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StudentsFirstNY adds an educator in time for Cuomo task force

Gotham Schools | 07.26.12

 

This article originally appeared in Gotham Schools July 26 2012

By Geoff Decker

When New York City faced a budget shortfall three years ago, Bronx Academy of Letters principal Anna Hall faced a crisis at her school.

Because state law requires that layoffs start with the newest teachers, threatened cuts [7] meant more than 50 percent of Hall’s strongest teachers would be cut loose: They had logged relatively few years in the school system.

“That was the most harrowing, horrible experience,” Hall said.

The layoffs never materialized. But the scare cemented Hall’s belief that teachers shouldn’t be protected from layoffs based solely on their experience.

The experience was one of many that Hall said drew her to her new job: as director of education for StudentsFirstNY, the state’s spinoff of Michelle Rhee’s national education advocacy group.

StudentsFirstNY has kept a low profile in the three months since its splashy entrance [8] onto the education advocacy scene. It spent about $10,000 on a mailer to support Hakeem Jeffries in his successful Congressional primary campaign against Charles Barron last month, according to federal election filings. But the group has steered clear of some more heated education debates, including the city’s now-failed effort to close two dozen schools through a federal turnaround model, and it has not yet fully articulated its policy agenda for the next year.

That seems poised to change today. Hall is set to share her personal hopes for policy change at a public meeting in the Bronx of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education reform commission.

The commission, which convened earlier this year [9], is charged with giving Cuomo a set of recommendations to provide wholesale change to the state’s education system focused on saving money and improving student learning. The commission has been traveling the state to hear testimony from a variety of advocates. At its New York City stop today, those scheduled to speak include Zakiyah Ansari of the Alliance for Quality Education; outgoing UFT Vice President Leo Casey; Evan Stone, of the teacher advocacy group Educators 4 Excellence; and Jemina Bernard, interim director of Teach for America’s New York office, in addition to Hall.

Former colleagues and officials with StudentsFirstNY praised Hall’s background as an educator, but it also doesn’t hurt that her  views on education policies align closely to those of StudentsFirst, the national organization. In her testimony, which will be focused on policies to improve teacher quality, Hall will call for an end to tenure and seniority-based layoffs.

“It’s a radical notion, but I question whether tenure should remain part of our system at all,” according to Hall’s prepared testimony, which was provided in advance to GothamSchools.

She’ll also propose letting districts decide what teachers need to do to get certified before they are allowed to lead a class room. And to help recruit and retain high quality teachers, Hall says that districts should be allowed to forgive new teachers’ college loans and offer bonuses to top performers, two proposals that Mayor Bloomberg floated in his State of the City speech earlier this year.

To push districts and their unions to negotiate these clauses into the teachers contract, Hall said the state legislature should use its budgetary power to withhold state aid, a move that the Cuomo administration has already made to encourage districts to hash out teacher evaluation deals.

Hall, 36, said her interest in entering the world of education policy came from nearly a decade working in the classroom and as a school leader.

“After nine years, I wanted to reset a bit, find a new way to engage in the work that would give me a new perspective on it,” she said.

Hall was the first teacher that founding principal Joan Sullivan hired at Bronx Academy of Letters in 2003. When Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hired Sullivan to oversee his education agenda in Los Angeles in 2009, Hall replaced her as principal.

In recent years, Bronx Letters has been a regular stop for city Department of Education officials, including Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky when he wanted to teach a class [10] and Chancellor Dennis Walcott on the first day of school last year [11]. Hall said at the time that she was particularly concerned about having the resources to handle her school’s influx of students with special needs.

“She has the opportunity to influence the direction of education in New York and to bring her really substantial skills as a frontline educator to bear in the larger policy debate,” said Sullivan, who said she spoke to Hall before Hall accepted the StudentsFirstNY position. “So it made a lot of sense to me.”

Micah Lasher, who was Mayor Bloomberg’s top Albany lobbyist before leaving to launch StudentsFirstNY as its executive director in April, said hiring someone like Hall to help guide the group’s policy agenda was crucial.

“She’s exactly the kind of person who should be leading this conversation,” Lasher said.

 

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