unchartered territory

City moves to close two charter schools, citing mismanagement

Department of Education announced today that it is moving to close two low-performing charter schools, including one whose network head earned nearly half a million dollars last year and is under investigation by the Attorney General.

The city announced today it would close Williamsburg Charter High School.

One of the schools, Peninsula Preparatory Academy, will close at the end of the year when its charter expires. The 346 students at the school, which has gotten four straight C’s on its city progress reports, will be dispersed among other Far Rockaway elementary schools.

“We have had some struggles but I think the school was definitely on a positive trajectory,” said Ericka Wala, Peninsula Prep’s principal.

The department is taking an even more drastic step with the second school, Williamsburg Charter High School, and revoking its charter midway through the five-year term. Unless the school completely cleans up its management within 30 days, it will close at the end of the year and its students will have to apply to other high schools.

In a letter sent to the chair of WCHS’s board today, the head of the city’s charter schools office, Recy Dunn, paints a picture of massive mismanagement and corruption.

Most of the charges center on founder Eddie Calderon-Melendez, who earned $478,000 last year as the CEO of the Believe Charter Network, which has run Williamsburg and two other high schools.

Citing financial and board improprieties, the city placed the school on probation in September. Chief among the terms of the probation was that the school’s board would sever its relationship with Believe. It did so in November, begrudgingly, but then hired Calderon-Melendez to join the school’s staff earlier this month, according to the letter, which said the school had met just one of 10 probation requirements.

Now, state auditors and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman are investigating the school’s relationship with Believe under Calderon-Melendez’s leadership.

“Despite these ongoing investigations, Mr. Calderon-Melendez continues to have a relationship with the school and the board,” reads the letter. “The board‟s failure to sever this relationship is a serious violation of its obligations under the Charter and state law.”

Two other schools in the network, Southside and Northside charter schools, were authorized by the State Education Department, not the city, so the city cannot shut them down. SED placed both of those schools on probation in October.

At the building that houses Southside and Northside, teachers and staff said this afternoon that they had been instructed by email not to speak to reporters. Asked if he was worried that WCHS’s closure would affect the other Believe schools, Southside’s director of operations, Antonio Serrano said, “No. We are three separate entities.”

Serrano is also the vice-chair of WCHS’s board of trustees, a conflict of interest listed in the city’s letter.

The school’s precarious financial state became clear in 2010 when the owner of the building that it had been renting put the space back on the market, saying that WCHS had not been paying its bills. Previously, we reported that Believe was illicitly sending students to a building that was not permitted for school use.

Revoking a charter is among the most extreme forms of accountability for charter schools and it is a step that the city has taken only once. In 2010, the city closed East New York Prep after documenting failures that the city’s charter schools czar called “the worst in New York that I’ve seen.” In May, state officials revoked the charter of Kingsbridge Innovative Design School after only one year, citing massive mismanagement. The path experienced by Peninsula Prep, where a struggling school is not allowed to stay open when its charter expires, is more common.

“If a charter isn’t coming close to meeting the goals it promised to reach, or is operating in an irresponsible manner, it’s hard to make a case that it should continue to have the privilege of educating students with public money,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, in a statement.

A third school whose future had been in doubt, Opportunity Charter School, got a reprieve today when the department announced it would seek a short-term charter extension — two years, instead of the standard five.

“In our last renewal, we agreed to an accountability plan that would measure our success, and we met those requirements,” CEO Leonard Goldberg said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing to serve as an example of how to meet the needs of this underserved population of students.”

Here’s the letter the city sent to Williamsburg Charter High School’s board chair today:

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.”