view from inside

‘They talk about you like you’re furniture.’ Three teachers on what it’s like to be in the Absent Teacher Reserve.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / William J Sisti

Fighting to get hired. Teaching subjects they aren’t trained in. Feeling disrespected and stigmatized.

Members of New York City’s pool of unassigned teachers say there’s a lot that people don’t understand about their situation. Though there are about 800 educators currently in the Absent Teacher Reserve, their voice is rarely included in public debate over what to do about the $152 million pool.

The education department recently released figures that shed some light on who is in the ATR, and the numbers could fuel critics who say it’s full of undesirable teachers. About a third of educators entered the pool because of disciplinary or legal reasons, and they are more likely to be poorly rated than teachers citywide, according to city data.

But those figures don’t speak to the day-to-day experience of educators who travel between schools without a permanent position.

Chalkbeat spoke with three teachers to learn what it’s like to be in the much-maligned pool. Here are their stories.

“I do think it’s hopeless.”

Deborah Williams was a literacy coach working with teachers at two schools — one in the Bronx and one in Manhattan. But Williams felt she lacked the support and cooperation she needed from the principals she worked with. She wanted to go back into the classroom as a reading teacher.

Deborah Willliams

Instead, she was unable to find another position and wound up in the ATR pool. That was in 2006. Now, with 25 years of experience and a $110,000 salary, Williams said her relatively high pay makes it impossible to get hired permanently.

“The principals don’t even respond. It’s moot,” she said.

While she feels most qualified to work in early grades, Williams has taught high school English, bilingual students and even trigonometry. Williams said she spent five years at one elementary school teaching reading as an ATR. She pulled students out of class to work one-on-one and coached other teachers.

“I loved it there,” she said. The principal “treated me no differently than any other teacher.”

But Williams said the principal didn’t want to take on her salary, so she was never permanently hired. She still applies for jobs regularly, she said.

“I do think it’s hopeless,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll be hired because of my salary.”

Principals have balked at the cost of teachers in the ATR pool, who tend to be more senior and therefore earn more. Department figures show that teachers in the pool earn an average salary of $94,000 and have 18 years of experience with the city.

The education department recently announced it would help subsidize the salaries of teachers hired from the ATR, but only for the first two years.

‘It’s not fair to the kids and it’s not fair to the teacher.’

Leonard Robertson is a music teacher with a dozen years of experience in New York City classrooms, and multiple masters degrees in his field. None of those qualifications came in handy when he was placed in a Italian classroom last school year.

Leonard Robertson

Robertson doesn’t speak Italian. So facing a month-long assignment to teach high school students the language, Robertson turned to opera.

“How do you break it down to show children they can do this?” he asked himself. “Language has the same thing music has: Meter, it goes over time. You can do things with words.”

Robertson entered the ATR in 2013, after the music program at the Brooklyn Academy for Science and the Environment high school was cut. Since then, he has bounced from school to school, often substituting for teachers in subjects he has no experience teaching.

“It’s not fair to the kids and it’s not fair to the teacher,” he said.

Figures released by the education department show that only 74 percent of ATR teachers were rated effective, highly effective or satisfactory in 2015-16, compared to 93 percent of all city teachers. But Robertson said the evaluation system is stacked against teachers in the ATR, who are often teaching subjects outside of their expertise and given short-term assignments.

Professional development is almost nonexistent for ATR members, Robertson added. In fact, he said, teachers in the ATR are often subbing so that other teachers can go attend training sessions.

“I can’t compete if I don’t know what’s going on,” he said.

Randy Asher, the former Brooklyn Technical High School principal now tasked with helping the education department shrink the ATR, said teachers in the pool have access to trainings, often referred to as professional development or PD. But he conceded that it’s often not sustained or targeted to the teacher’s needs, since they are bounced from school to school.

“I don’t think it’s hard to get PD,” Asher said. “I think it’s hard to get constant PD on a regular basis.”

Robertson said he has received multiple “unsatisfactory” evaluations and been the subject of disciplinary complaints. But he largely attributes those to the difficulties of being in the ATR and feels he’s been unfairly targeted.

Under a new city policy, members of the ATR will be placed in year-long positions in schools that still have openings as of Oct. 15. The change will allow ATR members to engage in professional development and be evaluated by their principals, just like any other teacher in the building, Asher said.

‘They talk about you like you’re furniture.’

Kathy Perez has been teaching for more than two decades. But when she steps into New York City schools, that experience doesn’t seem to matter.

“When I go to work now, I don’t have a name. My name is ‘ATR,’” she said. “They talk about you like you’re furniture. I’ve heard conversations where I’m sitting there and they say, ‘Well, I’ve got the ATR here.’

“It’s like, ‘I’ve been in your building for a month. You can use my name.’”

Before Perez was first relegated to the ATR in 2009, she was a reading specialist in Queens. With a masters degree and certification in reading, she worked with struggling students, many of whom were still learning English. Her position was eliminated.

Perez found a new position at M.S. 72 Catherine and Count Basie in Jamaica, Queens. But Perez said she was pushed and trampled by students there, requiring surgery for her back and knee. She sued the education department and the city settled the case.

Then, Perez said, she was placed right back in the same school. She refused, and ended up back in the ATR. The stigma of being in the pool weighs on many teachers, she said, and makes it difficult to find another position.

“You’re not treated with any sense of dignity or professionalism,” Perez said. “You hear everywhere that you need to get fired and you need to just find a job. I’ll tell you something: I have a job. I go to work every day.”

Perez wants to find another position under her reading license. Otherwise, she would lose her tenure and seniority.

“I teach kids how to read, and I’m darn good at it and Iove it,” she said. “That’s where I want to be.”

Who Is In Charge

CPS to enforce nine training sessions for local school council members

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Local school council members at a training session on Tuesday

In a classroom at Bogan High School Tuesday, trainer Jose Ortiz quizzed four local school council members on why they have to hold public meetings before approving their school improvement plan, a key document outlining school priorities and direction. The room fell silent.

“Because,” he answered himself, “the worst thing that the local school council could do is not consult the community.”

Ortiz’s training session illustrated the challenges that Chicago Public Schools faces in ensuring that all members of the powerful councils understand their roles and responsibilities.

The district requires those who help govern its 646 schools each attend around 18 hours of in-person training, or nine online modules. But not everyone complies: Ortiz said that last week, around 10 people attended each module he taught, and on Tuesday, only four people sat through his class. Most council members take the training online, but the effectiveness of those modules is questionable, council members said.

In a district whose school board is appointed by the mayor instead of elected by city residents, the councils, as Ortiz pointed out, serve as important channels enabling residents to drive the direction of their children’s education. Normally consisting of 12 members, including the principal, teachers, parents, and community members, the councils hire and evaluate the principal, approve the budget, and help craft two-year school improvement plans for their schools.

Chicago schools have another problem with the councils: 47 percent of schools have failed to field enough candidates to fill seats, which then allows sitting council members to fill the vacancies. That means less electoral control for residents. It’s unclear if the training requirement deters people from seeking council seats.

Nevertheless, district officials said that this year they will enforce the training requirement and will contact members who fail to finish it.

“We are going to start removing people this year, but it will be after contacting them by email, through phone and then giving them an opportunity before we schedule a hearing, and then we will consider removing them,” said Guillermo Montes de Oca, director of the Office of Local School Council Relations.

As Ortiz continued with his training, he asked if members remember approving their school improvement plan in the past school year. The attendees looked at him with puzzled faces.

“Oh yes, I remember now,” said Andrea Sanchez, a council member at Richard J. Daley Elementary Academy. But, she added, “it’s just overwhelming because you’re looking at numbers and pages, especially when you’re not used to seeing it.” Sanchez has been a council member since December, but she had attended only one out of the nine mandatory training modules before Tuesday, because most of the two-hour sessions were held in various locations throughout the city far from her home.

According to the Illinois School Code, council members must finish all modules within six months of taking office, so newly elected members who take office on July 1 have until Dec. 31 to complete the modules. CPS has never removed a council member for not finishing the training, said Guillermo Montes de Oca. However, that’s changing.

This year, CPS has also been encouraging council members to finish the modules by July 31, he said, because “if you’re going to be seated, discussing the budget and everything, you need to be informed.”

Sanchez said she didn’t know know about the six-month deadline until Tuesday. She wishes the nine modules would be held all at once at her school. “The information in the modules should be given to us right away [upon joining the council],” she said.

Montes de Oca said that the Office of Local School Council Relations encourages council members to take the training online. Especially because the office only offers a few modules per month, to meet the July 31 deadline, council members would have to take most of their training online.

But the attendees Tuesday seemed to prefer the in-person trainings . Denishia Perkins, a council member at Shields Middle School for almost two years, said that she had taken all the training modules online, but they “didn’t do much for me.” The online training consists of clicking through slides of bullet-pointed information and then taking a short quiz at the end of each module.

“It’s so possible to get elected and not know about this stuff,” Perkins said. So she decided to attend the in-person training on Tuesday.

Sanchez said of Ortiz’s class, “It felt one-on-one, and he’s really explaining it to you.”

The trainings are not the only impediment to filling local school council seats.

A representative from the parent group Raise Your Hand told the Sun-Times that people may not want to run for a council position because “people are a little frustrated at the weakening of the local school council.” Currently, 50 percent of principals’ evaluations rely on CPS’ data and metrics, when previously the evaluations relied solely on the council members’ judgment.

Sanchez said that the work of councils are just not advertised enough, and many parents like  her already are involved with jobs or other organizations.

“I don’t think the parents know that we’re that important,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t know either.”

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.