the truant chase

New center aims to reduce number of students skipping school

Leslie Cornfeld, Mayor Bloomberg's chief policy advisor on truancy, shows the mayor, Commissioner Ray Kelly, Chancellor Dennis Walcott and others the room that will be used as the Truancy Center at West Harlem's Police Athletic League.
Leslie Cornfeld, Mayor Bloomberg’s chief policy advisor on truancy, shows the mayor, Commissioner Ray Kelly, Chancellor Dennis Walcott and others the room that will be used as the Truancy Center at West Harlem’s Police Athletic League.

Mayor Bloomberg’s latest effort to reduce the number of students skipping school is a truancy center housed in West Harlem’s Police Athletic League, one of the city’s 20 nonprofit youth development centers.

The center — which will include staff from the Department of Education, the Manhattan district attorney’s office, and the Police Athletic League — will offer Manhattan students services such as academic tutoring, mental health counseling, and school-based mentors.

The center reflects a more coordinated borough-wide approach than the city has used so far to help students stay in school. Since launching the anti-truancy initiative in 2010 amid reports that 20 percent of city students were “chronically absent,” or missed school more than 20 percent of the time, the city has sent letters home to parents, used celebrity wake-up calls, and paired students with in-school mentors to cut down on absenteeism. This year, 22,000 fewer students met the threshold for chronic absenteeism, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said today.

But those initiatives fell short of representing a comprehensive strategy for helping individual students, city officials said today.

“Police have always been able to pick up kids and sometimes return them to the school that they were at or drop them off at some central facility,” said John Feinblatt, a chief policy advisor to Bloomberg who has spearheaded the anti-truancy efforts.

“The real difference here is that once we identify a kid and identify that this is a real problem, chronic absenteeism, we have got all the resources here under this roof to try and work with that kid, work with his family, assign him a mentor, then work with the school that the kid’s from,” Feinblatt added.

The center will have space for up to 1,000 students who they can be sent there by their schools, their probation officers, police who pick them up on the street while they are supposed to be at school. Students can also choose to participate in PAL’s “Saturday Night Lights,” which targets at-risk youth. Then the staff will find different ways to solve the student’s absenteeism problems, which include assigning a student to an advocate at the center who will collaborate with a school-based mentor and providing training to parents on how to monitor their child’s attendance electronically.

“It’s got to start with figuring out who this kid is, diagnosing the problem, and then putting the partnerships in place that will make a difference,” Feinblatt said.

Leslie Cornfeld, the mayor’s primary advisor on truancy, said the Police Athletic League engagement center is a pilot that could be expanded citywide in the future, “if the outcomes are as we hope they are.”

To fund the center’s expanded services, the city is redirecting most of the $400,000 given annually to the Manhattan district attorney’s office by the Office of the Criminal Justice Coordinator, another division of the city’s justice system. Officials said getting more students to attend school regularly would cut down on crime.

“Removing juveniles from the street and returning them to school decreases the likelihood that they will become either the perpetrators or victims of crime,” Kelly said. He also noted that there were fewer major crimes reported in schools last year than in any year since Bloomberg took office. Felony crimes were down 14 percent and arrests were down 34 percent, he said.

The city’s most recent anti-truancy initiative, the Success Mentor Program, reached more than 8,000 at-risk students last year and resulted in more than 80,000 additional days of school attended, according to the Department of Education. Students mentored through this program are 52 percent more likely to remain in school, officials said.

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.