rules and regs

Investigation of activist principal has free-speech advocates asking what politics are allowed at school

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman

The strange saga of a Park Slope principal accused of promoting communism took another turn Wednesday, when her request for a temporary halt to the probe against her was denied.

Jill Bloomberg, principal of Park Slope Collegiate, is known for her activism, particularly around the issue of school segregation. But the Department of Education says now she’s gone too far by sharing her political views at school and “actively recruiting” students into a communist organization.

“We lost the battle, not the war,” said Bloomberg’s attorney Jeanne Mirer after the judge’s decision to allow the investigation to proceed.

The war, it seems, will partly depend on whether Bloomberg violated D-130 — a Chancellor’s regulation that prohibits school employees from “being involved in any activities, including fundraising, on behalf of any candidate, candidates, slate of candidates or political organization/committee during working hours.”

The city claims, among other allegations, that Bloomberg violated the regulation by advocating on behalf of the Progressive Labor Party, a political organization with communist ties, at school. Bloomberg denies that and says she isn’t a member herself. But the case raises a larger question of what the regulation is meant to cover.

Mirer says a close read suggests it only bars election-related political activity — campaigning for a candidate, for instance — and not the type of organizing of which Bloomberg is accused.

If it did cover non-electoral politics, she said in court Wednesday, that would create a slippery slope for any educator who dared to voice a political view. “Any ideological belief could be the subject of a violation,” she warned.

Judge Paul Gardephe seemed unmoved by her argument. “I read the relevant parts [of D-130],” he said. “This lawsuit is not about whether D-130 is fair.”

But Mirer is not alone in worrying about how the regulation is being applied. Arthur Eisenberg, legal director at the New York Civil Liberties Union, is advising Mirer and has his own concerns about the free speech issues at play.

According to Eisenberg, the rules are the same for students, teachers and principals: “It’s well-established that school officials do not lose their First Amendment rights to speak out as citizens even when they are in school,” he said. “The standard is they can’t speak out in ways that are disruptive to the functioning of the school.”

Eisenberg declined to speculate on whether or not Bloomberg might have done that, but he said he was confident that D-130 could only apply to electoral politics.

A broader interpretation, he said, “puts the DOE in the position of having to regulate issue-oriented speech in ways that make it difficult to know how and where to draw the line.” Limiting free speech on issues that are political in nature, he said, could potentially impact student clubs that deal with gay rights, for instance, environmental causes, or racism. “And we know that can’t be right,” he said.

Eisenberg also questioned another line in the regulation quoted in the city’s court documents, which calls for a “posture of complete neutrality” on political candidates. Even if that were possible, he said, it wouldn’t be desirable.

“The obligation of an academic or teacher is to engage in critical judgment and to support those judgements with reasoning and fact,” Eisenberg said. “And that may be inconsistent with a principle of absolute neutrality.”

We asked the city’s law department what it made of Mirer’s argument that D-130 was meant to be more narrow in scope. Nick Paolucci, a spokesman for the department, said he wasn’t familiar with argument and couldn’t comment.

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”