accountability accountability

Chief DOE deputy to parents and teachers: Check our work

The city is putting in new measures to help the schools that it is closing, the Department of Education’s top deputy said yesterday.

Those measures, which include formalizing the city’s plans to support the schools and developing best practice guidelines for closing schools, come in response to criticism from the Panel For Educational Policy and others, Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky told GothamSchools.

But parents and teachers should still monitor the city’s progress and hold the department accountable, he told people attending a public meeting in Brooklyn last night organized by City Councilman Brad Lander.

The exchange took up just a few minutes of a two-hour meeting that focused on the effect of testing on city classrooms and on Polakow-Suransky’s hopes for new tests based on national standards.

At the meeting, Ann-Marie Henry-Stephens, an assistant principal and English teacher at Paul Robeson High School, one of the schools that the city plans to phase out, asked Polakow-Suransky how the city planned to better support teachers.

“The teachers who are at my school or at any school really don’t feel supported by the DOE — when is the DOE going to treat us as equals and treat us with some professional courtesy?” Stephens asked, prompting applause from the audience of teachers and parents. She continued:

Right now, we have a new evaluation system, we are hearing about layoffs, the Teacher Data Initiative. A lot of what you are doing and saying to teachers is punitive, and we want support because it’s really hard, there’s so much to learn, so much to do…. So really, when are we going to get the support especially in schools that are struggling?…Schools are struggling and they’re crying out for help, but we don’t get the help, we get evaluated.

Polakow-Suransky responded:

I think you’re right that there’s not been consistent set of supports for the schools that are phasing out as part of the process of creating new schools. There’s an obligation to the kids and to the adults in those schools to provide thoughtful consistent support and communications, so that people know what to expect and know what is going to happen from year to year as the school changes and gets smaller, and to actually create opportunities for those that want to stay and be part of moving the kids that remain to graduation — or to the end of that level of schooling if it’s not a high school — for them to actually have have really strong leadership and real resources to do that.

I think it’s happened in some places.  I know that in the building where I was a principal, there was a phase out school, which was Morris High School, and as that school got smaller it became much more successful and many more kids graduated from that old school that was being phased out than ever before. I mean, it was a school that used to take 700 kids into the ninth grade every year and graduate 70 four years later. And as it was phased out, in the second year of the phase out it graduated 120 kids – this is separate from the new schools, just the old school as it was getting smaller. In the third year it graduated over 200 and in its last year it graduated 300. And I remember standing next to one of the asst principals, who had been there since 1966 who had been fighting against the decision to close Morris and to phase out the school, and he had tears in his eyes. And I asked him what he was thinking and he said he’d never seen so many kids graduate from this school.

And so there is the possibility to do this well. And I think that’s our obligation and that’s something that you and others need to hold us accountable because we do know what it takes to do it well and we can.

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.”