse to be armed with guns. #teachingwhilemuslim”

“Because there are so many other things to be arming ourselves with that will do more good than harm. I choose to #armMeWith kindness not violence and teach my students to do the same #jointhemovement”

“I took my first teaching job the year Sandy Hook happened. And the thing is, in that year and in all the years I have been a teacher since, I have stood in my classroom too many times and wondered where I would put my children if someone came into my classroom with a gun. I have stood on playgrounds and in hallways with dozens of students and wondered what would be the best action to take. I have sat through too many of my lunch breaks with my colleagues hashing over the best strategy for protecting our students. There has to be change. Teachers and students deserve to work and learn in peace. #armmewith #thingsteachersshouldnothavetosay”