itinerary

Walcott keeps rapid school-visits pace with three-borough sprint

Chancellor Dennis Walcott speaks with students and a teacher at the High School for Dual Language High and Asian Studies.

When Chancellor Dennis Walcott peeked into an English as a Second Language class at the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies, he caught a crowd of Chinese-speaking students parsing “Death of a Salesman,” a classic of American literature.

In other classrooms on the fifth floor of the Lower East Side’s Seward Park Campus, he saw students reading aloud from “Romeo and Juliet,” designing school emblems in the style of Chinese art, and preparing to discuss the Earth’s capacity to sustain its human population.

It was the second school visit of the day for Walcott, who is touring schools that landed on U.S. News & World Report’s annual list of America’s “best high schools.” The list measures schools according to how well their students perform compared to other schools with similar demographics. Seven of the 10 highest-ranking New York State high schools are in the city, topped by Queens’ Baccalaureate School for Global Education.

This morning, Walcott started his day at Queens High School for the Science at York College, also on the list. After a lunch break to accept an award from an architecture mentoring program, he’ll finish the school day at a third top-ranked school, the High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

“I saw a lot of learning taking place, great students, great teachers, and a really outstanding principal,” Walcott said of his visit to the Queens school. “Here, even more so. Coming off the stairwell — I didn’t take the elevator — I saw a young student who was getting ready for his A.P. exam. He said the students and teachers here are all committed to excellence in education.”

Walcott’s habit of stopping by schools is well known. In the first semester of the school year, he visited schools on 72 different occasions, often to attend evening meetings for parents and the public, but also during the day for spelling bees, holiday concerts, and a “Harvest Feast.” In contrast, ex-Chancellor Joel Klein crossed the thresholds of city public schools 84 times in 445 days — well over a year — in 2009 and 2010.

Walcott often sets his own agenda, and he seems to enjoy seeing top-performing schools. When he appeared at a press conference with leaders of dozens of new small schools last month, he warned the principals that he could show up at their offices at any time.  In September, he visited Staten Island Technical High School, a specialized school, after it landed on a different U.S. News list of top math and science schools. In October, he stopped by during parent-teacher conferences at American Studies.

He has less frequently visited schools that are struggling. Between September and the end of January, he visited just five of the more than 60 schools that were under consideration for closure or federally prescribed overhauls. One of those visits, to Grace Dodge Career and Technical Education High School, took place amid revelations that the principal had falsified student records. Another time, he visited the Bronx High School of Business, now set to undergo turnaround, because it was hosting a city school board meeting. (Other top department officials visited the other schools up for “turnaround” during the school day this spring.)

Teachers at schools on the chopping block this year said over and over that Walcott would change his mind about their schools’ future if he could only see staff and students hard at work.

But even critics of the city’s school closure policies say they appreciate Walcott’s presence inside schools. “He is constantly in the schools [with] nobody, no entourage,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said at a union conference on Saturday, even as he criticized Department of Education policies. “Good news, bad news, Dennis is there speaking with the children, speaking with the parents and speaking with the teachers.”

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.”