acute absenteeism

Attendance is low as storm-battered schools reopen in new sites

Channel View School for Research’s Craig Dorsi greets students who arrived at their host school this morning.

Thursday will mark a milestone in New York City’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy: All public schools will be open for the first time, Chancellor Dennis Walcott confirmed this afternoon.

But if today’s attendance figures are any guide, students from the most storm-battered areas likely won’t be there.

Today, 43 schools in heavily damaged buildings opened for the first time in new sites, some many miles away. Another 25 of the city’s 1,750 schools remained closed because they had no power or because the city had been using them as shelters. But for the vast majority of schools, today approximated a regular school day.

Citywide, student attendance today at schools that submitted attendance reports was 87 percent, according to the Department of Education, and 95 percent of teachers reported for duty. Mayor Bloomberg called the attendance rates “encouragingly high” during a news conference this afternoon.

But at most, 43 percent of students in relocated schools made it to their new sites as the city struggled to roll out new bus routes for tens of thousands of students.

Some relocated schools drew far more students than others. Two selective schools in Lower Manhattan, Bard High School Early College and Millennium High School, each posted attendance rates over 95 percent in their first day in temporary sites.

Several schools based in storm-battered Far Rockaway, on the other hand, had less than 10 percent of students show up today.

And at P.S./M.S. 114, previously housed in a school located just a block away from the water, just 2 percent of its 787 students showed up to one of the three host buildings. At P.S. 106, only 3 percent of 285 students turned up.

Walcott said the low attendance rates in some relocated schools masked progress. “I always want it higher but we’re pleased that people are glad to see their schools opening again,” he told reporters.

Principals and teachers at some of the relocated schools said today would be their first chance to find out what happened to many of their students — and to get a sense of how many might remain enrolled.

Department officials said enrollment had begun to fluctuate as families displaced by the storm picked new schools. Two Brooklyn schools have gotten influxes of 80 or more students, according to Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky, who said officials have started to detect “smaller spikes elsewhere.”

“Our kids are all over the place,” said Craig Dorsi, a teacher at Channel View School for Research, which had 15 percent attendance. “They’re in shelters, they’re staying with relatives.”

This morning, Dorsi waited outside and hugged students as they entered the Franklin K. Lane Campus, Channel View’s host. “It’s so great to see you,” Dorsi told students and parents who accompanied them on the trip. He later said he had been overwhelmed by the emotional reunion.

Just seven students from Channel View and Beach Channel High School, which together have more than 900 students, took a coach bus provided by the city to Franklin K. Lane this morning. The bus, which picked up students at Beach Channel Campus and arrived at 10:45 a.m. The department planned for high school students to get transportation after buses delivered younger students to their schools.

The shuttle bus was part of the city’s patchwork solution posed by an inadequate supply of buses and interrupted train lines. Other students who came today from Far Rockaway, where subway service remains interrupted, said they had not known about the shuttle and instead took a bus and two trains to get to Franklin K. Lane. One student, Ragib Shaumik, biked 90 minutes in swirling winds to get to school.

Parents still living in Far Rockaway also said they didn’t know that the bus service was available. Elaine Burns, a Channel View parent, accompanied her daughter Nubia on public transportation.

“She was a little nervous because she felt it was like the first day of school again,” Burns said.

Department officials said on Tuesday that they had only enough buses for half of the 20,000 students in relocated schools. For Thursday, the department was able to muster buses for just four more schools, leaving thousands of students still without transportation. The department is providing Metrocards and reimbursing families for gas and cab fare.

And the new bus routes that did take effect in storm-damaged neighborhoods — which department officials said they had planned out manually — were not without snafus on their first day.

“We had some problems which we anticipated we would,” said Kathleen Grimm, the department’s operations chief. “Some buses were late, some didn’t go to the right places, but by and large I think it went pretty well. … We’re continuing to try to secure more busing.”

The city received special permission today from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to let people drive school buses who do not meet regular qualifications, and to broaden the kinds of vehicles that can be used to transport students.

Transportation was not the only thing that disrupted the school day for students in storm-affected buildings. Dozens of schools remained without heat as snow began to fall across the city. And some students didn’t get much to eat: At John Dewey High School, teachers said no food had been delivered and students instead had eaten “granola bars for breakfast and cold green beans for lunch.”

“We served a cold lunch because the kitchen still does not have full power,” said Marge Feinberg, a department spokeswoman. “Students were offered a deli sandwich, vegetable, fruit and milk.”

On Thursday, 13 schools that still do not have power will open in alternate locations, and students will return to three school buildings that have also served as shelters. Department officials said 28 schools could still lack heat.

Despite the tumult, Walcott said he was uplifted when he visited three schools today: P.S. 38 in Staten Island, where he said the principal estimated that 70 percent of families were disrupted by the storm; P.S. 13 in East New York, which is hosting Far Rockaway’s Scholars’ Academy; and Brooklyn Technical High School, whose top two floors remain a shelter for medically fragile evacuees.

In all of the schools, and in others he has visited this week, he said teachers and students “just want to get back to the lifestyle that they are used to” and are starting to do so. At P.S. 38, which had not reported attendance by 4 p.m., students had written essays about the storm, Walcott 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.
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.”