Testimony before the New York City Council Committee on Finance
My name is Michael Mulgrew and I serve as the president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). On behalf of the union’s more than 190,000 members, I would like to thank Chair Daniel Dromm and all the members of the New York City Council’s Committee on Finance for holding today’s hearing and accepting public testimony on the executive budget for fiscal year 2022. I would also like to thank Speaker Corey Johnson, Education Committee Chair Mark Treyger and Capital Budget Subcommittee Chair Helen Rosenthal for their leadership during this year’s budget process.
We should be proud of the work we did this year advocating for the needs of our students. Working together, we managed to secure an unprecedented level of investment from our state and federal governments for our public schools. But we must be careful how we direct these new funds if we want to ensure everlasting impact as we address the learning loss and trauma our students have suffered during the pandemic.
The five-point plan our students need
As I’ve previously shared with you, we created a five-point plan that includes what our students need to recover from the pandemic. Our plan calls for:
- mental health and academic intervention teams in all public schools,
- a pilot program to lower class size in 100 of the city’s neediest schools that we will use as a template for the rest of the city,
- extended summer learning programs
- targeted help for current high school students, and
- UFT training programs for teachers.
While we have made progress with points three, four and five by rolling up our sleeves, we need your help in fighting for interventions teams in every school and smaller class sizes in our neediest schools.
Mental health/academic intervention teams
We are excited to see that all public schools will be funded at 100% fair student funding this upcoming school year, a tremendous feat many years in the making. We would like to thank the City Council for including in your response to the Mayor’s budget a $125 million proposal to extend access to social and emotional supports.
We are, however, concerned with the administration’s proposal to provide academic support by investing $500 million to evaluate every student’s needs through assessments and to provide targeted tutoring. This is a significantly large investment that we are not confident will produce the results we need.
Instead, we recommend that teams of academic intervention specialists and social workers/psychologists be created for each of the 1,800 city public schools. The teams would work directly with students suffering academic losses and psychological effects from the pandemic.
The initiative would include pull-out programs for children needing additional instruction, professional collaboration with teachers on instruction and coping strategies, and individual and group therapy for students.
To provide services of the necessary depth, the average New York City public school would need three to four teams, a total of six to eight professionals, or roughly one team for every 200 students. Larger schools would need more personnel. The teams would include guidance counselors and/or social workers and academic intervention specialists.
It’s disappointing that the administration makes no mention of lowering class size in the executive budget. However, we appreciate the City Council’s inclusion in its response to the preliminary budget of a $250 million proposal to hire an additional 2,500 teachers to lower class size in schools with academically struggling students and those with vulnerable student populations.
This proposal is well aligned with the second part of our five-point plan to target 100 of our neediest schools. Current New York City class sizes — limited by the UFT contract to 18 students in pre-K to 34 students in academic high school subject classes— are among the highest in the metropolitan area, and class-size reduction is an important goal for many parents.
Because many experts on the subject believe class-size reduction is most effective when dramatic rather than piecemeal, the program would reduce class size in the affected schools by one-third: Pre-K classes would be capped at 12, classes that currently have 25 students would be reduced to 17, classes with 30 students would see a drop to 20, and 34-student classes would be reduced to 23.
To expand equitably would require updated and accurate space assessments for each school building and an aggressive space acquisition program by the city. The existing surplus of office rental space is an unprecedented opportunity. The administration, the School Construction Authority (SCA) and the city Department of Education (DOE) would need to coordinate acquisition in a way they have not done before. We think a good place to start would be to review the Planning to Learn – The School Building Challenge, a report published by this legislative body in March 2018.
Extended summer learning programs
As mentioned earlier, we are pleased to share with you that we have made progress with the remaining three tenets of our five-point plan.
We appreciate that the administration and the City Council agree with us that we must extend summer learning programs for students. We expect the number of students needing summer instruction to surpass the 188,000 who enrolled in the 2020 summer programs.
We will continue to push the DOE to make sure we provide as much in-person, rather than remote, instruction as possible and that all current COVID-19 safety and testing protocols remain in place for any in-person summer programs.
Targeted help for current high school students
For our high school students, we are working in partnership with the DOE on a program that offers one hour of free college and career counseling to high school juniors and seniors. The program allows students to meet via video chat with UFT members who are experienced college and career counselors.
Appointments are available on Monday through Friday, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., and on Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The counseling includes technical assistance with post-secondary applications and financial aid. High school seniors may also be connected with case managers at the City University of New York and the State University of New York who can provide tutoring, academic help, and more planning support.
UFT training programs for teachers
I am pleased to announce that we are already doing our part to train teachers. This spring, the UFT Teacher Center working with the United Community Schools (UCS) and the Positive Learning Collaborative (PLC), launched a professional learning program designed to help teachers assess and respond to their own stress and their students’ stress. To this date, we have trained approximately 4,000 educators citywide.
The workshops are designed to help teachers make connections between trauma, stress, self-awareness, classroom environment and student behavior, and recommend classroom practices to deal with students’ stress and to identify students in need of additional support. The program — developed using the union’s own funds — includes live lectures and demonstrations and post-training support groups that teachers can attend.
UFT programs deliver
In addition to working together to offer New York City teachers professional learning workshops, the UFT Teacher Center, the United Community Schools and the Positive Learning collaborative continue to sustain their programming across their school sites. Additionally, our Dial-a-Teacher homework helpline and BRAVE anti-bullying hotline continue to serve students citywide.
UFT Teacher Center
This year we are asking the City Council to support our UFT Teacher Center with a $9 million grant. In the coming year, the UFT Teacher Center would use the funding across its 115 school sites to provide high-quality professional learning opportunities in three urgently needed areas:
- to ensure that educators are prepared to help all students with learning loss to complete unfinished learning from the past two school years,
- to ensure that educators are prepared to provide the social and emotional supports their students need to address the trauma they have experienced in these unprecedented times, and
- to support educators in aligning past and future blended and remote instruction with the return of in-person learning.
Thank you for your consideration of additional capital funding to ensure we have a Teacher Center in every community school district and to support site-specific projects.
United Community Schools
We are encouraged to see that funding to expand the number of community schools across the city is a priority in this year’s budget. We are particularly impressed with the City Council’s proposal to make every school in New York City a community school.
As you know, the UFT has been at the forefront of the community schools movement, with 31 schools in New York City serving as United Community Schools. Since the start of the pandemic UCS sites have fed 6,000 families and have conducted 1,500 virtual counseling and wellness check-ins with students and caregivers.
We are respectfully requesting $5 million for UCS to sustain 31 community schools by providing mental health services, academic supports, community school technical assistance and trainings and professional development for teachers and staff to UCS public schools. This allocation also would directly support program coordination and services for select schools, administrative salaries, mental health staff salaries, professional development, and supplies and equipment.
We would also like to thank you for your consideration of our capital project requests.
Positive Learning Collaborative
We are also encouraged to see the prioritization of funding to implement and expand restorative justice practices in city schools. We applaud the City Council’s proposal to provide a school-based restorative justice coordinator at 320 high-need schools.
As you well know, for nearly a decade, the Positive Learning Collaborative has been using restorative practices to significantly decrease suspensions and major incidents while increasing academic performance and satisfaction in New York City classrooms. Programming in our 25 PLC schools has led to a 46% reduction in suspensions, a 40% decrease in major incidents, a 53% improvement in school culture, and three times more gains in English Language Arts scores than in the average city school.
Since going virtual, PLC has been able to expand its reach beyond the 25 PLC schools by offering many of its workshops to school communities in neighboring areas. For the upcoming school year, PLC will be managing a new Sensory Tools for Schools project with participating schools receiving grade-level designed kits that promote physical activities or supports that can be calming or increase alertness in order to support students in getting to a "just right" state for being in school, safe and learning-ready.
Supporting schools to heal and develop positive and equitable systems that support all students has always been at the center of our work. With your help, we know we can make an even greater impact during this time of great need. We ask you to support PLC with $2 million this year.
Dial-A-teacher homework helpline
Dial-A-Teacher continues to operate on Monday through Thursday, 4:00 to 7:00 p.m., in nine languages, including Spanish, Mandarin and Bengali. Last year, the program received more than 40,000 calls. If Dial-A-Teacher’s operating technology were upgraded, the program could help even more students in the virtual education arena where so many of our students are now learning.
Dial-A-Teacher is respectfully requesting $170,160. The funds would be used to:
- further develop an online presence to include creation of an electronic application that meets the technology students are using today,
- procure digital curriculum for multiple subject areas — curriculum the DOE has identified that aligns with the new standards,
- perform technology maintenance and upgrades for effective functionality of the program via a hybrid remote/physical presence model, and
- promote the program in the communities we serve.
BRAVE anti-bullying hotline
Bullying in schools and in our society is a tragic phenomenon. In New York State, legislation called the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) was passed in 2010. Its goal is to ensure that public elementary and secondary school students have a safe and supportive environment, free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment and bullying on school property, on school buses and at school functions.
To help combat bullying in schools, we entered into an agreement with the Mental Health Association of New York City, now known as VIBRANT, on Oct. 3, 2011 to launch the BRAVE anti-bullying hotline. We want to first thank the City Council for the funding over the years to keep BRAVE accessible to all students. We respectfully ask you to support this program with $281,000 for this fiscal year so we can continue to provide the services that are a lifeline for our students and to be a reliable place our educators can turn to for resources.
Support citywide programs
I would also like to take the time to advocate for two citywide programs that are vital for our students and educators. We need to restore Teacher’s Choice, and support Broadway Bridges.
The Teacher’s Choice program is crucial to our educators. It’s a key initiative to ensure our teachers are reimbursed for the school supplies and materials they purchase for their classrooms and for many of their students in need. After baselining the program for three years in the fiscal year 2020 adopted budget, the program was completely cut in the fiscal year 2021 adopted budget. Even during this time of remote learning, teachers need to purchase school supplies to continue to support students in need and to enhance their classroom experience regardless of whether it is in-person or virtual. We are glad to see that the executive budget seeks to restore funding for Teacher’s Choice to the 2019-2020 level of $20 million and urge you to make sure it’s included in the final enacted budget and we baseline it once again.
Broadway Bridges aims to ensure that every student in a New York City public high school has the opportunity to see a Broadway show before graduation. Through Broadway Bridges, The Broadway League subsidizes $20 tickets to weekday matinee and evening performances by paying half of the ticket price as well as the $3.00-$3.50 in fees associated with each ticket purchase. This enables The Broadway League to offer schools $10 tickets.
The initiative improves the arts experience of students who have not otherwise had the opportunity to attend live theater, and it enhances the experience of students who are already engaged with the performing arts through their schools. We ask that you support this important initiative in the fiscal year 2022 City Council budget.
School nurse in every school
Before I conclude, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the City Council’s proposal to ensure that we have a nurse available in every school building. We applaud you for this. It is highly problematic that the executive budget does not guarantee this funding. We learned this lesson during the ongoing pandemic and we simply cannot continue to ignore issue. We urge you to continue to fight for this initiative.
In closing, thank you for your time and consideration. We are making progress toward a full in-person reopening for our students in the fall, but we cannot emphasize how important it is that we do it with mental health and academic intervention teams in every school and smaller class sizes, particularly in schools serving our neediest students. Without this crucial infrastructure in place, we will have a difficult time helping our students recover as we address learning loss and trauma. It is imperative that we get this right for our students and build back a better and stronger school system.