Thursday, December 6, 2007

Rocking The Rock

These back to back columns appeared in The Wave in April 2005 as a response to the reorganization of Far Rockway HS. It obviously was a failure if they are closing it now. Who was responsible if not the DOE? Why are they allowed to get away with blaming everyone and everything but themselves? They are always talking about "no excuses" [read eduwonkette this week exploding that myth] yet they are the biggest excuse-makers there are.

School Scope Column
by Norman Scott
April 2005

As reported on page one of last week’s Wave, Far Rockaway HS has been put on a fast track to be reorganized by September which could lead to the creation of four mini-schools, including a vocational ed track, and the replacement of up to 50% of the teachers. Teachers who want to stay will have to apply for jobs. You know the story – if it’s a failing school it’s got to be the fault of the teachers. Their resistance to change must be the reason the school is perceived as failing; probably not willing enough to drink the Workshop model Kool-aid.

There is no word as to whether Region 5 Superintendent Kathleen Cashin or anyone else on her staff will in any way be held responsible for anything that went on at the school. (Is Far Rock really in Region 5?) Phyllis Marino, the Local Instructional Supervisor for the school, apparently bears no responsibility. (Exactly what does she do again?) She did get the honor of interrupting the “extremely important” 100-minute staff development time on April 4 to make the announcement. The attitude at the Region is, “Who, me? We are only responsible for schools considered successful— clearly due to our leadership where teachers barely played a role. But in failing schools, aha, we have nothing to do with them. It’s got to be the fault of the teachers, so let’s just get rid of them and things will be just fine.”

Yeah! The A train is just backed up with teachers trying to get into the school. As a Far Rockaway teacher emails, “Many people are looking to leave.... and an exodus only serves (it seems in the near future) to hurt Far Rock. We have trouble getting subs and have often had vacancies open for MONTHS, not weeks, mind you. A Guidance Counselor position (a coveted job most places) was open for 9 MONTHS... but the teachers are the problem, I s'pose...”

Here are some basic questions. Did the Region 5 management and Phyllis Marino, the LIS, know there were problems at the school or did they have to wait for the state report to tell them? If they did not know then maybe 50% of them should be replaced instead of the teachers. If they knew and did nothing, 100% of them should be replaced. After all, what stopped them from coming up with a plan to redesign the school to make improvements before the state report was issued? If they couldn’t do anything up to this point, what makes anyone think they can do it now? Their answer will probably be: we needed the state report to be issued before we could move because without it we couldn’t remove all those pesky teachers without considering seniority. You mean the Region 5 bigwigs couldn’t come up with the idea for four schools in a building with the vocational ed track before the state report was issued? The real question is: Was there any attempt to place more resources into the school to improve it before the state report?

Far Rock was declared an Impact School last year, one of the dirty dozen most violent schools and the place was inundated with police. Chancellor Klein and UFT President Randi Weingarten came to the school to celebrate the event. The school had reached the point of needing police because there just weren’t enough teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, etc. to meet the needs of the school community. When there was crime on the streets, the city threw police at the problem. When there is educational crime in the schools they never seem to think throwing teachers at the problem is a solution. It is interesting that both Klein, the “educational” leader of the schools and Weingarten, the “educational” leader of the teachers union, rarely seem to make this point.

Some people think the whole redesign process is a sham to get rid of seniority and get rid of kids who will be pushed into the few large comprehensive high schools left, as they will be sent riding the subways searching for a high school, joined by their teachers.

Let’s not pretend that Far Rock is a school without problems. As one teacher said when I visited there recently, “Exactly what are we saving?” Some people do think that Far Rock could be saved with an infusion of resources and teacher input instead of imposing a top-down model that will still end up failing in the endless shell game of school shuffling. (See David Herzenhorn’s article in the NY Times on Apr. 18 on how the wonders at Region 5 helped reorganize Thomas Jefferson HS (my alma mata) so that now four schools are failing instead of one.)

I was asked to come to the school by a teacher as a representative of ICE (Independent Community of Educators), a UFT caucus critical of the Unity Caucus/UFT leadership, because teachers are extremely frustrated with the process and the response of the UFT. The following stream of consciousness email to me from the teacher best expresses this frustration:

Where’s Waldo – er – the union at Far Rock?
Apr. 4:
Today our 100 minutes professional development was interrupted for a staff meeting in the auditorium for the Region 5 LIS to tell us the school had officially been put on the reorganization track under a “Fast Track” title...though no one truly knows what this means. As usual the rhetoric was that the Region and everyone really cares for us at Far Rockaway (HS) and now it is the “big, bad state” that has come in to ruin and reorg and mess this whole mess up even worse....

MORE appalling was the union meeting after this brief interruption by two UFTr and UFT Queens borough reps, claiming the DOE doesn’t know anything and blah, blah, blah about our rights and how they are here for us.... a seasoned teacher asked what the union had done for us.... and where they had been and what about the past year and what about now.... needless to say they got a tad bit defensive and had the NERVE to say they had been at our school a b’zillion times.... (last time was the very beginning of last year (Sept/Oct 2003!!!)....I said loudly “I never see you!!”... another colleague said we have felt abandoned.... I reiterated my plea for some help and questioned Randi’s absence (“Where’s Randi? as in “Where’s Waldo”?).... we have been wondering where she has been the past 2 years... not this week... last she was at Far Rock she posed for a photo op and said that she and Joel Klein were working together to make Far Rock a safer place.... the union reps were trying to make us feel as if we owed Randi and them a thank you for contract provision 18-G allowing for some type of rights when a school is reorg’d in the city.....THAT'S THEIR JOB!!!!....

Well.... since I had asked these “reps” or whatever they should be called...about supporting us with press releases, ads in local papers, and some media exposure)... they responded “The Mayor has control of all the papers”... I mean the audacity to insult my intelligence--- as if they can’t get something printed either locally or regionally or nationally...really!!!!!.... Hold a press conference, be proactive...anything!!!

We need parents attention and even a bit of support and they dismissed the parents of Far Rock as ever possibly voicing concern or support over losing such #’s of staff at our school.... however to give up with no attempt is like me saying my kids can’t read, so why bother. The twilight zone continues....
That the anger seems as much directed at the union as at the DOE is a product of the ineffectiveness of the UFT Chapter at Far Rock. I’ll go into the minimal role the UFT plays at the chapter, borough and central level in schools undergoing reorganization in a follow-up column. I’ll also comment on the reaction of UFT reps when the comments above were published in Education Notes, the newsletter I distribute at the UFT Delegate Assembly and online. I offered to tell their side of the story for this article but the only comment was that they came to the school to tell teachers their rights. Ahhh! That’s the point. They come with no sense of fighting back. After teachers are told they must all reapply for their jobs that’s like telling a man on the gallows he has a choice of a slipknot or a square knot. The UFT playing defense, as usual.

More important is the constant harassment the teacher has undergone in the last two weeks after inviting me to the school to talk to a group of teachers about the way the union has been dealing with the issues facing Far Rock. He has been called for disciplinary meetings with principal Denise Hallett at least three times. I’ll report on details of these surreal meetings in my next column titled “Entering the twilight zone.”

Part 2
Entering the twilight zone
The teacher asks me to come to the school to speak to a group of teachers on Monday, April 11 after the faculty conference. He puts out a leaflet that day asking people to stay after the conference. I tell him I do not have any real solutions but would talk about how UFT policy aids and abets a process that blames teachers.

I arrive while the faculty conference is going on. I sign in, go through the metal detector and the security guard directs me to the auditorium. I sit outside at a desk waiting for the conference to end. At least ten people pass by. People barely look at me. The meeting ends and a number of people file out. Again, I am not noticed.

UFT chapter leader Ray Taruskin, who is a member of Unity Caucus and has to tow the official UFT line, is asked to say a few words. I remain outside so as not to interrupt Ray, but finally enter. People are starting to leave. Ray said, “I’ll leave now and let Norm and [the teacher] talk.”

About 25 teachers are left and we talk about how the UFT isn’t proactive and doesn’t really fight any of these reorganization schemes, in essence surreptitiously giving up seniority as it does in the SBO process in so many schools. Basically, the UFT takes the role of “We’re here to tell you your rights.” After teachers are told they must all reapply for their jobs that’s like telling a man on the gallows he has a choice of a slipknot or a square knot.

Two days later, the teacher receives a letter calling him to principal Denise Hallett’s office. He is facing disciplinary action for violating school safety procedures for inviting me into the school and is told to bring a union rep. Hallet claims that I was sent to a certain room and wandered around the school instead. Since the only wandering I did was going from the sign-in desk to the auditorium, this is clearly a trumped up charge. Didn’t practically the entire staff, including possibly Hallett herself, see me sitting there? Did Ray Taruskin violate safety procedures when he asked Rona Freiser and Harilyn Fritz to the school? Do teachers at a school have the basic democratic right to invite a speaker from an official UFT caucus with another point of view than Unity? Apparently not, according to Hallett.

When the teacher goes into Hallett’s office, Ray Taruskin is there at Hallett’s request. he says he does not want Taruskin to represent him and wants either me or ICE HS Executive Board member Jeff Kaufman, chapter leader at the school at Rikers Island, who is also a labor lawyer, to represent him. Hallett refuses, saying he only has the right to a rep from the school.

Hallett tries to pin my imaginary wandering in the building on his shoulders. Teacher defends himself, rigorously, but talking to a wall can be exasperating. Teacher takes the letter and writes on it with a magic marker “THIS IS AN ATTEMPT TO INTIMIDATE. IT WILL NOT WORK” and posts it over the time clock. It is removed. He reposts it. He gets another letter ordering him to meet in Hallett’s office on Monday April 18 for possible disciplinary action. He has violated school rules by posting something over the time clock without Hallett’s permission. Have all the notices for births, engagements and upcoming Happy Hours been passed through her hands before posting? No wonder she hasn’t had time to come up with a plan to improve the school.

This meeting consists of Hallett, Taruskin and a special guest. Phylllis Marino, the LIS, has taken time out of her busy schedule to attend a meeting over the issue of posting something over the time clock. Shouldn’t she be busy writing a plan to improve the school? But this is obviously more important. Again teacher is denied a union rep of his choice.

He is shown a list of school rules affirming permission is supposed to be asked before posting an item over the time clock. The list also says permission must be received before material is placed in teacher mail boxes, a clear violation of long-standing procedures (Baizerman vs. Board of Education.) Is a visit from the Civil Liberties Union in Hallett’s future?

Marino brands teacher’s posting the letter as acting unprofessional. He requests her to give him a definition of professional. She can’t seem to come up with an answer other than to say that children come into the room where the time clock is located. Michael points to the list of rules that say, “No children are allowed in that room.” Marino goes “humph – they are monitors.” Teacher facetiously says, “A rule it a rule.”

At this point we should digress to point out that back in October Teacher was parking his car and slightly tapped the luxury car parked behind him. As he got out there was a woman he did not know sitting in the car. She called to him and chewed him out for tapping her car. “I am the Local Superintendent and am going to tell the principal on you,” she said. Thus Teacher’s introduction to her LISNESS, Phyllis Marino.

Two hours after the meeting there is another letter in Teacher’s mailbox calling him for another meeting with Hallett regarding a charge he spoke abusively to a child. We will report on that meeting in the future.

Teacher should be commended for standing up for his rights, rare in a young, third year, untenured teacher. As one teacher told me, “He’s a nice boy; he really cares.” But Teacher is clearly being set up for a U-rating. Does anyone in Far Rockaway High School think this teacher is an unsatisfactory teacher? No. Teacher is a royal pain in the ass to the administration and will be drummed out of the school and possibly teaching for inviting a guest speaker from ICE to a union meeting, tapping the car of a LIS, putting a note over the time clock, complaining about how he was treated as the wrestling coach (as reported in The Wave last fall) and other “political” charges that have nothing to do with his performance as a teacher.

The fact that he is charged with verbal abuse just two hours after the April 11 meeting is a joke and I will bet that every single teacher in the history of the NYC school system has done no different. These charges are used every day to harass teachers who do not meet the approval of their supervisors. Teacher is the poster boy for why teachers need tenure and the protection of a strong union contract. If Teacher had bowed and scraped, pleaded for mercy and shown humility the charges would disappear. For those looking to interview at Far Rock, these are the kinds of ideal teachers Marino, Cashin, Hallett and the DOE are looking for. Maybe applicants should enter crawling in on their knees. This Teacher has chosen a different course.

PostScript, Dec. 2007
Teacher was u-rated and forced from the NYC school system. He moved abroad but returned for his U-rating joke of a hearing before going back. He called me from Israel a while back to say hello and reaffirm his feelings that the UFT was a bigger joke than the DOE.

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