space wars

A charter school finds itself stuck between two controversies

Council member Steve Levin and State Assembly Member Joan Millman rally with staff, parents and children outside two closing day care centers.

(Update: A spokesperson for the city Administration for Children Services tells GothamSchools that Strong Place and Bethel Day Care Centers will continue operating until Friday, June 17, in order to give parents more time to find alternative care options.)

A charter school with an uncertain future has found private space for the next school year, hoping to appease the neighborhood opposition where it’s currently co-located.

But in the process, it collided with another citywide controversy: the mayor’s decision to close day care centers.

Brooklyn Prospect Charter School has co-located at Sunset Park High School since it opened two years ago, but that community wants them out. So last week, the school signed a one-year lease this week to move into 238 Hoyt Street in Boerum Hill. A permanent, privately-funded facility scheduled to open in 2012 is being built down the road.

The challenge is that the previous tenants at the rental building were two popular day care centers that have been neighborhood institutions for over 30 years. Bethel Day Care and Strong Place Day Care are two of eight programs ending as a result of Mayor Bloomberg’s budget cuts.

Today, Bethel and Strong Place were among five centers to close their doors for good. Parents, employees and young children from the centers joined Council Member Steve Levin outside of the building to protest the cuts.

“We’re here to stand up against what the city has done. Stand up against what the Brooklyn Prospect Charter School has done,” said Levin, who was joined by State Assembly Member Joan Millman and about 30 others. “These programs, we have fought for year after year, so that your children have a safe place to stay.”

The centers would have closed regardless, but Levin partially blamed Brooklyn Prospect’s pursuit of the $750,000 lease for the inability to restore funding.

“It’s tough enough to get funding restored for the daycare centers, but when you have a charter school come in and sign a lease, it makes it all the more difficult,” he said.

The lease includes a termination clause that would allow the centers to stay if they could afford the rent. That looked increasingly unlikely, however, with Bloomberg holding firm to his budget cuts.

Several parents pledged to return next week and resume their protest even though the centers’ doors would be closed.

“Keep on your toes because this fight is not over. We might have to be back here on Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday,” Levin said to cheers.

If a termination clause is somehow enacted, Brooklyn Prospect would have to turn back to its original option, the contentious co-location at Sunset Park High School.

Sunset Park High School opened in 2009 in a brand new, five-story building with state-of-the-art facilities. It is the culmination of a nearly four-decade fight to build a high school for the neighborhood’s growing population. The financial crisis during the1970s initially stalled their efforts, but the community did not give up its fight.

Brooklyn Prospect opened the same year with one sixth grade class. It was supposed to be temporary, but the co-location was extended each of the last two years this year , leading critics to question whether it would ever leave.

“It flies in the face of DOE’s promise to our community, which fought for 40 years to get our one and only high school,” said Sunset Park’s Community Board Manager Jeremy Laufer. “Why should we now believe their promise that this will only be one year?”

Brooklyn Prospect executive director Daniel Rubenstein declined to comment.

As part of efforts to revise its co-location plans, the education department will hold a joint public hearing for Sunset Park High School, but it’s unclear whether that will be necessary now that Brooklyn Prospect has found its own space.

A Department of Education spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

NYC Charter School Center Chief Executive Officer James Merriman wrote in a blog post today that the criticism toward Brooklyn Prospect was misguided.

“The fact is that these two day care centers are being shut down because New York City has defunded them not because their space is being rented out to the charter school by a private landlord,” Merriman wrote.

“If ever there was a more damned if you do damned if you don’t situation, I haven’t seen it.”

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.”