Cover Story

Front of the Class

A conversation with Syracuse Teachers Association President Kevin Ahern

Study Hall

With controversy swirling around discipline and performance in the city schools, and around Superintendent Sharon Contreras, reporter Ed Griffin-Nolan talked with Kevin Ahern, president of the Syracuse Teachers Association, about the situation in the district.

Most people know Kevin Ahern as the burly man who led a teacher walkout June 11 at the Syracuse Board of Education meeting, one of the most contentious and racially charged sessions in years.

Ahern — beginning his fifth year as president of the Syracuse Teachers Association, which has nearly 3,000 members — turned and left the meeting room amidst jeers after announcing that his members had voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution of no-confidence in Superintendent Sharon Contreras.

A former English teacher  who taught at several city schools over 12 years, Ahern has been the voice of teachers during a contentious time when new curriculum and testing standards, revised teacher evaluations and concerns about violence in the schools have overshadowed the work that goes on in the classroom day to day.

Earlier this year, reports from both the state Attorney General and experts at UCLA found that Syracuse schools suspend students far too frequently and in ways that discriminate against children of color and students with disabilities. Meanwhile, teachers and parents complained that student behavior was creating an unsafe school environment that made learning difficult.

A district Code of Conduct rolled out last month attempted, among other things, to reduce the suspension rate, enforce due process and offer services to disruptive students. Last week, Ahern sat down with the New Times in his office at 731 James St.

Kevin Ahearn (right) Teachers meeting at Dr. Weeks School.

Kevin Ahearn (right) and teachers meeting at Dr. Weeks School.

New school year: Off to a good start, from your perspective?

I think the school year, depending on where you go and who you talk to, had a complicated start.

Can you say more?

I think that the new code has folks raising a lot of questions; there’s a lot of confusion and uncertainty among our members.

More so than usually happens when something new comes along?

Yeah, because it’s such a big lift, and there’s a lot of moving parts in the code. Buildings have to have certain resources, committees in place, very specific steps on how to deal with discipline issues, and my initial take from what we’ve heard is that the adults in the building are not all on the same page. A lot of our members are receiving mixed messages from their administrators, and I don’t think all the administrators have a good handle on it yet.

Do they just not understand it or do they have differences with it?

I don’t think they’ve all been trained adequately. Our members, for the most part,  received three hours of training on the first couple days of school, which I think is not nearly enough. We have discipline/building culture committees in each of the buildings, which are just getting up and running.

We did a story recently, and others have done stories, on the issue “are the schools safe for teachers?” The question that parents raise is “are the schools safe for the kids?”

I think they should be a lot safer. I don’t think it’s the wild, wild west out there. There’s a lot of conflict between students. There’s a lot of fights that our folks end up being in the middle of trying to break it up, getting hurt. I’ve seen hallways that are not terribly orderly. It’s a concern. Some schools are better than others in that regard. That’s a problem that has to be addressed very seriously by the district.

You were in the classroom for 12 years. Everyone says it’s never been this bad before. How bad is it compared to when you were in the classroom?

LeMoyne School

LeMoyne School.

It’s hard for me to say. Certainly, we had issues in schools when I was in the classroom. I grew up in this district; I graduated from Nottingham. There were issues then. Given the level of concern, the number of members that I have retiring, whether they’re ready to retire or not, the struggles that our new teachers face — things are different, for sure. Some of it may be that kids are different. Some of those supports that were there for those kids are not there anymore.

Say Yes to Education was supposed to bring in these supports. Is that happening?

They brought a lot of supports in, and I think they’ve done a good job with that to the extent that they can. Say Yes has missed its mark on several things that could have gone better. Their lack of engagement with teachers didn’t help them, and to some extent their lack of engagement with parents did not help them a lot. They certainly have done a great job of starting to bring resources that were here already to bear and figuring out how to coordinate that, particularly with county services. That’s been critically important: medical services have been brought in, mental health services. They’ve been able to do some really good things in that area. Say Yes can’t solve the world’s problems. We live in some really challenging times. As a vehicle for getting some of those services up and running, they’ve done a pretty good job. And there is the scholarship piece, which is a significant benefit for kids in our schools.

Do your members stay in the city because of the scholarships?

I don’t know. I haven’t heard a lot of discussion about this. Initially, part of the promise of Say Yes was that we would have a lot more people moving into the city, it would bring people into the city in large numbers and I know that hasn’t happened in the dramatic fashion promised.

You referred recently to a need for whistleblower protection and referred to a “culture of fear” in the school district. What is the “culture of fear” and where does it emanate from?

There is a very real sense out there that if you speak up, particularly about the discipline issue, that there will be some kind of retaliation. Our members have a sense that bringing forward what’s really happening in their buildings is frowned upon. There is a desire from the Central Office to kind of mask what is really actually happening.

Five years ago, was there the same fear?

I don’t think so. There’s always some of that amongst our members, but it seems to be particularly acute of late.

Does that come directly from the superintendent?

I can’t put a finger on it, and I wouldn’t accuse her of that. But I know members are told by principals that in a lot of discipline situations, their hands are tied, that they can’t deliver appropriate consequences to kids because they’re not being allowed to.

By the attorney general?

By the Central Office. That was prior to the Attorney General’s ruling. Now, there’s a legitimate question  about how to move forward. … The principals don’t really know yet because they’re concerned they’re going to do something wrong, based on the code.

We all go to work every day, and the boss can give us grief, and we could be fired on a moment’s notice. A teacher has the protection of tenure, to make sure they’re not fired or mistreated — that’s your job — so what are they afraid of, when they have more protection than the typical worker?

Yeah. There are a couple of things teachers are afraid of. One is being moved from one building to another. Or changing grade level, particularly when you are working K-6. But teachers by nature aren’t looking to rock the boat. We have very nurturing, caring, in many cases, gentle people working with kids, and conflict with adults in the building is not something they’re looking for. That’s kinda where they are at.

Also the environment that we are in, beating up teachers and scapegoating. Teachers didn’t see it coming, and I think they are stung by it. They don’t know what it’s about. That got them into that defensive posture. That’s the reality these days. It’s happening all over. Even in quiet little suburban districts. Teachers are feeling it.

A lot of people say it’s unfair to leave on the teachers the issues that confront them in the classroom, but no one wants to say who we should leave it on. We talk about poverty, but poverty doesn’t have a name. What about parents? No one seems to want to say “parents need to do their job better.” Is that an issue that teachers face?

I think everybody would agree that we need involved, caring parents to support kids educationally. We don’t have enough of them, and every kid doesn’t have that at home. No amount of hand-wringing is going to make that happen. We are confronted with the reality of a lot of kids who don’t have those kinds of supports, who have all kinds of issues happening at home. Schools can’t solve every problem for a kid, but in some cases the school is all they got.

Can you tell me about your meetings with the mayor and the superintendent?

The meetings that we have had have been relatively productive.

So there has been more than one meeting? When was the most recent meeting? There was one on June 20 and nobody said anything afterward.

I don’t think we’re going to talk about what goes on in those meetings.

Has there been a meeting since June 20?

There was one after that, one over the summer that I couldn’t make, and there’s another this week.

If the purpose was for you and the mayor and the superintendent to get together, why did they go ahead with the meeting?

All I know is that they called a meeting, and I couldn’t go.

You said it was “relatively productive”? Relative to what happened in June? Relative to you walking out on a meeting?

Sharon (Contreras, the superintendent) and I still have to work together. I think we made a pretty clear statement about where we felt our relationship with the school board and the superintendent was headed.

Do you think that in addition to announcing the results of the no-confidence vote, you needed to walk out on the meeting. Do you think that was a mistake?

No, and I think that was misinterpreted. School board meetings are a forum to make public statements. There will not be a response from the super or the board. We wanted to make clear that we were making a very clear statement. We weren’t going to be around to discuss it, and they certainly weren’t going to discuss it.

But given the way it turned out, and it looked like a racial divide, if you stayed would it have gotten to that point?

Had we stayed or not, the accusations that this was somehow racially motivated would have happened anyway. Some people were determined to make those accusations.

Is the issue of disproportionate number of black students being suspended a legitimate issue?

Yes, I think it’s a legitimate issue.

Does that imply that there is a racial bias in how teachers and administrators are applying discipline?

I don’t think we can deny the facts. It needs to be looked at, what the conclusions are I don’t know at this time.

The charge is that we have a bunch of teachers who are white and don’t live in the city and they have a racial bias.
I need to remind people that teachers don’t suspend students, administrators do that. Teachers don’t  have the ability to suspend kids out of school. I can’t really speak for the administrators. We have lots of administrators of color, and I certainly don’t think they are out to suspend kids disproportionately.

There’s some issues of race involved but not necessarily racism.

The police resource officers were taken out of the middle schools. Was that a mistake?

I thought they shouldn’t have been taken out of the middle schools, and I publicly said so at the time.

What I hear from teachers and hall monitors is that they are calling the cops every day.

I’m not sure it’s every day, but it’s more than we would like to see. As someone who went to the city schools, grew up in the city and has chosen to live in the city. we have to figure out how to create a strong vibrant school district to create a strong vibrant city.

Grant Middle School

Grant Middle School

The mayor has gone on the record as favoring mayoral control of the schools. What do you think of that idea?

I’m not a huge fan. When you have mayoral control, citizens lose their right to elect the school board. It’s not terribly democratic, and there’s not a great history of success of mayoral control. Having said that, if it happened, the mayor would then be responsible for the schools, and we would figure out how to work with the mayor. It’s not a great idea, since mayors are not typically educators. The mayor has a responsibility to work with whoever is superintendent to make sure our schools are the best they can be. To the extent that the mayor can bring resources to the schools, I think they do that.

We haven’t even talked about performance. Five years ago, when Say Yes came in, again when the new superintendent came in, the talk was that we were going to transform the schools. Now no one is even talking about it, and the numbers haven’t changed much. Do we have to spend another year focused on discipline, before we get back to the conversation about performance?

We need safe, positive learning environments, but that’s not certainly going to turn this district around overnight. The district has to really focus on the big picture. I would ask, “How many kids are reading at grade level by the third grade,” which is a huge benchmark? Our numbers aren’t very good and haven’t been in many years. Why did the district — prior to Sharon (Contreras) being here —make a concerted effort to eliminate reading specialists in a district that clearly needs all the help it can get in terms of literacy, particularly in the younger grades, because it gets more difficult to get kids caught up the older they get. Why don’t we have an army of reading specialists K-3 who are working with these kids every day? I know that there are resource issues, but I question whether we are being strategic with our resources.

There was a big resource allocation based on a study that Say Yes sponsored. The study said we didn’t have too many administrators or teachers, we had too many teaching assistants (TAs). Was it a mistake to let hundreds of TAs go? Did you know it was a mistake at the time?

I knew it was a mistake. I also knew that while that was happening, the economy had hit the skids. When Say Yes came in, (the economic situation) was the other way around. We had the (Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, settled in 2006, in which a state court agreed New York’s urban schools were underfunded but left it up to the State Legislature to determine the amount needed to remedy the inequity) when Say YES came in. We got a nice boost one year, then the market crashed and all that went away. That was devastating to Say Yes and the plans we made with Say Yes, and devastating to the district. The impact of the TAs has been significant, and I know they have hired back a lot of TAs. That has contributed a lot to the climate in the buildings, because they did a lot of supervision. It’s another set of hands when the little ones are running around, so the teachers can focus on teaching. In this office, we knew it was a mistake, but we couldn’t have dreamed of the impact.

Is there anything the union plans to do to follow up on its no-confidence vote in regards to the superintendent’s tenure?

Sharon’s second contract is up at the end of next year. I’ve told board members that we’re going to work hard to get a favorable crew on the board. That’s next November.

Who do you want to replace?

I don’t want to call anybody out right now. They know who they are. We’re looking for candidates as we speak.

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