Tenured Newark school teacher LaRhonda Ragland—a former member of the Alvin Ailey dance company and a New Jersey Nets cheerleader—was set up to fail by the state-run school administration, a state-appointed arbitrator has ruled. In a 41-page decision reinstating the teacher after the district tried to fire her, the arbitrator described how Ragland, a single mother with a teenaged child, was declared an “educator without placement” (EWP) by the administration of superintendent Cami Anderson, then transferred from Maple Avenue School to Arts High where she was given non-teaching duties to perform. She was assigned to teach only when administrators wanted to evaluate her–then gave her poor evaluations.
“The District set Respondent (Ragland) up to fail and simply marked time until it could file tenure charges against the teacher,” wrote state-appointed arbitrator, Timothy Brown.
Brown described how Ragland, who had appeared in the Off-Broadway show “Jam the Groove,” was made a hall-monitor and some-time substitute teacher of non-dance subjects at Arts High where administrators made it clear early on in her stay there that she was not welcome. She was only evaluated for the few days she was assigned to teach high school-level dance classes, something she had not done in her previous nine years in the Newark public schools.
“It is fiction to believe that Respondent would succeed in observations of
her teaching high school students at a high school devoted to the arts
when Respondent had previously taught dance only at the elementary
school level and had been assigned hall monitoring and substitute
teaching in non-dance subjects at the arts high school,” Brown concluded.
The arbitrator made it clear that the administration wanted Ragland to fail.
“By its actions and inactions….the District pursued a course of
conduct that assured that, rather than conduct observations of a dance teacher teaching a
dance class of the teacher’s students, the District could conduct observations of a
substitute teacher/hall-monitor attempting to teach students for whom the teacher had no
teacher-student relationship. The outcome of such observations were effectively
determined before they began….”
Throwing tenured teachers out of their jobs and making them EWPs has been a favorite strategy of the state administration under Anderson. By the beginning of this school year, Anderson had assigned more than 400 teachers to EWPs positions in the apparent hope that many would quit rather than be paid for doing nothing.
Many, however, did not quit and Ragland’s experiences shows what happens–they face being set up to fail by being assigned to jobs they are not trained to do.
The arbitrator also found the administration had no intention of helping Ragland overcome whatever problems she may have had in her difficult transition from an elementary school teacher to a EWPs position in high school. Such efforts to help teachers with alleged problems are required both by the new teacher tenure law and the district’s contract with the Newark Teachers Union (NTU).
“TEACHNJ”–the new teacher tenure law–“contemplates that, before he or she may be terminated from a teaching positions (sic), to improve the performance of the struggling teacher, such a teacher will receive a real – rather than feigned – prolonged effort to provide guidance and mentorship from the most advanced and knowledgeable educators in the teacher’s school: the principal and high-level administrators. Here, the District, through its administrators at Arts High School, predetermined that Respondent would never improve and could not be successfully reformed and arbitrarily withheld such efforts from Respondent, ” the arbitrator wrote.
Brown, the arbitrator, describes just how unwelcome the school administration made Ragland feel. He wrote, ” Only a week or two before her first observation,
Respondent was unambiguously advised in a disciplinary write-up from
principal (Lynn Irby-Jackson) that ‘…you are a EWPS teacher…you are not
an Arts High School dance teacher…’ Such
reflects Respondent’s status as an outsider at the school and the
Principal’s view that Respondent was not at the High School for
purposes of teaching dance.”
Brown also noted that the principal called Ragland “functionally illiterate” and said she was “outraged” that she was allowed to teach at Arts. Clearly, whatever the motive Anderson may have had for sending her to Arts as a EWP, Irby-Jackson didn’t want her there.
The NTU, which has represented Ragland and nearly a dozen other teachers brought up on tenure charges by Anderson, has won all its tenure cases this year and has repeatedly called on the superintendent and state Education Commissioner David Hespe to stop the efforts to fire tenured teachers,
The other cases were thrown out because Anderson insisted on using evaluations in both the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 years as admissible against teachers under the new anti-tenure bill, TEACHNJ. However, both law and regulations considered that first year to be a “pilot” year and evaluations conducted then could not be used.
Under the anti-tenure law, any teacher who receives two years of bad evaluations must be brought up on expedited tenure charges.
The arbitrator in the Ragland case cited that reason for dismissing the tenure charges against her but he also pointed out that the district failed any effort to try to help the teacher improve. The efforts, he said, were “feigned,” and not real.
Ragland, 44, was raised in Chicago and began her dancing there. She moved east in 1993 and worked professionally as a dancer until 2005 when she was hired by the Newark public schools as a an alternate route teacher.
Robert Pickett, the West Orange lawyer who defended Ragland, called the arbitrator’s decision “a major victory, not just for Ms.Ragland, but for all teachers who must rely on the new tenure law to keep their jobs.”
Pickett said he already has demanded that Ragland be reinstated “in a position that is consistent with her license and her experience.”
Ragland said she would not comment on the case.
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Ras Baraka did).