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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Union-Run Charter School In Fight for Survival

When the United Federation of Teachers opened its own charter school in 2005, then-teachers union president Randi Weingarten called it “an oasis.” At a time when privately-run charter schools were springing up all over the city – without unionized teachers – Weingarten wanted to prove that a charter could succeed with the cooperation and expertise of labor.
AFT President Randi Weingarten

But today, the U.F.T. Charter School in East New York finds itself fighting for survival. Just a third of its elementary students were proficient on this year’s reading tests, and the school got a “D” on its annual progress report. It’s also been plagued by high teacher and principal turnover. The State University of New York’s Charter Schools Institute put the school on probation in 2010, by renewing its charter for only three more years instead of five, and will decide in early 2013 whether or not it should close.
With so much at stake, the teachers union led education reporters on a brief tour of the K-12 charter school’s elementary campus Tuesday.
The school looks very much like a typical city public school. It’s co-located in a school building covered with scaffolding. Student work is showcased in the hallways and a bulletin board shows off smiling photos of the students of the month. Students wear uniforms – khaki pants and polo shirts with a U.F.T. star logo.
In a third grade classroom, teachers Niambi Allen and Kathia Darius worked with 26 children, many of them students with disabilities, during a literacy lesson. They were learning how to write persuasive essays by debating a heated topic: whether or not to get a classroom pet.
“What are phrases that opinions start with?” asked Allen, the special education teacher. The students offered the phrases “I believe,” “maybe” and “I think” as ways to write about an opinion.
“Here’s the thing about opinions,” Allen clarified. “Opinions are always going to start with ‘I.’ I think, I believe, I wish.”
Eight year-old Maliah Harris shot up her hand when the teacher asked for transition words. “First, next, last and finally!”
Allen just started working at the school this fall. She said she’s worked as a substitute at many other schools, including private schools, and believes the U.F.T. Charter School knows what it’s doing.
“I think that this school is amazing because there are so many things to help students and intervene if there is a problem,” she said, referring to the use of weekly assessments. She estimated that at least 75 percent of her students are “right where they should be” academically.
“I’ve had far more challenging kids, these guys are awesome,” she said. “It’s unfortunate what the test scores say because it doesn’t really reflect what we do in the classroom.”
The school’s English Language Arts exam scores for grades 3-8 this year were the same as the average for District 19 in Brooklyn: 33 percent reading at or above proficient. Its math scores were slightly lower than the distict-wide average of 43.7 percent at or above proficient.
Elementary school leader Michelle Bodden-White agreed the scores don’t tell the whole story. She’s in her fifth year in charge (the school uses the term “leader” instead of principal) of the elementary school, which spans grades K-5. She was previously Vice President of the teachers union and taught in Brooklyn.
“We have over time seen our scores rise which tells us we were going in the right direction,” she said, referring to the school’s progress reports from the city. She attributed this year’s low scores, partly, to the death of a fifth grade student from meningitis right around the time of the state exams. “The school was devastated,” she said. “He had been here from kindergarten.”
She also described positive changes since she started five years ago. “The teachers really work together weekly,” she said, referring to the regular math and reading assessments. “We’ve put a lot of emphasis on reading non-fiction and responding and understanding informational text because that’s a very big focus of the Common Core.” And each K-3 classroom has two teachers.
In 2010 the U.F.T. brought in Shelia Evans-Tranumn to oversee both the elementary and secondary campuses. Evans-Tranumn is a veteran of the city schools. “There were many problems,” she acknowledged, noting “teacher absences and teachers not focusing during the workday on the work at hand” as well as a “culture of failure” among students and lack of discipline. She said the secondary school campus is located about a mile away in a neighborhood rife with gangs.
But when asked why other charter schools get better results with low-income students at risk, Evans-Tranumn suggested they have some advantages.
“Right now in this building, our level 3 and 4 students are being recruited by other charter schools, out of the fourth grade,” she said. “We don’t go in and rob another school of their top learners. But many charter schools have an aggressive on-the-ground campaign to get the better students.”
Other principals around the city have made similar complaints, but those accusations are tough to prove.
Evans-Tranumn also said struggling students may feel more welcome at her school than in some of the “no excuses” charters, which have rigid disciplinary systems. Whole classrooms are rewarded when students behave well, to encourage cooperation. And Evans-Tranumn said students at the U.F.T. Charter school are rarely suspended.
As in district schools, the U.F.T. Charter promotes students to the next grade with a level 2 on their state exams (just short of proficiency), though it requires them to do extra work. Some of the more demanding charters demand level 3′s. And while those schools often have 9-10 hour school days, the U.F.T. Charter’s day is similar in length to that of regular district schools – while also offering after school support.
SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute is expected to decide in the next month or two on whether the U.F.T. Charter School will be allowed to stay open after June 2013. Critics of the teachers union often point to the school as a sign that the union doesn’t always know the best ways to educate children. Evans-Tranumn acknowledged there were risks when the union opened the charter school. She gave the U.F.T. credit for trying, and for picking such a challenging low-income neighborhood.
“All of us in education can’t just take the easy roads,” she said. “We have to take the hard roads. We have to do what we can to transform schools in our own community, in this state, in this nation.”
Beth Fertig is a senior reporter at WNYC. Follow her on Twitter @bethfertig

David Hedges: Tough on Teachers, Soft on Disruptive Students



The current climate that prevails in the Brooklyn High Schools where I have been assigned on weekly rotations is that principals have an systemic incentive to be tough on teachers, but when it comes to handling students who prevent other students from learning, they are very lenient. 

Why would this be?  Well, the age of the weak principal has been ushered in by the data driven leadership.  It's about getting students to graduate.  Hear now: in olden times the students who couldn't cut it became factory workers, mechanics, or gave their lives to their country.  Then came social promotion.  Now, the students who can't behave themselves get every chance in the book (written, probably, by a well-meaning bleeding heart).  The least well behaved students know that they have the principal by the proverbial balls.  Such students now know that the principals are under pressure to kowtow to them.  "If you fail me you'll get fired," is the standard line I hear.  Another popular refrain is to spread rumors.  Teacher X is a racist.  Sorry to say it, but principals are especially likely to water down requirements, and become very worried about their six-digit salaries being a subject of student approval and review. 

With more teachers leaving than ever, even before their salaries make it worth their while to stick it out the real reason intelligent humans become teachers: summers off, of course.  You need a real purpose to get through 180 days of disrespectful treatment.  (Teachers are bookended daily by being belittled and micromanaged by their supervisors, who are, at least in my case, chronological subordinates).  The cult of disrespect must be very catching, for the students join in and presume to be in league with the administration.  Students who may not know enough to pass a Regents exam, but who sure know their way around litigious language and the finer nuances of blackmail. 

Principals are in a tough place: if they are tough on the disruptive ones, they risk losing their numbers (oh, I mean students), and that fancy salary they get.  They also risk being found out as Tweed-brown-nosers.  The nice-guy syndrome is about the only talent it seems to take to keep a job in management.  At every faculty meeting I attend, the unifying motif is how to increase, not improve, student learning.  A well paid administrator preaches to rookie teachers about how their job is on the line unless more kids pass.  Pavlov's dog has everyone by the collar.  Only on one occasion did I hear a very tough principal say that what he wanted to see in the classroom was more creativity in the lessons.  Data-schmaytta, he said, in so many words.  Data doesn't make you a better teacher: creative lessons are what we need, not more data-crap.  He even shunned Cathy Black when she made one of her ridiculous visits. 

Sadly, most of the teachers who aren't ATRs are so nervous about losing their jobs that they forget that teaching is supposed to be the marriage of duty and inclination.  We aren't circus seals trainers, flinching under the ring master's whip.  We are supposed to be the ones who model thinking beyond the Euclidian world and the carpentered horizon of the box.  Even logic is more beautiful than the kind of obedience and intimidation that passes for leadership in most schools nowadays.  With the loss of the older teacher, whether he or she was good or not, the system loses its conscience.  There is nobody left to contextualize the progress anymore.  Are students any brighter or more compassionate now, or are their test scores modified so they feel better about themselves?  I think the leadership academy may just have gone aground, rather than to a better land of learning.

Is it really worth the money?  (Actually, it's not such a fancy salary: if you work out the arithmetic, hourly wage, that is, their salary is just about what a teacher's is, who is getting top pay.  So why is the DOE paying top dollar for principals who don't have as much experience as their veteran teachers?  Why not ask the guy who runs the show, a member of the one-percent.  Gee, maybe there is a reason why principals are coddling the  disruptive ones- as long as they graduate kids whose maximum wage will be the prevailing minimum wage, there's more profit for the one-percenters, isn't there?