innovation application

City's Race to the Top-District bid centered on iZone expansion

Students at Brooklyn's Olympus Academy, a transfer high school, use online learning to move ahead at their own pace. The city is asking the U.S. Department of Education for funds to support additional efforts to "personalize education."

Pitting itself against school districts across the country, the city has asked the U.S. Department of Education for $40 million to expand and augment its existing education technology programs.

The city’s biggest commitment in its application for Race to the Top-District, which city education officials filed last week, is to add as many as 100 schools to its three-year-old “Innovation Zone.” The application also promises to build innovative schools from the ground up and train teachers on how to use technology to improve instruction.

Race to the Top-District is the latest effort by the Obama administration to entice state and local education officials to adopt its preferred policies. In the first Race to the Top grant competition, in 2010, New York State netted $700 million to overhaul teacher evaluations, add more charter schools, bulk up teacher preparation programs, and develop a statewide data system. Last year, the state fell short in its bid to win Race to the Top funds earmarked just for early childhood education. The current round — the first open to individual districts — is focused on “personalized education.”

City Department of Education officials say the Innovation Zone, which this year contains nearly 250 schools, makes the department uniquely positioned to turn federal funds into higher student achievement.

“It’s something that we’ve been doing for three years,” said David Weiner, the Department of Education deputy chancellor in charge of innovation. “We really believe that that puts us in a great place to capitalize on what we’ve learned.”

The U.S. Department of Education announced today that it received 371 applications for the competition, representing more than a thousand districts because many worked together.

The city filed its application Nov. 6, one day before an extended deadline for districts affected by Hurricane Sandy. When the hurricane hit Oct. 29, a day before the original deadline, the application was nearly complete, according to city and union officials. It just needed a handful of signatures, including one from UFT President Michael Mulgrew, whose office and home borough were both hit hard by the storm.

UFT Secretary Michael Mendel said the union worked with the city to refine the application over time. But he said Mulgrew’s sign-off should not be interpreted as an endorsement of the city’s Innovation Zone, which some have criticized as overly expensive and unproven. Instead, Mendel said, the union wanted to facilitate efforts to boost student achievement, even if its not clear whether the efforts will ultimately pay off.

“I really do believe that we should we be experimenting with different things,” Mendel said. “If they don’t work, shut it down. If they do work, then expand them.”

The State Education Department has declined to award New York City some grants carved out of its coffers from the first Race to the Top competition because the city and UFT have not yet agreed to adopt evaluations for teachers that weigh student performance. But to be eligible for Race to the Top-District, the city and union had to promise only to implement new teacher evaluations by the 2014-2015 school year.

The application asks for $40 million over four years, the maximum available to a district of New York City’s size, to build on the programs the city already has in place. If it wins, the city would have to do at least one brand-new thing, too: Evaluate its superintendent according to public feedback and student achievement.

Right now, about 50 schools participate in an initiative the department calls iZone 360, in which schools redesign their schedule, curriculum, assessments, and staffing arrangements to capitalize on new technologies and approaches to delivering instruction. The Race to the Top funding would allow that number to rise by as many as 100, depending on schools’ interest and capacity, Weiner said, with the largest uptick coming in the first year of the grant. The Innovation Zone’s website currently says its programs will expand to 400 schools by 2014.

The department would also provide additional training for teachers in those schools about how to use new technologies effectively. Teachers might get specific training, Weiner cited as an example, in how to “flip” their classroom, a trend in which direct instruction takes place via technology at home while class time is devoted to group work, getting questions answered, and other activities that require in-person interaction. Extra support would also go to schools that have online courses or that use “blended learning” classes that mix online and offline instruction.

And the funding would also support the creation of as many of a dozen schools built from the ground up on the principle of personalized learning, Weiner said. Until now, the department has encouraged existing schools to tweak their approach or adopt new programs, but it has never created a school with personalization as a goal, he said.

Districts were permitted to work together, but Weiner said the city had declined invitations to join multiple consortiums, preferring instead to focus on its ongoing initiatives. But he said education officials from several other districts, including Denver, Chicago, and Houston — had visited the city to inform their own Race to the Top-District applications.

If New York City wins, the Department of Education will have to do at least one new thing: evaluate superintendents based on feedback from educators and the public and on student outcomes, such as test scores. Currently, public sentiment and student achievement do not play a role in whether the chancellor or the department’s dozens of district-level superintendents retain their positions. (The U.S. Department of Education dropped a proposal to require similar evaluations for local school boards.)

Federal education officials are supposed to name the winning districts — it says there are likely to be about 25 winners — before the end of the year.


This mom came to the newcomer school ready to stand up for son. She left with a job.

PHOTO: Provided by Javier Barrera Cervantes
Charlotte Uwimbabazi is a bilingual assistant at the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program.

When Charlotte Uwimbabazi showed up at Indianapolis Public Schools’ program for new immigrants, she was ready to fight for her son. When she left that day, she had a job.

A native of the Congo, Uwimbabazi fled the war-torn country and spent nearly a decade in Cape Town, South Africa waiting for a new home. Last spring, Uwimbabazi and her four children came to the U.S. as refugees.

(Read: Teaching when students are full of fear: Inside Indiana’s first school for new immigrants)

When the family arrived in Indianapolis, Uwimbabazi’s youngest son Dave enrolled at Northwest High School. But he wasn’t happy, and a volunteer helping to resettle the family suggested he transfer to Crispus Attucks High School. When the school year started, though, Crispus Attucks turned him away. Staff there said he had been assigned to the newcomer program, a school for students who are new to the country and still learning English.

There was just one problem: Dave was fluent in English after growing up in South Africa. Uwimbabazi said it’s the only language he knows. So Uwimbabazi and her son Dave headed to the newcomer school to convince them he should attend Crispus Attucks.

That’s when Jessica Feeser, who oversees the newcomer school and programing for IPS students learning English, stepped in — and found a new resource for the district’s growing population of newcomer students.

Feeser immediately realized that Dave was fluent in English and should enroll in Crispus Attucks. Then, Uwimbabazi started talking with Feeser about her own experience. With a gift for languages, Uwimbabazi speaks six fluently, including Swahili and Kinyarwanda, languages spoken by many African students at the school.

“Where are you working right now?” Feeser asked. “Would you like a job here?”

Uwimbabazi, who had been packing mail, took a job as a bilingual assistant at the school. Her interaction with the district went from “negativity to positivity,” she said.

The newcomer program has seen dramatic growth in enrollment since it opened last fall, and it serves about three dozen refugee students. Students at the school speak at least 14 different languages. As the only staff member at the school who speaks Swahili and Kinyarwanda, Uwimbabazi is a lifeline for many of the African refugees it serves, Feeser said.

She works alongside teachers, going over material in languages that students speak fluently and helping them grasp everything from simple instructions to complex concepts like graphing linear equations, Feeser said. She also helps bridge the divide between the district and the Congolese community on Indianapolis’ westside, going on home visits to meet parents and helping convince families to enroll their children in school.

When students in the newcomer program don’t share a language with staff members, the school is still able to educate them, Feeser said. But it is hard to build community without that bridge. Uwimbabazi has played an essential role in helping the school build relationships with families.

“She believes that all of our families are important, and she’s working diligently to make sure that they feel that their voices are heard,” Feeser said. “It was a gift from God that she joined us.”

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