relief society

In battered Red Hook, teachers struggle to connect with families

Julie Cavanagh and her husband prepare to pass out supplies to Red Hook residents affected by the storm.

City teachers were told to stay home from school this week until today because of damages and disruption wrought by Hurricane Sandy. But staff working in one of the city’s worst-hit areas showed up anyway.

A group of teachers and aides from P.S. 15 in Red Hook met on Wednesday, just a day after the storm ended, hoping to distribute supplies to residents from the nearby Red Hook Houses, a sprawling campus of public housing where many of the school’s students live.

“P.S. 15 has always kind of been a hub for the community and in the absence of that hub, we wanted to try and do something,” said Julie Cavanagh, a special education teacher who invited families via email to meet at the school on Wednesday afternoon.

Cavanagh bought $200 worth of supplies — water, food, batteries, and even som Halloween candy — at Costco that morning, and said her plan was to give it away at the school, which was also badly damaged from the storm that flooded the rest of the neighborhood on Monday night.

But few people showed up at the scheduled meeting time on Wednesday. Some families had likely evacuated, and Cavanagh said she knew of some co-workers and families who stayed put but weren’t able to receive calls or emails.

Cavanagh ended up giving some food and water to passersby outside of the housing project, including one P.S. 15 parent of three students.

Alys Lugo, a P.S. 15 paraprofessional who lives in the houses, took a gallon of water and tuna up with her. She said she was traumatized by scenes from the storm.

“I saw the water coming up, into the park and the streets,” said Lugo, who watched the storm’s surge quickly blanket surrounding blocks from her apartment in one of the tower’s top floors. “There was water everywhere.”

Chancellor Dennis Walcott told reporters on Thursday that most schools would not get a complete picture of how their families were affected by the storm until Monday, when students are expected to return. But the efforts by P.S. 15 teachers was one example of where teachers showed a greater eagerness to reestablish communication while schools were closed.

“It’s a horrible feeling to be disconnected from the kids we see every day not knowing where they are or if they’re alright,” Cavanagh said. “Folks feel a sense of urgency to get reconnected with students and families.”

Cavanagh and her colleagues eventually drove their supplies to Red Hook Initiative, a community-based organization that had quickly became a central meeting place in the neighborhood for hot meals and volunteer coordination. Cavanagh said she saw many P.S. 15 families at the center and thought the donations would be better put to use there.

P.S. 15’s staff remained uncertain about where they would be reporting once classes resume on Monday. While they were at Red Hook Initiative on Wednesday, they learned Mayor Bloomberg had announced that they would be expected to show up for work on Friday to prepare for the challenging circumstances.

“Where are we supposed to go?” asked Marie Sirotniak, another P.S. 15 teacher.

Late Thursday evening, an answer was still not clear. P.S. 15’s principal instructed teachers to meet at the school’s network offices in Bay Ridge. Department of Education officials had promised to release alternate locations for teachers working in severely damaged schools by Thursday afternoon, but did not do so until nearly midnight. Teachers from P.S. 15 were instructed to report to South Shore High School, more than eight miles away in central Brooklyn.

home sweet home

‘Finally! Something useful’ or a dangerous mistake? Detroiters respond to city’s housing deal for teachers

PHOTO: Detroit Land Bank Authority
This home on Harvard Road was up for auction the week after Detroit announced a half-off-on-city-owned housing deal for teachers.

Friday’s announcement that all Detroit school employees — whether they work for district, charter, or parochial schools — will get a 50 percent discount on houses auctioned through the Detroit Land Bank Authority stirred a lot of discussion.

Some of our commenters on Facebook had high hopes for the deal:

But one commenter wondered if it’s the city of Detroit that’s actually getting the best deal, not the employees — or other people seeking to buy homes in the city:

And others argued that people who already live in Detroit won’t benefit from this deal:

Still, some readers appear to be ready to move — and have even picked homes to bid on (though not necessarily from the Land Bank Authority)!

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.