Borough President Stringer enters the school closing fray

Tonight marks the beginning of school-closing-season: a 20-day race through mandatory public hearings at all of the schools before a grand showdown at the Panel for Educational policy meeting on January 26.

At the first meeting of the season, taking place tonight at the Academy of Environmental Science, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer is calling on Department of Education officials to prove that they tried various ways of helping the school succeed before declaring it failed. In his prepared remarks, he says:

Furthermore, Mayor Bloomberg, Chancellor Klein, and others at the DOE must own their role in a schools’ performance, whether it is good or bad. The Department’s Educational Impact Statements show that that 20 schools are failing to make the grade, but I do not see evidence of the measures that DOE has taken to get these schools on their feet. I do not see evidence of benchmarks that the DOE has set for itself to help move schools forward, benchmarks the Department should have to meet before it can make the decision to close a school.

The rest of his testimony follows:

Testimony of Manhattan Borough President

Scott M. Stringer

Regarding the Educational Impact Statement of the Proposed

Phase-Out and Eventual Closure of Academy of Environmental Science High School (04M635) and Co-location of Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation

January 5, 2010

We are here tonight to discuss the Department of Education’s proposal to phase out the Academy of Environmental Science, which the Department has said is failing its students.

Tonight is one of the first hearings under the new governance structure I and others called for, and which the legislature granted when it reauthorized mayoral control.  This hearing is a good thing.  Tonight, we stand with backing from the State to discuss changes that DOE has proposed to our schools.  It is, however, troubling that multiple hearings have been scheduled for the same time, making it impossible for PEP representatives like my appointee, Patrick Sullivan, to attend every hearing.  So the bad news is that this hearing will be meaningless if DOE refuses to consider altering its plans based on community input.

The Academy of Environmental Science is a part of the local community, and its history no more or less integral than a place of worship, a main street, or a hospital.  The school has a longstanding commitment to helping its students meet the challenges that will emerge as we move ever forward into a green economy. A team from the school won the Citywide Envirothon competition this past year. When students in this school learned of DOE’s plans to shut the doors, they marched up to 125th street, to speak with their local elected officials.

The Academy of Environmental Science has educated thousands of East Harlem residents for the past three decades, and currently serves 450 students in grades 8 through 12. 11 percent of these students are English language learners.  An additional twenty percent of the school’s students receive special education services, 43 percent of whom are considered self contained or high needs students.  The school has had poor success rates according to DOE’s measures, though not the worst in the borough.

I believe that you have to respect the sweat equity of building a school over decades.  Closing schools should be the last resort — not a primary, reactive response to failure.  School closures come at a high cost, not the least of which is the destabilization of communities and weakening of parent engagement. A report released by the New School shows further fallout from closing schools in recent years, including:

  • The displacement and discharge of English language learners, special education students, and other “at-risk” students who are left with inadequate support to find a school with the appropriate specialized services when their schools close;
  • The demise and eventual collapse of other large city high schools, which have the capacity to offer crucial specialized services and vocational training for our kids at greatest risk of dropping out.

I do not come here tonight with the expectation that the city’s skyline will never change, or the belief that every school should always remain open.  I simply want criteria, rationale, and transparency before the City adopts changes. For example, the Educational Impact Statements that DOE released for these schools show detailed measures of the schools’ progress, which contribute to the Department’s decision to shut them down.  Yet the accuracy of these measures has been questioned, raising concerns about how and why the decision to phase out each school has been made.

Furthermore, Mayor Bloomberg, Chancellor Klein, and others at the DOE must own their role in a schools’ performance, whether it is good or bad.  The Department’s Educational Impact Statements show that that 20 schools are failing to make the grade, but I do not see evidence of the measures that DOE has taken to get these schools on their feet.  I do not see evidence of benchmarks that the DOE has set for itself to help move schools forward, benchmarks the Department should have to meet before it can make the decision to close a school.

The DOE owes the Academy of Environmental Science and the 19 other schools on the chopping block a transparent and comprehensive explanation as to how it determined that it has no choice but to shut down each of these schools.

If DOE moves forward with this plan, at a minimum, it should provide a clear indication as to what concrete plans have been put in place to address the costs that will come from closing these schools, including:

1.   Releasing Educational Impact Statements that include information about the steps DOE took to save schools before making the decision to close them;

2.   An explanation of the supports and systems the Department has put in place for ELLs, Special Education and high needs students, so when it closes these 20 schools, they are not left hung out to dry, as they have been to date;

3.   A clear plan for implementing support in receiving schools that will experience increased levels of enrollment, so they do not find themselves in the same position as the school that closed, and we do not find ourselves together in an auditorium this time, next year, having the same discussion.

We do not want our kids to be victims of the status quo.

We also do not want them to be victims of reactive DOE policies that look great on paper, but which in the long run do more damage than good.  I know that the Chancellor likes to think of himself as a CEO.  But shutting down a neighborhood school and asking families to rebuild relationships that may go back decades is not the same as shutting down a McDonald’s franchise and asking customers to go around the corner to a Burger King.

True accountability includes a willingness by DOE to be transparent about the actions it has taken to help schools with the challenges they face, and to acknowledge its responsibility when it fails to meet benchmarks to help schools progress.  In the long run, this is what is in the best interest of our kids, and it is the best way to support those charged with helping them become engaged learners, and strong participants in our democracy.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”


What you should know about the White House’s proposal to merge the education department into a new agency

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

The White House is proposing the federal education department merge with the labor department to form the Department of Education and the Workforce, officials announced Thursday.

It’s an eye-catching plan, given how relatively rare changes to the Cabinet are and the current prominence of Betsy DeVos, the current head of the education department who has proven deeply unpopular with educators since her confirmation hearings last year. Education Week first reported the proposed merger on Wednesday.

Here’s what we know so far about what’s going on and why it matters.

The news

The Trump administration announced a big-picture government reorganization Thursday, and the education-labor merger is one part of that.

The new department will have four main sub-agencies: K-12; higher education and workforce development; enforcement; and research, evaluation and administration.

It comes after DeVos proposed acquiring programs from the labor department that have to do with educational programs for unemployed adult workers, reintegrating ex-prisoners, and “out-of-school” youth, according to the New York Times.

The two departments already work together on some adult education and vocational training programs, according to the the Wall Street Journal. In an interview with the Associated Press, director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney said that there are currently 40 different job training programs spread over 16 agencies. This merger would be one attempt to change that.

DeVos said she supports the plan.

“This proposal will make the federal government more responsive to the full range of needs faced by American students, workers, and schools. I urge Congress to work with the Administration to make this proposal a reality,” DeVos said in a statement.

The implications for K-12 education

Today, the department distributes K-12 education money and enforces civil rights laws. It’s small for a federal agency, at 3,900 employees. On a symbolic level, a merged department would be de-emphasizing education.

The existing set of offices overseeing K-12 education would move into the new agency, according to the document, which says those offices will be “improved” but not how.

The education department’s Office of Civil Rights will become a part of the new department’s “enforcement” sub-agency.

The plan doesn’t mention any cuts to the agency or its offices, though Secretary DeVos has proposed cuts in the past.

Why this might not happen

The proposal would require congressional approval, which will likely be a difficult battle. Past attempts to eliminate the Department of Education in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t gain any traction, and both lawmakers and unions have expressed skepticism toward the new plan.

Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate labor and education committee, quickly put out a statement criticizing the plan.

“Democrats and Republicans in Congress have rejected President Trump’s proposals to drastically gut investments in education, health care, and workers — and he should expect the same result for this latest attempt to make government work worse for the people it serves,” she said