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At public hearings on state takeover, few parents and a glimpse of challenges ahead

At the Young Leaders Elementary School in the South Bronx, the principal and city officials faced a nearly empty auditorium Monday evening as they explained that an outside group could take over the school if it fails to quickly improve. Not a single school parent or student was in the audience.

About a dozen blocks north at Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School, several students and parents did attend a similar meeting designed to explain the “receivership” program, which state lawmakers created in June to prompt drastic changes at low-performing schools. However, even by the end of the meeting, they still were unclear what receivership meant for their school: One mother tearfully pleaded with the officials not to shut down her son’s school, even though that is not part of the program.

Afterwards, Clarissa Acevedo, whose son is a Smith sophomore, said the hearing had offered her an overview of the new state program, “but it didn’t give me a really deep understanding of it.”

“Receivership is brand new,” she said, “and it definitely should have been broken down for us, even prior to the meeting tonight.”

The low turnout and public confusion at the two Bronx hearings (there were also 10 others Monday) reflect the state’s hasty launch of the program, and suggest that it will not be easy for schools to gather meaningful public input to include in their improvement plans in such a short timespan, as required by law. Monday’s hearings were the first of 62 — one for every school facing takeover — that the city will hold before a Sept. 30 deadline.

Meanwhile, Young Leaders, Smith, and 10 other New York City schools find themselves in a strange situation, which some struggled to make sense of on Monday: The state deemed them troubled enough to include on its potential takeover list, yet the city did not include them in its own turnaround program.

City officials say the schools have received extra staff training and other help, but they will not benefit from the substantial budget boosts given to schools in the city’s “Renewal” improvement program.

“We did not get any extra funding from the DOE based on our status,” Smith Principal Evan Schwartz said during the hearing in response to a teacher’s question.

Still, the schools are under pressure to make changes quickly. Of the city’s 62 receivership schools, 55 have two years to meet their goals in order to avoid takeover by an outside receiver — a nonprofit group or an individual selected by the city schools chief — while seven schools have just one year.

Meanwhile, the schools are still waiting to be told their final goals. Each school must also form a team of staffers, parents, and students to come up with recommendations for the school’s turnaround plans.

Smith Principal Evan Schwartz listened to students and parents at the hearing alongside Yolanda Torres, the city education department’s newly appointed chief of community engagement.

Smith Principal Evan Schwartz listened to students and parents at the hearing alongside Yolanda Torres, the city education department’s newly appointed chief of community engagement.

Patrick Wall

The hearings are meant to be a chance for schools to recruit members for those teams and solicit input from the public, which is a state requirement. But it’s unclear whether schools are even aware of those requirements. On Monday, Schwartz said the meeting was the first time he had heard about the receivership teams.

Smith’s hearing was attended by Yolanda Torres, the city education department’s newly appointed chief of community engagement. She explained to the audience that the city wanted their suggestions to “inform the intervention plans to improve student achievement at the school.”

However, since they knew little about receivership before the meeting, several students and teachers had prepared remarks praising the school and asking officials to keep it open. (Receivers would be able to make major changes at schools they take over, but not close them.)

Acevedo, the sophomore’s mother, offered the only specific recommendation from the public: for smaller class sizes at the school.

At Young Leaders, school officials chalked up the poor attendance partly to the fact that the school had parent-teacher conferences last week, where families may have learned about the school’s status.

During the meeting, Principal Jaleelah Cooke ticked off a list of plans for improving the school, including extending learning opportunities for students outside of the normal school day, more teacher training, and closer cooperation with parents. Afterwards, she said that even though the school is not in the Renewal program, it is still receiving help from the city.

Deputy Chancellor Corinne Rello-Anselmi, who oversees special education and attended the hearing, said it was meant to convey that the city schools chancellor is committed to supporting these schools.

“We’re not just about closing down,” Anselmi said.

Patricia Filomena, a longtime teachers union official in the South Bronx, said she thought another cause of the meetings’ low turnout might be parents’ skepticism about government promises to fix the area’s schools and the continued focus on state test scores.

“If parents thought this was going to change tomorrow or the next day, you’d have them out in full force,” she said.

An education department spokesman said the city had informed local elected officials and community groups about the hearings and posted notices on the department website, and that principals had sent letters to families notifying them. Families can also offer improvement recommendations by email or on the department’s website.