a thousand cuts

After weathering Sandy, Grady HS loses funding in the shuffle

Grady High School students gathered in the classroom that has been used by Good Shepherd Services, a nonprofit group that has provided support to the school. The end of a grant program means the services and partnership will end.

A month ago, administrators at William E. Grady Career and Technical High School had no reason to think the school’s after-school and enrichment offerings were at risk.

A year after getting the surprising news that the city would try to close the school, nine months after learning that the closure plan was off, and five months after reopening with a dramatically reduced student body and budget, the school was finally back on firm footing.

Administrators expected a new round of funding for extra services to kick in this fall. Since 2008, the school has offered after-school programs with the support of a state 21st Century Community Learning Center grant secured through a partnership with Good Shepherd Services, a youth and family development agency.

But last week, the school learned that in the next round of the grant, Good Shepherd wouldn’t be working with Grady, and the funding — at least $150,000 a year according to Good Shepherd — would no longer flow. The news came too late for the school to sign on to a different organization’s grant application.

Exactly why the news came as a surprise is not clear. Assistant Principal Jodi Infantolino said Good Shepherd’s on-site employees had told her they planned to stay on, and Principal Geraldine Maione said no one at the organization had communicated otherwise. But officials at Good Shepherd said they always knew they would not be able to work with as many schools in the grant’s next round — with the maximum funding reduced, the group would be able to apply for the grant in partnership with only six schools.

The bottom line is that after Jan. 14, Grady wasn’t part of Good Shepherd’s grant application, and it was too late for Maione to partner instead with the other two groups that had asked her to sign on with them.

Now, the school will have to figure out some other way to pay for the services — which administrators said had helped propel it from a D to a B two years ago — or go without them. It is the latest in a series of losses that began when the school’ federal school improvement funds vanished because of the city’s dispute with the teachers union; continued when enrollment dropped sharply; and compounded when Hurricane Sandy flooded the building last fall.

While Grady has faced a particularly tough series of blows, the episode highlights the challenge of using partnerships to pay for essential school services, something that schools have always done but that Chancellor Dennis Walcott recently urged them to do more often.

“What this is an example of is significant cuts to after-school funding, there not being enough money to go around, and organizations having to make really bad choices,” said Amy Cohen, who oversees government contracts and program development at Good Shepherd Services. “The process is very, very complex, and the rules changed in the middle. And as a result horrible things like this can happen as just an oversight of this miserable system. There’s not enough money and a very complex application process, so organizations and schools get hurt in the mix.”

Even if Grady had been included in Good Shepherd’s grant application, there’s no guarantee that the bid would have been approved.

Grady is just one of many schools across the city that rely on grants to supplement what the school can offer and help students complete enough credits to graduate. City funds for after-school programs are often the first to land on the chopping block when budget cuts are needed, and Mayor Bloomberg last month proposed cutting $10 million in city funding from an after-school initiative he created in 2005. Last year, a last-minute budget deal averted proposed cuts of an even greater magnitude.

“Once again, the mayor’s proposed cuts to after-school and early childhood programs will continue a disappointing trend of shrinking programs for the children in our city who need them most,” President and CEO of the Children’s Aid Society Richard Buery said in a statement last month after the mayor announced the preliminary budget for 2014.

With the grant funding that is still in place through the end of the school year, Good Shepherd Services staff a classroom at Grady where students can unwind, do homework, use computers, and participate in a wide range of classes. The agency also pays for four Grady teachers to teach for-credit classes after the regular school day. Infantolino said students started earning credits more quickly after Good Shepherd moved into the building.

The agency brought arts classes into the career and technical education school for the first time and organized trips to visit colleges in Boston and New York, as well as camping trips and museum visits for students Maione said “have never left their blocks in Brooklyn.”

“The staff has been amazing — young, energetic, and they relate to the kids,” Infantolino said.

“Good Shepherd staff are like parents and older brothers and sisters,” senior Orville Feanny said. “If you’re not in class, they’ll come around and find you…to me, Andre is like a dad. I go to him for whatever advice I need, school or personal.”

Feanny said his favorite class is martial arts, and that his heart is set on attending Northeastern University, which he said he had never heard of until Good Shepherd organized a trip there.

If it weren’t for Good Shepherd programming, Feanny said, “I’d probably just play basketball and handball every day after school when I didn’t have a sports team.”

On the school’s most recent quality report, Grady was rated well-developed, the highest rating, in school culture. “This grant was part and parcel of how we were able to do that,” Maione said.

New Partner

Boys & Girls Clubs coming to two Memphis schools after all

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Principal Tisha Durrah stands at the entrance of Craigmont High, a Memphis school that soon will host one of the city's first school-based, after-school clubs operated by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.

Principal Tisha Durrah says her faculty can keep students focused and safe during school hours at Craigmont High School. It’s the time after the final bell rings that she’s concerned about.

“They’re just walking the neighborhood basically,” Durrah says of daily after-school loitering around the Raleigh campus, prompting her to send three robocalls to parents last year. “It puts our students at risk when they don’t have something to do after school.”

Those options will expand this fall.

Craigmont is one of two Memphis schools that will welcome after-school programs run by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis following this week’s change of heart by Shelby County’s Board of Commissioners.

Commissioners voted 9-4 to foot the bill for operational costs to open clubs at Craigmont and Dunbar Elementary. The decision was a reversal from last week when the board voted down Shelby County Schools’ request for an extra $1.6 million to open three school-based clubs, including one at Riverview School. Wednesday’s approval was for a one-time grant of $905,000.

Commissioners have agreed all along that putting after-school clubs in Memphis schools is a good idea — to provide more enriching activities for neighborhood children in need. But some argued last week that the district should tap existing money in its savings account instead of asking the county for extra funding. Later, the district’s lawyers said the school system can only use that money legally to pay for direct educational services, not to help fund a nonprofit’s operations.

Heidi Shafer is one of two commissioners to reverse their votes in favor of the investment. She said she wanted to move ahead with a final county budget, but remains concerned about the clubs’ sustainability and the precedent being set.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club provides after-school programs for children and teens.

“If we give (money) to something that’s para-education, we have less to give to education,” she said. “There’s only a limited amount of dollars to go around.”

The funding will help bring to Memphis the first-ever school-based Boys & Girls clubs opened through Shelby County Schools, the largest district in Tennessee, said Keith Blanchard, the organization’s Memphis CEO.

While the nonprofit has had a local presence since 1962 and is up to seven sites in Memphis, it’s had no local government funding heretofore, which is unusual across its network. Nationally, about 1,600 of the organization’s 4,300 clubs are based in schools.

Blanchard plans to get Dunbar’s club up and running by the beginning of October in the city’s Orange Mound community. Craigmont’s should open by November.

“We hope to maybe do another school soon. … A lot will depend on how this school year goes,” he said. “I certainly hope the county sees the value in this and continues to fund in a significant way.”

At Craigmont, the club will mean after-school tutoring and job training in computer science and interviewing skills. Durrah says the activities will provide extra resources as the district seeks to better equip students for life after high school.

“It looks toward the long term,” Durrah said of the program. “This really fits in with the district’s college- and career-ready goals.”

diplomas for all

Education commissioner floats idea of allowing a work readiness credential to confer benefits of a diploma

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

A high school diploma opens doors to matriculating in college, qualifying for certain jobs and entering the military.

But many students struggle with New York state’s arduous requirements, which generally include passing at least four Regents exams. During a discussion Tuesday about creating more diploma options, New York state’s education commissioner floated a radical solution: Allow students to use a work-readiness credential to obtain a “local diploma” instead.

“I think what we need to look at is the opportunity of saying can the CDOS [Career Development and Occupational Studies credential] be, can the completion of the CDOS sequence, be an appropriate end to receiving a local diploma?” Elia said during a Board of Regents conversation about graduation requirements.

The CDOS credential was originally crafted in 2013 as an alternative to a diploma for students with disabilities. They can show they are ready for employment by completing hundreds of hours of vocational coursework and job-shadowing or by passing a work-readiness exam. The rules were changed last year to also allow general education students to obtain the credential, which can substitute for a fifth Regents exam for students who pass four.

Allowing the credential itself to confer the benefits of a diploma would mark a seismic shift in what it means to graduate in New York state. Students would potentially avoid having to pass a series of Regents exams — which would mark a huge victory for advocates who argue those exams unfairly hold students back.

But it would also raise questions about whether standards are being watered down. Chalkbeat has reported that the work-readiness exams used to obtain a CDOS credential often test fairly basic life skills, such as how to overcome obstacles when throwing a company party. The state itself is currently reviewing these exams to see if they have “sufficient rigor.”

The state cautioned that there is no formal proposal on the table. Also, the commissioner’s statement Tuesday morning was vague. If state officials decide to move forward with the proposal, for instance, they would need to decide if it is for all students or only students with disabilities. Officials would also need to clarify whether the work-readiness exam itself was sufficient for a diploma, or whether extra coursework would be tacked on.

“The Board of Regents and the State Education Department have made it a priority to allow students to demonstrate their proficiency to graduate in many ways. This is not about changing our graduation standards. It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma,” said education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis. “Today, the Board of Regents and the Department started a discussion to examine all of New York’s diploma options and graduation requirements. This discussion will continue over the coming months. It is premature to speculate on any changes that could be made as a result of this process.”

Regardless of any changes, all students would likely be required to complete the same number of high school courses, which includes 22 credits of required work, state officials said.

Still, just having the head of the state’s education department float this concept suggests a dramatic policy reversal. Starting in 2005, the Regents began a process to make it more difficult to earn a diploma in an attempt to prepare more students for college and career. Local diplomas exist today but are only offered in limited cases, for students with disabilities who complete a set of requirements, including the math and English Regents, and for general education students who just miss passing two of their Regents exams.

Recently, state education officials have been looking for ways to help students just shy of the passing mark. In 2014, they created a “4+1” option, which allows students to substitute a final Regents exam for a pathway in areas like the arts or Career and Technical Education, and then last year added CDOS as a potential pathway.

In 2016, another rule change allowed students to appeal Regents exam grades with scores below passing and let students with disabilities graduate after passing two Regents exams and getting a superintendent’s review. Last year, the number of New York City students successfully appealing Regents exam scores in order to graduate tripled, likely contributing to a boost in the city’s graduation rate.

By placing a discussion about diploma options on Tuesday’s agenda, state officials suggested the Regents want to do even more. Allowing students to earn a local diploma without passing any Regents exams would be the biggest change to date.

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, did not comment specifically on this provision and said he generally supports recent changes to graduation requirements. But he said looking forward, it will be important to maintain high standards.

“Ensuring that there’s rigor and that graduates are ready for what comes next is very important,” Sigmund said.

Many education advocates are likely to be supportive by the change. A group of activists rallied at the State Education Department on Monday, carrying signs that said “diplomas for all.”

These and other advocates argue that students across the state — particularly those with disabilities or those who struggle with tests — have had their life options severely limited by the exams.

State Senator Todd Kaminsky, who has been active in fighting for more diploma options, said for him, finding solutions for these students outweighs critics’ concerns about rigor.

“I think this is a major victory for parents who had seen their potential for their children stifled,” Kaminsky said. “I am firmly of the belief that we need to err on the side of giving children options to graduate.”