back-up power

Dewey gets its building back, but longer-term problems remain

Smoke billows from John Dewey High School following the sound of an explosion on Monday night, during Hurricane Sandy. Credit: Sandra Aronowitz-Garron/Youtube

Teachers from John Dewey High School reported for duty to Sheepshead Bay High School on Monday with a sinking feeling. Months after narrowly escaping closure, the school had struggled since September to settle on programs for its 1,900 students and, if that were not enough, its Gravesend building had caught on fire during Hurricane Sandy.

Now they thought  students and staff would have spread out among three different school buildings, including Sheepshead Bay, for the foreseeable future.

“It could be, without a doubt, another nail in the coffin,” one teacher said about the planned relocation. “It’s a whirlwind to be told to go here or there.”

The school’s staff spent Monday deciding who would report where on Wednesday, and creating new schedules for their students. Then, late Monday evening, teachers got a phone call from the Department of Education with unexpected news: Dewey would be able to reopen right away after all.

Teachers said the phone call came as a welcome surprise, but some said they thought the location was the least of Dewey’s worries.

Last week, Chancellor Dennis Walcott cited Dewey as one of the most severely damaged schools in the wake of the hurricane. And teachers said they had received no hints that the school would be ready to reopen any time soon, even after Principal Kathleen Elvin stopped by the building to assess repair efforts on Monday morning and afternoon. But department officials said the School Construction Authority had been able to install a generator and get Dewey’s boiler to work, making the building safe for students and teachers.

The quick return was exactly what some teachers said they thought the school needed.

“We need to be a comfort buffer against what happened in the hurricane,” one teacher said outside of Sheepshead Bay on Monday. “Dewey is really family to a lot of kids, they want to see their teachers and the staff again. But I have a feeling that nothing will return to normal until we get back our building.”

But Dewey’s normal is far from ideal, several teachers said. They said Elvin and her administration have been so focused on instruction that some of the fundamentals of running a large high school have fallen by the wayside.

In the most glaring example, they said, scheduling woes had continued deep into the semester, with some students having received an eighth program revision within the last couple of weeks.

“It was incompetence beyond belief,” one teacher said about the administration’s efforts to program students.

Others said Elvin’s approach to the storm days reflected the same misplaced priorities. Even as teachers struggled without Internet or gas for their cars—one the most convenient modes of transportation in Southern Brooklyn, particularly after Sandy knocked out some subway lines — and families remained out of reach, Elvin instructed teachers to focus on aligning their lessons to new standards.

She “wanted us to do unit plans on the Common Core today, and I don’t see why because we didn’t have the Internet, we didn’t have any of our resources,” one teacher said in a phone interview on Monday evening.

Some schools used the Friday teacher workday to brainstorm ways to help students, families, and colleagues whose lives were disrupted by the storm. But Elvin emailed department chairs on Thursday morning, just 48 hours after the fire at Dewey, instructing them to make copies of a department-produced science lesson to share with their teachers. The email made no mention of the storm or the damage it wrecked on Dewey.

“If we still have an Election Day PD, it can continue the work on Common Core,” Elvin wrote in the email, which GothamSchools obtained. “We also need to review passing rates with teachers who have failing rates over 15% to see how we can support them and their students.”

At least one assistant principal hedged against the instructions when passing them on to the teachers in his department. “I know that many of you have been going through a lot and may find it difficult to get to school tomorrow,” the assistant principal wrote. “Please put safety first and if you can get to work that would be great.”

But even though they have found Elvin’s laser-like focus on instruction too narrow throughout the year and disconcerting in the last week, teachers said they understood it. She has Dewey’s latest progress report grade in hand, but she hasn’t shared it with teachers, which some cited as a bad sign.

Plus, the school had been scheduled for a Department of Education quality review last week. The evaluation, which had been delayed from last year when the department was planning to close the school, will look at how well the staff works together in moving toward academic progress.

The teacher who spoke to us by phone said, “[Elvin] told us she thinks the DOE is still going to come after us and we want to be ready.”

He said he expects Dewey to land on the city’s list of high schools up for closure this year unless it posts a surprisingly high progress report grade.

“We are like an emotional rollercoaster,” he added. “For the students and the staff, it’s like we don’t know what to do anymore.”

This morning, teachers said they were pleased to find the building in near-perfect condition when they arrived for a full day of professional development.

“The building looks great, the janitorial staff has been working around the clock to get things ready,” one wrote in a message. But the teacher added that the status quo will take yet more time to return. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty and confusion, but we’re headed in the right direction!”

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In her State of the State address, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.