no worries

City tells parents not to worry about cheating investigation

City officials brushed off parents’ concerns over an ongoing cheating investigation at a Bronx high school last night, telling them that if the principal had really been changing grades, the school wouldn’t be failing.

In 2009, teachers at Herbert Lehman High School reported that executive principal Janet Saraceno was changing dozens of students’ grades in order to boost the school’s graduation rate. More than a year later, Saraceno remains under investigation and Lehman is teetering on the edge of being shut down by the city after receiving an F on its progress report. Yet when parents asked Department of Education officials about the investigation at a meeting last night, they were told to ignore it.

“Let’s let the investigators do their work,” said Juan Ruiz, a DOE official heading the team assigned to support Lehman. He told parents that if Saraceno had really been changing students’ grades from failing to passing, “we probably wouldn’t have an F.”

In fact, Saraceno is only under investigation for changing grades during the 2008-09 school year and Lehman’s progress report grade for that year was a B. A year later, after DOE officials became aware of the cheating and began to monitor the school more closely, its grade fell to an F.

Last night’s meeting was a chance for city officials to explain to parents what might happen to Lehman in the next year. Yet after an hour, parents began walk out, frustrated their questions weren’t being taken seriously.

“Where are the weaknesses? I want to know how it went from a B to an F,” said a parent.

Reading from the DOE’s fact-sheet, Bronx high school superintendent Elena Papaliberios said that Lehman students weren’t passing enough of their classes — one of the metrics the city uses to gauge how well a school is doing.

“Even as they finish their first year, they’re starting to struggle,” she said. “And if they don’t earn 10 credits per year, they’re going to fall short and they’re not going to be able to graduate.”

Parents of Lehman students have been stunned by the school’s precipitous decline, as it has long been considered one of the city’s best remaining large high schools. For 29 years, Lehman was run by former principal Robert Leder, who resigned in 2008. Since then, safety has become a problem and this year the school installed metal detectors. Teachers and students say the new principal rarely leaves her office and does not have the rapport with students that Leder used to keep the large population — 4,000 students — under control.

Ruiz said the city planned to reduce the school’s enrollment next year and that the metal detectors have already cut down the number of violent incidents.

Elvin Flores, the father of a Lehman freshman, said his daughter graduated from the school five years ago without incident. But from his son’s first day of school this year, there have been problems with safety.

“How the heck did you guys lose control of this school?” Flores asked. “For the years Leder was here, we felt safe. You guys need to take back this school.”

Parents at the meeting said when they visited the school during orientation, classroom walls were hung with students’ work that was two years old. Others said they’d gone to parent association meetings hoping to meet the principal, only to watch her rush out afterwards.

Saraceno sat at the front of the auditorium and did not speak, except to say that the school’s graduation rate was 52 percent rather than 49 percent, the number Ruiz gave.

“She’s sitting there and not saying anything,” said Lisa Mateo, whose daughter is a freshman at Lehman. “By now she should know she looks guilty.”

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.”