Wednesday, March 26, 2008

UFT in a Race To Avert a School Revolt

Emergency PTA Meeting of Parents at Its Charter

BY ELIZABETH GREEN - Staff Reporter of the Sun
March 25, 2008

Top United Federation of Teachers leaders are moving to avert a crisis at a
charter school run by the union after an ultimatum by parents upset by what
they say is a lack of security guards, poor communication with
administrators, and high teacher turnover.

Union officials agreed to address and study the issues, promising changes
that seem intended to avert what some worried could become a publicly
embarrassing parent revolt.

The concerns were aired before several top UFT officials at an "Emergency
PTA Meeting" last night. The meeting was hastily organized after more than
25 dissatisfied parents turned a regular PTA meeting last week into an
emotional grievance session, ultimately threatening to publicize their
troubles if the school's top administrator, Rita Danis, declined to give
them an audience.

"If Ms. Danis refuses to attend Emergency PTA meeting on Monday Mar 24 2008
[parents] will contact the media and their politicians for outside help,"
the PTA president, Rosa Cribb, wrote in her meeting notes.

The charter school was opened in 2005 by the UFT to great fanfare. Across
the country teachers unions usually oppose charter schools, which are
publicly funded but operate outside ordinary regulations - including, in
many cases, teachers' contracts. Here in New York, the UFT has pledged
instead to bring non-unionized charter schools under its wing and start its
own charter schools.

Along with the elementary school at issue in the current flare-up, the union
runs a secondary charter school and is planning to open a third charter
school with the California-based group Green Dot.

Ms. Cribb said she adores the UFT Elementary Charter School, where her
grandson is a student, and moved quickly to ask Ms. Danis and top UFT
officials to attend an emergency meeting because she feared that, if
concerns went unaddressed, the whole school would suffer.

"The parents are very unhappy. Some of the parents are talking about taking
their kids out of the school," Ms. Cribb said before the meeting. "I don't
want parents to take their kids out."

A regular review of the school issued by the State University of New York's
Charter School Institute about the 2006-2007 school year called teacher
quality "limited," describing "a lack of student engagement throughout most
classrooms" and widespread misbehavior.
The report also noted that, "Teachers did not capitalize on 'teaching

The union's vice president for elementary education, Michelle Bodden; its
general manager, David Hickey; a parent official; and its top charter school
official, Jonathan Gyurko, attended the meeting. So did Ms. Danis, who acts
in the role of principal but, in keeping with the school's philosophy, is
known as a "teacher leader" and is a UFT member, not a member of the
principals' union.

About 50 parents came to the meeting, some armed with concerns and some out
of curiosity at the flier that had been sent home in their children's
notebooks and blown up on an oversized poster to hang in the school's foyer.
The meeting was originally slotted to be held in the school library, but was
moved to the auditorium to accommodate all the parents who came, many with
several children in tow.

Union officials declined a request by a reporter to sit in on the meeting,
but many parents spoke on their way in and on their way out.

They said one man, a former parent who is a city firefighter, gave a
stirring description of challenges his son faced at the school that
ultimately led him to pull his son out.

"Things like that should not happen," the father of two children at the
school, Daniel Morgan, said as he left the meeting. "I've had an excellent
experience with my children, but I would like to make sure it remains that

Another parent who recently joined the school's board of trustees, Zakiyah
Ansari, raised concerns about teacher turnover rates.
Ms. Ansari said she did not have specific figures on turnover but had
observed several departures. "You notice people not here, and being
in a small school, it's easier to notice," she said.

School officials said two teachers left in the school's first year, and five
left in the 2006-07 school year. Other additions are a result of the
school's expansion; it began serving just kindergarten and first graders and
has added a new grade every year.

Ms. Danis is quoted in a 2007 union publication as saying the school was
adding 19 new staff members.

Several parents praised the quality of the teachers, saying they are pleased
with their children's high level of work and how much they are being

Others raised complaints.

Parent Rachel White said the school leader is not respected. "A lot of
parents did not come because, if she's here, they're not going to say
anything," she said.

One parent, Taisha Robinson, said she considered pulling her son out of the
school after he was unexpectedly asked to repeat the second grade this year.
She said the reason was that he did not score high enough on a test, but
that a private tutor who is a Department of Education employee she hired
disputed the decision, saying he should have been moved forward.

School officials said seven students were held back this year, including
three second-graders. Test scores and attendance data are used to make the
decisions, they said.

On her way out last night, Ms. Bodden said the meeting was positive. "There
is a real receptiveness on everybody's part to making the school work," she

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