At the age of 25 and after three years in a classroom, Meghan Zefran thought she was heading into the prime of her teaching career. But now she’s out of a job. “I’m in limbo,” she says. “The board says there are jobs, but I can’t find them.”

Ironically, Zefran’s just the sort of young and idealistic teacher school superintendent Arne Duncan says he wants to recruit. Born and raised in Chicago, she went to Juniata College in Pennsylvania, graduating in 2000 with a bachelor’s in education. “I came home to Chicago because I wanted to teach here,” she says. “I wanted to make a difference.”

After looking for a few weeks, she found a job teaching 20 kindergartners at a school in a rapidly gentrifying north-side neighborhood, most of whose students came from low-income families who lived in a nearby housing project (she asked that the school not be named). Like most beginning teachers, she didn’t realize how much she had to learn about being in a classroom. “You’re never really prepared,” she says. “They can’t teach you what it’s like–you have to learn by experience.”

Her first few days were like scenes from a movie about a young teacher coming to an inner-city school. “A boy punched me in the face,” she says. “I had knelt down to talk to him, and he went bam, right in the eye. It didn’t really hurt so much–it shocked me. I ran to the office. ‘What do I do? He pounded me in the face!'”

Then she met the boy’s mother. “She came to school,” she says. “She had him by the collar, and she was saying, ‘You’d better fucking apologize.’ Then she tells me, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll tear his ass up at home.’ I’m thinking, ‘Oh great, that will teach him not to hit anymore.'”

In her second year Zefran taught first grade. Last year she taught third grade and came face-to-face with the city’s policy of holding back students who score poorly on national achievement tests. “There were kids in their second year of being held back,” she says. “It’s really heartbreaking.”

She recalls one student who’d been held back twice. “I don’t think it’s such a mystery as to why she was having troubles,” she says. “I think she’s dyslexic. She had so much crap in her life. Her mother’s boyfriend was killed–stabbed with a knife. Her older brother was shot and killed. Her mother was fighting with an older sister who chased her with a knife. But of course I was supposed to get her to pass the test, which, as you know, is not supposed to be a pass-fail test and is culturally biased. Hello! This is lunacy.”

For the state standardized writing test the student was asked to “write a narrative on a special family memory,” says Zefran. “What is she supposed to write about? The time her mother’s boyfriend was stabbed? She was supposed to write five paragraphs, and she couldn’t write a sentence, not one that made any sense anyway. She had you fooled. She’d have a capital letter at the start of the sentence and a period at the end and a few phonetically correct letters in the words that she was trying to spell.”

Yet as the year wore on Zefran thought she was making progress with the girl. “I had her work with other kids in the class,” she says. “I gave her as much one-on-one as I could. I believe that it’s important for kids to have that individual training. Listen, I’m not putting my kids down, and I’m not bragging. I’m just trying to explain the challenges we face and how hard most of us work at it.”

Despite the frustrations, Zefran was still eager to go on teaching. “I’m not a burnout case,” she says. “I loved the challenge. I got along great with my fellow teachers and my principal. They were great. We worked well together. And I love the kids. You can’t work with them and not love them. You see their potential. You’re helping form them. You’re making a difference.”

But last spring Zefran’s principal gave her some alarming news. “She said she didn’t know if she had enough money to bring me back,” she says. “It had nothing to do with anything I had done–I had the best ratings. Her hands were tied.”

As the principal explained it, her school’s budget is governed in part by a central-office formula in which money is allotted according to enrollment. The more students a school has, the more teachers it can hire. If enrollment falls, the central office cuts back a school’s teaching positions, forcing its principal to dismiss teachers and consolidate classrooms.

Zefran’s school also receives federal antipoverty money according to another formula based on the number of students who come from low-income families. But last year the Bush administration and its controversial No Child Left Behind Act changed the formula used to distribute federal antipoverty funds. Funds are still distributed according to how many low-income children are enrolled in a school, but now school districts also have to take into consideration the income of residents who live nearby. Since Zefran’s school is in a gentrifying neighborhood, it will get less federal funding–even though the gentrifiers aren’t sending their children there. The No Child Left Behind Act also forces the school board to pay to transfer children in low-scoring schools, like Zefran’s, if they want to go to higher-scoring ones.

The result of these policies is that kids in Zefran’s school have transferred out, which reduced enrollment. And the reduced enrollment means the school’s antipoverty funds will be cut even more. The central office had to order the principal to cut four positions.

Zefran got the word when she returned from vacation in early August. “I met with the principal,” she says, “and she told me, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t have the money to keep you after all.'”

Zefran also got a form letter from the central office, making it official. “Your position was closed,” the letter reads, “effective the first day of teacher attendance of the 2003-2004 school year.” She was now classified as a “reassigned teacher,” and her future would be dictated by “the board’s policy regarding the reassignment and layoff of regular certified and appointed teachers.”

For the next ten months, or until the end of the school year, Zefran will remain on the payroll, even if she can’t find a teaching job. “If you’re reassigned you go into a reserve pool,” explains Deborah Lynch, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. “The first 30 days you have no teaching position, and you can use all of your time to look for a job. After that you have to substitute four days a week and look for a job on the fifth day.”

After ten months teachers who haven’t found jobs are dismissed. “There’s a wonderful euphemism they use–‘honorably terminated,'” says Lynch. “In other words, the teachers are gone. In effect, they’re fired without cause.”

According to school officials, there are now about 190 reassigned teachers. “Usually their positions are closed because of falling enrollment,” says Peter Cunningham, a spokesman for the central office. “But there are jobs in the system.” He says there were 3,000 jobs open, of which 2,100 have been filled.

So far Zefran hasn’t qualified for any of them. “I’m going through the phone book calling every school from A to Z,” she says. “I’m at C, and I haven’t found one job yet. I’ve called about 100 schools, and I ask about vacancies. They say no. Or if they have vacancies they tell me they can’t hire me because I’m white and they need to comply with desegregation requirements.”

According to Lynch, teachers like Zefran are penalized partly because the central office wants to minimize the number of teachers with tenure. School personnel rules require most rookie teachers to be “FTBs,” jargon for employees who are, in effect, substitute teachers assigned to schools on a full-time basis. They make the same money as regular teachers but have fewer tenure rights. After a year in the classroom FTBs are eligible to be officially assigned to a school’s roster, yet they often aren’t. Lynch says there are now about 7,000 FTBs in a workforce of 26,000 teachers. “This works against trying to build a staff of professionals who view teaching as a career,” she says. “It’s worse in some schools than in others. I’ve been in schools where half the staff is FTBs. It’s a way to keep teachers under a principal’s control.”

Whatever the reason, the system simply isn’t set up to keep talented teachers who don’t happen to fit the available spots. “There are no jobs out there for people like me,” she says. “Look at the board’s Web site and you’ll see announcements about jobs. But you make the calls, and they tell you we have no jobs. Or they need a part-time kindergarten teacher or a part-time music teacher or a special ed teacher–nothing I want or am qualified to teach. I have all this desire and determination to teach, but there are no jobs.”

On the first day of school, September 2, Zefran will report to the central office to meet with a personnel supervisor. If she can’t find a job by October she’ll start substituting. “A sub makes a little more than $100 a day, but I’ll be making my full salary,” she says. “They’ll be paying me my $40,000 or whatever to sub. It’s crazy.”

Meanwhile the students at her old school will be squeezed into larger classes. “We’re losing four teachers, so instead of 311 kids divided among 12 classrooms, they’ll be divided among 8,” she says. “The class size will rise above 30 students. The thing that really bothers me is that I love those kids and I’m so disappointed that I have to leave them. They’re going to show up for school on that first day and see I’m not there and they’ll say, ‘Oh great, another adult who disappointed me.'”

She goes on, “The whole point of No Child Left Behind is to help kids from low-income families. But how can you help them if you take away teachers and put more kids into one classroom? These are exactly the kind of kids who would benefit the most from smaller class sizes. You’re not helping them–you’re hurting them.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.