it's a deal

Legislators sign off on Cuomo's teacher evaluation framework

A late-night, no-contest legislative agreement has brought changes to the state’s teacher evaluation system a crucial step closer to becoming law.

The deal also heads off protest by the evaluation system’s critics, including principals from across the state who had planned to ask legislators to make changes.

Under the agreement, the State Senate and Assembly agreed to approve revisions to the state’s 2010 teacher evaluation law proposed last month by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office and the state’s main teachers union, NYSUT. The agreement came during a spree of deals that lawmakers tore through all night and well into this morning, on issues as wide-ranging as the state’s pension system, congressional redistricting, and a database to store most convicted criminals’ DNA.

In large part because NYSUT had signed on to the framework, the evaluations legislation was among the least controversial issues before the lawmakers. They made no changes to the framework agreed upon last month.

That the legislature included teacher evaluations in the spree at all was something of a surprise. Cuomo had proposed the revisions to the law as part of the budget amendment process, meaning that they would be approved only when the state’s budget is finalized by the end of the month. Now, as soon as Cuomo signs the legislation, it goes into effect, and changes to teacher evaluations won’t be on the table when legislators haggle over budget items.

The legislative approach spells the likely end of the line for an insurgency by more than 1,400 principals from across the state who planned to press lawmakers during the budget process to make some changes to the evaluation framework. A group of about 70 principals convened earlier this week on Long Island to prepare an ad for next week’s edition of Legislative Gazette, a small publication widely read by insiders in Albany. Now, when the ad appears, the budget process is likely to be ongoing, but teacher evaluations won’t be part of the debate.

Cuomo cheered the agreement in a statement late last night.

“We are writing into law a new national model for teacher evaluations that will put our students first and put New York State at the front of the class when it comes to school accountability,” he said. “I commend the legislative leaders for taking this extraordinary step to create permanent and real evaluations in our schools.”

A press release from State Education Commissioner John King and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch heralding the deal arrived just after midnight.

Tisch praised the deal but cautioned that it was “just a part” of what state officials must do to boost education across the state.

“Our work is by no means over. The Regents have adopted a major education reform plan, and teacher and principal evaluations are just a part of that reform,” she said in the statement. “Our work will not be finished until we’ve made sure all our students receive the education they need to succeed in college and careers.”

The agreement also includes the New York City-specific appeals process that the city and UFT said last month that they had agreed on. That piece of the law will take effect Jan. 17, 2013 — but only if the city and union and settle on the local details of a teacher evaluation system before then. City and union officials are locked in a stalemate over Mayor Bloomberg’s plans to overhaul 33 struggling schools and do not appear anywhere close to a deal on new evaluations.

The January 2013 date is the deadline Cuomo set earlier this year for districts to settle on details of their evaluation system or risk forgoing increases to their state school aid.

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