waiting game

Dispute over grants for longer school days leaves schools in limbo

Plans to lengthen the school day at eight low-income middle schools are now hanging in the balance because of a squabble between city and state officials.

With a little more than four weeks before the school year starts, the schools counting on nearly $8 million in “extended learning time” grants have been told the money is in danger of being withheld because the city’s application didn’t comply with state contracting rules.

The city was one of 25 districts across the state that applied in October to lengthen the year at low-income schools by 25 percent, and was awarded $7.6 million last month.

Many of the city schools set to receive the funds, such as M.S. 223 in the Bronx and I.S. 340 in Brooklyn, lengthened the day for sixth graders last year by two and a half hours as part of a pilot with the city’s Middle School Quality Initiative and were planning to expand those programs. Another school, I.S. 77 in Queens, wasn’t part of the MSQI pilot, but had extended its day for some students by 40 minutes in the morning.

The uncertainty has frustrated officials who hoped that by now they would have been able to start planning for longer days when the school year begins Sept. 4.

“This is a great opportunity for a huge amount of funding, and it’s going to be hard to try to do this in two weeks in August,” said an official from a school set to receive some of the funds.

The funding hold-up is the latest in a string of issues that has plagued Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s touted competitive education grants. Cuomo first floated extended learning time in a speech 19 months ago that laid out his 2013 budget priorities for the year.

Capital New York reported last week that just two winning districts statewide had concrete plans for implementing extended learning time models in their schools, while two other districts were considering dropping out entirely, citing the limited time they had to implement the programs.

With the school year a month away, city schools are still eager to get started, said Chris Caruso, vice president at The After School Corporation, one of three nonprofits picked by the city to help implement the grants this year.

“I know that the schools are anxious and from what I hear there continues to be optimism that this will get resolved,” Caruso said.

City education officials said the hang-up was because of a disagreement over a state law that’s meant to ensure that minority or woman-owned businesses are given an equal opportunity in state-funded contracts or grants. The city says the law doesn’t apply to the department in this case and is seeking a waiver, while officials for Cuomo have insisted that any applications for state-funded grants must comply.

“In other words, the State selected us as a district grant recipient even though the proposal as submitted did not meet the expectations required,” Christina Fuentes, who directs the city’s Middle School Quality Initiative, wrote in an email to principals and nonprofits who were part of the application on Tuesday.

Fuentes said the department was ready to start a fight over the matter.

“We are currently working with our legal department and aligning our interests with political entities to try to get over this impasse,” Fuentes wrote.

Representatives for both the governor’s office and the State Education Department refuted Fuentes’ concerns and said the city’s grant was not being withheld. They would not confirm if the city’s application complied with state procurement laws and said the money had not been disbursed yet because the grant process wasn’t complete.

After Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the email and followed up with questions to the city department’s press office, a spokeswoman downplayed any disagreement and said the issue was headed toward an amicable settlement.  She said that the city was working with the governor’s office to comply with the state’s Minority/Woman-owned Business Enterprise law.

“The DOE is finalizing a robust [Minority and Women Business Enterprises] plan, and we are working towards fuller MWBE participation in the coming year to ensure we receive this critical funding,” said the spokeswoman, Devora Kaye. “We are examining ways we can support schools and programs this upcoming year, in case there is a delay in funding.”

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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