aftermath

Few hard details about 24 schools as city prepares legal action

Mayor Bloomberg speaks at a press conference this afternoon in Union Square.

The city canceled meetings with the teachers and principals unions today as its lawyers prepare to seek a restraining order against a ruling that reverses thousands of hiring decisions at 24 struggling schools.

Both the United Federation of Teachers and the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators planned to meet with city officials this afternoon to figure out what would come next for the schools, which had been slated to undergo an overhaul process called “turnaround.” The process involved radically shaking up the schools’ staffs, which total more than 3,500 people. But the arbitrator’s ruling undid all of the changes.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew said the meeting was already on his agenda by Friday afternoon, just hours after the arbitrator ruled that the city’s staffing plans for the schools violated its contracts with the unions.

A main agenda item would have been figuring out a mechanism for staff members who were not rehired at the schools to reclaim their positions. Another issue, Mulgrew said on Friday, was whether the city and unions might instead try to hash out a teacher evaluation agreement for the 24 schools so they could undergo less aggressive overhaul processes and still qualify for federal funding.

But this morning, the city told the unions that the meetings were off.

Mayor Bloomberg explained this afternoon that he thinks the city should not have to abide by the arbitrator’s ruling until the arbitrator explains his reasoning.

The arbitrator, Scott Buchheit, released only his conclusions, not the legal rationale he used to get there. That would come separately, he wrote. The city and unions agreed to fast-track the arbitration, which was binding, on the grounds that schools would be harmed if hiring decisions were not made before the end of the school year.

“I have no idea what was going through the arbitrator’s mind,” Bloomberg said after a press conference about a city greenmarket initiative.

“I can just tell you, there are 24 schools, [and] almost all students there are minorities, single-digit-proficiency levels,” Bloomberg said. “These kids, if they’re there for one more year, will never recover in their entire lives.”

City lawyers are preparing papers to present to a judge as early as this afternoon — but more likely tomorrow — that will make Bloomberg’s case.

The lawyers are not at all assured success: They will be seeking a restraining order in New York State Supreme Court, the same court that urged the city and unions into the binding arbitration in the first place. Plus, they will be asking to put on hold the results of a refereeing process the city willingly entered, with a referee that the city and union both approved.

Meanwhile, teachers at the schools are weighing their options. Any teacher who was rehired as part of the turnaround staffing process will automatically keep his or her job, and any teacher who took a job in another school for the fall can choose whether to keep that position or retake his spot at his former school, according to a message from the UFT to teachers at the schools distributed on Friday.

Teachers who weren’t rehired will be able to reclaim their spots and slide right back into the seniority rank they occupied before. Seniority will come into play if the schools lose students and must shed teachers, which contractually must be done according to the principle of “last in, first out” in each subject area.

All of the principals who were in place last week are also entitled to stay on, even if they had been told they would not return this fall. But a handful of principals who left their schools early in the turnaround planning process this winter — including Barry Fried at John Dewey High School and Anthony Cromer at August Martin High School — will not share that right, according to a principals union spokeswoman.

And staff members at the schools are worrying that even if the rehiring reversal stands, the uncertainty that has hung over the schools since last fall will not abate.

A teacher from Long Island City High School who listened in on the hearing where the city and unions agreed to arbitration said at the time that the turnaround schools would be harmed regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome. “It’s like they’re pushing Humpty Dumpty off a wall,” the teacher said. “You will have a lot of trouble putting [the schools] back together again.”

A teacher at Lehman High School said he’s moving on to another school and expects many of his former colleagues to make the same choice. “The administration and principal completely ignored the school these past few months while they planned for next year,” he said. “I believe that it is very likely that our stats went down from last year.”

Among the unanswered questions is whether the nonprofit organizations that had been working with a dozen of the schools will continue to play a role in their operations. The city had hoped to use federal School Improvement Grants to pay the groups, but the grants are almost certainly off the table because the arbitrator’s decision will mean few if any schools meet federal and state eligibility rules.

“Everyone is nervous about what happens next,” said Lisa Jimenez, a teacher at Newtown High School, which has been working with a group called Diplomas Now. “Do we need to worry about getting closed next June? Do we continue with the original plan of these schools having three years to improve?”

High emotions

Denver superintendent sheds light on school closure recommendations, what happens next

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
Parents pick up their children at Amesse Elementary Friday.

While the criteria for Denver school closure recommendations is clearer than ever before, that hasn’t made this week’s emotional conversations at the three low-performing elementary schools facing that fate any easier, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said Friday.

“For school leaders and teachers, they care incredibly deeply about their schools and their kids and they’re very, very committed to them,” Boasberg told Chalkbeat.

“People have respected that there is a clear and transparent process at the intellectual level — and at the emotional level, they’re still very concerned about the changes.”

Denver Public Schools is recommending that Amesse Elementary, Greenlee Elementary and Gilpin Montessori close due to poor school ratings, lagging academic growth and a lack of enough evidence to prove the schools are on a path toward improvement.

The school board is scheduled to vote Thursday on the recommendations, which were made under a new district policy adopted last year and put into effect for the first time this fall.

If the board approves the closures, Amesse and Greenlee would stay open through the end of this school year, 2016-17, and the next school year, 2017-18, Boasberg said.

Each school would be replaced by a new model the following year, 2018-19, he said. The board would choose those models in June 2017 and then give the leaders an entire year to plan — a “year zero” — before asking them to take over in the fall of 2018. Boasberg said the current leaders of Amesse and Greenlee would be welcome to submit plans to reinvent the schools.

The principals at the three schools either declined or did not respond to interview requests.

Walking her second-grader, Clifford, out of Amesse on Friday, parent Sheila Epps voiced her frustration with the district’s closure recommendation. She said in her experience, Amesse is a good school, helping her son get to grade level in reading, writing and math.

She scoffed at what she called DPS’s intense focus on “test scores, test scores, test scores,” saying the district should “stop worrying about rankings” and focus on educating each child.

“As a parent, you feel like there’s nothing you can do,” Epps said. “It’s all up to the district. It’s almost not even worth talking about. It’s like, ‘Now what?’”

The district is recommending a different path for Gilpin. Because of low enrollment projections, Gilpin would close at the end of this school year and not be replaced, Boasberg said.

Students would be guaranteed a seat at one of four neighborhood schools next year: Cole Arts and Science Academy, Whittier ECE-8, University Prep or the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, said Brian Eschbacher, the district’s director of planning and enrollment services. The district would also work with its other Montessori elementary schools to give priority to Gilpin students wishing to continue a Montessori education, he said.

Gilpin’s enrollment is down 30 percent this year from 2013, which is in line with an overall trend in the Five Points neighborhood in northeast Denver, where Gilpin is located, Eschbacher said.

Neighborhood birth rates are also down, meaning there isn’t a big group of infants and toddlers waiting in the wings, and DPS already has 1,000 empty seats in the area, he added.

Said Boasberg: “Even if Gilpin had not been designated under (the policy), we would have either this year or next year … been in a situation where one of the elementary schools in that area would have had to close because of the decline of school-aged kids.”

At 202 students this year, Gilpin is the second-smallest elementary school in the district, Boasberg said. That causes a financial crunch because schools are funded on a per-pupil basis. He said the district is providing Gilpin with an extra $600,000 this year to ensure it’s able to provide smaller class sizes, more teacher aides in the classroom, more staff members to support students’ mental health and a broader array of arts and music offerings.

“We always want to see our schools succeed and we’ve worked hard to provide supports and resources in these cases,” Boasberg said, referring to all three schools recommended for closure. “But while there have been improvements in the schools, we’re not seeing — and haven’t seen now for some time — the kind of growth the kids in the schools need.”

Monica Lubbert lives across the street from Gilpin and sent her third-grade daughter there for several years before pulling her out last year after spring break. Her daughter had fallen behind academically and Lubbert said she didn’t feel the struggling school was capable of catching her up — a shortcoming for which she believes the school district and community share the blame.

“This is not the teachers that did anything wrong. This is not the kids that did anything wrong,” Lubbert said. Instead, she said the district didn’t follow best practices years ago when it converted Gilpin to a Montessori school. “This was the complete … mismanagement of DPS.”

Lubbert also partly attributed the school’s troubles to the fact that many kids who live in the neighborhood go to school elsewhere, as is allowed under the district’s school choice policy. District statistics show 64 percent of children who live in the school’s boundary choiced out this year. Lubbert’s own daughter is attending a private Montessori school.

“This community has gone above and beyond to make every single home in the neighborhood a historically designated home,” she said. But no one seems to care about the school, she added. “How does the community grow and thrive without a school for the kids?”

Boasberg admitted that the district learned some hard lessons over the years about how best to restart low-performing schools, which is what happened at Gilpin. But he said the new policy in effect this year represents a better way to do things.

As for what will happen to the centrally located Gilpin building if the board closes the school, Boasberg said DPS would like for it to remain a school. While the neighborhood doesn’t need any more elementaries, he said the preliminary thinking is to convert it into a secondary school that could draw students from across the city, as Denver School of the Arts, Denver Center for International Studies and Girls Athletic Leadership Academy currently do.

Chalkbeat’s Eric Gorski contributed information to this report.

bigger issues

Harlem parents want more time to weigh in on school rezoning and merger

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
The city Department of Education has proposed merging P.S. 241 the STEM Institute of Manhattan into P.S. 76 A. Philip Randolph, about eight blocks away in Harlem.

Crystal Bailey’s son came home from school recently with a dirty uniform. Before she could fuss at him, he explained it was muck from science class.

“He’s like, ‘Guess what I learned?’ How could I be mad at that?” Bailey said.

She and dozens of other parents gathered at a public hearing Thursday night to protest plans to merge and rezone their school, P.S. 241 STEM Institute of Manhattan in Harlem.

For parents, elected officials and advocates, the plan in Harlem has grown to symbolize larger issues: school segregation and the impact of charter schools.

“This is an equity issue,” said Emmaia Gelman, a member of the group New York City Public School Parents for Equity and Desegregation.

The Department of Education has proposed to merge P.S. 241 with P.S. 76 A. Philip Randolph, and to redraw the school lines around P.S. 241. Under the plan, families currently zoned for P.S. 241 would be distributed among other local schools: P.S. 76, P.S. 180, P.S. 185/P.S. 208.

“Why do you want to unravel this institution, rather than strengthen it?” Maria Garcia, who has two children at P.S. 241, asked at Thursday’s hearing.

The proposal comes on the heels of another contentious rezoning in District 3, which spans from the Upper West Side to 122nd Street in Harlem. Both plans have highlighted stark differences among the area’s schools.

For more than a year, parents railed against plans to redraw school boundaries on the Upper West Side, where students are packed into high-performing schools. In Harlem, a rezoning plan was presented just weeks before a final vote was expected — and only after the Department of Education proposed to merge a school that has struggled with enrollment and performance on state tests.

Enrollment at P.S. 241 has hovered around 100 students in recent years, despite a federal magnet grant designed to attract families — and integrate the school — by offering a curriculum in science, technology, engineering and math. The school has seen a small uptick in enrollment recently, but parents say it has been squeezed by two charter schools that share its building.

“Why do we have to go?” asked Tasha Clarke, who has two sons at P.S. 241.

The merger and rezoning rely on two separate processes. The citywide Panel for Educational Policy is scheduled to vote on the merger in January.

The District 3 Community Education Council must ultimately vote on the rezoning. Though a vote is scheduled for Dec. 14, council members have begun to voice reservations about the plan.

“Anybody who thinks that this council has decided to vote to approve this is sorely mistaken,” council President Joe Fiordaliso said at the hearing.

Council members shared data they compiled that shows declining enrollment in the area’s schools and growing charter enrollment.

“We’re in crisis,” said council member Daniel Katz.

This isn’t the first time P.S. 241 has fought to keep its doors open. The DOE tried in 2009 to close the school and replace it with charters.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and teachers union sued, arguing that by closing a zoned school, the department was essentially redrawing attendance boundaries. That falls under the purview of Community Education Councils, which vote on all zoning decisions.

Soon after the suit was filed, the DOE dropped its plans to shutter P.S. 241. But CEC member Noah Gotbaum thinks the same issues apply to the proposed merger — and therefore the council could play a crucial role in determining the school’s fate.

“I think we on the CEC need to look at the merger very, very carefully and essentially make a decision on it,” he told Chalkbeat, “and not say that we don’t have the power or the right.”