Red-Grover. Red-Grover.

Grover Cleveland students join fray protesting turnaround plans

Michelle Robertson, an assistant principal and English teacher at Grover Cleveland High School, defends the school at a hearing about the city's "turnaround" plans in Queens.

Rather than filing through metal detectors when they arrive at school Thursday morning, students from Grover Cleveland High School plan to line up around the school’s perimeter, locking hands in a “human chain.”

They are hoping the display of unity will do what weeks of hearings and meetings have not — convince city officials to reverse plans to overhaul their school.

The purpose of the 7 a.m. march, according to senior class president Diana Rodriguez, is for students to demonstrate their passion for Grover Cleveland in the face of the city’s plans to close the school, change its name, and remove some teachers via a federal reform model called “turnaround.”

“There are teachers here I love so much, they’ve been teaching for 10, 20, 30 years, one for over 40 years,” Rodriguez said. City officials “think they’re saving money, but it’s just going to worsen the problem. Getting rid of 50 percent of our staff and turning around and swapping principals and teachers from school to school doesn’t solve the problem itself, it just extends it even more.”

Students will hold hands and form a chain around the perimeter of the school, then march in a circle holding signs they’ve made for the occasion or saved from last year, when they held a similar protest, she said.

Students originally rallied around Grover Cleveland last year when the city put the school on a list of schools it was considering closing because of poor performance. In May 2011 the city announced it would keep the school open for at least three more years and hire an Educational Partnership Organization to run it using millions of federal school improvement funds. Last month, Mayor Bloomberg announced that he would switch the school to the more aggressive “turnaround” model instead.

Rodriguez said the school environment has improved since Denise Vittor took over as principal at the beginning of the year and placed more emphasis on Advanced Placement courses, extracurricular activities, and ways to improve the school while saving money.

Vittor came to Grover Cleveland from a stint as principal of Queens Vocational High School. She was pulled from that school so it could also qualify for federal improvement funds, but the city said last month it was making so little progress that it would not be selected for turnaround.

“We’re sending a message out to the DOE, Chancellor Walcott, Mayor Bloomberg, trying to show the unity of my school and the other schools as well,” Rodriguez said. “Now that we have a new principal, we obviously need more time to show we are improving.”

Earlier this week dozens of students and teachers from Queens schools on the turnaround list, including Grover Cleveland, spoke out against the city’s plan at a meeting held by Queens Borough President Helen Marshall.

In a speech that received a standing ovation from many audience members, Michelle Robertson, an assistant principal and English teacher at Grover Cleveland, said the turnaround would discount the efforts of teachers who have devoted decades to the school and regularly work on Saturdays, tutoring students from the school’s relatively large population of English Language Learners (roughly 22 percent of the school’s 2,000 students are ELLs).

“I am not worried about my job,” she told the crowd of more than 60 families and educators who packed the Queens Borough Hall meeting room. “Yes, we know we have issues; children come into us with issues that we are not equipped to deal with. But I don’t want to hear excuses from my teachers, because I believe we can do it.”

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

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Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.