change of heart

After protests, city reverses decision to close Brooklyn school

In an unusual concession to community protests, the city has decided to keep open a Canarsie, Brooklyn, elementary school slated for closure.

The debate over whether to close P.S. 114 has been one of the most heated this year. Its supporters have argued that the city doomed the school by allowing its former principal to mismanage it for years and didn’t help the school before sentencing it to close.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio broke the news of the reprieve to teachers and parents this evening at a rally that had been previously planned to protest the closure plans. Meanwhile, Department of Education officials spread word to the neighborhood’s elected representatives, who have been outspoken in their support of the school.

“We’re absolutely ecstatic,” said Jimmy Orr, the vice-president of the school’s parent association and the father of two P.S. 114 students, who learned of the news at the rally. “We burst into clapping and yelling and hooting and hollering.”

Parents and teachers petitioned the city for years to remove Maria Pena-Herrera, a principal who overspent her budget by $180,000 and was hiring unnecessary staff, before city officials ousted her in 2008. The school was left with thousands of dollars of debt and saw its students’ test scores drop dramatically.

Chancellor Cathie Black said that the decision was made in response to the outpouring of public support the school has received since city officials announced they planned to close it.

“After extensive discussions with the PS 114 community and local elected officials about the struggles this school has faced and its capacity to better serve its students, we have decided to keep PS 114 open,” Black said in a statement. “In the coming days we will work to develop a comprehensive plan for the school that will give it a real opportunity for success,” she said.

The city’s original plan was to replace P.S. 114 with two schools, Explore Charter School and a new district school. The city will move forward with its plan to site the charter school in the same building, city officials said today, but would abandon plans to open the new district school.

Orr credited help from City Councilmen Lewis Fidler and Charles Barron pressuring city officials to re-examine their decision to shutter the school. The citywide school board had been originally scheduled to vote on the closure plan at the beginning of February but had then delayed the vote because of the public outcry. Top city officials had acknowledged that parents and teachers felt abandoned by the city, but until today had indicated they would press forward with their plans to close the school.

“I think what it proves is that you can be heard, and perhaps the more appropriate approach, as opposed to cat calling and all of that, is to work with the city,” said Fidler, who had been a vocal opponent of the city’s plan to close the school. “I think the objective facts at 114 cried out for a different answer than the one [city officials] were giving.”

Fidler had committed to doubling the funding that the school receives from City Coucil from last year to this year, a promise he vowed today to keep.

Parents, teachers, and Canarsie’s elected officials have been lobbying against the city’s closure plan for months. In recent weeks they were joined by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who hailed the city’s decision to keep the school open. Earlier today, de Blasio released a report criticizing the DOE’s decision to shutter the school.

“This is a major victory for this close-knit school community,” de Blasio said. “P.S. 114 deserved a second chance—and now it will have one.”

This is one of the first times that the city has abandoned its plans to shutter a school in the middle of the process. Last year, the city granted a partial reprieve to the Bronx’s Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School, choosing to keep one of its technical programs open but closing the rest. This year the city also spared four schools it was thwarted from closing last year, choosing not to try to shutter the schools again because of progress they had made.

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.”