turnaround tales

A student walkout starts week of "turnaround" protest at Grady

Grady High School students protest the city's "turnaround" plan after a walkout today.

A new phase in school closure protests opened today as hundreds of students at William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School walked out of classes this afternoon to protest the city’s plan to “turn around” the school.

The plan, which Mayor Bloomberg announced last month as a way to obviate negotiations about teacher evaluations with the teachers union, would require Grady to be closed and reopened with a new name and at least half of the teachers replaced. Grady is one of 33 struggling schools facing turnaround this year.

Grady students were the first to hold a closure protest since Thursday’s massive Panel for Educational Policy, where thousands of protesters railed against 23 school closure proposals that were approved. Now the city’s attention is shifting to the turnaround schools, whose closures are likely to come before the panel in April.

Department of Education officials explained the plan to confused students and parents at the Brighton Beach school late last month.

There was little confusion today as students executed a protest that was tightly scripted by members of the student government. After a rally on the sidewalk outside the school, students marched around Grady on a path that abutted the Shore Parkway and passed a police substation. Their cries of “Save our school!” caused neighborhood residents to lean out of windows and elicited a honk of support from an ambulance driver parked outside a home for the elderly.

Even one of the dozens of police officers who had been summoned to make sure the rally did not get out of hand showed compassion, telling a group of students, “I sympathize for you guys, I really do. I had two sons who graduated from here.”

Members of the student government said they hatched the plan to defend the school after learning about the turnaround plan last month. Grady went from a D to a B on the report card the city uses to assess schools, they pointed out, and some of its vocational programs — including construction and automotive repair — don’t exist in many schools. If the school changes overnight, they worried, the credits in each “shop” that students have accumulated might not transfer over.

“We really need our school to be saved,” said Marika Mattheson, the student government secretary.

Most students said they hadn’t found out about the turnaround plan or the protest until a student-led meeting on Friday or even this morning. A staff member who stood outside the school to corral students on the sidewalk — and who reassured some anxious protesters that they wouldn’t be suspended for leaving the school building — said students had kept the action under wraps until about half an hour before the 1 p.m. walkout time.

Students said they had planned an entire week of action that would include an hour’s trip to City Hall and even an attempt to “Occupy Grady” by camping in tents on the school grounds.

Jonathan Pamphile, a junior in the school’s media arts program, said students had already been working on a mural and other activities to celebrate Respect For All week, the city’s week to promote tolerance and oppose bullying. He said the week had an important message as the city contemplates Grady’s fate.

“We just want the mayor to respect us as students,” he said.

Oshin Powell, a senior, said she was determined to graduate this year and go to college. She said she would be let down if her teachers weren’t staying behind to be there when she came to deliver updates about her success.

“We have a real bond with the teachers,” said Kareem Lewis, 18. “We’re not going to have that bond anymore. … I just don’t know if Mayor Bloomberg will listen.”

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.”