`Heartbreaking' move by schools

Layoffs: One teacher who is being replaced because of lapsed certification calls the action `wrong.'

October 31, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

A few days after first-grade teacher L'Tanya Ervin received notice that she was being laid off from Charles Carroll Barrister Elementary School, she found herself confronting the one person she was most afraid to face with the news: a tearful 6-year-old.

"I told her, `I'll be back,'" said Ervin from her home in Federal Hill. "And she said, `No, you won't!' and she just started crying. And it was like, `Oh, God.' I couldn't do it. I couldn't even face a 6-year-old. I just had to go."

Since that day two weeks ago, Ervin said, she has been too stressed to return to her classroom -- though her termination date isn't until Nov. 7 -- and a substitute has been teaching her class.

Ervin will soon be permanently replaced, however, by one of the Baltimore City school system's almost 300 surplus teachers, hired during the summer, when school officials thought there would be thousands more students enrolled in the district than there are.

The determining factor in deciding who would be laid off was teaching certification. Those teachers whose certification had lapsed have been the first to go.

And that meant letting go some veteran teachers, such as Ervin.

"It's the toughest part of my job," said Shelia Dudley, the system's human resources director.

Ervin, who had been teaching in Detroit before she arrived in Baltimore in 2000, was one in a group of 83 teachers to be let go because of lapsed certification. Teachers who hold provisional, or temporary, certification must earn their permanent certificates, often by taking courses and passing state competency tests.

School officials would not comment about Ervin's case, but, in general, took a cut-and-dry approach toward the group that was laid off.

"If these people had even kept their provisional certificates up to date, they would not be in the situation they are in today," Dudley said.

The hard line isn't personal, Dudley said. The school system, saddled with a $52 million cumulative deficit, is also facing the stern terms of a new federal law. Under No Child Left Behind regulations, school districts are required to employ only "highly qualified" teachers by 2005. In most states, including Maryland, that means having a valid, state-approved teaching certificate.

So with hundreds of certified teachers hired this year, school officials couldn't justify keeping noncertified teachers on the payroll when faced with a decision about layoffs.

"We know these are good teachers," Dudley said. "But the law is what the law is."

For many city teachers, the ramifications of the law seem unfair.

"When I got that letter, [I thought], `How dare they?'" Ervin said.

"How dare they fling out a letter saying this to me after all the hard work I've put out, doing all the things they told me to do? And here I sit with a teacher's degree in education. How dare they?"

Like 21 percent of the city's teachers, Ervin holds a provisional certificate.

As a result, she had to meet certain requirements, which vary with each new employee, to become fully certified in Maryland.

Ervin said that she was told when hired three years ago that, because she was certified in her home state of Michigan, she simply had to earn six additional college credits and pass two exams proving her mastery of educational theory and specific subjects such as reading and math.

"There was never a guideline when it had to be done," Ervin said.

"No one ever said, `You need to take it now. You have to take it right away.'"

According to the school system, Ervin's provisional certificate lapsed at the end of her first year at Charles Carroll Barrister and had to be updated within that time.

Ervin said she didn't know that.

Instead, she said, she was plodding along -- taking her coursework in the evenings at the system's Professional Development Center, and taking prep classes for the two exams, which she planned to take in January.

"All that was in the works, and yet they're going to kick me out of the classroom and hide behind my certification," Ervin said. "I was on the right track."

Dawn Dix, whose son Caleb Dreyer was a pupil of Ervin's in his second attempt at first grade, said Ervin's dismissal will hurt the school.

"Here they're shipping out the good ones and keeping the ones ... not making a difference," Dix said.

"If it wasn't for Ms. Ervin, my son would not be reading the way he is. The [former] principal was going to pass my son to the second grade when he couldn't read nothing. We held him back anyway, and Ms. Ervin worked with him the whole year. She didn't back down. And now, my son, I'm proud to say, can go to church and read directly out of the Bible."

Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta English said it is "heartbreaking" to see teachers like Ervin go.

"We have a great need in Baltimore City, and that is to raise the achievement of students," English said. "And if we have good teachers, we need to try to keep the ones that we have."

For too many years, Dudley said, school district officials were lenient about lapsed certificates, simply because the city schools had difficulty retaining teachers.

"But the landscape," Dudley said, "has changed."

That's certainly true for Ervin, who is worried about what she'll do now for a living.

"I've been told to let it go," she said. "But I can't let it go. This needs to be exposed for what it is. It's wrong."

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