classroom politics

Cuomo touts charter schools in surprise rally appearance, clouding de Blasio's pre-K lobby day

Crowds at dueling education rallies earlier this year in Albany, two of the many expenses that lobbying groups had in an unusually busy legislative session.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo repeatedly pledged to “save charter schools” in fiery remarks at a large pro-charter rally staged on the steps of the State Capitol building on Tuesday.

Cuomo took the podium a mere minutes after Mayor Bill de Blasio stepped away from center stage at his own event nearby, a rally to push Cuomo and other legislative leaders to approve of his proposed city income tax to fund expanded pre-kindergarten and after school programs. The governor’s appearance also stoked simmering criticism that the charter rally had been organized as little more than a distraction designed to undermine lobbying for the tax, which Cuomo has repeatedly said he opposes.

“We are here to day to tell you that we stand with you,” Cuomo said, whose appearance was not announced until about 90 minutes before he spoke. “You are not alone. We will save charter schools.”

The remarks were part of the latest round of a political tango playing out between Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio on key education issues this year. Already at odds over how to fund an expansion of prekindergarten programs, their ideologies clashed again last week after de Blasio nixed building space plans for three Success Academy charter schools.

Cuomo stated his clearest support yet for the state’s more than 200 charter schools, pledging to back any efforts to protect charters from being required to take money from their per-pupil budgets to pay for rent and other facilities costs. 

“I am committed to ensuring charter schools have the financial capacity to physical space and the government’s support to thrive and to grow,” he said.

Well-heeled backers of the charter sector have increasingly thrown their financial support behind Cuomo, who they have seen as their most powerful ally now that Michael Bloomberg has left office. Cuomo’s reelection bid has received nearly $800,000 from charter school board members and funders, much of which has come in the last year. Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz is among those who has given generously.

Last week, de Blasio referred to the charter school rally as a “sideshow“. Several New York City charter schools opted to sit out of the rally because they believed it would hurt their standing with the new administration.

De Blasio’s supporters echoed some of that criticism on Tuesday. Senator Liz Krueger said she didn’t believe that facilities funding for charter schools were a serious part of budget negotiations and likened the charter rally to one-half of a “dueling banjos” routine. 

“If you want to try to decrease attention to one issue,” Krueger said, “You throw another issue out there.”

Krueger was among several city and state lawmakers who attended and spoke at the pre-K rally, which was held at the Washington Armory. Around 1,000 people attended the event, although organizer estimates were higher. Many of the attendees were parents and grandparents who were members of some of the labor unions supporting de Blasio’s pre-K campaign.

Alluding to the competing education-related events taking place simultaneously, Speaker Sheldon Silver said that the focus should stay on pre-K.

“The boldness, the energy, and the compassion that this mayor has brought to the table is what makes this, up front, the story of the day,” Silver said.

While Silver and other officials said they supported de Blasio’s tax in their speeches, some of their left statements left open some notable wiggle room for how expanded pre-K could ultimately be funded. Cuomo has said he wants the state to pay the way for full-day pre-kindergarten programs, though his annual spending plan for the expansion calls for far less than the $340 million that would be collected for pre-K in de Blasio’s tax.

“I don’t care about the political baseball, or inside baseball, being played here,” Silver said. “I don’t care who takes credit when we win this fight for full-day pre-K.”

Cuomo’s four-minute remarks at the charter rally took shots at the current public education system, saying it is treated more like an government “industry” that supports special interests.

Organizers said more 11,000 people from more than 100 school attended the charter rally, which was filled with parents and students dressed in yellow shirts reading “#CHARTERSWORK” and “ALBANY: SAVE OUR SCHOOLS”. Many of the parents traveled with students from one of the 22 Success Academy Charter Schools that was closed for the day.

The decision to close schools for the day has been a controversial one with critics accusing Success CEO Eva Moskowitz of using her students as political pawns. But Success parents at the rally who traveled to Albany said that they were fine with the decision. 

“It’s a field trip of gigantic proportion,” said Gregory Staine-Pyne, whose second grade son attends Success Academy 3 in Harlem. “I’m for it one hundred and ten percent.”

Staine-Pyne said that students took math quizzes on their bus rides up. “We also had discussions about what we’re doing up here, why we’re on that bus,” he added.

Phyllis Duaston-Overton said she had “no problem” with taking her two children, a kindergartner and a seventh grader, out of their respective Success schools.

“This is the only way we could fight for our schools because they give us a good education,” said Duaston-Overton.

Cuomo and de Blasio were finally able to coordinate their schedules in the afternoon after both rallies ended when they met for about two hours. De Blasio reportedly called the meeting “productive.”

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.