rally time

Protesters rally against closures on mayor's street, if not his stoop

Parents, students and teachers protest against school closures and the expansion of charter schools across the street from Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Upper East Side townhouse (center house).
Parents, students and teachers protest against school closures and the expansion of charter schools across the street from Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Upper East Side townhouse (center house).

The pavement outside of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Upper East Side townhouse became a battleground in two fights this afternoon — one against school closures and another for the right to protest against them on a public sidewalk.

A group of parents, students and teachers sued in federal court last week for the right to demonstrate on both sides of the street outside of Bloomberg’s home. They said their protests at Tweed Courthouse — home to the Department of Education — had fallen on deaf ears.

On Friday, the protesters won their case. But the city appealed, and this morning a panel of circuit court judges overturned the first decision, ruling that the demonstrators had to stay on the south side of East 79th Street, across the street from the mayor’s door.

And so protesters, who had vowed to demonstrate regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome of their lawsuit, took their chants of “Phase out Bloomberg” to just the south side.

“The north side becomes a ‘no First Amendment’ zone,” said the civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, who argued the case for letting protesters gather directly in front of the mayor’s residence. “What are they afraid of? Are they afraid of criticism?”

“It’s not for the government to choose where the protest is,” Siegel added.

Police allowed about 150 protesters onto the mayor’s block at a time, and the remaining demonstrators circled in a staging area at the corner of  79th Street and Central Park. At its height, roughly 300 protesters gathered on the block and in the staging area.

City attorneys argued that security concerns on the sidewalk directly in front of Bloomberg’s townhouse justified the city in keeping protesters across the street.

Siegel said it would be up to the plaintiffs in the suit, two students at Maxwell High School and a parent and teacher at Brooklyn’s P.S. 15, to decide whether to appeal the court’s ruling. To appeal, the plaintiffs would have to organize a second protest.

“From my perspective, I would absolutely like to,” said Julie Cavanagh, the P.S. 15 teacher who was one of the plaintiffs. “This is metaphorical for a lot of things in this city. This is a mayor who thinks a public street is his private street.”

Many demonstrators came to oppose the expansion of the city’s charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. A large contingent of parents and teachers came from Cavanagh’s school, P.S. 15, to protest a city plan to allow a charter school expand in their school building over the next five years.

Protesters gathered across the street from the mayor's home and on the corner across from Central Park to oppose the city's plan to shutter 20 schools.
Protesters gathered across the street from the mayor's home and a block away in Central Park to oppose the city's plan to shutter 20 schools.

Most protesters came to oppose the city’s plan to shutter 20 schools. Groups of teachers, students and parents traveled to the Upper East Side from Columbus High School in the Bronx, Maxwell High School in Brooklyn and Queens’ Jamaica High School, among several others, to protest plans to close those schools.

“They didn’t even try to fix the school,” said Lashaune Gordon, 16, a sophomore at Maxwell.

“Is closing the school making anything better?” asked Gordon’s friend Devante Kendall, also a 16-year-old sophomore. “Everybody at our school, we’re doing better now. I think they should wait to see what happens.”

The students’ math teacher, Ed Ludde, accused the DOE of setting the school up to fail when the school received an influx of high-needs students after the city shuttered nearby Jefferson High School. “They designed a system that would implode upon itself,” he said.

The students said they were skeptical that the city’s plan to phase in a new school on Maxwell’s campus as theirs phased out would go smoothly. And they said that the gradual phase-out of their own school would hurt morale. “If there are no 9th graders next year, there will be no 9th grade girls to talk to,” joked Kendall.

More seriously, they said plans for the school’s closure put a damper on their ambitions to share their future successes with their alma mater.

“We would like to come back 20 years from now, when we’re rich,” Gordon 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.”