Summer always seems to fly by, but this one went faster than most. Is it possible that by the time you read this, you’ll have welcomed back your students? Here we are heading straight into the most beautiful of all seasons, already wondering if another polar vortex lies ahead and anticipating the first contract we’ve signed since April 2007.
Optimism is the overriding feeling of this “Welcome Back” season. It goes along with the sound of children’s voices rising from street corners and yellow buses bouncing down our streets. I’m trying to think positively not only about the contract but the raft full of mayoral initiatives that are going to color our school year: community schools, middle school after school, Universal Pre-K.
There’s a darker undertone, too, as the issue of tenure bubbles up: Two lawsuits imply that teachers, especially experienced ones, are to blame for all the shortcomings of American society, and that poverty, health and home conditions have very little to do with it.
Over the summer, a lot of members visited union headquarters. In July, a dozen Principals and Assistant Principals met with education reporters at our semi-annual reporter roundtable, an informal and off-the-record conversation. Early Childhood Education Directors met to discuss the possibility that they might earn less than their teachers in UPK classrooms unless NYC supports a raise for them. And most recently, school leaders from Mayor de Blasio’s new community schools gathered here to talk about their vision for those pilot programs.
A $52 million cornerstone of the de Blasio agenda, these 40 community schools are expected to bring social service providers directly into the schools to support at-risk students and families. The array of services available right inside the building can include mental health support, vision testing, wellness programs, tutoring, and family counseling. This model has the potential to transform a school system and a similar program has done very well in Cincinnati. But considering NYC’s size, the mayor’s team will have to be phenomenally organized and nimble to juggle all the moving parts.
Some news outlets are already warning that the mayor has overreached in simultaneously introducing the community school initiative, UPK and expanded middle school after-school programs. But Richard Buery, the deputy mayor in charge of two of these initiatives, said, “The resources, personnel and sequencing of major undertakings like pre-K, after-school and community schools are all very different. We’ll be able to move all the trains on different tracks…” I hope he’s right.
UPK alone is one of the most audacious initiatives in recent years. Because I also believe in the transformative power of UPK, I’ve been urging caution. The mayor has promised to create 73,000 seats within two years, a feat that requires him to coordinate multiple city agencies and keep their commissioners close. If the city can’t immediately bring the education, public health and space issues under control, most of us school leaders would rather see him slow down. Getting it right is what matters, not deadlines.
As a former middle school Principal, I have a special place in my heart for the mayor’s after-school program for middle school children. All the woes of the world rise up and wash over middle school kids: Does everyone hate them? Are they ugly? When will an asteroid crash into the Bronx? Their future seems to hang in the balance during these fragile years. I admire the mayor’s plan to engage them in extended learning and extracurricular enrichment. Similar to UPK, this is going to require masterful coordination of the DOE, the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) and a crazy quilt of not-for-profits.
You and your teachers will drive these initiatives.The respect that this mayor and chancellor have for you is refreshing but stay alert: Since Vergara v. California overturned tenure for teachers there, two related suits have been brought here. (The Vergara case is currently on appeal.) The premise is that tenure laws protect incompetent teachers and deprive students of their right to education.
Let’s not put up with that scapegoating especially not in New York where we have an increasingly longer waiting period to earn tenure and an increasingly tough teacher and Principal evaluation system. State law currently provides tenure for public school educators; it is this law that faces legal challenges.
The viability of all three initiatives and the vitality of our schools in general depend partly on your vigilance about your own peace of mind and professional security. I draw your attention to teacher and blogger Peter Greene’s recent posting; just substitute “school leader” for teacher:
“It’s true that in the absence of tenure, teachers can (and are) fired for all manner of ridiculous things …The threat of firing is the great ‘Do this or else …’ It takes all the powerful people a teacher must deal with and arms each one with a nuclear device.” [Mr. Greene’s full column is on Page 11 of the September issue of the CSA News.]
There’s no chance in hell that losing your due-process rights will make you better educators.
This column was printed in the September 2014 CSA News.