UNPLANNED LESSON

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In the scramble to fix the city’s worst schools, getting rid of bad teachers is essential. But at Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx, one state-certified high school teacher says he’s a good-apple teacher who got thrown out with the bad–and he’s fighting to get back one of the least-desired jobs in the city: teacher at one of the lowest-ranked schools.

Last spring, both the assistant principal and principal at Roosevelt in Fordham gave social studies teacher David Pugh unsatisfactory ratings after observing his 10th-grade classes. Principal Frank Fugarino pointed to Pugh’s failure to show up to class with a lesson plan in hand on one occasion, an oversight Pugh admits making, and described him as a lackluster teacher. “He had an opportunity with a bright group of youngsters to encourage those youngsters to really go beyond the classroom, and it just didn’t happen–it was chalk and talk,” said Fugarino.

Still on probation as a new teacher, Pugh lost his license to teach high school in the city. Now the school, he contends, is losing a good teacher in its hunt for scapegoats to explain, and try to turn around, a failing school. Last December, the state put Roosevelt on its list of Schools Under Registration Review (SURR) for the second time. It was one of only two SURR schools in which the principal was fired. Roosevelt then hired Fugarino. “Teddy Roosevelt is a school that I’ve been brought in to make changes in, and I have done so,” said Fugarino. “[Pugh] is one of the ineffective teachers that I have tried to reach out to, tried to help, tried to instruct in my conferences.”

But some of Pugh’s colleagues say his only mistake was in being too creative a teacher, which in a SURR school can be enough to get you the pink slip. “We have seen evidence of exemplary teaching practice in Mr. Pugh’s research assignments as well as expert and caring instruction of his students during library visits,” wrote the school’s librarians in a letter to Fugarino in June. They specifically praised his presentation on the Navy’s bombing practices in Vieques and his class’ “Roots” project, for which students traced their families’ migration to New York City. “Mr. Pugh personalized the histories and made the historical abstractions real,” the librarians wrote.

As more accountability is placed on the shoulders of the principals at failing schools, some education experts say principals tend to panic, and some may clean out shop a little too hastily. “Where you have a new direction emerging, people are often asked to leave or are pressured out,” said Noreen Connell, executive director of the Educational Priorities Panel, a policy group. “And sometimes it’s the case that the people who left weren’ t necessarily bad teachers, or bad administrators; they just wouldn’t get with the program.”

Pugh will have a chance to plead his case in October as part of the Board of Education’s grievance procedure. Whatever the outcome of that hearing, his former students insist he was an effective teacher. “I was in shock when they fired him,” said junior Raul Grullon. “When he taught us about Anne Frank, he took a little story from that time and made it big, and we learned a lot from that.”