dotting the i's

Closure meetings underway at schools slated for "turnaround"

Posters from past student theater performances adorned the walls of Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School’s auditorium, where parents gathered Monday for a meeting on school turnaround.

The city has started running through its closure protocol at dozens of low-performing schools it wants to “turn around.”

At Brooklyn’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, Superintendent Aimee Horowitz held a tense meeting with teachers to talk about the closure plan Monday afternoon. Hours later, she detailed the plan to about 50 angry and bewildered parents at an “early engagement” meeting that has for the last two years been the Department of Education’s first step in letting schools know they could be closed.

The pattern is set to repeat this week and beyond at dozens of low-performing schools that were midway through federally mandated overhaul processes known as “transformation” and “restart” until earlier this month, when Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city would instead try to use a different process, “turnaround,” at the schools. The switch, aimed at letting the city sidestep a state requirement that it negotiate new teacher evaluations with the United Federation of Teachers, would require the schools to be closed and immediately reopened after having at least half of their teachers replaced.

The mass-replacement plan drew fire from parents and students who said FDR’s teachers are essential if academic performance is to improve.

“I feel tortured,” said Abdul Sager, a ninth-grader whose first language is Bengali. “If a new teacher comes who doesn’t know about my feelings and strategies … to learn English, it’s going to take more time.”

Parents found out about Monday’s meeting in letters shortly after Bloomberg’s announcement and through automated telephone calls over the weekend announcing a parent-teacher association meeting with Horowitz, according to Robin Piraino, the mother of a ninth-grader. She said the messages didn’t say the meeting would deal with FDR’s proposed closure, and some people who attended the meeting were visibly surprised by the news.

Principal Steven Demarco implored families to push back against the city’s plan by contacting legislators and elected officials. He also promised that FDR would survive the city’s latest efforts to reshape the school.

“We’ve always been a family, we’ve always gotten through,” he said. “Regardless of what we’re called — transformation, restart, turnaround — we are continuing every day to make progress. That will continue until I’m dragged out of here.”

Demarco’s predecessor was in fact yanked from the school. Starting transformation in 2010 required Roosevelt’s longtime principal, Geraldine Maione, to be replaced, so the Department of Education appointed Demarco, a 29-veteran of the school, to take her place. Then the city installed Maione at William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School, another school that was undergoing transformation and could now be closed.

Since 2010, FDR had received millions of dollars in federal School Improvement Grants. Teachers said the funds had financed training sessions and overtime hours for leading after-school English classes for parents, tutoring students, and hosting a new advisory program called freshman and sophomore academies.

“We’ve invested our support in the English Language Learners,” said Jorge Mitey, a Spanish teacher and FDR’s union chapter leader, who had passed out large buttons showing Bloomberg’s face with a red strike-through to people attending the meeting. “They’re coming in on weekends, they’re coming after school. We’ve given them more academic rigor to improve.”

Forty percent of FDR’s 3,400 students are considered English language learners, a data point that teachers said makes it impossible for the school to meet the city’s expectations, especially for its four-year graduation rate. Of the students who entered as ninth-graders in 2006, 59 percent graduated four years later, giving FDR a graduation rate just two points below the city average. The school received B’s on its two most recent city progress reports.

“Current policies do not reflect research on how students learn languages — many of our hardest-working students at this school are English language learners,” said one teacher, who asked not to be named because she is worried about keeping her job. “All research shows that it takes five to seven years to become academically proficient in a second language, and that is only if you have literacy in your first language. But many of our students come in with literacy challenges in their first language, Chinese, Spanish.”

The meetings are a first step in the city’s notification process for school closures. For the last two years, the city has held “early engagement” hearings at schools it is considering shuttering before finalizing the closure slate. Then the city must hold public hearings at each school slated for closure before the citywide school board, the Panel for Educational Policy, votes on them. The panel has never rejected a city proposal. By law, the city must also issue detailed reports about the closures’ impact, called “Education Impact Statements,” at least six months before the start of the school year when the closures would begin — a deadline that is just weeks away.

Other school communities are gearing up to protest the turnaround plan at meetings with superintendents later this week. On Wednesday, teachers at Brooklyn’s John Dewey High School say they will defend the progress the school has made under the restart model to department officials and ask them to let current teachers stay in the school.

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.