troubled waters

New hire a first step in effort to bridge district, charter divide

An initiative designed to ease tension between district and charter schools in the city has moved slowly and largely under the radar this spring.

In December, then-Chancellor Joel Klein joined 88 of the city’s charter schools in signing on to a District-Charter Collaboration Compact, which mandates that charter schools “fulfill their role as laboratories of innovation” and requires the Department of Education to support city charter schools. The compact, which the Gates Foundation urged and is funding, emphasizes collaboration around issues of enrollment, space allocation, and instruction.

But after more than six months — which were bookended by Klein’s sudden departure and a contentious lawsuit over charter school co-location — little progress has been made toward fulfilling the compact’s requirements. In June, the New York City Charter School Center took a first step by hiring Cara Volpe, a former Teach for America employee, to be the city’s first district-charter collaboration manager.

Later, a not-yet-formed advisory council of district and charter school employees will help Volpe set priorities, according to city and charter school officials.

Volpe “will be expected to implement the council’s vision for identifying, establishing and implementing the partnerships, policies and programs that will help tear down the boundaries between great district and charter schools,” according to advertisement for the position, which the charter center posted online at GothamSchools’ jobs board, Idealist, and elsewhere.

Volpe’s work will come at a time when tensions around charter schools are at an all-time high. In May, the UFT and NAACP sued the city to stop 19 charter schools from opening, moving, or expanding, and a fierce battle for public opinion followed.

“The rhetoric around charter versus district schools has become far too heated, and work on this initiative could not come at a better time,” said Matthew Mittenthal, a Department of Education spokesman.

A search committee that included two charter school principals, a district school principal, a representative of the nonprofit New Visions for New Schools, and the head of the DOE’s charter schools office interviewed Volpe before she was hired.

“I’m excited for the opportunity to bring together district and charter school leaders and teachers and helping them work more collaboratively toward their shared goal of improving education for all children,” Volpe wrote in an email.

But critics of the city’s education policies say they are skeptical that Volpe’s position will easily soothe tensions between district and charter schools. In fact, they say, they are skeptical even of the city’s commitment to upholding the compact’s terms.

Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan borough president’s appointee on the Panel for Educational Policy, said last week he had not even heard about the compact.

“I think in order to deliver on the commitments that the district signed up for, many of them would require PEP approval,” he said, pointing to a promise that the city aim to grant charter schools equal space inside school buildings. “So I was surprised I hadn’t heard about it.”

Marc Sternberg, the DOE’s deputy chancellor for portfolio planning, met with Sullivan Tuesday afternoon to discuss the compact. “Marc and Patrick had a very productive conversation yesterday, one of many they will have about the District-Charter Compact moving forward,” Mittenthal said today.

But Noah Gotbaum, president of the Community Education Council for District 3, where space-sharing has long been highly contentious, said the city’s policy of awarding space in public school buildings to charter schools would always make collaboration unlikely.

“Are you asking them to compete or are you asking them to collaborate? Because you can’t have it both ways,” he said. “If the DOE is serious about collaboration, they will first ensure, before they do any co-locations, that there is adequate space to educate the kids in the public schools right now.”

The charter center is banking on Volpe’s stints in both district and charter schools to help her bridge the growing chasm between them in New York.

After graduating from the University of Virginia, Volpe started her career teaching sixth-grade science at Jane Long Middle School in Houston, as a member of Teach for America. Her next stop was at Houston’s KIPP Academy Middle School, where she taught math. She moved to New York City to become Teach for America’s Director of Alumni Affairs, and she also joined Community Board 7, where she served on the Youth, Education and Libraries committee.

KIPP Principal Elliott Witney remembered her humor and intensity as she peppered her students with questions. “Cara showed up recently to watch the children she taught years ago graduate from high school in Houston,” Witney wrote in an email. “When the children saw her, they rejoiced. That, in a nutshell, is Cara.”

New York City is not alone is posting slow progress post-compact. Other cities that signed onto the compact are waiting for progress as well. In Minneapolis, Al Fan, executive director of Charter School Partners, said a local advisory board is hoping to hire a collaboration manager but hasn’t yet. Fan said, “I don’t think anything is going to happen in Minneapolis until this compact coordinator is filled.”

Another participating city, Denver, has had more success, according to Debbie Robinson, senior communications officer at the Gates Foundation. The city has already created committees to tackle the specific issues of enrollment, special education and funding, she said. But Robinson wrote in an email that Rochester, Hartford, and New Orleans have all had difficulties filling the collaboration manager role.

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.”