space debates

City scraps divisive co-location plan for Boys and Girls, as focus shifts to leadership change

PHOTO: Annie Ma
Boys and Girls High School.

The city is withdrawing a divisive proposal to move a high-performing Brooklyn school into the building of its long-struggling neighbor, officials said Monday. But allies of the school indicated that another fight — over who should be the principal — is just beginning.

The plan would have moved Medgar Evers College Preparatory School, a selective school, into the building of Boys and Girls High School, long among the city’s worst-performing schools. It was first floated by Michael Wiltshire, who since 2014 has been principal of both schools in an unusual arrangement that even some former allies say has failed.

Supporters of Boys and Girls have in the past opposed plans that would limit the historic school’s use of its massive redbrick building in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. But it was parents from Medgar Evers who rejected the space-sharing proposal last month, angry that the city would not meet their demands.

Chief among the demands: that Medgar Evers students use a separate entrance at the Boys and Girls campus so they would not have to pass through metal detectors. That demand galled people at Boys and Girls and the other two schools in its building who felt that Medgar Evers was asking for special treatment.

The decision comes as Boys and Girls’ politically connected supporters are already discussing who will replace Wiltshire and what schools could share its Bedford-Stuyvesant building other than Medgar Evers.

Although Wiltshire has said he has not yet decided whether to step down as “master principal” of both schools, he has interviewed for a principalship in Long Island. He also told the Wall Street Journal last week that he was unsure whether he wanted to continue working for the education department after it was revealed that its investigators found he had failed to properly report an instance of student-on-student sexual harassment that occurred in December. Wiltshire said he had followed department protocol.

On Monday, several people at a meeting organized by the local education council said the school’s superintendent, Michael Alcoff, told them that the search for a new principal has already started. The community leaders, teachers union representatives, alumni, and others at the meeting said they want to make sure they are involved in choosing his replacement.

“It looks like a principal is going to be chosen, and I’m going to be pissed off if I’m not involved in that,” City Councilman Robert Cornegy said during the public meeting, where he promised to contact schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña about Boys and Girls’ future.

The city gave Wiltshire a large bonus and the title of “master principal” when he agreed to take over Boys and Girls in Oct. 2014. A few months later, he pitched the idea of combining that school with Medgar Evers, the selective school two miles away in Crown Heights that he has helmed for over a decade.

Wiltshire had long complained about Medgar Evers’ facilities: The building is so overcrowded that some of its 1,200 students must meet in outdoor trailers, while its track team must sprint down its hallways since the building lacks a gymnasium. Meanwhile, Boys and Girls’ sprawling building is only 25 percent occupied, according to the city.

“I see this as an opportunity to get the facilities that our kids deserve,” Wiltshire told Medgar Evers parents during a meeting last year about the plan. He added, “If we don’t move to that facility, someone else is going to take it.”

Eventually, the city made a formal proposal to move Medgar Evers into Boys and Girls’ building, though the schools would remain separate entities. Proponents of the move argued that it would also benefit Boys and Girls, since its students would be able to take honors classes at Medgar Evers and teachers at the two schools could collaborate.

But others felt that Wiltshire was mainly motivated by a desire to secure more space for Medgar Evers. In April, a Boys and Girls alumni group claiming to have 5,000 members sent a letter to Chancellor Fariña saying “the appearance of a conflict of interest” on Wiltshire’s part is of “grave concern.”

However, it was the resistance at Medgar Evers that appears to have convinced the city to drop the plan for now.

Last month, students and some parents held a rally against the move, and the school’s parent-faculty leadership team sent a notice to education department officials officially rejecting it. The team cited several reasons, including that Medgar Evers would only have access to some of the science labs in the shared building and that students would have to travel further to take early-college classes at Medgar Evers College.

The email also noted that Medgar Evers serves students in grades six to 12, while the Boys and Girls campus houses a “transfer school” for older students who struggled in previous settings. A “a significant number of them are older than 20 years old and some others are able to legally purchase, possess and use alcohol and tobacco,” it said.

Lorna Fairweather, a Medgar Evers parent and leadership team member, said in an interview last month that some parents were concerned about their children interacting with the older students.

“The parents do not want to have our sixth-graders commingling with 19 and 20-year-olds who are not in uniform,” she said, adding that they had a requested a separate entrance for Medgar Evers students.

Those concerns infuriated some people in the Boys and Girls campus, including the principal of the transfer school, according to people familiar with her thinking. Several people said they did not oppose the move, but they strongly rejected Medgar Evers’ demands.

“We welcome them, but we want it to be very clear that it will be equal,” NeQuan McLean, president of District 16 community education council, said at the meeting Monday morning before the decision to cancel the move was announced. “There will not be a separate entrance … We’re not going to stand for that kind of segregation.”

Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose shared the decision with leaders at the Boys and Girls campus schools Monday afternoon. In an email, an education department spokeswoman said the agency was withdrawing the proposal while “further discussion and community engagement is underway.”

Even before the announcement, the Boys and Girls backers discussed other schools that could potentially move into its building if the Medgar Evers move fizzled. One possibility is Bedford Academy High School, a selective public school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, they said at the Monday morning meeting.

Several people also said the city’s experiment letting Wiltshire run two schools simultaneously had failed, and that his replacement should be dedicated solely to Boys and Girls.

“Turning a school around requires time, effort, energy, and commitment that one person cannot give to two schools,” said Sam Penceal, a 1962 graduate of Boys High and a leader of the alumni group.


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”