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.”

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”