human capital

Comptroller's audit criticizes city's handling of ATR pool

Chart from Comptroller John Liu's audit of the Absent Teacher Reserve.

The Department of Education could potentially be doing more to help teachers whose positions have been eliminated find new jobs.

That’s one conclusion of an audit conducted by Comptroller John Liu of the DOE’s efforts to help members of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers whose jobs were lost to budget cuts, enrollment changes, or school closures. The audit concluded that the vast majority of ATRs — 95 percent — are working full-time in teaching jobs, but that the department doesn’t maintain data sufficient to conclude whether its efforts to help the teachers find permanent positions are paying off.

“Without such information, we believe that DOE is significantly hindered in its ability to evaluate the success of its efforts in helping ATR teachers find permanent positions,” the report concludes.

The audit is not meant to dictate policy and is intended only to draw attention to what the report said was an information gap within the DOE on the ATR pool.

But an unwritten conclusion also seems to be that the city is wasting money by hiring new teachers when ATRs are licensed to do the job.

Two charts billboard the number of positions for which ATRs were eligible that instead were filled by new teachers. Last year, the audit documents, 1,796 new teachers were hired for positions that 273 ATRs could have filled, the charts show. The report estimates that the city could have saved $12.4 million if all 273 ATRs had filled the positions for which they were eligible, and the city hired 273 fewer new teachers.

Under the principle of “mutual consent,” adopted in the 2005 teachers contract, teachers gave up the right to claim positions without principals’ approval, and the city gave up the right to place teachers unilaterally into open positions. The change gave principals more control of their staffs but also created the ATR pool.

In a response appended to the audit, the DOE’s deputy chancellor in charge of human capital, David Weiner, says the charts signal that the comptroller would prefer that the city abandon mutual consent in favor of forced placement.

The audit’s “analysis regards teachers not as individual professionals with unique strengths and/or weaknesses as candidates for teaching jobs in unique schools, but rather as fungible, replaceable parts,” Weiner wrote. He echoed language in the 2009 “Widget Effect” report by The New Teacher Project, which has urged the city to save money by terminating teachers in the ATR pool.

A spokesman for Liu said the charts are merely food for thought in a 20-page audit intended to spur the department to gather and crunch more data about the ATR pool.

“There may be cost-effective ways for placing ATR teachers that the DOE may not have considered,” said Matt Sweeney, a Liu spokesman. “One of the audit functions is to provide the agency as much information as possible that it may have overlooked.”

Other interesting data points uncovered in the audit: the DOE sometimes assigns ATRs back to the schools where they originally worked, despite a policy prohibiting that practice; no formal review took place before the DOE decided to eliminate salary subsidies for principals who hired teachers from the ATR pool; and more than 300 teachers in the pool as of March 1 had landed there after settling or being cleared of misconduct charges, likely many after the city rushed to close the “rubber rooms” several months earlier.

Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew said the audit vindicated the union, which has always said that teachers in the ATR pool were pulling their weight within the system.

“[Ex-]Chancellor [Joel] Klein’s constant public pronouncement that this was costing the city $100 million was fraudulent and that’s the nicest way that I can say it,” he said.

Mulgrew said the biggest force keeping teachers in the ATR pool is the fact that DOE charges principals for the real salaries of their teachers, creating a disincentive to hire senior teachers when newer ones are available.

The ATR audit is one of several audits that Liu undertook into the DOE after a series of town-hall meetings where New Yorkers suggested topics for investigation. At least three other DOE audits are expected to be released this month, according to Crain’s New York.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.