Sonya Turner knew her daughter struggled in school, both socially and academically. But when an assistant principal called one afternoon last October to say that her daughter, Cashmiere, had turned suicidal and needed to be sent to the Emergency Room for psychiatric evaluation, Turner said she didn't believe it.
When she visited the school that afternoon to follow up, she was told she would not be allowed to speak with Cashmiere until she met with school administrators. Turner refused and angrily confronted school officials until she had to be restrained school safety officers.
"I was livid, I was cursing, I was very irate," Parker said. "If anyone should have been admitted to a psychiatric ward it should have been me, not my child,"
In the end, school officials sent Cashmiere to the ER anyway. She is one of hundreds of students who each year are forcibly referred to emergency medical services by principals who believe that they could be dangerous to themselves or others.
Those numbers are on the rise, education department officials told City Council members at a hearing on mental health services in schools today. During the 2010-2011 school year, principals and assistant principals sent students to the E.R. 947 times, a 12 percent spike from the previous school year.
"We have work to do because that number is not going in the right direction," said Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said in her testimony.
Nilesh Wishwasrao, a former student at Flushing High School, said he's been suspended from school so many times that he finally lost count.
"Their first reaction was always a suspension," Wishwasrao recalled Wednesday at a City Council hearing about the Department of Education's suspension data released last month.
Wishwasrao said he was suspended "constantly" for what he said were small infractions, such as chewing gum and wearing a hat in school. Sometimes he was more disruptive, "talking back to a teacher, yelling at a dean."
Finally, Wishwasrao testified, a guidance counselor met with his father to explain that high school probably wasn't right for him and "it would be better if I get a GED rather than a high school diploma."
Wishwasrao never graduated and is now pursuing his GED.
Wishwasrao was part of a chorus of criticism from students and advocates who testified at the hearing, held by the City Council's education committee. Their testimonies came directly after DOE officials shed more light on suspensions in the city schools and promised changes to how some suspensions are handled.
At least 45,939 students — or 4.5 percent of the city's student population — were suspended during the 2010-2011 school year, Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said in her testimony. The majority of them — 70 percent — were suspended just once, she said, but more than one in 10 — about 6,000 students — were suspended three or more times.
Deputy Chancellors Kathleen Grimm and Marc Sternberg hear feedback from parents on plans to rezone schools in District 2.
The Department of Education's third — and likely final — proposal for rezoning in Manhattan's District 2 received a lukewarm reception from Lower Manhattan parents at a public hearing Monday night.
DOE officials retracted some of the more controversial elements of the department's rezoning proposal but warned that some overcrowded schools would not see relief, prompting grumbling from parents who had come to urge the officials to build more schools in the district.
In the revised plan, unveiled this week, Tribeca's popular P.S. 234 and the Greenwich Village's P.S. 41 and P.S. 3 will not be rezoned. Two of the original proposals, which called for the rezoning of schools in Lower Manhattan, Chelsea, and Greenwich Village, were unanimously rejected by the District 2 CEC earlier this month.
Now, the rezoning's only major effect would be to trim some Lower Manhattan school zones to create a zone for the Peck Slip School, a new elementary school that is set to open in Tweed Courthouse next fall.
City officials, including deputy chancellors Marc Sternberg and Kathleen Grimm, said the change in plans was a response to vocal opposition from parents at P.S. 234, who argued that altering the school's zone would change its character. But Sternberg and Grimm stressed that the tradeoff is that their latest proposal would not meet demand for school seats in the neighborhood. The parents had urged the officials to build more schools rather than shifting students among existing ones.
"You're right to ask for more, but we don't know if we can give you more," Sternberg said. "We are looking for solutions where the money falls short, as it most certainly will."
Seth Diamond, commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services and Kathleen Grimm, DOE deputy chancellor, testify before a city council hearing on education barriers facing homeless youth.
Despite improvements, the city is still falling short at protecting homeless students from disruptions to their education, advocates told members of the City Council today.
Education committee chair Robert Jackson said he convened a hearing on obstacles facing homeless students in part to follow up on the story, reported by the Daily News last year, of a high school student who was unable to take a required Regents exam because she had to spend the day with her family going through the city's shelter intake process. Since then, the Department of Homeless Services revised its policy to excuse children from most of the lengthy intake process.
"We're pleased that this harmful policy was changed," Jackson said. But he said, "This is but one example of the hardships faced by homeless students. DHS's placement of families in shelters outside of their original community, combined with the [Department of Education]'s busing restrictions, lead to many students in shelters having to transfer schools, thereby disrupting their education."
DOE and DHS officials said they are increasingly collaborating to help students classified as homeless, who have quadrupled since 2008 to more than 65,000 and who make up a significant portion of students who are chronically absent from school. But the officials said they could do more to help more support students' legal right to remain enrolled at their "school of origin," the school they were enrolled in before becoming homeless.
DOE Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said the DOE has counted 50,000 students in temporary housing, 20,000 of them in shelters. "Our number indicates about 65 percent remain in their school of origin," she said. "We have no idea why parents move a child from a school, and maybe that's something we could address."
Advocates said the answer could be found in the city's policies about school transportation and placement.
"Unfortunately, specific practices at DOE and DHS all but guarantee educational instability for a large swath of homeless students," testified Jared Stein, the assistant director of New York State Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students, an advocacy group that helps school districts work with homeless students.
A 1998 agreement that gives the city's police department control over school safety is still in effect, despite city officials' insistence that it had expired more than six years ago.
The revelation has advocates and elected officials lambasting the city for not disclosing the agreement's extension.
The original agreement, between Mayor Rudy Giuliani and then-Board of Education President William Thompson, was set to expire in 2002 and was widely assumed to have done so. But in fact, Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein quietly renewed the agreement in January 2003.
The renewal came to light for the first time this month, after Assemblyman Karim Camara urged his colleagues to consider school safety issues when deciding how to vote on mayoral control, according to Udi Ofer, director of advocacy for the New York Civil Liberties Union. The NYCLU was working with legislators to raise the profile of school safety in the mayoral control fight.
When Camara met with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Silver showed him a copy of the memorandum's renewal, Ofer said. The paragraph-long agreement was signed by Bloomberg and Klein on Jan. 22, 2003, and does not include an expiration date.
The renewal contradicts information the City Council received during a 2007 hearing on school safety, where council members repeatedly asked whether any formal document existed to define the relationship between the city schools and the police department.
The Department of Education announced that it was closing three more schools in Queens today because of swine flu fears, bringing the total of closed schools to 24 in 20 different locations. And in response to growing concern that it was not being straightforward about the disease's magnitude, the department also said it would begin posting up-to-date attendance data for all city schools on its Web site.
The newly closed schools are PS 242 in Flushing and PS 130 and P 993, which share a building in Bayside. They will reopen on Tuesday, after the long weekend, along with most of the other closed schools, the department said. A few schools are scheduled to reopen on Friday.
Comptroller William Thompson, City Council members, and even usually timid members of the Panel for Educational Policy have criticized the DOE over the quality of its communication about the flu crisis. Today, Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm announced that the department would start sharing to-the-moment attendance data, in a move she said parents and teachers have requested. The data, which will be updated daily, are available here.
I eyeballed the attendance data quickly and saw lots of elementary school attendance rates far below the citywide average rate of 93 percent of elementary schools. Attendance in the Queens districts where the flu is most severe is obviously down significantly: JHS 169 in Flushing, which usually has 94 percent of students present, had only 66.9 percent attendance today, for example.
Anyone who stayed until the bitter end of a three-hour meeting last night about kindergarten waitlists in Manhattan got a surprise: an uncharacteristic apology from a top DOE official.
Hundreds of parents turned out for a meeting of the parent council for District 2 to vent about having been shut out, at least for now, of their neighborhood schools. Last week, Manhattan parents protested at City Hall after 273 children were put on waiting lists at many elementary schools.
Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm arrived late to the meeting after spending her afternoon dealing with the swine flu outbreak in Queens. She sat quietly in the audience and listened to a tense back and forth between school officials and angry parents. The auditorium had mostly emptied and council members were preparing to adjourn when Grimm approached the microphone to make a surprise statement, which I captured on video above. Here's a key part of what she said:
I also want to say something that I thought I heard people from the DOE say tonight, but just in case you didn't, I want to say, I'm sorry. We're sorry. We have stumbled on some of this planning.
The two officials leading the meeting told parents during the meeting that most schools should be able to eliminate their wait lists by the middle of June, after families find out where they've been offered seats in gifted and talented programs. John White, who heads the Department of Education's efforts to manage school space, said that more children in each area qualified for gifted admissions than there are children on the waiting list.
A week after the city stopped giving daily updates on the swine flu epidemic that last month forced closures at multiple schools in Queens, including one public school, three more schools are being closed because of the disease.
The city Department of Health urged the Department of Education to close the schools, all in Queens, because they all have higher-than-normal numbers of students reporting flulike symptoms. At one of the schools, IS 238 in Hollis, an assistant principal is seriously ill with a confirmed case of the H1N1 flu strain, also known as swine flu. Mayor Bloomberg said today during a press conference about the outbreak that health officials think the administrator might have been in poor health before contracting H1N1 flu.
According to the New York Times, 241 students were absent at IS 5 in Elmhurst today. Typically, 96 percent of the school's 1,500 students are present every day, according to DOE data; today, that figure was 84 percent. At PS 16 in Corona, the Times reported, dozens of students went home sick just today. And at IS 238, four students plus the administrator have been documented as having swine flu.
The DOE has been monitoring the situation at the schools for several days, according to Kathleen Grimm, deputy chancellor for finance and administration at the DOE.
The same person who will lead the Department of Education's review of special education masterminded the internal reorganization that's currently underway at the department.
DOE spokesman David Cantor told me Garth Harries, who came to the DOE from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, devised the new organization as a way to make the department more efficient. At a time when cuts to schools and "potentially hundreds of layoffs" are on the horizon, "we had a strong feeling we need to be as efficiently organized as possible," Cantor said.
With only a few exceptions, the new organization simply adds a level of reporting between managers and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who until now has had more than 20 DOE officials reporting directly to him, Cantor said. "When the dust settles, there's not really anything that's notably different about it," he said.
One place where changes are more substantive is in the Office of Portfolio Development, currently run by Harries, where responsibilities are being dispersed among several different managers.
I spent the afternoon at the City Council's hearing on the School Construction Authority's proposed capital plan, and I tried to post updates as they happened. Unfortunately, the wireless at City Hall wasn't cooperating, so here are some highlights of the hearing, just a few hours after it ended.
1:20 p.m. Education Committee chair Robert Jackson led off right away with the elephant in the room: the economy. He said the city is facing "very difficult economic times" and noted that the mayor has requested that all city agencies reduce their capital requests by 20 percent. Economic conditions didn't stop Jackson from saying that the council wants to "take [the SCA] to task for unresolved problems and exaggerated claims." In particular, he pointed to the authority's claim that the current capital plan is the largest in the city's history, noting that many more seats were created in the early years of the 20th century. Jackson also noted the Campaign for a Better Capital Plan's finding that more school seats were added in the last six years of the Giuliani administration than in the first six year's of Bloomberg's.
1:30 p.m. Kathleen Grimm, the DOE's deputy chancellor for administration, drew some laughter when she read from her prepared testimony about the DOE's recent "capital accomplishments" the departments's oft-repeated claim that the current capital plan, which runs through the end of June 2009, is the largest in its history. She said in the future she'll be specifying that it's the largest plan in SCA's history, not the DOE's. The state created SCA in 1988.
1:45 p.m. SCA head Sharon Greenberger walked council members through a Power Point presentation about the proposed capital plan. She noted that the SCA did incorporate a plan for class size reduction into its calculations — but the reduction was to 28 students in grades 4-8 and 30 in high school, not 23 as the state Contracts for Excellence requires for those grades.