talking points

With mixed messages, charter school backers lobby lawmakers

Harriet Tubman Charter School students were among several groups to visit Bronx Assemblyman Erik Stevenson's office on Tuesday.

When elected officials visit schools in their district, they generally follow a scripted routine. They cut ribbons, make speeches, and smile for pictures.

When the roles are reversed — as they were on Tuesday, when hundreds of charter school parents, students, and teachers convened in Albany to lobby lawmakers — the conversations aren’t always so predictable.

Some of the charter school advocates stuck to talking points determined in advance by the lobby day’s organizers. The New York City Charter Center and the New York Charter School Association want the legislature to give charter schools the right to operate pre-kindergarten programs, something state law currently precludes.  The agenda is a response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to give $25 million to district schools that offer more full-day pre-K seats.

But in interviews and individual meetings with lawmakers, students and parents spoke about education issues that affected them personally. Almost all said they love the schools they attend, but they expressed concerns about their schools’ safety, space, and resources. One parent from an upstate charter school said her child’s special needs were not being adequately addressed.

The range of issues and concerns raised by the more than 1,200 people who made it to Albany (via 38 buses) illustrates just how big and diverse the charter sector has gotten in New York State. There are 159 charter schools in New York City, up from fewer than 100 just three years ago. Across the state there are now 208 charter schools, and organizers said 111 of them were represented on Tuesday.

People took different paths to get their voices heard. Some used connections to speak directly with Cuomo’s top education aides. Others refused to leave offices without a meeting, even after being told the representative was busy voting on bills across the street at the State Capitol.

After waiting outside the offices of Harlem Assemblyman Keith Wright, who was not there because he was in session voting on bills, dozens of students and parents from Democracy Prep Public Schools and Opportunity Charter High School were finally let in.

When Jeanine Johnson, Wright’s chief of staff, asked them what they wanted to talk about, a kindergartner was the first to reply.

“UPK,” the student fired back, referring to universal pre-kindergarten. DPPS wants add a pre-K program even if it has to set up a separate nonprofit organization to do so. It recently submitted a bid to the city to run one of its universal prekindergarten programs.

Another group from the network took their agenda straight to Cuomo’s deputy secretary of education, De’Shawn Wright. Wright’s predecessor, David Wakelyn, is now senior director of strategy and development at Democracy Prep and helped arrange the meeting. That group focused on a different agenda item: support for a state DREAM act that would give financial aid for college to students who are undocumented immigrants.

“Secretary Wright already supports the DREAM Act so we don’t have to try and persuade him to change his opinion,” said Ben Feit, a Democracy Prep official, before the group headed to the Capitol building to meet with Wright. “We’re going to thank him for his support for the DREAM Act and then we’re going to talk to him about UPK and other issues about charter schools that we’ve discussed so many times in the past.”

Reporters weren’t allowed in the meeting, but Feit said Wright said he needed to learn more about the pre-K issue before committing support. A Cuomo official later said the governor’s Education Reform Commission, which is expected to release another set of recommendations later this year, would take up the charter sector’s pre-K issues.

In a meeting with Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, a student from Harriet Tubman Charter School said her school wasn’t making a good enough effort to assign or provide books she wanted to read.

“They turned the whole library into the detention room and I felt like that was a bad thing to do,” said the student. A teacher who accompanied the students confirmed the renovation, citing space issues.

Some parents were also looking forward to air their grievances. Amy Kirklin, the mother of a student with special needs at Amani Charter School in Mount Vernon, said charter schools weren’t doing enough to serve the highest-need students. In New York City, just a quarter charter schools serve the same or a higher percentage of special education students than their districts’ average, according to the charter center.

“They’re trying,” Kirklin said of Amani. “My child is still attending, but we’ll give them three more years.”

Stevenson, whose office saw a steady stream of charter school supporters waiting to meet with him, said the full-day lobbying effort worked on him.

“Why not?” Stevenson said when asked if he’d support giving charter schools the right to operate pre-K programs. “It’s education at an early age so let’s do it. Let’s change the law.”

Stevenson, a Democrat who represents the South Bronx, added that he wouldn’t support a bill to put a moratorium on school closures, a controversial policy that in New York City has allowed charter schools to flourish but drawn criticism for concentrating high-need students in remaining large schools.

“Public schools are failing,” Stevenson said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize it.”

Many charter school advocacy groups are hoping that the city’s next mayor will adopt many of the Bloomberg administration’s hallmark education policies, including closures and letting charter schools operate rent-free in public space.

But parents in Albany on Tuesday consistently said they were ready for anyone but Bloomberg.

“Personally, I like John Liu,” said Owen McFadzean, a parent at Bronx Preparatory Charter School.

“I can’t wait for Bloomberg to get out,” said McFadzean’s wife, Therese.

crunching numbers

Full-day kindergarten among possible budget cuts in Aurora

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February.

Kindergarteners in Aurora’s Kenton Elementary spent an afternoon last week playing math games. Some kids built towers that had to be exactly 20 blocks high. One boy played a game on a laptop doing simple addition. Across the room, the teacher sat with a girl who was counting blocks aloud and practicing writing.

More than halfway through the year, the four and five-year-olds are able to recognize numbers through 50 or even through 100, Kenton officials said.

Now, as Aurora Public Schools searches for ways to cut its 2017-18 budget, free full-day kindergarten like Kenton’s is among one of scores of programs that could fall victim.

“It’s a concern for all of us,” said Heather Woodward, Kenton Elementary’s principal.

Scaling full-day kindergarten back to a half day was one scenario district officials floated when asking for community input on what to prioritize. District officials have said they are not ready to take anything off the table in trying to trim next year’s budget by an estimated $31 million.

Exact cuts will depend on state funding, which won’t be finalized until later this spring, and on how much the district can save through administrative changes like negotiating different health plans for employees. Patti Moon, a district spokeswoman, said cuts could still be presented later this spring.

Earlier this year, the district presented more than 40 budget-cutting ideas at public meetings and through a request for online feedback. The ideas included adding furlough days, cutting middle school sports and changing school schedules. Changing kindergarten to half-day would save the district an estimated $4.9 million.

But the idea got significant pushback. One of the common messages from those who provided the district feedback asked to avoid cutting full-day kindergarten.

“Our Kindergarten students are required to learn a large amount of information by the end of the year,” one response stated. “It’s very hard to get these students to where they are required to be even with a full day of instruction. Taking away a half day of instruction would be a huge injustice to these students.”

The first known budget cut in Aurora will likely come from a decrease in school staff by increasing the ratio of students to staff. Superintendent Rico Munn is scheduled to ask the Aurora school board Tuesday night for guidance on how much to increase the ratios per school.

A final staffing recommendation will be part of the draft budget presented in April.

In Aurora schools, kindergarteners get a daily math lesson in addition to at least an hour of reading or writing, a period of language development and 50 minutes of either art, music, technology or physical education.

Judith Padilla, a mother of three children in Aurora, is adamantly opposed to cutting full-day kindergarten.

“There would be a tremendous impact for parents who have to work,” Padilla said. “For my son it was a great benefit to be in kindergarten a full day so he could develop. He had some learning problems and some language problems and he had special classes to help him learn things like holding a pencil. Now they say he is at his level.”

Woodward, the Kenton principal, said making sure kids leave kindergarten on track to reading by third grade, and to be proficient in English so that they can learn in all their classes, are two major goals for educators.

For kids who leave kindergarten already behind, “we know there’s going to be a continual gap moving forward,” she said.

Bruce Atchison, director of early learning instruction for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said his team is doing research on how to get more children to reading proficiency at the end of third grade. Having high-quality full-day kindergarten emerged as one of six policies considered effective for reaching that goal.

“It’s probably the most significant issue for education policy makers,” Atchison said. “Policy makers are typically aware of the abysmal reading proficiency rates across the country. It’s 41 percent of low-income children still are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade. That’s a huge issue.”

In Aurora, 45 percent of kindergarteners are English language learners, and 70 percent or kindergarteners qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a common measure of poverty.

According to 2016 state data, 18.6 percent of Aurora third graders met or exceeded expectations on reading tests compared to 37.4 percent of third graders across Colorado.

In Colorado, the state only pays districts for about a half-day of kindergarten. Districts can choose to pay for the rest, or offer it to families for a fee. In Aurora, the district made full-day kindergarten free for all students after voters approved an increase in taxes in 2008.

Patrick Hogarty, an Aurora teacher and elected delegate for the Colorado Education Association, said even at higher grade levels, teachers are concerned about the lasting impact the kindergarten cuts would have.

“It would be basically catastrophic due to the learning these children need to have,” Hogarty said. “It’s sometimes almost impossible for students to catch up to as they progress through the levels of education.”

In the last few years, districts in Colorado and across the country have moved to add full-day kindergarten programs.

In 2007, about 40 percent of Colorado kids enrolled in full-day kindergarten, according to Atchison. That percentage is now up to 77 percent.

“Districts, principals, education leaders are seeing the advantages of full-day kindergarten,” Atchison said.

The challenge for those that haven’t added the programs is usually the money.

“You are hard-pressed to find policy makers who don’t want full-day programs,” Atchison said. “They understand that children benefit from full day kindergarten programs, but it really comes down to the funding issues.”

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