'Feels Like My Heart Has Been Broken'
New and Veteran Teachers in D.C. Stunned By Their Dismissal, as Well as Handling of It
By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 2009
A neat row of X's stretches down Eve McCarey's performance evaluation, showing that in category after category, she is someone who "exceeds expectations." With three years of experience as a special education teacher at Anacostia High School, she is hardworking, well-spoken and now unemployed.
McCarey seems to be the sort of teacher any hard-charging, reformist schools chancellor would want in a classroom. But despite layoff rules designed to help the system retain high-performing teachers, McCarey found herself out of a job Friday, along with other educators who range from idealistic Teach for America newcomers to a 32-year guidance counselor who is praised by parents as uncommonly effective.
"It just feels like my heart has been broken," said counselor Sheila Gill, 57, of McKinley Technology High School. "I have been trying to process all of what's going on. It happened so quickly and so suddenly."
McCarey, 28, a graduate of D.C. public schools who once helped develop curricula in Sudan, shared Gill's bruised feelings about the decision to lay her off and the manner in which her dismissal was executed. Nearly 400 school employees, including 229 teachers, lost their jobs.
"It was just the most disrespectful thing," McCarey said. Teachers were interrupted in the middle of class, escorted to the principal's office and read a script by their soon-to-be-ex-boss. The office of Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee told principals not to give laid-off employees specific reasons for their dismissals.
The reasons for McCarey's dismissal from Anacostia High couldn't have been based on much observation, she said. The administration was new this school year. Her contact with her new supervisors was limited to an interview over the summer, after which she was rehired, and a five-minute classroom visit the week before the layoff, she said.
Her June 1 job evaluation, a copy of which she shared with The Washington Post, gave her 28 of 30 possible points.
Now McCarey is worried about her students, some of whom don't adapt well to change, she said. She's also worried about her family. Her 4-month-old child and her husband, a freelance Web designer, were both on her health insurance.
An uncle of one of McCarey's students credited her for his nephew's improved grades and attitude. "This really makes me burn on the insides," said James Toon, the primary caregiver of his nephew, a senior. "If it wasn't for her, I don't know how I could have pulled this off."
School officials have said the layoffs were necessary to close a $43.9 million gap in their 2010 budget caused by D.C. Council spending cuts in July. Critics, including council members, students and the teachers' union, have questioned the timing and underlying math of the layoffs.
Rhee said Wednesday that, faced with the council's cuts, she sought to minimize the effect on individual schools and to protect the system's best teachers. "Arguably in [Anacostia High] you were in the position where you were letting go of some people where you wouldn't want to let them go," Rhee said.
At elementary schools that cut one or two people, "a lot of principals said they felt good about being able to remove ineffective teachers," she said. Gill, the McKinley guidance counselor, had been with D.C. schools for 32 years and is a member of the executive committee of the Washington Teachers' Union. Her dismissal, and those of 14 other staff members at McKinley, helped spark a protest Monday that brought about 200 students to the school system's headquarters and the John A. Wilson Building.
Gill said she was inspired in part by the idea of teaching children who were affected by the drug epidemic of the 1980s. She held out hope that she might work at McKinley again.
"I'm confident that I'll get my job back. I haven't done anything wrong," Gill said. Numerous parents and students praised Gill for helping students navigate high school and making sure they got into college.
"She's probably one of the most awesome and caring and loving counselors in this city," Lynne Holcomb said. She credited Gill with helping her son track down many of the 28 scholarships that together have helped pave the way to a full ride at N.C. State University this year.
Gill said that she had received excellent job evaluations in the past but that she hadn't had one in the two years since Principal David Pinder arrived at McKinley. Pinder and other principals contacted for this report declined to comment, citing personnel rules.
Rhee revamped the evaluation system last month, noting that most teachers are stamped with "satisfactory" ratings.
The layoffs also caught the young, although Rhee and the union disagree on the extent. Rhee said that, overall, less-experienced teachers were more likely to have been laid off. But she declined to release the numbers, saying they were being reviewed by District lawyers. The union has expressed concerns that veteran teachers might have been disproportionately affected by the cuts and filed suit Wednesday in D.C. Superior Court.
One laid-off teacher had taught in D.C. schools for six weeks. Brian Mokoro, 23, who graduated from Duke University last spring, joined Teach for America and moved to D.C. four months ago, taught math at Spingarn High School. He was one of six Teach for America teachers laid off out of 170 in the system, said Rhonda Stewart, a spokeswoman for the organization, which places high-achieving graduates into struggling districts nationwide.
Mokoro, who taught two classes of algebra and one of geometry to freshmen, said he was drawn to the District after double-majoring in public policy and economics.
"I think the only way to understand education reform is to teach," he said. "I hope that teaching is my calling."