educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Camden teacher reflects on getting fired

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On May 12, at the Camden City Board of Education meeting, school board members announced that 272 Camden City School District employees will lose their jobs at the end of this school year. Of that number, 206 are teachers. District administrators made the cuts, according to this Philadelphia Inquirer article, as “as part of a plan to bridge a $75 million revenue gap heading into the 2014-15 school year.” Last week, I had the opportunity to talk with one of the fired teachers. Not surprisingly, she voiced frustration with the process and outcome, but she also provided some surprising views about the charter school environment in Camden and its role in the firing decisions. She asked to remain anonymous, as she is of course now seeking a new job, maybe even at one of these charters.

What happened at the school board meeting?

The meeting was Monday. That Friday, the principal said we should all check our email at the end of the day. I checked it and had a “Rice Notice” letter [Note: Employees are “Riced” to notify them they will be a subject of discussion at a closed meeting] – they sent them out all over the district. But we weren’t that panicked because a woman from the union came. We knew there were going to be cuts and bumping, and we knew the Rice Notices were sent because you might be on a cut list. Your job might be in jeopardy. But there was no panic, especially for those of us with up to 11 years tenure. Well, we all go to the meeting, and they come out of private session – and they hand out this list. Everyone is flipping through the list. The teachers from my school were all sitting in a row, and we realized like half of our staff was gone. They fired everyone up to 11 years tenure. Reporters were there. Police in riot gear – it was crazy.

How exactly did they fire these tenured teachers?

They RIFed [Note: Reduction in force] these positions. The eliminated the positions themselves.

What was it like the next day?

The day after, it was terrible. I had to get out of my car, children were crying, parents were crying, I was crying. Then we had to administer the ASK Test. The person from the state is sitting there saying, “Start the test,” and we’re all crying. I have children with serious anger issues. It was horrible.

How did your students do on the ASK Test?

[Laughs] We don’t only give NJ ASK. You wouldn’t believe the testing the state makes us do. We do testing and write reports about differentiating and scaffolding instruction to help kids who failed the test anyway. I think they probably tanked it. It was just stupid. It’s hard to take a test when you’re crying.

What were these cuts the end result of?

They took away the right for the people of Camden to vote for BoE members. Now they’re appointed. This board was put in place two years ago, and that’s when the fight should have taken place. Then we have the state takeover because we’re $75 million in debt, although $73 million is earmarked for charter schools next year, by the way. And they only saved $24 million by cutting the teachers.

Where will the rest of the cuts come from?

This is the big mystery. About a month ago we were coming out of the building and there were all these charter school people handing out pamphlets. These charters aren’t built yet. No one will say what decisions will be made with these charter schools. But we have a feeling there will be three more up and running by 2014. Then they can cut off the next level of tenured teachers. All that will be left is people close to retirement.

What will happen to the students and their families?

This is part of the problem and why we’ve been so decimated. Each child in Camden is worth about $10,000 from the start. [Note: While some discuss Camden per pupil costs of $27,500, the Inquirer reported this: “Using a weighted per-pupil formula that takes into account special-needs costs, Camden spent $11,034 for the 2013-14 school year, only slightly higher than the state weighted per-pupil average of $10,749,” according to the Education Law Center.] That’s why charter schools are big business. When a charter school gets a child, the money follows them. That allotment goes to the charter school. Then there’s a certain period of time that they have to cut things off for tax reasons. If you keep a child in charter up until the middle of October, you get to keep the money. You can kick the child back to us, but they keep the money. They kick 10 kids back to us, they get $100,000 that we lose. They say it’s competition, but it’s not competition, because the playing field isn’t level.

Some of our schools will flip – you can’t say “convert” – to charters. They’re not “converting.” The school is going to be a charter school, and some of the students will get to go there by lottery. And the other children will get sent to other schools. The original idea of charters schools were good, but people never imagined what would happen. It’s like corporate takeover of schools. This has nothing to do with art-based or specialty schools. Half of these schools don’t have certified teachers. I can destroy your school in five years by opening a charter school in your town. Every year it’s like slam, slam, slam – we can’t keep up.

So our kids will probably go to a charter school. But we have some die-hard parents who are keeping their kids at [our school].

They are such incredible students. What they’re like — it’s incredible considering where they’re from. They are my heroes. They are caretakers to their younger brothers and sisters. They manage to do their homework. They want to learn. I have no complaints about these kids. Some are angry —  from horrible homes. But when they come to my class, I have no problems. You know what they want? They want someone’s eyes to light up when they walk through the door. If you walked into some of the schools in Camden, you’d be shocked how normal these kids are. Every kindergartner in my school can play chess!

What will be left for you and other teachers?

We all want to stay in Camden. A lot of the teachers are born and raised in Camden. A lot of them are single moms who went to school and stayed. They are part of the school system in a positive way. They are successful because they get these kids. They live in the neighborhood with them.

Cooper Medical is holding a job fair for teachers that were laid off. We’re going to be able to interview for charter school positions. That’s what I’m having problems with – I’ll have to join a charter. I believe strongly in the right to public education, even though I know the education is never equal. To me, it’s a civil rights issue. Imagine the child who gets kicked out of the charter school now. He has to go to his decimated public school down the street. It’s a civil rights issue. If you’re going to be a charter school, you have to keep them until the end. That’s what public schools have to do. I get why people support charter schools. But if you’re going to give charter schools public school money, they should have to play by the same standards. I love all my kids, but if every year you pull all the best children out of my classroom, what’s left?

So you’ll likely go to a charter?

I may have to. I have to feed my family. I love the community. I love my families. You know, they don’t plow in Camden. The parents have shoveled the streets so the teachers can park. I’m going to miss my sistas. But my school has been shot to hell.

What else could have been done to avoid this situation? Tough to ask, but could this decision improve things down the line?

I hope. I pray. There’s little evidence charter schools will make things better. I’ve been in Camden for five years and taught six different reading programs. So, yes, they’ve mismanaged money horribly. They have. They needed to clean house up top. This is a symptom of the problems in the area. People think this is all about welfare, but I have kids with both parents working and they still can’t pay the bills. Also, even though my tenure in Camden ended in heartbreak, I would do it all over again. It was worth the five amazing years I experienced working in this diverse, challenging, and rewarding environment. I am profoundly changed in a positive way by this experience. I don’t want to appear “bitter”… My heart is broken, I believe in our public ed system, but at the end of the day, this is about the children, and I pray the charter school movement is successful for them.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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9 Responses to “Camden teacher reflects on getting fired”

  1. Yeesh. Wow. I’m appalled.

  2. This is very, very frustrating to hear; but also necessary for people to hear. I’ve recently read Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”, so my already half-hearted patriotism is currently low. Stories like these don’t help it much; I wish I could find a way to help these people.

    Thanks, Scott. Please keep making a little noise on this stuff.

  3. How very sad for our public schools. I highly recommend going to United Opt Out National’s website, where the selling of our public schools to big business is explained.
    This is not a “conspiracy theory”. It is happening right now, right under our noses. Companies such as Pearson publishing ( whom my home district uses ) are in the market to promote failure in our curriculum. NJASK and other state test that are prepared by unqualified people are the tool being used to crack the foundation of our public schools.

    I only hope I can get my child out before it all collapses.

    I may sound like a nut, but I truly believe this is the wave of the future.

  4. $24 million dollars goes to pay 206 teachers? That is an insane amount of money; over $100,000 per teacher. I make less than 1/5 that amount for teaching a full-time load.

  5. Absolutely disgraceful!

  6. Unfortunately, this is and has been the case in Camden for quite some time. My wife taught there for 5 years in the late 90s, and what is true today was true then. Sadly, the clown show of neopatism and corruption and dubious ethics that permeates the culture of the BOE there remains in full effect. I vigorously dislike charter schools and the drain they place on public education via tax credits, but it would seem that the only solution for that district is a tear down and disassembly comparable to what happened to the Camden PD. Mind you, the State has descended on Camden many times over the years to take over financial and academic management of the district, but they left too much rot on the wood and decay was unabated. There are some truly great teachers in Camden and some truly hideous administrators.

  7. The 206 teachers was “part” of the 24 million saved in budget cuts. 550 total employees and other cuts were made as well.

  8. Scott, Not all charters are created the same way. Some are big business and some are created by a people who have a vested interest in Camden and its kids. Charters do not get the full financial allotment per student that the district receives, either. Please talk to other sides of the charter school argument.

  9. “And they only saved $24 million by cutting the teachers.” or “The 206 teachers was “part” of the 24 million saved in budget cuts.” Which is correct?

    I am asking for specifics because I am suspicious of numbers – especially big numbers – that are thrown out for effect. What is the budget for the Camden School District, and how much is spent per student? Could restructuring the district’s spending benefit students?

    And what are the teachers like? Do they get reviewed, and have they proven to be effective in their jobs?

    I am not trying to be inflammatory or insensitive. But the interview presents just one side of the issue, and I can’t judge the rightness or wrongness on just the information presented here.

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