looking forward

With 'turnarounds' coming, new school creation proceeds apace

Principal hopefuls line up outside Wagner Middle School to enter the city's new school creation fair.

Bronx assistant principal Michelle Vargas wants to open a school where teachers will have ample time to work together and students will benefit from her years of experience in the classroom.

But before she can get started, Vargas must persevere through the city’s new school creation process. She took the first step Thursday night by joining more than 400 other school leader hopefuls at a fair to learn about what the city wants to see in new schools.

Every year, the Department of Education opens new schools — more than 400 since 2002. Director of Portfolio Planning Debra Kurshan told fair attendees that the city intends to keep up the pace in 2011.

What’s different this year is that the city is telling wannabe principals exactly what kind of schools it wants to open, and where it expects to site them. The request for proposals released today lists schools identified as having extra space and schools that could be reopened with new leadership under new federal rules. This means that prospective principals have a clearer sense than ever before that they’re likely to be opening schools in shared space, or to replace long-failing schools through the federal “turnaround” process.

The formal request for proposals — itself a first — is the result of the department’s move to “tighten the screws” in a process that has happened several different ways in the past, said Paymon Rouhanifard, the new chief operating officer for the Office of Portfolio Development. Instead of having the career and technical schools office coordinate applications for new vocational schools, for instance, proposals for those schools will be considered in the same pool as proposals for new transfer schools and new early college schools. Last night’s fair also included charter schools, which do not follow the city’s rules for new school creation.

In addition, the timeline for proposals has been moved up, with prospective school leaders expected to submit a letter of intent by early June and a formal application by the end of July. In contrast, most of the schools opening this fall are the result of proposals submitted in December.

The accelerated timeline will allow prospective school leaders to have a chance to identify where they’d like their school to open and to begin building relationships with the community. “We wanted to start building relationships early in the process,” said Justin Tyack, the department official who oversees the structure of networks that supply instructional and management support to schools.

In some cases, the department is already saying what types of schools would make the best fit for each building. For example, the city says it prefers a transfer school or a school belonging to the new Innovation Zone for the Bronx’s Theodore Roosevelt campus, which already houses five schools. The list of spaces and their needs will be updated as the department meets with local parent councils, said DOE spokesman Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld.

At the fair, school leader hopefuls weighed the thrill of running their own school against the burden of developing a formal proposal, complete with a planning team and partner organizations, while continuing their current jobs. A small pot of federal funds is likely to help pay school developers for their time for the first time this year, Rouhanifard said, but the process is still onerous.

“Running the school is the easy part,” said Vargas, the Bronx assistant principal. “Developing it is what’s going to be hard.”

And she’s likely to have stiff competition. Last year, with fair attendance a third smaller, 115 people started the application process. The department interviewed 50 of them. This fall, 32 new schools are set to open.


Newark schools would get $37.5 million boost under Gov. Murphy’s budget plan

PHOTO: OIT/Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy gave his first budget address on Tuesday.

Newark just got some good news: Gov. Phil Murphy wants to give its schools their biggest budget increase since 2011.

State funding for the district would grow by 5 percent — or $37.5 million — next school year under Murphy’s budget plan, according to state figures released Thursday. Overall, state aid for K-12 education in Newark would rise to $787.6 million for the 2018-19 school year.

The funding boost could ease financial strain on the district, which has faced large deficits in recent years as more students enroll in charter schools — taking a growing chunk of district money with them. At the same time, the district faced years of flat funding from the state, which provides Newark with most of its education money.

“This increase begins to restore the deep cuts made to teaching and support staff and essential programs for students in district schools over the last seven years,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, who noted that a portion of the increase would go to Newark charter schools.

Newark’s boost is part of a nearly $284 million increase that Murphy is proposing for the state’s school-aid formula, which has not been properly funded since 2009. In the budget outline he released Tuesday, Murphy said the increase was the first installment in a four-year plan to fully fund the formula, which calls for about $1 billion more than the state currently spends on education.

Even with Murphy’s proposed boost, Newark’s state aid would still be about 14 percent less than what it’s entitled to under the formula, according to state projections.

Murphy, a Democrat, is counting on a series of tax hikes and other revenue sources — including legalized marijuana — to pay for his budget, which increases state spending by 4.2 percent over this fiscal year. He’ll need the support of his fellow Democrats who control the state legislature to pass those measures, but some have expressed concerns about parts of Murphy’s plan — in particular, his proposal to raise taxes on millionaires. They have until June 30 to agree on a budget.

In the meantime, Newark and other school districts will use the figures from Murphy’s plan to create preliminary budgets by the end of this month. They can revise their budgets later if the state’s final budget differs from Murphy’s outline.

At a school board meeting Tuesday before districts received their state-aid estimates, Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory said he had traveled to Trenton in December to tell members of Murphy’s team that the district was “running out of things to do” to close its budget gap. He said the district wasn’t expecting to immediately receive the full $140 million that it’s owed under the state formula. But Murphy’s plan suggested the governor would eventually send Newark the full amount.

“The governor’s address offers a promising sign,” Gregory said.

Civics lesson

With district’s blessing, Newark students join national school walkout against gun violence

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Thousands of Newark students walked out of their schools Wednesday morning in a district-sanctioned protest that was part of a nationwide action calling for an end to gun violence.

At Barringer Academy of the Arts and Humanities in the North Ward, students gathered in the schoolyard alongside Mayor Ras Baraka and interim schools chief Robert Gregory, who offered support to the protesters and even distributed a “student protest week” curriculum to schools.

Just after 10 a.m., hundreds of students watched in silence as a group of their classmates stood in a row and released one orange balloon every minute for 17 minutes — a tribute to the 17 people fatally shot inside a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

While the Barringer students and faculty mourned those victims they had never met, they also decried gun violence much closer to home: siblings and relatives who had been shot, times they were threatened with guns on the street. Principal Kimberly Honnick asked the crowd to remember Malik Bullock, who was a 16-year-old junior at Barringer when he was shot to death in the South Ward last April.

“Too many lives have been lost way too soon,” she said. “It is time for us to end the violence in our schools.”

School districts across the country have grappled with how to respond to walkouts, which were scheduled to occur at 10 a.m. in hundreds of schools. The student-led action, which was planned in the wake of the Florida mass shooting, is intended to pressure Congress to enact stricter gun laws.

Officials in some districts — including some in New Jersey — reportedly threatened to punish students who joined in the protest. But in Newark, officials embraced the event as a civics lesson for students and a necessary reminder to lawmakers that gun violence is not limited to headline-grabbing tragedies like the one in Parkland — for young people in many cities, it’s a fact of life.

“If there’s any group of people that should be opposed to the amount of guns that reach into our communities, it’s us,” Baraka said, adding that Newark police take over 500 guns off the street each year. “People in cities like Newark, New Jersey — cities that are predominantly filled with black and brown individuals who become victims of gun violence.”

On Friday, Gregory sent families a letter saying that the district was committed to keeping students safe in the wake of the Florida shooting. All school staff will receive training in the coming weeks on topics including “active shooter drills” and evacuation procedures, the letter said.

But the note also said the district wanted to support “students’ right to make their voices heard on this important issue.” Schools were sent a curriculum for this week with suggested lessons on youth activism and the gun-control debate. While students were free to opt out of Wednesday’s protests, high schools were expected to allow students to walk out of their buildings at the designated time while middle schools were encouraged to organize indoor events.

In an interview, Gregory said gun violence in Newark is not confined to mass shootings: At least one student here is killed in a shooting each year, he said — though there have not been any so far this year. Rather than accept such violence as inevitable, Gregory said schools should teach students that they have the power to collectively push for changes — even if that means letting them walk out of class.

“Instead of trying of trying to resist it, we wanted to encourage it,” he said. “That’s what makes America what it is.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students released one balloon for each of the 17 people killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

After Barringer’s protest, where people waved signs saying “Love,” “Enough,” and “No to gun violence, several ninth-graders described what it’s like to live in communities where guns are prevalent — despite New Jersey’s tight gun restrictions.

Jason Inoa said he was held up by someone claiming to have a gun as he walked home. Destiny Muñoz said her older brother was shot by a police officer while a cousin was recently gunned down in Florida. The Parkland massacre only compounded her fear that nowhere is safe.

“With school shootings, you feel terrified,” she said. “You feel the same way you do about being outside in the streets.”

Even as the students called for tougher gun laws, they were ambivalent about bringing more police into their schools and neighborhoods. They noted that the Black Lives Matter movement, which they said they recently read about in their freshmen social studies class, called attention to black and Hispanic people who were treated harshly or even killed by police officers.

Ninth-grader Malik Bolding said it’s important to honor the victims of school shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida. But the country should also mourn the people who are killed in everyday gun violence and heed the protesters who are calling for it to end, he added.

“Gun violence is gun violence — it doesn’t matter who got shot,” he said. “Everybody should be heard.”