Teachers at a school where hundreds of parents signed a petition against the principal this summer continued the protest today by boycotting Curriculum Night.
Teachers at New Explorations in Science, Technology, and Math, or NEST+M, announced the boycott via email this afternoon, telling parents that Principal Olga Livanis had not soothed relations with the staff after she surprised several of them with “unsatisfactory” ratings.
When parents arrived for the annual introduction to what their children would be learning this year at the citywide school for gifted and talented students, they were told that many teachers had stayed home and given a copy of the email announcing the boycott.
“I feel really awful to hear this,” said Angela Stokes, a former teacher whose daughter is a sophomore in NEST’s high school. “I had this idyllic idea about NEST being away from all the muck and the mire of the DOE. NEST is not immune, I’m finding out.”
Livanis has butted heads with parents and teachers since 2006, when she was installed as principal after the school’s founding leader was removed amid controversy and over some parents’ objections. In June, hundreds of parents registered official objections after several well liked teachers received the low ratings. Their petition, which was delivered to Department of Education officials, also called on Livanis to improve the way she communicates with members of the school community.
But two weeks into the new school year, teachers said today that there had been no changes.
“Our show of solidarity has gone unanswered and ignored by the administration, and no indication has been made that she will address the issues and ensure a positive work environment for the staff and a positive learning environment for the students,” read the teachers’ email today.
Rob Curry-Smithson, a high school history teacher who is also NEST+m’s union chapter leader, said the U-ratings had gone to teachers who had never been alerted that they were performing poorly and that Livanis had cited seemingly minor transgressions, such as one instance of yelling, in her reports. All seven of the teachers who received the low ratings filed grievances, and the only case to be heard so far resulted in the U-rating being overturned, he said.
Still, Curry-Smithson said, Livanis’s apparent capriciousness frightened the teachers.
“We realized that every minute on the job is an increased potential that something could go wrong — so we should at least be paid for that time when we are putting our careers at risk,” he said.
So they asked to be paid overtime for Curriculum Night, which unlike parent-teacher conferences is not required contractually. But Livanis declined to pay teachers for the evening, Curry-Smithson said, and he said when he suggested that Livanis compensate teachers with time instead of money, she declined even to speak with him. The boycott was a last resort, he said.
As parents trickled into the school this evening, Kathy Stokes, c0-vice president of the middle school’s parent-teacher association, informed new arrivals about the boycott and guided them toward teachers who were available.
Some parents grumbled that they had reserved babysitters unnecessarily. But others said the inconvenience was slight.
“I get regular communication from the teacher during the school hours, so I don’t feel like I can complain if she’s not here tonight,” said Chante Brown, the mother of a third-grader and a ninth-grader at NEST.
Curry-Smithson said he expected about 80 percent of teachers to stay home but that some untenured teachers were too concerned about repercussions to participate. An email from NEST’s lower school assistant principal to parents this afternoon listed several teachers who had already alerted him that they would not be present and noted that it looked like all fourth- and fifth-grade teachers would stay home.
“I cannot confirm some teachers, as I have been told that they don’t know themselves whether they are staying or not,” wrote the assistant principal, Nicholas Patrello. He added, “I do apologize about the confusion and frustration.”
Many parents placed the blame squarely on the administration.
“We began to hear rumblings about this last week, but to be fair I think [teachers] were trying until the last minute to find a compromise,” Stokes said. “I look forward as a parent to Curriculum Night and I’m disappointed that the administration couldn’t work with the teachers to make the night happen.”
“I think there has been some hope that with the new chancellor there could be an opportunity for an administrative change,” said a parent who skipped Curriculum Night to show support for her daughter’s teachers. “There have many unhappy teachers at NEST for a long time. It is such a shame as the school has enormous potential to be a fantastic.”
NEST+m teachers’ letter to parents is below.
As NEST+m UFT reps, we want to let you know why many of the NEST+m staff will not be present for Curriculum Night. Last year, we expressed our grievances concerning the way our school has been run to Dr. Livanis, but to no avail. Our show of solidarity has gone unanswered and ignored by the administration, and no indication has been made that she will address the issues and ensure a positive work environment for the staff and a positive learning environment for the students.
When Dr. Livanis unfairly and without warning rated seven teachers unsatisfactory last year, we became concerned. This rating is not a minor thing; it is the first step in stripping someone of their teaching license, (which makes it impossible for that teacher to take a job elsewhere, and freezes their salary, resulting in a loss of approximately one thousand dollars to the teacher). Many of the teachers who received a “U” rating have been told by Dr. Livanis that she considers them fine teachers, and that the rating was not a reflection of their performance. While it is always nice to hear that your supervisor thinks you are doing a good job, it is a strange and disconcerting thing to have one thing said to your face and another one recorded on an official record which will follow you. Since many of these teachers are known to be great teachers who go above and beyond the requirements of their job, there is concern amongst the staff that our careers are subject to arbitrary and unfair decisions by our principal.
While Dr. Livanis has made no visible effort to assuage our fears, we have become concerned that anything we say or do might be twisted and used to torpedo our career. Because we are unsure how else to express our grave dissatisfaction with the status-quo, we have decided that, at a minimum, we need to ensure that we don’t endanger our jobs by working unpaid, non-contractual hours. While in the past we have gone beyond our job description and worked overtime without pay on Curriculum Night, this year we asked to be paid for those hours. This is a practice which is normal at many schools in NYC, and is in keeping with our contract. When Dr. Livanis denied our request, we were concerned about deserting parents who had already planned to attend. So we offered a compromise. We offered to work the hour and a half if she would count that as one of our 45 minute after-school meetings that are required by contract. As she has refused this compromise as well, we feel it necessary to stand firm on this issue — something we have not done in the past.
We apologize for the last minute nature of this decision. We have been trying to resolve this with compromise up through today but we have been unsuccessful. We deeply regret any inconveniences this has caused families, and we regret not being able to reach a settlement that would have allowed us all to share this evening together.
Thank you for your understanding and support,
The NEST+m UFT Consultation Committee