Yankees of Their Profession

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Yankees of Their Profession

It's obvious that the threat of having to stay 20 minutes after school doesn't scare the teachers picketing outside of Park Slope's Secondary School for Law, Journalism and Research. This group showed up a half-hour before work just to let it be known that a year and a half without a contract is long enough. The Public Employees Relations Board report accepted by their union on April 18 recommended trading a 15-percent raise for an agreement to work 20 more minutes every school day. For dedicated young teachers, who tend to draw up lesson plans on their own time, the demand is a joke.

What's not so funny is newer New York City teachers' prospects for buying a home and starting a family, given their stagnant wages. But it's clear that these energetic picketers have a sense of humor about even that. One sign reads, "Don't Make Me Move To The $uburb$." Another says, "I Love New York?But I Can't Afford It!!!" The kicker is probably, "Would Derek Jeter Work Without a Contract?"

It turns out most of the picketers are from a school within the school?the one that contributed the word "Research" to its cumbersome name. The Research Institute was born a few years ago in Kensington, using an innovative program for seventh- and eighth-grade education. It was so successful that the Board of Ed decided to transplant all of its students and staff to Park Slope, so Research's graduating classes could repopulate the failing John Jay High School, which will be phased out of existence. Research, now in its first year in the combined Middle/High School, occupies half of one floor of the erstwhile John Jay building, on Brooklyn's 7th Ave. between 4th and 5th Sts.

To Kenny Irabor, a seventh-grade math teacher who carries a strike-threatening "I Don't Want To, But I Will" sign, the move brought a lesson in how the other half lives. "Before, the school was like a community," he says. "Now we're faced with kids who don't want to learn. So we have to develop different strategies. When you go to the other side [of the building] to do coverages, and kids are cussing you out, getting in your face, shoving you, you really appreciate what you have when you come back to your side and the kids do some work."

Soon students start to arrive at school. Unlike the Park Slope residents on their way to work (after dropping their children off at private school, in some cases), and unlike the high school's students or even most of the high school's teachers, Research kids take notice of the picket line. "You guys look funny!" says one girl. "Jeter stinks!" shouts a boy. A kid named Anthony tells Irabor that he must not go on strike. "I have to learn something!" he says, wising off. A teacher suggests making Anthony a sign: "I Want To Learn, But I Won't."

Critics of the teachers' cause might talk about the folly of throwing money at broken machinery. But eighth-grade English and social studies teacher Robert Hoff says Mayor Bloomberg's power struggle with the Board of Education is beside the point. "I have no attachment to the Board of Education," he says. "What I do have an attachment to is the public school children of this city. Teachers deserve pay that's at least equal to what teachers are paid in the suburbs. There's a mass exodus of teachers from New York City to suburban schools, a brain drain. It's the kids who lose out."

The need to disempower the forces that made John Jay get so bad and at the same time protect a successful experiment like Research makes for one hell of a political puzzle. So far, word from the trenches is that the neophyte in charge isn't up to it. Bloomberg should perhaps consider some extra 20-minute sessions.

"I'd be happy with 15 percent," Hoff says, "but I'd be even happier with a mayor who bargained in good faith?The system has failed?there's no doubt about that. But that's a school governance issue. It should not be tied to the issue of fair play for teachers."

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