Vox populi

Comments of the Week: Cutting past rhetoric to the classroom

One hundred percent of the city’s yellow school buses hit the roads Wednesday for the first time since the bus strike began. Parents, advocates, DOE officials, and our readers turned to the challenges ahead.

Paul Rubin wrote:

Don’t forget the lost week from the hurricane and the 2 or in some cases many more weeks of lost “real instruction” for the few dozen damaged buildings. This year’s test results figure will be absolutely abysmal…

Noryeln argued that the strike’s educational costs to students will soon turn into costs for the DOE:

Once children get back to schools parents will be requesting make up sessions with therapists and tutors. What the children missed in a month of a strike will be painfully evident and require action on the part of the DOE. Expenses will rise as parents insist on make-up sessions. This strike has been a debacle for everyone.

Our post about a television ad pushing Cuomo to impose an evaluation system well before September sparked comments about whether a plan is necessary, and if so, what it should include.

Former turnaround teacher questioned whether an evaluation deal is necessary:

I still do not understand why any teacher believes that a new evaluation system is needed to help teachers improve and grow. I have worked in two different schools and been observed by 5 different administrators under the current S/U system. 3 out of the 5 gave very useful and helpful feedback to me based on those observations, particularly in my first 3 years as a teacher. If an administrator is experienced and knows content and pedagogy they will give you good feedback.

Sarah Espanol, a teacher, called for a shift in the focus of the debate:

…I would like to have an evaluation system that helps teachers grow- as long as administrators are properly trained how to use it. Can we have a discussion about the proposed evaluation system and what it might look like in practice rather than picking at fellow teachers?

Linda Johnson argued that if teachers are evaluated based on student test scores, students’ improvement over the course of the year should be taken into account.

Before I retired in 2007 I spent many years as a reading specialist. One of my duties was assessing students in the fall, throughout the year and then again in the spring. By doing these individual assessments, I found that most children made adequate progress during an academic year. The problem of course, was that so many started the school year significantly below grade level. Many started kindergarten much behind and never caught up to more privileged peers…If the state wants to evaluate teachers on the basis of student test scores, then teachers should insist on individualized tests that are professionally administered in the fall, several times throughout the year, and at the end of the year…If tests are to be used for “high stakes” teachers need to insist on their accuracy.

When we reported Cuomo’s announcement that his plans to impose an evaluation system in New York City would begin in May, Guest wrote:

Not best to rule by decree, but better than the binary rating system we have now.

Assuming it is a reasonable evaluation system, this is a victory for teachers who want to improve their practice, families, and most importantly, kids who will hopefully have better teachers.

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.”