turf wars

SUNY trustees approve Success Academy for Upper West Side

A still from Upper West Success' website.
A screenshot from Upper West Success Academy's website.

The State University of New York’s Board of Trustees unanimously approved Eva Moskowitz’s application to open a charter school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side this morning.

But the approval is unlikely to dampen any of the controversy surrounding the Upper West Success Academy, which Moskowitz’s charter network plans to open in the fall of 2011.

The fight over the school has centered on two questions: Is a new charter school the answer to the district’s overcrowding? And, if so, should that charter share another school’s building?

This is the first time Moskowitz’s charter chain plans to open a school in a neighborhood that is not predominantly low-income. Moskowitz has said she intends the school to provide an alternative to parents who have been crowded out of the neighborhood’s most popular schools or who cannot send their students to one of the city’s gifted programs.

Moskowitz has said she would like the charter to open in P.S. 145, which the city currently lists as underutilized. City officials have told the school they are likely to site the charter there, according to P.S. 145 parent leaders, though the city says no decision has been made.

Over the past few weeks, as Moskowitz has begun to advertise the school’s arrival to the neighborhood, opposition to the school has begun to grow, especially among P.S. 145 parents, neighborhood activists and politicians. Critics fear that, even in cases where the city considers a building underutilized, district schools will be squeezed if an expanding charter moves in.

“The community is behind improving our existing schools, not evicting them,” said Noah Gotbaum, the president of District 3’s parent council.

Gotbaum and others, including the neighborhood’s Councilwoman Gale Brewer, worry that if Upper West Success moves in, it could compromise an $11 million grant P.S. 145 and seven other neighborhood schools recently won to expand. The school is supposed to use the grant money to attract more students by improving its technology programs.

Brewer also said that neighborhood activists had wanted the city to move a small middle school, West Prep Academy, into the building to help relieve overcrowding in the district’s southern section, a plan that would also be jeopardized by the entrance of Upper West Success.

Under the revisions to state charter school law passed this year, charter applicants must demonstrate demand for the school in the neighborhoods where they want to open. Parents and activists who attended the SUNY trustee vote this morning said their voices were largely ignored in the approval process.

“There’s one fatal flaw in this overall process: nobody asked what the community wanted,” said Donna Nevel, a West Side parent and community activist.

But Moskowitz has insisted — and SUNY officials agreed — that demand exists for her school in the crowded neighborhood.

“We’ve spent a lot of time this summer talking to Upper West Side parents,” Moskowitz wrote in the New York Post this week. “Regardless of their politics or ideology, they almost all agree on one thing: If they can have the option of applying to a new, tuition-free school in their community with proven results, they want that option.”

Just before the trustees voted to approve the application, Pedro Noguera, the chair of SUNY’s charter school committee, expressed concern that because the Charter School Institute does not select sites for its schools, parent objections might be overlooked.

But when institute staff noted that the city would need to go through its own public approval process before siting Upper West Success in a district building, and that the institute also can veto a proposed charter school location, Noguera seemed satisfied.

“I think that hopefully should give those members of the community who are objecting to the location ample opportunity to be heard,” Noguera said.

The fight will likely now shift to the city’s public approval process for siting the school. If the city decides to give the charter school space at P.S. 145, it will hold a hearing at the school and the citywide school board will vote on the move.

Tina Crockett, president of the P.S. 145’s parent association, argued today that the co-location is not a foregone conclusion.

“We just think [Moskowitz is] unfairly jumping the gun to influence parents to attract them to her school,” Crockett said.

“Let us go through the process,” she said. “Don’t insinuate that it’s a done deal.”

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.
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.”