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.

Struggling Detroit schools

The list of promises is long: Arts, music, robotics, gifted programs and more. Will Detroit schools be able to deliver?

PHOTO: Detroit Public Television
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti answers questions at a community meeting in Detroit.

Arts. Music. Robotics. Programs for gifted kids. New computers. New textbooks. Dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college classes. International Baccalaureate. Advanced Placement.

They’re all on the list of things that Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a group of community members assembled in a Brightmoor neighborhood church that he would introduce or expand as soon as next school year.

Vitti didn’t get into the specifics of how the main Detroit district would find the money or partnerships needed to deliver on all of those promises, but they’re part of the plan for the future, he said.

The comments came in a question and answer session last month with students, parents and community members following Vitti’s appearance on Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal/One Detroit Roadshow. The discussion was recorded at City Covenant Church. DPTV is one of Chalkbeat’s partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Vitti has been appearing at community events since taking over the Detroit schools last spring. He is scheduled next week to join officials from two of the city’s major charter school authorizers, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University, at a State of the Schools address on October 25.


Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.