double duty

Achievement First parents are among network's new teachers

Louise Eason, who has a son at AF Bushwick, was just hired as a teacher at AF Apollo this year.
Louise Eason, who has a son at Achievement First Bushwick Middle School, was just hired as a teacher at Achievement First Apollo this year.

Two new teachers at Achievement First’s schools have a line on their resumes that makes them stand out from their colleagues: parent.

Charter schools tend to have younger teachers who do not yet have families, and often their teachers come from outside the communities where the schools are located. Both features have fueled criticism of charter schools as parachuting do-gooders into needy neighborhoods until they move on to other, more prestigious positions.

Achievement First’s new hires — a classroom teacher at one Achievement First elementary school and a teacher-in-training at another one — represent a tiny counterweight to those trends. The network has had its own parents work in its Connecticut schools, but the new hires are a first for New York City.

Having parents as teachers offers a unique referendum on school quality, according to Guerschmide Saint-Ange, who oversees parent engagement across the network.

“They get to tell us in a very official capacity if this is the type of school they want their kid to be in,” Saint-Ange said, adding that, like all teachers, the parents get to play a role in shaping policies at the school. “Who better to give us guidance on that than a current parent?”

Louise Eason, a fourth-grade reading teacher, taught at I.S. 286 in Harlem before starting at Achievement First Apollo this year.

“I wanted to transition to work with elementary school students, and I thought what better place to start looking than where my own child goes to school,” she said. “I have great relationships with his teachers, and I just wanted to be a part of it.”

About half of the people who work at AF Apollo are non-white, according to the network’s spokeswoman, Amanda Pinto. But few of the teachers are also parents, Eason said. And few have roots in the school’s East New York neighborhood, either.

“For our kids to have a role model that’s from the community that is a strong representation of a black woman that is college educated that is also a mother, that’s such a powerful experience for all our kids to have,” said Principal Jabari Sims.

A mile away, Geraldann Grubb works at AF Aspire as part of the network’s “teacher-in-residence” program, which trains aspiring teachers by having them support other classes for a year before being hired full-time. The program pays $25,000 a year and is geared toward “top college graduates … who want to explore a career in education,” according to the network’s website.

Grubb — whose two children attend AF East New York, where she has been the parent representative on the school’s board — doesn’t perfectly fit that bill. She found out about the job when AF Aspire’s founding principal approached her at a meeting of Families for Excellent Schools, an advocacy group that aims to train parents to become more politically active in education policy, especially when it comes to charter schools.

Before starting the program, Grubb taught in a city-funded universal pre-kindergarten program, where she said there was little opportunity to advance. At AF Aspire, which just opened this year, she said she aims toward one day being a principal or a special education coordinator.

But first, she said, she is adjusting to the steep challenge of classroom instruction.

“I was prepared as a parent to get the work and do it at home, but now it’s like you’re in the classroom and it’s a totally different ballgame,” she said. “It does become overwhelming, that’s a secret, but I love it.”

Grubb, who has some colleagues who also have children, said she thinks being a parent gives her a different perspective on how to teach.

“There are some times when teachers don’t have enough patience, and I’m like, ‘You can’t just expect that from a four year old. You have to assume they don’t know anything and just work with them,'” Grubb said. “It’s annoying to the teachers sometimes. They’re like, ‘Oh, Gigi, please.’ I’m like, no, trust me, you’re going to thank me later because the families are going to be happy and they’re not going to pull their kids from the school.”

Sims said it’s hard to tell whether students respond better to Eason because she’s a parent, but he did note that he hasn’t seen her struggle with any behavior issues yet — the students respect her, he said.

In addition to having her role as a parent strengthen her work as a teacher, working as a teacher makes her a better parent, too, Eason said. “It makes it easier for me to spend time with my son,” she said.

Grubb said she is already encouraging friends and acquaintances to consider joining her as a teacher in training. “You know how I started,” she says she tells other parents. “I was a parent just like you.”

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.”