Special education teachers say it’s a common feeling: the students are gone for the day, and it’s time for the real work to begin. But if they need to record something on a student’s Individualized Education Program, it’s probably too late.
Early efforts to curb overtime payments have now become policy, as the Department of Education reminds principals to keep staff members out of SESIS—the online system that tracks special education students—after the school day ends unless the principal has committed to pay for that time. The reminders were spurred by arbitration that ultimately cost the city $41 million in belated overtime to teachers and staff whose after-hours work violated union contracts.
For months, some principals have been looking for ways to give teachers more time during the day to work with the notoriously glitchy system (made more frustrating by slow school Internet speeds). But teachers and principals say that serious problems remain, as students’ information is now updated more slowly, data entry takes time away from student interaction, and some teachers continue to work without pay.
“Is that the reality? Of course it’s the reality,” said Carmen Alvarez, the UFT’s vice president for special education, of the continuing issues. “Do I like it? No. Did we tell it to the DOE three years ago in writing? Yes.”
Keyatta Hendricks, a special education teacher at P.S. 463 in the Bronx, says the new rules mean her principal does pay her for the extra hours she spends on SESIS, which average four on an average week and shoot up to 10 hours during busy periods. “My principal knows it’s impossible for me to do my job and to do all the IEPs in the building,” she said.
Alvarez said that most principals seem to be abiding by those new guidelines. But Hendricks said the increased pressure to complete the data entry during the day has real consequences. “What happens is, I’m not able to really work with my kids the way I’d like to. I don’t have the time to devote to help teachers differentiate instruction to meet their needs. There are days I’m not able to work with my kids,” she said.
The union arbitration hasn’t changed things at all schools. Mark Anderson, the special education coordinator at M.S. 228 Jonas Bronck Academy in the Bronx, said the decision hasn’t changed when he does most of the work on students IEPs—at home, at night.
The extra periods he gets as special education coordinator and his lunch periods are mostly spent in meetings with parents and coordinating services for students, he said. Lesson planning takes up more time, and unexpected glitches in SESIS, like floating error messages that obscure windows and can’t be closed, aren’t always easy to work around.
“I try to get as much done at school as I can, but it’s physically impossible given the time it takes to enter in information,” Anderson said, who said he hadn’t had a conversation with his principal about being paid for that work. “For me, it’s just part of the job in order to get all of my work done.”
Darlene Cameron, principal at P.S. 63 Star Academy in Manhattan, said that the system only holds together because teachers are willing to squeeze the work in wherever they can. “In general, they’re doing a lot of stuff during their lunch time or during their prep time, when they really should be planning lessons,” she said. “It’s been really difficult.”
“This is what you call an unfunded mandate,” said Evan Schwartz, principal of Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical High School.
And though teachers and principals say they’ve been looking for ways to make the work less burdensome, the Department of Education maintains that the system doesn’t require work outside the school day at all.
David Brodsky, director of the Department of Education’s office of labor relations, said that the essence of the arbitration was the claim that work was made more complicated by SESIS itself. “We obviously disagree,” he said, noting that schools with bandwidth issues may have faced additional issues. “We don’t think the work being asked of them is complicated. This is something any professional should be able to do.”
In response to the arbitration, the city provided new guidelines to principals in February. Speech teachers, ESL teachers, vision and hearing teachers, and paraprofessionals are supposed to have specific time allotted for SESIS responsibilities. Others were advised to “prioritize” the tasks (occupational and physical therapists) or to “confer with their supervisors” to discuss scheduling (teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists). Principals have not received additional money to pay teachers for SESIS work.
The city has been reminding principals of the changes this fall, and schools have devised some solutions of their own. At the Academy of Scholarship and Entrepreneurship in the Bronx, all students are in lunch during fourth period, which teachers use for curriculum planning. On Thursdays, special education teachers have that period free to work on SESIS, special education teacher Patrick Rush said.
Antoinette Isable-Jones, a spokeswoman for the principals union, criticized some of the city’s guidelines as “ambiguous suggestions that left school leaders with few options.”
“At this point, schools are doing all that they can within the confines of the decision to properly perform SESIS-related work,” she said.
All parties acknowledge that problems arise from the difficulty of working with SESIS itself. The system’s glitches have been well-documented since its introduction in 2011. At a City Council education committee meeting in October, Corinne Rello-Anselmi, the Department of Education deputy chancellor in charge of special education, said the city was still working to improve SESIS. “It’s had a bumpy ride,” she said.
The system did get a round of upgrades at the end of October to make the interface more user-friendly, though teachers who worked with it said they remained frustrated that those changes were mostly cosmetic.
“It doesn’t seem to make anything too much easier,” Rush said. “It’s all the same functionality.”
Patrick Wall contributed reporting.