drying up

Students showcase tech innovations as federal funding ends

Congressman Charles Rangel visits students at the Innovation Celebration in Harlem.

A pool of federal funds that has enabled schools and teachers to get help adopting new technologies is drying up at the end of the summer.

By the end of August, the Department of Education will no longer receive a federal grant called Title II-D, which helped schools pay for technology training centers in each borough, online curriculum, iPads, laptops, and other tools.

The U.S. Department of Education decided to eliminate Title II-D funds last year after the Obama administration reorganized its education budget to cut programs considered to be inefficient. The administration slashed the $100 million budget for education technology.

That means the city may have to find another way to pay for its technology centers and school gizmos without more funding, which amounted to $22.5 million over three years.

“I think people are working on seeing if there could be some sort of sustained support, but there’s nothing that’s been formally announced,” said Lisa Nielsen, who runs the Manhattan section of the department’s Educational Technology office.

The Education Technology office distributes the grants across five boroughs and helps train teachers at the borough’s technology center and in classrooms. The office also help schools use funding to buy items that encourage technological innovations in the classroom, such as iPads.

Nielsen and nearly 25 department employees are also expected to lose their positions because of the cuts. They will enter the Absent Teacher Reserve pool after August 30, when the funding ends.

“The relevance of us is that we are really able to personalize support to each school. I don’t believe that the schools will be able to take on using technology well without this sort of support,” added Nielsen. “When you’re the technology liaison or the media library specialist in your school, there’s usually just one of you so you feel alone. This was an opportunity to bring everyone together, to share ideas.”

The Department of Education also uses the grant money to host monthly meetings so that technology representatives could come together to share the online programs they use in their schools and receive advice on how to improve their technological practices.

“I didn’t really know much about what was going on. It was a real connection with other schools,” said Roy Silverstein, who is the technology specialist at P.S. 6.

“I learned a lot about what the other schools were doing. The iPad was new to me, I wanted to see what more I could do with it,” added Gordon Fish, who represents P.S. 48. “I’ve always learned at least four or five new things when I came here.”

Fish became involved with the Title II-D grant when he attended the meeting and was able to get new equipment for his school.

Fish and Silverstein joined dozens of students as schools presented their work at the Harlem Renaissance Training Center on Wednesday. Students were excited to share what they’ve learned this year.

The students said their projects — which ranged from using FlipCams to record poetry readings and building book clubs around iPads — helped them gain skills and learn from their classmates.

“I was kind of low in science but since I used Khan Academy, I became interested in it because of the videos,” said Daniel Pacheco, speaking about the non-profit organization that creates educational videos. “I really understood the concept of the atom even though I’m only supposed to learn that in a few years.”

The fifth-grader learned how to write and speak English better after using iPad apps and the Kindle. He immigrated to the country from Ecuador when he was eight and barely spoke English.

His teacher, Virginia Liz, said she doesn’t need to be convinced that kids can benefit from incorporating technology in the classroom.

“I’m in a perfect spot to experiment with the new wave of learning,” said Liz, who teaches at P.S. 8. “We decided that we wanted to use technology to go further when I’m not there.”

Her students share iPads, mini laptops, and Kindles to read, learn from using educational apps, and search definitions of words they don’t understand. Liz said she uses the online programs to track students’ progress and push students forward even when their pace is faster or slower than that of the rest of their class.

“We read a lot and we write a lot,” added Liz. “That’s what I think is innovative about this, the fact that we’re taking learning into our own hands.”

For the last three years, the Manhattan Office of Educational Technology has partnered with a non-profit organization to help train teachers how to use technological gadgets and incorporate online curriculum in their lessons.

The organization, Teaching Matters, provides the online curriculum and sends “technology coaches” to the schools to work closely with teachers.

“Teaching can be very isolationist,” said John Clemente, who works for Teaching Matters. “Unless you provide a rigorous structure for them to share ideas with each other and provide time for them to talk about those things, the best teachers will do it on their own and the teachers that need support might not get the support.”

Clemente said schools could still work with his organization if they find room in their budgets next year, but he predicted some drop-off.

“When we don’t have an onsite presence, we get a slightly lower percentage of participation,” added Clemente.

Educators said the cuts are coming at exactly the wrong time.

“I just don’t understand why, when we’re supposed to be getting more technically efficient, they’re cutting these programs,” said Fish, the tech specialist at P.S. 48. “They’re spending all this money on technology but they just don’t have enough training for it.”

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”