ancient history

Quinn targets a de Blasio selling point: his record with parents

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As a school board member, public advocate and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, pictured here with ex-state education commissioner David Steiner, once supported a superintendent who resigned amid charges of mismanagement.

Christine Quinn’s mayoral campaign is unearthing an old education scandal to take aim at Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, the current Democratic frontrunner in the race to replace Mayor Bloomberg.

In a press release, the Quinn campaign compiled news coverage about Frank DeStefano — the superintendent of Brooklyn’s District 15 in the late 1990s who ran up a $1.2 million budget deficit — to make the case that de Blasio, then a school board member, allowed the mismanagement to occur. The attack comes as the two are embroiled in bitter fighting over many issues, including the city’s support for local hospitals.

“What Bill de Blasio says and what Bill de Blasio does are two very different things,” Quinn spokesman Mike Morey said in a statement. “While he talks glowingly about his work on his local school board, parents in the district knew de Blasio was only concerned about what was best for Bill de Blasio.”

There’s no disputing that the scandal, which ended in the district superintendent’s resignation, was a difficult time for the school district where de Blasio got his start in city politics. When GothamSchools looked into the episode earlier this summer, de Blasio declined to speak about it, and his campaign did not respond to requests for comment today.

But the story is not as cut and dry as the Quinn campaign suggests.

The press clips that the campaign compiled rest heavily on one parent, Katia Kelly, whose two children attended P.S. 58 in Carroll Gardens. The campaign did not speak to Kelly, she and Morey both confirmed. In the clips, Kelly said she had brought concerns about DeStefano to de Blasio, the school board’s liaison to P.S. 58, that he did not respond to.

Kelly, who would later butt heads with de Blasio over the city’s handling of pollution in the Gowanus canal, reprised her concerns earlier this summer in an interview with GothamSchools. She said she was part of a group of 10 parents from P.S. 58 who tried to get de Blasio to look into DeStefano’s mismanagement.

“He has this Clinton-esque way of listening to you that makes you feel like you have his full attention and then he doesn’t do anything about it,” Kelly said about de Blasio. (Kelly is not a United States citizen and cannot vote in the city’s election.)

But other school board members said that while the board’s chief responsibility was hiring and firing the superintendent, it did not have the power to investigate the superintendent’s spending. That power fell to the central Board of Education, then helmed by Bill Thompson, who is also running for mayor this year. Kelly and Pearl Lau, another parent in the group, said they also brought their concerns about DeStefano to Thompson and were also not satisfied with his response.

At one point, four of the nine local school board members sent a letter to then-Chancellor Harold Levy asking him to consider firing DeStefano. Neither Mark Peters, the school board president at the time, or de Blasio signed that letter, according to an October 2000 article in The New York Times. But Peters, who is now de Blasio’s campaign treasurer, told GothamSchools that he and de Blasio had indeed conveyed local concerns to the central board.

“It’s very possible that Mr. de Blasio made inquiries at school board meetings or in executive sessions that we’re not aware of,” Bob Zuckerberg told GothamSchools. Zuckerberg, who had been the district’s teachers union representative, added, “I always remember Bill being very responsive to things that were going on.”

Levy eventually launched an audit into DeStefano’s spending, but the superintendent resigned before it was complete. After a stint as a charter school principal upstate, DeStefano became the second in command of Baltimore’s schools, where he repeatedly ran into trouble.

After DeStefano resigned, de Blasio cited the incomplete audit as a reason that he had not withdrawn support for the embattled administrator.

“I was deeply concerned, but I was not going to make a final decision until I saw the evidence,” he told the Village Voice in 2001. “Both of my parents were victims of the McCarthy era. I do not take lightly the idea of ousting someone. You have to have the evidence.”

In the article, he also defended DeStefano, and said he was a “visionary and a great educator, but he was a horrible communicator.”

Other members of the board said that despite a mounting deficit and rumors that they passed along, they had not known about the scope of the DeStefano’s misspending until close to when he resigned.

“I don’t recall anybody raising with us any of the financial issues of the type that the central board was ultimately upset about,” said Peters, an attorney. “If they had, we would have looked at that.”

Another board member and attorney, Eddie Rodriguez, said, “I really do not recall parents coming to us and making allegations. … If we didn’t know, how would a parent have known?”

After two years on the school board, de Blasio ran for City Council, representing Community District 39, which includes many of the same neighborhoods of school District 15. In 2009, he was elected public advocate, where he quickly made parent engagement a central part of his agenda. In the process, he gained some staunch supporters among parents, a voting bloc that he hopes will help him become the first current public school parent to occupy City Hall in over half a century.

“From a parent perspective, he’s just done everything to engage parents to be transparent to parents and also give parents an avenue to be active,” said Natalie Green Giles, who met de Blasio when he aided her daughters’ Cobble Hill school in 2005. “Obviously he is a public school parent and you feel that in his approach. … When he talks about his ideas for reform you believe him.”

This year, de Blasio won an endorsement from the Educational Justice Political Action Committee, a coalition of parents and community activists.

“From advocating for a tax on our city’s wealthiest to pay for universal early education and after-school programs to calling for a moratorium on co-locations and school closures, Bill has stood by our students, teachers and parents from day one,” said Ocynthia Williams, a longtime parent activist who sits on EJPAC’s board.

Becoming mayor would allow de Blasio to advance those policies from a more powerful perch. It’s exactly what Kelly said she expected so many years ago when she attended District 15 school board meetings with de Blasio, where she said he routinely stepped out to take calls from Hillary Clinton, whose Senate campaign he was managing.

“We started getting a little bit peeved. We realized he was using this to further his own career because shortly afterward he declared his candidacy to become our City Council representative,” Kelly said.

Lau, another parent who dealt with de Blasio on District 15’s school board, said she had shared Kelly’s concerns.

“We were all under the impression that Bill was using our school board as a steppingstone,” Lau said. “That was a very uncomfortable feeling, [that] he was just trying to get his feet wet and build up his base for his next gig … and we were right.”

But she said she thought he fulfilled his charge as the liaison between the board and individual schools well enough anyway.

“Bill was very responsive,” Lau said. “I think he listened. I don’t know how much you can do when you’re a person on the school board.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.