Friday, August 31, 2007
First Person: Teachers’ Union Undermines Arab School
By Steve Quester
From the September 4, 2007 issue | Posted in Local | Email this article
Imagine a Latina principal being hounded out of her job because she defended a Latina empowerment group’s Che Guevara T-shirts. Imagine an African-American principal being hounded out of her job because she defended an African-American girls’ empowerment group’s Malcolm X T-shirts. Neither scenario is far-fetched.
But in either of the above scenarios, we’d know it wasn’t about the T-shirts.
However, this basic fact has been obscured in the recent takedown of Debbie Almontaser, the veteran Brooklyn educator, Yemeni-American and hijab-wearing Muslim who was the founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA), an Arabic-English dual-language public secondary school in Brooklyn that is scheduled to open with the new school year.
Before Almontaster was ambushed by the New York Post, KGIA endured months of vitriolic attacks from right-wing websites like Stop the Madrassa, Militant Islam Monitor and Little Green Footballs.
Predictably, the Post, the New York Sun, Fox News and New York State Assembly Member Dov Hikind jumped eagerly into the fray. It’s the same cast of characters, Daniel Pipes among them, who trumped up false charges of anti-Semitism to try to shut down Arab scholars at Columbia University in 2004 and 2005.
According to a report in the Aug. 17 Jewish Week, Almontaser was misled by Post reporters in an interview for an article published on Aug. 6.
The Post submitted questions in advance before the NYC Department of Education (NYC DOE) would agree to let them interview Almontaser. All of the questions were about KGIA. At the end of the interview, the reporter asked offhandedly what “intifada” means.
Almontaser, who is after all an educator, looked up the word in the dictionary, and translated it accurately: “shaking off.” The reporter then told Almontaser that the Yemeni-American organization on whose board she sits shares office space with Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media (AWAAM) and that AWAAM had produced a T-shirt with the words “Intifada NYC.” Almontaser, to her credit, refused to throw the girls from AWAAM under a bus, instead referring to their nonviolent struggle to shake off oppression in their own lives.
The Post quoted her as saying “I understand it is developing a negative connotation due to the uprising in the Palestinian-Israeli areas. I don’t believe the intention is to have any of that kind of [violence] in New York City. I think it’s pretty much an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society … and shaking off oppression.”
On the same day the article appeared, Almontaser wrote in an e-mail to community supporters, “I was misrepresented and trapped by the reporter. Those were not my exact words, and the words I did use were taken out of context.” Later that day, she released a statement through the NYCDOE that read, “The word ‘intifada’ is completely inappropriate as a T-shirt slogan. I regret suggesting otherwise. By minimizing the word’s historical associations, I implied that I condone violence and threats of violence. That view is anathema to me.”
RANDI WEINGARTEN INTERVENES
On Aug. 7, the Post, without reference to Almontaser’s Aug. 6 statement of regret, ran an editorial asking, “What is she doing with the job in the first place?”
On Aug. 8, the Post published a letter from Randi Weingarten, president of my union, the United Federation of Teachers, in which she wrote, “I agree wholeheartedly with your editorial,” and, “While the city teachers’ union initially took an open-minded approach to this school, both parents and teachers have every right to be concerned about children attending a school run by someone who doesn’t instinctively denounce campaigns or ideas tied to violence.”
In her letter, Weingarten chose to ignore both Almontaser’s Aug. 6 statement and her proven record as a peacemaker. On Aug. 9 the Post quoted Weingarten saying, among other things, “maybe, ultimately, she should not be a principal.” On Aug. 10 Almontaser resigned, perhaps under pressure from Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and/or Mayor Bloomberg.
In her resignation letter, she wrote, “I have spent the past two decades of my life
building bridges among people of all faiths — particularly among Muslims and Jews.
Unfortunately, a small group of highly misguided individuals has launched a relentless attack on me because of my religion.”
Rabbi Michael Paley, scholar-in-residence at United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York (Paley’s daughter is in charge of enrollment at KGIA), told Jewish Week that the campaign against Almontaser was a “high-tech lynching.”
If it was a lynching, my union did not string up the rope, but it was the UFT that kicked away the stool. I’m at a loss to explain why my union, which continues to support KGIA, piled on when the attacks on the school’s principal were at their shrillest. The union leadership insists that we were acting on our deep commitment to peace and nonviolence, but that’s a strange excuse for joining in a transparently racist and Islamophobic attack. I suspect that Weingarten, sensing which way the wind was blowing on Aug. 7 and 8, decided to play to the basest instincts of some of her rank and file.
The membership of the UFT is middle class and majority white, and many are Jewish. Not all middle-class white Jews lend credence to the Almontaser witch hunt — I’m middle-class, white, and Jewish myself — but Weingarten was counting on many of her members being solidly behind the Post on this issue. She may be right. But I don’t think that she counted on the firestorm of criticism she was to endure after Almontaser’s resignation. Those of us in the UFT and outside of it, who are outraged at the attacks on Almontaser, are not going to just let this matter drop. We will continue to expose the racist consequences of Weingarten’s statements, so that the next time the right-wing media hit squads go after an educator, she’ll think twice before lending them her voice.
Steve Quester is a Brooklyn-based UFT Chapter leader and veteran early childhood educator. For more, see Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (jfrej.org) and Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media (awaam.org).
RAISING THEIR VOICES : More than 200 supporters of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, including Sara Said Alkhulaidi, whose brother will be attending the school in the fall, gathered Aug. 21 outside the NYC Department of Education to protest the forced resignation of Debbie Almontaser, the former principal of the school. PHOTO: ULA KURAS
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
A New Role, but for Her, Familiar Turf
Marcia V. Lyles, New York City’s new deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, knows intimately just how students can get lost in the shuffle. In her sophomore year in high school in Harlem, Ms. Lyles was caught skipping class almost daily.
“I knew how to cut, who to cut, where to cut,” Ms. Lyles, 58, said in a recent interview, her embarrassment with her conduct so long ago still showing in her reluctance to talk about her own school days. “I would do it all the time, but I was still passing. My aunt found out with one little mistake I made and that was it.”
Convinced that the school was too easy, her aunt, who was raising her, forced her to transfer from Benjamin Franklin High School to Jamaica High School, making an hourlong trip to and from Queens near the end of her sophomore year. There, Ms. Lyles was shocked to learn that after being in the top of her class at Franklin, which was largely black and Hispanic, and finding school so easy that she could skip out, she was struggling to keep up at what was then a largely white Jamaica High.
It was her first lesson in the problem that still preoccupies the nation’s largest school system — the racial achievement gap. And her memories are telling, because perhaps more than anyone else in the upper echelons of the city’s Department of Education, Ms. Lyles has known the city schools as both a student and a lifelong educator in the system.
She graduated from Jamaica High School in 1965 and went on to Hunter College. She became an English teacher at Washington Irving High School in Manhattan, but like other young teachers in the mid 1970s, she was laid off during the city’s fiscal crisis. She later returned to system and taught at Curtis High School on Staten Island.
She has lived or worked in every borough as she has moved up the ladder for nearly four decades from teacher to assistant principal, from program administrator to superintendent. The way she puts it, each job came at the prodding of someone else.
“It was always someone saying, ‘You know, you ought to ...,’ ” Ms. Lyles said. “So when I tell people all of the jobs I had and then say, ‘You know, I am really not the ambitious type,’ people kind of laugh. But it’s true.”
In June, after Andrés Alonso stepped down to lead the Baltimore public school system, Chancellor Joel I. Klein plucked Ms. Lyles from her post as a superintendent in Brooklyn to become the chief official in charge of curriculum and teaching policies this summer. He said that her experience would make her an “extraordinary asset” to his senior leadership team.
Ms. Lyles has been met with skepticism from other administrators in part because while she was the superintendent of Region 8 in Brooklyn since 2004, her region’s gains in test scores in reading and math, while solid, ran behind those in many other regions.
While some teachers and principals say the Klein administration desperately needs an educator’s voice in a headquarters packed with lawyers and consultants who have little patience for the city’s education establishment, they question whether Ms. Lyles is aggressive enough to be heard.
Certainly, while being interviewed in a barren office across the street from the Education Department headquarters, she was cautious about making any definitive criticisms about changes that have come and gone across her four decades.
“Every time we have had a change, there is a portion that is viable and helpful,” she said. Recalling an African proverb she has repeated to dozens of other educators, Ms. Lyles summed up her philosophy: “When the music changes, so does the dance.”
“I learned all the new steps,” she said. “I just moved with the changes, that’s what you have to do.”
In the late 1990s, she was appointed the superintendent of District 16 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which had a reputation for turmoil and failing schools. There had been three superintendents in five years. Several district staff members had a pool to bet on how long Ms. Lyles would last — one senior adviser put her money on six months.
“So I lasted five years,” Ms. Lyles said with a broad smile. “It was just a truly wonderful experience of starting to turn around a district and really turning around the perception of a district. And just as soon as we started to really figure it out, we reorganized,” she said referring to the advent of mayoral control under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in 2002.
Ms. Lyles said her most pressing concern about the school system is the continued gap between the performance of white students in the system and minority students. She thought back to her own high school days, after she transferred from Benjamin Franklin High.
“I just thought, wow, what’s the difference?” she recalled of Jamaica High. “What’s going on, now I have to play catch up? That’s when I saw about inequity, that’s when I saw about low expectations.”
“I knew that there was a difference, because at Benjamin Franklin all of the students were black and Hispanic, and at Jamaica High School in all the academic classes I was usually the only one,” she continued. “And so I saw that there was a real difference.” Benjamin Franklin High School was closed in 1982. “I used to tell my students that I wanted them to do what I did,” Ms. Lyles said. “I defied the demographics.”
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
When school starts Thursday, there will be hundreds of GED, ESL and other teachers "excessed" from their jobs in District 79. I am sending this out to alert teachers and educational groups throughout NYCDOE, CUNY and the New York area who need to know of this outrageous attack on NYC teachers.
The huge "reorganization" and closure of 5 GED programs for older at-risk students was announced by Joel Klein on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. The DOE intended to just ram this through, but the UFT insisted that a measure affecting some 700 teachers was subject to emergency "impact bargaining". This has thus far prevented the DOE from hiring new (lower cost) teachers to fill jobs in the reorganized GED-plus program. Nonetheless, the union acquiesced to disbanding the programs, and to a grotesque "re-interview process". This meant teachers had to "re-apply" for the jobs they had held for years, and has meant literally hundreds of teachers have been declared "unqualified" to take the new positions.
These teachers are all proven, qualified, dedicated teachers, with S ratings for years! Many have one or two masters degrees, doctorates, supervisory certificates, years of experience in teaching at-risk older and second-language students. These experienced and in many cases, highly talented educators, have been put on the chopping block to fulfill Klein/Bloomberg's mania for asserting "managerial control" through one hair-brained scheme after another.
All this at a time, when the drop-out rate of black and hispanic students is the largest in the country, when over 40 percent of English Language Learners in NYC drop out before finishing high school, when dedicated teachers of at risk and GED students are needed more than ever!
In the D79 "reorganization", many terms of the final agreement which the union signed off on June 29, have been violated by the DOE, and have gone unchallenged by the union. In fact, the UFT leadership has never provided to the teachers effected the actual text of this agreement. In June, teachers were told that if excessed, they would be in an ATR (absent teacher reserve) pool at D79, available as soon as new jobs in the District opened up. Not so. Instead, it turns out they will be put in ATR pools in other districts, so our teaching staff will be fractured and ripped apart.
Teachers at the Schools for Pregnant Teens were all "excessed" in June, after having been made the target of a vicious racist smear job in the press, which came straight out of Tweed. After teachers and community groups protested, teachers were told they would be given jobs in the LYFE centers which would be kept open. We don't have complete information at this point, but in at least one of the Pregnant Teens sites, all teachers have been excessed, and only one offered a job in another district. This gives you an idea of the scope of the purge.
At ASHS (Auxiliary Services for High Schools), about 50 percent of our staff have been excessed. We are trying to collect the figures from Career Educational Services, Vocational Education Center, Off-site Educational Services (CEC, VEC, OES, respectively).
So what has been the UFT's leadership's response? The UFT has told teachers to individually appeal and grieve if they feel they were unjustly rejected in the interview process! If they win their appeal, they will be reinstated in the "next reorganization" of D79, which could be as late as 2008. And what is this "next reorganization", about which we know nothing? This issue is not about individual appeals. This is a collective massacre of teachers' jobs!
Clearly this is part of the DOE's plans to pressure longtime teachers to retire, possibly with incentive of a "buyout" if that is a part of the next contract. Also, worrisome is the possibility of contractual acceptance of an 18-month ATR period and then you're out. Other teachers unions have swallowed this; the UFT says it won't, but who believes it?
And behind it all, is the rampaging corporatization and privatization of public schools, where teachers, kids, parents, critical thought, are reduced to the "bottom line." That's the reality of "public education" in this epoch where capitalists like Bill Gates call the tune. That's their program for OUR kids, OUR teachers--"THEIR" kids will go to private school and cruise along in a two-tiered world of the "elite" and then there's everybody else.
Meanwhile, the silence from the UFT leadership is deafening. NOT A WORD has been said in "New York Teacher" about massive excessing in D79. Clearly the UFT tops want this done without a murmur! But we are the union and we must fight.
We must get the word out about this atrocity--in the media, at parents and community meetings, at the next delegate's assembly. We have to demand that the UFT act now to STOP the massacre! We are also hearing about excessing of SpED teachers in other districts, and middle school teachers. If anyone has any information about this, please let us know.
ESL teacher, GED-Plus
Thursday, August 23, 2007
Arabic School Controversy
By MEREDITH KOLODNER
A new Arabic dual-language school is still scheduled to open in September after replacing its embattled founding Principal.
UFT Joined Criticism
Ms. Almontaser attracted national media attention and criticism after she declined to condemn a t-shirt created by a young Arab women's group that displayed the words "NYC Intifada." Ms. Almontaser had no connection to the group, but after her comments were criticized by Mayor Bloomberg, United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, and the editorial boards of several newspapers, she stepped down from her post.
While public defense of Ms. Almontaser has been muted, some Teachers on list serves and blogs have expressed dismay that the well-respected educator was forced out, arguing that she was a casualty of a well-orchestrated xenophobic campaign against the school that pre-dated her remarks.
The comments that caused the uproar first appeared in the New York Post after reporters asked her to comment on the t-shirts they saw at a street fair, which were created by Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media (AWAAM).
"The word [intifada] basically means 'shaking off.' That is the root word if you look it up in Arabic," Ms. Almontaser told the Post. "I understand it is developing a negative connotation due to the uprising in the Palestinian-Israeli areas. I don't believe the intention is to have any of that kind of [violence] in New York City.
'Shaking Off Oppression'
"I think it's pretty much an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society ... and shaking off oppression," she added.
Her comments were followed by criticism from the Mayor, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, several politicians, a whirlwind of activity on conservative Web sites and a planned Aug. 12 protest by Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind.
Ms. Weingarten wrote a letter to the Post after the paper ran an editorial calling for Ms. Almontaser's dismissal. "It is very disturbing to read about Almontaser defending the use of the term 'Intifada NYC,' and I agree wholeheartedly with your editorial denouncing the practice ... While the city teachers' union initially took an open-minded approach to this school, both parents and teachers have every right to be concerned about children attending a school run by someone who doesn't instinctively denounce campaigns or ideas tied to violence."
Ms. Almontaser apologized the next day. "The word 'intifada' is completely inappropriate as a T-shirt slogan," she said in a statement. "I regret suggesting otherwise. By minimizing the word's historical associations, I implied that I condone violence and threats of violence. That view is anathema to me."
But calls for her dismissal continued and she stepped down on Aug. 10. In her resignation letter, she wrote, "The days that I have spent establishing the Academy have been some of the best of my life - I have never seen as talented a group of Teachers and other staff as we assembled to lead this school."
She stated that she believed she had been attacked because of her religion and that the school's opponents' "intolerant and hateful tone has come to frighten some of the parents and incoming students. I have grown increasingly concerned that these few outsiders will disrupt the community of learning when the Academy opens its doors on September 4th. Therefore, I have decided to step aside to give the Academy and its dedicated staff the full opportunity to flourish without these unwarranted attacks."
Mayor: Right Move
Mr. Bloomberg and DOE officials welcomed her resignation. "She got a question, she's not all that media-savvy maybe, and she tried to explain a word rather than just condemn," said the Mayor at an Aug. 13 press conference. "I think she felt that she had become the focus of - rather than having the school the focus, so today she submitted her resignation, which is nice of her to do. I appreciate all her service, and I think she's right to do so."
A spokeswoman for the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators said President Ernie Logan had no comment on Ms. Almontaser's ouster.
But not all educators were pleased with the result. "The whole t-shirt thing was a red herring," said Steve Quester, a 20-year Teacher who is the chapter leader at P.S. 372.
A Religious Crusade
He noted the campaign against the school, begun in March by right-wing author Daniel Pipes. In June, a group of New Yorkers launched the "Stop the Madrassa" coalition. The word madrassa literally means school in Arabic, but it is used in the U.S. to refer to religious Muslim schools, often with the implication that terrorism is taught to the children.
Mr. Quester said that as an educator, Ms. Almontaser was trying not to feed into stereotypes when she explained the meaning of the word intifada, but that the question was a set-up by the Post reporters. "The choice was: throw the girls from AWAAM under a bus, or we're going to get you," he said.
Mr. Quester said he was disappointed that his union didn't step up to defend Ms. Almontaser.
"I knew intifada meant shaking off; that comes from being in the Middle East peace movement," said Mr. Quester. "Her comments were coming out of a level of political and cultural knowledge that the people attacking her don't have and don't want to have."
History of Reaching Out
Ms. Almontaser, who is observant and wears the hijab, is a former Teacher and has a long history of interdenominational activism. She was a member of the Brooklyn Dialogue Project, a group of Jews, Muslims, and Christians who met on a monthly basis to discuss issues of concern to their communities. In the weeks after 9/11, Ms. Almontaser was asked by several ministers and rabbis to speak at city synagogues and churches on behalf of the Arab and Muslim communities.
Her son had joined the U.S. Army three years prior to 9/11, and he was called into service to stand guard at Ground Zero in the aftermath of the attacks. That fall, she wrote in a widely circulated essay, "We must get to know each other by speaking to one another. We need to make sure that everyone's voice is heard rather than silenced, to overcome our fears."
Some commentators have characterized the appointment of Ms. Salzberg to head the Gibran Academy as a smart strategic move to fend off further criticism. DOE officials have repeatedly said they are committed to opening the school. Some in the Arab community have condemned the replacement of an Arab leader with a white Jewish woman as giving in to racism.
'Could Be an Issue'
Lili Brown, the vice president of external affairs at New Visions said she was aware in advance that the school would face challenges. She said she had confidence in Ms. Salzberg's ability. "If people make [her race] an issue," she said, "it will become an issue."
Meanwhile, the 44 students who have signed up to go to the school, four of whom speak Arabic and 75 percent of whom are black, began meeting the school's staff last week. One parent, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she was shaken by the events, but believed in the mission of the school. She said she had long been a fan of Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese-Christian poet and writer after whom the school is named. She recited one of her favorite quotes from his work that she said inspired her: "Your neighbor is your other self dwelling behind a wall. In understanding all walls shall fall down."
Monday, August 20, 2007
This is a thread from NYC Education News listserve based on Klein's call for early childhood (the womb) standards. My post wasn't well-thought out and Leonie and Ellen did a good job of fleshing things out.
I posted this in response to their thoughts:
I absolutely agree with Ellen and Leonie. My post was referring to the fact that kids need to be in school as early as possible and of course, Klein will screw it up with drill and kill (which will truly kill any natural interest in learning) and overcrowded condidions. At risk kids need to be offered the same opportunites to play and be read to and to be soclalized, etc. as middle class kids. What we faced was kids who needed to spend a few years just learning to be in a social setting before even dealing with heavy academics (some took till 4th grade) and that put them behind. Imagine trying to get them to do more rigorous academics, which I bet schools like Spence where Bloomberg's kids went would laugh at.
10 years ago kids in Kindergarten and pre-k in my school got the chance to do wonderful things. My principal who was way "ahead" of her times, tried to push in the direction of more rigid academics ala Klein and there was resistance from teachers -- and they won the battle or at least held their own -- one of the unrecognized benefits of tenure and seniority. The lack of ability of teachers to resist hairbrained schemes and function as educators today instead of just being forced to do anything they are asked no matter how crazy is one of the major casualties of the BloomKlein takeover.
I agree with Ellen. I don’t think many people would dispute the value of a good preschool environment or high-quality Head Start for most four and even three year olds, especially disadvantaged kids. My own children attended preschools from the age of 2 ½ -- but spent most of their time doing art, being read to, singing songs, running around and playing with other kids – and learning a lot of important social skills like how to be patient and wait for other kids to be served apple juice before them.
What is particularly destructive about Klein’s remarks not only is his presumption that “all students” need to start in preschool at age three – but most of all, his overwhelming emphasis on “rigorous, standards-based programs”, and we know what that means: Pushing kids into the grind of academics and testing that has overwhelmed our schools way before they’re ready for it. In fact, there was a big debate when the Bush administration tried to mandate testing for Head Start four year olds.
The fact is that all children learn at different rates, particularly in the early years, and to force them into a routine of drilling and frequent assessment so early may have the worst sort of effects.
One well-respected expert on reading at Harvard, Catherine Snow, believes that the over- emphasis on reading even in Kindergarten is misplaced and possibly destructive– particularly for low-income and/or ELL students, who should be gathering new vocabulary etc. through being read aloud to by their teachers from age-appropriate but somewhat challenging books, and being led in discussions of the same texts, rather than pushing them towards reading books themselves, which necessarily focuses on a much more limited vocabulary.
Sent: Monday, August 20, 2007 10:11 AM
Subject: RE: [nyceducationnews] "We should have all of our students start and have rig...
I'm no education expert, but from what I've seen and read, the kids who are behind and come from environments that are deprived of emphasis on reading and education need the same things that the kids who have had that in their backgrounds do, only more so. They need to be read to. The need opportunities to "write" (with invented spellings at first) about their own experiences so that the process becomes interesting to them and something they then desire to master. They need to be given experiences to write about. They need to see words in the environment that they want to read. What they don't need is drill and kill--phonetics-
If you read some of the success stories of teachers who worked wonders with "deprived" children, they have that kind of intense, intimate focus. I had the fortune to edit a book by a teacher of children who are blind or visualy impaired. She wrote about working with children who not only had little vision but also had learning disabilities. Yet, using approaches--
Sent: Mon 8/20/07 9:27 AM
Subject: Re: [nyceducationnews] "We should have all of our students start and have rig...
To take Klein's point of view for a second, I do not think he is talking about all children.
If you worked with some of the kids that show up for Kindergarten and see how far behind they are already, you wouild see the need for starting in the womb.
At the risk of being accused of the sin of using preconceptions (which people like Margaret Spellings say is all we need to overcome to work miracles) there was no question in my school that the majority of kids that missed out on the pre-k program would never recover.
Getting them even a year earlier than that would make a bigger difference even though you would still see kids at 3 already behind in terms of language -- there are studies out there on this I believe.
There's another point here that is similar to small schools and charter schools in terms of creaming. While pre-k is available to people, it was often the more proactive parents who made sure to get their kids in there and if you followed those kids all through the grades, they were more often in the top classes.
But that's my experience and I haven't worked in a school on a regular basis in over 10 years.
In a message dated 8/20/07 9:15:13 AM, KKoenig@cgsh.
I agree 100%+ and really resent the suggestions by Klein for my children.
I totally agree with Neal. I would not have become a parent to send my child to school at age 3. Yeah, my daughter went to a wonderful day care at 3 1/2 because my husband and I both work, but out of play, came learning - by the time she was ready for kindergarten, she knew the alphabet, could write her name, count, knew her colors, etc. All this learning was done with about 15 kids in her class. They learned about all the holidays and the celebrations of different cultures (Christmas, Passover,
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Principal at New NYC Arabic-Language School Forced to Resign
The Khalil Gibran International Academy will be New York's City's first public school dedicated to the study of the Arabic language and Arab culture. It is due to open this fall but ever since plans for the school were announced early this year it has been the object of a well-orchestrated attack from the local rightwing media and neoconservatives like Daniel Pipes. The New York Sun has been relentlessly hostile calling the school a place that could "groom future radicals." In the latest setback, the principal of the school, Debbie Almontaser, resigned last week under pressure after she was lambasted by the media for publicly explaining that the word "intifada" literally means "shaking off" in Arabic. Her remarks, made last weekend, were in response to questions from The New York Post over the phrase "Intifada NYC," which was printed on T-shirts sold by Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media - or AWAAM, a Brooklyn-based girl's empowerment organization. The shirts have no relation to her school. Almontaser was widely criticized for not denouncing the use of the word and condemning its use on the T-shirt. On Wednesday, a headline in the Post called Almontaser the "Intifada Principal." This weekend, an editorial in the paper had the headline, "What's Arabic for 'Shut It Down'?" In a statement on Friday, Almontaser said she was stepping down as principal of the school. She wrote, "I became convinced yesterday that this week's headlines were endangering the viability of Khalil Gibran International Academy, even though I apologized." Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he continued to support the school, but welcomed Almontaser's departure. On his weekly radio program this weekend, he said of Almontaser, "She's very smart. She's certainly not a terrorist. She really does care." Almontaser had a major hand in designing the Khalil Gibran school. As described by its planners, it will offer a standard college preparatory curriculum, with instruction in Arabic each day and a focus on international studies.
- Paula Hajar, longtime educator and activist. She has worked with and written extensively about Arab and Arab American communities in the United States.
- Mona Eldahry, co-founder of AWAAM, Arab women active in the Arts and Media, an organization that trains young Arab women and girls in media production and leadership skills.
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Tuesday, August 07, 2007
Fresh from the frontlines, New York Teaching Fellows tell all
by Stacy Cowley and Neil deMause
August 6th, 2007 3:42 PM
The subway ads promise inspiration, fulfillment, and the kind of career satisfaction rarely found in an office cube. "Your spreadsheets won't grow up to be doctors and lawyers," one gently chides. "You remember your first-grade teacher's name. Who will remember yours?" asks another.
The posters are an effective lure for enticing dissatisfied corporate professionals and idealistic college grads to apply for the New York City Teaching Fellows program. Set up in 2000 as a collaboration between the city and the nonprofit New Teacher Project, the program aims to address the city's chronic teacher shortage, epecially in hard-to-fill areas like math, science, and special education. It offers a subsidized master's degree in education and a quick on-ramp to a new career. This year, nearly 20,000 would-be educators from across the country applied.
But recent fellows warn aspirants not to fall for the gauzy sales pitch. Recounting their initiation into leading a classroom, the novice teachers describe a scene that's more Full Metal Jacket than Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Seven weeks of crash-course training and summer school student teaching, they say, is no preparation for the realities of city classrooms.
"The year before I came, the kids set three or four fires in the school," recalls one fellow about to enter her fifth year of teaching first and second graders. "You're prepared that some of the kids aren't going to listen, but not for the things they're going to do—like throwing desks across the room. I had a kid taken away in an ambulance my first year because he just flipped out and was ramming into the door."
Adds another fellow who just finished her first year in the program, and is currently hunting for a new job that will let her avoid returning for a second: "I was pretty much thrown into the depths of hell."
By one measure, the Teaching Fellows program has been a remarkable success. A decade ago, talk of a teacher crisis was everywhere. An impending wave of retirements, combined with the city's high cost of living and salaries that lagged 20 percent behind the national average, created a systemwide shortage of credentialed teachers. The United Federation of Teachers, in a bid for higher pay rates, ran ads showing a classroom of children staring forlornly at an empty teacher's desk.
The advent of the Teaching Fellows program—along with the growth of Teach for America, a similar alternative credentialing program that operates nationally—has helped forestall those fears. Fellows now comprise 10 percent of all New York City public school teachers, and will account for 20 percent of this fall's new hires. The system will need them, because it continues to hemorrhage teachers as fast as it can hire new ones. Around 10 percent of each Teaching Fellows "cohort," the program's term for its entering classes of new teachers, drop out before the end of their first year. At least 30 percent don't make it through year three, and by the start of year five, less than half the program's recruits remain, according to Department of Education statistics. Those numbers are, DoE officials note, about on a par with other big-city school systems, which have long struggled with teacher retention.
Yet interviews with current and former teaching fellows reveal that one reason for the high turnover rate may be the poor preparation that the program provides for life in the classroom.
"Diana," like several fellows who insisted on using a pseudonym because she feared retribution from school administrators, had just graduated from college last summer when she joined the Teaching Fellows ranks. She was eager to move to New York and try out a career in the classroom. The year that followed she calls "the most miserable experience of my life," one filled with Kafkaesque bureaucracies, exhaustion, humiliation, profoundly needy students crammed into overstuffed classrooms, as well as sexual harassment from students and a co-worker.
Diana's frustration set in on day one, when she arrived for work at a Bronx middle school she had never before set foot in. After initially slotting in fellows to teach at schools without regard for either their desires or those of school administrators, the DoE has since reformed the system to require incoming teachers to interview for positions. That's in line with the Bloomberg administration's goal of giving principals increased control and accountability. Once admitted to the Teaching Fellows program, recruits are in charge of finding their own placements, with the help of job fairs, websites listing open positions, and word-of-mouth.
Diana, then a 21-year-old transplant from the Midwest with no prior teaching experience, went on more than a dozen interviews without landing a job. The Teaching Fellows placement office had promised that in the unlikely case she couldn't find any positions, she'd still be paid through December while serving in the substitute pool. ("They made it sound like a flight attendant saying, 'If the plane crashes, which never, ever happens . . . ' ") At the same time, she says, program officers ramped up the pressure to find an assignment before September. "It had been drilled into us at that point that we needed to find a job," she says.
The day before the school year began, Diana finally got an offer at a job fair and took it sight unseen. The position she accepted was to teach eighth-grade English plus one section of French—a language she didn't speak fluently but felt she could wing her way through with textbooks, which school administrators promised she would have in abundance. But when she arrived, she was handed a schedule assigning two sections of French, two sections of English, and one section of special education, a field Diana had no training in and says she would never have agreed to teach. And the promised textbooks never arrived: The school, she was informed by school administrators, had "run out of money" and had no books of any kind to offer Diana's French students.
"There I was, teaching special ed and a foreign language that I barely spoke without books," Diana recalls. "I went home every night and cried."
Her appeals to the Teaching Fellows placement office for help, she says, fell on deaf ears. "I said, 'I can't do this anymore. I'm teaching a foreign language I barely speak, and I can't teach it without books!' Their response was, 'You're in this situation, you have to deal with it. We're not going to help you leave the kids without a teacher. How could you do that?'
"I felt sorry for the kids, but I also felt sorry for myself," she continues. "I don't think the kids are getting a good education from someone who isn't qualified to teach them, especially without books."
Any program placing as many as 2,400 neophyte teachers a year into classrooms is going to generate a few horror stories, but fellows consistently report feeling overwhelmed and underprepared for the realities of New York City teaching. Veteran teachers, they note, have first dibs on choosing classroom assignments, leaving the tougher ones for unsuspecting newbies.
"Your first year they give you a class that's just wretched," says "Susan," 26. Her inaugural class, she says, included a haphazard mix of kids who had been left back a grade, kids with special needs that for various reasons weren't in special ed, and kids with known behavior problems. She believes some principals may see it as a useful trial-by-fire for new hires. "Because so many of us had that horrible first-year class, I can't see that it's an accident. They see it as an initiation—it's sink or swim."
Kimberly Wand, now 27, sank. After drifting through a series of unsatisfying office jobs, Wand joined the Teaching Fellows as part of the cohort that began teaching in February 2004. (While most fellows train in the summer and first enter classrooms in the fall, the program runs smaller mid-year cohorts as well.) Wand's group had no student-teaching exposure or classroom observation time, she says. After two months of training, Wand found herself in a classroom on her own with a full teaching load, including a "Ramp Up to Literacy" class collecting the school's most disruptive, learning-disabled, or disinterested students.
"I knew I would be going into a school that needed teachers, but I didn't expect the level of misbehavior in the classroom," Wand recalls. "I had never dealt with kids throwing things across the classroom. One time, I remember turning my back to write on the blackboard and noticing that the kids who were sitting by the bookshelves had ripped up a book. There were paper shreds all over the floor." One of her peers landed in the hospital after a dispute with a student ended with a door slammed into the teacher's head.
Wand occasionally used her prep periods to observe other teachers in action, but giving up her only planning time exacerbated the growing time-crunch and exhaustion she was feeling. By the end of her first year, she was having serious doubts about her new career.
"I was so happy I had survived. I thought, 'It has to get better the second year because I'm more used to it, '" Wand says. "It didn't. The problems were the same, the classrooms were still overcrowded, I still didn't have enough mentoring or someone to model for me how to handle a group of kids who are unruly."
Wand didn't make it past that second year. Midway through, she drew an unsatisfactory rating on a lesson review from her supervisor. Another observation, unannounced, also drew a critical review. Wand's pleas for advice and assistance in improving her classroom management skills went unheeded. At the end of the year, she was fired. A few credits short of her master's degree, Wand gave up on teaching.
"I could have fought it further, or I could have gone to Teachers College and transferred credits from Pace to finish my degree, but it had left such a terrible taste in my mouth that I decided to let it go," Wand says. "It's not a career I'm going back to at any point.".
Department of Education officials acknowledge that the Teaching Fellows program is a work in progress. They're continually adjusting the two-month pre-service training, they say, while moving more teaching mentors into individual schools. They also tout the new "open-market system"— "like a Monster.com for the school system," explains DoE spokesperson Melody Meyer—by which both new and veteran teachers can peruse job openings citywide to find the right match.
As for preparing new teachers for the classroom, though, Vicki Bernstein, the Department of Education's executive director of teacher recruitment and quality, says there's only so much any program can do. "From what I hear from everybody, it's just something that has to be experienced. There are some complete naturals, but it's just something you've got to do," says Bernstein. The most important thing, she says, is giving teachers realistic expectations. "A lot of people who are drawn to this think they're going to save the world in a day. And teaching is a tough task, even for experienced teachers."
While Bernstein acknowledges that many teachers have a rough time their first year, she calls it a bit of an urban myth that they all get stuck with nightmare classes. But she acknowledges that "fellows are going where there's the greatest need."
In practice, this has meant not just technical subject areas like math, where 25 percent of all city teachers are now teaching fellows, but other slots that veteran teachers often see as undesirable. Teaching fellows now staff 18 percent of special-education teaching positions and 14 percent of the classrooms in the Bronx. These are classrooms with the greatest need for confident, skilled teachers—but that's not what they get, fellows argue.
"I still really feel bad for the kids who had me the first year," says Susan. "Those kids did not get a good first-grade education at all." The constant turnover, she says, only makes things worse. "It screws the kids having new teachers coming in every two years. Because we all just burn out."
Marla Greenwald, 26, a fellow who since 2005 has taught at a Brooklyn K-8 school, is equally blunt in her assessment of her own first-year job performance: "I believe that I failed my first class. I mean that from the core of my being. I did not give them what they deserved as students."
Like many other fellows, Greenwald says that summer-school classes, the only in- classroom training Fellows get before assuming full teaching duties, are an inadequate representation of life as a city schoolteacher. "The summer-school classes are really small—you'll have 10 kids and two teachers," she says. "Then you get a class in the fall, and might have 30 kids."
Greenwald's own summer-school experience was with second- and third-grade classrooms; when she found a job, just one week before school started, it was teaching fifth graders.
Students and novice teachers alike suffer from the lack of preparation, she says. "I had a really rough group. I didn't understand how to teach them. I didn't understand how to plan lessons or execute them effectively. I started every day with a smile and ended every day feeling ineffective, frustrated, and exhausted." Still, she stayed up into the wee hours every night writing lesson plans, "because I felt like they deserved it."
After a "nightmare" first year, Greenwald says she's now happy with her teaching career, though it took two years before she started feeling confident about her classroom skills. Still, she doubts she'll stay at it long-term, at least not in New York City: "Considering the obstacles that I see systemwide, I could not handle this for the rest of my career. It's far too draining."
These are, of course, the same complaints that city teachers have had since time immemorial: impossible assignments, little support, and high burnout rates. The teacher pool is chronically leaky—and since the city is unable to plug the holes, alternative certification programs have at least allowed it to keep topping off with fresh recruits.
That may seem an unattractive characterization, but it's one that Bernstein, who both oversees the Teaching Fellows program and serves as liaison to Teach for America, does little to dispel. A 10 percent turnover rate per year is "not at all unusual in school systems," she says, especially considering that teachers are continually moving out of the classroom to other jobs within DoE as well. And though city figures show that the rate of leaving picks up at the two-year mark, after teaching fellows get their master's, Bernstein doesn't think the exit and the degree are necessarily correlated. She does acknowledge a widespread belief that fellows stay long enough to get certified and then split for the suburbs, but says, "We see no evidence of that."
Having to replace half of the teaching force twice a decade is, in Bernstein's eyes, just a necessity of modern life. "Nobody stays in a career for 30 years anymore," she says. "It is just the general labor market."
Even those fellows who stay, though, describe a system that works to drive out all but the most dedicated individuals. Sara Lippi is a Teaching Fellows success story. She's among the minority of all fellows who survive five years in a city classroom. After graduating from college with a degree in political science and Latin American studies, Lippi had brief stints as a paralegal and in public relations, but neither took. "Corporate culture was really unappealing to me," she says. "I couldn't continue life in a cubicle." After spotting the ubiquitous NYCTF subway ads, she applied to the program, and ended up teaching at Cypress Hills Community School, a bilingual school in East New York.
On the one hand, Lippi feels the program worked. "I love what I do now," she says. "I'm so glad I came into education, and I wouldn't have without a program like this." But on the flipside of the coin are the programmatic obstacles Lippi and her peers have had to overcome. Summer-school teaching, she says, "was a joke. Summer is totally different than the regular school year." Upon landing in her first assignment, she says she felt overwhelmed and unsure even what questions to ask, with little of the support she'd expected.
"I knew it would be hard, but I didn't know how hard," she says. "It's a tremendous amount of responsibility to be in a classroom with young people all day. You know you have the opportunity to do something positive, but you're also so ill-prepared in that situation that you could really do harm to these kids and hold them back. . . . I feel like I've grown so much and I'm getting so much out of this experience, but what are the kids getting?"
Fellows interviewed for this article unanimously recommended that the Department of Education arrange more in-classroom apprenticeship or student-teaching time for its fellows.
"I really think the DoE needs to put their money where their mouth is and pay for teaching fellows to have as long as they can—ideally a full year—to be an assistant teacher in a classroom," Greenwald said. "If the DoE would pay for that, teachers would be better equipped to succeed."
Lippi, who says it took three years of teaching before she stopped having doubts about whether she'd continue in the school system, agrees that either an apprentice program or a part-time teaching schedule would help ease new teachers into classroom life. "I think probably more fellows would stay in the game. They would build and become better teachers," she says. "As it is, we're just thrown into these classrooms with these kids to do a full-time job with six weeks' orientation in the summer."
Another universal complaint concerns the quality of the graduate studies programs that fellows must pursue during their first two years of teaching to earn the degree and certification that will let them stay in the classrooms. Teaching fellows are assigned to either Fordham, Pace, St. John's, Mercy, or one of several CUNY schools—Columbia Teachers College and Bank Street, the two top education programs in the city, are notably absent—for a two-year master's program that runs concurrently with their first two years in the classroom.
Diana calls the education she received in her master's program "horrible."
"Not very rigorous" is Lippi's assessment.
"Total bullshit" is the term used by both Greenwald and Susan, who adds, "I think I did better work in high school."
Greenwald says her Pace University class had its cumulative thesis-like portfolio project cancelled because the school didn't have the staff to support it. "It's really frustrating that I have a master's degree I think is basically meaningless," she says. "I was burdened by these assignments in terms of time and energy, and I wasn't learning anything nine times out of 10."
Asked about complaints with the master's programs, Bernstein was carefully diplomatic. "We think that there's—how should I put this?—room for improvement." While she says the city is continually working with the schools to improve things, she argues that it's inherently tough to satisfy the fellows. "It's very difficult to see coursework as relevant. They want something that's going to help them. Tomorrow. And it's hard for a university program to do that."
The frustrations—with grad school, bureaucracy, and classroom chaos—take their toll. Diana is interviewing this summer for jobs outside the classroom. If she lands one, she's considering abandoning her in-progress master's and writing off her Teaching Fellows experience as a regrettable mistake.
Wand is now finishing a 16-month licensing program in massage therapy—a course of study, she notes, that requires more than 1,000 hours of training, far more than she received before becoming a schoolteacher. Her advice for aspiring fellows: "You should sit in a classroom before you go and decide you want to do this. The ads say, 'Go make a difference!' but they don't tie you to the concrete reality of what a classroom looks like."
Greenwald is glad she became a teaching fellow, but still thinks the program needs an overhaul: "It worked. I'm passionate about what I do now. I'm in it heart and soul and I'm working my ass off. But that doesn't mean I think the process works well. I think there need to be changes. I think if they reach out to us and invest in us, they'll get it back."
More Class Action
The City Is Their Laboratory
Pratt students invent the next New York—for real.
Saturday, August 04, 2007
August 2, 2007
The Department of Education is pledging to help solve a charter school space crunch, pointing to an aggressive campaign to close a slew of city-run schools in the next two years.
A new accountability plan slated to begin in September will place about 70 schools under consideration for closure in 2008, creating potentially dozens of abandoned school buildings for charter schools to take over. Chancellor Joel Klein's Office of New Schools is touting the possibility to charter operators desperate to find new facilities as their schools grow.
"It could open up lots of space, and the hope is that it would," David Umansky, the chief executive officer of a nonprofit charter school facilities developer, Civic Builders, said. Charter schools are public schools operated by private managers. Though the city has given space to about two-thirds of its charter schools, state law guarantees the schools no public facilities.
Some schools have found permanent homes. For example, a salami factory and a former parking garage were renovated into schools. The remainder camp temporarily in church basements, storefronts, and city-run schools with extra space, Mr. Umansky said. As many as 26 and at least eight schools now housed in Department of Education buildings will have to move in the next several years as they grow, a spokeswoman, Melody Meyer, said.
Demand for space will only intensify as a new state law opening the door for 50 additional city charter schools kicks in.
Since 2002, only one charter school has found a home in a building of a closed city school, Ms. Meyer said. Mayor Bloomberg's new accountability plan, which will grade all schools beginning in September, forcing consequences on the schools that get the lowest letter grades, could substantially expand that number.
About 5% of schools will receive the lowest grade, an F, making them susceptible to consequences ranging from leadership change to closure. Final decisions will also take into account a report by an outside reviewer and input from parents and school officials, the chief executive of the department's Office of New Schools, Garth Harries, said.
Some closures are certain. "We are very clear that we will close a significant number of schools," he said.
Closed schools could remain traditional city-run schools or become charter schools. "Replication of a high-performing charter school would absolutely be on the list — high on the list — of things we would want to use as a replacement," Mr. Harries said.
Mr. Umansky said he would welcome the new spaces, but he cautioned operators not to expect too much. "Unless their school closure efforts yield great results, we expect that they're not going to be able to deliver space for all the charter schools that are coming online," he said.
A major problem, he said, will be politics. In the past, communities have greeted school closures with rallies.
"If parents are notified in advance it'll be a lot smoother," the president of a Community Education Council, James Dandridge, said. "But when parents aren't notified in advance, chaos reigns."
Mr. Dandridge organized a rally this June after the Department of Education announced it was closing a middle school in his District 18. More than 100 rising sixth-graders had hoped to enter the school this September, he said. In May, they learned they would not be able to, and he said their parents are still waiting to hear about an alternative.
He said some might welcome a charter school replacement. "If you get in, I guess you like it," he said. "But what about the parents that are going to be turned away?"