Alex Zimmerman and Christina Veiga, Chalkbeat New York
Just days before summer school begins, city officials informed schools on Wednesday that they may need to accommodate an influx of students, frustrating principals who said the last-minute move could create a staffing crunch.
Chancellor Meisha Porter informed principals that “all schools should plan to serve all students interested in their site’s program,” according to a Wednesday afternoon email. The message suggested that students who have been waitlisted at programs that are oversubscribed or had not yet applied could still be sent to their home school’s summer program or one nearby.
Principals fear that many more students than expected could show up at their sites on Tuesday, the first day of the summer program for most students. Multiple principals told Chalkbeat it would be challenging to plan for the program’s launch next week without knowing exactly how many — and which — students to expect, including those with disabilities who require specialized staff.
One elementary school leader in Manhattan said their school has a waitlist of about 500 but only managed to recruit fewer than 10 teachers to work the summer program. Students are supposed to be served breakfast and lunch while on-site, and those food orders have already been placed. Classrooms have not been set up to welcome students, and safety equipment like masks will be needed, they added.
“You can’t promise families something that you can’t deliver,” the school leader said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fear of repercussions. “It’s not right. It’s just creating a really unsafe situation. It’s untenable.”
City officials have struggled to pull off the launch of its new summer program, known as Summer Rising, which will include a mix of academic programming staffed by the education department and afternoon enrichment activities operated by nonprofit community organizations.
The summer programming is open to any city student who wants to participate, but the enrollment process has confused many parents, some of whom have been rejected from certain programs or placed on waitlists without clear communication from the city about the next steps. The move to enroll families at the sites of their choice may help those who had been rejected or waitlisted and were concerned about not being able to enroll at a school that is convenient to their home or staffed by familiar educators.
Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union, said union officials had raised concerns for weeks about the waitlists and caps on the number of students who could be served during the enrichment portion of the day. He noted that informing principals five days before the program’s launch and immediately before a holiday weekend about a significant change was already breeding frustration.
“I’m getting emails from people saying, ‘I have 450 students on my waiting list. How am I going to staff for them?’” Cannizzaro said. The situation “is completely disrespectful of people, it’s potentially harmful to kids, and it’s incompetent.”
After an exhausting year full of pandemic disruptions, some principals have struggled to find enough teachers to staff their summer programs. One Manhattan elementary school principal said the summer school site affiliated with her school is still searching for teachers. Porter’s email noted that substitutes and special education aides would be available and that “budget support will be provided.”
Site leaders said that scrambling to find substitutes will likely water down the quality of instruction and care. Teachers have been planning their instruction in teams, and many community organizations providing summer camp-style activities have already trained staff.
“It’s not just about having the bodies,” a community organization leader in Manhattan said, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize their contracts with the city. “It demeans the work we’ve been doing.”
School leaders added that this change is the latest in a series of last-minute moves. Some principals were recently given spreadsheets and told to call waitlisted families with alternative summer school sites, though not all families have been contacted.
Multiple principals said they faced logistical issues getting information about which students were enrolled at various summer school sites because of communication issues between the education department’s computer systems and the Department of Youth and Community Development, which ran the registration process.
“Some families have been waitlisted but not told where they’ve gotten a spot,” said a Manhattan principal, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak publicly. “Some families today don’t know where their child will be attending next week.”
An education department spokesperson, Sarah Casasnovas, said parents would be informed of their summer school placement by the end of the week. Officials have not said how many students are on waitlists.
“Summer Rising is all about reconnecting families with their school communities, and we’re excited to provide even more students with a seat at their home school or preferred location,” she wrote in a statement.
City officials have also faced criticism over their summer school transportation plans, declining to provide bus service home at the end of the day to all homeless students and those with disabilities who typically receive it during the school year. On Tuesday, officials said they would pick up the tab for taxis so those students could make it home.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.