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Testimony regarding the proposed FY 2019 budget

Testimony of UFT Vice President for Elementary Schools Karen Alford before the New York City Council Committees on Finance and Education

Good afternoon. My name is Karen Alford, and I am Vice President of Elementary Schools for the United Federation of Teachers. On behalf of our members, I want to thank Speaker Corey Johnson, Education Chair Mark Treyger, Finance Chair Danny Dromm and the entire Council for extending me this opportunity to testify before you today. It is a pleasure to be here and discuss the city education budget as well as the work we need to do to move our schools forward.

I want to begin by thanking you for your past support and advocacy. There’s no denying we’re making progress in the city’s schools. We’re seeing record graduation rates accompanied by the highest-ever college readiness rate and a record number of juniors taking the SAT. We’ve also seen jumps in the number of students taking and passing Advanced Placement exams. Plus, thanks to a booming Universal Pre-Kindergarten enrollment that has topped 70,000 students, more students than ever before are getting a head start on their educations.

Our public schools provide opportunity for children from all economic backgrounds, and we are proud that our members’ accomplishments in the classroom are helping students reach new heights. Thank you for your part of that important work. Together, we make a difference.

I also want to publicly welcome our new chancellor, Richard Carranza, who comes to us from Houston. He has earned a reputation for collaborating with stakeholders and he supports the community schools model. We look forward to working with him.

Protect public schools and workers

Still, even with so much positive news to report, the challenges we face this year are unique and profound. Our nation is, in many ways at a crossroads, and we face a lot of change – some of it extremely troubling.

The federal government is attacking us in a variety of ways. Big-moneyed special interests are using their alliances with the Trump administration to harm working people and public schools, beginning with the billions of dollars in budget cuts that threaten our schools. We even have Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, using her position to divert funding from public schools — schools she hasn’t even bothered to visit, even though our members have invited her because they are proud of the work they do for our students.

As you also know, the 1 percent are using their obscene wealth and corporate power to bankroll the Janus Supreme Court case, putting the very existence of organized labor, and by extension, our public schools, at risk. The court heard oral arguments in February, and we expect a decision sometime this spring. A ruling against unions will damage our ability to collectively bargain on behalf of our members, and we will quickly see a negative impact on worker rights, salaries, health care benefits and worker conditions. As serious will be a dampening of worker voices as their job protections erode, and children will suffer as a result of losing their best advocates.

The UFT is not taking a back seat to any of this. We will always speak up and fight for our students, our schools and our families. We are working closely with the governor and the state Legislature, who are doing their best to insulate our schools and communities from the expected devastating budget cuts. Likewise, we will do everything in our power to protect our members and their families from the harmful agenda pushed by the organizations behind Janus case. Their actions are shameful and vulgar, and we will not be silent.

We hope that the City Council will also play a major role in the months ahead to protect our schools from the Trump administration, which is a champion of privatization. We can’t let potential budget cuts or the impact of the Janus case harm our public schools or our workforce.

Likewise, we were buoyed by the Council’s resolution against Janus. Thank you for taking that important stand on behalf of our members and organized labor.

We need resources, not guns

As you know, this past Valentine’s Day, 14 students and three staff members were ruthlessly killed in a senseless assault rifle attack in Florida. But this time, the anger finally spilled over, and our students began rising up and speaking out.

Last week, thousands of the students and teachers across the nation walked out of their buildings to protest the gun violence crisis in our country. I was proud to stand with them in Zuccotti Park, accompanied by AFT President Randi Weingarten and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. On March 24, hundreds of thousands of people will march to demand gun control. They’ll march in Washington, in cities and towns across the country and right here on Central Park West. The UFT will be there with them.

We’ll march for the right to live without fear of dying in a random shooting. Our country has a storied history of young people leading movements and demanding change, and we continue to be inspired by these students as they face off against the NRA and a recalcitrant Congress.

Meanwhile, President Trump and Betsy DeVos are, again, pushing their plan to arm teachers. They are blindly ignoring or willfully ignorant of the national polls that report U.S. citizens want common sense gun control and they want it now.  Our teachers, parents and advocates are more worried about children dying than the possibility of a bear attack, which Betsy DeVos apparently thinks is an issue in this country. Our teachers have overwhelmingly rejected this idea on social media as well as through their union representatives.

If you spent any time on social media in the wake of the Parkland massacre, you saw teachers were quick to voice their strong opposition to the idea. Instead, they created the hashtag #ArmMeWith, which quickly went viral, to show people what they actually DO need – primarily resources and support. One NYC English teacher posted on Twitter: "… With the continued joy of outfitting teens with the tools they need to express themselves, argue with evidence, and shake up the status quo. Informed opinions & the desire for positive change are the most powerful ammunition of all.”

We’re not going to turn educators into some sort of volunteer militia, so let’s just forget that ridiculous idea, and talk about what is needed to prevent more slaughter in our schools.

Maintain Teacher's Choice

Teachers need smaller class sizes, more school counselors and more restorative programs. Educators need more books. More science experiments. More instruments. More tools. More trips to the museum. More computers and working Wi-Fi. Teachers must buy classroom supplies with their own money — it’s not really a choice when children don’t have pens or paper and the school doesn’t have any.  Surveys tell us that our members spend an average of $500 a year, with many exceeding $1,000 or more. 

Thankfully, the City Council recognizes this problem. Your tremendous support last year put books, musical instruments and art supplies into the hands of students by reimbursing teachers for a portion of their out-of-pocket expenses. This school year, each teacher received $250 in reimbursement. They’ve spent it on everything from the basics — pencils, paper and markers — to math manipulatives —  small cubes, tiles and squares for counting — telescopes, balls, rulers, compasses, school trips, and even lumber and tools to outfit a wood shop.The City Council support of Teacher’s Choice provides immediate help to classrooms because teachers, school counselors, social workers and therapists, among others, do not have to wait for the bureaucratic approval process to they purchase the items they need. Children can’t wait for the red tape to clear.

We are asking the City Council to continue to fund this incredibly worthwhile investment in our students at the same level as last year — $20 million.

Expand and enhance community learning schools

Building a strong partnership between a neighborhood school and its surrounding community is a powerful strategy. Our schools are often the hubs of neighborhoods, and the community schools model amplifies important work in a way that helps not just the students, but also their families.

The community schools approach is backed by evidence-based research. It’s a long-term strategy that aims to address the needs of the whole child by leveraging relationships with outside organizations, government agencies, non-profits and local businesses, bringing their expertise and manpower right into the building. The educators in community schools work hard to remove barriers to learning by addressing the academic, social and emotional needs by securing programs and services that address those needs.

We have found that often times, that means providing students with access to not just tutors and mentoring, but also health and mental wellness services, which include nutrition programs and food support, social workers and other social-emotional services. Some of the work takes place during the school day, but a good chunk takes place before and after school, during evenings and over the weekend. Every school community has its own distinct needs, and the beauty of the community school model is that it’s specifically designed to address a school’s unique needs and unique demographics.

The UFT launched its own Community Learning Schools Initiative in 2012. We now have 29 schools in the five boroughs, thanks in large part to the ongoing support of this Council. We purposefully chose some of the city’s highest-needs schools, where the student populations included high numbers of English language learners, students with special needs and students in poverty. We set out to improve student achievement in each of those schools by meeting the health, safety and social emotional needs of the students, their parents and the surrounding communities.

Our work includes recruiting and placing a full-time Community School Director in each building. This staff member works with the school community to determine what the school and community need, and then sets out to bring those resources to students and families as well as manage the relationships between the school and the program providers.

The numbers speak for themselves, beginning with the significant return on investment we're seeing in each of our CLS schools. A simple $100,000 investment to hire a Community School Director can bring in more than $600,000 in services and grants to the school community, a six-to-one return on investment.

What's more, 80 percent of CLS schools outpaced NYC public schools in reading proficiency gains between 2013 and 2017, and 70 percent of CLS schools outpaced other NYC schools in math proficiency gains during that same time period. Seventy one percent of our teachers are seeing a major impact in the positive health and wellness of students, and 79 percent are seeing a major impact on academic improvement for students receiving the targeted support.

We are asking for $4 million this year to directly support work at each of our 29 schools. That funding will maximize the reach of our two new school-based health clinics at PS 18 in Mott Haven and PS 188 on Coney Island, as well as expand and enhance mental health services at our other schools. We also intend to provide each of the 29 schools additional supplies, equipment and professional development.

Safety issues and the Positive Learning Collaborative (PLC)

Our day-to-day work as a union includes a rapid response to health and safety emergencies in schools. We have teams in all five boroughs, and, unfortunately this year, our members are reporting an increase in safety and discipline issues. I’m not referring to suspensions, which have been steadily decreasing, and I’m also not referring to some student behavior including cutting class and rudeness, which often comes with the territory in middle or high school.

I’m talking about disruptive, aggressive and dangerous behavior that puts students and staff at risk. I’m also talking about an increase in incidents of drugs, alcohol, weapons seizures, thefts and assaults. We are getting calls and emails from members desperate for assistance and resources.

For our part, we have added staff at the UFT to make additional school visits and provide support and solutions. We are also offering a variety of workshops for our members on relevant topics including, “Techniques to Support Positive Behavior,” “Welcoming Schools for All: LGBTQ” and “Mindfulness Meditation.”

We ask that the Council make school safety a priority this budget. Reach out to the schools in your districts. Talk with the teachers and school safety officers, and ask them how you can help in their buildings.

We also ask that you consider extending your partnership with the UFT’s Positive Learning Collaborative initiative, which currently has 19 schools. The uptick in safety issues has resulted in many calls from our members, asking to be included in the PLC initiative and all we can do is add them to our waiting list.

PLC is an intensive schoolwide effort to change the trajectory of a building in crisis. Changing a school’s culture isn’t just about training a few people or changing discipline procedures; it’s a much deeper dive into creating a culture of community, respect, empathy and responsibility where all voices are heard.

Students are encouraged to be the very best they can be, while also learning how their actions and behaviors affect others. PLC also helps educators and students build bridges and mend relationships. Problems are seen through a positive lens: an opportunity to teach compassion, self-worth and community values as well as an opportunity for student growth. PLC is also designed to decrease the number of conflicts, particularly violent conflicts, within schools, by increasing awareness of self-worth and increasing an understanding of peer pressure.

With the rise of Donald Trump, the nation has seen an increase in acts of bigotry, sexism and racism. Our students are often targets of this unacceptable behavior. Many educators don't feel equipped to effectively address these issues. In fact, the PLC emerged from the realization that existing disciplinary school practices were inadvertently causing problems for our most vulnerable children, those targeted because of their religion, gender, race or disability.

PLC provides training and on-site coaching for educators. We aim to shift mindsets so our fellow educators understand that punitive policies aren’t the best way to serve our students.

PLC’s impact is holistic and transformative. We have seen a reduction in incidents and increases in a positive mindset, according to a recent survey. But changes don’t happen overnight. The first time you begin restorative conversations, students and their teachers must build up the courage to share their thoughts, and these can be long, and sometimes painful, conversations. But, as the dialogue continues and students get to know each other, respect and understanding build. Students feel empowered to support peers who are being harassed. And students who are acting out feel secure enough to talk about their issues rather than blindly lash out.

Thanks to the Council’s support in 2017, PLC expanded into a dozen schools, bringing the total to 19. We ask that the Council invest $3 million into PLC this year, to help us provide support to 10 more schools. We also want to expand supportive programming to the families and communities in each of our schools, including teaching crisis prevention strategies and intervention techniques to parents and guardians, as well as teaching restorative practices to address family conflict and strengthen family bonds.

Upgrade the BRAVE anti-bullying hotline and support services

Most kids have been bullied at one time or another in their lives, especially our most vulnerable and at-risk students. It’s an unfortunate part of growing up, and it’s exacerbated by the divisive political climate.

We know that students who are bullied need support and an advocate. That’s why the UFT, in collaboration with the City Council and the Department of Education, created the BRAVE program. BRAVE provides confidential one-on-one support for students and parents who call or text. The hotline is open to students, staff and family members, Monday through Friday, from school dismissal time until 9:30 pm. We hear stories about physical bullying as well as verbal and cyber bullying, and we receive many of these calls right after dismissal. In the past few months, the average call is nearly 30 minutes, an indication of how intense these conversations are.

The BRAVE program also offers schools workshops for parents, students and teachers to help them identify various bullying behaviors and the warning signs of students at risk, while providing resources as well. In a year when the New York City public school community bore witness to the first killing inside a city school since 1993 — a direct result of a teenager allegedly bullied to his breaking point — we need to make sure students know they have allies in their schools. What was accepted as “normal” behavior 20 years ago is no longer considered acceptable, and that’s a good thing. We’re listening to our children and finding strategies to help them.

Thanks to your support last year, we’re having a powerful impact on those who reached out to us. With an additional $250,000, we could increase the number of trained metal health professionals answering our hotline and to better meet the demand for school trainings.

Expand the Dial-A-Teacher homework help line

Students and their parents love the UFT’s Dial-A-Teacher homework help. During the school year, a team of more than 40 UFT members race from school to our Manhattan office and field calls from thousands of students and parents. Last year, we received 61,000 phone calls and we’re on track to receive a similar number this year.

Whether they need help with basic reading or math, or in advanced calculus or physics, parents and students are connected with a licensed teacher who is an expert in the topic. It’s totally free and we have a staff that speaks a variety of languages, including Armenian, Bengali, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Tagalog. Math and literacy are among the most frequent topics asked about, followed by science and social studies.

The UFT has been doing this great work for more than 30 years. Some of our high school students have been calling Dial-A-Teacher since they were in first grade because they love and appreciate the help they get.

Your support last year helped us put in a new state-of-the-art phone system. This year, we are again asking for your financial support so we can take our services online and reach even more students. Specifically, if you provide us with $165,000, we can build the software and hire the staff to provide an easy-to-access online option for students and parents. We are excited about this possibility and hope you will join us in this venture.

Paid parental leave

Several weeks ago, UFT members celebrated International Women's Day by wearing purple in honor of our Paid Parental Leave campaign. More than 70 percent of New York City’s public school educators are women, but, unfortunately, the city’s current parental leave policy ignores the reality of that demographic. New mothers can only take up to six weeks of leave (or eight for a C-section), and they only get paid if they have sick days. To save up enough days to cover a six-week leave, UFT members have to hoard sick days for three or four years.

What's more, the policy doesn't apply to those who are adopting children or fostering children. The policy also discriminates against men, who aren’t even allowed to take sick days to take care of their new family members. In essence, our current system forces new parents to choose between caring for their own children and earning a paycheck.

Mayor de Blasio's December 2015 announcement about a new city policy for paid parental leave included givebacks from managerial employees who significantly overpaid for the benefit. We can't accept that for our members. We also need a policy that covers adoption, foster care and our fathers.

We sincerely appreciate the Council’s support on this critical issue, and we are hopeful that the city will negotiate with us to achieve this important benefit.

Final thoughts

I want to again thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today. We are grateful for your support. Public schools and labor unions are cornerstones of our city’s great history, and we are proud of the opportunities we provide our students and the representation we provide our members. The UFT stands for fairness and inclusion, not division and fear, and we will continue to work hard as we face down these threats. We hope you will continue to be a part of that important work.