Wesley Weissberg has poured hours into Park Slope's public schools, even serving as PTA president at the neighborhood's popular elementary school, P.S. 321. But until this year, she hadn't even considered trying to help the neighborhood's only high schools.
Housed in the John Jay Campus at the heart of Park Slope's main shopping street, the high schools have never drawn many students from within the neighborhood's brownstone-lined borders. Students who graduated from local middle schools mostly headed to private schools or Manhattan for ninth grade.
That was true well before Weissberg moved to Park Slope. More than a decade ago, the district’s school board president, Mark Peters, waged an effort to turn John Jay High School into a destination for the neighborhood’s middle-class families. As a result, the struggling high school was replaced by three smaller schools: two that had been located elsewhere in the district and one that grew out of John Jay’s relatively strong legal studies program.
But even with the overhaul, the new schools, which did not screen students, never attracted local students. And a decade after Peters engineered the building’s redesign, the Secondary School for Law; the Secondary School for Journalism; and the Secondary School for Research, which became Park Slope Collegiate in 2011, continued to struggle. Except for during the hours immediately after school, when some neighborhood shopkeepers would lock their doors to keep John Jay students out, there was little relationship between the building and its neighborhood.
Then, last year, tensions over the addition of a selective school billed as more likely to attract Park Slope's high-performing students drew the neighborhood's attention back to the campus — and volunteers like Weissberg into the building.
A year into Millennium Brooklyn’s uneasy co-location, it is not yet clear whether the building is on the way to becoming a Park Slope school, or whether the worst fears about Millennium’s presence will come to pass.
Chancellor Dennis Walcott with students in the garden at Brooklyn's P.S. 295, which is participating in the "Garden to Cafe" program, on the first day of school.
The Department of Education has done an admirable job of adding more healthy school lunch options. But more changes — and faster ones — are needed to keep children healthy, according to two City Council members who are sponsoring a resolution to improve school food.
In the last few years, the Office of SchoolFood has added more vegetarian options and swapped out some ingredients for healthier alternatives.
But Brad Lander and Gale Brewer, City Council members from Park Slope and the Upper West Side, think more could be done. "Despite these improvements, critics note that school meals still contain too many “processed” food items, such as breaded chicken nuggets, as well as foods that contain less healthy ingredients, including high fructose corn syrup, artificial coloring and saturated fats, such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches," says their resolution, which they are formally proposing today.
Lander and Brewer want the city to adopt recommendations made recently by the Brooklyn Food Coalition, a group of food and food justice organizations. Among other things, they want 10 percent of food served in schools to be produced locally and schools to go meatless at least one day a week.
They also want the city to be required to publish ingredient lists for food served in schools — something that the department has not always done. When nutrition facts were inadvertently published in 2010, they showed that some food served in cafeterias did not meet the city’s own nutrition guidelines for school bake sale snacks.
Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott repeated a promise not to touch principals' budgets next year, saying that a proposed cut in school funding that would cost the city more than 1,100 teaching positions would likely disappear once the city finalizes its budget later this spring.
Of the 5,000 teachers who typically leave the system each year, the preliminary 2013 budget projects that only about 4,000 would be replaced, which would save about $64 million, according to the city's preliminary budget . But Walcott said that funding would likely be restored in time for the final budget and that principals would be able to hire for any vacated positions.
City Council members pestered Walcott about that and much more at a hearing this afternoon on the agency’s $19.6 billion budget, a 1 percent increase that won't cover the added expenses the department expects. While last year’s hearings focused almost solely on opposition to a proposal to layoff thousands of teachers, the concerns raised by elected officials today spanned a range of the city's education policies, including increased class sizes, the small schools initiative, spending on technology and contracts, and Medicaid collection.
But they reserved most of their early criticism on the $64 million cut in areas that directly fund schools. The decreased sum represents a headcount reduction of 1,117 teacher positions, according to the city's projections.
“Year after year the DOE has made cuts to school budgets,” said Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson. “How are schools supposed to make do next year given the loss of funding proposed in the budget?”
By the end of tonight's Panel for Educational Policy meeting, Eva Moskowitz's new Success Academy charter school is virtually assured of having a home next fall in Brownstone Brooklyn. For another charter school that, unlike Moskowitz's, had applied to open there, the future is less certain.
The charter school that the Department of Education has proposed siting in District 15 was originally authorized to open in nearby District 13 or District 14, but in an unusual move, the city altered the plan.
Meanwhile, the department has not yet proposed locations for two charter schools approved for District 15, and a founder of one of them says she isn't optimistic that her school will open in the area.
The Brooklyn Urban Garden School, a mom-and-pop charter middle school founded by a group of parents and educators who live in District 15, applied for public space when its charter application was approved in August. But there were only two school buildings in the district with enough space for new schools and co-founder Susan Tenner said she doesn't expect BUGS to be offered space in either of them.
As a result, she said she's unsure if the school, which has an environmental theme, can afford to open for the 2012-2013 school year.
"We're still shooting for August, but we're kind of in a tough spot until we've signed a lease," Tenner said.
One option the school might have: To open in District 13, where there is more available school space and fewer high-performing schools — and where Moskowitz originally proposed siting her school.
A group of parents is forming its own political action committee and donating small amounts of money to candidates who share their educational views.
Members of the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice, a group that focuses on educational barriers facing low-income and minority students, will debut their new PAC tomorrow on the steps of City Hall. At this point in the campaign season, the group is supporting four challengers and nine incumbents — among them Speaker Christine Quinn and Education Committee chair Robert Jackson — for City Council.
The PAC is "really designed to support those candidates who we have goals in common with," said Victoria Bousquet, a coalition parent member. The PAC is technically independent from CEJ.
"It's really a matter of when we interviewed them, the general feedback - how they felt about English Language Learners, about middle schools, about the new Regents requirements, and parental involvement," she said, adding, "No one's perfect. We know that none of them are going to be infallible."
The list includes incumbents Helen Diane Foster, Gale Brewer, Charles Barron, Julissa Ferreras, Letitia James, Rosie Mendez, and Melissa Mark Viverito.