draining the pool

Five things we still don’t know about who is in New York City’s Absent Teacher Reserve

A new city policy that will place hundreds of teachers without permanent positions back into classrooms this fall has revived a longstanding debate over forced placement — and raised questions about the teachers themselves.

Who are they? What are their track records like? Are they even certified to take open jobs? The truth is, we know very little about the teachers in the pool.

The Absent Teacher Reserve originated with the 2005 union contract between the city and the United Federation of Teachers during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s first term in office. The contract ended a policy of placing teachers whose positions had been eliminated into other jobs — sometimes forcing other teachers with less seniority out of their schools. Instead, teachers without regular positions were placed in the Absent Teacher Reserve at full salary.

The approach became a problem after school closures and financial recession swelled the pool’s size, and the city has been trying to reduce the pool ever since — through rotating the teachers into temporary positions, offering buyouts and incentives for schools, and now what critics see as a return to forced placement. The city said it would place roughly 400 teachers into vacancies in October. The plan has drawn an outcry from some principals who say it infringes on their authority, and could hurt their budgets.

There’s no way to fully predict the impact of the policy without knowing more about the teachers themselves. The city’s education department and teachers union have been unwilling or unable to share data on the pool, despite multiple Chalkbeat requests. We’ve also filed a public records request with the city that is still pending.

Here are the five main things we’re eager to learn about the current ATR pool.

What is the average years of experience among teachers in the pool?

To estimate the potential impact of an ATR placement on a school’s budget, one would need to know how senior the teachers are.

We know that over the last school year, the ATR pool cost the city a total of $151.6 million, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. That means, on average, each of the 1,304 teachers in the pool as of last October received $116,258 in salary and fringe benefits. (By comparison, the base salary for a city teacher is $54,000.)

Historically, the ATR pool has been comprised of teachers who are, as a group, more experienced than their peers.

Data from 2010 showed that teachers with 15 to 25 years of experience made up 31 percent of the ATR pool, as compared to 19 percent of all active teachers. In comparison, more junior teachers were underrepresented in the pool — 13 percent, compared to 29 percent of all active teachers.

What percentage of ATR teachers are in the pool for disciplinary reasons?

Unlike the infamous “rubber rooms,” which were used for teachers awaiting disciplinary hearings and were formally phased out under Bloomberg, the ATR pool is not designed for teachers who have been accused or implicated in misconduct. It is meant for teachers whose jobs were eliminated or schools were closed. But some joined after disciplinary proceedings.

A 2014 report from the advocacy group TNTP estimated that 25 percent of teachers in the ATR pool then had been brought up on disciplinary charges.

The Department of Education could not estimate how many teachers now fall into each group. It also has not made clear whether any of the ATR teachers placed into schools this coming fall could have backgrounds of misconduct.

“The DOE has discretion on which educators in the ATR pool are appropriate for long-term placement, and may choose not to assign educators who have been disciplined in the past,” said officials in the city’s education department.

How long have the teachers been in the ATR pool?

Even if teachers are strong performers when excessed from their schools, one principal told us, the time they spend outside the classroom and in the ATR could be harmful, since they are unlikely to receive the same professional development as teachers in full-time positions.

We do not know how long, on average, individual teachers have been in the pool. According to data from the 2014 TNTP report, half of the teachers in the pool at that point had not held a classroom position in at least two years. That proportion is likely to have grown as more teachers have exited the pool on their own, but the city has not made that information available.

Where have ATR teachers worked in the past?

Prior to the city’s announcement that it would be placing teachers from the ATR into classroom vacancies for yearlong positions this fall, ATR teachers were rotated through schools on a monthly basis. “ATRs have been assigned to schools based on short- and long-term need,” city officials said. But we don’t have the list of schools where they were sent.

That matters because some critics have raised concerns that the teachers would be placed primarily in low-income areas of the city, in the struggling schools likely to suffer most from teacher vacancies.

What areas are ATR teachers certified in?

Another question is whether members of the ATR hold certifications that make them difficult to place. Data from 2010 showed that almost 25 percent of ATR teachers then held licenses to teach courses such as swimming, jewelry-making, and accounting, among other subjects that have almost entirely disappeared from public schools.

We do not currently have the breakdown of licenses held by teachers in the pool. That number could be important in showing what percentage of teachers can, realistically, hope to find permanent positions, and how many might need retraining.

How I Lead

This Memphis principal says supporting teachers and parents helped pull her school out of the bottom 10 percent

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Yolanda Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years, and was previously the academic dean.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Principal Yolanda Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

It takes a lot of walking to manage two schools. Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years and was previously the academic dean. She temporarily took over Frayser Achievement Elementary when the schools had to share space this year because of maintenance issues at Georgian Hill’s original building.

“I am constantly on the move,” Dandridge said. “How else can you keep up with elementary students?”

Both schools are part of the Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools but has struggled to accomplish the task.

This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent. In 2016, before Dandridge took charge, Georgian Hills was in the worst 2 percent of schools.

Dandridge was honored by the achievement district for her work.

“She is a real standout among our principals of someone who understands what it takes to turn things around,” said interim achievement district leader Kathleen Airhart.

Dandridge talked to Chalkbeat about how she gets to know her students, her efforts to motivate teachers, and why school buildings are important.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

I tell my teachers to always stay focused on the “why” behind their careers. For me, my “why” was the fact that my little brother got all the way through elementary school without learning to read. He wasn’t able to read until the fifth grade. He came from a family of educators, and he still slipped through the cracks. If that could happen to him, it could happen to so many kids.

I started teaching in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and I taught in that state for more than a decade. I came to Memphis as a teacher, I was asked later to consider taking on the principal role at Georgian Hills. I said, “You want me to do what?” Now, I’m grateful for all those years in the classroom and as an academic dean to prepare me for this role.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

Any chance to get into the classroom, I will. If a substitute teacher doesn’t come, which does happen sometimes, I will teach the students in that classroom for a day. I love getting to know students by helping out in the classroom.

I am also constantly walking the hallways of both schools. That’s how I start the morning — I greet students and their parents by name when they walk into the school. I walk students to their classrooms. I’m constantly monitoring the hallways.

When a new student registers for classes, the first thing the office staff knows to do is call me down so I can meet them.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

I really prefer to always consider the experiences that a child may have had prior to entering our building.  When you approach discipline with a keen awareness of the types of situations a child might have or experience, it really makes you a better educator.  And you understand that the best thing for us to do is to ensure that students know and understand that we have their best interests in mind. When children connect with you and other teachers in this way, discipline is less challenging.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m very proud of what we’ve done at Georgian Hills and now at Frayser to really focus on our teachers.

Every Wednesday after school, we’ll have a period of professional development. I try to be attentive to what my teachers tell me they want to learn more about. There is a lot of coordination on lesson plans in particular. Teachers work together on their lesson planning, and I also will personally give feedback on a teahers’ lesson plans. My biggest, driving question is “What do my teachers need most?” They don’t need to be spending hours everyday lesson planning when they can collaborate. We can help there.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

Evaluating teachers has always provided me with the opportunity to hear and see the creativity and passion that our teachers bring to the classroom.  My thought on evaluations is to take the anxiety out of it and ensure that teachers are comfortable and understand that the overall process is about improving their skills and enhancing the tools in their toolbox.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent of schools in Tennessee.

When I was early in my teaching career in Mississippi, I had a student with a single mom. Her mom was an amazing support system for me and my classroom. She was always wanting to volunteer at the school. But she struggled to provide basic needs for her daughter — she was struggling to get a job. But she was trying so hard. There’s a stigma of parents, especially in low-income communities, not participating or caring about their child’s education. This mom was giving her all, and it changed my view of parental support. The school needed to find ways to also support her.

And so as a principal, I’m always thinking about how I can support my parents and invite them into the school. So that they feel welcome and wanted, and also so they are encouraged in their own role in their child’s education. We hold math and science nights, where parents learn how to do math games or science experiments at home with their kids. We provide them with materials and knowledge so that they can provide enrichment in their own home.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

We, like many schools in Memphis, don’t have the facilities we need for our students. Georgian Hills had to vacate our school building due to an issue with the roof. That created a hard environment for this school year — moving to a new building where we share space, and then me taking on that school as its school leader when the principal left. Honestly, I thought this year could break me as a school leader. But it didn’t, and it didn’t break our school either. We had a culture in place where our teachers felt supported among the chaos of the start of the year. After a year of repairs, we’re planning on moving back to our original building this fall.

But the issue here is that we don’t have the school buildings we need. Schools should be palaces in a community.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

You have to mobilize people’s efforts to “win.” The first secret to this is to love your people. They are here for a purpose and you have to help them understand the higher purpose that they are here to serve.  You have to have the right people in place, be responsible for developing them, and have the courage to let them go when student’s needs aren’t being met. Finally, transparency rules.

oversight

Aurora school board to consider one-year charter contract for school with conflict of interest

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

Aurora’s school board is set to decide Tuesday whether to renew the charter of a well-rated school that long has served children with special needs — but that also has become caught up in questions over conflicts of interest and opaque finances.

Aurora district administrators, concerned about operations of Vanguard Classical School, are recommending just a one-year charter extension rather than the usual five-year contract.

District staff members told the school board earlier this year that they were unsure about the school’s relationship with Ability Connection Colorado, the nonprofit that started the school and provides services through a $350,000 agreement. Not only does that contract lack specifics, but also the nonprofit’s CEO, Judy Ham, serves as the president of the charter school’s board and has signed agreements between the two organizations on behalf of Vanguard.

“You can see the clear conflict of interest concern that arose for us,” Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the school board in February.

The charter school board president disputes the findings of the conflicts of interest, but said the school is going to comply with all of the contract’s conditions anyway.

Vanguard, which first opened in 2007, was created to serve students with special needs in an inclusive model, meaning, as much as possible those students are blended into regular classrooms. Currently, the charter operates two campuses. One, near Lowry, enrolls about 500 K-8 students, and the second, a K-12 campus on the east side of the city, enrolls about 745 students. More than half of the students at each campus qualify for free or reduced price lunches, a measure of poverty.

In reviewing Vanguard, the district found it has a higher percentage of students who perform well on some state tests than the district does. The school also has a good rating from annual state reviews.

But the unclear relationship between the school and its founding nonprofit have raised doubts.

Although the relationship and service agreements the school has with the nonprofit aren’t new, Aurora’s concerns came up during an interview step that was added to the charter renewal process this year. Last time Vanguard went through a review from the district, five years ago, the district’s office of autonomous schools that now oversees charter schools did not exist. Staff describe previous reviews as compliance checklists.

Ham told district reviewers in that new step during the review process, that she never recused herself from board votes involving her employer.

But Ham now says that she misspoke, and meant that she has never recused herself officially because she just doesn’t vote on matters involving Ability Connection Colorado.

“It felt like (it was) a loaded question” Ham said. “But I don’t recuse myself because I don’t ever vote. It’s almost like a foregone conclusion.”

Browne also told the board he was concerned with the lack of detail about the $350,000 service agreement.

“Considering the amount that that contract was for, we were very concerned about the lack of detail regarding those services,” Browne said. He also pointed to school staff’s “lack of clarity with regard to what they were paying for and what they were receiving.”

Ham said the charter school has rewritten and added more detail to the agreements about what Ability Connection Colorado does for the school, which she said includes payroll services, human resources, building management, and risk assessments for students. The school’s west campus also shares a building with the nonprofit.

“We are on-call 24-7,” Ham said. “We wanted to provide everything so that the school could focus on being able to do the most important thing which is educating the children, knowing that inclusive education is hard to do.”

But what the functions of the nonprofit are aren’t clear, according to Aurora administrators.

“The school should not be wondering what services they are or are not receiving from the company,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, Aurora’s charter school coordinator.

Administrators recommend a renewed contract include stipulations such as governance training for the school’s board, meant to address conflicts of interest.

Ben Lindquist, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said that there are laws that could apply to give charter school authorizers like Aurora authority over conflict-of-interest issues.

“It should be within the purview of an authorizer to inquire into conflicts of interest if it perceives they are there,” Lindquist said. “But there’s not just one way to remedy that.”

Among the contract’s conditions, the district will also ask that Vanguard’s board be more transparent about recording board votes on significant decisions. Initially, district staff also said they considered asking Vanguard to remove the current board and replace all members, but officials said they ran into some problems with what they were allowed to ask the school to do.

“There’s a very interesting place we are in where we are the authorizer — we don’t run the school and we want to maintain that delineation,” Browne said. “However if we feel like there is something that could be a potential challenge for the school, we feel like it’s our duty to do what we can to suggest or recommend those changes.”