High-stakes pests

Contracts seen as underestimating scale of bedbug problem

The city has underestimated both the scope of its bedbug problem in schools and the response needed to deal with it, say critics who have followed the parasitic pests’ resurgence in recent years.

More than 3,500 cases of bedbugs were confirmed in an untold number of schools last year, but city officials said just one school was actually infested. Now, the city is on the verge of finalizing long-awaited contracts with three pest control companies — but the contracts don’t reflect last year’s spike in bedbug cases, and critics say they are inadequate to deal with the problem.

Department of Education officials have long maintained that schools aren’t hospitable environments for the nocturnal insects, but one pest control executive who has done business with the city says they aren’t looking hard enough.

“I don’t think they’re serious about the problem,” said the executive, who asked to remain anonymous. “They don’t want to know there’s a problem. They don’t want to spend money on the problem.”

He said his company didn’t try for the new contracts because he thought the contracts were “woefully underbudget” to deal with the problem. In fact, he said, the costs associated with the task would put have put his company at a loss.

Two of the contracts are worth $14,999 and estimated 225 hours of work for each pest management company — an hourly rate of $67 — according to price quotes that the DOE published when it began collecting bids from vendors.

The contracts have gone unfilled for nearly a year after the previous contract, a three-year, $99,999 deal, was terminated because exterminators treated a school improperly.

The third contract doesn’t specify a price, but estimates 2280 hours of work would be needed. At the same hourly rate as the two smaller contracts, the total budget for bedbugs this year would still be under $200,000.

“I think it’s way too low,” said City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, whose legislation in the council led to the creation of a bedbug task force in 2009. “I hear from people all the time who have had bedbugs and it costs them $400 per room.”

The isolated infestation, at P.S. 70 in Queens, was revealed in response to Brewer’s letter in July pressing the Department of Education to disclose which schools had bedbugs last year. The letter was prompted by a report on GothamSchools that reported a threefold increase in bedbug cases.

P.S. 70 parents and its own principal weren’t notified of the infestation when it happened, according to a Daily News report. It’s at least the second time the school has dealt with bedbugs, too. P.S. 70 was one of the first schools to report the discovery of bedbugs in 2006, the year the city began keeping track, according to a report in the New York Post that year.

DOE officials define an infestation as showing “evidence of breeding” and they say most of the instances involve “one or two” bugs.

Detecting that evidence is difficult. The best way is by using bedbug-sniffing dogs, but two of the contracts don’t require the service and the third requires it minimally because, according to the contract’s language, the DOE “does not anticipate high usage.”

that was weird

The D.C. school system had a pitch-perfect response after John Oliver made #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter

Public education got some unexpected attention Sunday night when John Oliver asked viewers watching the Emmys to make #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter.

Oliver had been inspired by comedian Dave Chappelle, who shouted out the school system he attended before he announced an award winner. Within a minute of Oliver’s request, the hashtag was officially trending.

Most of the tweets had nothing to do with schools in Washington, D.C.

Here are a few that did, starting with this pitch-perfect one from the official D.C. Public Schools account:

Oliver’s surreal challenge was far from the first time that the late-show host has made education a centerpiece of his comedy — over time, he has pilloried standardized testing, school segregation, and charter schools.

Nor was it the first education hashtag to take center stage at an awards show: #PublicSchoolProud, which emerged as a response to new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, got a shoutout during the Oscars in February.

And it also is not the first time this year that D.C. schools have gotten a surprise burst of attention. The Oscars were just a week after DeVos drew fire for criticizing the teachers she met during her first school visit as secretary — to a D.C. public school.

Startup Support

Diverse charter schools in New York City to get boost from Walton money

PHOTO: John Bartelstone
Students at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School in 2012. The school is one of several New York City charters that aim to enroll diverse student bodies.

The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropy governed by the family behind Walmart, pledged Tuesday to invest $2.2 million over the next two years in new charter schools in New York City that aim to be socioeconomically diverse.

Officials from the foundation expect the initiative to support the start of about seven mixed-income charter schools, which will be able to use the money to pay for anything from building space to teachers to technology.

The effort reflects a growing interest in New York and beyond in establishing charter schools that enroll students from a mix of backgrounds, which research suggests can benefit students and is considered one remedy to school segregation.

“We are excited to help educators and leaders on the front lines of solving one of today’s most pressing education challenges,” Marc Sternberg, the foundation’s K-12 education director and a former New York City education department official, said in a statement.

Walton has been a major charter school backer, pouring more than $407 million into hundreds of those schools over the past two decades. In New York, the foundation has helped fund more than 100 new charter schools. (Walton also supports Chalkbeat; read about our funding here.)

Some studies have found that black and Hispanic students in charter schools are more likely to attend predominantly nonwhite schools than their peers in traditional schools, partly because charter schools tend to be located in urban areas and are often established specifically to serve low-income students of color. In New York City, one report found that 90 percent of charter schools in 2010 were “intensely segregated,” meaning fewer than 10 percent of their students were white.

However, more recently, a small but rising number of charter schools has started to take steps to recruit and enroll a more diverse student body. Often, they do this by drawing in applicants from larger geographic areas than traditional schools can and by adjusting their admissions lotteries to reserve seats for particular groups, such as low-income students or residents of nearby housing projects.

Founded in 2014, the national Diverse Charter Schools Coalition now includes more than 100 schools in more than a dozen states. Nine New York City charter groups are part of the coalition, ranging from individual schools like Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn to larger networks, including six Success Academy schools.

“There’s been a real shift in the charter school movement to think about how they address the issue of segregation,” said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank that promotes socioeconomic diversity.

The Century Foundation and researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University and Temple University will receive additional funding from Walton to study diverse charter schools, with the universities’ researchers conducting what Walton says is the first peer-reviewed study of those schools’ impact on student learning.