Complaint Department

UFT targets overcrowded classes in its first major complaint under New York City’s new teacher contract

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
UFT President Michael Mulgrew this winter hosted a discussion on the potential impacts of Janus.

New York City’s teachers union has filed their first public complaint under a new contract, officials said Wednesday, focusing on a handful of schools that have long exceeded class size limits.

The dispute centers on five high schools that have had chronically overcrowded classrooms for at least four of the past six years. Under the contract, most high school classrooms should be capped at 34 students.

Union officials said class sizes at the five schools had reached 38 students in some cases, but did not provide breakdowns for each school. The five schools include: Benjamin N. Cardozo High School, Francis Lewis High School, and Academy of American Studies, all in Queens, and Leon M. Goldstein High School and Secondary School for Journalism, in Brooklyn.

Class size complaints are common among teachers nationally, and the United Federation of Teachers, which represents roughly 79,000 classroom teachers, files hundreds of them every year. But union officials see the latest round of class size complaints as a test case for new contract provisions that are supposed to speed up a process that can often take months before an arbitrator hears the case.

“The schools on this list have a history of ignoring [class size] limits, and under our new contract we can now begin a faster process of getting all class size complaints resolved,” union president Michael Mulgrew said in a statement.

Under the old system, class size complaints could languish for many months before being heard by an arbitrator, officials said, whereas the new system is meant to spur an agreement before that stage. Union officials, who spoke on condition that they not be named, said they hope the latest complaint could be resolved in a matter of weeks without an arbitrator weighing in. (Officials said a bigger test will come in September, when the lion’s share of class size complaints are typically raised.)

Whether the new process has a big impact on class sizes at individual schools or moves the needle systemwide remains to be seen. Cardozo High School, for instance, has been the subject of previous class size complaints.

Arthur Goldstein, a teacher at Francis Lewis high school, said class size issues have been pervasive since he became the union chapter leader a decade ago.

“We’ve done grievances twice a year every year,” he said, adding that the “action plans” created to resolve complaints under the old contract often did not result in class size reductions. “To allow more than 34 kids in a classroom is unconscionable.” He said he’s hopeful the new process will put more pressure on administrators to act quickly.

Education department officials acknowledged that class size limits may have been exceeded by “one or two additional students” in some cases at the schools referenced in the complaint. Francis Lewis and Academy of American Studies are adding hundreds of students worth of capacity through building additions, the official said.

“We’re working with these five schools to review and reduce class sizes as needed at the beginning of the new semester,” education department spokeswoman Danielle Filson wrote in an email. She noted the city has committed to creating 57,000 new school seats through its capital plan over five years.

Still, Leonie Haimson, executive director of the advocacy group Class Size Matters, said city data shows hundreds of classrooms have exceeded the cap, and that the administration has not taken an aggressive stance on the issue.

“The class size caps are too large and haven’t been lowered,” she wrote in an email.

On the hunt

Want a say in the next IPS superintendent? Here’s your chance.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat

Parents, teachers, and neighbors will have a chance to weigh in on what they hope to see in the next Indianapolis Public Schools superintendent and the future of the district at three community meetings in the coming weeks.

The meetings, which will be facilitated by Herd Strategies at three sites across the city, will gather feedback before the school board begins the search for a new superintendent. The school board is expected to select the next superintendent in May.

Board President Michael O’Connor said the meetings are designed to get input on what the public values in the next superintendent. But they will also play another role, allowing community members to reflect and give feedback on the district’s embrace of innovation schools, one of the most controversial strategies rolled out during former Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration.

“As we look for the next superintendent, it’s perfect for us to take input on that path that we’ve taken and then hear what [community members] think is working well and maybe what they think we could do better,” O’Connor said, noting that the administration and board are often criticized for failing to engage the public.

Innovation schools are run by outside charter or nonprofit managers, but they are still considered part of the district. Indianapolis Public Schools gets credit from the state for their test scores, enrollment, and other data. The model is lauded by charter school advocates across the country, and it helped Ferebee gain national prominence.

Ferebee left Indianapolis in January after he was tapped to lead the Washington, D.C., school system. Indianapolis Public Schools is being led by interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson, who was formerly the deputy superintendent and is seen as a leading candidate to fill the position permanently.

Here is information about the three scheduled community input sessions:

Feb. 27, Hawthorne Community Center, 1-3 p.m.

March 7, Arsenal Technical High School in the Anderson Auditorium, 6-8 p.m.

March 13, George Washington Carver Montessori School 87 in the gymnasium, 6-8 p.m.

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.