public relations

City begins early talks with schools it may close next year

Hoping to prevent the public outcry that met city officials last year when they tried to shutter nearly 20 schools, the Department of Education has begun holding meetings at schools that may be closed or overhauled next year.

One of the first of those meetings was held at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn last night, where parents, students, and teachers filled the auditorium to hear high school superintendent Aimeee Horowitz explain what could happen next year. Similar meetings have already taken place at Sheepshead Bay High School and John F. Kennedy High School and will continue as the city and state identify more schools they may want to close or significantly change.

Dewey, Sheepshead, and Kennedy are among 23 “turnaround” schools the city has received federal money to improve. This means that next year the city could close the schools and replace them with a district or charter school; it could fire half of their teaching staffs and principals; or it could decide that they are making progress and just need more funding, new programs, and experienced teachers.

DOE spokesman Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld said the city has not made any decisions about the schools’ future and likely wouldn’t announce its plans until early December.

“We just want to make sure that parents understand what’s going on and are not caught off guard if we reconfigure the grades or try to do a leadership change,” he said. “We want to get in front of this.”

But with the word “closure” hanging in the air, Dewey’s staff and students were on the defensive, as were members of the John Dewey Alumni Association, who showed up en masse to argue for more support for the school.

Though aware that the school’s graduation rate has been slipping over the years, most were shocked to find Dewey’s name on the state’s list of “persistently low achieving” schools.

“We were surprised at what happened, especially the fact that there was no support for the school,” said an alumna, noting that Dewey has seen an influx of low-performing students from nearby Lafayette High School, which closed last June.

Teachers and students said that budget cuts have also taken their toll on the school, which opened in the 1960s with a performing arts emphasis and now cannot afford to offer the dance or cooking classes that once attracted motivated students. Yet they said that the high school is still able to offer 17 different Advanced Placement courses and a variety of after-school activities.

“Even with budget cuts, we’re still a good school,” said a Dewey senior. “I don’t know why it’s debatable that we be shut down.”

According to Horowitz, Dewey graduated a little more than 57 percent of its students in 2009, which is below the citywide average of 63 percent. “The Asian and white students are basically carrying Dewey’s graduation rate,” she said, noting that only 42 percent of Hispanic students graduated. She also said that student violence has increased in the last several years.

A few parents argued that the school needs to change, but should not be closed.

Corinne Jones, who has sent two children to Dewey, said her oldest daughter did well at the school and went on to graduate from college. But her younger one, who is currently a freshman, is having a harder time.

“It hurts me to see this great school go down,” Jones said. “What did John Dewey do better before 2006?”

Betsy DeVos

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 Bellevue, 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.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

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.