dotting the i's

Closure meetings underway at schools slated for "turnaround"

Posters from past student theater performances adorned the walls of Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School’s auditorium, where parents gathered Monday for a meeting on school turnaround.

The city has started running through its closure protocol at dozens of low-performing schools it wants to “turn around.”

At Brooklyn’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, Superintendent Aimee Horowitz held a tense meeting with teachers to talk about the closure plan Monday afternoon. Hours later, she detailed the plan to about 50 angry and bewildered parents at an “early engagement” meeting that has for the last two years been the Department of Education’s first step in letting schools know they could be closed.

The pattern is set to repeat this week and beyond at dozens of low-performing schools that were midway through federally mandated overhaul processes known as “transformation” and “restart” until earlier this month, when Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city would instead try to use a different process, “turnaround,” at the schools. The switch, aimed at letting the city sidestep a state requirement that it negotiate new teacher evaluations with the United Federation of Teachers, would require the schools to be closed and immediately reopened after having at least half of their teachers replaced.

The mass-replacement plan drew fire from parents and students who said FDR’s teachers are essential if academic performance is to improve.

“I feel tortured,” said Abdul Sager, a ninth-grader whose first language is Bengali. “If a new teacher comes who doesn’t know about my feelings and strategies … to learn English, it’s going to take more time.”

Parents found out about Monday’s meeting in letters shortly after Bloomberg’s announcement and through automated telephone calls over the weekend announcing a parent-teacher association meeting with Horowitz, according to Robin Piraino, the mother of a ninth-grader. She said the messages didn’t say the meeting would deal with FDR’s proposed closure, and some people who attended the meeting were visibly surprised by the news.

Principal Steven Demarco implored families to push back against the city’s plan by contacting legislators and elected officials. He also promised that FDR would survive the city’s latest efforts to reshape the school.

“We’ve always been a family, we’ve always gotten through,” he said. “Regardless of what we’re called — transformation, restart, turnaround — we are continuing every day to make progress. That will continue until I’m dragged out of here.”

Demarco’s predecessor was in fact yanked from the school. Starting transformation in 2010 required Roosevelt’s longtime principal, Geraldine Maione, to be replaced, so the Department of Education appointed Demarco, a 29-veteran of the school, to take her place. Then the city installed Maione at William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School, another school that was undergoing transformation and could now be closed.

Since 2010, FDR had received millions of dollars in federal School Improvement Grants. Teachers said the funds had financed training sessions and overtime hours for leading after-school English classes for parents, tutoring students, and hosting a new advisory program called freshman and sophomore academies.

“We’ve invested our support in the English Language Learners,” said Jorge Mitey, a Spanish teacher and FDR’s union chapter leader, who had passed out large buttons showing Bloomberg’s face with a red strike-through to people attending the meeting. “They’re coming in on weekends, they’re coming after school. We’ve given them more academic rigor to improve.”

Forty percent of FDR’s 3,400 students are considered English language learners, a data point that teachers said makes it impossible for the school to meet the city’s expectations, especially for its four-year graduation rate. Of the students who entered as ninth-graders in 2006, 59 percent graduated four years later, giving FDR a graduation rate just two points below the city average. The school received B’s on its two most recent city progress reports.

“Current policies do not reflect research on how students learn languages — many of our hardest-working students at this school are English language learners,” said one teacher, who asked not to be named because she is worried about keeping her job. “All research shows that it takes five to seven years to become academically proficient in a second language, and that is only if you have literacy in your first language. But many of our students come in with literacy challenges in their first language, Chinese, Spanish.”

The meetings are a first step in the city’s notification process for school closures. For the last two years, the city has held “early engagement” hearings at schools it is considering shuttering before finalizing the closure slate. Then the city must hold public hearings at each school slated for closure before the citywide school board, the Panel for Educational Policy, votes on them. The panel has never rejected a city proposal. By law, the city must also issue detailed reports about the closures’ impact, called “Education Impact Statements,” at least six months before the start of the school year when the closures would begin — a deadline that is just weeks away.

Other school communities are gearing up to protest the turnaround plan at meetings with superintendents later this week. On Wednesday, teachers at Brooklyn’s John Dewey High School say they will defend the progress the school has made under the restart model to department officials and ask them to let current teachers stay in the school.

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.
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.”