Monday, February 25, 2008

An Open Letter From the Jamaica HS Chapter

Jamaica High School UFT
167-01 Gothic Drive
Jamaica, NY 11432

February 11, 2008

Ms. Randi Weingarten
President United Federation of Teachers
52 Broadway
New York, NY 10004

Dear President Weingarten:

Jamaica High School is suffering close to one million dollars in budget cuts for the current spring semester. We have thirteen fewer teachers than we had in the fall. Our funding has been slashed because of declining enrollments caused mainly by the Department of Education and New York State wrongfully labeling us as an impact school and a persistently dangerous school because of misuse of data. We have been hit with a second punch due to the recent citywide budget cut. We can no longer function properly as a comprehensive high school and the DOE has reacted by forcing us to share our space with another school in the fall.

On Monday, January 28, 2008, the faculty and parents of Jamaica High School were surprised to hear that a College Board School would be placed inside of our building in September. We are only beginning to learn about the College Board’s vision for secondary education and we harbor no malice toward the program or its schools. However, to place a new separate school with its abundance of resources from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation on our premises while we are struggling with outlandish budget cuts from the New York City Department of Education is extremely unfair.

Jamaica High School was chartered in 1892. We have a 116 year history of which the staff and students are extremely proud. There are numerous distinguished alumni who have graduated from Jamaica High School. Gateway to Higher Learning, Academy of Finance, Law, Engineering and Computer Science Institute are educational programs that attract many fine students. We also do our best with many students who enter high school unprepared for the academic rigors of our challenging curriculum. In spite of this, it is quite common for even our students with the greatest needs to be successful at the high school level and fully prepared for higher education and beyond.

Most educators in this building feel as though we are links on a long chain that is Jamaica’s storied tradition. We believe we have been handed an almost sacred trust by the professionals and students who toiled here in the past to keep Jamaica moving ahead into the 21st century as a viable educational institution. However, our mission has become increasingly difficult mainly because of factors that are way beyond our control.

Commencing in 2003 there was a spike in reported disciplinary incidents in the school. At that time the administration started a zero-tolerance discipline policy that helped keep our hallways clear but it led to many more misdemeanor incidents being reported. Inevitably, suspensions and arrests increased. Subsequently, the Department of Education mis-labeled us a “priority school” and then an “impact school.” Inaccurate newspaper articles about the labels further tarnished our reputation. Our contesting the designations with the New York City Police Department and the Department of Education were to no avail. In the fall of 2007 the state misinterpreted our statistics to wrongfully label us a “persistently dangerous school,” a label that has had dire consequences for us.

In September the New York City Department of Education sent an official letter to the parent of every student in our school telling them Jamaica High School had been labeled “persistently dangerous” (though the school is not unsafe and never was) and offering to transfer their children out of our school. In the fall semester 173 parents took the opportunity to transfer their youngsters to other New York City schools. The Department of Education reacted, not by offering to help us to recruit students in order to preserve the integrity of Jamaica’s programs and ease overcrowding in neighboring schools, but by slashing our budget midyear, citing declining enrollments. As a result, we can no longer function properly as a comprehensive high school.

We now have eleven teachers who are in excess. Termed Absent Teacher Reserves (ATR’s) by the Department of Education, they are only permitted to cover for teachers who are out for the day, not teach a regular program.

On the first day of the spring semester, one of our teachers walked into an honors economics class of 39 students. Chairs from other classes had to be brought in to accommodate the students, and ultimately a number of students had to be dropped because there were too many students for one class. Meanwhile, a licensed social studies teacher (one of the ATR’s) is not teaching classes. Another social studies teacher is instructing music classes out-of-license, while the licensed music teacher (another ATR) has no classes to teach. The administration was compelled to close all but one of the swimming classes this term (though our pool is one of Jamaica High School’s great assets) because there is no money for the smaller classes swimming courses demand. We have been forced to slash innovative programs such as our two-teachers-in-a-class program for students having difficulty in math. The pupils are being short-changed in the classroom.

Other cuts we have suffered over the last few years include: the elimination of Summer Institute Pre-High School program for incoming Gateway students and the cancellation of the Advanced Placement government class as well as off-track classes for pupils who have failed a course and need to catch up. Also, classes outside the regular day are only available for graduating seniors. How can our students succeed when we cannot provide most students with what they need academically?

In addition, students are not offered the extracurricular choices that are often the hallmark of the high school experience. After school clubs are basically now volunteer activities since there is no money to pay for faculty advisors. The Odasete Dance Team, the Caribbean Club, the Spanish Honors Society, the Cheerleaders, the Bengali Club, and the Drama Club have all been dropped. The Step Team, the Animate Club, the Key Club, the Haitian Club, the International Club, the Teen Ambassadors, the Science Club and the Tennis Club are all supervised by teachers for free because there are insufficient funds to pay advisors for these programs. Teachers and other staff had to volunteer their time to set up and run our third annual Cardboard Boat Race where students apply what they have learned in physics class to build and race in boats in our swimming pool. Teachers volunteer for all of these activities because of their commitment to our students.

Furthermore, the budget for school secretaries has been cut; our secretarial staff has been reduced by attrition. The remaining secretaries are being overwhelmed with tasks that were once performed by a larger crew. Inevitably, services for students as well as staff deteriorate.

The Department of Education has reacted to our plight by bringing in hordes of armed police officers, school safety agents, surveillance cameras and metal detecting equipment for a school that does not have a weapons problem. To top it off we now learn that in September the DOE will be opening up a new College Board school at Jamaica High School with their own principal and staff.

The College Board School students will assuredly get every advantage that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Michael and Susan Dell Foundation have to offer while Jamaica’s traditional pupils will suffer with even more cuts as our enrollments decline and we are squeezed out of various wings of the building. Working under ever-worsening conditions, we will be blamed when our students fail to do well.

The College Board website indicates that their schools are unscreened, but will their new school take on special education pupils or students with limited English proficiency, as we do, when it starts in the fall? As the resources are provided to the new school, those in need of greatest help will mostly likely remain in the regular Jamaica High School.

Deprived of the resources we need to survive, we feel we are being set up to fail by being slowly suffocated by the DOE. How could we not fail when we are a comprehensive high school that cannot afford to run a comprehensive program?

We know that the UFT has taken a position opposing the horrific midyear budget cuts that have been imposed by the Mayor and Chancellor. The Union has our unqualified support in this battle. Our situation certainly can be highlighted to show how placing a school within this school with its own principal will compromise educational opportunities in this building. The students here deserve greater assistance, not greater competition for what limited resources there are.


The UFT Chapter Committee Jamaica High School

James Eterno Social Studies Department UFT Chapter Leader
Debbie Saal Math Department School Leadership Team Member
Gustavo Medina Science Department School Leadership Team Member
Dena Gordon Social Studies Department UFT Delegate
Tiffany Young English Department
Judy Reuben Guidance Department
Kathy Reynolds School Secretaries
Irma Segovia Second Language Department
Rose Slaymaker Physical Education Department
Calvin Whitfield Special Education Department

Saturday, February 16, 2008


by James Eterno, UFT Chapter Leader Jamaica High School

All of the speculation about Randi Weingarten replacing Ed McElroy, who is retiring soon as AFT President, is rather sad and indicative of what our union has deteriorated into. The UFT has fully transformed itself from a labor union into what one time AFT President David Seldon termed in his book, The Teacher Rebellion, an insurance company. The Union functions like a giant corporation as opposed to a democratic organization.

There is all of this palace intrigue reported on in the NY Sun and on some blogs about who will be selected by Randi to be her anointed successor. We believe the guessing about who will succeed Randi is basically irrelevant to those of us who toil in the schools in New York City. The rank and file should demand that if she decides to take the AFT presidency and resigns as UFT President (the former is likely, but the latter is not at this time), then there should be a member election to decide on her successor. What a novel idea! Let the UFT members decide who should replace Randi by voting.

Most likely, Randi will hold onto both the UFT and AFT presidencies until after the next UFT election. She will appoint a successor when she is good and ready which might be years from now, but it will almost certainly be in the middle of her term so that the heir apparent can have some time as the president. The new leader will then be fawned over by the NY Teacher newspaper and ultimately get to run as an incumbent for reelection.

The truth of the matter is that it doesn't matter that much who leads the UFT because as long as the top-down Unity Caucus (political party) machine remains in control, there will be very little change at the Union. The President's job will be to maintain the institution of the Union and the Unity Caucus as a main priority. The loyalty driven corporate style patronage machine will carry on and those who want to advance to higher UFT positions will have to publicly spew the party line to members on virtually all Union issues. Real dissent will not be tolerated. Anyone who thinks substantial change will occur when Randi leaves is probably delusional.

We would love to be proven wrong on this but as long as the membership doesn't demand and work for fundamental reform within the UFT, it's very doubtful that anything will be very different, regardless of who the president is.

Saturday, February 09, 2008


by James Eterno UFT Chapter Leader, Jamaica High School

When the punitive 2005 Contract was released, one of the main benefits was supposed to be a 55-25 retirement incentive. The actual language in Article 4C says that the pension legislation should be enacted "without any cost to the city." To us that means that it should be revenue neutral meaning the pension deal should not cost the city anything or save the city any money. Now as the final bill is working its way through the State Legislature and the City released its budget proposal, it is clearer than ever how the city wins while only a small fraction of UFT members gain anything and many lose including all new hires.

In the latest city budget on page E-117, there is a category called "55/25 Program Savings: Savings generated by increased retirements as a result of the new age and experience retirement policy." For fiscal year 2009 the city will be saving $43,100,000 because of 55/25-55/27; for fiscal year 2010 that will jump to $68,600,000; for fiscal year 2011 it spikes to $87,500,000 and for 2012 the city will be saving $101,000,000.

The city saves over 100 million dollars because current teachers who want to take advantage of 55/25 will have to pay into the system to fund their early retirement while new hires will be required to pay pension contributions for their entire careers, not just the first ten years. The added contributions amount to a 1.85% pay cut for employees not yet hired and they won't be able retire after 25 years of service at age 55 as the contract says they should be able to; they will need 27 years. What did we get in return for allowing the city to save this huge sum of money with their de-facto new pension tier? School-wide merit pay.

In exchange for hundreds of millions in savings, couldn't the UFT have at least won back those two staff punishment days in August as days off so we can get a full summer vacation before we have to take it on the chin every year?

Challenge to our Unity readers: Please find something in this piece that shows our numbers are wrong instead of launching the usual personal attacks or saying we just complain. If you can show we are in error, we will gladly retract the article.

Thursday, February 07, 2008





by James Eterno; UFT Chapter Leader, Jamaica High School

More evidence that the school system where most of us inhabit is not the same place where UFT leaders work was presented at the Wednesday, February 6 Delegate Assembly. For the last two months, ICE has attempted to ask that the contractual provision concerning letters in the file be reopened as per a letter labor Commissioner James Hanley sent to Randi back in 2005 when we were giving away many of our basic rights. We wanted to introduce a resolution seeking to revisit only the letter in the file provision, not the entire Contract, that we were not able to raise at previous DA's.

To her credit, Randi Weingarten declared that there must be a new motion period at the February meeting. We are happy to report that our blog pieces are required reading at UFT Headquarters as Randi made several mentions of our blogs. However, when the new motion period came, Randi did not call on ICE to present its case. Instead, she called on VP Michael Mulgrew to raise a watered down version of our letter in the file resolution that does not even acknowledge that there has been an increase in letters to the file. The actual wording of the resolution signed by five UFT officers says that "with the exception of one school, there were no reports of an increase."

There you have it dear readers, only one school since the new Contract came out acknowledged an increase in letters for the file. Everything is just fine everywhere else. All of that 36% increase in Unsatisfactory ratings last year that the Chief wrote about must have just occurred out of the blue. The 39% increase in tenured teachers receiving U ratings was not supported by any unsatisfactory observations or any negative letters. To believe that requires one to willingly suspend disbelief.

Unity's resolution further weakened the original ICE motion when they resolved to make yet another effort to determine if there has been an increase in letters for the file. How will they gather information? By asking Chapter Leaders for data? Guess what, Chapter Leaders won't find out about letters in many cases because we can no longer grieve file letters and nasty observation reports. Therefore, many members don't even bother going to their Chapter Leader when they get a negative letter. Why tell the Union when the first line of defense, a grievance, was taken away in 2005?

When Michael Mulgrew rose and started talking about what a great Contract we have when he was supposed to be reading the resolution, I couldn't take it any longer and had to rise to a "point of order" as according to UFT rules, attempting to add a motion to the current month's agenda is not debatable. Randi acknowledged the point as subsequently Mulgrew simply read the resolution which of course easily passed the Unity dominated DA. We withdrew our motion as even a weak resolution is better than nothing and I suppose we should be content that we are helping to set the UFT's agenda.

However, we have to ask one question particularly to the Unity people who so closely read this blog: If there was not an increase in file letters, how do you account for the substantial spike in teachers receiving unsatisfactory ratings in 2006-07?

There was other important business discussed at the DA. The delegates nearly unanimously pledged to fight the city's budget cut of $180 million now and $324 million scheduled to be slashed in September. A resolution called for the UFT to actively participate in a "coalition with parents, community groups, and political and civic leaders to lobby against the cuts." We have no problem with this proposal. Some of our friends wanted to amend this motion to call for a massive rally which would include students on February 14 or at another later date. This amendment was rejected by the Unity majority after one executive board member after another spoke against it.

The DA also voted overwhelmingly to oppose the DOE's pilot project to rate teachers based on student test scores. Julie Woodward from ICE did get an amendment passed which talked about the folly of rating teachers based upon test scores if the teachers teach a subject where there are no standardized tests . She made a solid equity argument.

Finally, Mona Romain was nominated to serve another term on the teachers' retirement board. The vote was made by acclimation based on a motion made by Jeff Kaufman.