parent voice

Anxious parents challenge de Blasio’s school safety efforts in wake of Bronx killing

PHOTO: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña speak with parent leaders about school safety at the Harry Belafonte Library in October.

Less than a week after a stabbing in a Bronx school left one student dead and another seriously injured, parents grilled Mayor Bill de Blasio at a public forum on his safety policies and what he is doing to control violence in their schools.

One by one, parents at a Harlem forum on Monday stood to question the mayor and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña: Would the city deploy more school psychologists? How can parents get better information on the safety of their schools? What happens if the police department’s school safety agents are not effective in patrolling a school?

The meeting, which was sometimes tense, was the first time the pair publicly heard from parents in the aftermath of the first student killing inside a school building in nearly 25 years.

“Anyone who’s had a child in our schools felt that moment very deeply,” de Blasio said in his opening remarks. “People all over the city want to know that every action is being taken.”

The killing at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation comes at a sensitive moment for de Blasio, who is running for reelection and has faced a drumbeat of criticism for school discipline reforms that discourage suspensions and other punitive responses to student misbehavior. On Monday, de Blasio repeatedly reassured a group of parent leaders — including PTA presidents and community education council members — acknowledging their concerns about school safety without retreating from his own policies.

Some systems across the country are wrestling with school discipline reforms, with the debate largely split between those who advocate for strict discipline and those, like the mayor, who believe that such policies are imposed much more harshly on students of color and fail to address underlying problems.

Building on de Blasio’s emphasis on “restorative” approaches, all schools will hold weekly trainings for the next three weeks to reinforce de-escalation and anti-bullying strategies, Chancellor Fariña said, and will also receive refreshers on how to appropriately report cases of bullying.

Officials said those training materials are still being created and details will be distributed to schools this week. “This will go a long way in reinforcing what we’ve already put in place,” Fariña said.

But Gigs Taylor-Stephenson, a parent who attended the forum, expressed skepticism that additional training would be enough. Taylor-Stephenson, the PTA president at Manhattan’s Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing & Visual Arts — a school in the city’s Renewal turnaround program — said she has seen training have little effect in the past.

People go to training, and sign up,” she said in an interview, referring to one program designed to help staff welcome parents and get them involved in the school. “But they don’t implement it in schools.”

Throughout the morning, de Blasio appeared to be particularly sensitive to concerns that schools might not immediately respond to reports of bullying — a criticism that has emerged at the Wildlife Conservation school.

“We very much are sending a message but we will send it even more rigorously to everyone in the school community: Never ignore an instance of bullying,” de Blasio said. If parents have a concern about school safety, he later added, “they got to know who to talk to and we have to do a better job of making that go-to person available.”

The mayor did not offer new facts about last week’s stabbing, and said the public should hold off on drawing conclusions until the investigation is complete. Before a student was killed, parents at that school said there had been breakdowns in school safety, and officials had failed to properly respond to incidents of bullying. After the stabbing, frustrated parents confronted school safety officers who refused to let them in the building or pick up their children.

On Monday, other parents raised concerns that their own student’s schools feel chaotic — and that staff members sometimes struggle to intervene. Speaking at the forum, Renesha Westbrooks-Martinez, a parent at P.S. 45 in Brooklyn, described a visit where she saw students shoving each other and papers strewn across the room. “I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness the teacher has no control,’” she said.

In response, de Blasio said disorderly classrooms are “something we don’t accept,” though Fariña later suggested that “a lot of what happens in classrooms that sometimes can look wild is interactive learning.”

“Certainly, if kids are not being disciplined, or not paying attention, that’s on us,” Fariña added. “But a lot more parents need be aware that we really want to hear a lot more talking in classrooms, we want to hear students talking to each other, working together.”

Speaking with reporters after the forum, Westbrooks-Martinez said what she described was a disorderly classroom, not one where students were learning from each other.

“I know the difference,” she said.

voucher verdict

Do vouchers help students get to college? Two new studies come to different answers

PHOTO: Micaela Watts

The debate around school vouchers has exploded in the last year with the appointment of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. That also means recent studies showing that student achievement drops, at least initially, when students use public dollars to attend private schools have gotten a lot of attention.

But supporters have countered that test scores only say so much about student performance. The real test is how students do over the long term.

Two studies out Friday offer new answers — and some ammunition for both sides.

The research looks at how students from Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. fared after using a voucher to attend private school. It found students in Milwaukee’s voucher program were more likely to attend four-colleges, but not necessarily more likely to actually graduate. In D.C., voucher recipients were no more likely to enroll in college.

Here’s what else the studies tell us.

Disappointing results for D.C. voucher program

The D.C. analysis, conducted by Matt Chingos of the Urban Institute, found that 43 percent of students who won a voucher enrolled in college within two years of graduating high school. That’s 3 percentage points lower than similar students who lost the lottery, though the difference was not statistically significant.

The research relied on that random lottery for allocating vouchers in the first two years of the program. This meant the study could confidently show that any difference between lottery winners and losers was caused by the program, which was created in 2004 and has been a source of controversy ever since.

The study notes that because the sample size of students is fairly small, it can’t rule out the possibility that the program either boosted or hurt college attendance to some degree.

The results are surprising in light of past evidence that the first groups of D.C. voucher participants were more likely to graduate high school and scored higher on reading tests. (A more recent study on the program, focusing on students who participated in later years, found that it caused substantial drops in math test scores.)

Milwaukee voucher recipients more likely to attend — but not necessarily graduate — college

The Milwaukee study offers a more positive story for voucher advocates.

Voucher students were generally more likely to enroll in college, particularly four-year universities, than students with similar test scores from the same neighborhood who were not participating in the program in 2006. For instance, among students who used a voucher in elementary or middle school, 47 percent enrolled in college, compared to 43 percent of similar students.

When it came to actually completing college, though, the results were less clear. The researchers estimated that voucher recipients had a small edge — 1 or 2 percentage points — but the difference was not statistically significant.

MPCP is the Milwaukee voucher program; MPS is Milwaukee Public Schools

In contrast to the D.C. study, the Milwaukee researchers — Patrick Wolf, John Witte, and Brian Kisida — weren’t able to use a random lottery, meaning the results are less definitive. And although the researchers try to make apples-to-apples comparisons, the estimates may be skewed if more motivated families, or students who were struggling in public schools, used a voucher.

The latest results are consistent with a previous Milwaukee study by some of the same researchers. It’s also similar to a recent Florida study suggesting that vouchers led to increases in two-year college enrollment, but had little or no effect on whether students earned a degree.

(Both the Milwaukee and D.C. studies were funded by a number of groups that support school choice, including the Oberndorf Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Walton is also a funder of Chalkbeat.)

What we still don’t know

Like the research before it, these studies won’t come close to ending the debate about school vouchers. Opponents will likely highlight the results in D.C. and the inconsistent impact on college completion in Milwaukee. School choice advocates will point to other parts of the Milwaukee study, and the fact that the D.C. voucher programs appeared to keep pace with public schools while spending less per student.

Meanwhile, these studies tell us most about these programs as they existed more than a decade ago. That’s the disadvantage of studies like these of longer-run effects, even as they provide more information about metrics more important to most policymakers and parents than test scores.

“The problem with these long-term studies is that these are the right outcomes to look at, but by the time we know it, it’s of more questionable relevance,” Chingos said.

Future of Schools

Mike Feinberg, KIPP co-founder, fired after misconduct investigation

PHOTO: Photo by Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images

Mike Feinberg, the co-founder of the KIPP charter network, has been fired after an investigation into sexual misconduct, its leaders announced Thursday.

KIPP found “credible evidence” connected to allegations that Feinberg abused a student in the late 1990s, according to a letter sent to students and staff. Feinberg denies the allegations.

“We recognize this news will come as a shock to many in the KIPP Team and Family as we struggle to reconcile Mr. Feinberg’s 24 years of significant contributions with the findings of this investigation,” the letter says.

It’s a stunning move at one of the country’s best-known charter school organizations — and one where Feinberg has been in a leadership role for more than two decades. Feinberg started KIPP along with Dave Levin in Houston in 1994, and Levin brought the model to New York City the next year. The network became known for its “no excuses” model of strict discipline and attention to academic performance.

KIPP says it first heard the allegation last spring. The network eventually hired the law firm WilmerHale to conduct an external investigation, which found evidence that Feinberg had sexually harassed two adults, both alums of the school who were then employed by KIPP in Houston, the network said.

“In light of the nature of the allegations and the passage of time, critical facts about these events may never be conclusively determined. What is clear, however, is that, at a minimum, Mr. Feinberg put himself into situations where his conduct could be seriously misconstrued,” KIPP wrote in the letter, signed by CEO Richard Barth and KIPP’s Houston leader, Sehba Ali.

Feinberg’s lawyer, Chris Tritico, told the Houston Chronicle that Feinberg had not been fully informed about the allegations against him.

“The treatment he received today from the board that he put in place is wrong, and it’s not what someone who has made the contributions he’s made deserves,” Tritico said.

Read KIPP’s full letter here.