closing season

At Irving, closure protest focuses on students who don’t attend

Supporters of Washington Irving High School protested the school's planned closure this morning.

It was still dark this morning when Steve Morris rolled up in front of Washington Irving High School on his bike.

Morris had been the school’s librarian until last summer, when the struggling school cut him from its staff roster and shuttered the library. Now he was on his way to the Brandeis High School building as a member of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of position-less teachers who are shuffled to a different school each week.

But first he wanted to offer silent support to his former students and colleagues who, along with parents and union officials, had filled Irving’s front steps to protest the Department of Education’s plan to close the school.

“I’ll be the last librarian this school ever has,” Morris told me wistfully before pedaling north on Irving Place.

Irving is one of 25 schools the city has proposed closing or shrinking this year. The century-old high school near Union Square got an F on its most recent progress report, down from C’s in the previous two years.

In a series of spirited chats and statements, the protesters argued that the deck had long been stacked against the school.

They said longstanding academic weaknesses and spurts of violence had been exacerbated as the Bloomberg administration closed other schools and directed needy students to Irving. Then, in 2008, the city spun off Irving’s performing arts program, which teachers said enrolled the school’s highest-performing students, into its own school, Gramercy Arts. Overnight, Irving went from more than 2,400 students to less than 1,700. Since then, enrollment has dropped steadily, taking with it valuable dollars and staff.

Bloomberg “says he wants to open doors, but he’s closing Irving floor by floor,” UFT chapter leader Greg Lundahl led the protesters in chanting. They said the school needs time to adjust to its new reality — and more resources to serve its needy students.

The school received federal “transformation” funds this year but will see those funds directed to new schools in the building if the DOE’s closure plan is approved.

City officials cited the school’s low 4-year graduation rate — 48.2 percent last year and less than 55 percent for the last decade — when announcing their decision to seek closure. They also signaled that they were concerned the school’s leadership would not be able to pull off the turnaround.

But teachers said if the school were evaluated on the basis of students who actually attend, Irving would post a graduation rate higher than the city average.

Marian Burnbaum, a social studies teacher who heads Irving’s School Leadership Team, said there about 100 students enrolled who have never attended and cannot be tracked down. It’s because of the “long-term absences,” she said, that the school’s average daily attendance rate is a paltry 73.8 percent — well below the average high school attendance of 86 percent. That data point pushed the school out of D range.

Burnbaum said she is urging the UFT to seek legislation that would make it easier for schools to track down missing students.

Other teachers said they had taken a more local, faster-acting approach to helping students. They said they worked diligently to serve the students who do come to school, who include many English language learners and students with special needs who travel from other boroughs to attend Irving.

“There isn’t a harder-working staff in the city,” Lundahl told me.

Pearl Dixon, a physical education teacher who graduated from Irving in 1987, told me teachers had analyzed student data and practiced with a new teacher evaluation model, both activities the city has urged.

“Every policy the DOE has put to us, we have worked on,” she said. “We inherited a lot of problems, and there are things we need to work on. …. But [Bloomberg] needs to give us more time.”

Sharon Talbot, an Upper West Side resident, said her son Robert is flourishing as a sophomore in Washington Irving’s special education program after graduating from the Computer School. Talbot is white, unlike the vast majority of Irving students.

“At first I was uneasy,” she told me about her son’s assignment to the school. “But then I saw what was happening here. … What we need is more of what the school already has.”

“I pray to God that this school does not keep cutting back, that the library will reopen,” said Michael de la Cruz during the rally. His son Robert is a sophomore.

As for the library, students say it’s now closed except when teachers bring their classes. Most of the time, books sit behind locked doors and students must spend their lunch periods in the chaotic cafeteria instead of studying, according to Dayla Diaz, a senior.

This morning, Diaz was hanging out in front of the Pure Loyalty cell-phone storage truck across the street, where students drop of their cell phones for $1 a day before passing through the metal detectors at Washington Irving. She said she makes the long trip from the Bronx each day in large part because of the teachers.

“I like the teachers better than most of the students, to be honest,” she said. “You can actually sit down and talk to a teacher, and they’ll try to help you.”

During the rally, which disbanded as the first bell approached this morning, union officials vowed vigorous protests against all of the planned closures, including at schools, such as Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts, that the city has proposed only slimming, not closing down.

“We will not stand aside,” said UFT Vice President Leo Casey. “We will be every place this mayor decides he’s going to close down schools.”

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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