The scoop

Space-strapped charter school sent students to factory space

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Security camera footage captures students walking into a building that is not certified for educational use but houses the offices for the Believe Charter School Network.

Strapped for space, a Brooklyn charter school network sent its students to classes at a facility that was only approved for factory and office use — not educational purposes, according to security camera footage and interviews with people who witnessed students’ use.

The footage and accounts document students’ regular trips to the space this summer and during the last school year. A student at the school told me that the space, a former factory at 33 Nassau Ave. in Williamsburg, is known to students as “the art building.”

View the full footage in a slideshow below.

The charter operator, Believe High Schools Network, appears to have begun to send students to the office space after its plan to open two new schools in a private facility hit a snag in 2009. Forced to improvise, the network arranged to house both of the two new schools in the same district school building used by its original school, Williamsburg Charter High School, a former employee said.

That was despite the fact that the second floor office space at 33 Nassau Ave. is certified by the city Department of Buildings only for use as a factory, shipping, storage, or office space.

State education law requires that charter schools use buildings approved for educational use. For that reason, Believe officials originally used the 33 Nassau space only for offices, said Joshua Morales, a former consultant to Believe.

In the last month, both the city and state departments of education have launched investigations into Believe’s use of the 33 Nassau space. The city department oversees Williamsburg Charter High School, and the state department oversees the two new schools, Northside and Southside charter high schools.

Officials at Believe did not return several phone call and e-mail requests for comment today.

The arrangement highlights the risks of the city’s current charter school space situation. New charter schools open each year, but they are promised no space in city buildings, leaving school leaders to make arrangements on their own — either by haggling and politicking with city officials to get a few floors inside a district school or by finding some other space and signing a lease.

The city investigation launched when a city school official visited 33 Nassau Ave. for a meeting. Believe’s official fliers advertise that 33 Nassau is used only for administrative reasons, but the official found students there taking class, said a source with knowledge of the situation.

Photographs from security cameras inside the school, obtained by GothamSchools, show students walking up the industrial building’s concrete stairway, through Believe’s heavy second-floor door, and into rooms where they sat at tables together. The photographs hold a time stamp from May 2010.

On a visit that I took to the office space earlier this month on the last day of summer school, most desks in the mainly open-plan office space were filled with adults sitting at computers. But a sign taped to a door said “Algebra.” I didn’t see any students, but people who work near the building said they saw children discussing their algebra class outside just before I arrived. A student I found outside the building on his way to the subway said the building was used for art classes during the year and summer classes during July and August.

During the school year, photographs taken by a former employee show that a privately chartered bus with the company Orzan Tours shepherded students between the office site on Nassau Ave. and their official school building, P.S. 126 on the other side of the McCarren Park.

Jackie Rivera, Orzan’s office manager, confirmed that the company held a contract with Believe. She said Orzan was hoping to renew the contract.

In a statement, State Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn said, “We are aware of the situation at the Believe Charter Schools and will investigate the matter thoroughly. Until that investigation is complete, we cannot provide further comment.”

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.”