budget cut

In hearing, King calls for curbing Cuomo's competitive grants

Chancellor Dennis Walcott testifies before legislators during a hearing about Gov. Cuomo's proposed education budget.

State Education Commissioner John King spent most of his time before legislators today going to bat for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed schools budget.

But on one key point, he said the Board of Regents would prefer a change. The Regents would rather not hinge so much of the state’s funds on a competition among districts, King said.

Cuomo proposed using $250 million of a proposed $800 million school aid increase to reward districts for strong academic performance and management efficiency. King said the Regents, whose agenda is similar but not identical to Cuomo’s, would slash that number by 80 percent. They would still hand out $50 million through a competition but think the remaining $200 million would be better used helping high-needs districts cover their expenses, he said.

The proposal is similar to what was proposed by the Alliance for Quality Education, a group that Cuomo’s office has named as a nemesis, and augurs a possible battle over the budget in the two months before it must be approved.

During today’s joint State Senate and Assembly hearing on the state’s elementary and secondary education budget in Albany, legislators wanted to talk about another one of Cuomo’s strings-attached school funding proposals: to tie districts’ state aid to new teacher evaluations.

Last month, King cut off federal funds to 10 districts, including New York City, when they did not meet a deadline for negotiating new teacher evaluations. King said today he expected all of those districts to appeal his decision and was helping most of them redo their applications to include promises of tougher teacher evaluations.

The “nagging issue” of appeals for low ratings, which caused the negotiations impasse in New York City, is trickier to resolve, King said.

“Certainly that is a source of concern for the governor, for the mayor, to me,” he said. “But at the same time it’s not the department’s role to mediate local collective bargaining agreements.”

Mayor Bloomberg announced earlier this month that the city would adopt a new school improvement model, turnaround, that does not require new teacher evaluations. The city still has not formally submitted applications for that change, King said today, adding that the applications could take weeks to review when they do arrive.

“It’s a very large change they are proposing to make, to many schools,” King said. “Their challenge will be to explain how … turnaround makes sense for the students in those schools.”

During his testimony later in the hearing, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the city anticipated filing applications for each school within the next two weeks — bringing the city to the brink of a legal deadline to notify schools that are being proposed for closure.

Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, chair of the Assembly’s education committee, criticized the turnaround plans, which require half of the teachers to be removed at 33 low-performing schools.

“These schools need support and they need services. They don’t need turmoil,” she said. “To change [plans] midstream is causing a great deal of upsetness.”

But Nolan’s criticism did not extend to the city’s position on teacher evaluations. She didn’t bring the issue up during her first round of questions for Walcott, but when the chancellor was preparing to leave the stand, she said the “Twitterverse” had instructed her to ask about evaluations.

After offering Walcott a chance to add more about the city’s position, Nolan said he had her “complete cooperation” moving forward.

In his testimony, Walcott lauded Cuomo’s aid-for-evaluations gambit and the restoration of funding proposed for January Regents exams. For the second year in a row, Walcott also pushed legislators to consider making it quicker and easier for districts to fire teachers accused of misconduct. But just as happened last year, he agreed with legislators who said the city’s misconduct hearings, known as 3020-a hearings, are the most efficient in the state.

Both Walcott and UFT President Michael Mulgrew said they would not support the state’s bid to pass on some costs of the 3020-a hearings to local districts. Cuomo said in his State of the State speech that doing so would give districts an incentive to speed hearings. But Walcott said today that districts are already motivated to move quickly through hearings so they can free up the salaries of teachers who are dismissed.

In his testimony before the legislators, Mulgrew said the UFT remains committed to hammering out new teacher evaluations with the city.

“I like the idea that the governor put more pressure on all of us,” he said.

He also asked legislators to earmark $5 million to expand the College Now program, which allows city students to take college courses while still in high school.

Walcott’s complete testimony is below.                                                                                     

Newcomers

This mom came to the newcomer school ready to stand up for son. She left with a job.

PHOTO: Provided by Javier Barrera Cervantes
Charlotte Uwimbabazi is a bilingual assistant at the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program.

When Charlotte Uwimbabazi showed up at Indianapolis Public Schools’ program for new immigrants, she was ready to fight for her son. When she left that day, she had a job.

A native of the Congo, Uwimbabazi fled the war-torn country and spent nearly a decade in Cape Town, South Africa waiting for a new home. Last spring, Uwimbabazi and her four children came to the U.S. as refugees.

(Read: Teaching when students are full of fear: Inside Indiana’s first school for new immigrants)

When the family arrived in Indianapolis, Uwimbabazi’s youngest son Dave enrolled at Northwest High School. But he wasn’t happy, and a volunteer helping to resettle the family suggested he transfer to Crispus Attucks High School. When the school year started, though, Crispus Attucks turned him away. Staff there said he had been assigned to the newcomer program, a school for students who are new to the country and still learning English.

There was just one problem: Dave was fluent in English after growing up in South Africa. Uwimbabazi said it’s the only language he knows. So Uwimbabazi and her son Dave headed to the newcomer school to convince them he should attend Crispus Attucks.

That’s when Jessica Feeser, who oversees the newcomer school and programing for IPS students learning English, stepped in — and found a new resource for the district’s growing population of newcomer students.

Feeser immediately realized that Dave was fluent in English and should enroll in Crispus Attucks. Then, Uwimbabazi started talking with Feeser about her own experience. With a gift for languages, Uwimbabazi speaks six fluently, including Swahili and Kinyarwanda, languages spoken by many African students at the school.

“Where are you working right now?” Feeser asked. “Would you like a job here?”

Uwimbabazi, who had been packing mail, took a job as a bilingual assistant at the school. Her interaction with the district went from “negativity to positivity,” she said.

The newcomer program has seen dramatic growth in enrollment since it opened last fall, and it serves about three dozen refugee students. Students at the school speak at least 14 different languages. As the only staff member at the school who speaks Swahili and Kinyarwanda, Uwimbabazi is a lifeline for many of the African refugees it serves, Feeser said.

She works alongside teachers, going over material in languages that students speak fluently and helping them grasp everything from simple instructions to complex concepts like graphing linear equations, Feeser said. She also helps bridge the divide between the district and the Congolese community on Indianapolis’ westside, going on home visits to meet parents and helping convince families to enroll their children in school.

When students in the newcomer program don’t share a language with staff members, the school is still able to educate them, Feeser said. But it is hard to build community without that bridge. Uwimbabazi has played an essential role in helping the school build relationships with families.

“She believes that all of our families are important, and she’s working diligently to make sure that they feel that their voices are heard,” Feeser said. “It was a gift from God that she joined us.”

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