bungled evacuation (updated)

Report: Principal foundered for years before being removed

When Maria Penaherrera was removed as principal of Brooklyn’s PS 114 in February 2009, the community breathed a sigh of relief. Her leadership had drawn protests from teachers and parents, and it was well known that the school was in bad shape financially.

But according to a report released today by Special Commissioner of Education Richard Condon, none of those problems caused the city to remove Pena-Herrera. Instead, it was failing to follow proper procedure during an evacuation that cost Pena-Herrera her job.

The report paints a picture of an uncommonly bad principal whose obvious shortcomings went unaddressed by department officials during a period when the city frequently redrew lines of authority over schools.

Pena-Herrera became principal of PS 114 in Brooklyn in 2004 after two decades in the city schools. By the time she was removed, she had amassed a reputation as a “principal from hell” who unsuccessfully tried to bully parents into giving her good marks on the city’s survey. According to the report, she ran up a deficit of more than $100,000, hired and fired four assistant principals, illicitly employed uncertified teachers and paraprofessionals, and paid consultants to replicate support she was already getting. When her replacement inquired about safety issues with a city-funded after-school program that Pena-Herrera had allowed to use school space without a permit, the program’s head offered a bribe of knockoff handbags. A school custodian told investigators that the bribe was typical of the way business was done at the school.

What’s not clear from the report is how Pena-Herrera lasted as long as she did. According to the report, her supervisors saw red flags almost immediately, and in February 2007, two years before Pena-Herrera was removed, city officials convened a meeting to discuss her out-of-control financial practices.

One clue comes from the shifting lines of authority at the Department of Education in recent years. Figuring prominently into the report is Julia Bove, who was the superintendent of PS 114’s district in the 2005-2006 school year. Bove told investigators that she immediately recognized that Pena-Herrera was in over her head. But the following year Bove no longer supervised Pena-Herrera. The year after that, Bove once again worked with PS 114, but she did not have any real authority over Pena-Herrera because she was employed by one of the organizations within the department that competed for contracts with schools. PS 114 paid Bove’s group, the Integrated Learning and Instruction Learning Support Organization, $38,000 for its support, according to the report.

Another clue comes from Bove’s comment to investigators about the city’s priorities for its principals:

Bove reported that the Chancellor’s Office had been ready to remove Penaherrera [sic] during the 2007-2008 school year, but as a result of the massive amount of support provided to Penaherrera, the school’s rating went from an “F” to a “B,” so the Chancellor’s Office left Penaherrera in place.

UPDATE: Department of Education spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz today said the rising progress report grade was “a substantial academic improvement that certainly influenced our decision to allow [Pena-Herrera] to continue on as Principal, albeit with additional support.”

Ravitz said the department is equipped to help principals who struggle. “On occasion, we have talented Principals who struggle to properly manage their budgets and we work — as we did with Principal Penaherrera — to help them stay in line and make appropriate hiring decisions.”

Ravitz said the city would follow the recommendation by Special Commissioner of Investigation Richard Condon to bar Pena-Herrera from working in the the school system. “We were previously aware of some concern about Principal Maria Penaherrera’s budget management skills,” she said. “However, no one in the Chancellor’s office was aware of any allegations or evidence of fraudulent or illegal activity until now.”

SCI report about Maria Pena-Herrera

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”