empty nest

Simmering tensions at NEST+M boil over on Curriculum Night

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Kathy Stokes, a PTA officer, spoke to a NEST+m mother who did not know that teachers were boycotting Curriculum Night.

Teachers at a school where hundreds of parents signed a petition against the principal this summer continued the protest today by boycotting Curriculum Night.

Teachers at New Explorations in Science, Technology, and Math, or NEST+M, announced the boycott via email this afternoon, telling parents that Principal Olga Livanis had not soothed relations with the staff after she surprised several of them with “unsatisfactory” ratings.

When parents arrived for the annual introduction to what their children would be learning this year at the citywide school for gifted and talented students, they were told that many teachers had stayed home and given a copy of the email announcing the boycott.

“I feel really awful to hear this,” said Angela Stokes, a former teacher whose daughter is a sophomore in NEST’s high school. “I had this idyllic idea about NEST being away from all the muck and the mire of the DOE. NEST is not immune, I’m finding out.”

Livanis has butted heads with parents and teachers since 2006, when she was installed as principal after the school’s founding leader was removed amid controversy and over some parents’ objections. In June, hundreds of parents registered official objections after several well liked teachers received the low ratings. Their petition, which was delivered to Department of Education officials, also called on Livanis to improve the way she communicates with members of the school community.

But two weeks into the new school year, teachers said today that there had been no changes.

“Our show of solidarity has gone unanswered and ignored by the administration, and no indication has been made that she will address the issues and ensure a positive work environment for the staff and a positive learning environment for the students,” read the teachers’ email today.

Rob Curry-Smithson, a high school history teacher who is also NEST+m’s union chapter leader, said the U-ratings had gone to teachers who had never been alerted that they were performing poorly and that Livanis had cited seemingly minor transgressions, such as one instance of yelling, in her reports. All seven of the teachers who received the low ratings filed grievances, and the only case to be heard so far resulted in the U-rating being overturned, he said.

Still, Curry-Smithson said, Livanis’s apparent capriciousness frightened the teachers.

“We realized that every minute on the job is an increased potential that something could go wrong — so we should at least be paid for that time when we are putting our careers at risk,” he said.

So they asked to be paid overtime for Curriculum Night, which unlike parent-teacher conferences is not required contractually. But Livanis declined to pay teachers for the evening, Curry-Smithson said, and he said when he suggested that Livanis compensate teachers with time instead of money, she declined even to speak with him. The boycott was a last resort, he said.

As parents trickled into the school this evening, Kathy Stokes, c0-vice president of the middle school’s parent-teacher association, informed new arrivals about the boycott and guided them toward teachers who were available.

Some parents grumbled that they had reserved babysitters unnecessarily. But others said the inconvenience was slight.

“I get regular communication from the teacher during the school hours, so I don’t feel like I can complain if she’s not here tonight,” said Chante Brown, the mother of a third-grader and a ninth-grader at NEST.

Curry-Smithson said he expected about 80 percent of teachers to stay home but that some untenured teachers were too concerned about repercussions to participate. An email from NEST’s lower school assistant principal to parents this afternoon listed several teachers who had already alerted him that they would not be present and noted that it looked like all fourth- and fifth-grade teachers would stay home.

“I cannot confirm some teachers, as I have been told that they don’t know themselves whether they are staying or not,” wrote the assistant principal, Nicholas Patrello. He added, “I do apologize about the confusion and frustration.”

Many parents placed the blame squarely on the administration.

“We began to hear rumblings about this last week, but to be fair I think [teachers] were trying until the last minute to find a compromise,” Stokes said. “I look forward as a parent to Curriculum Night and I’m disappointed that the administration couldn’t work with the teachers to make the night happen.”

“I think there has been some hope that with the new chancellor there could be an opportunity for an administrative change,” said a parent who skipped Curriculum Night to show support for her daughter’s teachers. “There have many unhappy teachers at NEST for a long time. It is such a shame as the school has enormous potential to be a fantastic.”

NEST+m teachers’ letter to parents is below.

Dear Parents,

As NEST+m UFT reps, we want to let you know why many of the NEST+m staff will not be present for Curriculum Night. Last year, we expressed our grievances concerning the way our school has been run to Dr. Livanis, but to no avail.  Our show of solidarity has gone unanswered and ignored by the administration, and no indication has been made that she will address the issues and ensure a positive work environment for the staff and a positive learning environment for the students.

When Dr. Livanis unfairly and without warning rated seven teachers  unsatisfactory last year, we became concerned. This rating is not a minor thing; it is the first step in stripping someone of their teaching license, (which makes it impossible for that teacher to take a job elsewhere, and freezes their salary, resulting in a loss of approximately one thousand dollars to the teacher). Many of the teachers who received a “U” rating have been told by Dr. Livanis that she considers them fine teachers, and that the rating was not a reflection of their performance. While it is always nice to hear that your supervisor thinks you are doing a good job, it is a strange and disconcerting thing to have one thing said to your face and another one recorded on an official record which will follow you. Since many of these teachers are known to be great teachers who go above and beyond the requirements of their job, there is concern amongst the staff that our careers are subject to arbitrary and unfair decisions by our principal.

While Dr. Livanis has made no visible effort to assuage our fears, we have become concerned that anything we say or do might be twisted and used to torpedo our career. Because we are unsure how else to express our grave dissatisfaction with the status-quo, we have decided that, at a minimum, we need to ensure that we don’t endanger our jobs by working unpaid, non-contractual hours. While in the past we have gone beyond our job description and worked overtime without pay on Curriculum Night, this year we asked to be paid for those hours. This is a practice which is normal at many schools in NYC, and is in keeping with our contract. When Dr. Livanis denied our request, we were concerned about deserting parents who had already planned to attend. So we offered a compromise. We offered to work the hour and a half if she would count that as one of our 45 minute after-school meetings that are required by contract. As she has refused this compromise as well, we feel it necessary to stand firm on this issue — something we have not done in the past.

We apologize for the last minute nature of this decision.  We have been trying to resolve this with compromise up through today but we have been unsuccessful.  We deeply regret any inconveniences this has caused families, and we regret not being able to reach a settlement that would have allowed us all to share this evening together.

Thank you for your understanding and support,

The NEST+m UFT Consultation Committee

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.