Harris Lirtzman is a relatively new friend of mine and a man who is a hero in the fight for justice for our kids. I met Harris a couple of years ago when I worked for WISE Services. I was part of a team who thought we could help the organization, Yonkers Partners In Education (YPIE), provide mentoring to Yonkers high school students to help them not just graduate but also succeed when they get out of high school. Harris was one of their team members at that meeting.
When we realized we thought on a very similar wavelength we decided to meet for lunch a couple of times. We hit it off. My wife and I invited Harris and his partner Ralph to dinner. We’ve been close friends ever since.
We share ideas about teaching, education, life, politics, family, photography, the Hudson River and whatever dumb ass stuff #45 and his band of bullies pull daily. A couple of days ago I saw a reference to Harris being a whistleblower in the NYC DOE. I hadn’t known about this so when I asked him to tell me, he sent me two NYT articles from the spring of 2012 that told the tale of Harry the Hero.
Let me say this before I share his story with you. There are many of us who, for years, have been advocating for public schools, their students, and the parents who send their kids to those schools. We have taught, marched, rallied, conferenced, wrote, rapped, and organized, but too often what we have done has been far too ideological and, well, just plain far less effective than we hoped our efforts would have been.
So this leaves me to Harris, who I am proud to call my friend and an example of what sacrifice for these kids really means. Over my many years in education I have had other friends and met other teachers who have spoken out and tried to do the right things, the right ways, and for the right reasons. They had been reprimanded, ATR’ed (A NYC thing- Google it), put in a “rubber room”, had their professional lives made miserable, were forced to quit, or were fired. There were a myriad of “trumped up” reasons but the end result was the same…with rarely any positive results.
And Harris? This is about Harris. Let me start with the backstory as provided by the NYT.
“A former deputy state comptroller, he had decided to give public school teaching a midcareer whirl. In 2009, he landed a job as a special education math teacher at the Gautier Institute for Law and Public Policy, a Bronx high school.” Lo and behold, “… in September 2011, school administrators placed uncertified teachers — and a conga line of unemployed teachers who came for one-week stints — in classrooms filled with special education students, which is to say those children most in need of expert help.
This violated federal regulations.
Whoa you say? How dare they have teachers teach out of a licensed area or rotate teachers from the Absent Teachers Reserve (That ATR thing) to fill the voids in the front of classrooms? Mind you the NYC Department of Education (DOE) was doing this sort of stuff way back when it was still the Board of Education (BOE) way back in the 20th century, but this was now happening wholesale and right in front of Harris’ eyes.
So, as the right thinking person he was, he decided to speak up to his school administrators. “’I am NOT trying to cause problems,’ he wrote in an e-mail to his assistant principal, but, he added, ‘we’re violating’ court-mandated educational plans for students.”
This is rare because most teachers don’t like to ruffle feathers, rock the boat, commit professional suicide, or take risks in general EVEN WHEN THEY HAVE TENURE!!! Harris did not.
So, as Michael Powell, the reporter of the NYT article wrote, “Mr. Lirtzman, unwittingly, became sand in the school’s gears. He had received nothing but satisfactory evaluations. But in December, he said, the principal, Grismaldy Laboy-Wilson, said that she would not recommend him for tenure. The next day, she told him to leave immediately.”
HARSH! What had he done that was so wrong? Nothing!
“Mr. Lirtzman took his allegations to the Office of Special Investigations, an in-house unit at the Department of Education. An investigator asked for proof. Mr. Lirtzman handed over 20 student programs, all of which showed that administrators placed students in classrooms with uncertified teachers. The investigator informed Mr. Lirtzman that these were confidential documents.”
“Now I am opening an investigation of you, she told him. It would be enough to bring a smile to the lips of Kafka.”
“‘These are the most vulnerable kids, the ones no one really looks out for,’ Mr. Lirtzman said. ‘This wasn’t a gray legal area. This was black and white, and the Department of Education decided that I was the problem.’”
Harris worked with many of these kids under horrid conditions. Here is a story of one.
“Derek Chestnut Jr., had more or less thrived in middle school, but ran upon the academic shoals at Gautier, where he was stuck in classes with a changing cast of uncertified teachers. One day, Mr. Lirtzman talked to the student’s father, Derek Chestnut Sr. ‘He kept hinting something was wrong, and finally he told me there were rotating aides and teachers,’ Mr. Chestnut recalled about their conversation. ‘The administrators told me otherwise, and I really didn’t appreciate when they tried to pull the wool over my eyes.’
Mr. Chestnut took his case to the upper reaches of the education bureaucracy. Quickly, without the usual resistance, he obtained an unusual legal letter that entitled him to place his son in a private school for special education children, all paid for by the city.
‘They admitted off the bat that my son’s I.E.P. was being violated’ he said. ‘I owe this to one honest man, Mr. Lirtzman. He became an advocate not just for my son, but for all special education students in that school.’”
Finally, the NYS DOE rewarded Harris for his gallant work on behalf of students.
“The State Education Department investigated his charges and sent him a copy of its report. It sustained Mr. Lirtzman’s allegations, one violation of state regulations after another.
High school administrators at the Felisa Rincón de Gautier Institute for Law and Public Policy in the Bronx had put unqualified teachers in charge of special education classes. They pushed these students into classes crowded with general education students.
And most egregiously, when faced with teaching vacancies, the administrators brought in a conga line of substitute teachers on “rotating” one-week stints to teach special education classes. That treads perilously close to educational malpractice.”
There is more. There is always more.
“The Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, which represents principals, argues that the fault lies with the city’s Education Department, which imposes budget cuts and ever more demands on principals. Higher-ups, they say, approved Ms. Laboy-Wilson’s decisions, including placing substitute teachers in special education classrooms on a rotating basis.
The principal, they say, is not at fault.”
In fact they showed Mr. Powell several internal NYC DOE memos verifying that officials turned a blind eye to those violations and others and directed principals to skirt the regulations.
So, the principals Association and the NYC DOE continue to spend time on the blame game, each blaming the other when clearly all were at fault, not Harris, for raising the issue.
The truth is that there is a dearth of qualified teachers in NYC at all grades and for all subjects. Even with the recruitment of teachers with special education certification, and teacher colleges having their student teachers obtain dual certifications, there is still a shortage of those. That is true as a result of the abdominal ways teachers have been treated all across the 50 states, unions or not.
But how did this end for Harris, who worked in a state with more due process for teachers than most.
“He went to that high school in the Bronx for a job interview in 2009. The principal hired him on the spot, and a few days later, he was teaching a special education math class.
Several parents said he was one of the best teachers their children ever had. But when the department denied him tenure and the principal forced him out, he had enough. He retired.”
Although due process exonerated him, he had had enough. Another great teacher and humanitarian was forced out of teaching by the NYC DOE.
“In accordance with regulations, the principal, Ms. Laboy-Wilson, filled out his final evaluation, She rated him satisfactory yet she listed him as unsatisfactory in two areas:
He did not keep a professional attitude and maintain good relations with supervisors.”
Good for my new hero, Harris.