More Time

Sensing interest, group wants to replicate Brooklyn school's unusual schedule

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida / File photo

A roomful of sophomores at Brooklyn Generation School in Canarsie brainstormed sports-related jobs Tuesday — lawyers, trainers, coaches, commentators — at the start of a month-long course devoted to life after high school. Down the hall, students kicked off a class about government participation.

Meanwhile, their core-subject teachers settled into a month-long break from teaching — a bit of creative scheduling that keeps Brooklyn Generation students in school a month longer than their peers at other public schools.

At a time when both the city and state want students to spend more time in school, but have tangled over the financing, Brooklyn Generation offers an enticing model: Its school year is 20 days longer than the rest of the city’s district schools, but the number of days teachers work and the school’s budget are roughly the same as other schools’. The arrangement has approval from the United Federation of Teachers, whose contract dictates when teachers can work but makes exceptions for special cases.

Now, the nonprofit that founded the school is hoping to replicate the model in the coming years. It has produced a policy paper that it hopes Mayor Bill de Blasio — who has advocated for expanded learning time in the form of more and longer pre-kindergarten classes and middle school after-school programs — and officials in other cities will use as they experiment with new models to boost student achievement.

The advocacy comes against a mixed track record at Brooklyn Generation. After seven years in operation, the school has earned high marks for offering an engaging and collegial atmosphere, but its graduation rate lags behind that of schools with similar students. Still, teachers and students are optimistic about the model.

“It’s working,” English teacher Louise Bogue told a group of visitors Tuesday. “But it’s still a work in progress.”

The nonprofit Generation Schools Network founded the Brooklyn school in 2007, one of several small high schools to replace the giant South Shore High School. The new school’s unusual schedule required an agreement between the UFT and the education department.

Twice a year, Brooklyn Generation students spend a month in full-day, credit-bearing courses centered on college and careers — they might shadow professionals, apply to colleges, or study budgeting. Meanwhile, other subject teachers spend one week during each of those months planning and training, and the rest of the time on vacation, so that they teach no more than the state-required 180 days.

The school’s weekly schedule also builds in lots of time for teacher collaboration — at least one period a day is intended for team planning and all teachers meet for 90 minutes every Wednesday.

To afford its 200-day year, the school maintains a small staff that takes on multiple roles. For example, required-subject teachers also lead elective or remedial classes, some teachers do administrative work, and teacher teams handle tasks usually assigned to deans, which the school does not have.

City reviewers in 2012 praised the school’s “wide-ranging professional development offerings” and said the school’s “strategic” scheduling led more students to pass the state Regents exams. On Tuesday, several teachers touted the school’s model.

Principal Lydia Colon Bomani said that even if schools did not adopt the entire model they could still try aspects of it, such as the courses that combine career planning and academic work.

Deshawna Thompson teaches a class on sports management at Brooklyn Generation School.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Deshawna Thompson teaches a class on sports management at Brooklyn Generation School.

“There are many schools that could benefit just from taking parts of it,” said principal Lydia Colon Bomani.

But the school’s approach is still being refined, even as its designers hope to spread it to more schools.

Some students and their families struggle with the longer year, and the school has yet to reach its own enrollment targets. The schedule also creates logistical hurdles. For instance, the city doesn’t issue students free MetroCards until the start of the normal school year, administrators noted.

The school has yet to fully implement the Generation Schools Network model, which is detailed in the policy paper. For example, while teachers collaborate across disciplines, the school had not yet combined its English and history and math and science classes into unified courses.

The paper also identifies some district-level policies that could hamper efforts to replicate the model. For example, teacher evaluations based in part on student growth, a new requirement in New York City, do not easily account for the school’s flexible grouping, where students rotate among teachers.

And the school must still ensure that students’ extra class time is well spent. The Department of Education reviewers in 2012 said that “questions and tasks generally lack rigor” at the school, and its 51 percent four-year graduation rate trails the average for the city and demographically similar schools.

Despite these obstacles, the network hopes to open new schools in New York and Denver, Co., in the coming years, according to Generation Schools Network co-founder, Jonathan Spear. It also plans to continue coaching schools that are part of the city’s Middle School Quality Initiative, which involves extending their school days. (The network tried to open two charter schools in New York in 2010, but its application was denied. Spear said the cause was “changing expectations” about the proper relationship between the boards of the nonprofit and the charter schools.)

The network also wants de Blasio to push for greater school-scheduling flexibility in its contract negotiations with the teachers union, Spear said.

Creative scheduling was a hallmark of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s prized Innovation Zone program, but neither de Blasio nor Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has yet shown an appetite for such experimentation. Still, Spear said he is confident that the Generation Schools model fits within the administration’s push for students to spend more hours and years in school.

“We’re really encouraged by the new mayor and the chancellor,” he said.

This story is part of a multi-city series on expanded learning time, with funding from the Ford Foundation, which supports “more and better learning time” in high-need communities. Participating along with Chalkbeat’s four bureaus in the series are the Notebook (Philadelphia), Catalyst Chicago, and EdSource (California).

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.
Sincerely,

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.”