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April 3, 2013
Leonie Haimson exits public school parenting but not advocacy
Leonie Haimson at a rally last month outside of the Tweed Courthouse. Leonie Haimson's career as a New York City education activist started when her older child was assigned to a first-grade class with 28 other students. That was in 1996, and since then, Haimson has advocated for public school parents — through her organization, Class Size Matters; the blog and online mailing lists she runs; and the national parent group she helped launch. But her personal stake changed last summer, when Haimson ceased to be a public school parent. Her younger child started at a private high school in September, following a trajectory from public to private school that her older child, now an adult, also took. Many of Haimson’s close friends and colleagues in the parent advocacy world have known for months about the change in her status. But she did not make it known publicly until today, after learning that GothamSchools planned to disclose the information in a story. “I myself don’t think it is either particularly interesting or relevant,” she wrote in a post on the blog she started in 2007, NYC Public School Parents, before going on to explain the choice. "It is a parent’s responsibility to find a school that they believe best fits their children’s needs," Haimson wrote in a statement she sent to GothamSchools before publishing her own post. The disclosure caught some other advocates off guard. "I'm surprised," said Sheila Kaplan, a student data privacy advocate who has worked with Haimson in recent months. “She’s never said anything about her kids being in private schools.” After shaping much of her identity around her role as a public school parent, decamping from the city’s public schools puts Haimson in a delicate situation. It also opens her up to questions from her many opponents in the polarized education policy debate.
October 26, 2012
Advocates turn up pressure as city mulls overcrowding tallies
A citywide effort to make government more efficient has prompted the Department of Education to propose eliminating a handful of the data reports it compiles each year. But as a vote on the proposal approaches, opponents are ratcheting up the pressure in hopes it will not pass. In 2010, voters approved a referendum to create the Report and Advisory Board Review Commission, which would identify "outdated or redundant" functions in city agencies. Each city agency was asked to suggest ways to trim its oprerations without disrupting government services. The education department recommended that it report class sizes once a year instead of twice and eliminate one place where it compiles the number of classrooms held in trailers. That proposal joined 12 other reports that the seven-member commission recommended eliminating at its first meeting in February. The commission, to which the majority of members were appointed by Mayor Bloomberg, also recommended eliminating seven regulatory boards that currently operate in the city. The commission was supposed to take a final look at the recommendations on Oct. 30, in a meeting that has been rescheduled for Nov. 19 because of a scheduling conflict. Comptroller John Liu and other education advocates say they hope the commission will use the extra time to reconsider the Department of Education's proposal, which they characterized as an effort to cover up overcrowding issues.
July 26, 2012
State ed reform task force meeting draws a crowd, and some ire
When Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education reform commission's 10-stop tour swept into the Bronx for three hours today, members got an earful about more than just how to improve the state's schools. It was standing-room-only for most of the meeting, one of many conditions that drew grumbling from some in the crowd who said the commission was giving New York City short shrift on their tour. They complained that the venue was too small, the meeting too short, and the one-time visit too few. About 140 seats were laid out in a cafeteria on the second floor of Hostos Community College, but they filled up quickly. As the meeting got under way, about 20 people remained outside, waiting to be let in by security. "I think it's totally unfair that New York City should get one-tenth of the state's attention when we have more than one-third of the student population," said Class Size Matters' Leonie Haimson. Observers who have been to all three of the regional meetings so far — the first two were held in Albany and Buffalo — said today's attendance was far larger than at either of the two previous events. And Richard Parsons, the commission's chairman, apologized for the tight space, saying it was the biggest room that the group could find in the Bronx. Issues over logistics did not overshadow the meeting's goal: to air suggestions for how to improve the state's schools while also cutting costs.
April 24, 2012
Fresh off "pineapple" episode, state identifies math exam errors
Two of the state math exams that students are set to start taking on Wednesday have errors, the State Education Department advised principals today. On the fourth-grade exam, one question has two correct answers, the department warned. The eighth-grade test contains one question with no correct answer at all. The admission comes as educators and parents are on high alert about the tests after the embarrassing revelation that the state's eighth-grade reading exam included a revised and seemingly nonsensical literary passage whose moral was "pineapples don't wear sleeves." Together, the episodes have raised concerns about Pearson, the company that is in the first year of a five-year, $32 million contract to produce tests for New York State. A spokesman for the department said the mistakes amounted only to typographical errors. But critics of the state's testing program say the state is holding Pearson to a lower standard than it holds students.
April 18, 2012
As testing starts, critics plan post-teacher evaluation deal efforts
Southside High School Principal Carol Burris with Harbor School Principal Nate Dudley at Burris's school in March. Carol Burris, the principal of a Long Island high school, isn't done fighting. Even after her statewide principals petition failed to sway lawmakers from passing a teacher evaluation bill last month, she's hoping her newest effort — a poll — will do the trick. Beginning today, Burris is sending out surveys to principals, teachers, and parents about New York State's high-stakes testing policy "to give voice to the concerns that we are hearing from all three groups," she said. "We have no intention of not continuing our fight." She said she expects that the results from the surveys will reflect her own concerns about the testing role in teacher evaluations. "We hope that policymakers and the public will be interested in our findings," said Burris. Burris discussed the strategy Tuesday evening at a forum about high-stakes testing held at Murry Bergtraum High School in Manhattan. She sat on a panel alongside Class Size Matters' Leonie Haimson; Gary Rubinstein, a math teacher known for crunching the city school data on his blog; and Khalilah Brann, a teacher at Bushwick Community High School, which is facing closure because of its student performance data. The forum, which attracted about 50 people, was organized by Change the Stakes, a group that grew out of a committee formed by a teacher activist group, the Grassroots Education Movement, last year.
January 30, 2012
Chelsea parent is an unlikely ally in the school closure fights
Mary Conway-Spiegel (right) talks with Zenobia White, principal of the Academy for Scholarship and Entrepreneurship in the Bronx, while observing a middle school class. After dropping her two sons at their Chelsea elementary school one morning this fall, Mary Conway-Spiegel spent several minutes fiddling with the GPS in her black SUV before it spat out directions to her next stop: a high school 15 miles north, in the Wakefield section of the Bronx. Conway-Spiegel had an appointment with Zenobia White, the principal of a secondary school whose middle grades faced closure by the Department of Education. Conway-Spiegel had no connection to the school, the Academy for Scholarship and Entrepreneurship, before last October, when White responded to a surprise offer from Conway-Spiegel to help ASE combat the stigma of being on the city's shortlist for school closures. The offer came during a round of cold calls that has become an annual ritual for Conway-Spiegel, who has appointed herself surrogate class parent at some of the city's most struggling schools. She defends them under the banner of a one-woman advocacy outfit, called the Partnership for Student Advocacy, and the mantra — repeated almost daily via Twitter — "There are no failing schools."
January 11, 2012
New advocacy group with city roots enters state's reform fray
The latest entrant into New York's crowded field of education advocacy groups won't immediately be lobbying for new policies in New York City. Instead, the new nationally-backed group, New York Campaign for Achievement Now, or NYCAN, plans to push for a law that would enable parents to vote on ways to improve their struggling district schools. The policy was backed heavily by upstate New York reform groups last year, but a proposed bill did in the state legislature failed to garner enough support. The policy, known as parent trigger is at the top of NYCAN's 2012 legislative agenda, which the group released today as part of its official launch. NYCAN is one of four state affiliates of 50CAN, an organization founded on a model that started in Connecticut. The New York group is headed by Christina Grant, a former New York City teacher and a one-time director for the charter school office in the Department of Education. But despite her close ties to New York City, Grant said she planned to spend a lot of her time in Albany and focus primarily on statewide issues, something she said separates her group from other education reform groups in the state. "We have a huge state and NYCAN exists to be a coalition builder throughout the state," Grant said on a conference call with reporters this morning. "Our goal is to really draw attention to statewide issues." What exactly those issues are remained in flux in recent weeks, even as NYCAN pushed forward with its plans to launch. Grant said she wouldn't enter the battle over teacher evaluations, a debate that promises to be one of the biggest issues this spring in Albany.
January 3, 2012
Judge issues setback in effort to make charter schools pay rent
A judge today rejected a midyear effort to collect more than $100 million in rent and facility fees from co-located charter schools. The ruling is at least a temporary blow for parent activists who filed a lawsuit last year that challenged a long-standing Department of Education policy to give rent-free public school space to charter schools. The judge hasn't ruled on that larger issue, but he said today that the merits of the lawsuit weren't strong enough to immediately force the DOE to begin collecting rent before a final decision is made. "It would be extremely harmful to wrench charter school students from their school of choice during a school year, should any charter school be unable to pay for renting public school space, forcing these students to seek placement elsewhere," New York State Supreme Court Judge Paul Feinman wrote in his decision today. About two-thirds of the city's 136 charter schools are currently sited in public space and the lawsuit claims that the DOE has an obligation, based on state law, to charge rent. Class Size Matters' Leonie Haimson, a lead plaintiff on the lawsuit, has estimated that the DOE has lost out on more than $100 million, which she has said could be used to reduce class sizes by hiring more teachers.
November 15, 2011
DOE's newest class size data confirms increases across city
Chart showing trends in K-3 class size. From Class Size Matters PowerPoint presentation. (Click to enlarge.) Preliminary class size data that the city released today confirms what the teachers union has tallied: Class sizes are on the rise. Classes grew most this year in kindergarten through third grade, where the average size increased by just under one student since last year to 23.1. On average, classes in those grades are now three students larger than they were in the 2006-2007 school year. They are largest in Queens and Staten Island and smallest in Manhattan. Classes in those grades are now the largest they have been since 1998, according to a PowerPoint presentation prepared by parent activist Leonie Haimson for Class Size Matters, a group that she runs to advocate for smaller classes. Class sizes have also inched up in upper elementary, middle, and high school grades, but not by as much, according to the city's new numbers. In all grades, average class sizes exceed the goals set forth in the 2007 Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit settlement, which required the state to earmark extra funds for New York City schools to use for six different purposes, including reducing class size.
September 28, 2011
Panelist's charter school link is criticized at 'Miseducation' event
Pedro Noguera and Karen Sprowal talk after the "Miseducation Nation" panel ended. Panel members at an event critiquing current school reform policies last night criticized testing, large classes, and charter schools — and also a university professor sharing the stage with them. More than 100 people filled a school auditorium in Manhattan to attend the four-member "Miseducation Nation" panel, which was convened in response to – and got its mocking namesake from – NBC's "Education Nation" summit, a two-day event that wrapped up earlier that day at Rockefeller Center. Pedro Noguera, an NYU professor who studies urban education, was invited to speak on the panel and for most of the evening, he was on the same page as his fellow panelists, historian Diane Ravitch, Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters, and teacher Brian Jones of the Grassroots Education Movement. They all criticized policymakers for adopting reform ideas that they said were not working – and ignoring alternative ones, such as smaller class sizes and culturally-relevant curriculum, that they said would improve schools. The panel also criticized the media coverage, which they characterized as biased toward current reform policies. The event was hosted by Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, a national media advocacy group. "We feel beleaguered and we feel there is only one story told repeatedly in the mainstream media," Haimson said. More than 100 people, many of which were teachers and parents, packed into the auditorium at P.S. 66 School of the Future. When moderator Laura Flanders opened up questioning to the audience, criticism quickly turned on Noguera, a board member of the SUNY Charter School Institute, which oversees many of New York City's most prominent charter schools. Veteran teacher Michael Fiorillo first brought up the subject when he asked Noguera to explain how he could support opening charter schools, while at the same time being such a vocal opponent of closing the ones that they replace.
September 22, 2011
UFT: Budget cuts lead to more oversized classes this year
John Elfrank-Dana, UFT chapter leader at Murry Bergtraum High School, says his history classes have as many as 37 students. After three years of budget cuts, the city's schools started the year with more oversize classes than at any time in the last decade, according to data collected by the United Federation of Teachers. Union members reported that on the sixth day of the school year, nearly 7,000 classes had more students than the teachers contract allows, mostly in high schools and a large number in Queens. That was almost a thousand more oversize classes than they reported at the same time last year. The union will soon file a grievance against the contract violations, and many of the classes will shrink as schools shuffle students around in the coming weeks, as typically happens at the beginning of the school year. But union officials said it appears that for the fifth year in a row, average class sizes have inched up again. "Our worst fears have now been confirmed," said UFT President Michael Mulgrew at a press conference announcing the numbers today. He urged Mayor Bloomberg to protect the city schools from additional budget cuts in the coming year. Now, nearly a quarter of all city students are spending all or part of the day in overcrowded classes, according to the UFT. The contract limits classes to 25 students in kindergarten; 32 students in elementary school; 33 students in middle schools and 30 students in middle schools with many poor students; and 34 students in high schools.
September 6, 2011
In annual appeal, union urges vigilance against large classes
The United Federation of Teachers is gearing up for its annual struggle to wrangle classes down to their contractual size limits. As schools work to pinch every cent out of their compressed budgets, there are few safeguards in place to ward off swelling class sizes, and the UFT is asking members to be especially vigilant this year. In the Sept. 1 Chapter Leader Weekly Update, the union urged its school representatives to monitor class size closely from the first day of classes so that after an "informal resolution" period ends on Sept. 21, the union can begin filing grievances. One element of the UFT's bid to challenge the city's class-size efforts is in legal limbo. In 2010, the union sued the city over its spending of class size reduction funds, charging that the Department of Education had used the funds for other purposes. But this summer, an appeals court threw out the suit, ruling that the issue should be handled by the State Education Department. Dick Riley, a UFT spokesman, said the union was still weighing how to proceed. But he said that putting pressure on the DOE early has traditionally paid off for the union, with schools rectifying many class size violations as the chaos of the first days of class wears away. “In practice the DOE, particularly in high schools, often exceeds these limits at the beginning of the school year, but under pressure from the UFT, generally brings them down to the contractual limit, though it can take weeks for some schools to do so,” Riley said.
July 25, 2011
Following one legal victory, city faces new battle on co-locations
The lead plaintiffs on a new lawsuit against the Department of Education stand on steps of Tweed (from left: Arthur Schwartz, of Advocates for Justice; Mona Davids, of NYC Parents Union; Noah Gotbaum, District 3 Community Education Council President; and Leonie Haimson, of Class Size Matters Just days after the city received some good news in a lawsuit targeting its policy on charter school co-locations, another legal battle has arrived. A group of parent activists filed a long-threatened lawsuit against the Department of Education today, charging that it is in violation of state law that requires school districts to collect rent and utility money from charters schools that occupy public school buildings. The state education law cited in the lawsuit, Section 2853(4)(c), asserts that charters may rent public space and be provided with basic maintenance services, such as custodial work, utility payments and safety measures. But the law also states that the expenses from these services should be provided to charters "at cost." The exact amount of "at cost" is not clearly explained in the law - and state education officials did not respond to emails seeking clarification - but the city currently charges $1 in annual rent to about 80 charter schools that operate in public school buildings. It also waives fees for utilities and provides operational services. The lawsuit estimates that these costs add up to $100 million per year and should be shouldered entirely by charter schools.
June 29, 2011
Bills will hold DOE's feet to fire on discharge, graduation rates
The City Council is requiring the education department to provide more transparent reporting to support claims for two of its signature achievements: higher graduation rates and fewer failing schools. In the midst of finalizing next year's city budget, the council managed to pass two bills that target the Department of Education's bookkeeping. One of them requires the department to disclose more detailed information about students who leave the system without graduation. The second mandates the release of information about students who do not graduate when their high schools close. Under the first bill, the DOE will be forced to provide more detailed data about student discharge rates, which critics say is overused by schools in order to inflate graduation rates. In 2009, Leonie Haimson, of Class Size Matters, released a report that found discharge rates steadily climbed since 2000. That prompted a state audit that concluded the dropout rate was in fact higher than claims made by the DOE. Out of 88,612 students from the 2004-2008 cohort, 19 percent - or 17,025 - were discharged and 10 percent - or 9,323 - dropped out, according to the audit. "This bill will for the first time allow us to know what happened to the thousands of students every year who are discharged from high schools," Haimson said. "It will make it possible to see if they're honestly reporting discharge rates.
June 24, 2011
Teacher layoff phone drive results are in, to mixed reviews
A desperate phone push to save thousands of teacher layoffs has yielded mixed results, depending on who you ask. On Tuesday, Public Advocate Bill…
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