Up to half the teachers at nine schools in Queens could be replaced if the reforms touted by Mayor Bloomberg in his State of the City last week are implemented, angering borough students, educators and legislators who said the move was an attack on institutions pouring their all into working with large immigrant populations.
Speaking from Morris High School in the Bronx last Thursday, Bloomberg said he aims to bypass the union and replace teachers at 33 struggling schools citywide — a move the mayor said will land the city close to $60 million in education aid that the state had recently withheld because the city and the teacher’s union could not reach a deal on new teacher evaluations. The United Federation of Teachers has retaliated, with President Michael Mulgrew threatening legal action if the city tries to overhaul the schools before negotiating with the union.
The 33 schools, including the nine in Queens, are in a federal improvement program because of such issues as low graduation rates and test scores, which mandated the city to implement one of four federally required programs at each institution.
Last spring, the city announced it would use models that would not close the schools or replace teachers, but instead bring in educational organizations that would work with the schools’ communities to improve graduation rates, test scores and morale.
Now, however, Bloomberg said he has the legal authority to instead use the “turnaround” model — which the city had originally wanted to implement last year, but to which the union would not agree.
Additionally, the schools could be renamed.
“Under a school turnaround program already authorized by federal and state law, and consistent with a provision of the existing union contract, the city can form school-based committees to evaluate teachers on merit and replace up to 50 percent of the faculty,” Bloomberg said. “Under this process, the best teachers stay; the least effective go.”
The nine schools in Queens that could be impacted are: Newtown High School in Elmhurst, Grover Cleveland High School in Ridgewood, Queens Vocational and Technical High School in Long Island City, Flushing High School, August Martin High School in Jamaica, Richmond Hill High School, John Adams High School in Ozone Park, William Cullen Bryant High School in Long Island City and Long Island City High School.
“We’re really upset about it, because our teachers work really hard,” said Victoria Alvarado, a senior at John Adams High School. “They do the best that they can, but it’s one person teaching 34 students. I have a 90 average, and I love our teachers.”
Alvarado’s sentiment was echoed by many throughout the borough, including principals at the impacted schools who would only speak on the condition of anonymity.
“It sucks,” one principal said. “We’ve made progress. The mayor is being all, ‘I can’t get my own way and I’m gonna stick it to people who don’t deserve it.’ To do this, to rename the school when the school has had such a strong hold on the community, is ridiculous.”
Principals said it’s unfair to remove so many of a school’s teachers who have become skilled at working with populations that often need more help — such as immigrants or individuals who have recently been in detention facilities — and expect new teachers to land better results, especially when the veteran instructors have already cultivated relationships with students.
“This is going to uproot some excellent teachers,” one principal said. “I have to get rid of how many teachers? It’s insane. We have potentially hundreds of teachers in Queens that will be affected.”
State Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) did not come out against the turnaround process, but he too advocated against completely renaming schools.
“I believe that since these schools, and their names, have played an integral role in the character and history of our communities, any new name should take into consideration and incorporate the school’s current name,” said Addabbo, whose district includes Grover Cleveland, Richmond Hill and John Adams.
Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria), a Bryant High School graduate who said many of her constituents who are students attend her alma mater, as well as Long Island City High School, called the mayor’s plan “not a prudent thing to do.”
“A lot of the teachers at Bryant are Bryant alumni, and they returned to Bryant to teach because they love the school,” Simotas said.
The assemblywoman advocated against using one model for all 33 schools, saying each facility has different needs.
“You have to look school by school,” Simotas said. “For example, Bryant has so many immigrant students, and it’s not fair to compare our school to another school without that demographic.”
The union has vowed to fight Bloomberg’s plan, and sent a letter to the 33 schools last Friday, arguing the city cannot legally implement the turnaround model without the union’s consent.
“Our UFT lawyers have carefully examined the laws and regulations the mayor is invoking, and we do not see any grounds for the view that the DOE has the legal authority to take such unilateral action,” Mulgrew wrote in the letter.
“For 10 years now, the policies of Mayor Bloomberg and of Chancellors Joel Klein, Cathie Black and Dennis Walcott have failed the public schools and students of New York City, with a particularly heavy toll falling on those with the greatest needs,” Mulgrew’s letter continued. “Your schools have been on the front lines of these failures. Over the last two years, you were told that … you would receive additional funds, resources and supports to help you improve. Those promises have proven hollow, as the mayor and the Department of Education have done next to nothing to fix your schools.”
The teachers who are let go from the 33 schools would be placed in the city’s absent teacher reserve pool —which principals said would end up potentially costing the city hundreds of millions of dollars because it would have to pay for those teachers, as well as the new teachers who would replace them.
“The mayor has an obsession with going after teachers,” said James Eterno, a teacher at Jamaica High School, which the city is in the process of phasing out. “His plan isn’t cost effective. It’s dumb on so many levels.”