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.


To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Spokane, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.