public affairs (updated. a lot)

Live-blogging the PEP: 23 school closure votes on the agenda

We’re stationed right now at Brooklyn Technical High School, where the Panel for Educational policy is meeting to vote on the fates of 11 schools the city wants to close. The panel will also vote on whether to allow half a dozen new schools to open.

There are three different protests planned for the meeting and we’ll be covering all of them, along with the comments made by members of the public who came outside of an organized protest. Stay tuned all night — we’ll be at Brooklyn Tech until the last vote is cast.

(Just a reminder: Our live-blog is in reverse chronological order. If you want to read from the beginning, start at the end of the post.)

12:01 a.m. The votes are complete, the protesters gone, the panel members departed — and now the reporters are leaving, too, after talking with Chancellor Dennis Walcott about his first Panel for Educational Policy vote on closures since becoming chancellor last April.

“I understand the emotions involved,” Walcott told the reporters. “But sometimes we have to make tough choices that people find unpopular.'”

11:21 p.m. In an anti-climactic moment, the panel unanimously approves a slate of Department of Education contracts totaling nearly $85 million. (Nearly $80 million of that was for a single contract, a one-year extension of a contract with a company that provides school busing services.

11:19 p.m. A lot of people are feeling unhappy after tonight’s Panel for Educational Policy votes. But not State Sen. Daniel Squadron, who had supported the expansion of Brooklyn’s P.S. 8 that was the only proposal to win unanimous approval tonight. “Tonight’s vote to approve the new P.S. 8 middle school is great news for Brooklyn!” Squadron says in a statement.

Members of the Panel for Educational Policy vote during tonight's meeting.

11:18 p.m. And the voting on school closures and co-locations is over. Each proposal before the Panel for Educational Policy has been approved, and next fall 22 schools or portions of schools will start phasing out. An additional school, the Academy of Business and Career Development, will have disappeared forever.

Diane Peruggia, the Staten Island borough president’s appointee to the panel, abstained from voting on the closure of the only Staten Island school on the list. The appointees of Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro typically do not vote along with their fellow borough presidents’ appointees. Also, Molinaro had said he would not visit P.S. 14 until a new school opened in the building, signaling that he supported the city’s closure proposal. But parents on Staten Island were upset that the borough was poised to experience its first school closure under the Bloomberg administration.

11:06 p.m. As the panel races through its agenda items, which include co-locations of new and existing schools in addition to closures and truncations, the same vote count repeats itself over and over. The four borough presidents’ appointees vote against each proposals, while Mayor Bloomberg’s appointees line up to support them. The only exceptions are for two schools that are actually adding grades. There, the Bronx and Manhattan representatives on the panel abstained from the votes; everyone else lent their support.

11:05 p.m. The next five votes are for two closures (of Aspire Prep and Satellite III middle schools), two middle school truncations (of the Academy for Social Entrepreneurship), and two-colocations (of a new middle school in Aspire Prep’s building and the expansion of Brooklyn’s P.S. 8 into a neighboring high school building). The expansion of P.S. 8 was approved unanimously, the first proposal to win full approval tonight. The four borough presidents’ appointees voted against the other plans.

11:02 p.m. The voting has begun. The first schools up for closure are Gompers, Gateway, Jane Addams, and Grace Dodge. Repeating a familiar pattern, the appointees of the borough presidents of Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens oppose each closure, but they are outvoted by the mayor’s appointees and the schools will begin to phase out this fall.

11 p.m. Eduardo Marti, the City University of New York’s panel appointee, says he plans to vote in favor of each school closure proposal. “I think this is a very courageous action we’re taking tonight,” he says.

10:45 p.m. At this point, the audience has dwindled from thousands at the peak of the meeting to just about 50 people. There are parents from Brooklyn and the Bronx, some students from Legacy School for Integrated Studies, and a handful of stalwart Occupy protesters.

10:26 p.m. Patrick Sullivan asks why the city is moving to close Legacy School for International Studies, located in Union Square, when it recently appointed a new principal there.

Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg said he wanted to acknowledge the efforts of Joan Mosely, who became principal last year. “But the data in the school is problematic,” he said. “As outcomes have improved across the city the progress and outcomes for students at this school have not improved.”

10:15 p.m. Chancellor Dennis Walcott summarizes the message he got from protesters tonight. “I heard both sides tonight. I heard people say they do want more choices,” Walcott says. “We do have a vocal group here but we’ve also heard people testify that their preference is having quality choices.”

The dwindling crowd boos.

10:13 p.m. Deputy chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky argues that the city really doesn’t close very many schools. Twenty-three — the number of schools on the chopping block tonight — represents less than 2 percent of all schools open in the city, he says.

If tonight’s closures are all approved, about 135 schools will have been closed under the Bloomberg administration — about 10 percent of the number of schools that were open when Mayor Bloomberg took office 2002.

10:03 p.m. At the top of her lungs, a lone protester is shouting: Underutilization — the city’s claim that some buildings have extra space — is a lie! The DOE is a failure!

It’s a big change from earlier in the evening, when thousands of people filled the auditorium and many, many of them were yelling.

10 p.m. Gbobemi Okotieuro, the Brooklyn borough president’s appointee to the panel, presses city officials on how they pick which schools to close. DOE deputy chancellor Marc Sternberg explains that the department considers test scores, reflections of students’ improvement over time, safety at the school, and other issues.

“We marry those data with our ongoing contact with the school over the course of a five month conversation that leads to a decision here,” Sternberg says.

9:45 p.m. The debate over career and technical education schools continues. Shael Polakow-Suransky, the Department of Education’s chief academic officer, says the simple truth is that the CTE schools proposed for closure have not served their students well.

At Samuel Gompers High School, he says, 600 ninth-graders three years ago turned into just 116 seniors this year. “All those students who did not make it to graduation, their voices are not being heard tonight,” Polakow-Suransky says.

About the city’s practice of replacing low-performing schools, he says, “We’ve learned over and over again that it’s a powerful way to improve a school by creating an opportunity for new team of educators to come in and build that school back up.”

9:38 p.m. Wilfredo Pagan, who recently joined the panel as Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr’s pick, signals that he also will not vote to support all of the closure proposals. “Not everyone here is a puppet,” he says. “I’m here to represent the Bronx.

9:31 p.m. Panel members are questioning Department of Education officials about their decision to close schools that train students in particular careers. Four career and technical education schools are on the closure list tonight.

But Marc Sternberg, the deputy chancellor in charge of closing and opening schools, says new and improved CTE schools are on their way. “We can very quickly replace these low-quality seats with high-quality seats,” he says, to boos from the audience.

9:21 p.m. Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan borough president’s appointee to the panel, says he will not vote for any of the closure proposals.

“I’m going to vote against or abstain on all of the closings,” he says. “My general sense is we have to send a message to the administration that the status quo is not working.”

About the thinned-out crowd, Sullivan says, “I think they’ve kind of given up on public comment because they know everything is decided.”

Remember, the panel has never rejected a city proposal. In 2004, when several board members Bloomberg had chosen told him that they would vote against ending third-grade social promotion, he had them removed and replaced overnight with people who supported his policies in an event known as the “Monday Night Massacre.”

9:13 p.m. The auditorium has thinned out considerably and many of the people who had signed up to speak are no longer present to take the microphone. With the 125 names on the sign-up list exhausted, the public comment portion of the evening has come to a close. Panel members announce a five-minute break before beginning the next portion of the meeting, the panel’s deliberation.

9:10 p.m. Steven Cobb, the principal of Aspire Prep, a Bronx middle school that could close, is asking panel members to give the school more time to improve. At the school’s closure hearing last month, Cobb attributed the school’s low scores to several teachers’ extended absences.

9:04 p.m. The auditorium is really starting to empty out, even after the protesters who had occupied the lobby were allowed back in. After all, tomorrow is a school day.

Jessica spoke with a couple of teachers from Washington Irving High School, which is up for a closure vote, as they left to head home. Christopher Ahearn, who teaches English, and Andrew Decker, who teaches history, said they took a cab to Brooklyn Tech earlier this evening after staying late at Irving with movie-buff students who were screening a Woody Allen film.

Ahearn offered an unorthodox take on the outcomes of school closures: While evidence suggests that the closures have caused high concentrations of needy students at some schools, Ahearn said the city is using the practice to disperse the highest-need students so their low scores don’t show up in school data.

Many teachers are at Irving precisely because they want to work with needy students, he said, adding, “There is no place for teachers who want to work with these kids to address the silent, underlying problem of poverty.”

Decker, who defended his school in an essay posted this week on the UFT’s blog, described the successes of several homeless students and said his students decorated his classroom with paper cranes when his mother died this year. It’s an injustice, he said, that “these decisions are made by people on the outside who have no sense of what our children go through.”

8:57 p.m. We have our first reference to Charlotte Danielson, the creator of a teacher evaluation rubric that the city favors and is piloting in 140 schools this year. It comes from speaker number 53, who starts by checking the “people’s mic,” then launches into a chant: “Mr. mayor, when you are clueless you are clueless all the way!” She says the city has “misappropriated” Danielson’s research.

8:53 p.m. Back to public comment: Speaker 47 (of about 125) is the grandmother of a freshman at Manhattan Theatre Lab High School, which the city wants to close. She says the teachers do not have adequate support and the principal doesn’t have sufficient administrative staff.

“How is it that the school doesn’t have books? That the school is closing? I want to know why,” she says.

8:40 p.m. After leaving for about 20 minutes to occupy the lobby, protesters have returned to the auditorium with an invigorated energy. The police presence is stepping up its intervention, too: Geoff reports that about two dozen armed officers have formed a barricade between the media pit and the front-row seats, where the protesters begin.

8:39 p.m. Some of the protesters here seem difficult to faze, but one Occupy-affiliated activist just drew gasps from his fellow protesters when he blurted out, “I hope your kids get their asses kicked by all the kids here” about the panel. He was out of panel members’ earshot, but a teacher sitting nearby immediately rebuked him.

The activist told Geoff his name is Chepe and that he is 30 years old and doesn’t currently have a job. “I would love to be a teacher, but they’re not hiring,” he said. “There’s no jobs.”

8:35 p.m. An early word from a Department of Education spokesman about the protester lockout, which has now ended, is inconclusive. But, he says, “They are allowed back in now.”

Back in the auditorium, members of the Panel for Educational Policy continue to listen to public comments from the audience.

The scene in Brooklyn Tech's lobby just after 8 p.m.

8:25 p.m. Tensions are mounting inside the auditorium, too. A young man with a backpack appears to be being removed by police officers, but why or even whether that is true is not clear. Still, protesters have gathered around him at the left side of the stage and are shouting, “This is a peaceful protest! Let him stay!”

8:20 p.m. Why the many police officers on site have barred protesters from reentering the auditorium is unclear, but it’s obvious now that that is what has happened.

8:16 p.m. Out in the lobby, students are holding an impromptu session with the “people’s mic” voice amplification strategy. Garry Rivas, from Legacy School for Integrated Studies, is leading a group in chanting their school’s name: “Legacy!” reverberates through the lobby.

After school safety agents try to stop the group from reentering the auditorium, the chant turns to, “Let us in!”

The protest in the lobby grows rowdier. Jessica reports that the floor is even shaking.

8:15 p.m. A student has taken the official Department of Education microphone, possibly for the first time (it’s been pretty hectic inside Brooklyn Tech’s auditorium, making it difficult to follow the action or hear public comments). He is Marvin Gibson, a junior at the Academy for Business and Community Development, which would close at the end of the year under the city’s plan. As a young black man, Gibson says, all he wants is to succeed in life — and ABCD is helping him do it. If the PEP approves the school’s closure, Gibson would have to attend a different school for his senior year.

8:08 p.m. Geoff reports that some Occupy activists are losing steam. Justin Wedes, a former teacher who helped orchestrate the protest, is out in the lobby. ”The way it’s going now, it’s just starting to look like the old PEPs,” he says. “So maybe we will just walk out. I don’t know.”

Meanwhile, dozens of people have left in the last 15 minutes, but not in unison. Not in protest either, it seems. “It’s late. I have kids, I have to work tomorrow, and they’re not going to let me speak,” explains Lois Mann, a parent from P.S. 215 in Far Rockaway.

8:06 p.m.Up on the balcony is a parent contingent from Brooklyn’s I.S. 318. The school is not on the closure list this year, but parents say they are so scared of closure they came out preemptively. 

Mariesa Louis said she is worried because the school got a C this year on its city progress report. “And a C is very close to an F,” she said. “That’s why I’m here.”

A fellow parent at the school, PTA co-president Dian Moore, says she’s worried not only about closures but about budget cuts and overcrowding, too.

8:05 p.m. I just got this text from Rachel: “For the first time, chanting dies down.”

7:58 p.m. William Thannie is standing up and proclaiming his support for the city’s school closure policies. He says he’s a parent whose daughter graduated from East New York Academy and came to the meeting out of concern for nephews and nieces who attend schools in the Bronx — “I don’t know which ones,” he says.

“If the schools are failing, and being closed, they need an option to open another. It doesn’t matter if it’s a charter or not,” Thannie says, too boos from the crowd.

7:53 p.m. Rachel just spoke to a mother whose son has attended two of the schools on this year’s closure list. After he was bullied at KAPPA VII last fall, she says, the city offered him a transfer to the Academy of Business and Community Development, where he is in the sixth grade. The city removed KAPPA VII from the closure list yesterday (along with Wadleigh Secondary School for Performing and Visual Arts) but ABCD could be closed tonight. Unlike the other schools on the chopping block, ABCD would not phase out but instead would close at the end of the year.

“I asked the DOE to transfer my son for safety and he was transferred to ABCD. Now it’s being closed,” said the mother, Eleanor Petway. “It’s not fair. He doesn’t deserve that.”

Petway said her son is “the happiest he’s been since he left elementary school” and hasn’t had any problems with bullying at ABCD.

7:48 p.m. Some of the parents who had joined the union’s protest outside Brooklyn Tech before the Panel for Educational Policy meeting are saying they feel cheated out of the chance to speak before the panel that will decide their schools’ fate.

Donna Hamlet, president of the parent association at Far Rockaway’s P.S. 215, which could close, tells Jessica that she rode a UFT-sponsored bus from Far Rockaway to Fort Greene. When she received a laminated pass to speak at the “People’s PEP,” the alternate meeting the union had planned, she thought she had signed up to speak in the regular meeting. By the time the march was cancelled, the PEP’s official sign-in list was closed.

Hamlet said she would have spoken from her heart about the lack of support she has seen during her son’s stint at P.S. 215, where he is in fifth grade. “When we got a C no one stepped in. When we got a D no one stepped in. When we got an F no one told us,” she said. “The parents found out from the news.”

7:47 p.m. The latest rumor to fly is that Occupy the DOE and the UFT will walk out of the auditorium together at 8 p.m. The move would be an unexpected show of unity after an afternoon in which the two groups seemed to be at odds over their protest tactics.

7:45 p.m. After two hours of non-stop “people’s mic,” the protesters who are affiliated with the Occupy movement have grown quieter and hoarser, but they are still at it. A self-proclaimed socialist takes the mic and says the issue isn’t just about school closures.

“Why haven’t the unions done anything to stop this but protest?” he asks. “We need a break from Democrats and Republicans. It’s not about school closures, it’s about closing society of the working classes.”

7:35 p.m. The emphasis on the “people’s mic” and the union’s late entry seems to have limited the number of people signed up to speak. There are 125 people signed up on the official speaker list, according to a Department of Education spokesman. That’s about a quarter of the number of people who signed up to speak at last year’s closure hearings.

Last year, 345 people signed up to speak at the first of two panel meetings to vote on school closures. Two days later, about 150 people signed up to speak at the second meeting.

7:20 p.m. UFT President Michael Mulgrew explains his decision to call off the union’s scheduled march to its planned “People’s PEP” at P.S. 20 and dispels the rumors that union members plan to walk out.

“We said fine, if you don’t want us marching in the street so we’ll go here,” Mulgrew tells Rachel. “Everyone’s here now. That’s how the balcony’s full.”

7:16 p.m. Up in the balcony, Jessica is speaking with a group of teachers from Grover Cleveland High School, which is not facing a closure vote tonight but instead has been slated for turnaround. An ESL teacher says Chancellor Dennis Walcott visited her classroom just a few months ago and complimented her instruction. Now the city says half of the teachers at the school will have to be replaced over the summer.

Another Cleveland teacher pointed down to members of the PEP on the stage below and said, “We work so hard. If you put one of those people in front of a classroom for a month they wouldn’t survive.”

7:15 p.m. Rachel just spoke with a UFT spokesman who said the union’s march to P.S. 20 was cancelled by an executive decision by President Michael Mulgrew. “Mulgrew changed his mind,” the spokesman said. Teachers from the schools up for closure had put together presentations about their schools. Now many are sitting high up in the auditorium’s balcony.

7:10 p.m. Most of the panel members, including Chancellor Dennis Walcott, appear to be transfixed by the spectacle, Rachel says. A handful — including the tweeting Manhattan borough president’s appointee, Patrick Sullivan — instead appear to be reading something

7:05 p.m. In response to another question on Twitter, this time posed by GothamSchools, panel member Patrick Sullivan says again that the noise is a big problem when it comes to making sure tonight’s meeting complies with the state’s open meetings law. Yes, panel members have headphones, but members of the public have to be able to hear, too.

“The public has to hear,” Sullivan tweets. “Nobody heard the chair’s or secretary’s statements.”

7:04 p.m. Noah Gotbaum, a parent who sits on the Community Education Council for District 3, is getting fed up by all of the people using the Department of Education’s official microphone. He says into it, “I will be the last person to use this PEP mic. That means when you see hands raised please hold talking and then the people’s mic will take off.”

Then Gotbaum directs protesters to look at the back of the program distributed by the Occupy group for lyrics. The room erupts into song: “This little school of mine, we’re gonna let it shine …”

6:51 p.m. Patrick Sullivan, an outspoken member of the panel who often casts a lone “no” vote, is apparently sending Twitter messages from Brooklyn Tech’s stage. Responding to NY1 reporter Lindsey Christ’s Tweet about the volume of protesters in the auditorium, Sullivan says the noise is a real problem.

“Open meetings law requires proceedings to be audible by public,” Sullivan writes. “PEP is in violation.”

6:50 p.m. A spokesman for Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz says his appointee to the panel, Gbubemi Okotieuro, will vote against all of the closure proposals on the table tonight. “They don’t want to listen to anyone,” the spokesman says about the city. “They dont want to hear anyone.”

A view of the PEP meeting from the balcony, where UFT members were seated after aborting a protest march.

6:49 p.m. Jessica is in the nosebleed section with UFT members who were directed there by police after aborting their march to P.S. 20.

A small group of charter school parents are brandishing signs supporting the city's closure policy.

6:48 p.m. A contingent of about 20 charter school parents are standing by silently inside the auditorium. They are holding up handwritten signs that say, “Better Schools Now.”

6:44 p.m. Jackson got his statement out over the shouting and takes aim at the city’s latest plans to overhaul 33 struggling schools. “Until 2002 a pep rally meant something good,” he says. “Our kids are not soccer balls to be kicked around from transformation to restart to turnaround. They’re not Legos to be built in crazy ways for the mayors castle in the sky.”

6:42 p.m. Four busloads of parents, teachers, and students came from Staten Island, where the Bloomberg is trying to close a school for the first time.

Jose Santano’s son attends the school, P.S. 14, and father and son are together at Brooklyn Tech tonight. Santano says he’s confident. “We’re going to win,” he says.

6:38 p.m. Looks like Councilwoman Letitia James got the good news about the school in her district after all. James is the first to speak during a period of time reserved for elected officials — and she thanks the city for keeping KAPPA VII open but says the meeting’s “chaos” shows that the department had failed at engaging communities. State Sen. Bill Perkins had been first, but he is outside with other elected officials who are addressing the union crowds.

But after James completes her statement on the official microphone, Occupy protesters recruit her to stand on a seat and speak on the people’s mic as well. Her shouting prompts Patrick Sullivan, a panel member who routinely votes against school closures, to say, “I can’t hear what anybody is saying.”

“Join the club,” says Michael Best, the Department of Education’s top lawyer.

Shouting also drowns out the next official speaker — Robert Jackson, chair of the City Council’s education committee and himself an opponent of many Department of Education policies. “Use the people’s mic!” protesters say. “We are the speakers!”

6:35 p.m. Rachel and Jessica are both reporting that the UFT’s protest has taken a turn. Instead of going to P.S. 20, six blocks away, the union members are flooding into Brooklyn Tech instead, where the auditorium had been abuzz but nowhere near packed. UFT chief Michael Mulgrew is with them and they are filling the balconies, which had been empty.

On Twitter, the union is offering an explanation: “NYPD won’t allow march to #PeoplesPEP so UFT protesters are headed into #PEP.”

6:30 p.m. The UFT’s march to P.S. 20 is starting to move, slowly but surely. Jessica is sticking with the union tonight and reports that college students affiliated with the Occupy movement are imploring union members to enter Brooklyn Tech and attend the panel meeting instead of the union’s alternate meeting. “Be there for the children,” union members are being told.

6:26 p.m. I just got a press release from City Councilwoman Letitia James opposing the closures of three schools in her district.

“The DOE has not provided struggling public schools with the resources and support needed to be successful, instead closing the schools, oftentimes in the face of loud community criticism,” James said in a statement.

But the press release is a day out of date. Yesterday, the city removed KAPPA VII, one of the schools in James’s district, from the closure proposal list. Remaining are P.S. 22 and the middle school grades of P.S. 161, where parents held a one-day boycott earlier this week against the plan.

6:21 p.m. Brian Jones, the teacher-activist from the Grassroots Education Movement, has now taken the dais set up by protesters inside Brooklyn Tech’s auditorium. “This is our meeting,” he shouts, thrusting his fist into the air.

But the protest’s power is mixed. Rachel reports that people in the back of the auditorium can’t hear what’s being shouted in the front. Not everyone who is using the “people’s mic” is saying the same thing. Plus, the Department of Education has set up multiple loudspeakers, so panel members can be heard over top of the protesters’ shouting.

6:20 p.m. Jessica reports that after about an hour of elected officials speaking to them, union members are preparing to march to P.S. 20. It’s cold and dark, but at least a few hundred people appear prepared to make the six-block trek.

“Sorry for all the typos my fungers are frozen,” she tells me by e-mail.

6:13 p.m. Students from Legacy School for Integrated Studies, who have been uncommonly active throughout the closure process, are leading the first chants as the panel meeting officially gets underway.

6:05 p.m. The meeting hasn’t yet gotten underway but panel members have taken the stage. Department of Education officials say they doubt the protests will derail the meeting, a position that Chancellor Dennis Walcott established earlier today. Each panel member has a headphone next to his or her microphone to facilitate hearing the speakers who have signed up on the official list.

6:03 p.m. Occupy protesters are bringing more than their own microphones tonight. They’re also preparing for their own votes, handing out neon green index cards to be used as ballots.

6:01 p.m. Geoff has found the first person to sign up to speak during the public comment portion of the evening. Shamona Kirkland is a member of the elected parent council for District 19. She arrived at 4 p.m. and put her name on the list when it opened at 5:30 p.m.

6 p.m. At least some of the people on hand aren’t part of any organized protest. Stephen Lazar, a teacher who has contributed to the GothamSchools Community section, has arrived and tells Rachel, “I’m just here to listen.”

5:59 p.m. The elected officials speaking to union members outside of Brooklyn Tech are many and include Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, City Councilwoman Inez Dickens, Comptroller (and mayoral candidate) John Liu, and City Councilman Charles Barron. All sound a similar note, Jessica reports: Bloomberg has had 10 years to fix the city’s schools and increased school funding by millions of dollars — so why are schools failing? Several speakers call for legislation to halt mayoral control, which took a hit in a poll released this week.

Brian Jones, left, and UFT VP Leo Casey debate tactics.

5:56 p.m. Leo Casey, a UFT vice president, is arguing with a teacher, Brian Jones, outside Brooklyn Tech. They are openly debating each other’s group’s tactics. Jones wants to know why the union has encouraged members not to enter the panel meeting. Casey says it’s because the union does not want a confrontation with Jones’s group, the Grassroots Education Movement, which has been involved in the Occupy protests.

5:47 p.m. Rumors are flying. One rumor swirling among Occupy protesters is that the union is encouraging people to walk out of the PEP meeting. In fact, they’ve asked members to consider not entering at all and instead walking six blocks to P.S. 20 for the union’s alternate meeting.

A second rumor, heard among the union members, is that the panel is planning to watch the public comment period not from Brooklyn Tech’s auditorium but instead from a video feed in a secret location, behind closed doors. Open meetings laws require a public comment period and for the panel to discuss and vote on agenda items in public, but it’s not clear whether the panel members must be present for the public comments.

5:40 p.m. Now groups of Occupy protesters are gathering at Brooklyn Tech’s four outside corners. An organizer explains what the group has planned once its members are in the 3,000-seat auditorium: “We’re not going to sign up to speak on the electronic mic.” Instead, they’ll use the “people’s mic,” the acoustic voice amplification technique pioneered by Occupy.

A teacher who retired in 1996 from now-closed Prospect Heights High School, Susan Metz, says this is her second PEP meeting and second protest. “The idea of closing schools is absolutely criminal,” she tells Rachel. “The adults are not committed to helping students.”

5:33 p.m. Teachers from William E. Grady High School, which faces turnaround, have gathered in a large group, brandishing a banner in the school’s signature red color. They say they support the UFT, whose president, Michael Mulgrew, taught at the school. But they also say they will be attending the regular PEP meeting, not the union’s alternate event.

Chris Manos, Grady’s chapter leader, says he is not optimistic about the impact of the protests. “If I was a gambling man I would bet my house that this wouldn’t make a difference no matter what,” he said.

5:30 p.m. Inside Brooklyn Tech, members of the specialized high school’s National Honor Society are patiently waiting to sell chips and sodas to PEP attendees. The union is preparing for a press conference and speakers are filing in but are not buying snacks.

5:08 p.m. The first signs of difference among the three protest groups have started to emerge. Protesters affiliated with the Occupy movement, many of them young teachers, are greeting people who have started to enter the school building. “Welcome to the People’s PEP,” they say.

Kelly Wolcott, an organizer in the group who teaches in Brooklyn, said the Occupy protesters would not join the UFT when it constitutes its own meeting at P.S. 20.

“We’re not doing the march,” she said. “We’re letting the UFT do its own thing.”

5:05 p.m. A group of student activists from Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School have now arrived and are meeting with organizers from the Occupy movement, which has plans to try to derail the panel meeting that starts in an hour. It’s not the first trip to the PEP meeting for some of the students — they had testified in past years about how their school would continue to flounder without additional resources.

5:04 p.m. A group of teachers from P.S. 19 in Williamsburg, which could close, has arrived on a bus from Williamsburg, with signs describing the school’s problems. Laraine DeAngelis, a third-grade teacher who has been at the school for 26 years, said P.S. 19 had lost its librarian, technology teacher, math and literacy coaches, and science teacher in recent years. She says she has never been to a PEP meeting before.

4:50 p.m. In addition to the 23 schools on the closure slate tonight, the UFT has also recruited teachers from the 33 low-performing schools that are facing “turnaround” to rally at tonight’s meeting. Turnaround, which would require the schools to close and reopen with new names and teaching staffs that are at least half new, is not on the PEP’s agenda tonight.

Outside Brooklyn Tech, teachers from Automotive High School, which is on the turnaround list, have joined the union crowd. Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch has described Automotive as a “warehouse” for high-needs, low-performing students.

“This mayors notion of “fixing the school is closing the school” is ridiculous,” said Joe Puntino, a history teacher at Automotive. “We want to support or fellow union brethren.”

4:45 p.m. The scene outside Brooklyn Tech is most calm, still. But preparations are underway for the three protests planned for the evening and the massive crowds expected to accompany them. Six police vans are parked on DeKalb Avenue, Rachel reports. A teachers union vice president, Leo Casey, has also arrived.

A UFT banner on the corner of DeKalb and South Elliott Place has attracted about two dozen teachers. Three teachers who say they are from a Brooklyn elementary school tell Rachel that they will be attending the union’s “People’s PEP” alternative, which will happen at P.S. 20 six blocks away.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.