September 15, 2014

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New Lorain Schools union head facing tough challenges

LORAIN — Jay Pickering said he was “infuriated” when an assessment last month of Lorain Schools by the Ohio Department of Education found a “culture of low expectations” among teachers about their students.

“I’m not denying that in the district the expectations have decreased a lot over the years, but it certainly hasn’t been because of teachers,” said Pickering, new president of the Lorain Education Association, the 450-member teachers union. “Our administrators and upper administration have caused that culture.”

Pickering on Sunday praised Superintendent Tom Tucker, a 28-year Lorain Schools administrator and educator who returned as superintendent in August but was critical of previous superintendents and top administrators during the last decade.

The decade has seen an approximately 3,000-student enrollment decrease in the roughly 7,500-student district. About 85 percent of district students live in poverty, and 87 percent of students entering kindergarten don’t meet minimum state standards.

“It’s difficult as a teacher when your boss is telling you, ‘Hey, maybe you should give them a little break here. Maybe you shouldn’t do so much there,’” said Pickering, a teacher since 1986 and a Lorain teacher since 1988. “Most of us don’t give into it, but there’s a lot of innuendo that you should make it easier.”

Pickering, who succeeded Dean Reinhart as president June 1, said after he took over that a principal wrote a memo to his staff that every student should be promoted to the next grade.

“Teachers were livid,” said Pickering, who wouldn’t name the principal or release the memo. “We fight every day to keep our standards up. It’s often a losing battle, because they (the administrators) have the final say.”

Tucker wouldn’t comment on Pickering’s accusation, but he said his academic recovery plan calls for greater accountability from administrators and teachers.

Pickering takes over at a difficult time. Lorain was taken over by an Academic Distress Commission in April because of the district’s low test scores. The district also experienced massive layoffs and program cuts last year to eliminate a deficit.

About 98 teachers were among the 182 school employees laid off last year, but many were recalled because of resignations, enrollment increases for special education students and the reinstitution of full-day kindergarten after the passage of a levy in November.

In 2007, 243 teachers and 22 teacher’s aides were laid off in budget cuts with many later recalled.

Pickering said layoffs have become an unpleasant rite of spring in recent years because of budget cuts in the school district. The assessment faulted Lorain’s recruitment and retention of teachers, but Pickering said it’s been difficult because of the instability, and he couldn’t blame teachers for finding work elsewhere.

“The most important thing is to bring in income to your families,” he said. “That’s the thing that teachers have to keep in mind at all times.”

Besides a lack of job security, teachers often encounter students who come to school unprepared to learn because of family problems. Pickering said teachers do an excellent job of improving student learning if they are given time, but it doesn’t always translate in test scores, especially when compared with wealthier school districts.

Pickering said the deck is further stacked against poor districts by the Legislature. By funneling public money to charter schools, increasing availability of school vouchers and enacting stricter teacher evaluations, Pickering said the Legislature is attempting to privatize education and bust teacher unions. He said public education shouldn’t be a for-profit enterprise.

“It should be the great equalizer. It should be the way that everybody gets the same education opportunity so they can have an even playing field when they leave school,” Pickering said. “By providing the charter schools and other groups with public money, it’s an unfair playing field for the public schools.”

A lack of a level playing field has been cited by the district for its finances, which have led to significant concessions by the union over the last two years.

The union in 2011 agreed to $2 million in benefit and wage concessions.

In addition, the union agreed to a one-year wage freeze and 10 percent reduction in payments for extracurricular activities, saving an additional $2 million. Pickering is in the midst of contract negotiations that he said he hopes will conclude by the end of next month when the teachers’ contract expires.

Pickering, 50, is serving a one-year term, but said he’d be willing to stay two or three more years before retiring. He hopes the district will be more stable by then.

“We’re hoping things become the agenda of the kids doing well and the teachers being trusted and the teachers being allowed to do their job,” he said.

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.


  • paul biber

    he is absolutely correct. the test is rigged. 13% of lorain kids pass the kindergarten entrance exam, 62% pass statewide on average. lorain improves almost 50% in 4 years and still gets an “f” because 75% is passing. an average distrct only ha s to go up 13% to pass. a district w/75%+ passing the kindergarten test never has to improve to be considered good. it’s a giant scam, which no media outlet has the guts to expose, or even investigate scientifically.

    • jz

      No child left behind What a croc. To some degree there has been some reporting on the real reasons for no child left behind policies, but, not enough. Some of the best teachers back in our day would have been handcuffed with these ridiculous standardized tests. What made them effective the current policing of teachers would have kept them from being the more creative.

    • Brian_Reinhardt

      Paul, you may want to speak with some of the Kindergarten and 1st Grade teachers in the district. The Kindergarten teachers I have spoken with say they have the kids up to speed when they leave Kindergarten AND the 1st Grade teachers back them up. The district likes to use that test as an excuse for future failures, but it doesn’t fly in the classrooms. It’s a “scam” all right, but the question is who is scamming whom?

  • jz

    Too much anger taken out on teachers these days. They deserve every dollar they earn, especially teaching kids today compared to back in the day. Republican policies no student left behind was a smokescreen bunch of lies. Meant to micromanage/ create a look over your shoulder mentality in the workplace and there are alot of people who I do not know why seem to want to blame teachers for everything. Most of them did not get a college degree, let alone a masters and keep up courses which are required for teachers to keep their jobs. Same thing for Police and Corrections workers. The non union jealous [yes they are taxpayers and have every right to gripe] people out there do not seem to understand or appreciate what it takes to be a Corrections employee, Cop or Teacher these days. Just because the economy and jobs have left the country for the past 25-30 years we don,t need to take it out on the remaining people who still have challenging jobs and now are making the better pay. I remember when a floor sweeper at the steel plant made 12.00 per hour in the 70,s and teachers, prison workers and cops made less. The shoe is on the other foot now.

    • Brian_Reinhardt

      JZ, We have the OAA to use as a tool to evaluate student performance right?
      What would we use to evaluate student performance if that test was not used? What would Lorain City Schools use as a measure to evaluate student achievement if there were no outside(NCLB) device to evaluate education standards?
      In the past 4 years in Lorain, for whatever reason, 11 students in K, 1st, 2nd and 3rd grades have failed. Only 11 children have been held back for not meeting education standards for their grade from THOUSANDS of students. They meet Lorain’s standards but do not meet state standards and an outside evaluation and set of standards is a bunch of lies?
      Please.

      • jz

        I said the no child left behind act is a bunch of lies. I,m speaking to the political policy itself and what I think its real motives are. Not ‘outside standards’.

        • Brian_Reinhardt

          Dude, get a clue.

          The NCLB Act was just a “continuation” of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and was part of his “War on Poverty”.

          A DEMOCRAT plan…

  • Zen Grouch

    **“I’m not denying that in the district the expectations have decreased a
    lot over the years, but it certainly hasn’t been because of teachers,”…**

    Yeah, what does the Ohio Department of Education know anyway…

    …I say let’s blame THEM for the lower expectations!

  • Brian_Reinhardt

    Mr. Pickering,
    Drive over to Toni Morrison Elementary and take a look in the break room at the cartoon hanging on the LEA bulletin board.
    The cartoon depicts 2 worried parents sitting in front of a teacher during parent teacher conferences who is saying:
    “I wouldn’t worry about his grades. I’m sure when you were his age you were just as stupid as he is”.
    That cartoon has hung there for the better part of 2 years.
    That cartoon is also a good indication of where the “culture of low expectations” originates.