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10-4-13 Interview with Teacher of the Year Kathleen Assini...Newark Union Stymies $30M Race to the Opportunity...Paterson federal $20M at Risk Due to Lcoal Union Witholding Signature
NJ Spotlight - New Teacher of the Year Reflects Profession's Uncertainties, Angst…Kathleen Assini asserts teachers want to do a good job, even as job is changing around them

Star Ledger -Union refusal to support $30 million federal grant for Newark schools kills aid package

The Record – Grant bid for Paterson schools is in jeopardy… The union's rejection of the grant application echoed the tense situation in Newark, where the teachers union also balked at an application for $30 million.

NJ Spotlight - New Teacher of the Year Reflects Profession's Uncertainties, Angst…Kathleen Assini asserts teachers want to do a good job, even as job is changing around them


John Mooney | October 4, 2013


New Jersey’s annual teacher of the year award is not short of praise for the honoree, singling out the way he connects with students or extolling her ability to make subjects come alive.


There was no shortage of accolades at Wednesday's event. But Kathleen Assini has been named New Jersey's Teacher of the Year at a time she and her peers face as many changes and uncertainties as they have in recent memory.


From what to teach to how to each it, the state's 130,000-plus educators confront a new evaluation system, a tenure law with new teeth, the Common Core State Standards and all its attendant complexities, and the first rollout of nationwide online testing.


“I think part of the problem is that there are just so many things going on,” said Assini. “Teachers all want to be good at what we do, and with everything going on, we want to be good at it today.”

A history teacher at Delsea Regional Middle School, as well as at an alternative high school program, Assini spoke with NJ Spotlight on Wednesday after she was awarded the state prize, complete with a sabbatical and use of a rental car for a year so she can spread her vision of good teaching to all corners of the state.


For nearly a half-hour, she spoke candidly about both the pressures and opportunities facing New Jersey’s teachers.


The big pressures is the new evaluation system, which requires Assini -- an ancient history teacher -- to create new baseline tests for students to see how they progress over the course of the year.

She said it’s a worthwhile exercise, and a collaborative one. But it’s also new for many of her colleagues a discomfiting transition to more structured and standardized observations. She said slowing down the implementation would lead to better results.


“I think it is creating angst. I do,” she said. “Even for some good teachers, because they want to be great. If you tell them that they are only developing in something, you don’t know what to do because you want your kids to succeed."


“And I think it’s hard because it’s all coming down at once,” Assini said.

As for capacity of the principals to do it all, she shook her head.


“I watch my supervisors and administrators try to fit it all into their day,” she said. “My supervisor had 18 observations to do in September, and that includes pre-observations and post-observation conferences.”


Still, Assini did not want to come off as complaining, and just a few minutes with this woman reveal a boundless optimism and energy for teaching and tapping a student’s interest and understanding.


Growing up in East Brunswick, she also laughs at how her own learning experience influences her now, conceding she is a dreadful speller and grew to fear the red ink that filled her papers as a child.

“I only use purple and green pens,” she said. “I don’t touch a red pen.”


And she definitely wanted to stay out of the politics of school policy, including its leading actor of the moment, Gov. Chris Christie. “Nah, that’s not my thing,” she said, shaking her head.

But she did say she’d like to hear more positive stories told about teachers, including their heroism and sacrifice. “They all think we work 8:00 to 3:00, but I don’t know too many teachers who are like that,” she said.


Assini said she’s not too worried about the new tenure law that has been at the center of Christie’s education platform. She knows much is made of provisions that allow schools to ease out weaker teachers, but she doesn’t see that as threatening to those doing their jobs.


“I don’t think it will be an issue for me, and most teachers, if they are fearing it, they need to know why they’re fearing it,” she said. “It’s not like somebody will come to get you. I think you’d really have to mess up for it to be an issue.”


The use of student scores on state tests to help gauge teacher performance is nerve-racking. But she adds that any good teacher wants to see a student improve, and this is another way to determine that.


The scores “are out of your control, and you don’t know what will be testing,” she said. “But most teachers start out the year saying this is where my kids are and I think they will grow. I actually think it is underestimating us.”


Assini, who's been in the classroom for 11 years, didn't follow the typical track into teaching. She was a hairstylist for 25 years, and returned to college at 42 to become a teacher, eventually graduating from Kean University in 2001. She went on to get her masters from the online Wilkes University.


The same day that it named Assini teacher of the year, the State Board of Education was hearing public testimony about a set of new code changes, including raising the minimum college grade point average (GPA) for new teachers from 2.75 to 3.0 -- the equivalent of a B average.

Assini said she wasn’t so sure that was a full-proof method, worrying it may discourage some natural teachers from the field.


“How about it just from the junior and senior years?” she said. “Eighteen-year-olds don’t know where they are going or what they are doing, they just left home.”


“It’s those kids who are not straight-A students in their freshman year of college who can connect to a whole different world of students,” Assini said.




Star Ledger -Union refusal to support $30 million federal grant for Newark schools kills aid package


By Ted Sherman/The Star-Ledger The Star-Ledger Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on October 04, 2013 at 7:00 AM, updated October 04, 2013 at 7:20 AM


NEWARK — It was a late homework assignment and Newark school district officials missed the deadline Thursday, after teachers union officials refused to sign off on an application for $30 million in coveted federal Race to the Top funding.


The state-controlled district accused the Newark Teachers Union of playing politics, while its president, Joseph Del Grosso, said he was not asked for his input until Tuesday, criticizing the application as a waste of money.


"It’s riddled with pork," complained Del Grosso, who heads the 4,200-member union. "The thing should be called Race to the Hog because that’s what’s going on. It’s not about funneling money into classrooms."


Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson said the grant would have put a "tremendous amount of resources" into the schools, including upgraded classroom technology, and expressed bewilderment at the union’s refusal to green-light the grant proposal.


"I couldn’t be more shocked that we’re here. Last year we submitted a very similar application with a very positive letter from Joe," she said. The district also said the union canceled several meetings to discuss the proposal.


The dispute led to an hours-long war of words, statements and e-mails between the two sides, as a 4 p.m. deadline for submitting the application came, and then went, with Anderson reaching out to Mayor Cory Booker, members of the city council and other community leaders in an effort to pressure Del Grosso to change his mind.He never budged, arguing the application allocated no money for putting more teachers in classrooms.


Race to the Top applications are not valid without approval from the local teachers union.

District officials filed the application without the needed signature, noting in a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan the nature of the dispute, and including last year’s signed agreement. While much of Washington remains furloughed by the Congressional budget impasse, the application deadline was not waived and the department was logging grant requests throughout the date, a district spokesman said.


The Race to the Top program, started in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Education, rewards school districts based on student performance, school policies and the turn-around of poorly performing educational institutions. Newark applied for the grant money last year but was eliminated in the final round.


In 2010, New Jersey missed out on Race to the Top funding because of mistakes on the application that caused the state to lose out on $400 million in education funds.

A report last month by the American Association of School Administrators, meanwhile, has raised questions about the effectiveness of the program, concluding that it has done little to help most states close achievement gaps.


In the group’s report, it said states made unrealistic promises in order to secure Race to the Top funding and have found unexpected challenges to meeting their goals. The short time frame prescribed by the program also hampered state and district abilities to improve teacher quality, the report said.


Del Grosso said districts and states across the nation are finding that the costs for accepting Race to the Top grant money far outweigh the benefits.


"In Ohio, about 80 districts and charter schools across the state have backed out of the grant program since they won money in 2010, including an initial flurry of withdrawals because school officials realized that grants weren’t enough to cover the requirements attached to them," he said.


Del Grosso said he never even saw the application until this week, and said it included such items as $1 million for a student survey, another $6.8 million to hire outside experts on common core curriculum issues and $2.4 million for a data management system.


"I didn’t see one concrete thing in there showing money that would be spent well," Del Grosso said. "Many of the needs of our schools are being ignored in favor of providing additional money to consultants and third-party vendors."


The district, in a point-by-point rebuttal, said many of the issues raised by the union were contained in last year’s application, which it said Del Grosso had signed, or had been eliminated.


His refusal to sign left the application dead in the water.

"Federal grants have very specific guidelines," said Anderson. "It needed Joe’s signature."


Newark Councilman Ras Baraka called the whole dispute petty.

"At the end of the day, I think Newark needs the resources. We don’t have these kind of nonprofit organizations that are getting philanthropic dollars that goes directly to schools," he said. "We need the money, desperately. I’m not saying do anything for money, but I’m saying at this point, we need to do what we can to secure dollars for this city."


Star-Ledger staff writers James Queally and Seth Augenstein contributed to this report.


The Record – [Race to the Top] Grant bid for Paterson schools is in jeopardy… The union's rejection of the grant application echoed the tense situation in Newark, where the teachers union also balked at an application for $30 million.


Friday, October 4, 2013  BY  LESLIE BRODY

PATERSON — In a move likely to harm the city's bid for $20 million to bolster struggling high schools, the teachers union refused to sign an application for grants under a federal education program.

The application, due Thursday to the Department of Education in Washington, needed the union's buy-in. Peter Tirri, president of the Paterson Education Association, said his team did not sign the Race to the Top application because the district gave the union only three days to review and comment on a 200-page draft application.

"They have to have the decency to let us know more than three days in advance," Tirri said. "If you want people to work with you, you have to work with them. It's as simple as that."

Paterson Superintendent Donnie Evans expressed frustration at the lost opportunity. "I may not sound livid; I am extremely disappointed," Evans said.

The district primarily serves low-income and minority students and has long struggled to overcome crumbling infrastructure and dismal state test scores.

Board President Christopher Irving lamented the union's move, noting that the parties were embroiled in their fourth year of negotiations over a new contract. "At the end of the day, while adults bicker and squabble, it's the kids who lose out," he said.

Tirri said the contract battles did not account for the union's decision. "We're not that stupid," Tirri said. "We try not to cut off our noses to spite our faces."

The union's rejection of the grant application echoed the tense situation in Newark, where the teachers union also balked at an application for $30 million. Newark's union president, Joseph Del Grosso, said he was asked for input only on Tuesday, and he thought the plan for the money would benefit consultants and vendors, rather than students. Newark officials expressed outrage.

Race to the Top, a competitive grants program launched in 2009, has offered billions of dollars worth of grants in several rounds to states or districts that fostered programs favored by the Obama administration, such as adopting tougher standards for what children learn, creating more rigorous teacher evaluations and expanding quality preschools.

New Jersey notoriously lost its bid for $400 million in 2010 because of a clerical error. A dispute over that bungle led Governor Christie to fire his education chief, Bret Schundler.

That drama came shortly after Christie threw out the grant application Schundler had negotiated with the New Jersey Education Association. Christie thought that plan compromised his policies too much, so he submitted a hastily rewritten version at the eleventh hour without union endorsement.

In Paterson's case, a miscommunication between the union and district played a role. Tirri said he was given the draft application on Sept. 17 and was told it was due Sept. 20. But Paterson's chief academic officer, Anthony Cavanna, said he called and emailed Tirri's office to explain that although the draft was due to New Jersey's education commissioner on Sept. 20, the union could still provide its input and signature after that date.

"It was a misunderstanding," Cavanna said. "I told them he didn't have to sign it by September 20."

Tirri said that he didn't get that message. Had he known he had two more weeks, his team would have scrutinized the application and given feedback. "Our intention is never to scuttle an effort of the district," Tirri said, adding he's not sure if he would have signed it given more time. "Reading it is one thing, agreeing to it is another."

The school board president gave his signature on Wednesday. Rep Bill Pascrell Jr. and Mayor Jeffery Jones also signed on, Paterson officials said. About a dozen districts statewide applied, a state spokesman said.

The federal application requires a signature from the local union head, but allows applicants to state a "rationale why signature of president of the local teacher union or association is not applicable."

Irene Del Rosso, a Paterson supervisor who helped write the grant, said she hoped the judges would be lenient on that point. "If we give a rationale to our steps that we did take to try to get the union to support us, it might be considered, but it is hurting the chances," she said.

A spokesman for the federal Department of Education did not return calls for comment. A notice on the website specified Thursday's deadline remained despite the government shutdown.

The application said the district would use the money to bolster technology and career-themed courses for students. Pursuing a growing approach called "flipped classrooms," students would see lectures online and come to class prepared for hands-on activities. Staff would get online professional development, and parents would get access to their children's academic progress through a "parent portal."

The Paterson union rejected a previous district attempt to win Race to the Top money last year.

Email: brody@northjersey.comTwitter: @lesliebrody




Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608