albany report

State budget leaves dollar figure for city after-school expansion unclear

Updated 2:46 p.m. — Expanded after-school programming is still a go in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said today, even though the state budget announced over the weekend does not set a dollar figure for the initiative.

And it is not yet clear when new state funds for after-school programming will become available, even as the city solicits bids from nonprofits to operate new programs.

De Blasio had called for $190 million in new investments for middle school after-school programs to go with the $340 million he sought to make pre-kindergarten available to all city children. But while the budget deal that legislators struck this week includes $340 million for pre-K, including $300 million just for New York City, it did not earmark any funds specifically for after-school programs.

That doesn’t mean the state isn’t freeing up new funds that could be used for after-school programming. Indeed, de Blasio said today that he believes there is a “very substantial” commitment from the state to fund after-school programs in the city.

First, the budget bill gives the city a larger-than-expected boost in annual aid — more than $400 million — and allows the city  to use state aid for after-school programming.

In addition, the city could soon receive funds from a statewide pool of new education dollars generated through casino revenue. New casinos are expected to generate as much as $94 million for the city annually, although critics of the referendum that allowed the additional gambling have warned that the funds could easily end up being used for other purposes.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Saturday that the new casinos would bolster after-school programs, and de Blasio said today that discussions were underway about how much of the new funds would go to the city’s programs.

The new funding is no guarantee of long-lasting after-school programming. While the pre-K funding must be used for pre-K, the additional state aid and the casino revenue could be used on other education initiatives in the future or by another city administration.

In addition, the new casinos won’t generate revenue until at least next year, leaving this year’s funding for after-school programming up in the air. If the state cannot cover the city’s proposed after-school costs, the city could allocate its own funds in the city budget that will be set by the end of June, according to city officials.

The City Council has helped plug after-school funding gaps during the city budget process in the past. This year, though, the de Blasio administration included after-school funding in its preliminary budget, released last month. That leaves open the question of whether additional city funds could be allocated to after-school programs during the city budget process, even as the de Blasio administration has already asked after-school providers to propose new and expanded programs.

The lack of dedicated after-school funding in the state budget galled advocates who had spent the spring lobbying legislators.

“It is tremendously disappointing that the final state budget fails to commit to a larger investment in these crucial opportunities for all our students across the state, as had initially been proposed by the governor,” said Nora Niedzielski-Eichner, executive director of the New York State Afterschool Network, in a statement Saturday. “We know that high-quality after-school programs can change lives.”

De Blasio sounded the same note today before throwing out the first pitch of the season at Citi Field. Along with the pre-K funding, the state-funded after-school expansion will “turn around our public schools,” he said.

Want the latest in New York City education news? Follow Chalkbeat on Facebook or @ChalkbeatNY on Twitter.

In the dark

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Craigmont High School teacher Wayne Oellig helps his students with a biology experiment related to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Sitting on the hot sidewalk outside of Craigmont High School in Memphis, ninth-graders wearing paper lab coats carefully connect a gas sensor to a plastic bottle filled with fresh spinach — a biology experiment that they’ll repeat on Monday during the great American solar eclipse.

The objective is to measure the difference in carbon dioxide emission from a plant on a normal day and during a total solar eclipse.

“That’s crazy we’re experiencing history,” said an enthusiastic Elisha Holmes as he worked Friday with his lab partners. 

Only steps away, a significant teaching tool that’s tailor-made for such an event sits idle. Craigmont’s 40-year-old planetarium is outdated and in need of a modernization costing up to $400,000. Shuttered since 2010, the space is used now as an occasional gathering place for school meetings and for the football team to watch game films.

Principal Tisha Durrah said the excitement of getting 500 safety glasses for students to watch this month’s rare solar phenomenon is bittersweet because the school’s planetarium isn’t being used.

“It’s a missed opportunity, and we don’t want to keep missing it,” she said.

Tennessee is among 14 states in the direct path of the total eclipse, where observers will see the moon completely cover the sun. For Memphis viewers in the state’s southwestern tip, they’ll see about 90 percent of the sun covered. It isn’t likely to happen again in the U.S. until 2024.

“Hopefully for the next solar eclipse, we’ll have it up and running,” Durrah joked this week as her science teachers found other ways to integrate the eclipse into their lessons.

Money raised so far to reopen the planetarium is a drop in the bucket. Craigmont has taken in about $6,000 toward the goal of fully revamping the space, updating technology and making the planetarium sustainable for years to come.

In the meantime, Durrah has contacted alumni and other potential donors in Memphis and beyond, including the New York planetarium of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Shelby County Schools has started a fund-raising account and is looking into other ways to help.

Durrah wants her students to participate in a penny drive as well. “Many of them don’t even know the planetarium is here,” she said of the unique theater.

Even though he’s found other ways to use the eclipse as a teachable moment, biology teacher Wayne Oellig wishes he could have produced simulations in the school’s planetarium on what a solar eclipse looks like from places like the moon or Mars. With the right software, he could help his students, many of whom come from low-income families, experience what a rainforest or historic battlefield looks like, too.

“You can use it for a whole school experience,” he said.

But the screens on the large dome are stained, and the antiquated projector in the center of the room is stuck in its base. A large device by the control panel looks like a first-generation computer, not a high-tech device that could help the school advance studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Craigmont could get away with about $60,000 in repairs to make the planetarium operational, but it would be a short-term fix, the principal says. With a full renovation, the district could host tours from other schools, with their fees covering maintenance costs.

Durrah is confident that the investment would pay off. “When our students can relate to real-world experiences, it can enhance what’s going on here at our school,” she said.

Below, watch a video showing teacher Wayne Oellig talk about Craigmont’s planetarium and its possibilities.

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

awarding leaders

Meet the nine finalists for Tennessee Principal of the Year

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: Docia Generette-Walker receives Tennessee's 2016 principal of the year honor from Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. Generette-Walker leads Middle College High School in Memphis. This year's winner will be announced in October.

Nine school leaders are up for an annual statewide award, including one principal from Memphis.

Tracie Thomas, a principal at White Station Elementary School, represents schools in Shelby County on the state’s list of finalists. Last year, Principal Docia Generette-Walker of Middle College High School in Memphis received the honor.

Building better principals has been a recent focus for Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen as roles of the school leaders change under school improvement efforts.

“Successful schools begin with great leaders, and these nine finalists represent some of the best in our state,” McQueen said. “The Principal of the Year finalists have each proven what is possible when school leaders hold students and educators to high expectations.”

The winner will be announced at the state department’s annual banquet in October, where the winner of Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year will also be announced.

The finalists are:

West Tennessee

  • Tracie Thomas, White Station Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Stephanie Coffman, South Haven Elementary, Henderson County School District
  • Linda DeBerry, Dyersburg City Primary School, Dyersburg City Schools

Middle Tennessee

  • Kenneth “Cam” MacLean, Portland West Middle School, Sumner County Schools
  • John Bush, Marshall County High School, Marshall County Schools
  • Donnie Holman, Rickman Elementary School, Overton County Schools

East Tennessee

  • Robin Copp, Ooltewah High School, Hamilton County Schools
  • Jeff Harshbarger, Norris Middle School, Anderson County Schools
  • Carol McGill, Fairmont Elementary School, Johnson City Schools