chartering territory

Instruction is key to new charter school's construction effort

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When Ife Lenard and her crew first entered the third-floor classrooms that will house the Children’s Aid Society Charter School this fall, they found a dusty rotary phone, a decades-old beer can, and lockers coated with grime from years of middle-schoolers’ use.

But Lenard, the founding principal, can already envision how the classrooms — now gutted — will look come September, when the school opens to 130 kindergarten and first-graders in a South Bronx public school building.

That vision includes lots of floor rugs and tables for small-group activities, computer stations, fall colors such as “squash yellow,” a terrarium, and an aquarium, Lenard said as she led a procession of Children’s Aid Society officials, clad in bright orange hard hats, including director Richard Buery, on a walking tour of the school earlier this week.

But the vision also requires some big changes, including rewiring classrooms and demolishing a wall that separates two rooms.

Lenard has overseen the fledgling charter school’s $130,000 construction process since June, when the building’s two other schools, I.S. 318 and P.S. 211, ceded half of the third floor. The renovations, which the Children’s Aid Society is paying for, have allowed her to add interior decorator to the many roles she has taken on since she was named principal in late March and began hiring teachers and recruiting families.

I.S. 318 and P.S. 211 will also get to make some changes because of their new neighbor. When legislators agreed to increase the number of charter schools in 2010, they also forced the city to match costly repairs in charter schools with ones in co-located district schools. That means that every dollar spent on the Children’s Aid Society space — even if it doesn’t come from the city — means another dollar for each of the two other schools in the building.

Some schools see the extra facilities funding as a small tradeoff for the loss of classroom space. In this case, P.S. 211 and I.S. 318 students will still use a science lab and library on the third floor, but I.S. 318 will lose a room that housed a once-competitive robotics team. (The team has only competed once since 2007, when a successful coach left. Attempts to reach the school and the current robotics coach were not successful this week.)

Children’s Aid, a venerated social services agency, has been running after-school programs and offering health and social services inside city schools for more than two decades, including at P.S. 211. But the charter school will be its first foray into school management. Its founders want the school to embody the burgeoning educational philosophy that says students cannot be fully successful in school if their social, emotional, and health needs are not being met outside of school.

Buery said the school’s location, just north of Morrisania and Crotona Park, is an ideal starting point for this effort because of its proximity to other Children’s Aid facilities.

“We are within a stone’s throw from so many of our other services: our community school partnerships, our foster care center,” he said as he surveyed the school playground and garden from a third-floor window on Monday. “It’s also about deepening our investment in this community. It will hopefully make us a better neighbor and make the communtiy stronger.”

Though new principals typically enter a school that is already fully constructed, Lenard said she was eager to take on the extra tasks of creating the school from scratch alongside Alex Jerez, the director of operations. Those tasks have including petitioning the city to allow her crew to tear down a dividing drywall and orchestrating the replacement of an aging sink in the men’s bathroom.

“I come every two days to check on things; Alex is here every day,” she said. “I just want the kids to have appropriate space. The environment will shape the instructional programs.”

Much of Lenard’s instructional vision depends on having each room just so, she said. For example, she plans to break up one room into sections using modular tables.

“We’ll put it in the middle of the floor so we can also use it in small groups,” she said. “That’s a huge advantage. You have to have space to do it if you’re going to tell the teacher to break them up into groups.”

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”


What you should know about the White House’s proposal to merge the education department into a new agency

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

The White House is proposing the federal education department merge with the labor department to form the Department of Education and the Workforce, officials announced Thursday.

It’s an eye-catching plan, given how relatively rare changes to the Cabinet are and the current prominence of Betsy DeVos, the current head of the education department who has proven deeply unpopular with educators since her confirmation hearings last year. Education Week first reported the proposed merger on Wednesday.

Here’s what we know so far about what’s going on and why it matters.

The news

The Trump administration announced a big-picture government reorganization Thursday, and the education-labor merger is one part of that.

The new department will have four main sub-agencies: K-12; higher education and workforce development; enforcement; and research, evaluation and administration.

It comes after DeVos proposed acquiring programs from the labor department that have to do with educational programs for unemployed adult workers, reintegrating ex-prisoners, and “out-of-school” youth, according to the New York Times.

The two departments already work together on some adult education and vocational training programs, according to the the Wall Street Journal. In an interview with the Associated Press, director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney said that there are currently 40 different job training programs spread over 16 agencies. This merger would be one attempt to change that.

DeVos said she supports the plan.

“This proposal will make the federal government more responsive to the full range of needs faced by American students, workers, and schools. I urge Congress to work with the Administration to make this proposal a reality,” DeVos said in a statement.

The implications for K-12 education

Today, the department distributes K-12 education money and enforces civil rights laws. It’s small for a federal agency, at 3,900 employees. On a symbolic level, a merged department would be de-emphasizing education.

The existing set of offices overseeing K-12 education would move into the new agency, according to the document, which says those offices will be “improved” but not how.

The education department’s Office of Civil Rights will become a part of the new department’s “enforcement” sub-agency.

The plan doesn’t mention any cuts to the agency or its offices, though Secretary DeVos has proposed cuts in the past.

Why this might not happen

The proposal would require congressional approval, which will likely be a difficult battle. Past attempts to eliminate the Department of Education in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t gain any traction, and both lawmakers and unions have expressed skepticism toward the new plan.

Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate labor and education committee, quickly put out a statement criticizing the plan.

“Democrats and Republicans in Congress have rejected President Trump’s proposals to drastically gut investments in education, health care, and workers — and he should expect the same result for this latest attempt to make government work worse for the people it serves,” she said