space wars

Parents contest charter schools proposed for crowded District 2

A hearing about Success Academy's proposed expansion into District 2 drew a standing-room-only crowd Tuesday evening.

A public hearing to discuss Success Academy’s bid to open two new charter schools in Manhattan’s District 2 next year was dominated by angry residents who said the district’s schools are too crowded to share space.

Parents from the district and members of its elected parent council said they opposed the proposal from the charter network because the district — which includes the Upper East Side down through Greenwich Village, Tribeca, and Lower Manhattan — is already overcrowded.

The council passed resolutions at the end of March calling for Success Academy to find its own building instead of moving into existing public schools and for a moratorium on charter school applications in the district.

“You can come in if you’re invited, but if the families are saying don’t come in, I don’t think you should come in,” said Shino Tanikawa, president of the Community Education Council for District 2. Tanikawa said she thinks of charter schools as “vampires.”

Most parents at the public hearing had children enrolled in one of the six schools located at the Julia Richman Education Complex on the Upper East Side or P.S. 158, whose co-located school, P.S. 267, is set to depart for its own space in September.

“What you’re essentially trying to do if you want to get into the complex is put 14 pounds of sand in a 10 pound bag,” said Guy Workman, whose daughter attends Talent Unlimited High School in the Richman Complex.

Widespread crowding is nothing new in District 2, and neither is criticism of Success Academy schools: The charge that it should find its own space has followed the network, which is run by former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz, virtually wherever it has sought to open.

In February, a hearing about the network’s application for a school in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg attracted hundreds of people, both supporters and protesters who said the network shouldn’t get public space because it had not adequately recruited among Spanish-speaking families. That same month, a group of parents from Cobble Hill filed a lawsuit against Moskowitz and Success Academy to prevent the charter network from moving into a neighborhood school building. The two schools are among three the network is set to open this fall.

The network regularly encourages current parents to speak out at hearings about its proposed schools. On Tuesday, Ryan Dunn, the mother of twin boys who attend the network’s Upper West Side location, said Success had sped the progress of one son who had special needs. Parents should have a choice to be able to try to find alternative to their zoned schools, said Dunn, who was then interrupted by shouting from the small, crowded room. “People wouldn’t send in applications if there wasn’t interest,” Dunn added.

Neither Moskowitz nor representatives from the State University of New York charter board, which must approve the network’s application to open the new schools, attended the meeting, held at the Department of Education’s Midtown office.

So critics of the proposed schools directed their remarks toward the Recy Dunn, executive director of the city’s charter schools office. Parents questioned Dunn about which schools would be chosen to share space with incoming Success Academy schools, if the applications are approved, and over the late notification prior to the meeting.

“It was, as many parents said, very last minute. None of the PTA was able to come, so I’m going to be reporting back the information I got,” said Doris Moreira-Douek, whose daughter attends P.S. 2 in the Lower East Side near Chinatown. She found out about Tuesday’s hearing in a school letter sent home last week and said parents at P.S. 2 were prepared to fight if the department picks it to house a Success charter school.

The Department of Education typically places charter schools in space that it says is underused. The department has acknowledged the sweeping scale of overcrowding in many parts of District 2, and a spokeswoman for the Success Charter Network, Kerri Lyon, said today that it would only seek space in school buildings that are underutilized. Lyon said the network’s Upper West Side school had received 100 applications from District 2 families this year.

A handful of elementary schools in the district are not operating at full enrollment, especially in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, and multiple high schools in the district are being phased out, which would open up additional space.

The Department of Education has opened several new elementary schools in District 2 in recent years and another, the Peck Slip School, is set to open in September. Parents at the hearing said they preferred available space to be given to a new public middle school. They also said they weren’t against the charter network but argued that the schools should find locations outside of the district’s packed schools.

“The relationships that we built across the grades and across the different schools are amazing,” said Joshua Satin, vice-principal of Ella Baker School in the Richman Complex. “It’s a great place and it should not be touched.”

Success Academy Charter Schools has also applied to open a school in East Harlem’s District 4 next year and three new schools in Brooklyn. Mayor Bloomberg has said he is encouraging the network to expand quickly, and the six schools would be the most the network has opened in a single year.

Rose D’souza is a graduate student at Columbia University’s journalism school.

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 FACE@schools.nyc.gov.

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.”