New teacher union head reveals classroom priorities

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In a special sit down with the New Pittsburgh Courier, incoming Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visgitis revealed her plans for the future of the organization amidst state budget cuts and turbulent political waters unfriendly to teacher’s unions.

As Esposito-Visgitis outlined the obstacles she will soon face when she takes office Sept. 1, she was quick to point to Governor Tom Corbett’s cuts to education funding and their ramifications for teaching initiatives in the Pittsburgh Public School District.

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PITTSBURGH FEDERATION OF TEACHERS—Nina Esposito-Visgitis will take office as PFT’s new president Sept. 1. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

“The most significant challenge would be the budget cuts. This year, the district did a good job of keeping the cuts away from the classroom,” Esposito-Visgitis said. “We obviously knew it was coming. It was more his choice of cuts that was unexpected.”

The largest portion of cuts fell on funding for early childhood education. Since funding for early childhood education programs and centers comes from a variety of sources, Esposito-Visgitis said it is harder to protect.

“Where we were hit the hardest is early childhood, which is the least place you want to be hit. Almost one-third of our early childhood centers were closed,” she said. “I don’t know what more you can do to prove early childhood is important. Even though they have the numbers, I don’t think early childhood has the safe guards around it that others do.”

This year the Pittsburgh Public Schools will see the implementation of it’s Empowering Effective Teacher Plan, a collaborative effort between the district and PFT, funded through a grant by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Among the plan’s many components is the creation of teaching institutes, originally designed to train new teachers. However, due to budget cuts the teaching institutes will now work with existing teachers.

In order to measure teacher “effectiveness” the district has implemented RISE, the research-based inclusive system of evaluation. This system will also be used to determine performance-pay for teachers, a new initiative included in the most recent collective bargaining agreement.

“For present teachers performance pay is going to be voluntary. It wasn’t ready for this year, so it’s going to be brought in next year. It gives them the opportunity to make more faster,” Esposito-Visgitis said. “What helps us is, a big draw to the city, a lot of programs we have are really attractive to teachers. A lot of urban districts have attract and hold problems. We don’t.”

The five-year CBA finalized last June was touted as revolutionary in that it saw the district and PFT working together without conflict. However, some have since criticized the CBA as being too costly for the district to maintain.

“John Tarka and Mark Roosevelt made a commitment to sit down and do things differently. I think it was a very collaborative effort,” she said. “I don’t think it would’ve come to fruition if the finances weren’t there to pay for it. A lot of the innovations are being paid for through grants. A lot of the performance-based compensations are coming through grants. There are raises in it. I think they’re fairly modest raises.”

Although most people believe it is impossible to fire a teacher after they receive tenure, Esposito-Visgitis said a teacher with tenure can be fired after two unsatisfactory ratings. Without tenure they only need one.

Esposito-Visgitis also addressed Pittsburgh’s high dropout rate, especially as it related to African-American males and said there are programs in place such as the Promise Readiness Core, to give students additional support throughout high school. She also admitted the importance of curriculum to keep students engaged in the classroom, in order to prepare them for academic or vocational post secondary education.

“Across all schools we have the same goals and that’s to be Promise ready. A lot of our teachers write our curriculum, but there is a lot of frustration because the curriculum is so scripted,” Esposito-Visgitis said. “I want to continue using teacher’s voices to move education forward.”

Despite cuts that have forced the loss of some teachers, Esposito-Visgitis said new teachers have been hired to fill vacancies in subjects where former teachers are not certified. However, she did not give specific numbers on layoffs or hires.

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