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'Distinguished' NJ Public School Teacher 'Last Hired, First Fired'

By Brian Thompson
|  Monday, Sep 27, 2010  |  Updated 8:58 PM EDT
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As the debate swirls over qualified teachers, one--rated as distinguished by the <a title=Newark school system--was forced to look for a new job this summer.25 year old Sauce Leon, a social studies teacher at the Newark Collegiate Academy--a charter high school. In just 3 years of teaching, Leon was rated a distinguished teacher here at the city's public Arts High school, but when layoffs hit this summer--well as one of the last hired, he was first fired, even though at least two other social studies teachers here had subpar ratings." />

As the debate swirls over qualified teachers, one--rated as distinguished by the Newark school system--was forced to look for a new job this summer.25 year old Sauce Leon, a social studies teacher at the Newark Collegiate Academy--a charter high school. In just 3 years of teaching, Leon was rated a distinguished teacher here at the city's public Arts High school, but when layoffs hit this summer--well as one of the last hired, he was first fired, even though at least two other social studies teachers here had subpar ratings.

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In just three years of teaching in the Newark, N.J. public school system, Sauce -- we'll get to that name shortly -- Leon quickly won a rating as a 'distinguished' teacher, something attained by only 15% or so of his colleagues.

But in a school system where nearly half of high school seniors fail to graduate every year, Leon was laid off this past summer as a budget crunch forced the firings of some 300 instructional personnel.

"I would say that I'm still mourning a little bit," Leon told NBC New York.

But under the contract Newark schools has with the Newark Teachers Union, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate, there was a "last hired, first fired" policy that protected tenured teachers, according to Valerie Merritt, a schools spokeswoman.

In this case, according to a Wall Street Journal report, two teachers in the same Arts High School who were rated "less than proficient" were able to keep their jobs while Leon lost his.

"In education, the unions are starting to become a wall in progress," said Leon, who said he comes from a working class family that believes in unions.

"I think it kind of solidified my feeling that a lot of decisions are not made in the best interest of students," Leon said of his firing.

But the Newark Teachers Union released a statement from President Joseph Del Grosso last week saying it wants "to work together, put aside our differences and get behind a shared vision of what Newark's students need to succeed in college, life and careers."

As for the issue of tenure that cost Leon his job, union official John Abeignon said "that's a cornerstone" of their contract with Newark Public schools.

Abeignon said the alternative is a system of cronyism and nepotism "open to politics."

He quickly added that the union is not against tenure proceedings, and said a teacher could be fired in less than a year "If you have a competent district and they did their homework."

Leon, by the way, is now working at the Newark Collegiate Academy, a charter high school and is actually earning more than he did as a public school teacher, although he works longer days and some Saturdays.

And he explains the secret to his success as treating each student as an individual, "constantly remembering who needs what at what time and who learns this way and who needs me to say it out loud versus who just needs to just read it."

And oh yes, his name. Sauce.

As he explained it, "I was named after the secret sauce on a Big Mac" by his parents.

Why? "Because I was the secret sauce of the family,' explained Leon.

Follow us on Twitter @NBCNewYork,and on Facebook/NBCNewYork, and sign up for breaking news SMS alerts on your phone by texting “NYBREAKING” to 639710. Follow Brian Thompson on Twitter @brian4NY.  

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