turf wars

Space is a "civil rights issue," Lower East Side parents say

Parents and students rallied outside P.S. 20 to protest plans that would require them to share space with a growing charter school.
Parents and students rallied outside P.S. 20 to protest plans that would require them to share space with a growing charter school.

Parents at Lower East Side schools that may soon be asked to share building space told DOE officials last night that a charter school expansion could not come at the expense of successful district schools.

Hundreds of parents packed into the auditorium of P.S. 20 last night to protest three proposed scenarios that would allow Girls Prep Charter School to grow its middle school program by re-arranging building space at neighboring district schools.

All of the proposals would require district school students to give up resource rooms like art and music rooms or science and computer labs, parents told DOE officials and members of the District 1 Community Education Council.

Parents speaking at the meeting repeatedly characterized that loss as a civil rights issue, charging the DOE with removing resources from predominantly poor and immigrant students.

“No matter what option is chosen, what a school in District 1 will lose is a science lab,” said Yuehru Chu, the mother of a kindergarten son at P.S. 184, the Shuang Wen school, one of five district schools that could potentially be affected. “Why is it that whatever option the DOE picks, it will result in the loss of art and music for a school that is overwhelmingly low-income?”

Girls Prep founder and executive director Miriam Lewis Raccah said her school is as squeezed for space as any of the district’s other schools and so she empathized with parents’ concerns. But Girls Prep has been successful in a small, shared space, Raccah said, and so could other schools.

“The civil right is to an excellent education,” she said. “It’s not about having an art room.”

Charter schools are not legally guaranteed public building space, but the Bloomberg administration has granted some charters space in district school buildings. Girls Prep’s Lower East Side elementary school currently shares space with two district schools and wants to keep their middle school in the neighborhood.

A standing room-only crowd packed into the District 1 CEC meeting.
A standing room-only crowd packed into the District 1 CEC meeting.

The CEC meeting was the first step in a relatively new process of soliciting public feedback on proposed changes to school building use in community school districts. The DOE will accept public comment on their three proposals until December 10 and plans to prepare a final recommendation by the end of the year, officials said. A hearing at the affected school will follow, and the citywide Panel for Educational Policy will vote on the final plan at their February meeting.

The large turn-out was organized primarily by parents at Shuang Wen and P.S. 20 who learned that their schools could be affected last week when DOE officials walked through the buildings to determine what space could potentially be used for new buildings. Shuang Wen parents have also launched a website that allows parents to send a template email or fax to elected officials protesting changes to the school.

An aide to City Councilman and Comptroller-elect John Liu said that his office had been receiving the faxes “in masses.” The superintendent for District 1, Daniella Phillips, said that she received between 260 and 270 template emails yesterday. She encouraged parents to provide more substantive feedback like suggestions for alternative proposals or corrections to DOE enrollment or building data.

Several parents asked DOE officials to re-evaluate the formula used to determine whether a school building has available space for more students or a new school. Troy Robinson, a parent and member of Shuang Wen’s School Leadership Team, urged the DOE to determine building needs in a more “comprehensive” way that focused less on mathematical formulas and more on a qualitative judgment of how schools use space.

Debra Kurshan, the interim director of the DOE’s Office of Portfolio Planning, defended the department’s formula. “We have to have some way of measuring across 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 FACE@schools.nyc.gov.

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.”