Chartered Ride

Far Rockaway charter school takes its fight 23 miles to Tweed

Parents from Peninsula Preparatory Academy get in one last chant before jumping on a chartered bus.

Parents of Peninsula Preparatory Academy believe politics is what doomed their school to closure in the first place. Now, they’re hoping the very same forces will keep it open.

With the support of State Sen. Malcolm Smith and City Councilman James Sanders, Jr., more than 100 PPA parents and supporters made the 23-mile trek from Far Rockaway, Queens to lower Manhattan to protest at the Department of Education against its decision to close the school.

Smith didn’t attend the rally, but a spokeswoman said he donated $600 to pay for one of the buses. Smith’s support for the school is well-documented. He served on the founding board of Victory Schools, Inc., a for-profit charter school management company until 2006 and sponsored a $100,000 member item for Peninsula Prep to buy computers in 2010, a move that raised eyebrows at the time from good government advocates. Smith did not respond to requests for comment.

Sanders, Jr. attended, but admitted he previously didn’t know much about school’s plight. He said he threw his support behind it once he saw how much his constituents cared about the issue.

“Was it Gandhi who said, ‘there go the people. I must follow them because I am their leader’?” said Sanders, Jr. “When my bosses are going to a place where they feel strongly about something, ten to one, that’s a place I should be.”

Much of the organizing so far has occurred amongst the parents, with limited support from advocacy groups or elected officials. Organizing for closing schools usually comes from the teachers union or groups that it supports, such as the Alliance for Quality Education. But Peninsula Prep is a nonunion charter school, and its location on the Far Rockaways, an isolated area with a longstanding sense of neglect, has made it a difficult for parents to drum up support.

That’s why the parents took their protest to the steps of Tweed this afternoon, parents said today.

“We had to come out here and show that the parents were willing to jump on buses, all the way from Rockaway, take the day off of work, and come stand up for a school that we think has served our children well,” said Josmar Trujillo, the school’s PTO co-president.

With the help of a representative from Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, parents marched around City Hall and then spent more than an hour at Tweed, shouting chants like “PPA, All the Way” and “Save our School.”

Chancellor Dennis Walcott has agreed to meet with parents and board members to discuss the school’s status. DOE officials said one of the reasons its is closing the school, which received a C on its progress report, is because it failed to meet its charter’s academic goals. It was the first time that the DOE had moved to close a mediocre charter school and, with few quality school options available to them, parents said it was a politically-motivated decision.

“The major talking point is, if we’re a C school, PPA has outperformed the schools that you are referring us to,” said Lisa George, co-president of PPA’s parent organization. “We’re asking for Walcott to please reconsider his decision and give us at least another year to prove to him that we can get A’s.”


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.

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.”