deja vu

Students and staff say, again, that Lehman is on the upswing

As Elaine Gorman, a top official in the Department of Education's Division of Portfolio Planning, looks on, seniors Lindita Nuculli and Samantha Calero talk about Lehman High School's strengths.

For the third time in a year, students and teachers at Herbert H. Lehman High School lined up Monday night to tell city officials why the school should remain open.

They were there a year ago, when the city first shortlisted the school for possible closure. And they were back there this spring for a spate of meetings and protests over the city’s plan to close and reopen the school according to a federally prescribed overhaul process — a process Lehman only narrowly escaped.

Yesterday evening, Department of Education officials returned to Lehman to warn that closure is on the horizon again.

At an emotional “early engagement” meeting—a meeting between officials, school staff, community members that is the first step in the closure process—current and former teachers and students defended the large, East Bronx school, arguing that the Department of Education’s reform policies are to blame for Lehman’s decline. Department officials have held early engagement meetings at Lehman twice before, but the school ultimately remained open.

In a presentation at the beginning of the meeting, principal Rose Lobianco said the school is already on the slow and steady path to improvement, thanks to the creation of a small learning academy structure that splits students into several “academies,” with their own assistant principal leaders, based on academic interest.

“What we’re trying to accomplish at Lehman High School is almost like what the city is doing out there, but in one place,” she said, referring to the department policy of closing large, struggling schools and replacing them with several small schools. “Personalizing it through the small school structure is one way of addressing some of the concerns.”

“So, we’ve seen growth,” she added. “Even though it’s small change, small change can lead to great progress. This can help us build capacity, and I believe in that capacity.”

For years, Lehman has been posting dismal numbers for its graduation rate, attendance, and other the metrics that make up the department’s annual school progress reports—numbers that belie the school’s former reputation as a sought after option for students. Earlier this year, department officials sited those statistics when they argued that the school needed a dramatic intervention like closure.

But Lobianco said Lehman has already experienced the systemic shift it needs: enrollment has dropped from close to 3,500 to about 2,950, she said, and “I do believe we can do it with 3,000 students. That enrollment drop is an intervention.”

Lobianco is in her second year as principal of Lehman, a position she inherited when its former principal, Janet Saraceno, left the school, following a department investigation that found students’ grades were improperly altered while she was principal. Saraceno,received a $25,000 bonus to take the job in 2008.

Elaine Gorman, a top official in the department’s portfolio division, led the meeting. She listened on as teachers, students and parents passed a microphone around the Lehman auditorium for nearly two hours, sharing stories about the school’s strengths.

The handful of juniors and seniors who spoke praised the work ethic of their teachers and a new peer-to-peer mentoring program.

“Peer Group Connection is a great program, where the seniors help out the freshmen,” said Samantha Calero, a senior.  Now, “I see the freshmen in the hallways and they give me high fives and they ask me questions. That’s what we really need to see changes in the school.”

Lindita Nuculli said her teachers encouraged her to stay after school make up credits and take college-level courses, even after she enrolled at Lehman behind schedule.

“Freshman year, I came in about four months late into the school year, because I had surgery, and I was told that I was going to have to repeat a year,” she said. “I’m a senior now, in my fourth year, 42 credits, and graduating on time, because my teachers encouraged me. And I’m going to go to college with six college credits already.”

And at Lehman, “You email the principal at twelve o’clock at night, and she literally emails you back eight minutes later” Nuculli added, to cheers from the audience. “It feels really good to walk around when the principal knows your name.”

One staffer, dressed head-to-toe as the Lehman mascot, a lion, stood at the back with a sign that read “Lehman High School has high standards, excelling in career and college readiness,” in a nod toward one bright spot on Lehman’s most recent progress report: its B grade for college readiness.

Few speakers referred to the department’s aborted plans to put Lehman through a rigorous federal school reform routine called “turnaround” earlier this year. In the name of turnaround, school leaders temporarily renamed the school and required all teachers to reapply for their jobs, with the intention of weeding out the weakest. But that plan fell-through in the summer when the city lost a lawsuit with the teachers and principals unions over it. Some schools, including John Dewey High School and the High School of Graphic Communication Arts, struggled to overcome the confusion and tension that that ensued.

But several speakers said parent involvement was a missing ingredient in Lehman’s efforts to improve so far.

“We should have all parents available in these meetings, why is it that when I’m responsible for about 60 students, only about 20 parents are here?” said Al Bruno, who has taught English for the past five years at Lehman. “We need more parent involvement.”

But the real problem the school will have to address down the line, Bruno said in an interview, is the large numbers of students at Lehman who are behind grade level and behind on the credits they need to graduate.

The department “sees Fs, they see that we are failing, but as I stated, a good percentage of our students are long-term absences,” he said. “That really works against us.”

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.