vignettes

Pep-rally tone but many worries at Queens turnaround hearings

Students dressed in blue and white, Long Island City High School's colors, chant at the school's closure hearing Tuesday.

The feeling at two Queens high schools Tuesday evening was as much pep rally as protest during public hearings about the city’s plans to close the schools in June.

The city wants to close and reopen the schools, Long Island City High School and Newtown High School, under the federally prescribed reform process known as “turnaround.” The process would require many teachers to be replaced, a prospect that students said has induced anxiety about what classes and clubs would be offered next year.

Students and teachers said unique elective and extracurricular options that currently exist — including boys gymnastics, robotics, and guitar — are a large part of what makes the schools special. They urged the Department of Education to preserve those features and revert to other improvement plans that would cause less disruption.

At a third school whose turnaround hearing took place last night, John Dewey High School, students and teachers have been mounting a vigorous defense since January, when the turnaround plans were announced. The three schools are among 26 whose turnaround proposals are likely to be approved when the Panel for Educational Policy votes on them next week.

Newtown High School

The crowd at Newtown gave forth whoops and cheers for every teacher who spoke, for every mention of the school’s winning robotics team, and for every nod to longstanding principal – and Newtown alum – John Ficalora.

But before there was cheer, there was tension when a top Department of Education official, Deputy Chancellor David Weiner, had not shown up 20 minutes after the meeting was supposed to begin. At 6:20 p.m., with Weiner an estimated 20 minutes away, Jesse Mojica, the Department of Education’s executive director for Family and Community Engagement, tried to start the meeting without him.

That decision didn’t sit well with the hundreds of students, parents, and teachers crowded into the school’s auditorium. Washington Sanchez, a Queens Borough United Federation of Teachers representative, rushed to a microphone that had been set up in the audience.

“How can we conduct this meeting without a representative from the chancellor’s office?” he asked?

The audience screamed in support, chanting, “We want Weiner!” until Mojica acquiesced and postponed the meeting.

The crowd did not quiet down even after Weiner arrived, shouting over his opening statement about how the school’s report card grade (C) and graduation rate (62.4 percent) were not satisfactory. In testimony, teachers and staff members who have been invested in the school for decades defended the school alongside students who have been in this country for mere months.

They all said the school had improved under a short-lived reform effort, “restart,” that paired the school with a nonprofit partner this year. They also pointed to dedicated teachers, Ficalora’s leadership, and Newtown’s culturally diverse community of students as strong assets.

But they said having immigrant students from all over the world has also made it difficult to meet the city’s expectations.

Supporters of Newtown High packed the auditorium.

“How do you expect students who never heard any English words to graduate in four years?” asked Jiawen Shen, a junior who immigrated from China two and a half years ago and now has had teachers dedicate hours of their free time to help her perfect her college essay and work through trying math problems.

“How is a school like this called ineffective?” she asked.

“We’re serving the students of Corona. It’s the most ethnically diverse community in the world. It’s not their fault and it’s not our fault,” said Shara Berkowitz, who has taught English as a Second Language at Newtown for 18 years.

Prior to the event, as a small crowd gathered outside of the school to listen to student guitarists perform, Berkowitz said that she was uncertain about what the future would hold for her students and her school.

“I have students walking in every single day from their country. We accept everybody. Will a new school accept everybody?” she asked. (The Department of Education has said that the replacement schools would enroll the same students under turnaround.)

Xiaoyu Zhou immigrated from China five months ago and has worked closely with Berkowitz to learn English. Now, he told me, his English has greatly improved because of his teacher’s efforts and he is no longer afraid of making mistakes. He said he wonders how his teachers would be judged good or bad when the school decides which of them to rehire.

Shen said rumors have been going around about art and music classes being cut to make way for double periods of math and English next year. Last year by this time, Shen said she knew her class schedule for the fall. This year, that’s not a possibility.

Long Island City High School

Students at LICHS also had next year’s classes and clubs foremost on their minds.

During four hours of testimony, dozens of college-bound seniors and recent graduates told Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky and other Department of Education officials that LICHS teachers had inspired them to take Advanced Placement classes and participate in an array of electives, clubs, and sports, from boys gymnastics to culinary arts.

Fotini Dimopoulos, a junior, said she especially values drama club, a dance team, and a leadership class that organizes community service opportunities for students. The class also designed and distributed the T-shirts that most audience members were wearing Tuesday evening, which read “I am L.I.C.” and “We Can, We Will Save Long Island City High School.”

“If you guys close us down, it’s not guaranteed that we’re going to have all these things back,” Dimopoulos said. “Next year’s going to be horrible. I have to apply for colleges and get recommendation letters. If I’m not going to have the same teachers we have now, what’s going to happen?”

Several students and alumni teared up as they described the mentoring and encouragement they received while on the boys gymnastics team and other sports teams, and two performed impromptu backflips at the front of the auditorium before testifying. They reasoned that those programs would not be able to exist without the leadership of Ken Achiron, the gymnastics coach and union representative, and many other teachers who supervise the extracurricular activities.

Polakow-Suransky told the audience that the city would not be eliminating any of the school’s electives or extracurricular programs.

“Anyone who’s telling you that there might not be those programs available is not telling you the truth,” he said.

LICHS freshman Hugo Wehe shows off a medal the gymnastics team recently won during his testimony.

What the department is trying to do, Polakow-Suransky said, is jolt the school out of lagging performance. Citing the school’s lackluster attendance rate — 80.8 percent — and two consecutive progress report C grades, he said the city believes improvement requires a deep intervention such as turnaround, which would overhaul the staff and infuse the school with several million dollars in federal improvement funds.

Until January, LICHS was receiving federal funding to undergo transformation, a less aggressive federally prescribed reform effort. As at other schools cut off from the federal funds because of a city-union dispute over teacher evaluations, the protesters said the transformation had brought about positive changes. If the school had been allowed to complete the three-year program, they argued, then LICHS’s student performance data would have risen to meet the city’s expectations. Its four-year graduation rate already jumped from 56 percent to 66 percent, several points above the city average, over the past two years.

As the hearing wound down, Polakow-Suransky told the 50 or so remaining protesters that he found their testimonies powerful. He said he would report back to Chancellor Dennis Walcott about the sense of “tremendous, love, respect, and pride … and family” evinced at the hearing, adding, “That sense of history and identity fairly came through this evening.”

Vivian Selenikas, the proposed new school leader, sat quietly in the audience beside the current principal, Maria Mamo-Vacacela, who wore a white “I Am L.I.C.” shirt. Mamo-Vacacela took over only in 2010 when the city was required to remove William Bassell, in charge since 1993, under the transformation rules. The city would not have to replace her under turnaround. But her leadership has been dotted with hiccups, including a massive scheduling debacle earlier this year.

Several teachers who spoke at the hearing said Selenikas had already met with teachers and told them she was pleased with their work. She declined to speak with GothamSchools at the hearing.

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.”