Education — February 19, 2014 at 7:00 am

An EAA teacher elaborates on the treatment of special ed students: “These kids deserve so much better”


NOTE:There may well be a vote on the expanding the EAA statewide this week, probably tomorrow (Thursday). If you haven’t already, PLEASE CONTACT YOUR STATE HOUSE REPRESENTATIVE AND YOUR STATE SENATOR TO EXPRESS YOUR OPPOSITION TO HOUSE BILL 4369. If you need some ideas, have a look at the talking points prepared by the MEA by clicking HERE (pdf).

NOTE 2: In the comments of this post and another one titled “Life under an EAA principal: ‘Any teachers who allow students in the hallway shall receive a formal letter of reprimand'”, there are multiple comments from the same person, making it look as if there more supporters of Nolan school principal Angela Underwood than there really are. The comments are from one of two computers and give the same email address (which only I can see) but are posted with a different name. One of the computers is a Detroit Public Schools computer which has visited Eclectablog many times over the past week, almost exclusively on posts where Angela Underwood is mentioned. This commenter has posted under the names “Lets Be Real”, “Pepsi Cola”, “Yours Truly, Pepsi Cola”, “Sundra”, and “Pro Children Not Politics”. I have banned this person because of this.

Today we have another veteran teacher who left the EAA because they could no longer tolerate what they were seeing, particularly with regard to special education students. This teacher echoes much of what others have already said, including having kids take performance tests repeatedly until they showed improvement, Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for special ed kids not being followed, and the abysmal treatment of teachers by school administrators.

In a recent EAA grant application, a grant which Nolan elementary and middle school has received, teacher development and training is described in glowing terms:

After a rigorous hiring process, teachers undergo personalized, on-demand, and job-embedded professional development in both pedagogy and content to prepare for work in a blended environment.

I’ve learned from other teachers something that is confirmed explicitly by this teacher: almost none of this is true. Training is inadequate (“a joke” as one teacher described it) and teachers live under constant fear of being “written up” or otherwise punished if they are found to be deviating in any way from the prescribed teaching model.

At one point, this teacher talks about the Teacher of the Year in the school where they worked and how, thanks to how poorly they treated that teacher, the Teacher of the Year actually quit.

I’ll have an interview with that teacher tomorrow.

So you are a former teacher in Nolan elementary and middle school?

Yes. I worked there from when it started in August of 2012 and left this past August.

Was this your first teaching job?

Oh, Lord, no! I’ve actually been teaching since 2005.

So you’re a veteran.

I’m a veteran, yes, and I’m also a veteran of Detroit schools and charter schools. You name it, I’ve seen it. And now I work in a public school.

Have you enjoyed working in Detroit outside of your experience with the EAA?

Uh…no. Not really.

Why is that?

Charter schools are not run any better than the EAA, quite frankly. I never had any problems with the kids. It was more the administration and the way the schools were being run.

So, tell me why you reached out to me. What’s got you upset enough to want to tell your story?

When I worked in the EAA, I taught special education. As a special educator, it’s inherent in my nature to see that my kids get their hours met. I can tell you from first hand experience that they’re not being met. Services are not being provided. I had to change my schedule 18 times between September and January. The paraprofessionals are not being utilized anywhere near what the parapro position is designed for.

I think everyone sees what Nolan looks like and they think it’s the perfect example of how the EAA is working. But, I can tell you that, from working there, it only looks like that when there are visitors.

So it’s like a facade that they put up when visitors come?

Oh, yeah. It’s completely a dog and pony show. It was a joke to us by the end of the year. It was a joke to the kids, too.

You’re a special ed teacher and you said your schedule was changed 18 times between September and January. What does that mean for someone like me who doesn’t really know what special education is all about?

Because of how many hours each student gets based on their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), I had to figure out what my schedule would be to accommodate them all. A big part of the problem was that the EAA administration couldn’t decide if they wanted me to pull the kids out of class or for me to push in to the classes they were already in.

I was over my caseload. You’re only supposed to have 22 but I was at 25. We were servicing kids who didn’t even have IEPs. But we knew these kids had some problems and they needed our help. But we didn’t have any specific testing. Technically, I could have put my foot down a million times and said I wasn’t going to service these kids. But I could tell there was something wrong and I just did what I needed to do.

With the testing that they use to put kids in levels, they kept changing where kids were and in what levels they were. I would have a schedule where I could meet all my kids hours by pushing into a certain class, for example. As long as I was in the class — let’s say there were three kids in that class and I stayed there for an hour — all three of those kids technically got an hour of service time. When they up and changed the schedule, those three kids might be in different rooms, so I would have to change my schedule so that I was still seeing them and seeing everyone. And there’s no way I could do that.

I had kids who had five hours, but I also had kids who had much more. We had to continue their IEPs from the year before and some of these students had been in a self-contained classroom so their IEP said that they got 20 hours of time. Logistically, that was not possible so I know I wasn’t meeting my kids’ hours.

So you were in a position where you simply could not meet the demands that were put upon you. And these were legally required IEPs that were not being met because of it.

That’s right. Especially when they were pulling me and the other special ed teachers to substitute teach. Because nobody wanted to sub in those schools. We could barely ever get subs to come in. So they were pulling me in to sub. They had us doing lunch duty. They had us doing things that were outside the scope of our jobs that took away time from meeting with the kids.

How many special ed teachers were there at Nolan?

At the beginning of the year there were four and by the end of the year there were only two.

Wow. Why do you think people were leaving?

Well, two people left because they the administration decided about half way through the year that they wanted two special ed teachers to go back into the classroom and then they’d put a majority of their caseload in their room so that they could double dip them as a teacher and a special ed teacher. Both of those teachers said that wasn’t what they were hired for and they quit.

Wait, is that normal? To put special ed teachers into a situation like that? Because that seems outrageous to me.

No, that’s not at all normal. Nothing that happens at the EAA is normal.

One of the things that I’ve heard from teachers is that they just didn’t get the IEPs and, because of that, they were not able to make the accommodations spelled out in the IEPs. They simply never saw them. Is that something that you saw, as well?

Oh, yeah. We were told that Detroit Public Schools (DPS) were holding on to the IEPs and weren’t letting them go.

They said this was DPS’s fault? They blamed DPS?

Every problem that we had got blamed on DPS. Every problem.

There’s a group called Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA) and they’re supported to audit the schools, work on curriculum, and do training on things like how to fill out IEPs and how to fill out evaluation forms, things like that. They’re the ones who make sure that schools are in compliance

So where are they at in all of this?

I honestly wish I knew where they were. I feel like if I worked for them and I was doing my job and had researched the EAA, I would know that these kids’ hours weren’t being met and numbers were being fudged. It frustrates me because these kids deserve so much better.

So they’re really tasked to make sure that, say, Nolan is meeting the requirements of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). But they’re not doing that.

No, they’re not. There’s a lot stuff being fudged and a lot of people being told to sign things that they’re not supposed to sign. For example, technically, if one of the members of the IEP team — your social worker, your speech teacher, your special ed teacher, your director – if one of those people isn’t there, you’re not supposed to sign the IEP and you can’t actually qualify it as an IEP until you meet with that person and go over the IEP. But we were just told to give it to teachers and let them sign it. I could have written gibberish on half of my IEPs and half of them were not being checked.

That just breaks my heart, what you just said.

Of course, I didn’t!

Did you get the sense that they were trying to send special ed kids out of the school so that they didn’t have to deal with them?

If a special ed kid is suspended more than ten days, they have to have a Manifestation Determination Review (MDR) to determine whether or not their suspension was a result of their diagnosed disability or if it wasn’t. If it IS a manifestation of that, then they can come back to school. I had eleven MDR meetings by January. They were constantly suspending the special ed kids because they didn’t know how to deal with their behavior issues. We didn’t have a social worker until February so we didn’t have anyone to do behavior plans or anything like that.

Was the percentage of special ed kids at Nolan while you were there about average for a school at that level?

It’s average or maybe a slightly smaller special ed school for the EAA. I’d say it was average.

So, they were dealing with an average amount of special ed kids, they just weren’t dealing with it well.

Yeah. They also weren’t letting us diagnose any extra kids. I fought tooth and nail to get some kids diagnosed.

Kids who you saw were obviously having issues?

Yes. I mean I worked in almost every single classroom so I kinda saw the kids. You can often tell when there’s something going on. We kept being put off, “Oh, just try this intervention or that intervention…”

It didn’t help that we had a LOT of first year teachers and a lot of Teach for America teachers. This is not the first time I’ve worked with TFA teachers and if I never work with one again, I will be a happy person. I understand that they are nice people. The people that I worked with last year were some of the best people I’ve ever worked with. I still miss the people I worked with. Part of it was because we bonded over our shared experiences of just hating our jobs. But there were so many TFA teachers that made it clear that, after their two years were up, they were gone. And I just wondered why an administration would hire a teacher with an expiration date, someone who didn’t want to be there making a difference for the kids for years to come.

The thing is that these kids need structure. So many of them come to school and they’re having sex, they’re doing drugs, they have major problems at home and if you don’t create some structure for them, they will walk all over you. The first year teachers really didn’t get that a lot of the time.

You know, I’ve read some of your blogs and let me just say, all that stuff the other teachers were saying, I could reiterate all of those points. Like the whole thing that I read about teachers going to kids’ houses and picking them up for Count Day: totally happened and totally illegal. They would drive kids home. They’re not allowed to do that. If they couldn’t get ahold of a parent and they wanted to have a kid suspended, they’d just take them home.

Just drop them off. Nice.

And the BUZZ platform is just ridiculous. The kids are not learning. Test scores are being fudged. I can tell you that for a fact. The kids that were performance tested, they were allowing the kids to retake the tests multiple times to show growth.

Here’s the thing: they say it’s a self-adjusting test [where your next questions are determined by if you got previous questions correct or not], and I’ve administered test like this in the past. Some of them are really good. But with the EAA’s Education Performance Test, every time you take the test, it’s the same test again. My kids memorized most of the questions.

If you advance 100 points, that’s considered a year’s growth. I had a kid in third grade who grew 700 points in a year. So, he technically was equivalent to a tenth grader but the boy couldn’t read much past the third grade. There’s no way in hell that he grew seven years in one year.

Another thing was that we were threatened to be written up if there were visitors there and we took kids to the bathroom.

That’s a common thing that I’ve heard from Nolan teachers, that every other week there was some big wig coming through and they had to keep their kids in the classroom the entire time they were there.

And when they do that, they rewrite the entire schedule so you’re having kindergartners and first graders eating lunch at like 10:00 in the morning and you’re having middle schoolers eat lunch at like 2:00 in the afternoon because for some reason all these big wigs can only manage to come between 10:30 and 1:30.

To me it doesn’t make sense that these people wouldn’t want to see what a real school looks like and see how we changed classes and see how the transitions were. But I knew exactly why we were hiding it because our transitions sucked. These kids couldn’t act right in the hallway. It would have been pure pandemonium and they would have seen that it wasn’t working.

You just said something that I’ve heard from a lot of teachers, that, “If we didn’t do this or that thing, we would get ‘written up’.” I have never talked to teachers before who were in constant fear of being “written up.” In fact, I’ve never talked to people at ANY job who were so in fear of being “written up.” And yet it seems like this threat that’s always hanging over teachers in the EAA schools that they’re going to get “written up.” Is that what it felt like?

Oh, yeah. One of our first memories in the EAA … first of all, that first month of professional development (PD) training was a total joke. None of us learned anything about what the Student Centered Learning (SCL) was. We essentially made up what SCL was.

This was the month and half before school started in 2012?

Yeah. So, every day at the end of the professional development sessions, we had to go online and fill out a survey about what we had learned that day. One of my colleagues, who actually ended up leaving Nolan because it was too much for them wrote that he didn’t like being talked to the way we were being talked down to. Because they were anonymous, she couldn’t find out who it was but the next day we all were sat down in the library and berated for a half an hour about how we were ungrateful and how we an embarrassment to her. I have never in all of my years of teaching, no, of working have I ever been talked to the way our principal talked to us. She did not view us as her employees. She viewed us as like her minions that she could just pick up and move around however she wanted.

This Angela Underwood that you’re talking about?

Yeah. There was a lot of dissent among the teachers and a lot of people were talking crap, a lot of people were talking about leaving and quitting. So, me being the peacemaker that I want to be, actually approached her. I told her that maybe it would be a good idea to have a staff meeting, a “come to Jesus” moment. Well, we had the meeting but she didn’t let me talk the entire time because she was mad at me for suggesting that there was disharmony among the teachers. Then, while she was in this meeting, she got up and told us all that we were all replaceable, that she had stacks of resumés on her desk, and that we all needed to watch ourselves.

You’ve just confirmed something that I heard from another teacher, that you were all a dime a dozen and could be replaced at the drop of a hat…

What I’d like to say about the EAA is that it reminds me of the musical The Music Man. Covington is the Music Man. He did this in Kansas City. He went there, he trumped it up. He got all these people to believe in this idea and then he left. And now those schools have lost their accreditation, they’re not accredited. And now he’s here and I guarantee you he will do the same thing again. It’ll be just like the Music Man where he gets them all to give him their money and then he walks out of town. I’ve had this discussion with dozens of teachers and we all believe it. We even called him the Music Man.

Why do you want to stay anonymous?

The EAA has instilled such a fear in me of my job being taken away from me. And I honestly love what I’m doing this year. My kids are some of the most amazing kids I’ve ever worked with. And don’t get me wrong, I’m still in an urban school. I’m not by any stretch of the imagination with kids that are in any better of a situation than the kids I taught last year.

You just have a better administration.

Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I actually feel supported by my principal. I never felt supported in the EAA. I never once felt supported. Look, I’m not a kiss-ass and that’s the problem. In the EAA, if you weren’t, you were pretty much done for. If you voiced any sort of dissent, you were the leper. And she had her golden children. For example, we had to nominate ourselves for Teacher of the Year. She had two TFA teachers nominate themselves to be Teacher of the Year. I’m sorry but I couldn’t give my vote to someone who’s been teaching for less than nine months!

The woman that we actually chose for Teacher of the Year was someone the administration couldn’t stand because she actually stood up for herself. She ended up winning because we ALL voted for her. She couldn’t go to the luncheon because she was getting married and our principal like lost her mind.

In the core group of people that I hung out with, not a single one of us is there any more.

The Teacher of the Year you mentioned, she quit too, right?

Right. She is one of the most… she left a career in educational technology to work for the EAA. She moved home from another state for this and they shit on her so much. She brought in her own Promethean Board. We were promised smart boards, we were promised the world. I NEVER saw a smart board. I had a chalkboard. I didn’t even have a white board in my class. We were promised the world and got nothing. But, she brought in her own Promethean Smart Board. She brought in her own clickers. Her class was amazing, the way she organized everything. And she did this all on her own. She wrote her own curriculum in BUZZ because BUZZ is such a joke.

She ended up quitting, right?

Oh, yes. She quit. We all quit. None of us were fired.

And who chose the Teacher of the Year? Did you all vote?

Yes. Well, first you had to nominate yourself to be Teacher of the Year which is a joke in itself because I shouldn’t nominate myself [laughs]. But we told her if she nominated herself we would vote for her and we did. She won by a landslide.

So she won that because her fellow teachers voted for her, not because she was chosen by the administration.

Oh, yeah. If the administration had chosen she would not have been Teacher of the Year. Somehow Angela Underwood won Principal of the Year and I would love to know the criteria for that because none of us were ever asked.