Who Is In Charge

Pledging “real debate,” de Blasio appoints five PEP members

Mayor Bill de Blasio named five people today to the city’s school board, known as the Panel for Educational Policy, just minutes before the panel was set to convene for the first time under his leadership.

Among the appointees are three public school parents, including a longtime special education advocate, and the former board chair of a Success Academy school who has called charter schools “the civil rights struggle of my generation.”

The panel must approve all major policy changes and spending decisions at the Department of Education. Under state law, eight of its 13 members serve at the mayor’s will, and under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the panel signed off on every proposal that came before it. Those proposals included dozens for controversial school closures and co-locations.

“I know a lot of parents feel this panel hasn’t always been on our side. Today we change that,” de Blasio said in a statement today. “We want real debate. We want a panel that really listens.”

De Blasio had given no indication of his plans for the PEP until today. By appointing only five members, de Blasio will not control a majority of the board tonight, when there are no proposals up for vote. He said he would name additional appointees in the coming weeks.

De Blasio’s appointees are Lori Podvesker, the mother of a student with special needs; Elzora Cleveland, the former president of the parent council for Manhattan’s District 2; Norm Fruchter, an education researcher who served on a Brooklyn school board and produced the film “Parent Power”; Vanessa Leung, whose work led to the City Council’s Dignity in Schools Act; and Robert Reffkin. Reffkin, a former financial analyst who now heads a real estate technology company, is the former Success Academy board chair and previously served on the PEP under Bloomberg.

De Blasio was not the only elected official to make last-minute PEP appointments today. Gale Brewer, Manhattan’s new borough president, appointed Laura Zingmond, an Upper East Side parent and contributor to Insideschools, to the panel.

“Under the Bloomberg Administration, [the] PEP was rarely more than a rubber stamp for questionable policies such as co-locating charter schools within traditional public school buildings,” Brewer said in a statement. “I hope that with Laura Zingmond’s appointment, as well as the De Blasio administration’s new choices, [the] PEP can serve as a more thorough arbiter of education policy as we work to improve our school system.”

The full press release from City Hall is below.

MAYOR DE BLASIO APPOINTS NEW MEMBERS TO THE PANEL FOR EDUCATIONAL POLICY 

Parents, Advocates and Educators to Help Deepen Parental Involvement and Improve Schools in Every Community

NEW YORK—Mayor Bill de Blasio today appointed new members to the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), pledging a fresh start with school communities and better engagement with the parents of New York City’s 1.1 million students.

The Mayor named Elzora Cleveland, Norm Fruchter, Vanessa Leung, Lori Podvesker and Robert Reffkin as his appointees to the PEP. A diverse group of members, the new appointees will assume their roles at the first PEP meeting of Mayor de Blasio’s administration, tonight at the High School of Fashion Industries in Manhattan. Collectively, the new members bring decades of experience in education advocacy, community organizing, and policy development, as well as a deep appreciation for the perspective of parents. Additional PEP appointees will be named in the weeks ahead.

“I know a lot of parents feel this panel hasn’t always been on our side. Today we change that. We want real debate. We want a panel that really listens. The people we’ve brought together believe in the power of school communities to improve outcomes for our children,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Mayor de Blasio emphasized his commitment to invest in universal pre-K and after-school programs for middle schoolers, improve district schools, and expand quality Career and Technical Education programs. Chancellor Fariña welcomed the new members and pledged to incorporate communities into decision making.

“I am thrilled to work with a panel of such a dynamic, diverse set of individuals who have dedicated themselves to improving education,” said SchoolsChancellor Fariña. “When leaders listen, policy improves and our students benefit. I plan on working closely with these new members to not only make sure our approach going forward is done right, but to ensure we are getting the feedback we need to get better. As I work to make our system a world-class model, I will be relying heavily on their guidance.”

The Panel for Educational Policy replaced the former Board of Education in 2002 and is part of the governance structure responsible for New York City public schools. The Panel is established pursuant to State Education Law, and it is responsible for approving standards, policies and objectives directly related to educational achievement and instruction, as well as the Chancellor’s Regulations, significant changes in school utilization, budgetary items and department contracts.

About the New Panel Members:

T. Elzora Cleveland serves as Senior Accountant at Ithaka Harbors Inc., a non-profit organization that advances teaching in scholarship through digital platforms. A graduate of the SUNY university system, her career in finance and accounting spans more than 20 years, all in New York City. Having served as president of Manhattan’s District 2 CEC, Elzora has worked on behalf of parents in her district and across the city to improve the performance of struggling schools and represent the District 2 community to the NYC Department of Education on school issues. She lives in Manhattan and has one daughter in a New York City public high school.

Norm Fruchter has more than 25 years’ experience working in educational policy and is currently Senior Policy Analyst at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, where he conducts policy research for the Institute’s Community Organizing and Engagement division. Prior to his work with the Institute, Fruchter founded and directed New York University’s Institute for Education and Social Policy and served as director for education organizations and schools, including an alternative high school for dropouts. He recently produced the film PARENT POWER, Education Organizing in New York City, 1995 – 2010, and is the author of numerous published works on the challenges of parent engagement and administration within urban school systems. He served 10 years as an elected school board member in Brooklyn, and holds a B.A. from Rutgers University and M.Ed. from Columbia University’s Teachers College. He resides in Brooklyn.

Vanessa Leung is a public school parent and has served the education community through her career advocating on behalf of Asian-Pacific American students and English Language Learners in New York City public schools. Her policy work led to the creation of Chancellor’s Regulation A-663, mandating comprehensive interpretation and translation services—as well as the Dignity in All Schools Act, which reduces bias-based harassment in schools. She is serving as interim Executive Director for the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families (CACF), but will soon begin as Director of Member Initiatives at the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, a prominent social services organization supporting human services agencies across New York City. In 2007, she was named a member of the City Council’s Middle School Task Force and is the author of CACF’s Hidden in Plain View, a report detailing Asian-Pacific American students’ needs. Leung holds a Bachelor’s degree from New York University and a Master’s degree from Columbia University’s Teachers College. She resides in Staten Island with her three sons.

Lori Podvesker is a New York City public school parent and former teacher who has been a vocal advocate for students with disabilities and their families. She currently is employed as a program manager for systemic advocacy and policy analysis at Resources for Children with Special Needs, a non-profit that helps families and children with disabilities access services and raise awareness of their needs. Podvesker holds a Master’s degree in education from Brooklyn College and is currently a member of the Manhattan Developmental Disabilities Council and Action to Reform and Improve Special Education Coalition. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and 11-year-old son, who attends a city school.

Robert Reffkin is the Founder & CEO of Urban Compass, a real estate technology company that seeks to simplify the housing search for New Yorkers. He is also the Founder & Chair of New York Needs You, a non-profit which provides professional development and mentorship to low-income college students. Reffkin worked at several companies within the financial sector, including Goldman Sachs, Lazard Frères, and McKinsey & Company, where he was the youngest analyst ever hired. Reffkin received his Bachelor’s degree and Master’s in Business Administration from Columbia University in only four years, and was selected as a White House Fellow, where he served as Special Assistant to the Treasury Secretary. He currently sits on the board of directors for Get Out Stay Out and Citizens Committee for NYC. Currently residing in Manhattan, he has previously served briefly on the PEP.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: