a familiar feeling

Two years after relocation fight, Center School cedes one room

Two years after the Center School vacated the building it once shared with P.S. 199 to alleviate overcrowding, the Upper West Side middle school is being told to give up some classroom space again.

Administrators from the Center School and P.S. 9, which share a public school building at 100 W. 84 Street, agreed last week that the Center School would give one of its 11 classrooms to P.S. 9 in September. Department of Education officials said the building council made the decision in response to an enrollment increase at P.S. 9. Administrators from P.S. 9 were not available to comment.

But some Center School community members say the DOE is sacrificing their school rather than add new school seats in District 3, where popular schools such as P.S. 9 have seen enrollments swell. They also view it as a continuation of a heated controversy between the school and the DOE over the school’s relocation.

In 2008, the DOE told the Center School to leave the building it shared with P.S. 199 for more than 26 years to accommodate P.S.199’s growing class sizes. Parents and staff fought a pitched battle against the move. The actress Cynthia Nixon, a Center School parent, even accused the DOE during a public hearing of promoting racial segregation and classism. Roughly one-third of students at the Center School are African-American or Hispanic.

Ultimately, the fight was unsuccessful, and since moving into the PS 9 building in 2009, crowding has been an ongoing problem for the selective middle school and its 224 students. Even with 11 classrooms, the Center School sometimes held electives, called “minis,” and literature seminars outdoors or in the school’s hallways and stairwells, according to Elaine Schwartz, the principal.

When one teacher, Rebecca Montville, asked some of her 14 literature students to act out scenes from “Flowers for Algernon” during class last year, she and the audience huddled in the back of a walk-in closet usually shared by the guidance counselor and speech therapist. The actors maneuvered around an office desk that furnished the front-half of the make-shift classroom.

“They make it work, but it’s not optimal,” Montville said of her students, who are in fifth through eighth grades. “It will be to the hallways or to the closet. It takes away from class time because one of the first things you have to do when you get in the room is figure out how we’re all going to fit.”

Class sizes at the Center School range from a dozen students to nearly 50 for a theater class, Schwartz said, and the smaller classes are usually the ones sent out into the hallways when there are space constraints, which happens for the majority of class periods. She said the loss of one classroom could further strain the students and teachers.

“We have classes in the stairwell, classes in the back hallway, sometimes on the auditorium stage — anywhere we can find space,” she said.

In May, the DOE pushed the school to cede two classrooms to P.S. 9, which last year had 600 students.

“We objected strongly to that,” Schwartz said. “I didn’t want bigger classes in younger grades, or more classes in the halls.”

The agreement last week gives one classroom to P.S. 9 and is assured until 2015, Schwartz said.

P.S. 9 administrators report that a 65 percent one-year rise in the number of zoned families registering for kindergarten means that the school will offer another kindergarten class this fall, but it is losing its two gifted kindergarten classes.

When asked if she would like to move the school again to a building with more classrooms, Schwartz responded, “No. Not unless you’re building us our own building.”

Critics have long said that the city has inadequately planned for growing populations across the city, and Schwartz said no one in the DOE has formally raised the possibility of creating a school building solely for the Center School.

“I look at this as a major problem for the whole of District 3,” she said. “There’s just not enough spaces for children to put their books down.”

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.

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.”