Assistants' transfers elicit protests

City's planned shifting of classroom aides upsets parents, educators, elected officials

January 04, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

Dozens of parents at Mount Washington Elementary bombarded Baltimore school system officials with phone calls yesterday, protesting the impending transfer of the teaching assistant in a prekindergarten class.

At the Northwood Appold Community Academy charter school, about 75 people rallied last night to demand that five teaching assistants who received transfer notices be allowed to stay.

"We've got everything we want in place here," said Chris Forrest, a father of two Northwood Appold students. "Now they're trying to tear us apart."

The news that more than 150 teaching assistants in Baltimore schools are being moved to new jobs next week has mobilized angry parents and educators and prompted cries of unfairness citywide. In response, system officials say they have no choice but to comply with a provision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Every school system in the country was required by June last year to have "highly qualified" classroom assistants in its Title 1 schools, those that serve a high-poverty population. But few other systems nationally -- and no others in Maryland -- have found themselves in the predicament that Baltimore faces.

"I don't know of any other place that's gotten into this position at midyear," said Tish Olshefski, an expert on classroom assistants at the American Federation of Teachers.

Maryland's other 23 school systems are all either completely in compliance with the requirement or close to it, according to data provided by the state education department.

To be considered highly qualified under No Child Left Behind, an assistant must have an associate's degree or pass a standardized test. Systems have known about the requirement since No Child Left Behind was signed into law in January 2002. Initially, the law's deadline for all assistants in Title 1 schools to meet the criteria was January 2006.

But, Olshefski said, "People said it was going to wreak havoc" coming in the middle of the school year, and the federal government allowed systems until the end of the academic year in June.

Over the summer, many systems did what Baltimore is doing now: They transferred unqualified aides out of Title 1 schools and moved qualified aides from other schools to take their positions. Some systems also resorted to layoffs of unqualified assistants.

Why Baltimore waited until the middle of the school year to transfer assistants remained unclear yesterday.

In response to the question, the system issued a statement saying it had "tried in earnest to make this a voluntary process" and to avoid layoffs. The statement said the system has worked for five years to get classroom assistants designated as highly qualified.

Robert Heck, past PTA president at Roland Park Elementary/Middle, where two qualified aides are being transferred, was angry that principals weren't notified of the midyear transfers before assistants received letters late last week.

"This was a bombshell dropped on everybody," Heck said. "We're in a situation where, once again, the system seems to shoot itself in the foot."

With the cooperation of the city teachers union, the system is moving about 75 assistants who are not highly qualified out of Title 1 schools. About 90 qualified assistants from other schools are moving to take their places.

By federal standards, the schools that are losing the qualified assistants serve wealthier populations. At some schools in Baltimore, such as Roland Park and Mount Washington, that is the case. But many other city schools losing qualified assistants also serve high-poverty populations.

"We're not Title 1, nor are we rich," said the Rev. Cecil Gray, president of the board that governs Northwood Appold.

As a charter school -- a public school that operates independently -- Northwood Appold has a contract with the city school board that allows it to select its own staff. If the system goes through with transferring five of its eight assistants and replacing them with unqualified staff, Gray said, it will have "a whole other set of legal problems."

City Council members Robert W. Curran and Mary Pat Clarke attended last night's rally at Northwood Appold to show their support for the school.

"Let me tell you something, these folks have a case," Curran said, adding that he plans to call system officials before the City Council to explain why they violated charter school contracts.

Facing objections from several charter schools, system officials have said they are reviewing the situation.

In the statement yesterday, the system said that interim Chief Executive Officer Charlene Cooper Boston will review "individual cases that may present some unusual concerns" and consult with lawyers and the school board.

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