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.

weekend update

How the education world is reacting to racist violence in Charlottesville — and to Trump’s muted response

PHOTO: Andrew Dallos/Flickr
A rally against hate in Tarrytown, New York, responds to the violence in Charlottesville.

For educators across the country, this weekend’s eruption of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered yet another painful opportunity to communicate their values to families, colleagues, and community members.

Many decried the white supremacists who convened in the college town and clashed with protesters who had come to oppose their message. Some used social media to outline ideas about how to turn the distressing news into a teaching moment.

And others took issue with President Donald Trump’s statement criticizing violence “on many sides,” largely interpreted as an unwillingness to condemn white supremacists.

One leading education official, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, followed Trump’s approach, criticizing what happened but not placing blame on anyone in particular:

DeVos’s two most recent predecessors were unequivocal, both about what unfolded in Charlottesville and whom to blame:

Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions responded directly to Trump:

The American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten’s union, is supporting vigils across the country Sunday night organized by chapters of Indivisible, a coalition that emerged to resist the Trump administration. The union also promoted resources from Share My Lesson, its lesson-plan site, that deal with civil rights and related issues.

“As educators, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and protected and valued for who they are,” Weingarten said in a statement with other AFT officials.

Local education officials took stands as well, often emotionally. Here’s what the superintendent in Memphis, which is engaged in the same debate about whether Confederate memorials should continue to stand that drew white supremacists to Charlottesville, said on Twitter:

Teachers in Hopson’s district return for the second week of classes on Monday. They’ve helped students process difficult moments before, such as a spate of police killings of black men in 2016; here’s advice they shared then and advice that teachers across the country offered up.

We want to hear from educators who are tackling this tough moment in their classrooms. Share your experiences and ideas here or in the form below. 

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

Updated (July 31, 2017): A U.S. Education Department spokesperson responded to our request for comment, calling the New York Magazine story “nothing more than a hit piece.” Said Liz Hill: “The magazine clearly displayed its agenda by writing a story based on largely disputed claims and then leaving out of the article the many voices of those who are excited by the Secretary’s leadership and determination to improve education in America.”