moving on

Walcott visits ex-turnaround schools without addressing turmoil

Dennis Walcott, with Principal Magdalen Radovich, students, and several officials from the Sports and Arts in Schools Foundation, announced an AT&T grant to fund Flushing HS after-school programs.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott has quietly visited several former “turnaround” schools in recent weeks, but he has done so without calling attention to the fact that the city planned to close them until just a few months ago.

During the first week of school, Walcott made unannounced visits to two of the schools in Brooklyn. At John Dewey High School, where large-scale scheduling problems are prevailing, he shook hands with students one morning. He stopped by William Grady Career and Technical High School, which was removed from the turnaround roster in April, the same day. Neither visit made his public schedule, and department officials said they had nothing to do with the schools’ ex-turnaround status. Instead, the stops were like many that the chancellor, an avid school visitor, has made outside of public view, the officials said.

And on Wednesday, he shared the stage with the new principal of Flushing High School at a press conference heralding a substantial grant from AT&T to the Sports and Arts in Schools Foundation, which runs an after-school program at the school. Working in about 150 city schools, SASF was only the second group, after the YMCA of New York, to receive a grant through Aspire, a $250 million AT&T grant program aimed at boosting college readiness among high-need students. The grant will help SASF hire staff to support its program at Flushing, which includes targeted efforts to help incoming ninth-graders make up academic ground.

Speaking to the students and staff who attended the press conference, Walcott praised SASF and said, “We expect success from all of you to not just achieve but to achieve at a high level. To do that you need to support great teachers, you need to support great leaders, we need to support families, not-for-profits, the generosity of corporate giving.”

But he did not acknowledge the turmoil the school had gone through in recent months as the city tried to close and reopen it using the turnaround process. Nor did he note the school’s leadership change, made in turnaround’s early stages. And after the press conference, Walcott ducked out without talking to reporters. A department spokeswoman said he was late to a meeting and would be taking questions over email instead, but the spokeswoman did not respond by day’s end.

The city was in the process of overhauling Flushing and 23 other struggling schools when an arbitrator ruled this summer that the city’s staffing plans violated its contract with the teachers union. Many of the changes were reversed, and since the year began, students and teachers at some of the schools have complained of confusion and disorganization that they say might be the result of abrupt leadership and staffing changes that cut into planning time administrators normally reserve over the summer.

While Walcott spoke inside Flushing’s light-filled auditorium shortly after 3 p.m., a half dozen students milled about the school grounds, waiting for the school’s 4:30 p.m. dismissal. All said they had left early because their last period of the day was a Spanish class that has not yet been assigned a teacher for the year. Other students said they had noted few changes to the school since the previous school year but had been surprised to receive first semester schedules that included classes they had not requested or had already taken and passed, such as art.

Scores of students rallied in defense of the school and its principal of one year, Carl Hudson, last winter during a tense public hearing on the city’s plan to close the school. Hudson was arrested near school shortly after the school year ended for possession of methamphetamine, but the city had already planned to replace him with Radovich, a former assistant principal at Queens Vocational Career and Technical High School.

Radovich told reporters on Wednesday she is optimistic about the changes ahead for Flushing and was unfamiliar with students’ complaints. She said she has been offering her staff new professional development opportunities to help them prepare for the rollout of new learning standards.

“The challenge is really to make sure that all of the adults stay focused,” she said. “Trying to meet the mandates and the expectations that we all know are on target, you need to be able to reeducate and retrain teachers, administrators, and for me it was a tremendous learning curve as well.”

One group of students that should see positive changes right away is Flushing’s large population of English language learners and recent immigrants, she said.

“One of the things we did over the summer was we looked very very carefully at how the ELL students are being serviced and we have reprogrammed the entire building to make sure we are providing the mandated services that students need,” Radovich said. “Also we have started through the parent coordinator to start to reach out more to community resources.”

Why not Michigan?

As Michigan’s poorest 4-year-olds wait for classroom seats, free pre-K for all kids seems elusive

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
All New York City four year-olds — including these kids who attend school is in the city's education department headquarters — are guaranteed a spot in a city-funded pre-K. In Michigan, far fewer students have access to free preschool.

Michigan is the home to America’s most famous study on the benefits of early childhood education.

But when it comes to providing free prekindergarten for all children, other states and cities are leading the way.

Vermont, Florida, Washington, and the District of Columbia have public programs for all 4-year-olds, regardless of income. Seven more states have greatly expanded their pre-K programs, too, including Wisconsin, where free voluntary pre-K is in the state’s 1848 constitution.

But not Michigan. Not yet, at least.

The pioneering Perry Preschool Study began in Ypsilanti in 1962 and followed 123 study participants starting at age 3 through the age of 40. Among the study’s  findings: Those who went to pre-K were more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to repeat grades. They were also less likely to use drugs or commit crimes.

As they grew older, they were more likely to be employed and to have stable homes, savings accounts, significantly higher incomes, and report good relations with their families.

Skills such as cooperative play lay the groundwork for children to get along with others. In addition, learning to use fine motor skills and mastering shapes, colors, numbers, and the alphabet, contribute to future growth.

Further research has underscored the worth of pre-K, making it a rare realm of bipartisan support. In fact, funding for early childhood education has risen under the past three governors.

“I’ve been around long enough to see Democrats and Republicans in office, and early childhood education continues to be on the radar as a positive,” said Lena Montgomery, director of the Wayne County branch of the Great Start Readiness Program, a state funded initiative for 4-year-olds from low-income families.

But even though the governor’s own 21st Century Education Commission recommended that Michigan expand pre-K with $390 million in new investment, he chose instead to further study the impact of Great Start. In his most recent budget, he allocated $300,000 to do that research, and kept spending for Great Start flat at $245.6 million.

Momentum toward providing publicly funded pre-K, often called universal preschool, has been slowed by cost, teacher shortages, and family resistance, advocates say. They also note that there is no incentive for different institutions to pool their money to pay for a more comprehensive pre-K program in the state.  

Other states and cities have navigated similar challenges. But Michigan families face a patchwork of options. They may keep young children at home, pay for private childcare or pre-K, or, if they meet income or disability requirements, they can enroll them in Great Start or federally funded Head Start. Both are designed to support vulnerable children, including families with low-incomes.

But there aren’t enough seats, even for every child in need. Great Start’s Montgomery said she has 27 programs with qualified families on wait lists. It’s common, she said, for policymakers to say they support children. But some families are still falling into the gaps because more money is needed, she said.

About 133,000 Michigan children are not enrolled in any early childhood program.

Half of Wayne County’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in various pre-K programs, said Iheoma Iruka of Highscope, though she added that “we can’t vouch for the quality of these programs.”

The education plan of Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic nominee for governor, advocates for a universal program that expands Great Start until all 4-year-olds are eligible, similar to what the 21st Century Education Commission recommended. It would be paid for, according to her campaign staff, with anticipated increases in the School Aid Fund, which is mostly made up of sales, income, and property taxes. It would also use tax revenue from, among other things, the marijuana ballot initiative that’s expected to pass in November. Tax hikes shouldn’t be necessary, her staff said.

Bill Schuette, the Republican nominee, has an education plan that emphasizes third-grade literacy over pre-K. It mentions need-based transportation scholarships for preschoolers, and he said in a recent interview that universal pre-K was an option that he’d consider.

Hope Starts Here, the $50 million initiative created by the Kellogg and Kresge foundations to improve Detroit’s early childhood systems, has a number of suggestions to pay for universal pre-K. Among them: a dedicated tax proposal, a local sales tax on alcohol, coordinated philanthropic and corporate giving, and leveraging all federal grant money.

States and cities around the nation have experimented with other strategies. Georgia tied pre-K funding to the state lottery. New York City’s new universal program for all 3- and 4-year-olds comes from a mix of city, state and federal funding. Oklahoma, a pioneer in the field, discovered that school districts with half-day kindergartens were receiving state money meant for full-day programs. Lawmakers reformed the state aid formula so that those resources went into pre-K. (The districts had been spending the extra money on sports.)

Others have expanded access by combining different sources of money. North Carolina integrated pre-K with its K-12 schools and contributed part of the Title 1 money that’s allocated to school districts. Chicago is moving toward universal pre-K with a mix of state and district budget increases, and block grants. Washington, D.C. blends Head Start and local funding into its education formula.

A pilot model for blended funding in Michigan can be found in Flint, where the state’s only Educare program is based on the grounds of a former elementary school. The national Educare Early Learning Network draws from multiple revenue sources, including federal, state, and philanthropic dollars.

But regardless of where the money is coming from, opportunities to expand pre-K programs may be missed because of the statewide teacher shortage. In addition,  salaries are not as high as they are in K-12 schools. The median salary for Head Start teachers is $27,613, and for lead Great Start teachers, $37,440, according to a statewide advocacy organization.

To recruit and retain more teachers at all levels, including pre-K,  a new public-private initiative called Teach 313 launched in Detroit in August. Other places facing shortages or high turnover for its preschool teachers have turned to Teach for America to fill gaps, or provided scholarships for early childhood educators to obtain degrees that would raise their wages.

But before Michigan can explore other strategies and expand into universal pre-K, it needs to make the program it already has available to more families.

If you ask Montgomery from Great Start about her wish list, it begins with providing pre-K to all the children who are sitting on waitlists.

“It would be wonderful to to say to parents, ‘We have a spot for your child,’” Montgomery said. “ ‘You don’t have to wait for someone to drop out or leave.’ It would be wonderful to say to the people who want to run programs, or to expand their programs in their communities, ‘We have the funds for you set up and run a high quality program.’ ”

enrollment

Who’s in and who’s not? Chicago board to announce new boundaries for popular Taft High

PHOTO: Tim Boyle / Getty Images
Taft High School is one of Chicago Public Schools' most overenrolled campuses. In 2019, it will spin off its freshman class to a separate campus.

The Chicago school board will announce much-anticipated new attendance boundaries on Tuesday for one of its most crowded schools, William Howard Taft High School on the Northwest side.

Starting next school year, Taft will spin off one grade level to a new campus, the Taft Freshman Academy, which is expected to enroll 1,000 freshman. Chicago Public Schools will give those living within the new attendance area priority in enrollment.

“I look forward to what CPS has to say about the new campus,” Taft Principal Mark Grishaber told Chalkbeat Chicago. “This is good for every kid on the Northwest side.”

A community meeting on the new boundaries will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Wilbur Wright College, 4300 N. Narragansett Ave.

At its regular monthly meeting at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, the board will discuss the Taft boundaries and also what to do about its underrolled schools, which are primarily neighborhood schools.  A state law signed in August requires Chicago to make a plan for intervening in schools that do not have enough students.

The Chicago school district faces a critical decline in enrollment, but still plans to invest $1 billion to shore up existing schools and build new ones.