money matters

Haven’t heard of participatory budgeting? Voters approved it on Tuesday — and here’s how it can bring millions to New York City schools.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Sunset Park Prep Principal Jennifer Spalding, left, and Assistant Principal Lauren Scott, right, sit in the school auditorium, which was renovated with funds won through participatory budgeting.

When a city councilman told Laura Espinoza she could win thousands of dollars for her local schools through a process called participatory budgeting, the mother of four was skeptical it could be true.  

Then she thought about a recent experience volunteering in her daughter’s Sunset Park school, where she watched the deep disappointment of a boy who lost a class project on an outdated laptop that abruptly died.

Espinoza decided to put together a proposal, working with teachers and administrators, to fund technology upgrades for P.S. 24, as well as other schools in the district, including her son’s middle school at the time, Sunset Park Prep. She was amazed when her son’s assistant principal called to say their project had won a share of almost $700,000 to be divided among schools.

“I said, ‘Wow! That’s what we were able to do?’” Espinoza remembers.

More New York City parents could have similar experiences at their schools after voters on Tuesday passed a ballot referendum that calls for participatory budgeting to expand to every council district. It’s a concept many New Yorkers may never have heard of but allows everyday parents and even students to steer millions of dollars to their communities, including their schools.

As it stands now, council members choose to participate in the process, dedicating at least $1 million of their discretionary budgets for the public to spend. Residents gather ideas through a formal process, and the proposals are put to a vote. Children as young as 11, or those who are in at least the sixth grade, can cast ballots — as well as anyone else who lives in the district. Projects with the most votes get funded.

Participatory budgeting has been a lifeline for Sunset Park Prep, a school that serves mostly children from low-income families and is nestled on a few floors of a 100-year old building. Principal Jennifer Spalding estimates the process has pumped $1.8 million into her school over the past five years.

“There’s no single source of money I can think of that would replace that amount,” she said. “It’s allowed us to do projects I never thought would be possible.” 

Since her first foray into the process, Espinoza has dedicated countless hours to drum up ideas and voters to support projects for schools in her community. She’s not alone in council District 38, which is overseen by Councilman Carlos Menchaca. Spanning immigrant enclaves such as Sunset Park, Red Hook, and other Brooklyn neighborhoods, the district last year tallied the most votes for participatory budgeting projects.

Many of those voters are school parents like Espinoza, who have turned to the process to fill resource gaps in their children’s classrooms — raising the kind of money that would be the envy of PTAs in more well-off schools but also challenging stereotypes about how involved immigrant parents and those of more modest means are in their neighborhood schools. Across the city, surveys show that participatory budget voters are more likely to be among the very poor, Hispanic, or come from communities who can’t participate in regular elections.  

“For me participatory budgeting, as a Hispanic, as an immigrant, as someone who feels like she doesn’t have a voice in this country, changed my life,” Espinoza said. “Though we can’t vote, though we can’t give money that families and professionals in Park Slope can, we can give something too — and it’s not a small thing. They are things that change the lives of children.”

Principal Jennifer Spalding speaks fondly of the century-old building that houses Sunset Park Prep middle school, which features long windows and soaring ceilings. But with age comes plenty of capital needs — and not always the kind that are a top priority in a city where the average school building was constructed in 1948.

Rich red curtains hang in the auditorium, where the sound system will soon get a makeover. The gym sports a shiny wood floor and freshly painted walls. In science classrooms, there are brand new cabinets and the sinks now work. A metal cart houses dozens of sleek MacBook Air laptops in a multimedia room stuffed with new tables and a smart board. All were paid for through participatory budgeting.

The process is especially important for schools like Spalding’s, where the parent organization is focused more on building community than raising dollars. The school relies on $3 tickets to dances to help fund field trips, while other nearby schools throw fancy galas and pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars. (A new city council bill will track those disparities by requiring the education department to collect and report PTA fundraising.)

For Spalding, the value of these badly-needed infusions goes beyond dollars. Students get their first taste of civic engagement by participating in voting during a school day. They feel a sense of empowerment when their school benefits. And they see the tangible benefits of their votes — and that they’re worth investing in.

“It adds so much value to our students’ lives,” she said. It sends a message that, “this is a place worth being, and a place of value.”

Not everyone supported expanding the process — at least not in the way the city ballot measure calls for. It creates a commission that would oversee voter initiatives, including a wider roll-out of participatory budgeting. A majority of members will be appointed by the mayor, prompting some to call the initiative an unnecessary expansion of mayoral power. Others have cautioned that participatory budgeting may not be as inclusive as it appears.

After seeing its power in his own district, Menchaca lent his support to the ballot initiative.

Before Menchaca was a city councilman, he worked in the Brooklyn borough president’s office managing capital projects. Though he saw many positive improvements being made, he was confounded by how opaque the process was, and how removed projects often seemed from what people really wanted. Then he became a city councilman.

“Participatory budgeting was like this ‘aha’ moment —  this eureka moment where it shifts the balance of power,” Menchaca said.

He made the process the centerpiece of how he does city business. When Menchaca meets a new constituent, he starts the conversation with participatory budgeting: “Do you have an idea about how to make your community better? Great,” he says.

His open invitation was met by organized and motivated parents who saw deep needs in local schools, but sometimes lacked the ability to give from their own pockets. Through countless public meetings, with steady translation services to reach the many Chinese and Spanish speakers in the district, parents were quickly won over.

“This was the first time parents had an idea for a concept and could fund it themselves,” Menchaca said.

Last year, more people voted for participatory budgeting projects than they did in the district’s primary election. Menchaca dedicated $2.5 million to the process last year — and often ends up spending most of his discretionary budget on other ideas that just missed the cut.

But the process is also a reminder of the scale of need that parents see in their neighborhood schools. It’s a challenge the district will have to overcome if a new school integration plan is to succeed. Approved in September, the plan changes the way students are admitted to middle schools in District 15, which overlaps Menchaca’s district. Advocates say the diversity push will have to go beyond attempts to simply move students around, and also to tackle inequities that continue to exist within individual schools.

While many in his district see participatory budgeting as a game-changer for schools, it can only go so far to fill resource gaps. The process only divvies up money for capital projects like building repairs and park renovations. It can’t pay for programming like an arts class or after-school robotics club or fund salaries for extra helpers in the classroom.

Those are the kinds of holes that Espinoza says will need to be filled if the district is to meet its integration goals. The city is dedicating $500,000 to implement the plan, part of which will go towards new resources for schools. Advocates also called for an analysis of available programming.

“We’ve been alleviated a little with these projects,” Espinoza said. “But more is needed”

buy-in

How to get teachers to believe in a new school program? Ask them to help design it.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Karyn Bailey (left), a facilitator from Williamson County Schools, coaches elementary school teachers during a 2017 exercise on Tennessee's revised standards for English language arts as part of a two-day training at La Vergne High School, one of 11 training sites across the state.

A veteran teacher in any school district will likely be able to tell the same story: A faddish new initiative comes sweeping in, perhaps promoted by the just-hired superintendent. Grand promises are made, and teachers get a few days of training (if they’re lucky).

Then, it slowly fades away, as teachers ignore mandates they see as unhelpful or impractical.

A new study looks closely at that phenomenon and its flip side — when teachers are bought in to programs designed to help their schools. The results, based on interviews with dozens of teachers at three high schools, aren’t so surprising: teachers are more enthusiastic if their school gets control over how a new program is designed and introduced.

Teachers leaders “were able to build buy-in from teachers in their school by customizing the design to fit the needs of their students and teachers,” write researchers Christopher Redding and Samantha Viano in the peer-reviewed study.

That involvement brings trade-offs, though. Teachers shaping the adoption of a new program often adjust a novel idea to fit into how they’ve already been working, Redding and Viano found. That could mean that promising ideas were watered down when they reached schools — or that teachers wisely avoid dramatic overhauls that would have done more harm than good.

Either way, the results hold significance for districts pushing dramatic reform efforts and wondering how to make sure they stick.

The conclusions came from talking to teachers over the course of two school years about changes at high schools in an anonymous big-city school district. The schools were all trying to increase students’ academic expectations and their levels of responsibility. To do it, schools were told to allow teams of teachers to develop ideas for ways to help students improve their work habits, understand the idea of “growth mindset,” and closely track their class grades over time.

A few things appeared crucial to winning over teachers. One was their schools not having a history of introducing and then scrapping programs.

Teachers in two of the three schools seemed enthusiastic about the new efforts, in part because their schools had recently put in place a literacy initiative that teachers believed in. But in the third school, teachers were more wary.

“We’ve seen a whole bunch of programs and it was here for like three months and it’s gone and then something else came in,” one teacher leader at the third school told researchers.

Teachers also appreciated that plans were developed by teachers within their schools.

“We had teachers to put those lessons together; it didn’t come from somewhere outside the school; it didn’t come from the district, it came from us,” one teacher said. Even in one school where a small number of teachers did most of the work to build their program, their less-involved colleagues still felt largely supportive. (In each school, though, teachers said a handful of skeptical peers largely did not implement the changes.)

A third winning pitch was framing the initiative as consistent with what teachers were already doing in their classrooms.

“That’s kind of our main pitch to them, is that this is something probably 95 percent of you are already doing, we’re just going to ask that you change your language,” one teacher leader said.

“I don’t see this as an innovation,” another said. “I see this as common sense.”

That may have made teachers more amenable to the changes, but it might have also minimized the underlying goal by suggesting that teachers didn’t have to do much differently. In that sense, “Teacher involvement risks undermining school improvement efforts,” wrote Redding and Viano. “It is conceivable that teacher leaders fail to identify more systematic changes, preferring incremental change that will be better received by the administration and their colleagues.”

A separate, forthcoming study co-written by one of the same researchers found some evidence that the program helped students, modestly reducing absences and increasing grades. That suggests the exercise wasn’t pointless.

Why did it seem to help? One of the teachers interviewed in the initial study offered a theory: consistency. By pitching the initiative as simply encouraging teachers to do things they were already doing, the school succeeded in getting teachers to commit to practices they sometimes skipped, like helping students monitor their grades.

“We should probably be doing [it] anyway,” the teacher said. “I can easily find reasons why it didn’t … but when I know that everybody is doing, you know, it kinda forces me to make sure I’m doing it.”

food fight

As government shutdown drags on, New York City vows to protect school food program

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer served lunch at P.S./I.S. 180 in Harlem on the first day of the 2018-2019 school year. Mayor Bill de Blasio has warned that federal funding for school food could end in April if the government shutdown drags on.

The historic partial government shutdown could soon threaten New York City’s school food program, which serves about a million students breakfast and lunch.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city is drafting plans to keep school cafeterias open if the shutdown drags on, calling food for children “the number one thing we’re going to try to address.”

“In terms of drawing on some of our reserves, that would be a priority,” he said Thursday at a press conference to discuss the impact of the longest-ever shutdown.

The federal government provides about $43 million a month to pay for school meals in New York City, and right now the city has money on hand that would last until April.

School food is lifeline for many families. About 75 percent of New York City students qualify for free or reduced price lunch — to meet that threshold, a family of three would earn about $33,000 a year, said Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates, an organization that fought to make school lunch free for all city students.

“The real threat of [the meal programs] not being available lays bare some very real suffering,” Accles said. “The impact is pretty scary to think about.”

Other school districts are already beginning to feel the effects. One North Carolina school district recently announced it would scale-down its school lunches, cutting back on fresh produce and ice cream. Meanwhile, in Tennessee, one school district is hoping to recruit furloughed workers to fill in as substitute teachers.

The shutdown has dragged into its fourth week with no resolution in sight. President Trump and Congress are at an impasse over the president’s request for $5 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

De Blasio’s media availability about the shutdown’s impact comes as he appears to be trying to bolster his national reputation. His State of the City speech last week focused on larger issues of income inequality and was followed up by appearances on CNN and “The View.”

De Blasio said it’s unclear whether the city would be eligible for reimbursement if it taps its own money to fund school food programs. And he warned that it would be impossible for the city to make up for all of the federal spending on programs that help poor families, which totals about $500 million a month.

“It is a dire situation, there is no other way to say it,” de Blasio said. “It will overwhelm us quickly.”

There are other ways the shutdown could be felt by students in the country’s largest school system, with funding for rental assistance and food benefits also in the balance. New York City is already struggling with a crisis in student homelessness: More than 100,000 lack permanent housing. Payments for food assistance are expected to stop in March, de Blasio said. An estimated 535,000 children under 18 years old benefit from that program.

Such out-of-school factors can have profound effects on student achievement. Cash benefits and food stamps have been linked to boosts in learning and students’ likelihood to stay in school. In New York City, the average family receives $230 in food assistance a month, according to city figures.

“The stress that the families are under, worrying about work and when they’re going to get paid, the children sense it. They hear it. They feel it,” said Mark Cannizzaro, president of the union that represents school administrators. “We see the impacts of that.”