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.


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.”


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


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.