getting in

McCourt HS planners hunt for the perfect admissions policy

Hoping to bring a diverse mix of students to a new Upper West Side high school, parents and neighborhood activists are jumping at the chance to write rewrite its admissions rules.

Frank McCourt High School, which will have a writing and communications focus, is highly anticipated by middle and upper-middle class families on the Upper West Side who want a selective school close to home. But McCourt is also one of the small schools replacing Brandeis High School, a large school that has served needy students from Harlem. Some advocates fear these students will be displaced as the school phases out.

The challenge, those who’ve been involved in the school’s development say, is building a school that attracts both sets of students.

“You can’t change the quality of the program and not offer it to the same kids who have always gone to Brandeis High School; it’s a cruel joke,” said Michelle Fine, a professor of urban education at the City University of New York.

Fine is part of a group of parents, activists and academics who arrived at a meeting for the school on Tuesday night armed with ideas for a new kind of admissions policy that they say will not give preference to either set of students.

Fine and several neighborhood parents have spent the past few months working on a draft vision statement outlining a proposed admissions strategy. Chief among their suggestions is that a writing sample carry significant weight in the school’s admissions.

Fine said the goal would be to find students with “a spark for writing,” but that an admissions committee must consider students with talents for writing in a variety of forms. “So we’d be looking for students who do scientific writings and journalism as well as students who write poetry and hip-hop,” she said.

Equally important, Fine said, is that applicants be judged on a range of criteria, with no one standard like test scores trumping all others. Fine said that rather than admitting all students who score above a certain bar on a numerical scale, students could be considered in a more holistic fashion.

Donna Nevel, an Upper West Side parent and advocate at the Center for Immigrant Families, emphasized that an equitable and inclusive admissions process was just one part of a plan for building a diverse school. A plan for recruiting students from the neighborhoods that Brandeis High School historically served is also crucial, she said.

“You need both,” she said. “If you do the outreach, but admissions policy isn’t equitable, then the kids don’t get in. And if you have the policy but not the outreach, then you don’t get the applicants that you’re looking for.”

Nevel stressed that school planners and activists need to ensure that once a successful admissions process is created, it stays that way over time.

“We have all seen schools that begin in a positive way and, before too long, end up privileging white, upper income families over others,” Nevel said.

City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who organized this weeks’ school planning meeting, said that she was gratified that the school’s principal, Danielle Salzberg, attended and jumped into the conversation about what the student body should look like. In an interview last month, Salzberg said that she was eager to incorporate community feedback into the school’s planning and was already working on ways of getting neighborhood groups involved in outreach.

Ultimately, the design of the school’s admissions process will be up to Salzberg, said DOE spokesman Will Havemann. Brewer said that neighborhood activists and elected officials are still working with the DOE to determinze the size of the school and whether or not admissions preference will be given to students who live on the Upper West Side.

Meanwhile, word of the school is spreading. Several members of the summer planning committee reported fielding phone calls from parents asking how their children can apply.

“There’s just a real buzz around this school, which makes me happy,” Brewer said. “I heard students leaving the meeting saying, ‘I want to go to McCourt. I want to go to McCourt.'”

Havemann said that students can apply to McCourt during the second round of the high school admissions process. Students who apply and are accepted to other selective schools in the first round will not be forced to commit to another school before hearing from McCourt, he said.

The next meeting on Frank McCourt High School is a space utilization hearing at Brandeis, scheduled for December 8, Brewer said. The Panel on Educational Policy will then have to grant the final approval for the school to open on the Brandeis campus.

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.

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.”