frontiers of choice

Cobble Hill parents say they would consider a charter school

Parents in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood say they’re happy with their children’s schools but wouldn’t mind seeing a charter school move in.

Charter school operator Eva Moskowitz yesterday announced plans to open a new school in the Success Charter Network in Cobble Hill, an affluent, tree-lined neighborhood whose public schools are flush with parent involvement and, in some cases, parent donations. It would be Moskowitz’s second foray into a middle-class neighborhood after pushing through a contentious plan to open a school on the Upper West Side this year.

In District 15, Cobble Hill’s district, 1,500 parents signed a petition supporting the charter school’s bid to open, according to a press release from Success Charter Network.

But parents I spoke to today at a coffee shop and housing project in the neighborhood said they hadn’t heard of Moskowitz and weren’t aware that space-sharing was a likely scenario — or that co-location fights can turn ugly.

Still, they said that the neighborhood could use more school options, no matter what they are.

“If there’s a good school set up in the neighborhood and has a program my kid would like, I’d consider it,” said Madely Rodriguez, a P.S. 29 parent who was sipping coffee outside Cafe Pedlar, a magnet for neighborhood parents after morning drop-off.

Rodriguez said she thought that some of the neighborhood’s middle-class families would be attracted to a school that draws children from a variety of backgrounds. State law indicates that charter schools should serve needy students.

“At the end of the day it might be all talk, but I think there a lot of families that value diversity,” she said.

Moskowitz’s Upper West Side school gives admissions preference to students zoned for the district’s lowest-scoring elementary schools. But for that school, Moskowitz also made a point of cultivating affluent families, with sushi and wine information sessions and fliers targeting parents who expect to pay college tuition. The former city councilwoman’s motivation seems to be to prove that demand for choices beyond the district offerings extends beyond poor communities — and, perhaps, to grow political support for charter schools.

P.S. 29, the only public school that is technically located in Cobble Hill, has mostly white students and is famous for soliciting sizable donations from parents. Just over the border in Boerum Hill and Carroll Gardens, two other elementary schools, P.S. 261 and P.S. 58, also serve largely middle-class populations. But District 15, which includes much of Brownstone Brooklyn, also includes several struggling schools that often serve students living in public housing — including in the Gowanus Houses, just over the neighborhood border from Cobble Hill.

Of the district’s three existing charter schools, two share space in Red Hook and mostly enroll residents of the housing projects there. A third, Brooklyn Prospect, is building its own space in Gowanus.

A school crossing guard working at the Gowanus Houses said she knew parents there were already looking for charter schools because PAVE Academy, which opened in 2010 after a protracted battle in Red Hook, picks up students from the housing project daily.

Blanca and Carmen Soltero, two sisters who grew up in the Gowanus Houses and still send their children to schools in the area, said families living in public housing would have to be educated about the new option and how to enroll. The new school could promote itself at resident meetings and would have to appeal to Spanish-speakers and elderly grandparents, they agreed.

If those efforts aren’t made, Carmen Soltero warned, there is a chance that the new school will serve mostly middle-class families, just like the other schools in the neighborhood increasingly do.

But the bigger question for parents I spoke to was not whether a charter school should move in but where it should go.

Parents at Cafe Pedlar and the Gowanus Houses both said they would not be likely to consider a new school if it opened in the Baltic Street building with a reputation for roughness that houses two secondary schools — one so weak that it is undergoing federally-funded “transformation.” The principals of both of those schools, the School for Global Studies and the School for International Studies, have both been working to boost enrollment to head off the possibility of seeing a third school move in to the building.

Mitchima Ramos, a Gowanus Houses resident whose children have finished elementary school, noted that Brooklyn Prospect was briefly slated to move into space currently occupied by two preschools that the city tried to close. That space could become available again, she said.

Rodriguez suggested an Amity Street building vacated by Long Island College Hospital. And Blanca Soltero said the new building under construction for P.S. 133 could fit a charter school onto one floor.

Carmen Soltero had a different idea altogether. “They should go to District 13,” she said, referring to the neighboring district where she now lives, where schools are seen as more troubled. “The parents there just take their kids to school and don’t even think about it.”

“This neighborhood isn’t so bad,” Blanca Soltero said. “It has pretty decent schools compared to other neighborhoods.”

Big money

Chunk of $55 million AbbVie gift will go toward more counselors in schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of Communities in Schools
Counselors in Schools site coordinator Artesha Williams and student Nasje Adams at the King Academy of Social Justice in Chicago

Sixteen more Chicago schools will add full-time counselors charged with reducing dropouts and helping students with critical mental health issues, thanks to a chunk of a $55 million donation gift from a North Chicago pharmaceutical giant.

The AbbVie donation, announced Friday, will be split among three nonprofit groups with a Chicago presence, though not all the money will be spent here. Communities in Schools will receive $30 million for its national efforts to broker relationships between community organizations and schools; the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which focuses on dropout prevention and college persistence, will receive $15 million; and City Year, which places AmeriCorps tutors and mentors in schools, will receive $10 million.

Communities in Schools, which received the largest gift, will spend $6 million of its $30 million on its Chicago chapter, while the City Year money will be split among Chicago and a project in San Jose, California.

Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools Chicago, said the $6 million is “transformational” and will be spent on a program that assigns full-time, master’s-level counselors to public schools on the South and West sides.

The AbbVie gift will grow a program that currently places full-time counselors in 15 Chicago schools, adding five schools this year and another 11 next fall.

“In each school, they case manage the 50 highest-need students who are at risk of falling behind and dropping out,” said Mentzinger. “They really work with students is to help resolve conflict, regulate emotions, and provide exposure opportunities, from support and mentoring to counseling.”  

The counselor piece helps fill a dire need within Chicago’s schools: mental health and trauma services. Students, educators, parents, and union leaders regularly lament that the district does not staff enough counselors and mental health practitioners, and that recent efforts have been too focused on college and career-readiness — including helping students draft a post-secondary plan. Starting with the Class of 2020, seniors must produce such a plan to graduate, a controversial idea championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In July, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that the district would hire some 250 new social workers and special education case managers for schools.

Mentzinger said the value of sending in counselors who are employed by an outside agency, and not by the district, is that they have fewer administrative duties and so can cast a “wider net” among master’s degree candidates who might have non-traditional degrees such as art therapy or dance. “The level of need of our kids — we need to have more layers, more layers of work.”

A recent Steinmetz High School graduate, Emily Jade Aguilar, told Chalkbeat on Election Day that she was knocking on doors to get out the vote. Aguilar, who identifies as a trans woman, said the biggest issue driving her activism was mental health for students. “We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, whose school had four counselors for 1,200 students last year.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students — fewer than in many other large cities. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students. In schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

In addition to providing counselors, Communities in Schools brokers relationships between nonprofit organizations and 160 schools to provide art and enrichment, mental health services, health care and college and career readiness programming.

snow fallout

From stalled buses to canceled programs, New York City schools are bearing brunt of snow storm

PHOTO: Guillermo Murcia / Getty Images
A school bus on Dekalb avenue in Fort Greene Brooklyn during a snow storm.

Parents, students, and teachers are dealing with the fallout of Thursday’s snowstorm, which stranded yellow buses for hours, created brutal commutes, and forced teachers to stay late for parent conferences.

Just before 9 a.m. Friday, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced all after-school programs would be cancelled, sending families scrambling to make arrangements. And perhaps anticipating yet another wave of yellow-bus related problems, all field trips involving buses were also cancelled.

Some parents and educators took to social media to vent about the city’s response.

Emergency responders were dispatched to free five children with special needs who had been trapped on a school bus for 10 hours, according to City Councilman Ben Kallos. Traveling from Manhattan to the Bronx, students didn’t make it home until “well after midnight,” Kallos said in a statement. The councilman has sponsored legislation to require GPS tracking on yellow buses after the school year began with horror stories about long, circuitous routes. Many riders are children with special needs who travel to programs outside their neighborhoods.

The education department did not immediately respond to questions about the timing of their decision to cancel after-school programs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would conduct a”full operational review of what happened,” referring to the city’s response to the storm. “We have to figure out how to make adjustments when we have only a few hours but this was—I hate to use this hackneyed phrase—but this was kind of a perfect storm: late information, right up on rush hour, and then a particularly fast, heavy kind of snow.”

The politics of snow-related closures are challenging, forcing city leaders to balance concerns about safety with the needs of working families, who may struggle to make arrangements for emergency childcare.

Snow-day related cancellations have bedeviled previous chancellors; in one famous incident, former Chancellor Carmen Fariña and de Blasio kept schools open despite a forecast of 10 inches of snow. The next day, Fariña proclaimed it was “a beautiful day.”

Still, the de Blasio administration is much more likely to cancel school in response to snow than his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.

Christina Veiga contributed.