safety first?

FDNY crackdown on fire hazards leads to removal of hallway art

Art on the walls makes a school environment beautiful, happy and bright – right? According to the FDNY, art on the walls can also make a school dangerous.

Last year, the fire department stepped up its inspections of public school buildings, adding the public buildings unit to three others that check into whether schools are meeting fire codes. Schools were warned if more than 20 percent of their wall space was covered with flammable materials such as paper and cloth, a frequent situation in a system where principals and students have long been encouraged to plaster hallways and classrooms with student work.

In total, FDNY cited approximately 1,500 violations in schools, and 500 of them were quickly fixed, according to an FDNY spokesman.

This year, the Department of Education gave principals a heads-up that the policy would continue. Although no policy has actually changed, principals were reminded of the specific fire code parameters this week, and the DOE is working with the FDNY, school facilities staff and the principals union to ensure compliance with the 20 percent rule, said Marge Feinberg, a DOE spokeswoman.

Many principals were caught off guard by the inspections and were worried about how their schools would be affected, said Chiara Coletti, a spokeswoman for the principals union.

“Some principals have expressed concerns to us that their schools will become very sterile-looking because the creative output of their children is very important, so they are trying to find some kind of balance,” she said.

Fourth-grade teachers at a Brooklyn elementary school said they returned to their classrooms this month September to find that the clotheslines that they had previously used to hang student work across the ceilings had been taken down. Although teachers have found ways to work around the crackdown, classrooms “just don’t look as bright and welcoming,” one teacher said.

But school and FDNY officials said aesthetic objections were no match for safety concerns.

“It’s not just about art,” said Jim Long, an FDNY spokesman. “It’s about the overall safety of the environment for students and teachers to work in.”

“Schools are proud of their students’ work and we’ll work with them to help them safely display it,” said Feinberg. “But our collective goal must be to ensure the safety of our students.”

In the letter to principals this week, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott assured principals that they would not be penalized if their schools display scaled-back decorations. The full letter is below.

9.7.11 NOTICE: ALL PRINCIPALS Displays of Student work in Hallways and Public Areas

Many of you are aware of the new FDNY unit which began inspecting schools last school year. The unit is charged with enforcing the Fire Code of the City of New York and pointing out violations of the code. Principals, as the persons in charge of the building, were asked to sign as the recipient for violations. The ISSUED TO line on these violations uses the building address or school number and does not use the name of the principal or person receiving the copy.

This year the FDNY will be asking you to sign only for violations for items under your control. You will be asked to sign for violations for Public Assembly Space overcrowding (when the space is programmed for more persons than the occupancy permit allows) or seating and table arrangement that is different than shown on the approved plans. You will be asked to sign for violations issued for corridor obstructions such as the placement of furniture in the path of egress.

We have worked with the FDNY, OSYD, and DSF to get approval for recording Fire Drill information in OORS. You will be asked to sign for violations if this is not done.

Violations for display of flammable materials in excess of the Code allowed limits will also need to be signed for by the Principal. The DOE and the FDNY have reached an agreement regarding these display that should go for to ease your concerns. The Fire Department is enforcing the Code regulations related to displays of flammable materials (paper and cloth are key examples) in corridors. Corridors are required to be free of obstructions and hazards to allow students and staff to safely exit the building in an emergency. The NYC Fire Code regulations limit the displays using flammable materials to not exceeding 20% of the gross wall area of the corridor. The FDNY Bureau of Fire Prevention understands the importance of engaging interest by displays of student work. The FDNY will accede to displays exceeding 20% of the wall area with certain provisos.

1) Displayed work must lay flat against the wall. Items protruding from the wall are not acceptable.

2) No flammable materials may be hung from the ceiling or suspended across the corridors. These types of displays expose a greater area for ignition. Further, heat banks up against the ceiling in fire situations and displays of this type present a critical hazard in a fire.

3) Freestanding flammable displays extending into the corridor, such as papier mâché trees, are not acceptable as they present potential problems during an evacuation. This type of display can be pushed into the path of egress and impact persons using the corridor.

4) There should be no floor to ceiling hangings in the corridor.

5) The amount in excess of 20% should be reasonable and done in moderation. The FDNY approval of amounts in excess of 20% should be looked on as a limited license, not carte blanche.

These limits have been clearly explained to those persons responsible for rating you, your school, and your programs. Your ability to work within the limits, and to use your and your student’s creativity to maximize the impact of the available areas, will be taken into consideration. You should rotate the displays, and review how best to present student work. It is not the amount of student work exhibited, but rather the quality of the work and the demonstration of process in the display that is critical.

Specific questions may be addressed to Volkert Braren at the Division of School Facilities. His email address is [email protected]

 

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”

Yes and No

In a first, New York officials reject 2 proposed charter schools, but sign off on 5 for New York City

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Charter-school advocates staged a rally outside the state capitol building 2015.

New York’s top education policymakers voted Monday to approve five new charter schools in New York City – but, for the first time, rejected two proposed charters.

The moves by the state Board of Regents sent a mixed message on charter schools. While the Regents have approved more this year than at any point since 2013, the rejections suggest they won’t rubber stamp applications – even those, like the two shot down Monday, that have earned the state education department’s blessing.

Four of the approved schools will be based in the Bronx, and one in Staten Island. (Technically, Monday’s vote is preliminary and the board must finalize its decision at Tuesday’s full-board meeting.)

A new charter high school on Staten Island plans to enroll a significant number of students with disabilities — an area of great need in a borough where a quarter of students have some disability. Students will have the opportunity to graduate with as many as 60 college credits through a partnership with St. John’s University.

The Bronx charters include a new elementary school that will serve high-functioning students on the autism spectrum, an all-boys middle school inspired by an Obama-era program aimed at uplifting young men of color, and a high school for students who have fallen behind academically.

The final Bronx school is KIPP Freedom, slated to open in 2018, which will mark the first time the national network has opened a new school in New York City in six years.

“The community has tremendous support for the charter,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa about KIPP, who suggested the school could even help reduce segregation if sited in the right location.

The two schools the board rejected would have been located in districts in Mount Vernon, in Westchester County, and Homer, in upstate New York.

Board members raised concerns about the applications, including that their curriculums were not very innovative. They also worried that the schools would drain resources from their surrounding districts, potentially forcing them to cut extracurricular programs from traditional schools.

Regent Judith Johnson, who represents the Mount Vernon district, expressed concern that the school only planned to serve students grades 6-8, while the district is moving towards a model that keeps children in the same school from kindergarten through eighth grade. She suggested waiting to see how the district’s efforts pan out.

“I would suggest this is premature,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to support this at this time.”

The vote comes as top state officials have been skeptical of charter schools and policies regulating them.

At past meetings, Regents have wondered aloud whether the schools are serving their fair share of high-needs students. And Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia have been on a warpath against a new policy that will allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers.

However, those concerns have not stopped the Regents from approving new charter schools. During a low point for approvals in 2015, when the state approved only four charters, few applications made it past the education department’s vetting process and to the board for final approval.

Since then, there has been a steady uptick in approvals. The board signed off on seven new schools last year, and is set to approve at least eight this year. (The board, which typically accepts applications in two or three rounds each year, approved three schools earlier this year.)

State education department officials on Monday also presented new ways to evaluate charter schools and decide whether they should remain open, based on proposals that the Board of Regents floated last month.

The additions to the state’s “Charter School Performance Framework” could include measures of student chronic absenteeism, the schools’ suspension rates, and the results of student and staff surveys. In previous meetings, Regents have also suggested surveying families who decide to leave charter schools.

Charter schools are already required to meet certain enrollment and retention targets, or to make “good faith efforts” to reach them. The state also considers the quality of a school’s curriculum and its outreach to families.

At Monday’s meeting, some Regents proposed adding yet another measure: whether charter schools are sharing innovative practices with the district schools.

“If the original intent [of charter schools] was to create opportunity for innovation,” said Regent Johnson, “we have to decide now, after those twenty plus years, did that happen?”