weekend update

Parents rally at City Hall, but their protest is directed elsewhere

Keoni Wright, an East New York parent, speaks on Saturday at a StudentsFirstNY backing new teacher evaluations.

The scene was familiar, but the rallying cries and signs were a departure.

More than 100 parents and organizers from StudentsFirstNY filled the steps of City Hall on Saturday to demand that the teachers union cooperate with the city on an evaluation deal before a deadline that could cost the city $300 million in state aid.

“What do we want?” shouted Darlene Boston, who has been working to organize parents in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn to support StudentsFirstNY’s policy agenda. “Great teachers!” they replied.

“When do we want them?” Boston shouted back. “Now!” they said.

When education advocates protest outside City Hall, it is usually with an ensemble of union leaders, City Council members, and other elected officials. And more often than not, they are criticizing policies favored by Mayor Bloomberg, the man who governs the city from the building behind them.

But no elected officials showed up at Saturday’s rally — and organizers said none was invited. Parents came mostly from neighborhoods in Central Brooklyn and Harlem, areas where StudentsFirstNY is trying to build a base. And while the mayor’s name was not uttered, it was clear that he was not the target of their protest.

The target was the continuing lack of new teacher evaluations in New York City, which StudentsFirstNY and Bloomberg have blamed on the United Federation of Teachers.

While hundreds of districts across New York have submitted locally negotiated deals to the State Education Department for approval in recent months, the city and the union still have not, although union leaders and city officials have said they are “optimistic” about reaching an agreement. The city has until Jan. 17 to have an evaluation system approved, or else it risks forgoing a 4 percent increase in state funding — about $300 million this year.

Last year, negotiations to implement new evaluations in a small subset of schools fell apart just before a different state deadline.

Getting new teacher evaluations implemented is a cornerstone issue of StudentsFirstNY’s teacher quality agenda. The group has used the issue to recruit parents, sending a message that evaluations are the fastest way to bolster their children’s education.

Keoni Wright, an East New York parent who spoke at the rally, said he was troubled by how much better one of his twin daughters was reading in kindergarten than the other, who has a different teacher. He said one daughter received lots of homework during the five days that schools were closed due to Hurricane Sandy, while the other one didn’t hear from her teacher once.

“I can see just from those two children that the reading level is totally different,” said Wright, whose daughters attend P.S. 158. “So I’m pushing for this evaluation.”

The rally was the first public display hosted by the advocacy group, whose executive director, Micah Lasher, is a former top Bloomberg aide. Lasher founded the group to ensure that many of Bloomberg’s policies survive the 2013 mayoral election and beyond. He has said he will try to raise $10 million annually for the next five years to accomplish that goal.

Many labor leaders and education advocates in New York City would like to see Bloomberg’s cornerstone policies change after he leaves office and they have created their own group, New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, in response to the criticism lodged by StudentsFirstNY. StudentsFirstNY, whose national organization was founded by former Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee, has drawn fire from these progressive groups because some of its funding comes from Republicans who publicly backed Mitt Romney for president.

Zakiyah Ansari, a longtime parent organizer who works for the Alliance for Quality Education, a group funded in part by the the state teachers union, characterized the size of the rally as “small” and said it did not represent the views of most families in New York City.

“Parents know StudentsFirstNY is defending Bloomberg’s failed education record and expensive gimmicks on behalf of wealthy special interests,” said Ansari, who said she was speaking as a spokeswoman for New Yorkers for Great Public Schools. She said her opposition to the state’s evaluation requirements is that “value-added” measures based on standardized test scores are not reliable measures of teacher quality.

Charter school parents have emerged as a potent force in political action, and last year, a rally to support charter schools drew thousands of parents to the street outside City Hall. But organizers for StudentsFirstNY said they have not sought to involve parents from charter schools, which are not required to implement teacher evaluations.

Instead, the group has been recruiting district parents to join. To organize them, it is also paying people to attend month-long training academies, then hiring some of those attendees to build up its organizing infrastructure. The majority of those who complete the  $2,000 academy come from political campaigns or other organizing backgrounds. Boston is the exception as the only public school parent to be hired as an organizer.

After the rally, Shawnette Facey, whose fourth-grader attends P.S. 202 in East New York, said she attended because of issues that her son was having at school that she thought could have been related to his teacher. Lately, he’d been coming came home from school disinterested.

“In the beginning of the school year, that’s when you catch them. But if not, you lose them and they go astray,” Facey said.

certification showdown

Judge strikes down rule allowing some New York charter schools to certify their own teachers

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Success Academy hosts its annual "Slam the Exam" rally at the Barclays Center.

In a blow to charter schools in New York, a rule that would have allowed certain schools to certify their own teachers was blocked in court Tuesday.

The judge’s ruling upends the plans of the city’s largest charter school network, Success Academy, and wipes out a legislative victory that New York’s charter sector thought it had won — though the decision will likely not be the end of the legal battle.

The regulations, approved by the State University of New York in October 2017, were designed to give charter schools more discretion over how they hired teachers. They eliminated the requirement that teachers earn master’s degrees and allowed charter schools authorized by SUNY to certify their teachers with as little as a month of classroom instruction and 40 hours of practice teaching.

Some charter networks argued their existing in-house training programs are more useful to new teachers than the training required for certification under state law.

But the rule was quickly challenged by the State Education Department and the state teachers union, which filed separate lawsuits that were joined in April. They argued that SUNY overstepped its authority and charged that the rule change would lead to children being taught by inexperienced and unqualified teachers.

The ruling was issued Tuesday by State Supreme Court Judge Debra J. Young, who wrote that the new certification programs were illegal because they fell below the minimum requirements issued by the state.

Charter networks “are free to require more of the teachers they hire but they must meet the minimum standards set” by the state, the judge wrote in her order. Young also concluded that laws requiring public comment were not followed.

“Today’s decision is a victory in our fight to ensure excellence in education at all schools,” state teachers union president Andy Pallotta said in a statement.

The Success Academy network and the Bronx Charter School for Better Learning had their plans for homegrown teacher certification programs approved in May, according to SUNY officials.

Success Academy spokeswoman Anne Michaud said the network is disappointed with the judge’s decision.

“As the top-performing public school system in the state, we are working to meet the demand for excellent schools that families in New York City are so desperate for, and we will continue to fight for what we know is our legal right: to train world class teachers and fill the teacher shortage that hampers so many disadvantaged neighborhoods,” Michaud said in a statement.

The certification policy grew out of the 2016 budget deal, when state lawmakers gave SUNY the authority to regulate the “governance, structure and operations of charter schools.”

The state’s top education officials — Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa — have long seemed offended by the new regulations. On a panel last year, Elia said, “I could go into a fast food restaurant and get more training than that.”

In a joint statement on Tuesday, Elia and Rosa praised the court’s decision as a “victory for all New York’s children.”

“In its strong opinion, the court rightly upheld the Board of the Regents and the Commissioner’s authority to certify teachers in New York State,” the statement reads.

On Tuesday, SUNY officials said they planned to appeal and believed that the judge’s ruling also offered a roadmap for creating new certification rules as long as they met those minimum standards.

“We are reviewing today’s decision. While we are disappointed that it did not uphold the regulation as written, it acknowledged the ability of the Charter School Institute to issue regulations,” said  SUNY spokeswoman Holly Liapis in a statement. “We will further evaluate our next steps.”

This post has been updated to include a statement from SUNY and from Success Academy.

survey says

More bullying reported at New York City schools, study shows

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

More New York City students say there is bullying in their schools, a report released Monday showed. The findings also revealed that many schools reporting the greatest number of violent incidents on campus have no social workers on staff.

The report was commissioned by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer also released an audit of how school safety matters are recorded, and concluded that the education department should provide more oversight and streamline incident reporting rules.

“The audit found clear breakdowns in communication in the reporting and tracking of incidents and actions taken,” according to a press release from Stringer’s office.

The education department disputed some of the comptroller’s findings, and in a written statement, spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote: “We have detailed protocols in place to ensure allegations of bullying are immediately reported, investigated and addressed, and are investing in both anti-bullying initiatives and mental health supports.”

But the pair of reports raises scrutiny of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school discipline reforms, which favor  “restorative” practices that emphasize mediation over punishment, and make it harder to suspend students.

Advocates of the de Blasio reforms say the shift is necessary because black and Hispanic students are more likely to be arrested or disciplined at school. Research has shown such disciplinary action can lead to higher dropout rates. Critics of the reforms, meanwhile, say the changes have created more chaotic schools.

The findings are also likely to add to a chorus of parents and elected officials who say more emotional supports are needed for the city’s most vulnerable students. Students who experience a mental health crisis during the school day may be handcuffed and shuttled to hospitals. The city’s latest budget, which was approved last week, includes an additional $2 million to hire social workers and guidance counselors in schools that currently don’t have any.

Here are some highlights from the reports.

More students report there is bullying in their schools — but the data comes with a catch.

Last year, the education department’s annual survey showed that 82 percent of students said their peers “harass, bully, or intimidate others in school.” That’s up year over year, and up significantly from 65 percent of students in 2012, which was the lowest rate recorded since at least 2010. (De Blasio’s discipline reforms started to take effect around 2015.)

A note about these numbers: Prior to 2017, the survey asked whether students harass, bully or intimidate other students none, some, most, or all of the time. The most recent survey responses were slightly different: none of the time, rarely, some of the time, or most of the time — a change that may have artificially inflated the bullying numbers.

That’s enough to render the survey data unreliable said Max Eden, a researcher who has studied school climate for the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute — a critic of the mayor’s discipline reforms. Still, taken with other findings, it’s reasonable to think that bullying is on the rise at city schools, he said.

Among the other evidence: A first-of-its-kind report, released this month under a new city law, that showed substantiated bullying incidents are on track to increase this year.

Schools that log the most violent incidents often lack mental health supports.

Guidance counselors and social workers are key when it comes to creating safe schools because they can help address the root cause of violent or troublesome behavior, advocates who want more mental health supports say.

But many of the city’s neediest schools go without that help.

Of the schools reporting the most violent incidents on campus, 36 percent lack a full-time social worker, the comptroller found. On campuses where there are social workers, caseloads are a staggering 700 to one. That far exceeds the recommended ratio from the National Association of Social Workers of 250 general education students per social worker — and it’s higher than the citywide average of 612 students per social worker, according to the comptroller.

The comptroller’ compares that to the ratio of New York Police Department school safety agents who are placed in schools: There is one safety agent per 228 students, according to the report.

“Our city is failing to meet the social and emotional needs of our students,” Councilman Mark Treyger, of Brooklyn, who has pushed the city to report more up-to-date bullying data and to hire more school counselors, said in an emailed statement.

Schools may be underreporting violent incidents, something the education department disputes.

In a separate audit, the comptroller compared logs kept by school safety agents to incident reports filed by school leaders. In 21 percent of cases, incidents that were noted by safety agents were not reflected in the school reports.

The school data, in turn, are used to report incidents to the state for its Violent and Disruptive Incident Report, or VADIR. The discrepancy could raise questions about the already-controversial reporting system. (VADIR has been criticized for classifying schoolyard incidents as serious offenses, and the state has tweaked its definitions in response to those kinds of concerns.)

This finding also comes with some caveats. The comptroller looked at only 10 schools — a tiny sample of the city’s portfolio of about 1,800. And the education department took issue with the methodology.

In its response to the audit, education department officials said that the police data doesn’t align with the state’s reporting categories, and that the information may not be comparable because of student privacy concerns and recordkeeping issues on campuses where multiple schools share a building.