school closing season

Jamaica and Columbus High School supporters pack hearings

Parents, teachers and alumni cheer on the testimony of a Jamaica High Schol supporter at a public hearing on the plan to close the school last night.
Parents, teachers and alumni cheer on the testimony of a Jamaica High School supporter at a public hearing on the plan to close the school last night.

From Queens to Brooklyn, hundreds of teachers, students, and alumni poured into auditoriums last night to defend their high schools from closure.

In Queens, supporters of Jamaica High School turned out in droves for the public hearing, a meeting also attended by Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott and some of the Department of Education’s top brass.

The arguments against phasing out Jamaica and replacing it with several small schools in the same building were similar to those voiced at a question-and-answer session with DOE officials held at the school last month, which also drew an angry crowd.

When one speaker pointed out Walcott’s presence in the back of the auditorium, audience members rose from their seats, turned around to face him, and chanted, “Save Jamaica High School.”

The Queens representative on the Panel for Educational Policy, Dmytro Fedkowski, asked the DOE to postpone the board’s vote on the proposals until the department releases more information about how the closure decisions were made.

“These proposals seem to be moving forward at an alarming rate,” he said.

Fedkowski has one of 13 votes that will determine the fate of the 20 schools slated for closure. He said he is still unsure how he will vote at the panel meeting on January 26.

“We haven’t made a decision yet,” Fedkowski told me after testifying.

The lack of clear criteria for the phase-out decisions has been a common criticism of the plans, one that was also made last week by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.

DOE officials cite the school’s low enrollment and stagnant four-year graduation rates, and argue that smaller schools will better serve Queens students.

Critics of closing Jamaica say the school is educating a needier group of students, who frequently need longer than four years to graduate and who some observers argue are often excluded from the city’s small schools.

Robert Klugman, an alumnus of the school who has also taught there for 24 years, said that Jamaica graduates are prepared for the world, no matter how long it takes them to get their diploma. He quoted a remark from Chancellor Joel Klein, who asked what parent would send their student to a school with persistently low graduation rates like Jamaica.

“I’ll tell you who,” Klugman said. “The parent who knows that when their student walks out of this school, they are ready not only for life but also for college.”

In the Bronx, students, teachers, and alumni of Global Enterprise Academy and Christopher Columbus High School also came out to argue against plans to close them. Supporters of Columbus make the same case that Jamaica’s advocates do: in the last several years the school has been deluged with some of the highest-need students in the city and given almost no help in educating them.

“I don’t expect a student who comes to this country in their junior year of high school to graduate at the same time as someone who has been here for 18 years,” said one Columbus student. “If you came to Albania, to my country, I wouldn’t expect that of you either.”

Supporters of Global Enterprise, a small high school that opened in 2003 inside the Columbus building, said the school was too new and had not been given a chance to succeed. Others said it was nonsensical to close the school when the DOE has acknowledged that the school doesn’t meet their criteria for closing.

“What you’re asking is for a school to be phased out that was restructured in January of 2009,” said Global Enterprise principal Michelle Joseph, who has only worked at the school for a year and a half.

“This is an indictment of your procedure. It’s a political maneuver and you’re teaching these students that education and improvement actually do not work.”

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.”


What you should know about the White House’s proposal to merge the education department into a new agency

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

The White House is proposing the federal education department merge with the labor department to form the Department of Education and the Workforce, officials announced Thursday.

It’s an eye-catching plan, given how relatively rare changes to the Cabinet are and the current prominence of Betsy DeVos, the current head of the education department who has proven deeply unpopular with educators since her confirmation hearings last year. Education Week first reported the proposed merger on Wednesday.

Here’s what we know so far about what’s going on and why it matters.

The news

The Trump administration announced a big-picture government reorganization Thursday, and the education-labor merger is one part of that.

The new department will have four main sub-agencies: K-12; higher education and workforce development; enforcement; and research, evaluation and administration.

It comes after DeVos proposed acquiring programs from the labor department that have to do with educational programs for unemployed adult workers, reintegrating ex-prisoners, and “out-of-school” youth, according to the New York Times.

The two departments already work together on some adult education and vocational training programs, according to the the Wall Street Journal. In an interview with the Associated Press, director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney said that there are currently 40 different job training programs spread over 16 agencies. This merger would be one attempt to change that.

DeVos said she supports the plan.

“This proposal will make the federal government more responsive to the full range of needs faced by American students, workers, and schools. I urge Congress to work with the Administration to make this proposal a reality,” DeVos said in a statement.

The implications for K-12 education

Today, the department distributes K-12 education money and enforces civil rights laws. It’s small for a federal agency, at 3,900 employees. On a symbolic level, a merged department would be de-emphasizing education.

The existing set of offices overseeing K-12 education would move into the new agency, according to the document, which says those offices will be “improved” but not how.

The education department’s Office of Civil Rights will become a part of the new department’s “enforcement” sub-agency.

The plan doesn’t mention any cuts to the agency or its offices, though Secretary DeVos has proposed cuts in the past.

Why this might not happen

The proposal would require congressional approval, which will likely be a difficult battle. Past attempts to eliminate the Department of Education in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t gain any traction, and both lawmakers and unions have expressed skepticism toward the new plan.

Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate labor and education committee, quickly put out a statement criticizing the plan.

“Democrats and Republicans in Congress have rejected President Trump’s proposals to drastically gut investments in education, health care, and workers — and he should expect the same result for this latest attempt to make government work worse for the people it serves,” she said