meet the parent

A charter school parent gains prominence as loyal opposition

Mona Davids and her daughter, a sixth grade student at Equality Charter School in Co-op City.
Mona Davids and her daughter, a sixth grade student at Equality Charter School in Co-op City. (Photo courtesy of Mona Davids.)

A Bronx parent who went from charter school foe to cheerleader in under a year is now at the middle of a debate over how to organize charter school parents.

Mona Davids has rapidly gone from being an unknown public school parent in Co-op City to being known by key players in the debate over charter schools and among the highest ranks of the Department of Education. She pops up everywhere from charter school board meetings and charter renewal hearings to district Community Education Council gatherings. She was even featured in a television advertisement for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reelection campaign, in which she blasted rival William Thompson’s education record.

A year ago, Davids was on the other side of the battle. As co-president of the parent association of P.S. 160 in the Bronx, she broke the news that the DOE was considering putting a new charter school, Equality Charter School, in the same building. Davids, whose daughter attended the district school, initially helped lead parent protests against siting the charter school there.

But after learning more about Equality Charter, Davids suddenly reversed course, sent in her daughter’s application to the charter school and began helping the charter recruit other students.

As she began to organize parents for Equality Charter School, Davids said that she recognized a flaw in the way charter schools are set up in New York City. Davids was accustomed to working within the structures set up by the Department of Education to involve parents in traditional public schools, mechanisms like School Leadership Teams, Community Education Councils and District Family Advocates.

“In the charter school system, we don’t have any of that,” Davids said. She began searching for organizations to help support parent involvement in charter schools, finding options in Massachusetts, California and Idaho, but nothing in New York.

“I was really surprised that parents didn’t have a voice,” she said.

Davids founded the New York City Charter Parents Association in May and next week, she will launch the Charter Parent Training Academy.

The training program is designed to replicate her own organizing strategies among other charter school parents. She’s starting small, sitting down with six charter school parents from schools around the city three days a week for three months.  She intends to train them how to conduct parent meetings, incorporate their schools’ parent groups as non-profits, fund-raise and request member items for their schools from their legislators.

Charter school parents need to double as lobbyists, Davids said, and she wants to teach them the trade. She wants to train the parents how to advocate for changes to state education law that limit per-pupil funding for charter schools and ban charters from receiving public funding for their own school buildings.

For all her vocal support of charter schools, Davids said that she knows the system isn’t perfect, and she doesn’t intend to be quiet about her criticisms.

“I am a supporter of charter schools, but we have serious issues,” she said. “The grievance process doesn’t work. Something needs to be done, but right now the charter system doesn’t have district family advocates. Every system must have checks and balances.”

Davids, who is on leave from her job as head of the consulting firm Azania Holdings, said she funded her work at the Parent Association by herself until this week, when she received her first outside donation. She refused to identify the donor, saying only that the donation is from a philanthropist acting as a private individual. The donation will be used to provide a stipend for the six parents participating in the training academy, which will be held during daytime hours, Davids said.

With her tall frame and command of a microphone, many have looked at Davids and seen a natural politician. Davids makes advocates on both side of the charter debate a bit nervous. To charter school opponents, Davids may be the harbinger of a grassroots support movement in New York, the lack of which has occasionally been a sore spot in the charter school movement. To charter school advocates, she is not an unconditional friend.

“I’m not a paid flak, I’m a parent,” she said. “We are not puppets of the charter school movement; we are not puppets of the anti-charter school movement. This association was born out of a fight for equal access to a quality education for all students.”

Davids said that because of her interest in educational equity, one of the main goals of her group is to “bridge this huge divisive gap” between charter school parents and parents of traditional public school students.

Her ability to bridge that gap is still unproven. Several P.S. 160 parents I spoke to who fought against the siting of Equality Charter Schools said they still feel betrayed by her for switching sides in that debate. And Davids’ involvement in other charter school siting battles, notably at P.S. 15 and PAVE Academy in Red Hook, has garnered much attention, some of it extremely critical.

Davids said that she would like to find common ground with the charter school opponents who have dubbed her “Moaning Mona.” Her suggested starting place? Charter school facilities funding.

“If they don’t want charter schools in the building, will they please help us get construction funding for new schools?” she said.

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”