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November 1, 2011
Smoke, odors prompt evacuation of a Brooklyn school building
Students wait for pick-up outside the P.S. 156/I.S. 392 school building, which was evacuated twice this morning in the wake of reports of a bad-smelling smoke. A Brownsville school campus was evacuated twice this morning after students and staff smelled a "foul, chemical" odor and saw smoke inside the building. The incident, which scared teachers and students and rendered afternoon pick-up chaotic, comes a day before Chancellor Dennis Walcott is scheduled to speak at one of the schools in the building, P.S. 156, during a town hall meeting for District 23. The building also houses I.S. 392, a middle school for gifted students. Isbi Lopez, whose two daughters attend P.S. 156, said she was volunteering at one daughter's pre-kindergarten classroom when she first smelled the smoke shortly after 9 a.m. She said students and staff evacuated to nearby P.S. 323, P.S. 327, and Teachers Preparatory High School. She said her daughters were allowed to return to their school around 10 a.m. after the fire department deemed the building safe. But the two schools evacuated a second time shortly after, when staff found that the smoke and smell were still present, according to multiple accounts from students and teachers. Several students said the evacuations cut into lunch and most of the day's classroom time. Students and staff from the two schools returned to their campus again around 2 p.m. for dismissal, which took place on the school's playground and basketball court. After-school care was cancelled for the day. This afternoon, parents who arrived to pick up their children said they were surprised to learn that the building had been evacuated during the day. They said they were frustrated about not being allowed into the building, where many children had left personal belongings. Marge Feinberg, a Department of Education spokeswoman, said the building would reopen tomorrow. She said DOE officials had not yet determined what caused the problem today." "What about his coat?" one parent asked a teacher when she met her fourth-grade son at the playground gate. The teacher replied, "He can't go in to get it."
October 27, 2011
From Charlotte, a vision for NYC's second try at parent training
The parent training program that Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott promised to launch last night would be new to New York City. But it wasn't supposed to be that way. In 2009, over the objections of some members of the Assembly who said doing so would waste scarce resources, state legislators passed a bill to create a parent-training center in New York City. The bill was one of four amendments that Senate Democrats required before they would agree to renew Mayor Bloomberg's control of the schools. That center was supposed to cost $1.6 million, which the city and state would jointly supply. It would have been housed at CUNY. And it would have trained parents who normally wouldn’t get involved to serve on community education councils and school leadership teams. But it never got off the ground. The Department of Education said at the time that it was unwilling to pony up its portion of the costs unless the state contributed, too. And the state's funding never materialized. This time around, the city won't be relying on the state for its parent training center. Walcott did not name a price tag for the new initiative, which will start in 2012, but he said the city would pool public and private funds to pay for it. A DOE official said the public funds would not come from the same pot that would have helped fund the CUNY training center. A similar initiative in North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenberg school system, which DOE officials said is a likely model for the program that the city will put in place, has been funded entirely with private dollars from local and national foundations and companies.
October 26, 2011
Walcott outlines new initiatives to involve parents in schools
Outside, an organizer lobbies security to let protesting parents inside; In the auditorium, the audience was far more subdued than last night. The Department of Education will replicate other cities' parent training programs and start measuring how well schools engage families, Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced tonight. In his first-ever policy address last month, Walcott unveiled an initiative to help the city's long-struggling middle schools. Tonight, he turned his attention to another weak spot in the department's record: keeping parents involved. Addressing parent leaders at an RSVP-only event where he was joined by Jesse Mojica, head of the department's oft-renamed family engagement office, Walcott outlined a plan that he said would boost parent involvement in city schools. He said the department would hire outside groups to run training workshops for parents who want to get involved, ask more from parent coordinators, and put more information for parents online, at a new portion of the DOE website for families. Walcott also said the city had developed standards for family involvement that a small number of schools would test before they are rolled out citywide. Ultimately, he said, the city plans to measure schools on how well they communicate with parents and make them feel welcome. The speech comes after years of complaints that DOE decision-making has shut parents out — and months after elections for district parent councils went so badly that they had to be redone. Walcott acknowledged problems with the elections and promised that the next time they happen, in 2013, the process would go more smoothly. But he did not open the door to giving parents a larger role in setting city education policy.
October 25, 2011
Underneath the shouting, a hum about curriculum standards
Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott wasn't completely wrong when he said tonight's Panel for Educational Policy meeting had met its goal of promoting conversation about curriculum standards. The meeting was pushed off course within minutes when protesters aligned with the Occupy movement shouted down Walcott and the standards' architect, David Coleman. Walcott sped the dissolution into small-group sessions rather than try to talk over the nearly 200 protesters. Most protesters stayed in the auditorium, but about three dozen parents and teachers followed Walcott and Coleman upstairs for workshops about the new standards, known as the Common Core. Speaking to close to 20 attendees in a third-floor classroom, Coleman explained that the Common Core, which has been adopted by 25 states since 2009, is meant to "make our kids competitive within this country and outside of it, and to close the gap between high school and college." The development of the standards, he said, "was a vast process where thousands of teachers and parents were involved around a shared question of what is the evidence for college and career readiness, and based on that, what are the standards that most determine that." Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, whose two children attend Manhattan's P.S. 199, said she came to the event because she wanted to learn more about how the Common Core would affect her children and was blindsided by the protest.
October 25, 2011
Protest derails DOE meeting on curriculum after just minutes
The possibility of a public comment session evaporated just moments into tonight's Panel for Educational Policy meeting, after nearly 200 protesters drowned out Department of Education officials. The panel had convened for a special meeting about the city's new curriculum standards. But as Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and the standards' architect, David Coleman, took the stage at Seward Park High School, protesters aligned with the Occupy movement launched a chorus of complaints via "the people's mic."
October 19, 2011
Inspired by Wall St. protest, activists vow to "Occupy the DOE"
Since the first protesters arrived at Zuccotti park nearly five weeks ago, the Occupy Wall Street movement has ignited protests from California to the United Kingdom. The city Department of Education could be next. Calling Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott a member of the maligned "1 percent," city education activists say they are planning to bring hundreds of protesters to next week's school board meeting for an "Occupy the DOE" action. The idea to form ODOE came to organizers, many of whom are city public school teachers, during a Sunday afternoon “grade-in” for educators at Occupy Wall Street, according to Leia Petty, an organizer who works as a guidance counselor in a Bushwick high school and is a long-time activist. As the teachers discussed how the OWS movement intersected with public education, she said, they united around a shared concern that educators and families have been shut out of DOE decision-making process. So they decided to protest the entity that does ratify DOE decisions: the Panel for Educational Policy, which is holding a special meeting next week about new academic standards. Petty said ODOE protesters will fill the 350-seat auditorium and draw attention to the PEP's track record of ignoring public testimony before approving the DOE's proposed policies. Most of the panel's members were appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
October 19, 2011
Walcott downplays SESIS issues at first town hall of school year
A new special education data system isn't as bad as its critics say, Chancellor Dennis Walcott told Bronx parents Tuesday night. The chancellor acknowledged that the Special Education Student Information System was earning “mixed reactions” from educators, but he downplayed concerns that it was a “systemic” problem. The web‐based system was created to track information about students with disabilities and is being rolled out this year, to massive complaints. Over the summer, SESIS was blamed for leaving some special needs students without school seats. Now, teachers are saying the system is extremely burdensome to use. As a compliance deadline approached last week, the union blasted the DOE for its “total incompetence” in managing the system rollout. In a separate email, UFT Secretary Michael Mendel called SESIS a “systemic problem that is affecting almost everyone who uses it in almost every school.” Walcott voluntarily addressed those concerns and others last night at a meeting with District 7 parents in the Bronx. It was the first of many town hall‐style meetings that Walcott will host this year in accordance with a law that requires the chancellor to visit each of the city's 33 districts in a two‐year period. At this meeting, held at The Laboratory School of Finance and Technology, Walcott answered questions about budget cuts, school closures, absent teacher reserve deployments, and class sizes. He brought SESIS up on his own.
October 14, 2011
Mayoral control "trial," Bronx schools summit set for Saturday
A week after hundreds of its members who worked in schools were laid off, the DC-37 union is hosting a trial of the Department of Education. The Coalition for Public Education, a local activist group, organized the trial, to be held Saturday at DC 37's downtown headquarters, to air concerns about public education under mayoral control. Already more than 100 parents, teachers, students, and community members have signed up to testify, according to Akinlabi Mackall. The event is meant to resemble Panel for Educational Policy meetings' public comments segment, which frequently attract many people but rarely influence the panel's decisions, said Mackall, the father of a public school graduate. “The PEP and the mayor have pretty much turned a deaf ear to the voices of teachers and students," he said. “We’ve seen people be very eloquent and very passionate, but then there’s just a rubber-stamp response.” He said CPE would record the testimonies and present them to state lawmakers. The group will also use the complaints as a blueprint for organizing future meetings around issues that trial participants raise, he said. Some of the same criticisms are likely to arise at a second education event being held Saturday 12 miles north, at Lehman College, where Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. is convening a borough-wide education summit.
October 5, 2011
Walcott urges public-private partnerships as city funding shrinks
Chancellor Dennis Walcott praises the Pencil program at a breakfast meeting to honor the parternships the program has created between local principals and business leaders. Addressing city principals and business leaders this morning, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said pro bono partnerships between schools and local businesses could alleviate some of the pressures of mounting budget cuts. Walcott was speaking at a breakfast event held to celebrate more than 300 school-business partnerships that have been created through the PENCIL program, and to announce plans to expand the partnerships to twice as many public schools this year. PENCIL, a non-profit founded in 1995, facilitates relationships between principals and local business leaders, who offer schools free consulting and guidance to boost student achievement through field trips, internships and school-based projects, according to organizers. "These leaders can meet principals around their specific needs," Walcott said. "One of the principals said she was doing something and her corporate partner said, 'there's a better way you can do it.' That's the type of value these partners are adding to the system." Talana Bradley, principal of the Young Women's Leadership School of Brooklyn, said her school's partnership, Jayun Kim, a business consultant, has helped her develop a long-term strategic plan for the growth of her school, which was founded in 2008, and plan for coming budget cuts. "There's never enough money. I'm so upset that they're going to continue making cuts," she said to the audience. ("So am I!" Walcott called back from his seat.) "It's hard to stay motivated. What this partnership does is help us see the forest for the trees."
October 4, 2011
Quinn says council will hold a public hearing on DC 37 layoffs
A rally against the planned layoffs of school aides who belong to DC-37 Using new strategies, City Council members are mounting a final push to stave off the school aide layoffs that are scheduled to take place at the end of the week. Speaker Christine Quinn spoke to Mayor Bloomberg today about the layoffs, according to a Quinn spokesman, who said she plans to schedule a joint public hearing with the Finance and Education Committees to find out more about the scale of the proposed cuts. The DOE has maintained that the layoffs would save at least $38 million, but union officials dispute that total. "By our calculations, it should be closer to $22 and $25 million," said District Council 37's Local 372 president Santos Crespo at a press conference today. The event brought dozens of union and elected officials out in support of Crespo's union workers. It was then followed by a larger rally this evening that attracted Occupy Wall Street protesters. Quinn's announcement comes just days after the Black, Latino and Asian caucus discussed the option following a meeting with Chancellor Dennis Walcott in which little progress was made. Quinn has kept the issue at arms length up to this point, but inveighed against any future teacher layoffs last month on the first day of school. Crespo, who has offered three concession proposals to Walcott, said the council's intervention is the union's best option at this point. "What's going to make [the DOE] respond is going to be the City Council. If that happens, then we'll get to the bottom of this and see where the money is really going."
September 28, 2011
An outspoken parent quits a Queens district council in disgust
Charging that elected parent councils are "window dressing" that allow the city to avoid listening to families, a member of one of them quit publicly last night. Brian Rafferty, a member of the Community Education Council for District 24, announced his resignation at the council's meeting by reading a letter of protest he had written to Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott. "The Community Education Council serves no purpose other than to be a shield between the Department of Education and the parents of schoolchildren citywide," Rafferty wrote in the letter, which he also posted on Facebook. Rafferty echoed complaints that parents around the city have sounded for years about the weak role of the councils, which are seen as one of the few venues for parents to voice opinions about DOE policies, even though their only statutory function is to redraw school zone lines. Over the summer, after a disastrous set of council elections that had to be conducted twice, Walcott replaced the head of the DOE's family engagement office. But Rafferty suggested that little has changed since then. He said council members did not receive maps of new school zones until just before a recent public meeting about them, so members could not respond to parents' criticism. "We were as blindsided as the parents, and our job, as whipping boys for the DOE, was to take the brunt of the parents’ lashes without any regard to our own opinions on this," Rafferty said.
September 23, 2011
New York is still not ready to commit to seeking NCLB waiver
When the Obama administration first announced in August that it would offer states No Child Left Behind waivers, New York State said it would wait and see what the eligibility requirements were before deciding whether to apply. Today, President Obama announced the plan's details, but the state still isn't ready to commit. The U.S. Department of Education is encouraging all states to apply for the waivers, and Race to the Top winners — which include New York — are seen as likely to win them. State and city education officials also expressed enthusiasm about the option. “The president's proposal to grant waivers to states that take steps to raise academic standards, address their lowest performing schools and measure the success of schools based on student progress — not just absolute proficiency — is commendable,” New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said in a statement. But State Education Commissioner John King said the state wouldn't decide whether to apply until October's Board of Regents meeting. Before then, he said, state officials would reach out to "key stakeholder groups and accountability experts" to assess how the state could "best respond to this opportunity." The first application deadline is in December.
September 20, 2011
Union open to turnaround plan that cuts teachers based on merit
For the first time, the city teachers union could allow teachers to be removed from schools based on merit rather than seniority, a union official close to the negotiations said today. As part of his middle schools initiative, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced in a speech this morning a plan to pursue federally-funded "turnaround" for 10 low-performing schools that would begin next year. The model, which replaces at least half of the schools' teachers based on effectiveness – rather than seniority – can only go forward with approval from the United Federation of Teachers. The union has already been in "preliminary discussions" with the city about implementing the model next year and is "open" to further negotiations, an official said today. "These are all struggling schools and we are willing to help struggling schools," the official said. "It's not a debatable point." This version of turnaround, one of four models the Obama Administration has mandated for low-performing schools, has previously been off the table in any past negotiations. Two other models, plus another turnaround version that resembles the city's school closure policy, are already in place in New York City, but none are as aggressive. Together the 10 schools could get up to $30 million in federal grants. Specifics about how teacher would be removed are still under negotiations, the official said. But any teachers removed because of the turnaround would remain on the city's payroll as members of the Absent Teachers Reserve. The mere willingness to discuss a plan to identify and remove unfit teachers from struggling schools is the latest sign of an evolved working relationship between the union and city.
September 20, 2011
Walcott's middle school plan puts new spin on old approaches
In his first major policy speech, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott called for major changes to the ctiy's worst middle schools. To shake middle schools from mediocrity, the city is turning to school reform strategies it considers tried and true. In the next two years, the Department of Education will close low-performing middle schools, open brand-new ones, add more charter schools, and push more teachers and principals through in-house leadership programs, Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced today in a 30-minute policy speech, the first of his six-month tenure. For 10 schools, the city will ask for $30 million in federal funds to try a new reform strategy set out by the federal government, “turnaround,” in which at least half of staff members are replaced, Walcott said. The efforts — which the city plans to pay for with a mixture of state and federal funds — are meant to boost middle school scores that are low and, in the case of reading, actually falling. "People have tried and struggled with the complicated nature of middle schools for decades," he said. "But the plan I've laid out is bolder and more focused than anything we've tried here in New York City before." Experts and advocates who helped engineer the last major effort to overhaul middle schools, a City Council task force that produced recommendations but short-lived changes at the DOE in 2007, disputed Walcott's characterization. They said Walcott's announcement reflects a change in style but not substance. "Much of what he said is not new," said Carol Boyd, a parent leader with the Coalition for Educational Justice, which has long urged more attention for middle schools. "There is a definite party line, except Joel [Klein] wasn’t able to deliver it with the same believability that Chancellor Walcott does," she said. Boyd sat on the task force. “There’s nothing new [or] interesting about this plan," said Pedro Noguera, the New York University professor who chaired the council's task force and has spoken out against school closures. "It sounds like more of what they’ve been doing, shutting down failing schools."
September 19, 2011
In first policy speech, Walcott to focus on moving "the middle"
Since becoming chancellor in April, Dennis Walcott has made many public appearances but few policy pronouncements. That's set to change tomorrow morning, when Walcott is set to deliver the first policy address of his tenure, a speech at New York University titled "Why We Can't Rest: How To Move the Middle." The city is mum on what exactly the speech will be about, but it's clear that Walcott has spent some time talking about middle schools in the last week. On Thursday, he met with roughly a dozen principals of high-scoring middle schools — both district-run and charter — to ask them a question that has long bedeviled educators and policymakers: How to curb the performance drop-off that takes place after students leave elementary school. The 2011 state test scores released last month told a familiar story: Middle school students scored proficient at a far lower rate than students in the elementary grades. “We still need to increase our focus on those years,” Walcott said at the time. It wouldn't be the first time that the city has made improving middle schools a priority.
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