creation story

"Mayor and chancellor show" touts 54 schools opening this fall

Mayor Bloomberg, flanked by Chancellor Walcott and new school leaders, discusses the city's school creation efforts.

When Mayor Bloomberg entered office in 2002, there were about fewer than 1,200 schools in the city. By the time he leaves, there will be about 1,800.

That number — representing a more than 50 percent increase — had Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott in a good mood during a press conference today to tout this year’s crop of new schools. Thirty Department of Education-run schools will open in September, as will 24 privately managed charter schools.

“We have created so many new schools. It is truly amazing,” said Walcott, who stood with Bloomberg and dozens of freshly minted principals at Manhattan’s Washington Irving High School, which will house two of the new schools. The pair touted a recent study by the research firm MDRC that concluded that the city’s new small high schools have continued to post higher graduation rates than other schools that remained open.

The addition of 54 schools created through the department’s new schools creation process will bring the total number of city schools to 1,750 this fall, 589 of them opened under Bloomberg’s watch. Bloomberg has promised to create at least 50 new schools next year — evenly split between charter and district-run — and he reiterated that vow again today.

Another 26 new schools would open under the city’s “turnaround” proposals but were not included in the small schools total touted today. Those proposals, which are likely to be approved next week, would close and immediately reopen 26 schools with new names and many new teachers in an attempt to win federal funding for the schools.

The sunny event came on the same day as two reports took aim at Bloomberg’s school policies, saying that his administration had fostered inequities and closed schools without first trying to improve them. The city decided this year to close Washington Irving, where teachers have said students had grown increasingly needy in recent years. The teachers also said that the school’s landmarked library, where the mayor’s event took place, had been closed to students since Washington Irving cut loose its librarian last summer.

If the criticism bothered Bloomberg and Walcott, they didn’t show it during their presentation. Instead, the pair engaged in friendly stage banter about the new schools.

Walcott noted that city elementary and middle school students had started state reading tests today. Then he offered a quiz question to Bloomberg, asking the mayor to guess the number of students who attend schools created on his watch.

Bloomberg furrowed his brow and did some quick mental math. “350,000?” he suggested.

The number was way too high. Actually, about 190,000 students — or just over half of Bloomberg’s estimate, which he explained was based on an assumption that a third of the city’s schools would enroll a third of its 1.1 million students  — will be enrolled at the schools in September.

“You’re watching the mayor and chancellor show,” Walcott joked from behind the podium. Then he told Bloomberg that the schools would in fact enroll 384,000 students when they are at full capacity; many are so new that they are still adding a grade each year.

“You’re always right,” Walcott told the mayor, adding, “I don’t want to be an ex-chancellor.”

Cleanup took place in Washington Irving's library after Bloomberg's press conference there today.

Bloomberg and Walcott were less sanguine when discussing the number of schools that would close to make way for additional new schools. The Bloomberg administration has so far closed or begun closing 140 schools, and most of the 589 small schools have opened in space vacated by schools deemed so low-performing that they should not continue to operate.

Bloomberg dismissed a rumor, repeated by mayoral candidate Bill Thompson at an event earlier in the day, that the department would try to close 75 schools in his last year in office.

”We can’t possibly know what we’re going to do next year,” he said, adding that the department would withdraw schools that are improving from closure consideration, as it did two weeks ago when it pulled seven schools from the turnaround roster.

About next year’s closure toll, Bloomberg said, “Pick a number. It’s less than the total number of schools that are in this city and greater than zero.”

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

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.”