scrambling to the deadline

Race to the Race to the Top: Live-blogging Albany's debate

With just hours before the state’s Race to the Top application is due in Washington, legislators in Albany are scrambling to deal with the cap on charter schools, considered a make-or-break component of the application. Anna will be sending updates from Albany today.

6 p.m. Now the city stakeholders are weighing in. Here’s the response from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who in recent days launched a strong public relations offensive against Sampson and Silver’s bill:

“Sadly, some 36,000 New York City students on waiting lists for charter schools – and thousands more who need and deserve better educational choices – were told today to wait longer, because help is not on the way. The Governor proposed a bill that would create options for those children and help the State win $700 million in federal money. It was the only bill that had the support of a majority of Senators, yet the Democratic leaders of the Senate and Assembly defeated it without even a vote – on the same day the Governor’s budget presented a $1 billion cut to school aid statewide. While others played Russian roulette with our children’s futures, great credit is due to Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos, the members of his conference, and Democratic Senator Craig Johnson – the sponsor of the Governor’s bill – who fought to make New York’s Race to the Top application as strong as possible. And while I rarely hesitate to speak my mind when I disagree with someone, I also try to give credit where it is due and want to thank Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr. for his help on this important issue. Our children and their parents are owed a second chance from the Legislature. They deserve nothing less.”

And here’s the response from city teachers union president Michael Mulgrew. The UFT issued a report earlier this month on how charter schools serve the city’s neediest students, and many of its recommendations were echoed in the legislature’s bill.

“New York State had a chance to address the glaring inequities in charter school admissions, to increase the transparency of charter operations and to force profiteers out of the charter business,” Mulgrew said. “But charter advocates and their allies resisted these desperately needed reforms, to the point where the Legislature was unable to act.”

5:45 p.m. Senate Republicans are signaling they will use the legislature’s failure to act today as a weapon against Democrats who run for re-election.

“I am extremely disappointed that the Governor’s legislation to enhance New York’s opportunity to secure federal education funds was not brought up for a vote in the Senate,” Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos said in a statement. “I’m confident it would have passed and strengthened the state’s application for the Race to the Top program.”

“Once again, when an important deadline was upon us and action was needed on an important issue, the Democrats in both houses were unable to act,” he said.

5:30 p.m. A side not heard much today from those who did not want to see the charter cap lifted at all. In that camp is Senator Bill Perkins, who says he’s concerned about “the charter wars” and the high concentration of charters in his Harlem district. Perkins said he didn’t believe lifting the cap was a prerequisite for a New York Race to the Top win.

5:00 p.m. Senators from both sides of the charter school divide are looking for a bright side in today’s debacle.

“In my opinion, nothing being done is better than a bad bill getting done,” Senator Craig Johnson said, echoing James Merriman. “The Silver bill would have been bad for education reform.”

Asked if not voting had hurt the state’s chances more than voting for the Silver bill, Johnson said, “the Silver bill would have hurt us even more. The governor’s bill would have been perfect.” (Johnson introduced the governor’s bill to the Senate last night.)

Like Johnson, Sampson said that “imprudent legislation” would have put the state at a competitive disadvantage in the federal competition. But he disagreed about which bill was imprudent — he favored the one he sponsored.

“The bill I sponsored with Assembly Speaker Silver would have maximized our eligibility for federal funds, while bringing greater transparency, accountability, and parental input to the charter school process,” Sampson said in a statement.

“We are working towards a bipartisan, bicameral solution today,” Sampson said. “We support the State Education Department’s application as it stands, and hope our federal officials can help us secure Phase One financing. If not, we will reapply for Phase Two, and try once again later this year to bridge the partisan divide to get New York’s school children the funding they need, and property taxpayers the relief they deserve.”

4:20 p.m. Today could have gone worse for charter school advocates, according to a statement just released by James Merriman, head of the NYC Charter School Center.

“While state lawmakers could not a pass a good reform bill today, we can be thankful they did not pass a disastrous one,” Merriman said. “Charter schools should commend Senate Republicans and Democratic Senators Craig Johnson and Ruben Diaz, who stood up for public charter schools and stopped a bill that would have severely damaged the charter schools movement.”

4:00 p.m. Anna reports that the Senate is still in conference. Senators are preparing to end their session, a Senate source told Elizabeth Benjamin.

“There were people saying raise the cap and people saying don’t raise the cap, or do it with restrictions. We have to balance all these things out and we couldn’t achieve that in our conference,” a Senate official told Anna. The official said the Senate did not want the governor’s bill to come to the floor because the Assembly would not pass it.

Asked whether the Silver/Sampson bill was meant as a political hit on New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, the official said: “this was not an anti-Klein bill.”

3:40 p.m. And the Assembly has adjourned for the day, without taking action on either of the charter cap bills. It’s over, education committee chair Cathy Nolan confirms. Anna reports that no one is quite sure whether the Senate is still conferencing.

3:10 p.m. Anna reports that a rumor is spreading among legislators that the U.S. Department of Education extended the deadline. A USDOE spokesman, Justin Hamilton, said no, it’s not true.

3:00 p.m. The Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group that fights for equitable funding for schools across the state, just sent out a statement criticizing charter school advocates for blocking the Sampson/Silver bill.

“The charter cap bill has stalled because apparently it is more important to the charter school industry to keep accountability, transparency, and meaningful parent and community input out of charter schools than it is to have New York State compete effectively for $700 million in federal Race to the Top funding,” the statement reads.

2:55 p.m. Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch told me today that if the legislature fails to vote to raise the charter cap today, it would be a “serious black mark” on the state’s Race to the Top application. Her view contrasts with that of the city and charter school advocates, who argue that passing the Sampson/Silver bill would be worse than doing nothing at all.

When I spoke to her this morning, Tisch expressed optimism that legislators would raise the cap today. Otherwise, she said, they will have to answer to voters about a missed opportunity in a dismal budget year.

She also played up other elements of the state’s application, which include, among other things, significant changes to the way teachers are trained and certified.

“I think [NYSED has] articulated a bold strong application and when people in this state understand how good it is…they will be infuriated that this opportunity is slipping through their hands,” she said.

2:15 p.m. The New York Post says parents are angry about the Sampson/Silver bill, but Anna reports that there are no charter school parents or students present at the debate today. Charter advocates said they thought about bringing people, as they have to other hearings, but they already have a lobby day scheduled for February 2nd and there wasn’t time to rally the forces. As it stands, Anna reports, there’s no face to this issue in the building — either in favor of charter schools or opposed.

1:50 p.m. John Sampson is asking Sheldon Silver not to pass the bill in the Assembly unless there are enough votes for it to pass in the Senate, reports Elizabeth Benjamin at the Daily News.

1:45 p.m. I just checked in with Tom Dunn, NYSED’s spokesman, how the application was getting to Washington, D.C., where it is due in hard copy at 4:30. “We are completing the application and will deliver it,” he said. But no word yet on how it’s getting there.

1:35 p.m. Senate Republicans, who have also come out in support of the governor’s bill, apparently are planning to introduce an amendment from the Senate floor to substitute Paterson’s bill for Sampson and Silver’s. (Last night, the Republicans tried to bring Paterson’s bill to a vote and were ignored by Senate Democratic leaders.) Now it seems that Senate Democrats are looking for a way to avoid bringing the bill to the floor, rather than be embarrassed if a hostile amendment passes, Anna reports.

1:20 p.m. Walking into the room, Senate President Malcolm Smith was asked if he thought the Senate would bring the bill to a vote today, Anna reports. “I don’t know, I don’t think so,” he said.

1:10 p.m.: The fate of the charter cap fight appears to be resting with the State Senate.

The bill to raise the cap to 400, proposed by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Democratic Majority Conference Leader John Sampson, faces much greater opposition in the Senate than it does in the Assembly. The Assembly appears likely to pass the bill this afternoon.

The key players are Senators Craig Johnson and Ruben Diaz, Sr, Anna reports. Both support the compromise bill that Governor Paterson introduced yesterday, which would lift the cap to 460 and ditch many of the provisions in Silver’s bill that charter advocates oppose. Johnson introduced the governor’s bill on the Senate floor, and Diaz issued a statement today calling on Sampson and Senate President Malcolm Smith to bring the governor’s bill to a vote.

A vote on the governor’s bill looks unlikely, though, so Johnson has just told charter advocates that he or Diaz may introduce a hostile amendment to the Silver/Sampson bill. The two senators are currently huddling with charter school advocates and Micah Lasher, the city Department of Education’s director of external affairs.

Charter school advocates are arguing that as far as the state’s Race to the Top application is concerned, no bill is preferable to the Silver/Sampson bill because the restrictions the bill places on charters would inhibit charter growth and cause the application to lose points. Silver has said he does not think the restrictions would harm the state’s application.

Counselor Comeback

Years after laying them off, Newark brings back attendance workers to track down absent students

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Superintendent Roger León (center) with more than 40 new attendance counselors the district has hired.

A new school-attendance squad is on the job in Newark, ready to phone families and track down truant students.

More than 40 new attendance counselors and truancy officers made their official debut this week — part of a campaign by Superintendent Roger León to curb rampant absenteeism in the district. The linchpin of León’s approach is the rehiring of the attendance workers, who were laid off nearly six years ago amid questions about their effectiveness.

The employees — some new and some returning — will help craft school attendance plans, contact families, and bring truant students back to class with the help of Newark police officers.

They have their work cut out for them: Nearly a quarter of students have already missed about two weeks or more of school since September, according to district officials.

In his drive to boost attendance, León also launched a back-to-school campaign last fall and eliminated some early-dismissal days when students tend to skip class. At a school board meeting Tuesday, León said those efforts have resulted in fewer “chronically absent” students who miss 10 percent or more of school days for any reason. So far this school year, 23 percent of students are chronically absent, down from 30.5 percent during the same period the previous school year, he said.

“Right now, we’re in a really, really good place,” León told the board. “Having hired these attendance officers will get us where we need to go.”

A long to-do list awaits the attendance workers, who will earn between $53,000 and $95,531, according to a district job posting. They will create daily attendance reports for schools, call or visit families of absent students, and make sure students who are frequently out of school start showing up on time.

They will also be tasked with enforcing the state’s truancy laws, which authorize attendance officers to arrest “habitually truant” students and allow their parents or guardians to be fined. Newark’s attendance counselors will gather evidence for potential legal actions, deliver legal notices to students’ homes, and appear in court “when required,” according to the job posting.

The district is also establishing a new “truancy task force” to track down truant students, as required by state law. The task force will include both district employees and police officers who will patrol the streets searching for truants to transport back to school.

The teams will be “going up and down every one of our corridors and getting kids in school,” León said Tuesday, adding that they will eventually be provided buses.

Criminal-justice reform advocates across the country have criticized state laws, like New Jersey’s, which criminalize truancy. As a result of such laws, parents can face fines or even jail time and students can be put on probation or removed from their homes. Meanwhile, a 2011 study found that truant students who faced legal action were more likely to earn lower grades and drop out of school than truant students who did not face those sanctions.

While truancy laws may be on the books, districts have discretion in how they enforce them.

Peter Chen, a policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, has studied absenteeism in Newark and said he did not know how the district’s new attendance workers would carry out the law. But he cautioned against “punitive strategies,” such as issuing court summonses or suspending frequently absent students, which can temporarily boost attendance but eventually drive students further away from school.

“Once the school is viewed as the enemy, as somebody who is out to get the student, it’s incredibly difficult to rebuild a trusting relationship,” he said. “And what we see time and again is that a trusting relationship between a school and a family or student is a critical component to building a school-wide attendance strategy that works.”

Superintendent León declined to be interviewed after Tuesday’s board meeting, saying he would answer written questions. As of Wednesday evening, he had not responded to those questions.

At the meeting, he did not rule out the possibility of the district’s truancy officers making arrests. But he said the police officers’ job was not to arrest truant students, only to protect the attendance workers.

“I need to make sure that any staff members that we hire are safe,” he said.

In 2013, then-Superintendent Cami Anderson laid off all 46 of the district’s attendance counselors. She attributed the decision to budget constraints and limited evidence that the counselors had improved attendance.

The district shifted the counselors’ responsibilities to school-based teams that included administrators, social workers, and teachers. Critics said the district was expecting schools to do more with less, and the Newark Teachers Union — which had represented the attendance counselors — fought the layoffs in court. An administrative law judge sided with the union, but then-State Education Commissioner David Hespe later overturned the decision.

León, who became superintendent in July, promised to promptly restore the attendance counselors. However, his plans were delayed by a legal requirement that the district first offer the new jobs to the laid-off counselors, some of whom had moved out of state. By the beginning of February, all the positions had been filled and, on Friday, León held a roughly 90-minute meeting with the new attendance team.

To create lasting attendance gains, experts advise schools to consider every aspect of what they do — their discipline policies, the emotional support they provide students, the quality of teaching, and the relationship between staffers and families. Simply outsourcing attendance to designated employees will not work, they warn.

Superintendent León appears to agree. In an interview last year, he said he expects all school employees to join in the work of improving attendance.

“The last thing that needs to happen is for people to walk away saying, ‘Oh, attendance is going to be solved because now we have the attendance counselors,’” León said. “No, everyone has to worry about attendance.”

Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”