turnaround tales

A student walkout starts week of "turnaround" protest at Grady

Grady High School students protest the city's "turnaround" plan after a walkout today.

A new phase in school closure protests opened today as hundreds of students at William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School walked out of classes this afternoon to protest the city’s plan to “turn around” the school.

The plan, which Mayor Bloomberg announced last month as a way to obviate negotiations about teacher evaluations with the teachers union, would require Grady to be closed and reopened with a new name and at least half of the teachers replaced. Grady is one of 33 struggling schools facing turnaround this year.

Grady students were the first to hold a closure protest since Thursday’s massive Panel for Educational Policy, where thousands of protesters railed against 23 school closure proposals that were approved. Now the city’s attention is shifting to the turnaround schools, whose closures are likely to come before the panel in April.

Department of Education officials explained the plan to confused students and parents at the Brighton Beach school late last month.

There was little confusion today as students executed a protest that was tightly scripted by members of the student government. After a rally on the sidewalk outside the school, students marched around Grady on a path that abutted the Shore Parkway and passed a police substation. Their cries of “Save our school!” caused neighborhood residents to lean out of windows and elicited a honk of support from an ambulance driver parked outside a home for the elderly.

Even one of the dozens of police officers who had been summoned to make sure the rally did not get out of hand showed compassion, telling a group of students, “I sympathize for you guys, I really do. I had two sons who graduated from here.”

Members of the student government said they hatched the plan to defend the school after learning about the turnaround plan last month. Grady went from a D to a B on the report card the city uses to assess schools, they pointed out, and some of its vocational programs — including construction and automotive repair — don’t exist in many schools. If the school changes overnight, they worried, the credits in each “shop” that students have accumulated might not transfer over.

“We really need our school to be saved,” said Marika Mattheson, the student government secretary.

Most students said they hadn’t found out about the turnaround plan or the protest until a student-led meeting on Friday or even this morning. A staff member who stood outside the school to corral students on the sidewalk — and who reassured some anxious protesters that they wouldn’t be suspended for leaving the school building — said students had kept the action under wraps until about half an hour before the 1 p.m. walkout time.

Students said they had planned an entire week of action that would include an hour’s trip to City Hall and even an attempt to “Occupy Grady” by camping in tents on the school grounds.

Jonathan Pamphile, a junior in the school’s media arts program, said students had already been working on a mural and other activities to celebrate Respect For All week, the city’s week to promote tolerance and oppose bullying. He said the week had an important message as the city contemplates Grady’s fate.

“We just want the mayor to respect us as students,” he said.

Oshin Powell, a senior, said she was determined to graduate this year and go to college. She said she would be let down if her teachers weren’t staying behind to be there when she came to deliver updates about her success.

“We have a real bond with the teachers,” said Kareem Lewis, 18. “We’re not going to have that bond anymore. … I just don’t know if Mayor Bloomberg will listen.”

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.