The Receivers at the Gates

Budget deal gives city tight timeline to fix troubled schools before others could step in

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The city has at least a year to spur improvements at its most troubled schools before it could be forced to hand them over to outside groups, under a tentative state budget deal that Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday would help the city keep control of its struggling schools.

The agreement between state lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo scales back Cuomo’s initial plan to put any school that has performed poorly for several years under the oversight of outside groups, which would have the authority to override contract rules in order to make major shakeups. Under the deal, school districts would have more time to make changes before those outside “receivers” are brought in, district leaders would select the receivers, and those entities could not sidestep collective bargaining agreements, according to Cuomo administration officials and people familiar with the deal.

“Per this budget agreement, the city will continue to play the primary role in determining the ways to best address those struggling schools,” de Blasio told reporters Monday, emphasizing that the deal will not be final until it is passed by lawmakers and signed by the governor. The deadline for an on-time budget is April 1.

At the same time, the agreement places even more pressure on de Blasio’s $150 million “Renewal” program to turn around the city’s struggling schools. Under the deal, the schools would have at most two years to make acceptable gains. If they do not, the city must yield control to the receivers it appoints, which can be nonprofit groups, turnaround consultants, or other school districts, according to Cuomo’s original proposal. (De Blasio said Monday that he was “very confident” his turnaround program would succeed.)

The agreement follows City Hall’s public campaign in recent weeks to tout the city’s own turnaround program for struggling schools, part of a broader push to get state legislators to make the law giving the mayor control over the city school system permanent before it expires in June. The budget deal does not include an extension of mayoral control, leaving lawmakers to address that later this spring.

De Blasio said he was disappointed to see that decision “postponed,” but added that the deal leaves much authority over the city’s low-performing schools in the hands of his appointed schools chief, Carmen Fariña.

“The tentative agreement makes clear that every step of the way the action is led by the chancellor,” he said. At a separate event Monday, Fariña said the city’s Renewal program “should not be out of synch” with the changes the state wants to see at troubled schools.

Under the deal, 27 schools across the state that have been classified as low-performing for about a decade would have one year to show “demonstrable improvement” before their local school chiefs would have to appoint a receiver to take over, according to the Cuomo administration officials. A number of those schools are located in the city, according to people briefed on the budget talks.

Another 151 bottom-ranked schools would get two years to make gains before receivers are brought in, the officials said. New York City has 91 of those bottom-ranked schools, which the state defines as having been under state watch for the past three years and among the lowest 5 percent of schools in the state based on test scores or having a graduation rate below 60 percent.

If receivers take control of the schools, they will have the power to reshuffle staffers, extend the school day, or make other specific changes, the officials said. In the year or two that districts will have to revamp those schools before the receivers could take over, the district school chiefs will get those same powers. (In recent weeks, some of those superintendents have complained about the idea of receivers getting the authority to make changes that they were never given.)

However, in contrast to Cuomo’s initial proposal, the deal would not allow school chiefs or receivers to bypass collective bargaining agreements in order to make those changes, according to the officials. Instead, the labor unions would be required to negotiate side agreements to their contracts in order to allow the changes.

If the two sides cannot come to an agreement, then the state education department would make a final decision, according to people briefed on the deal.

Some of the details were still unclear Monday, possibly because they were still being negotiated. For example, some people familiar with the deal said that school districts would set their own improvement goals for the schools, which could include higher attendance or lower suspension rates in addition to test score gains. But the administration officials said that the state education commissioner would judge whether the schools had made enough progress to stay under the districts’ control.

There was also talk Monday of a plan to direct $75 million to those 27 longest-struggling schools. But it was unclear whether that money would arrive in time for next school year or not until the following year, when receivers could take over some of the schools.

“Our question is when does that money become available,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, a teachers union-aligned advocacy group critical of Cuomo’s education agenda. “There should be no reason that a school or district should have to wait for a receiver in order to get the resources they need to improve.”

The city and state teachers unions have mounted aggressive lobbying and organizing campaigns against Cuomo’s receivership plan and other education policy changes he wanted in exchange for school-funding increases. After the deal was announced, the leaders of both unions claimed at least partial victory.

In an email Sunday night, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew told city teachers that “the governor’s Draconian agenda has, in large part, been turned back.” In regards to struggling schools, “Local oversight has been maintained,” and “collective bargaining is preserved,” he said.

Geoff Decker and Stephanie Snyder contributed reporting.

School safety

Charter schools advocates’ next push: Funding for school security

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams speaks at a press conference related to charter school security funding.

New York City politicians and charter school advocates gathered at Brooklyn Borough Hall on Tuesday to demand school security funding for certain charter schools.

Advocates are asking the City Council to revise a city law that funds security at non-public schools with more than 300 students. This minimum enrollment cap and the exclusion of charter schools, they charge, means many charter schools housed in private spaces have to pull funding for school security guards from their budgets that could otherwise be used in the classroom.

“Our tax dollars should protect all our children,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who spoke alongside members of the City Council and charter school advocates.

The push represents a new line of advocacy for the charter sector and touches on a national conversation about school safety. After devastating school shootings this year in Texas and Florida, New York’s lawmakers have been debating the best way to keep children safe in schools.

Now, the charter sector is adding its voice to the mix arguing that school security funding is a critical tool schools use to keep children safe. However, in the absence of security funds, charter schools remain committed to dipping into instructional budgets to hire school safety officers, said James Merriman, the CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

“I don’t want anyone to think that right now charter schools aren’t safe,” Merriman said.

Charter school advocates have long argued that the publicly funded, privately managed schools, which educate more than 42,000 students citywide in private spaces, do not receive public funding equivalent to that of their district school counterparts. They have suggested a range of solutions to this problem, including altering the state’s funding formula and receiving more money to pay for private space.

If the City Council is not receptive to changes, charter school supporters said they may look to the state for help.

“We think this can pass at the City Council level,” Adams said. “If not…we’ll go to the state.”

cultural connections

This Bronx school threw a party for its African families. Now it’s grown into something much more

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Children's Aid College Prep Charter School hosts regular events for its African families, one way the Bronx school tries to make sure immigrants are welcomed and served well.

Aboudoulaye Adizetou’s phone dinged with text message after text message from her daughter. Was Adizetou bringing the right hijab to school — the one that would match the rust-orange dress she planned to change into after the bell rang?  

That afternoon, Children’s Aid College Prep Charter School transformed its cafeteria for Celebrate Africa, an event for the school’s sizeable community of immigrant families. With African music blaring, teachers and staff served a warm meal of fried fish patties, and Senegalese chicken with thick slices of tomatoes and cucumbers. Flags from Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon served as tablecloths.

“Somewhere else, Africans are the last person they think about,” said Adizetou, who is from Togo. “But I think here, we are first.”

Celebrate Africa started as a way for the school to connect with families whose needs had largely gone under the radar. Children’s Aid College Prep, in the Morrisania neighborhood of the Bronx, tracks students’ attendance, behavior, grades, and even whether students are out of uniform. On every measure, students from African families were doing well, so the school had little reason to engage with them — until the staff set out to change that.

They started by throwing a party.

Now, Celebrate Africa takes place every few months, and it seems to have grown beyond a typical evening cultural celebration. Parents at a recent event agreed: starting with sharing meals and customs, the school has transformed the way it serves its African families — an especially notable move at a time when the bitter national debate over immigration often spills into classrooms.  

“We hear from our kids. They are bombarded by different messages. And we want to be clear: We support our immigrant families,” said Laura Crowley, the school’s academic dean.

Children’s Aid College Prep’s work with African families had an unhappy beginning: the Ebola crisis that began in 2014 and went on to claim more than 11,000 lives across West Africa. As hysteria over the deadly virus mounted, so did reports of bullying of African students in New York schools, including at Children’s Aid College Prep.

For Lyrica Fils-Aimé, a social worker who coordinates many of the school’s social services, it was a reminder that there was more work to do.

Fils-Aimé estimates that fewer than 20 percent of the school’s students are African — most are Caribbean and Hispanic — but that still means almost 100 students or their families come from the continent. She recalled one boy who, despite having an obviously African name, insisted that he was Jamaican. That was before Children’s Aid College Prep started working to connect with African families.

“I said, you know what, let’s just engage them,” Fils-Aimé said.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
At a recent Celebrate Africa event, students listened to a teacher read the Nigerian folktale “Why the Sky is Far Away.”

At the first Celebrate Africa about two years ago, school staff were unsure what meals to order or from where. They turned to parents, who were happy to explain where to buy traditional fabrics to decorate the tables and how to eat African foods.

The script was flipped: Parents played the role of teacher, helping classroom educators navigate new experiences.   

“It was really powerful, I think, for the families to see the teacher be in an uncomfortable space. The parents were coming to the school and being in an uncomfortable space all the time,” Fils-Aimé said. “Then the parent is the expert. Those moments are how we got people to realize, ‘These people are here. They know stuff.’”

Getting there wasn’t always easy. Adizetou’s daughter was excelling at Children’s Aid College Prep, so she decided to enroll her younger son as well. But her experience soured as she began receiving constant calls home about her son’s behavior.

One morning, a call came after he had been in class for only an hour. Adizetou had had enough. She went to the school and cried.

“That day, I said, ‘No, this is happening because of my son’s color and where we came from,’” Adizetou said.

Fils-Aimé had already noticed that teachers seemed to have a harder time connecting with African parents — something she called “disturbing.” Many African children came to school on time, excelled in class, and were well behaved. When things went wrong, however, parents and teachers didn’t know how to work together to solve them.

“They would just kind of not engage each other,” she said. “It just fell off, and the issue wouldn’t get resolved.”

The school added additional training for teachers. In one session, they thought about barriers that might make it difficult to communicate with parents who speak other languages. For example: Imagine a teacher describing a classroom activity to parents as “a piece of cake.”

“An immigrant person who, English is a second language, does not necessarily know that idiom,” said Monique Fletcher, who works on parent engagement for Children’s Aid, a . “How do you simplify that language without dumbing it down?”

There were some breakthroughs. The school no longer hosts a “Literacy Night,” which African parents rarely showed up to. Instead, they invite parents to “Reading Night,” and families come to read with their children. Literacy “means stuff to educators, not necessarily parents,” Fletcher said.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Students listen to a Nigerian folktale before sharing a Senegalese meal at a recent Celebrate Africa event.

Along the way, Celebrate Africa became more than a party. Food and music are constants, but now they accompany sessions on how to identify and treat mental illness and, after the school had to make a few calls to child welfare services, tips for disciplining children at home.

Now, “It’s easier to have those conversations,” Fletcher said. “We had good relationships with the families, so they understand where we’re coming from.”

Families say they started turning to staff when trouble at home affected the classroom. When Abdulaye Bathio’s wife left home with his children in tow, staff from Children’s Aid College Prep called to ask why his daughter hadn’t been in class. Worried, he went to the school to explain.

Not only did staff there help him gain custody of his children, but they accompanied him to the public assistance office to find better housing and provided fresh school uniforms.

“They take care of everyone here,” said Bathio, who is from Mauritania. “We love it.”