access denied

How often do New York City schools bar parents from entering? The city could soon be forced to say.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Councilman Ritchie Torres

The education department would be forced to disclose how often schools restrict parents from their campuses each year, under a bill that the New York City Council is considering.

The bill, which City Councilman Ritchie Torres introduced on Wednesday, would track a little-known practice that lawmakers say is ripe for abuse: the issuance of “limited-access letters.”

Those letters act like restraining orders and can restrict parents’ rights to enter their child’s school building. School officials can issue them when they feel that a parent poses a threat to the community.

But advocates worry the letters are used disproportionately in low-income communities, and they argue there are no clear guidelines or oversight that governs how they are handed out.

Education officials do not keep track of how often the letters are issued, nor could they produce an official policy that explains how school personnel should use them, despite multiple requests.

“You have parents who effectively have their access to a school restricted without any due process or judicial review,” Torres said. “The process of issuing limited access letters is shrouded in secrecy.”

The bill Torres introduced would require that the education department release annual reports that show how many limited access letters have been issued, as well as the demographics of families who receive them. The bill does not currently require the city to disclose how often individual schools bar parents from campus, though Torres said he planned to amend it to include that information.

The proposed law would also force the education department to publicly post its policies on limited access letters, including how parents can appeal them. (A department spokeswoman did not respond to questions about whether there is currently an appeals process.)

Stephanie Thompson, who is a member of the elected parent council for Manhattan’s District 1, told DNAinfo in 2016 that she has received limited access letters for complaining about a principal and criticizing a superintendent. “When you say stuff as a white man, you’re seen as expressing yourself,” she said. “You’re passionate. You’re smart and challenging. Whenever I do anything, I’m seen as an angry black woman and aggressive.”

Torres said he hopes the legislation will encourage school officials to limit the use of limited access letters. “I’m convinced that the DOE is going to be more parsimonious in the use of these letters under the light of public accountability,” he said.

In a statement, education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot said: “We have protocols in place to ensure we are providing safe learning environments for all students and staff, and this includes the issuance of limited access letters when necessary.”

She added that the letters “do not prohibit parents from accessing their child’s school” but that parents “must follow certain protocols and procedures that are outlined out in the letter.” She would not elaborate on exactly how the letters are used. The education department, Barbot added, is reviewing Torres’ bill.

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 49 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 57 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

Out of the game

The businessman who went to bat for apprenticeships is out of Colorado’s governor’s race

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Noel Ginsburg, an advocate for apprenticeships and a critic of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, has withdrawn from the Democratic race for governor.

Ginsburg, a businessman who had never run for office before, always faced a tough road to the nomination. He announced Tuesday that he would not continue with the petition-gathering or assembly process after his last place finish in the caucus, where he got 2 percent of the vote.

In an interview with The Denver Post, Ginsburg said, “I don’t believe I have the resources to be fully competitive.”

Just last month, Ginsburg released an education platform that called for the repeal of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, the signature legislative achievement of former state Sen. Mike Johnston, also a candidate for governor.

Ginsburg runs CareerWise, an apprenticeship initiative of Gov. John Hickenlooper that allows students to earn money and college credit while getting on-the-job experience starting in high school. His platform called for expanding apprenticeship programs and getting businesses more involved in education.

He also promised to lead a statewide effort to change the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to retain more revenue and send much of it to schools. He said that schools, not roads, should be the top priority of Colorado’s next governor.

Ginsburg will continue at the head of CareerWise, as well as Intertech Plastics, the company he founded.

Johnston, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne have all turned in signatures to place their names on the ballot. Former Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the endorsement of two teachers unions, is not gathering signatures and will need at least 30 percent of the vote at the assembly to appear on the ballot. Kennedy finished in first place at the caucus earlier this month.