safety net

Officials stand in shut schoolhouse doors to usher families away

District 15 Superintendent Anita Skop waited outside of the temporarily shuttered P.S. 15 in Red Hook this morning in case parents and students showed up. None did, she said.

District 15 Superintendent Anita Skop spent four hours this morning huddled in her car outside of P.S. 15 in Red Hook.

Her mission: to send away any families who brought their children to the school.

P.S. 15 is one of 57 schools so damaged by Hurricane Sandy that they cannot reopen this week in their own buildings. It is set to reopen on Wednesday at the P.S. 27 building, half a mile away.

In addition to the schools that will open in other buildings on Wednesday, 16 schools remained closed today because their buildings are still being used as shelters and 29 were shut because they still did not have power. For all 102 schools, the city has gone to extensive lengths to inform students and families to stay away today.

Over the weekend, the Department of Education made 1.1 million automatic phone calls to families at the schools, and full-page ads about the temporary closures and relocations appeared in several local newspapers today.

“We have robo-calls, our [parent] coordinators are making calls, and we’ll get the message to as many people as we can,” Mayor Bloomberg said during a news conference on Sunday.

But Bloomberg said he recognized even that might not be enough during a time when many families lack electricity, internet, and cell phone service.

“I’m sure we’re going to miss some people, and that’s just the reality of trying to do something that we have to do quickly,” he said.

So for those who might not have gotten the message, the city deployed district superintendents and other central administration officials to shuttered schools Monday morning.

Skop said being at P.S. 15 “just in case” a family showed up expecting to drop their children off would provide a personal touch for families who were likely to have been most affected by the storm.

“Here is a human body to say, let me tell you what the process is,” Skop said.

A large fuel tank parked outside P.S. 15 is warming the school so its pipes do not freeze while the heating system is down.

But about halfway into her shift, Skop said that so far the city’s pre-emptive warnings seemed to have worked.

“I’ve been here since 6:30 and no parents have come by yet,” said Skop, who said she planned to stay for another few hours to make sure no families arrived late.

P.S. 15 teachers today are reporting to the P.S. 27 school building a half mile away that also houses P.S. 676 and Summit Academy Charter School. Students are scheduled to report to that site starting on Wednesday.

Inside of P.S. 15, contractors and Division of School Facilities employees continued to work on the school, which was still without electricity and heat. A large fuel tank installed on the sidewalk was keeping the school warm to make sure that the pipes didn’t freeze as the temperatures dropped, a person working at the school said.

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.

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.”