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Walcott announces new networks for phase-out schools

Several months ago as the citywide school board considered whether to close nearly two dozen schools, critics of the plan accused the city of turning its back on schools once they begin phasing out. Now, the city says it has a plan to help them.

During a visit this morning to Paul Robeson High School — one of the schools that the Panel for Educational Policy voted to phase out over the next three years — Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced plans to place all of the phase-out schools in the same networks. The change, which would take effect next school year, would mean that the new, as well as currently phasing out, schools would receive administrative and instructional guidance from the same set of people.

Currently, schools are grouped into networks — called Children First Networks (CFN) — that provide resources ranging from professional development to budget writing. Phase-out schools have remained within the same networks before and after the closure decisions, even though their needs often change as their size dwindles.

Under the new plan, schools like Robeson will leave their current networks and join new ones composed only of other schools that are phasing out. Typical networks have a staff of about a dozen people and focus on giving guidance to 25 schools.

Walcott was vague about what additional help the phase out schools would receive in the new networks. The city’s plan does not include additional funding or staff for closing schools, which are forced to excess many of their teachers and close their after-school programs as their student population shrinks.

“Next year, schools in the process of phasing out will receive a range of supports that are specific to the goals they share in common—with a focus on resource management, leadership and teacher development, communication with parents and families, and guidance for students with disabilities and English language learners,” wrote Matthew Mittenthal, a spokesman for the Department of Education, in an email.

A Department of Education official said that the network employees hired to oversee the phase-out schools will be chosen from applicants who have successfully led or taught in closing schools. The city will release their names in the coming weeks, he said.

Since the city announced plans to close Robeson last year, teachers and students at the school have not been silent about their concerns that they will be neglected while the city focuses on the new school it plans to open in the building. At a Panel for Educational Policy meeting in February, Robeson student Lizabeth Cooper, who is also the student representative on the panel, pled with the panel members to save her school.

Today, Cooper said that she is still concerned that Robeson will be ignored over the next three years. Currently a junior, she will graduate before the school closes.

“I want the freshman and sophomores to be able to graduate. I want them to focus not just on the new school,” she said.

A Principal at another phase-out school shared Lizabeth’s fears. She spoke about her students: “They feel left out of the community. We’re going to be losing resources because we’re losing teachers.”

Today, Walcott, along with Councilman Al Vann and Borough President Marty Markowitz, framed his visit as a response to those concerns. “I just don’t ignore you, that’s why I’m here,” he said to a classroom of juniors.

Walcott emphasized that space-sharing schools would receive equal attention. “I don’t want any us versus them,” he said, referring to the incoming school.

Robeson has been operating under the leadership of interim Principal Ronald Wells, who stepped in after the DOE removed another interim Principal, Katherine Kefalas. Students, parents and faculty have expressed their concerns about conditions at the transitioning school.

Currently, Robeson is affiliated with Network 305, which provides supports ranging from professional development to technical support. Principal Wells said that he was awaiting information about the supports that the new network would provide, adding that he would welcome “the types of supports that we are currently receiving.”

A principal at another phase-out school, said she would have to wait for more information before judging whether the city’s plan will help her school.

“I don’t really know what it all entails.” she said.

An official from the city’s teachers union did not return requests for comment.

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