Classroom aides on move

Assistants must go to high-poverty schools to satisfy U.S. mandate

January 03, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

As the Baltimore school system scrambles to meet a provision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, it is transferring more than 150 classroom assistants to different schools next week.

Assistants considered qualified under the law are being moved to high-poverty schools, while those considered not qualified are moving to schools serving wealthier children.

The transfers are prompting outrage among many of the assistants and the teachers and others who work with them. They say the system didn't plan adequately and now is disrupting the lives of the assistants and the relationships they have built with children.

"It goes against all good pedagogy to transfer in the middle of the year," said Bobbi Macdonald, president of the board governing City Neighbors Charter School, which stands to lose four of its assistants. "If [system officials] were focused on student achievement, they'd figure this out a different way."

But system officials say they have no choice. If they don't comply with the federal law requiring them to have "highly qualified" classroom assistants in schools serving high-poverty populations, they risk losing millions of dollars in federal funds.

To be considered highly qualified, an assistant has to have an associate's degree or pass a state test. No Child Left Behind, passed by Congress in 2001, set a deadline of last June for all assistants in "Title 1 schools" - those with high-poverty populations - to meet that requirement.

After failing to meet that deadline, Baltimore school officials pledged to the state education department that they would work to achieve compliance as quickly as possible, said Gary Thrift, the system's human resources officer.

Effective Monday, 75 non-highly qualified assistants at Title 1 schools will be transferred to schools serving a wealthier student body, Thrift said. The wealthier schools will send highly qualified assistants to take their places at the Title 1 schools and to fill vacant positions.

About 90 highly qualified assistants are being transferred according to seniority. A few of them were aides working outside the classroom; they are being transferred to classroom jobs in their same schools.

Thrift emphasized that, as a result of the moves, no assistants will lose their jobs, and no schools will have fewer assistants than they have now.

The Baltimore Teachers Union is signing off on the transfers, saying the system and the union together have worked hard to get assistants designated as highly qualified. The union is arranging for assistants to take graduate courses and test-prep classes.

"Baltimore City is always under the microscope," said Marietta English, co-president of the union, which represents teachers and assistants. "They're just trying to follow the law."

But affected assistants - those who are highly qualified and those who are not - said they were shocked to receive letters from Thrift late last week notifying them of the moves.

Louise Graves, 56, said she was devastated to get a letter Saturday saying she was being transferred from her kindergarten class at Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary, a Title 1 school in East Baltimore where she has worked for the past 16 years. Graves said she failed the state test to become highly qualified by a few points, and she plans to retake it next month.

"You're pulling people in the middle of the year from a setting where the kids are comfortable," said Graves, a 33-year veteran of the city schools.

What's more, she does not have a car, and she estimates she will need to leave her east-side home at 4:30 a.m. to take public transportation to her new assignment at Cross Country Elementary in Northwest Baltimore by 7:30 a.m.

Phyllis Devlin, the teacher who has worked alongside Graves for the past 11 years, said she will be irreplaceable, calling her transfer "absurd" and saying it showed "complete disregard for the students."

"Words cannot even begin to express the impact she has had on children over the years," Devlin said. She said she does not know what to tell the 5- and 6-year-olds in the class who have grown attached to Graves.

Thrift said the system will try to move veterans such as Graves back to their home schools once they become highly qualified.

At City Neighbors, a charter school in Northeast Baltimore, staff members are in an uproar over the transfer of four highly qualified assistants to Title 1 schools. Charter schools are public schools that operate independently under contracts with local school boards.

In Baltimore, charter schools' contracts give them the autonomy to select their own staff, though the system's chief executive officer reserves the right to have final approval over staffing decisions. Macdonald, the City Neighbors board president, said the transfers violate the school's contract.

She said City Neighbors, which emphasizes project-based learning, has recruited staff from around the country.

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