status update

Walcott touts Young Men's Initiative as DOE inches forward

Chancellor Walcott speaks at the Mayor's Young Mens Initiative Summit in Harlem.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott wanted attendees at the Mayor’s Young Men’s Initiative Summit to know that even programs with the best intentions can be tricky to execute.

This lesson, he said, would be particularly important for city officials as they implement a sweeping new initiative to address the educational and economic disparities between male students of color and their peers.

Walcott stopped by the day-long summit to represent the Department of Education, which is leading up the Expanded Success Initiative, one of several prongs of the Bloomberg administration’s  Young Men’s Initiative. At a cost of $24 million, the project will bring researchers into schools that are succeeding with male students of color. But nearly nine months after it was announced, the department still hasn’t picked which schools to show off.

The city has assembled a shortlist of 81 eligible schools and will by the end of May pick 40 who want to participate — and receive a $250,000 bonus. To be eligible, a school must have a four-year graduation rate above 65 percent, an A or B on its most recent progress report, and a student body where at least 35 percent are black or Latino males and 60 percent are qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. It must also promise to implement even more aggressive strategies to help black and Latino male students.

When he announced the Young Men’s Initiative in August, Mayor Bloomberg promised swift changes to schools serving the highest proportions of black and Latino students. Already, the department has begun giving high schools extra credit when those students make progress. Schools have started to benefit from a literacy program and a middle school mentoring initiative, neither of which the department is administering. But the Expanded Success Initiative has been slow to start.

The summit, which was held at Harlem Hospital and only open to the media in the morning, made good on the city’s promise to bring together leaders of local and national non-profits, foundations, city agencies to brainstorm how to connect students with mentors.

While skirting specifics of the Expanded Success Initiative during his short speech, Walcott got his audience of city employees and community organization leaders laughing this morning as he described his first foray into youth mentorship, the subject of the morning panel. In the 1970s he founded a Queens spin-off of Big Brothers, Big Sisters, a national mentorship program, to pair students ages 5 through 12 with older mentors.

Walcott pushed the program in the local media, and ran a television announcement adjacent to “Soul Train,” an iconic music show. But he said the response from community members who wanted to volunteer was too overwhelming for one person running the program alone.

“I didn’t have any researched strategies in place, I just had good intentions,” he said. “Between the Daily News article, which was a front page article, and the [Public Service Announcement] in front of ‘Soul Train,’ or during ‘Soul Train,’ there’s was a huge volume of information going in.”

Walcott fit this anecdote into a larger message about the importance of cross-agency collaboration to the success of the Young Men’s Initiative, an ambitious set of youth programs with a collective $127 million price tag.

“One size does not fit all. It’s not just having a big brother or a little brother,” he said. “It’s a variety of different ways of being a mentor to people who are out there, especially young men of color.”

Walcott spoke directly following a panel discussion about the value of youth mentorship, featuring Leslie Cornfeld, chair of the Interagency Task Force on Truancy, Chronic Absenteeism and School Engagement, and several community and youth mentoring organization leaders.

Walcott championed the notion of system-wide collaboration during the question-and-answer session, after one attendee raised a question central to the Young Men’s Initiative: How will the city make a long-term impact on the grim college readiness rate for black and Latino students, which hovers around 13 percent?

“It’s really great that we’ve raised this million dollars for this mentoring,” the speaker said, “but who is looking at this as an entire system, so that in ten years we’re not back looking at how we’re going to spend a million dollars to save a generation of kids?”

“Your question is right on. It’s a collective effort of the Department of Education, the people on the stage, and the people here in the audience as far as working together,” Walcott said. “Through the Expanded Success Initiative we are identifying schools that have done the job well, particularly with black and Latino males, and black and Latino students, and replicating that success in other schools.”

The Department of Education’s list of schools that are eligible to apply for the Expanded Success Initiative is below.

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.”