great expectations

Co-location backlash turns de Blasio allies quickly into critics

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
The president of a community education council in Brooklyn holds a sign opposing new co-locations at a Panel for Educational Policy meeting in October 2013.

Hundreds of people crowded into Brooklyn’s I.S. 281 last October for a public hearing on a plan to install a new charter school in the building. More than 50 people spoke that night, and all but a handful said they opposed the space-sharing proposal.

Later that month, as a school policy board appeared set to vote in favor of the plan, an I.S. 281 teacher said she was hitching her wagon to the mayoral frontrunner, Bill de Blasio, who had promised to review each approved co-location.

“Hopefully,” the teacher said, “de Blasio does what he says he’s going to do.”

But after de Blasio, now mayor, announced last week that almost all Bloomberg-era co-location plans would go forward, people at I.S. 281 and across the city who had pinned their hopes on him said they were disappointed. Parents and politicians alike said de Blasio was already breaking a promise to consider public input when making school decisions.

“We expected to see change,” said Laurie Windsor, president of the elected parent council that oversees I.S. 281’s district. “That’s what they kept saying, and we really, fully trusted them. Now the trust is gone.”

On Thursday, de Blasio and his schools chief announced that they had reviewed 45 co-locations approved in the final weeks of the Bloomberg administration and decided to cancel nine, including three that involved charter schools. The three dozen other co-locations, including the one at I.S. 281, will proceed as planned.

“We did a thorough analysis as quickly as we could in the first weeks of being here,” the mayor said at a press conference Thursday. “We decided that some of these were not fair, did not make sense, and we took action.” (Education department officials also noted that overturning many of the proposals would hurt students who had applied to attend the new schools.)

De Blasio’s announcement outraged supporters of the three Success Academy charter schools that lost space they had been promised. But it also inflamed many parents, educators, and elected officials who had counted on the new mayor to reverse more co-locations, and who saw in his decision a lack of consistency and transparency. The backlash revealed how quickly the administration’s supporters might morph into critics if their hopes for specific causes are dashed.

Vincent Gentile, a south Brooklyn City Council member who supported de Blasio’s mayoral bid and lobbied against the I.S. 281 co-location last fall, said the city had not contacted him or others invested in the school during the review process.

“To my knowledge, none of that input was sought,” he said, adding that he learned of the decision only when it was announced publicly. “Part of the disappointment was the lack of a heads up.”

Gentile and two other Democratic City Council members released a statement Thursday saying they were “furious” with the decision and intend to fight it “tooth and nail.” Separately, the parent groups behind a lawsuit meant to stop more the co-locations said they would continue with their legal challenge.

The principal of a school that will share space with a new charter school next fall said he emailed a deputy chancellor during the review period to raise his concerns about the co-location, but did not get a reply.

“I didn’t find the review to be a transparent process,” said the principal, who asked for anonymity because a superintendent instructed him not to discuss the decision publicly. “There wasn’t a way for principals to make their case.”

Last week, the education department announced that it would more actively involve the public in future co-location decisions through extra meetings and the formation of a working group. But the effort was seen by some as a half-measure, since the new engagement policies did not apply to the pending co-locations.

“It was like, ‘We’re going to listen to you in the future, but this is what we’re doing now,’” said Larry Acosta, who directs an adult education center based inside I.S. 171, a middle school in East New York that will have a new middle school open in its building this fall.

At least one group endorsed the city’s co-location decisions: a coalition of charter schools seeking the city’s support and whose leaders were invited to meet with top city officials shortly before Thursday’s announcement. They released a statement the next day calling the city’s decision-making process “thorough” and “principled.”

But such support was drowned out by criticism from people who felt betrayed by de Blasio, who during the mayoral campaign had pledged to “rescind those [co-location] proposals that have clear negative impacts,” while allowing the rest to remain. Many people appeared to have disregarded the second half of de Blasio’s promise.

“He’s a scam,” said Josephine Shayef, whose son is a seventh-grade student at I.S. 281. “He told us when he was elected, everything would be reversed. Why did he lie?”

For Mona Davids, the head of the New York City Parents Union, the administration’s decision felt like a personal betrayal. Her organization is a part of a lawsuit alleging the Bloomberg administration acted unlawfully in approving dozens of co-locations last October, and Davids was expecting big change from de Blasio.

Instead, the limited scope of the changes left her “hugely disappointed and surprised.”

“As much as de Blasio says he’s about a new day, he’s not engaging parents,” Davids said. “At this point, de Blasio continues to renege on all campaign promises.”

Windsor, the CEC president, said parents and community members will now regard the administration’s school policies with more skepticism.

“Now you have to take it with a huge grain of salt,” she said.

But Dionne Grayman, the co-founder of NYCpublic.org, an organizing tool for public school parents, defended the city’s decisions, saying it would have been infeasible to undo all the planned co-locations. She added that it will take time for the city to better include parents in its decision-making, but even then parents will not always be satisfied with the city’s choices.

“As optimistic as I am, I think we have to be realistic,” she said.

Sarah Darville contributed reporting.

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 five 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.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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