The vast majority of public commenters at last night’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting seemed to think that a $120 million contract with Verizon was the only thing on the agenda.
Amid dozens of angry comments about the Verizon contract, exactly one audience member spoke out against another set of contracts on the agenda: ones that would hand over the reins of 14 failing schools to six nonprofit managers.
The speaker, a parent, urged the panelists not to approve the contract because the Department of Education had not made the full contracts available for them to review.
“These contracts will be approved, but they will not be reviewed before hand,” said Paola de Kock, a member of the Citywide Council on High Schools, who spoke in between Communication Workers of America strikers. “What you will be approving tonight is unethical for our children.”
Shortly after the panel okayed the Verizon deal and most audience members departed, it gave a green light to the contracts, which are part of a larger plan to “restart” failing schools. The panel’s approval was a final step in the city’s bid to link the schools with the nonprofits, known as Education Partnership Organizations, in order to receive federal School Improvement Grants for the schools.
The contract won approval with just one vote against it after Shael Polakow-Suransky, the Department of Education’s chief academic officer, answered questions from the panelists about how the city would hold EPOs accountable and measure the progress of the schools undergoing “restart” under their supervision.
Though the discussion did not last as long as the one on Verizon’s contract, several panel members pressed Polakow-Suransky for details on how the EPOs were selected and how they would be improving the schools.
He said the city would be setting different goals for each school, depending on its needs. A school that has lagged in its reading scores would be assessed according to how it performs in reading, while a school whose biggest weakness is its graduation rate would be judged by that metric.
The principals union has criticized the EPO model for absolving the department of some of its responsibility to struggling schools.
We reported last week that several of the EPOs were not planning major changes, at least at first. Polakow-Suransky sounded the same note, saying that the department would not be scrutinizing the “restart” schools much more closely than it does other schools.
“We will be looking at similar metrics that we already look at for our schools. progress in terms of the measures measured on the progress report and through our quality review,” he said. “We’ll build in to our relationship with them regular checks throughout the year to understand what’s working and what’s not throughout the year.”
Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the Queens borough president’s appointee to the panel, said he was satisfied with the DOE officials’ responses.
“Its not like the EPO is going to say, ‘this is what we’re going to do,’ and not get some kind of approval from the DOE,” he said. “The department is not washing their hands of whatever decisions will be made. There is going to be an active role from the department side, the school-based side, and the EPO side.”
Fedkowskyj said the fact that almost all of the schools had been matched with their first-choice EPO clinched his support: “I didn’t want this limited resource of dollars from the federal government to be given to us and not be used effectively to improve the learning environment.”
Patrick Sullivan, the lone dissenter in the otherwise unanimous vote to approve the contracts, said he would not be convinced that the DOE would be able to fulfill its obligations to those schools under the plan until he could see copies of the contracts, which he was told had not been drafted yet.
One school originally slated to undergo “restart,” Banana Kelly High School in the Bronx, was not part of any of the contracts approved last night. That school is now set to undergo “transformation,” which comes with the promise of additional resources, department officials say. Transformation also requires leadership change in most cases, and Banana Kelly’s 12-year principal, Joshua Laub, announced his resignation this week, according to a letter from Laub posted on the EdVox blog.