Life in Limbo: A Look Inside the ATR Purgatory

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Polo Colon, 63, is wearing a spiffy brown suit–accessories include suspenders and a matching fedora. He orders camarones fritos, aguacate, and maduros (fried shrimp, sliced up avocado, and fried plantains)–all in Spanish, of course. He points to the small park outside the diner window, and describes the diversity and convenience of his neighborhood – Bushwick. He grew up in the area, attended Bushwick High School, and raised a family of his own there. Bushwick is his stomping grounds, he said. 

Just last week, Colon– a teacher in the New York City public school system since 1971–was asked to sign in at the middle school he was teaching at for the week rather than slide his attendance card across the board. For someone outside of the public school system, different ways of clocking in may seem meaningless, but it is telling of the hierarchy within the school’s staff: teachers with a permanent job assignment at a school can merely slide their card into the “present” box, whereas visiting teachers must sign in. 

“I told her [the secretary] that I’m only doing this for her,” he said.

For Colon, someone who has been a teacher for over forty years, being asked to “sign in” isn’t customary. But as a teacher in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool, the practices he would normally be awarded are expired.

Colon is one of approximately 800 ATRs roaming the New York City public school system. These teachers are no longer treated with respect – not by the United Federation of Teachers, and not by the Department of Education. The ATR pool is comprised of fully licensed, fully certified teachers who have lost their permanent job positions, typically because of school closures. They find themselves roaming from school to school on a weekly basis, essentially being assigned the work of a substitute teacher.

These teachers, who have devoted years of their lives teaching students in New York City’s public school system, are treated as dispensable and are reminded of their expendability everyday.

 

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The absent teacher reserve serves as an intermediary between the guarantee of a permanent position and actually being laid off. Teachers in the ATR pool receive the same salary and benefits, but their new job description fits that of a substitute teacher. They are no longer employed by one public school, but are employed directly by the Department of Education, and float from school to school on a weekly basis.

In 2011, Mayor Bloomberg jeopardized the jobs of over 4000 teachers, with his contested policy of shutting down “failing” schools.” Through bargaining between the United Federation of Teachers and New York City’s Department of Education, the Absent Teacher Reserve was created in 2005, for teachers who found themselves in the “rubber room”– either unable to find a permanent job because of a closing school or because they were targeted for termination.

Sam, who chose to use a different name, has been a teacher in New York City for twelve years. One year after he transferred to a different middle school, it was shut down, and he became an ATR. “I’ve been an ATR for three years, and with this colocation situation, where the DOE uses one building for three to five schools, the original school loses teachers because it loses space for its students,” he said.

 Many of these ATRs are just like Colon, who has been a teacher for over forty years–teachers who have devoted years teaching, and are now unemployable.  This is because of the Department of Education’s “fair market funding formula,” according to Norm Scott, a former New York City public school teacher. Scott, now retired, worked as a public school teacher from 1967 until he officially retired in 1997. Even after that, he continued to work in New York City public schools until 2005, coordinating robotics programs at schools in his district.

 “You could have a school full of $100,000 teachers, or full of $50,000 teachers. What Joel Klein (the former Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education) did was penalize schools by limiting the number of teachers with these salaries and put a penalty on schools that hired these people,” Scott said.

 Sam described the ATR position as a way to “deprofessionalize the profession, to weaken job seniority, and job security,” with, what is often, “a humiliating rotation.”

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Colon began his career as a teacher in 1971, as an assistant preschool teacher at a daycare program in Harlem. “I just enjoyed it,” he said. “As a musician, I could do music and art with them–I just love watching children develop and helping them to develop.”

Soon after, Colon got married and had two daughters. Because of his family, Colon decided to further pursue his career in education. He became certified in Early Childhood and Early Childhood Education (degrees for teaching in preschools and elementary schools) and he earned a Common Branches License for teaching core subjects. He even completed the School Administrative Supervision and School District Administrative licenses for principal certification.

 In 1989, Colon began working at P.S. 120 in Bushwick. After seventeen years of working there, in 2006, he launched an investigation against the school’s new principal, Liza Caraballo. He accused her of violating the No Child Left Behind Act and the New York City Health Code.

 After the incident, Colon was assigned to a rubber room in downtown Brooklyn. He explained that the rubber room was full of teachers who had been charged with various things and were on their way to termination, but were still employed by the DOE.

The room was set up like a cafeteria, with long, six-person tables. Teachers could spend weeks or months there, but in many cases they were stuck in the rubber room for years. Since there were no students to teach, and no assignments to do, teachers would sit at the tables and either linger and waste time, or try their best to be productive.

“People wrote books–actual books,” said Colon. One woman, he explained, got a PHD, allowing her to get another teaching license.

Colon spent three years in the rubber room, seeing his colleagues come and go. He is finally able to work in schools again, and as an ATR, he is given weekly assignments,  never in one school for too long.

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Marc Epstein taught history at Jamaica High School in Queens for 16 years, and in the 2011-2012 school year, he received a letter from the Department of Education informing him that he–alongwith half of his fellow teachers at Jamaica–were now a part of the Absent Teacher Reserve pool.

Epstein, who has continually written about violence in public schools, wrote a piece called “New York City Ronin Teacher,” which, after being published in the Huffington Post, found its way onto the blogs of ATRs, ATR community pages, and the websites of education reformers.

“At the end of the day the teacher-ronin [ATRs] are expendable. After all, when you go to the movies and buy popcorn, does it matter who puts the popcorn in the box, or if there is a new person behind the counter every three weeks?” Epstein wrote.

Sam recalled when he was told he would become an ATR. “It was a really curt debriefing. ‘Okay, we’ve lost some numbers, we had to let some people go,’ – that’s how it went,” he said. “it was a debriefing but it was a little too curt for my taste.

Feeling like a substitute teacher is inevitable for an ATR. Teachers aren’t even able to make their own classroom lesson plans.

“100k a year to do nothing,” said Colon. But he remains optimistic because he loves his students.  “I see myself as a specialist that comes in. I have to impress on [students] that I’m not just a sub.”

One of Colon’s greatest concerns as an ATR is that he finds the DOE takes no issue in violating its own health and safety codes. For the last few weeks, he has been teaching in middle schools, for which he does not have his license. He has reached out to the DOE and UFT in regards to the matter. All of his complaints have been ignored.

“We often get put into things that are outside of our licensed area,” said Sam, in reference to his weekly rotations. “We’re either doing the best we can under challenging curriculum if we’re working outside of our licensed area, or we’re bringing lessons that have been made up already for the grade level.”

However, ATRs also face struggles outside of the classroom.

“A lot of us struggle with the idea of being a substitute. Substitutes don’t have multiple years of experience, and aren’t entirely certified unless they’ve retired already,” said Sam. “But students don’t really refer to us as that–staff does. So we take that as a professional slight.”

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Since the implementation of the ATR policy, forums and blogs have popped up all over the internet, not only criticizing the creation of the absent teacher reserve pool, but condemning Bloomberg’s idea of education reform. NYC ATR and NYC Rubber Room are two of the more well known blogs that cover news from the absent teacher reserve pool, and allow teachers in the pool to communicate with their fellow co-workers in the same situation.

Teachers in the absent teacher reserve pool do not have their own classroom, their own students, or their own community. And they have resorted to the internet to–a majority of the time–anonymously sending in accounts of their struggles in their new positions, just to cope.

Colon is not bitter despite what he has been through in his final years as a teacher. He is optimistic and is looking forward to finally retiring in Spring 2013, so he finally has time to pursue his musical interests.

However, the future for other ATRs remains bleak. The DOE recently implemented more teacher evaluations, especially for ATRs, which the UFT has supported. Norm Scott, who has worked alongside ATRs, explained the tension within teachers in schools.

“You walked into a school [as an ATR] and you were branded as being a loser,” he said. “They created this ATR system for teachers who could not get jobs and they vilified them. Each year it was a competition with the next round of ATRs, so people are being attacked as incompetent teachers.”

New York City’s Department of Education has hosted several job fairs, advertising them specifically to the ATR community. However, the job fairs are not only for ATRs, but for anyone interested in a teaching position. Sam, who is still stuck in the system, emphasized the union’s failure to support teachers in his situation.

 “We go to these job fairs and its really a show. What goes on is that they hire quite openly and are very solicitous towards the people who are just finishing up their education studies and they literally give a cold shoulder and left handshake who have fifteen and twenty years in the school system,” said Sam.

“We have gestations of being sold out not just by the city, but by the union,” he said. “What they should be doing is respecting the contract.”

Turnaround Purgatory: Absent Teacher Reserve

The Grim Fate of Teachers at Closing Schools

Everyone remembers looking forward to having a substitute teacher back in grade school: someone who would come in for a few days, someone easy to not take seriously, and someone easy to forget. For part-timers, or for teachers just starting out, being a substitute is the norm.

But imagine being a licensed teacher, working in the system for a number of years, and then being restored to that very position. A new school every week, new faces – students and fellow teachers alike – essentially receiving a demotion. This has become a reality for some teachers and a possibility for others working in public schools slated to close down.

Since 2009, the United Federation of Teachers has filed three lawsuits against the Department of Education, the most recent regarding the proposal to restaff up to half of the teachers in failing schools in order to receive more federal funding. However, the more common approach is the closure of schools rather than restaffing, leaving some teachers in a limbo, or rather, becoming part of the Absent Teacher Reserve.

As a result of this attempt to run schools like a business, teachers have become an afterthought in the Department of Education’s recent closure of failing public schools.

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Years ago, when a public school was designated to close, teachers who had been working for a few years had something known as “seniority transfer.” When a job opened up in a school, the position was given to the teacher licensed in that area with the most experience. In the most recent United Federation of Teachers contract, seniority transfer was done away with and absent teacher reserve came about.

The absent teacher reserve pool, last reportedly comprised of around 830 teachers in New York City, is a group of teachers who lost their permanent teaching assignments because of budget cuts or school closure. Rather than remaining on the school’s payroll or instead of being let go entirely after a school closure, the salary of an ATR is paid directly by the Department of Education.  They work as long-term substitute teachers, or more typically transfer from school to school on a weekly basis.

John Gawon, who has worked as a teacher in New York City for 21 years, explained that the change in contract came about when the Board of Education and Mayor Bloomberg decided to break down larger, failing public schools, and open smaller schools in their place.

“The union – stupidly in my opinion – agreed to [replace seniority transfer with ATR],” said Gawon. “In the old days, people like myself would have been assigned to a new school. Now, the budget is cut differently so it actually makes a difference whether you have three years of experience or twenty years of experience.”

With the city’s most recent list taken into consideration, the Bloomberg administration has placed 166 schools on the chopping block in total, and opened 656 new public schools since 2002. With all of these school closures, many teachers are left in the ATR limbo, or at the very least, fear the threat of it. By contract however, ATRs cannot be fired, and are paid indefinitely until they find a permanent assignment.

Since the budget has been reallocated, it is more difficult for teachers with more experience to find permanent jobs on the dime of a school because they are paid more. Of the one thousand ATRs who lost their jobs in 2006, twenty-six earn more than $100,000 a year, not even accounting for about $30,000 in benefits. Seventy have been working in the school system for over twenty years or more.

Gawon currently teaches at Morris Academy a subset of Morris Academy of Collaborative Studies in the Bronx. His school is an example of a smaller school that opened up in the place of a larger, failing school.

“Let’s say in a couple of years, my school gets ready to shut down – I would then become an ATR, and it would be very unlikely that anyone would hire me,” said Gawon. “Why would you want [me] when you could pay two teachers at a lower salary?”

Pablo Ramirez, a coworker of Gawon at Morris Academy, pointed out that even in the city’s efforts to save money, the smaller school model is not sustainable. Ramirez used to work at George Washington High School in Manhattan, which was reopened as four smaller schools in 1999.

“Principal salary is 150,000 dollars, and now there’s four instead of one,” said Ramirez. “Going from the large schools to the new [small] schools makes no sense at all, not even from the business point of view of Bloomberg.”

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Just as alarming as the number of ATRs is their daily experience. “It’s not a good situation – they come in but you don’t get to know them because they’re going to be gone in a couple of days,” said Gawon. “The city is right to say they’re very expensive substitute teachers, but I have no sympathy for the city because they created that situation.”

And with more and more public schools slated to close each year, the prospect of being an ATR becomes a reality for more teachers – and those with more experience face more difficulties finding a permanent position.

The Teacher’s Union has been making noise in regards to the fate of the ATRs, since the DOE hopes to place a time limit on their employment. Ideally, when new positions open up, ATRs will be hired first, and then new teachers can be considered for positions. Gawon does not think the board will agree to that, but hopes the union will hold tight to that position.

“The union was pretty strong and [the board] basically wants to break the union, and they’re breaking it pretty fast,” said Ramirez. “With some kind of business going on with the government, schools will become a very difficult place to work.”

The Only Exception

New York City’s Oldest Public School Fears Becoming History

Tucked between a few commercial buildings, and across the street from Flushing’s YMCA and a Chinese food restaurant is Flushing High School. The school is seemingly out of place: its Neo-Gothic style  – with gargoyles and all – and its grassy, tree-lined campus makes a stark contrast between the school and its urban neighbors.

Flushing High School was founded in 1875, making it New York City’s oldest public school. The building itself however, came later. It was constructed from 1912 to 1915, and was designed by C. B. J. Snyder, a renowned urban school architect who was Superintendent of School Buildings for the New York Board of Education. The school was declared a New York City landmark in 1991, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings in 1992.

The school’s internal politics, however, have earned it a fair share of limelight in the last year: Flushing High School was slated to close in April 2012 because of its status as a “turnaround,” or rather, failing school. In June this was overturned after the resolve of the United Federation of Teachers’ lawsuit against the Department of Education. Only two months after, Carl Hudson, Jr., the school’s principal was arrested on drug charges.

On the surface, Flushing High School is just another underdeveloped public school with poor standardized test scores and low attendance rates. And within the last three years it has gone from scoring the 18 percentile – meaning that the school’s report card grade is greater than or equal to 18 percent of other high schools – to the 7 percentile.

Despite the numbers, Flushing High School does not fit the description for the stereotypical “failing” school. It is located in one of the most thriving neighborhoods in Queens, and is in one of the safest precincts. Students are not placing any blame on teachers, but rather, on each other. The problems they face may be representative of a larger, systematic issue.

Inside the Castle’s Walls

The most obvious internal change within Flushing High School was the recent creation of smaller programs or academies to help direct more attention on individual students.

Michael Alberston, a music teacher who has taught at Flushing for nine years, told School Stories, “We have too many people in the building. Students are not getting the attention they deserve.” His class sizes reach the maximum 34 students, and sometimes even exceed that number.

Approximately 3000 students attend Flushing High School, of whom 52 percent are Hispanic/Latino, 25 percent are Black/African American, 19 percent are Asian/Pacific Islander and 4 percent are white.

While those statistics have remained relatively the same within the last three years – when the school, by DOE standards, was significantly better – other demographic factors have changed. In 2008-2009. 74 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced lunch, compared to the 78 percent in 2010-2011. Student stability – essentially retention rate – has also decreased, from 98 percent to 93 percent respectively.

James Manning, now a senior at Flushing, told the Queens Courier that students were “[choosing] not to learn,” with a large number of students cut class everyday and doing drugs in the hallway.

“No matter who you put in front of that classroom, they are still the same kids,” said Manning.

Others shared the same sentiment. Ziyi Yu, a student at Flushing, arrived to the United States from China a few years ago. He explained that many students skip class, and bully Asian students.

His mother, Jing-yan Zhang, told School Stories that when she found out her son was assigned to Flushing High School, she was worried for his future.

“Many Chinese families moved to Bayside or other areas so their children don’t have to go to this school,” she said. She and her husband cannot afford to move however: both work in Flushing, speak little English, and rent is higher in those neighborhoods.

Jenny Chen, who teaches in the Chinese bi-lingual program, explained to School Stories that the demographics of the school have changed within the last few years.

“Our school receives federal funding so we don’t get to choose what students we have,” she said. “If they keep closing down schools, like Jamaica High School, where do those low-performing students go? They come here.”

The DOE’s “Solution”

 

Since coming into office in 2002, Mayor Bloomberg has closed over 140 “failing” public schools, forcing students from these closed schools to attend elsewhere. Since New York City public schools use “zones,” students from certain areas are given preference to attend.

When a school is slated to close the first step the DOE looks to accomplish is “restaffing.” This is essentially replacing as many of the school’s teachers as the DOE sees fit. In doing so, the new school becomes eligible for federal grants – and the more teachers replaced, the more money is allotted. Typically, at least half of the teachers are replaced.

When Flushing was first put on the list of the city’s 24 failing schools set to close, over 3,000 teachers lost their job assignments and were told to reapply if interested. The United Federation of Teachers and Council of School Supervisors and Administrators filed a lawsuit against the DOE, claiming that this was a violation of their contract.

The Teachers Union won, and Flushing High School remained open. However, it was placed on the list of “priority” schools, meaning that along with the other priority schools, administrators must draft improvement plans in order to continue to receive federal funding.

In September, AT&T donated 300,000 dollars to the Sports and Arts in Schools Foundation to help Flushing High School with tutors and college advisors. As a priority school, the federal government does not set aside funds for tutoring.

And unless drastic improvements are made within the next two years, the possibility of closure remains a very real possibility for Flushing High School.

The Proximity of the Problem

An Academic Profile of Two Bronx High Schools

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Every morning, over six thousand high school students make their way to the Bedford Park neighborhood of the north Bronx. They stroll down Jerome Avenue, a street overshadowed by the 4 train’s above ground track. The streets are desolate, and unmarked buildings and abandoned storefronts scatter the area.

Half of these students continue down the block of West 205th St., and make their way into a seemingly modern building, where they are greeted by a vibrant 63-foot Venetian glass mural, depicting famous scientists such as Marie Curie and Charles Darwin.  Students then swipe their ID cards, say hello to the friendly woman manning the computer at entrance who knows all their names and faces, and proceed to their lockers before classes begin.

The other three thousand students pass the high school with the huge mural, and walk along a fenced off football field that separates the other school from their own and make their way to the end of that same block. After passing a few more fences, students finally enter their school. They show their ID cards and walk through metal detectors. Police officers, armed with guns, batons, and tasers, greet students on the other side, sometimes using hand-held wand metal detectors.

The school with the mural is the Bronx High School of Science – usually referred to as “Bronx Science” or “Science – and its neighbor is DeWitt Clinton High School. The former is a nationally recognized school, was deemed a historic physics site in 2010, and its current student body, along with alumni, can hardly remember a time when Science wasn’t on U.S. News and World Report’s list of America’s Gold Medal High Schools.

DeWitt Clinton, on the other hand, has been graded as one of the city’s “failing” public high schools for the last two years, based on the standards of the Department of Education’s annual report card. And for the 2011-2012 year, the school was declared the most dangerous in New York City.

The glaring differences in the two schools represent not only the disparity of learning opportunities in city public schools, but the proximity of the problem.

Getting In

Last November, the Department of Education announced that 24 New York City public high schools were in danger of closing due to low report card grades. One of those schools was DeWitt Clinton.

As of January Clinton was nixed from the list of closing schools, but the administration will have to make a serious effort to improve student progress, as well as safety if they are to receive a better grade for the upcoming year.

An obvious difference between the two schools is that entrance to Bronx Science is barred by a city-wide entrance exam, and Clinton is essentially open to anyone, with preference to residents of the Bronx. Admission to Bronx Science, along with other NYC Specialized Public High Schools, is solely based on the Specialized High School Admission Test. For the 2012-2013 test, only 5% of applicants were admitted to Bronx Science.

This past year, the NAACP filed a complaint to the United States Education Department on the grounds that the SHSAT was biased against minorities.

“There’s nothing subjective about this,” Mayor Bloomberg told the New York Times. “You pass the test, you get the highest score, you get into the school — no matter what your ethnicity, no matter what your economic background is.”

Connected by Violence 

Aside from lack of academic progress, students at DeWitt Clinton High School have had to deal with the [lack] of safety. For the 2011-2012 year, the school was declared the most dangerous in New York City; Clinton has the most heavily-armed student body.

According to the most recent statistics released by the state, 33 weapons were seized from students – from guns and knives to brass knuckles – and there were over 252 reported “violent or disruptive” incidents in 2010. There is a video online of students fighting on the sidewalk outside of the school.

Those numbers do not necessarily account for the violence that has made its way down the block to Bronx Science. Students have testified to being robbed by their neighbors from Clinton.

Ajay Parikh, a Bronx Science alumnus, also faced a similar dilemma, when he was jumped by fifteen students from DeWitt Clinton and another neighboring high school. All of his possessions were stolen, and he was beaten so badly that he was sent to the hospital.

Steven Zilberman, another alumnus, recounted when his friend was mugged in 2007. During his lunch period, he and another classmate were walking back to their campus, when they were both assaulted, and one of the attackers stole his friend’s wallet. They reported the incident to a school security guard, and one of the muggers was caught and arrested.

Zilberman, who now attends Vanderbilt University, said that despite the incident, he still felt safe on campus.

“When I was on the Bronx Science campus, I wasn’t worried about Clinton. It was only the commuting [that was bad],” he said. “I knew that Bronx Science and Clinton had the understanding that their students should stay on their campus.”

Inside the school & what students take away

According to the Department of Education’s website, DeWitt Clinton received 19.5 million dollars in Fair Student Funding for the 2012-2013 school year, and Bronx Science received just over 14 million dollars. The FSF comprises two-thirds of a school’s annual budget, and is based on student academic needs. The money may be used at the principal’s discretion.

The remaining funds come from donations, and the city and state governments. Those numbers were not disclosed on the Department of Education website.

DeWitt Clinton, by default, receives more money from the government because of its larger student population. Another, less obvious financial and social divergence between the schools is the percentage of students that fall under the “Need/Resource Capacity” category, which is determined by how many students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and how many students have limited English proficiency.

Thirty-four percent of Bronx Science students from 2011-2012 were eligible for free lunch, and 12% were eligible for reduced-price lunch. Seventy-four percent of students at DeWitt Clinton were eligible for free lunch, and 7% were eligible for reduced-price lunch. Twenty percent of students at Clinton had a limited proficiency in English, while Bronx Science had none.

The clear socioeconomic gap between students at the two schools reflects in the academic opportunities offered to them.

Bronx Science boasts itself as college prep school, with 99.9% of students continuing on to four-year colleges after graduation, and 99.9% of students also graduate with a New York State Regents diploma. Clinton, on the other hand, has a 49.9% graduation rate, and only 17.5% of students graduate with a regents diploma.

“From my writing abilities to my cognitive process, Bronx Science has helped me flourish in college,” said Parikh. “It provided me with the learning opportunities that I needed as it offered AP courses, college-level courses, athletic teams, and academic tutoring for most classes.”

While Clinton offers its students many of the same AP courses, 88.2% of Bronx Science students earn a score 3 or higher – which is considered “passing” because that is the minimum score to earn college credit – while only 12.8% of Clinton students pass.

It is not only the time that students spend at the school, but what they go on to do after that is a result of the opportunities offered to them. 99.9% of Bronx Science graduates go on to attend college, while only 40.3% of Clinton graduates go on to do the same.