Class of 2016

‘This the adult world, and now I’m in it’: How two young women took on real life before graduating high school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Leigh Duignan (left) and Dorothy Slater (right) immediately before graduation.

Across most of her high school career, Leigh Duignan made steady progress toward college. She worked to improve her grades, took on a nearly full-time job at a local ice cream shop to start saving for tuition, and joined a computer programming club.

But in her senior year at the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology in Manhattan, those plans threatened to unravel. Her dad had a heart attack, and other problems arose that left her without much support at home.

“This year was probably the hardest year of my whole high school career,” Duignan said. “All of these bad things just all happened at once and I really, really wanted to quit.”

Still, last Friday, donning a white graduation gown and a grin, Duignan joined about 100 of her classmates in a celebratory march through Midtown and into the auditorium of New World Stages on 50th Street, where her parents looked on while she officially graduated from high school.

Duignan, 18, is headed to SUNY Polytechnic Institute this fall, and even though her tuition will be covered by a state scholarship, she scraped together over $2,000 working at Eddie’s Sweet Shop in Queens – often staying until midnight or later.

“Financially, things weren’t really great this year. I’d be so tired [after work], but it’d be worth it,” she thought.

Duignan wasn’t the only student at UA Gateway who took on adult responsibilities to help propel herself to graduation. Her classmate, Dorothy Slater, 19, also worked nearly full-time this past year at Buffalo Wild Wings in Midtown to help pay for groceries and to have her own spending money since her mother has a disability and does not work.

Slater even earned enough money to file taxes, which she completed herself with some help from an Urban Assembly staff member.

“I just learned how to deal with it,” she said, regarding the extra responsibilities. “I was just like, ‘This the adult world, and now I’m in it.’”

Slater plans to attend SUNY Plattsburgh starting this summer as part of its Educational Opportunity Program, which helps motivated yet disadvantaged students who don’t meet traditional admissions requirements gain entry to SUNY colleges, and offers additional academic support.

The school’s administrators note that while many students overcome challenges, Slater and Duignan are unusual in the adult roles they’ve taken on without losing sight of school.

“They’ve taken advantage of all of the resources available to them,” said Alex Rigney, the school’s director of college counseling. “These guys have put in as much time as any students here.”

In addition to work and school, Duignan joined the after-school club Girls Who Code as a way of exploring her interest in programming outside of male-dominated spaces (roughly 80 percent of students at UA Gateway are men). Slater took on internships that let her explore her interest in graphic design – and both young women participated in College Now, which let them take community college classes while enrolled in high school.

“She’s usually the last one here when I’m locking up at 6 o’clock,” Rigney said of Duignan, noting that she often sticks around to get homework done before leaving for work. “Frankly, I don’t know how she balanced it all.”

Leigh Duignan walks to graduation with classmates from The Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology.
PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Leigh Duignan walks to graduation with classmates from The Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology.

School hasn’t always come easily to Duignan. Due to a learning difference, she didn’t master reading until the sixth grade, and has been supported by a learning plan geared for students with disabilities. “I used to look at a book and think, ‘I could never read that,’” she said.

Duignan attributes her high school success partly to extra counseling she got through her individual learning plan, staff members in whom she felt comfortable confiding, and her mentor from the Big Sisters program, who boosted her confidence.

On Friday, the school gave her one last push. In the middle of the graduation ceremony, the school awarded Duignan an extra $5,000 scholarship – the top prize offered this year.

“I’m just in complete awe,” she said moments later, surrounded by her family.

It’s not an entirely easy transition. Slater teared up when asked about the prospect of traveling across the state for college, and leaving her mother behind. “I lived in the city for my whole entire life. It’s an adjustment.”

And while Duignan is looking forward to moving away for school, and escaping the challenges associated with her family life, she still wonders whether she’s completely prepared for college.

“I have no idea,” she said. “I guess we’ll see.”

biding time

Strike vote by Denver teachers no longer imminent due to contract extension

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
The bargaining teams from Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union at a contract negotiation session in 2017.

Although the Denver school district and its teachers union failed to reach a deal on an overhaul of the district’s pay-for-performance system, the prospect of a strike is less imminent.

Earlier this week, the union’s board of directors authorized a strike vote if a new agreement couldn’t be reached by the time the current one expired at midnight Wednesday.

The two sides couldn’t come to terms on how to change the system, but did reach a different kind of deal: District officials agreed to the union’s request to extend the current pay-for-performance agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters will approve a tax increase in November benefiting schools, making teacher pay raises more likely. However, the union did not take the threat of a strike completely off the table.

A statement from the union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the union “will begin preparing to take work actions to ensure progress on the new compensation system. If no agreement is reached by the Jan. 18 deadline, DCTA will immediately ask for a strike vote from union members the following day.”

In other districts that have experienced labor conflicts, teachers have picketed, refused to work extra hours, and even waged “sickouts.” The Denver teachers union did not specify the types of work actions they were considering.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was reluctant to sign a ten-month extension, “but in the end, we are prepared to honor their request for more time.”

“We all have a very clear, common goal and common interest around supporting our kids and giving our kids the very best chances to learn and grow,” Boasberg said. “I’m confident that common goal and common aspirations will help us move toward an agreement.”

Denver’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, was first piloted in 1999. Under the current agreement, teachers earn a base salary based partly on their level of education and years of experience, and partly on how much training they completed the year before and on the outcome of a yearly evaluation that takes student test scores into account.

Teachers can also earn bonuses and incentives on top of their base salary. This year, for example, teachers who work in a hard-to-serve school with a high percentage of students living in poverty can earn an extra $2,578 per year.

The union wants to make teachers’ paychecks more predictable by moving back to a traditional “steps and lanes” salary schedule in which raises are based on education and experience. Union leaders also want higher base salaries. The union proposed a salary schedule that would pay teachers with a doctorate degree and 20 or more years of experience a base salary of $100,000 with the opportunity to earn a more limited number of incentives on top of that.

The district, meanwhile, proposed a salary schedule that would continue to take teacher evaluations into account when calculating raises but would allow teachers to more significantly build their base salaries for more years. While the union’s proposal shrinks some incentives, the district’s proposal grows the incentive for teaching in a hard-to-serve school.

District officials said the union’s proposal is too expensive. ProComp is funded by a voter-approved tax increase that is expected to raise about $35 million this year. The union’s proposal would cost more than twice as much, district officials said.

Union leaders asked to extend the current agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters approve a proposed ballot measure that would raise $1.6 billion for schools. Backers of the measure, which would increase income taxes for people who earn more than $150,000 per year, are collecting signatures to get it on the November ballot.

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that voters approve any tax increase. In 2013, voters rejected a school funding tax increase that would have raised $950 million its first year.

Boasberg supports this year’s effort. He’s among the Colorado superintendents pushing for a new, “student centered” school funding formula if the measure passes.

“The entire purpose of that funding measure is to strengthen teacher compensation, decrease class sizes, and improve supports for kids,” Boasberg said. “So if that passes, of course we will eagerly sit down with DCTA to discuss how we strengthen our compensation for teachers.”

On the brink

Denver teachers union leaders vote to call for a strike vote if pay negotiations fail

PHOTO: Marissa Page
Teachers watch a master contract bargaining session between Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union on June 22.

The Denver teachers union’s board of directors voted Tuesday to ask its members to strike if the union and the school district fail to reach an agreement Wednesday on teacher pay.

It’s the first time Denver Classroom Teachers Association leaders have taken such a vote since the 1990s, said Corey Kern, the union’s deputy executive director. He said Denver teachers are fed up with the district and inspired by the recent actions of teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma.

“Teachers don’t think the district is taking them seriously,” Kern said.

Since November, the union and the district have been negotiating an overhaul of Denver Public Schools’ pioneering pay-for-performance system, called ProComp. The current agreement expires at midnight Wednesday. Kern said the union’s preference is “to get a deal done,” but its directors were clear that “if that doesn’t ultimately happen, they will ask for a strike vote.”

Kern said he didn’t know when a strike vote would be held, but it probably wouldn’t happen immediately.

Denver Public Schools officials said in a statement Tuesday they “are committed to reaching an agreement.” If the sides can’t agree Wednesday, the district pledged to continue with the current pay-for-performance system to ensure teachers get their expected pay.

The union has offered a proposal that would pay teachers with a doctorate and 20 years or more of experience a base salary of $100,000.

The current salary schedule goes up to $74,130 for teachers with a doctorate and at least 11 years of experience. Under ProComp, teachers can earn bonuses and incentives on top of that. In 2015-16, the average second-year teacher earned an extra $5,599, according to the district.

In August the district and the union signed a new five-year master contract that included increases in base pay – which the district said were the largest raises in the metro area – and an additional $1,500 for teachers who work in high-poverty schools.

This round of negotiations is for the ProComp agreement, which is separate from the master contract. The district first piloted pay-for-performance in 1999. Voters in 2005 approved a tax increase to fund it. Those taxes will generate about $35 million this year, according to district officials. The last significant redesign of the ProComp system happened in 2008.

The union’s proposal calls for higher base salaries and reduces the size of the incentives teachers can earn for working in hard-to-serve schools or hard-to-fill positions. Union leaders have said teachers want a more predictable pay structure that relies less on bonuses, which can vary year to year.

The district, meanwhile, has suggested increasing some incentives as a way to attract and retain teachers. The district has also suggested providing teachers who earn four years of “distinguished” evaluations with base salary increases equivalent to what they would get for earning a master’s degree.

The union’s proposal to raise the maximum base salary to $100,000 would require more than twice as much money as taxpayers pay into ProComp each year, a district spokeswoman said.

The two sides are set to return to the negotiating table Wednesday morning.