deja vu

Closure would be fourth change in 3 years for Bread & Roses HS

Teacher Laura Morel read statements by students to oppose Bread and Roses High School's proposed closure at a public hearing on Wednesday. (Joanna Seow)

As the city’s first night of school closing hearings began on Wednesday, supporters of Harlem’s Bread and Roses Integrated Arts High School were back in a familiar situation. Just one year after trying to convince the Department of Education not to close and reopen the school with a new staff under the “turnaround” model, they were back in the same auditorium, making the same arguments.

Bread and Roses – along with other schools set for “turnaround” – eventually won in labor arbitration. But this year, the department proposed that Bread and Roses be phased out. Under the plan, the school would not enroll new students and would decrease in size as students graduate until it closes in 2016.

The school received an “F” on its last city report card, with only 41 percent of students graduating in four years compared to a citywide four-year graduation rate of more than 65 percent.

About 100 students, teachers and parents protested the phase-out plan in a two-hour hearing Wednesday night in the school auditorium, with many arguing that Bread and Roses was never given the opportunity to follow through or finish an improvement process before starting a new one.

The school has been put through the “transformation” model, which was supposed to change school leadership, bring in extra support services, and experiment with longer school days and new teacher training; the “restart” model, in which school operations are handed over to an independent education organization; and then the proposed “turnaround” model — all within the last three years.

More than half of the school’s current teachers were hired at the start of this school year. At the hearing, teachers said phasing out the school would cut short their efforts to improve the school. They said that the school needed more time to see the benefits of changes under Rodney Lofton, who became principal in March 2011.

Living environment teacher Pooja Bhaskar, who is in her first year at the school, said students have been earning more credits than in the past and did better on their January Regents exams than in previous years. The school has also begun using data to evaluate its own teaching practices and formed new partnerships with groups such as Theatreworks, Columbia University, and New York Road Runners, teachers said.

But Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson said that the school had to be fair to students who were not doing as well.

“Tonight, we will hear about some success stories happening here, and we will honor those,” she said. “But we must also consider the students the school is not serving well, and who will not experience the same successes. These students deserve better.”

Department officials announced on Wednesday that students in phase-out schools would be allowed to transfer to higher-performing schools, something that the city has made difficult in the past.

Bhaskar also said that Bread and Roses holds an important place in the community as one of few open enrollment schools amid more selective ones. “Many of the schools in the area won’t necessarily take our kids, but we take those kids, we educate those kids, we graduate those kids,” she said.

Ninth-grader Rokhaya Wade, who recently immigrated from Senegal, echoed the sentiment. During the public comment section, she read haltingly but clearly from a speech she had prepared. “I came here in September,” she said. “I did not even know any English, and they really helped me. The first school I went to in this city refused me because I didn’t speak English. Bread and Roses did not refuse me. Instead, they took me in.”

Three teachers who signed up to speak at the hearing used their time to read written statements from students in support of the school. Ninth-grade English teacher Laura Morel said students had been asked to craft arguments on the day’s “exit tickets,” written assignments that teachers regularly require at the end of class to check for student understanding. The day’s exit ticket focused on essay writing and asked students to outline a claim, clarification, evidence, and justification in response to the question “Why should Bread and Roses remain open?”

Brian Jones represented the Movement of Rank and File Educators, which describes itself as the “social justice caucus” of the city’s teachers union. Jones, who teaches at an elementary school in Brooklyn, said that as long as there are still opportunities at Bread and Roses for students to grow and change, the school should not be phased out.

“Department of Education, you are in the education business,” Jones said. “This is not McDonald’s; this is not a franchise which you just open or close based on the data. These are human beings.”

Some speakers said they were worried that a dwindling population of students and staff would leave the remaining students with fewer of the services they needed, such as help with college applications. Senior Travarn Bell spoke of the teachers’ dedication in putting aside extra time to work with students on college applications.

“Before I came to Bread and Roses, I didn’t think about college,” he said. “I didn’t think I could make it, but the teachers changed that.”

The hearing at Bread and Roses was one of four held on Wednesday. The city also held hearings at Jonathan Levin High School for Media and Communications in the Bronx; M.S. 142 John Philip Sousa in the Bronx; and Law, Government and Community Service High School in Queens.

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.”

Week In Review

Week In Review: A new board takes on ‘awesome responsibility’ as Detroit school lawsuits advance

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The new Detroit school board took the oath and took on the 'awesome responsibility' of Detroit's children

It’s been a busy week for local education news with a settlement in one Detroit schools lawsuit, a combative new filing in another, a push by a lawmaker to overhaul school closings, a new ranking of state high schools, and the swearing in of the first empowered school board in Detroit has 2009.

“And with that, you are imbued with the awesome responsibility of the children of the city of Detroit.”

—    Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens, after administering the oath to the seven new members of the new Detroit school board

Read on for details on these stories plus the latest on the sparring over Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. Here’s the headlines:


The board

The first meeting of the new Detroit school board had a celebratory air to it, with little of the raucous heckling that was common during school meetings in the emergency manager era. The board, which put in “significant time and effort” preparing to take office, is focused on building trust with Detroiters. But the meeting was not without controversy.

One of the board’s first acts was to settle a lawsuit that was filed by teachers last year over the conditions of school buildings. The settlement calls for the creation of a five-person board that will oversee school repairs.

The lawyers behind another Detroit schools lawsuit, meanwhile, filed a motion in federal court blasting Gov. Rick Snyder for evading responsibility for the condition of Detroit schools. That suit alleges that deplorable conditions in Detroit schools have compromised childrens’ constitutional right to literacy — a notion Snyder has rejected.


In Lansing

On DeVos

In other news