Learning Leaders Closing After 60 Years?!

Is it the end of learning leaders?Public school parents recently received a message announcing, “Learning Leaders Closing After 60 Years.” The organization trains and manages 4,500 classroom volunteers citywide with only 20 full-time employees and will dissolve on March 15th. The letter explained that despite increasing private funding, the NYC Department of Education would not provide reliable or adequate support. As a result, “we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.” Additionally, Learning Leaders had reduced the program’s budget by 35%, dipped into their own reserves, and sought further outside funding, but still the DOE offered

“less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE.”

The sudden news left parents with many unanswered questions, most notably how would schools replace Learning Leaders? Shocked and saddened, parents are writing letters urging the DOE to reconsider.

Camille Casaretti, CEC member, was one such dismayed parent. She organizes the Learning Leaders at PS 32 and wondered why the organization hadn’t reached out to school communities for help. Why weren’t the Learning Leaders warned in advance? How could a 60 year old organization disappear overnight? The emails began pouring into Camille’s inbox.

PS 32 parent and Learning Leader, Pamela Nocerino wrote,

“A 60 year program, and all we get is a phone text? They’re breaking it off with the school community by text, and a long and painful one at that. Weird. This reminds me of a Sex and the City episode.”

Why do public school parents and volunteers feel dumped? Because Learning Leaders provides vital, individualized support within schools through community volunteers, often parents and retired teachers. “LL”s can be found in cafeterias helping kindergarteners open their milk or managing disputes between older children. Camille describes their work as providing additional nurturing. They may remind children of their manners or to check out the salad bar. They ask them if they need water or a napkin. For Sandi Harari, being an LL,

“really instilled in me this sense that our school really is a community of caregivers with one goal in mind: meeting the individual needs of each child.”

Sandi gained piece of mind that her own child’s needs were being met by others at school. And Chelsea Spengemann cautions,

“The simple presence of an extra compassionate adult in a classroom should not be underestimated.”

“But,” Camille emphasizes, “they are so much more than that!” Volunteers are often assigned to specific children to provide customized support with reading and comprehension. Trudy Whitman states,

“I provide an extra set of eyes for a child who has withdrawn and needs a bit of encouragement, an extra set of hands for a child struggling with handwriting. I can help a child break down a compound word, so the next time she encounters it, she will know how to attack it. Defunding Learning Leaders is non-sensical. The losers are the kids and our overworked, dedicated teachers.”

The organization also runs special programs, like Book Talk. Kate Ryan is both an LL at PS 261 and Book Talk Leader at IS 318. She has

“been moved to tears by how grateful some of the children in my program were when given books to keep, as they had no books of their own at home. Learning Leaders provided a vital support network for children who could reach out to safe adults who were not just their own family members or their classroom teachers.”

Nora McCauley, PS 261 PTA president and Learning Leader is a big fan of Book Talk. She exclaimed, “Book Talk is my thing! I love it!” Nora knew the response at PS 261 would be strong so she held an emergency meeting to determine how her school would handle the set back. The school has the most trained LLs in the city. Over the last 8 years they have amassed 120 LLs—50 of whom are currently active and 25-30 work in the classroom weekly. PS 261 is committed to their volunteers completing the year, but without the organization they will not be able to train anyone new. Nora feels,

“Learning Leaders is so great because if someone in the neighborhood wants to volunteer, they can be trained, vetted, and organized, so the principal doesn’t have to worry who is in the building.”

Parents can’t understand why the DOE isn’t supporting Learning Leaders, an organization that originally started as a department within the DOE. According to an NYN Media interview with Executive Director Jane Heaphy, Learning Leaders

“has historically received as much as $900,000 from the DOE. It sought $600,000 this year, but ultimately was offered $400,000, which wasn’t enough to balance its budget and maintain the confidence of its private-sector donors.”

Joan Leung, LL Lead Liaison at PS 261 was shocked such an amazing organization would be allowed to fail under those circumstances.

“Money is tight across all budgets but for an investment like this program, it needed to be found.”

With only 20 full-time employees in a small office managing 4,500 volunteers across the 5 boroughs, Joan feels it’s unbelievable that the DOE wouldn’t prioritize an efficient, proven organization—especially when all the private funding is still in place.

Joan is a product of New York City public schools—attending PS 261 as a child! Then spent 30 years working on Wall Street and became a LL while her son attended the same school. 8 years later Joan still volunteers. Given her background, Joan understood that without committed DOE funding, private funding would take a step back. “How could the DOE let that go?”

I contacted the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement (FACE) and DOE Deputy Press Secretary Yuridia Peña for comment on the closure of Learning Leaders. They assure parents that the DOE supports family engagement and would be working with schools to find alternatives.

Meanwhile, the loss of Learning Leaders leaves schools scrambling to fill a void. There may be other organizations that schools can partner with to perform the same vetting and training of volunteers. And schools such a PS 29 opt to organize volunteers in-house. Schools affected may similarly find ways to replace Learning Leaders on their own. However, schools with less community resources may need guidance from the DOE in order to access those volunteers.

As for the individual Learning Leaders, the closure feels like another grim moment for public education, which thrives on parent support to fill in the budgetary blanks. These parents hope to continue volunteering at their schools but can’t help but find the loss demoralizing in a time of general dread about the future of public education. In the words of Nora McCauley,

“It’s distressing. The stars are not lined up for public education right now. Learning Leaders is so many little things that add up to a big loss.”

Concerned families and students are encouraged to write letters about their experience with Learning Leaders to the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or FACE@schools.nyc.gov. For more info click here.

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