by James Eterno, UFT Chapter Leader, Jamaica High School
I am well aware that I should no longer be surprised with anything that happens in the school system, but once again I allowed myself to be disappointed to read the UFT Newspaper, the NY Teacher. The September 12 edition had a headline that read, "Grand Opening." Below it was a caption that read, "Classes begin with hardly a glitch." Are they for real?
Instead of throwing the newspaper in the garbage, I read on to see what UFT President Randi Weingarten had to say. She stated, "Today's opening of schools was one of the smoothest I can remember." She went on to talk about sporadic problems that were mostly solved. Why is the UFT again joining in on the happy talk about the school system?
Maybe I am so shell shocked because of what we have been through and are continuing to experience at Jamaica High School, but the UFT quotes do not reflect any of what we are feeling. Classes started for us on September 2 with around 100 oversize classes and over twenty people in our building were Absent Teacher Reserves. After school on the first day of classes, I went to a Queens High School Chapter Leaders Meeting.
I heard Chapter Leaders talk about how many ATRs are in each school. Talented veteran teachers who are not allowed to teach a full time program is not anything I would define as grand, particularly when there are oversize classes. At the meeting, I listened to Chapter Leaders complain about oversize classes in their buildings. How could this be allowed to happen when the State just came through with funding for reduced class sizes? Having students move chairs from room to room because classes are so crowded is not what I would define as a smooth opening.
In Queens, the overcrowding problem is severe but Jamaica High School, which has space available, this past week was closed out for incoming over the counter students (those new to the area who are registering for school for the first time). The DOE actually wrote that we have no seats available. We have plenty of seats and we have teachers if we were to be permitted to use our ATRs to actually teach. How was the opening of the year in your buildings? We would like to know.
School Administrators Need those two Days Before Labor Day Back to Reorganize
My observations of the high school opening in Queens was that it was a mess. How many classes in the city will still be oversize after the ten day grace period that the UFT and DOE gives principals to fix them? My guess is that oversize classes will still number in the thousands.
Part of the problem is that the amount of time between the end of summer school on August 15 and the date when teachers start school on August 28 is not sufficient to reorganize high schools properly. Administrators must re-program many students who earned credit in summer schools. This takes time to do correctly and then it puts class sizes out of balance in many cases. This partially explains the oversize class problem in certain schools every year.
It is virtually impossible to fix the problem because we come back to school too soon after summer school. If administration had the two full weeks between summer school and the return of teachers, as they did in the past before the 2005 Contract, they might be able to do a better job of reorganizing. There might be less chaos at the start of the school year because many more students would be properly placed.
The PBA (Police union) recently set a precedent when they negotiated to win back a day off that was taken away from them by an arbitrator in a prior settlement. It's now time for the UFT to use that agreement as a precedent to say that for the good of the schools, let administration have the entire two weeks between summer school and Labor Day to reorganize schools properly without teachers or pupils in the buildings. We come back too soon; administration needs ample time to readjust student schedules after summer school, instead of worrying about planning teacher professional development for August. We should return to school after Labor Day and then bring the students back on the Thursday after Labor Day. A couple of extra days to update student programs might make all the difference in the world and allow us to start each school year a little more efficiently.
The PBA won one day; the second day we need could be gained by exchanging a Professional Development Day, such as Brooklyn Queens Day, and making that an instructional day. After all, that is a valuable day just a week before Regents Exams in the high schools. Certainly, extra instruction at that time would benefit the students. Let's do what the PBA did to benefit the kids and bring some order to the start of the school year.