double booking

Mixed schedule signals for families at schools slated for closure

Junior Edmund Cintron, a student pilot at August Martin High School, speaks at the school's closure hearing Monday.

A scheduling conflict has parents at some “turnaround” schools miffed that they’re being asked to be in two places at the same time.

The Department of Education is hosting four meetings this week for parents whose children attend the city’s lowest-performing schools under federal accountability laws. The borough-wide meetings are intended to help parents learn about options for transferring out of their current schools through No Child Left Behind’s “Public School Choice Program.”

But the department is also hosting public hearings about proposed school closures at the same time, putting families who wanted to attend both events in a difficult spot. At Monday night’s hearing for August Martin High School in Jamaica, Queens, parents said they felt conflicted about which meeting to attend after receiving a postcard advertising the transfer meeting over spring break and phone messages about the closure hearing this week.

“I didn’t know which meeting was more important,” said Helese Crawford, whose husband attended the Queens transfer meeting at John Adams High School, about three miles down road, at the same time as the August Martin meeting. “Thankfully, because we’re together, we were able to go to both.”

Laura Brown said she had planned to attend the transfer meeting to learn about options for her ninth-grade daughter — but then she drove by August Martin and recognized other parents and teachers outside the school.

“I saw that everybody was here and I thought they cancelled the other one,” she said.

Others who attended the meeting said they thought there were more sinister reasons for the double-booking.

“I believe it was sabotage,” said Cleavon Evans, president of the school’s alumni association. Evans first confronted Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg about the scheduling conflict at the end of the hearing and accused the DOE of intentionally hosting the meeting to muffle opposition at the hearing.

Sternberg said he wasn’t aware of the conflicting event but said he would work with parents to make sure they were given access to information from both meetings.

About 100 people attended the hearing for August Martin, a career and technical school that opened in 1971 and is named after the former Tuskegee airman and first African American commercial airline pilot.

About 300 students are enrolled in the school’s aviation program, which is the only city school program that lets students take solo flights and, in some cases, earn a private pilot license as part of graduation. The program has produced dozens of professionals working in aviation, including the general manager of the Newark Airport and a director of security at John F. Kennedy Airport.

A picture of the postcard sent home to the families of children who attend the city's lowest-performing schools.

The aviation program would return after the school reopens with a new name, new principal, and new staff next year, according to the Educational Impact Statement the city released about the turnaround plan. At Monday’s hearing, Sternberg repeatedly promised that the program would remain intact, thought it wasn’t enough to quell some concerns.

“They’ve promised things in the past that they’ve gone back on,” said Ricky Davis, a pilot and the school’s aeronautics instructor.

Patrick Johnson, a senior who is one of two dozen aviation students who flies on a weekly basis, wore his pilot stripes to the hearing and said that he worried that closure would tarnish August Martin’s legacy as a pioneering professional school for black students.

“It’s a disrespect to August Martin to take his name off this school,” Davis said.

Sternberg said that a new school name would be voted on by the school’s new school leadership team but that it could retain the name “August Martin” in its title.

Sixty-seven percent of August Martin’s seniors graduated last year, giving the school a four-year graduation rate several points above the city average. Supporters of the school said that figure was proof that the turnaround plan was not motivated by concern for the school’s students.

“This is about a mayor who doesn’t believe in humans, got into a fight with the union, lost, and is now taking his revenge out on schools,” said Leo Casey, a vice president of the United Federation of Teachers.

But Sternberg said the graduation rate masked more troubling numbers. Of the 421 students who entered the school in 2007, just 157 graduated four years later, he said. That means that as many students transferred out of the school or the system during the four years as graduated after them.

Plus, August Martin has one of the lowest college readiness rates of the 23 high schools the city proposed to close in January: Just 3 percent of last year’s graduates were college ready, according to the city’s metrics.

“We have to think about the students who didn’t make it through,” Sternberg said.

Another scheduling conflict is bound to occur on Wednesday, when the city hosts a school transfer meeting in Brooklyn at the same time as a closure hearing for Bushwick Community High School. Department officials did not respond to requests for comment about the double-booking.

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.