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New York City could lay off thousands of public school teachers this summer, and first to go would be the newest teachers because of seniority protections in the union contract.

Beth Fertig of member station WNYC reports on how that's likely to affect one teacher and one principal at a school in Manhattan's Chinatown.

BETH FERTIG: Third grade teacher Juhyung Harold Lee tapes an index card to every child's desk. It asks the students to state how they're feeling with three different options, ranging from: I am well to I need help. These days, if you ask the 26-year-old teacher to pick his own response, he says it would be...

Mr. JUHYUNG HAROLD LEE (Teacher, Public School 124): I'm not feeling my best. I'm a little confused.

FERTIG: Lee is among 4,100 New York City teachers at risk of losing their jobs this month. The union contract requires the least experienced teachers to be let go first, so elementary teachers with less than four years experience are most at risk. Lee is wrapping up his third year, and it doesn't look good.

Mr. LEE: I wish that there was more certainty, especially as we move towards the end of the year, because you really want to be thinking about next year. And it seems kind of preposterous that we're just expected to wait.

FERTIG: Lee isn't the only one waiting at PS 124 in Chinatown. The school expects to lose four of its 55 full-time teachers if the layoffs go through.

Principal Alice Hom says parents and teachers are anxious.

Ms. ALICE HOM (Principal, Public School 124): I hope they don't think I'm lying, but I really don't have any information that I can share with them at this time. I've spoken to other principals who are in the same boat, some of them who have, like, 13 staff members who are supposed to be laid off.

FERTIG: Because the layoffs are based solely on last in, first out, some schools with a lot of new teachers would be especially hard-hit.

Unidentified Child: (Reading) He stepped into the dark and murky...

FERTIG: In Lee's classroom, his third graders are learning to write realistic stories.

Mr. LEE: Maybe it's dark and murky. Maybe it's very - maybe it's not even a post office. Maybe it's just some guy...

FERTIG: Lee is the son of Korean immigrants who says he wanted to become a teacher because education enabled his parents to become successful. He graduated from Brown University and Teachers College at Columbia. Lee still considers himself a novice, but he says he's learned a lot from veteran teachers. He recalls teaching at his first school in Queens.

Mr. LEE: I mean, I was just trying to survive, you know? And I was so fortunate that there were a lot of teachers at my old school that were incredibly supportive, willing to share ideas, materials, willing to brainstorm with me.

FERTIG: That's why despite his own predicament, he wouldn't want to throw out seniority protections completely without a better way of evaluating teachers. The state just created a new evaluation system but the city and the teachers union are at odds over the details.

Mr. LEE: In general, policymakers and school leadership, administrative leadership, they're too quick to try to identify, you know, these are the characteristics of a good teacher. And too often, it's tied to things that we know aren't the signs of good teachers, like, good test scores, for example.

FERTIG: Principal Alice Hom agrees that rating teachers is more of an art than a science, that's why she opposes the law that requires new teachers to be the first ones to go during layoffs, regardless of merit. The union says this protects senior teachers from being eliminated because they make more money. But Hom says a good teacher is worth the cost, and principals should get to make that decision.

Ms. HOM: There are always other people that you might want to have leave your building for one reason or another, you know, and you have no control over that. You have to deal with, you know, your staff as best as you can.

FERTIG: If the layoffs go through, Hom could replace some of her new teachers with more experienced teachers from other schools, but she says that would be chaotic, and she likes the energy and enthusiasm of her new teachers.

Ms. HOM: I don't think teachers who are new in the system should necessarily be the first ones to leave, because they have some added value.

FERTIG: She says Lee is one such teacher, calling him smart and dedicated.

Mr. LEE: Holler if you hear me.

Unidentified Group: Holler.

Mr. LEE: Do you think that your comic strip is the only thing you can use when you draft?

Unidentified Group: No.

FERTIG: Lee envisioned himself teaching for at least five years before moving into education administration, but he lost his first job in Queens because of budget cuts. Now that he's at risk of losing his second job in Chinatown, he says he's planning to go to law school, unless a deal is struck very soon to avert the layoff. He applied last year to give himself more options and was accepted at the University of California at Berkeley.

Mr. LEE: At this point, it's looking more and more like that's the route I'm going to take because I'm not going to wait until July or August to see if I have a job.

FERTIG: His principal says she'll be sorry to lose him. Right now, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the city council are still negotiating over the budget. Some longtime observers believe the mayor is bluffing because he's made similar threats in the past, but the mayor insists the money just isn't there.

For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in New York.

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