going gentle

Bloomberg shifts tone on school reforms in last annual address

Listening to Mayor Bloomberg’s final State of the City address, delivered today, one would not know the mayor has spent the last decade closing schools, fighting with the teachers union, and touting high test scores.

Although Bloomberg opened the shorter-than-usual education portion of the speech by noting that the city’s high school graduation rate has risen faster than the state’s, he did not utter the words “failing schools,” “the United Federation of Teachers,” or “test scores.”

He also did not bring any new education ideas to the Barclay’s Center, the Brooklyn stadium where he delivered the speech.

Instead, he focused on the new schools he plans to create during his last year in office — including eight designed expressly to boost college readiness among low-income black and Latino students —  and tougher standards that the state has already adopted.

Bloomberg worked to manage expectations about this year’s state test scores, the first based on exams aligned to the new standards, known as the Common Core. State officials have warned that proficiency rates are likely to fall, but Bloomberg had not until today acknowledged that his final test scores are likely to drop in his final year in office.

“Make no mistake: The tests will be different and harder and they will establish an entirely new baseline for measuring student performance. They won’t be compared to past years’ test results,” he said in the speech.

But he added that he had confidence that the city would weather the setback. “No matter where the definition of proficiency is arbitrarily set on the new tests I expect that our students’ progress will continue outpacing the rest of the state’s — the only meaningful measurement of progress we have,” he said.

Last year, Bloomberg launched an offensive against the United Federation of Teachers during his State of the City address, which he delivered at a Bronx high school closed while he was mayor.

Today, even as Bloomberg vowed to create dozens of new schools before leaving office, he did not mention school closures, the policy that has given the city space to launch hundreds of schools over the last decade. He also did not mention the United Federation of Teachers — or teacher quality, the topic of last year’s most aggressive policy proposals — even once.

Bloomberg did take aim at the school bus drivers union, which is currently on strike over contract terms. And he did lash out at the “special interests” that oppose allowing charter schools to share space in district school buildings. The UFT unsuccessfully sued to halt a slew of charter school co-locations last year, and now several mayoral candidates who are vying for the union’s endorsement have said they would end the practice, which has allowed the charter school sector to flourish under Bloomberg.

“This September, we’ll open 26 new charters and we’ll work to approve many more for 2014,” he said. “Some of them will be located within existing public school buildings even though there are special interests who want to prohibit that from happening. … How dare the special interests try to lock out our children!”

Bloomberg said his administration would also replicate technology-themed schools that have opened recently, including the Academy for Software Engineering and Brooklyn’s Pathways in Technology Early College High School. In his State of the Union address this week, President Barack Obama mentioned P-TECH and said he would help states and districts open new schools like it.

And he said the department would recruit extensively, including from beyond the education world, for leaders to design eight new schools to open in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Through the Expanded Success Initiative School Design Fellowship, the new school leaders will draw on practices found to have boosted college readiness among the city’s lowest-performing students, according to a recruitment brochure.

Bloomberg also said he would aggressively lobby Albany to pass a state DREAM Act to allow students who are not documented citizens to receive state financial aid for college. And he said all city schools would adopt food recycling programs as part of a citywide effort to reduce waste.

For the most part, Bloomberg’s speech — delivered with a festive soundtrack on the mayor’s birthday inside a stadium built under his administration — focused on his administration’s successes. He also laid out plans for the 320 days before a new mayor takes over, mostly for infrastructure, economic, and environmental projects.

The portion of the speech that deals with education issues is below:

“Of course, the best way to reduce unemployment – and keep young people out of trouble is to continue improving our schools. Since 2005, as I mentioned earlier, we’ve raised high school graduation rates by 40 percent while they’ve gone up only 9 percent in the rest of the state.

“At the same time, our college readiness rate has doubled even as our dropout rate has been cut in half. But we know how much unfinished business we have – because our goal is empower all of our children to achieve their dreams.

“Success in college and careers requires good writing and critical thinking skills as well as good math and science skills. Unfortunately, the State has never tested for them. I’ve supported basing standards on those skills for many years and I’m glad to say that the State has now done that, by adopting what’s known as the Common Core standards. Starting this spring, State exams for grades 3-8 will test for these critical skills.

“They’ll give teachers and parents the information they need to keep students on track for success. Make no mistake: the tests will be different and harder and they will establish an entirely new baseline for measuring student performance. They won’t be compared to past years’ test results.

“But no matter where the definition of proficiency is arbitrarily set on the new tests I expect that our students’ progress will continue outpacing the rest of the State’s the only meaningful measurement of progress we have.

“Time and time again over the last decade, we have raised the bar and our students and teachers have cleared it and our black and Hispanic students have helped lead the way. Now, we’ll accelerate their progress by selecting 12-15 leaders to design eight new high schools based on the most promising college readiness strategies. It will be a year-long fellowship sponsored by our Young Men’s Initiative. And afterwards, the fellows will become leaders at the schools they designed.

“Fellows can come from any field from education experts to entrepreneurs and their new schools will enroll students primarily from five neighborhoods with high rates of poverty and low rates of college readiness: Harlem, East New York, Brownsville, Jamaica and the South Bronx.

“Children in every neighborhood deserve great schools, and no matter who stands in their way, we will fight to deliver for them. We will not give up on any child. One of the reasons we’ve been able to increase graduation and college readiness rates is that we’ve created many more high quality school options.

“We’ve opened 576 new schools over the past 11 years, and we’re on track to have added 100,000 new classroom seats by the end of this year. 149 of those new schools have been charters and yet there are still more than 50,000 children who are still on charter school waiting lists. Those children and their parents have waited long enough.

“This September, we’ll open 26 new charters and we’ll work to approve many more for 2014. Some of them will be located within existing public school buildings even though there are special interests who want to prohibit that from happening.

“But as we all know, charter schools are public schools and their students deserve access to public school facilities. How dare the special interests try to lock out our children. We are one city and one public school system and we will not tolerate those who try to deny resources to some public school children.

“That’s why we’ve also put our bus contracts out to bid. For more than 30 years, the unions and the bus companies have had a virtual monopoly on the contracts. This week, we received the opening bids for the new contracts and there’s the potential for hundreds of millions of dollars in savings. We will plow that money back into our schools where it belongs.

“I’m glad to report that every day more and more buses are on the road transporting our students to school. I urge all bus drivers to return to work and I urge Local 1181 leaders to recognize their strike is a lost cause, and to stop hurting our children and their members.

“If you notice, we haven’t had a lot of political support in taking this issue on. But that’s exactly why we’re doing it: because it’s the right thing to do and if we don’t do it now it may never get done. And our children will be worse off for another three decades. We won’t let that happen.

“To prepare our students for success, we’ll also create new schools that connect students directly to college and work. In his State of the Union address, President Obama highlighted our partnership with IBM and CUNY to create a high school that includes two years of college which we call grades 13 and 14. When students graduate, they receive an associate’s degree – and an interview at IBM. The President wants to see more of these types of schools across the country. And we’ll deliver.

“We’ll create a high school with grades 9 through 14 in the South Bronx, focused on the health care industry; and we’ll create one in Long Island City focused on the energy industry. Both industries are growing in our city.

“And since no industry is growing more rapidly than our tech sector we’ll open our second Academy for Software Engineering high school. With private support, we’ll also bring computer science classes to 20 more schools next September. And we’ll begin giving more adults the chance to learn computer science skills, as well.

“Therefore, our top priority in Albany will be passing the DREAM Act which will make college affordable for thousands more young people who deserve the chance to go and who will help build the future of our city and country. New York City has always been the face of immigration to the rest of the country and now we must be the face of immigration reform by passing the DREAM Act in this session.

“We’ll also take food recycling in schools citywide. There is no better way to teach the next generation about the importance of recycling than to make it a part of their school day routine. It has been phenomenally successful where we’ve tried it – and I want to thank all the parents who were so supportive. I know some of them are with us today – please stand up so we can give you a hand.”

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.”