New York

Live-blogging the City Council capital plan hearing, sort of

I spent the afternoon at the City Council’s hearing on the School Construction Authority’s proposed capital plan, and I tried to post updates as they happened. Unfortunately, the wireless at City Hall wasn’t cooperating, so here are some highlights of the hearing, just a few hours after it ended.

1:20 p.m. Education Committee chair Robert Jackson led off right away with the elephant in the room: the economy. He said the city is facing “very difficult economic times” and noted that the mayor has requested that all city agencies reduce their capital requests by 20 percent. Economic conditions didn’t stop Jackson from saying that the council wants to “take [the SCA] to task for unresolved problems and exaggerated claims.” In particular, he pointed to the authority’s claim that the current capital plan is the largest in the city’s history, noting that many more seats were created in the early years of the 20th century. Jackson also noted the Campaign for a Better Capital Plan‘s finding that more school seats were added in the last six years of the Giuliani administration than in the first six year’s of Bloomberg’s.

1:30 p.m. Kathleen Grimm, the DOE’s deputy chancellor for administration, drew some laughter when she read from her prepared testimony about the DOE’s recent “capital accomplishments” the departments’s oft-repeated claim that the current capital plan, which runs through the end of June 2009, is the largest in its history. She said in the future she’ll be specifying that it’s the largest plan in SCA’s history, not the DOE’s. The state created SCA in 1988.

1:45 p.m. SCA head Sharon Greenberger walked council members through a Power Point presentation about the proposed capital plan. She noted that the SCA did incorporate a plan for class size reduction into its calculations — but the reduction was to 28 students in grades 4-8 and 30 in high school, not 23 as the state Contracts for Excellence requires for those grades.

1:55 p.m. The economy rears its ugly head again. Jamie Smarr, head of the DOE’s Education Construction Fund, said he’s not focusing right now on developing new public-private partnerships to create more school seats. “My principal job is to keep the projects that we do have going through [the economic] contraction,” he said. Those projects, all of which are located in Manhattan’s District 2, include the PS 59/High School for Art and Design building whose plans were released in October.

2:10 p.m. Picking up on what’s clearly becoming a theme, Jackson and Grimm argued about the class size targets used in developing the capital plan. Jackson asked when the DOE and SCA will adopt the class size targets required by the state. Grimm’s answer: Never. “When we look at our targets and factor in the actual utilization of these classrooms … we really do arrive on a citywide level at targets that are 20 or 21,” she said. In other words, Grimm said, classes can get down to the size the state requires even if the city doesn’t build more school seats than it already plans to. Jackson didn’t buy Grimm’s logic. “Those numbers are not acceptable to me as the chair, to advocates, or to parents,” he said. “What they really mean is that children will be in overcrowded classrooms.”

2:20 p.m. Has anyone ever made a joke about Kathleen Grimm’s name? She certainly lived up to it just now when she responded to a question about school construction costs. “It is a very expensive proposition,” Grimm answered. “That’s why we are trying to use every tool we have to address overcrowding in our schools, so we don’t have to rely on capital dollars. We don’t have enough.”

2:25 p.m. Jackson has turned the floor over to his colleagues on the council. Most of them are asking about overcrowding issues in their own districts. Judging from their questions, if overcrowding is only a local problem, as the DOE says it is, it seems to affect a lot of localities.

2:40 p.m. It’s return of the light bulbs here in the Council Chambers! Last week during a hearing on the DOE’s proposed budget reductions, Council Member Lew Fidler said the city should cut costs by switching to energy-efficient light bulbs. Now Fidler said the situation is worse than just wasteful: Many schools don’t even have the fixtures to accept energy-efficient bulbs. Grimm said the current plan provided for fixture modernization but that the initiative had been cut back.

3:05 p.m. The subject has turned to Transportable Classroom Units, otherwise known as trailers. In the current capital plan, the city said it planned to removed all TCUs by 2012. But the proposed plan calls for removing trailers on an ad hoc basis only. Fidler said the change amounts to “waffling” by the DOE and SCA. But Grimm said the agencies are only responding to what principals want. “No TCU will need to be used for classroom space when the projects are completed,” she said. “But if a principal wants to keep them, and we say they’re safe, we’re not going to stop them.”

3:20 p.m. Randi Weingarten is in the house, offering testimony that she said is influenced as much by her new role as the head of the national teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, as by her long-term experience in New York. She said the proposed capital plan “thinks small” and could hold New York City back if federal funds become available to stimulate local economies. I’ll have more on this later.

Weingarten’s testimony received a full-on round of applause in the usually staid chamber. One person who didn’t clap, but who wished he could have: Fidler, who said if it weren’t for the rules that bar council members from applauding, he would have been on his feet.

Weingarten also joined the list of people testifying that they are concerned about the SCA’s class size targets. The SCA’s planning “does seem to take aim” at the state’s class size goals, she said.

3:30 p.m.: The only actual New York City public school student in the room has taken the stand. Robert Moore, a 16-year-old student who attends the Bushwick School for Social Justice, testified on behalf of Make the Road New York, a community organization. He said his analysis showed that there aren’t enough ninth-grade seats in Bushwick to hold all of the neighborhood’s graduating eighth graders. “All students should have a choice to go to school in their community,” Moore said.

3:35 p.m. Leonie Haimson, the tireless advocate for smaller class sizes and one of the authors of the Campaign for A Better Capital report, could only address a handful of the issues outlined on her prepared testimony during her allotted time, but that was enough to for her to run through a litany of problems with the capital plan’s methodology, assumptions, and conclusions. She said the DOE and SCA are perpetrating “a huge deception” when they say overcrowding is merely a local problem, citing a survey her organization, Class Size Matters, conducted earlier this year that found that 86 percent of principals say large classes at their schools prevent them from providing a quality of education. Robert Jackson funded that survey.

Asked how much it would cost the city to reduce class sizes to the level CFE requires, Haimson said the answer — many billions of dollars — sounds “very scary.” But she said there are a number of ways to find the funds, from increasing the DOE’s share of the city’s capital spending from 13.8 to 20 percent (in keeping with its historical share) to halving the projected increase in charter school enrollment.

And about the Grimm’s explanation of why schools can still have small classes without the DOE and SCA reducing class size targets, Haimson said, “It makes no sense if you read it [in the capital plan] and it made no sense to me today.”

3:50 p.m. The tail end of this hearing reminds me of how many people have put in long hours trying to crack the problem of overcrowding. Dan Golub, the land use specialist at the Manhattan Borough President’s office, described his office’s two recent reports about how school construction isn’t keeping pace with residential construction. And he emphasized that the economic downturn shouldn’t stop new construction, as scary as it is. “We can’t plan for just the current economic situation,” he said.

4 p.m. There are a few people still hanging around to testify, but most council and audience members have left. I don’t blame them — this has been a bummer of a hearing, with testimony alternating between financial defeatism and complaints that the DOE and SCA aren’t planning to build as many schools as the city needs.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.