no worries

City tells parents not to worry about cheating investigation

City officials brushed off parents’ concerns over an ongoing cheating investigation at a Bronx high school last night, telling them that if the principal had really been changing grades, the school wouldn’t be failing.

In 2009, teachers at Herbert Lehman High School reported that executive principal Janet Saraceno was changing dozens of students’ grades in order to boost the school’s graduation rate. More than a year later, Saraceno remains under investigation and Lehman is teetering on the edge of being shut down by the city after receiving an F on its progress report. Yet when parents asked Department of Education officials about the investigation at a meeting last night, they were told to ignore it.

“Let’s let the investigators do their work,” said Juan Ruiz, a DOE official heading the team assigned to support Lehman. He told parents that if Saraceno had really been changing students’ grades from failing to passing, “we probably wouldn’t have an F.”

In fact, Saraceno is only under investigation for changing grades during the 2008-09 school year and Lehman’s progress report grade for that year was a B. A year later, after DOE officials became aware of the cheating and began to monitor the school more closely, its grade fell to an F.

Last night’s meeting was a chance for city officials to explain to parents what might happen to Lehman in the next year. Yet after an hour, parents began walk out, frustrated their questions weren’t being taken seriously.

“Where are the weaknesses? I want to know how it went from a B to an F,” said a parent.

Reading from the DOE’s fact-sheet, Bronx high school superintendent Elena Papaliberios said that Lehman students weren’t passing enough of their classes — one of the metrics the city uses to gauge how well a school is doing.

“Even as they finish their first year, they’re starting to struggle,” she said. “And if they don’t earn 10 credits per year, they’re going to fall short and they’re not going to be able to graduate.”

Parents of Lehman students have been stunned by the school’s precipitous decline, as it has long been considered one of the city’s best remaining large high schools. For 29 years, Lehman was run by former principal Robert Leder, who resigned in 2008. Since then, safety has become a problem and this year the school installed metal detectors. Teachers and students say the new principal rarely leaves her office and does not have the rapport with students that Leder used to keep the large population — 4,000 students — under control.

Ruiz said the city planned to reduce the school’s enrollment next year and that the metal detectors have already cut down the number of violent incidents.

Elvin Flores, the father of a Lehman freshman, said his daughter graduated from the school five years ago without incident. But from his son’s first day of school this year, there have been problems with safety.

“How the heck did you guys lose control of this school?” Flores asked. “For the years Leder was here, we felt safe. You guys need to take back this school.”

Parents at the meeting said when they visited the school during orientation, classroom walls were hung with students’ work that was two years old. Others said they’d gone to parent association meetings hoping to meet the principal, only to watch her rush out afterwards.

Saraceno sat at the front of the auditorium and did not speak, except to say that the school’s graduation rate was 52 percent rather than 49 percent, the number Ruiz gave.

“She’s sitting there and not saying anything,” said Lisa Mateo, whose daughter is a freshman at Lehman. “By now she should know she looks guilty.”

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.