Brooklyn educators demand city continue funding high school programs for at-risk students

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, speaks during a news conference after greeting students for the first day of in-person pre-school in the Queens, New York
Schools chancellor Richard Carranza.
Reuters/Brendan McDermid

Brooklyn educators are demanding that the city continue funding a program that provides struggling students with paid internships and counselors, arguing cutting the program will be disastrous for the thousands of students who rely on it for income and academic stability. 

The city’s Department of Education is currently weighing cutting the Learning to Work program by 72 percent, a move Brooklyn educators say would be detrimental to struggling communities across the five boroughs.

“LTW’s are extremely important to the fabric of New York City, and the lives of these young people,” said Allison Farrington, principal of Research and Service High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, at a virtual press conference on Oct. 15. “The impact of cutting LTW is way larger than just simply hurting students, it hurts communities that are already marginalized and hurt.” 

The program currently serves roughly 3,000 students and is based out of “transfer” high schools that serve students who are in danger of failing out of school. Schools involved with the program receive counseling staff from nonprofit organizations that are matched with a small group of students who they are tasked with building a relationship with and making sure they are staying on track with their schoolwork. 

“It’s not like they are going to cut a program and all of a sudden I’m going to lose a part of my school,” Pat McGillicuddy, principal of East Brooklyn Community High School in Brownsville, told Brooklyn Paper. “The whole school was created with this.”

East Brooklyn was founded with a grant from Learn to Work to create more transfer high schools in the city. From its onset, it has had a partnership with the nonprofit SCO Family Services, which provides counseling. 

McGillicuddy says the close attention students get from their counselors has led to a graduation rate of 80 percent and an attendance rate of 70 percent, but he fears that will come to an end if the funding is cut. 

“Without the funding, there’s no way we have a graduation rate close to that, there’s no way we have an attendance rate close to that,” he said. 

The program also connects students with paid internships at community organizations and local businesses. Many students rely on the income they earn from their internship to help keep their families afloat, and some pursue careers in the fields they landed internships in.

“The internship program is a vital part of that for our students,” McGillicuddy said. “Right when they leave high school they’ve got skills to get a good job, and leadership skills that help them to keep being successful.” 

Many students form lasting relationships with their counselors, such as Quintin Williams, an alumnus of Downtown Brooklyn Young Adult Borough Center, who now works as a driver for UPS. Williams said he still regularly texts with his former counselor Alisa Garcia despite graduating years ago.

“She’s still one of my go-to’s. To this day I text her when I’m having a hard time,” he said at the virtual rally. “When COVID hit, she was a good person to speak to because she kept me motivated.”

DOE has insisted that no cuts have been officially proposed yet, while the city agency is forced to make difficult budgeting decisions due to the deficit crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. 

“We are not eliminating the Learning to Work program,” Department spokesperson Katie O’Hanlon said. “The funding level for this fiscal year is being evaluated in light of the pandemic-driven crisis that has caused the City to lose billions of dollars in revenue, forcing very difficult decisions about programming across City agencies.”

O’Hanlon also disputed the data released by the city’s Independent Budget Office that show the program facing a 72 percent cut, arguing the estimate is based on preliminary figures.

“These numbers should not be published as they do not represent the final decision of the administration,” she said. 

Still, education experts contend cutting LTW would be antithetical to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pledge to make New York City the “fairest big city” in America, and say the program should be expanded if anything, due to the bleak economic landscape and rising crime rates the city’s youth must now contend with.

“You cannot claim to care about marginalized communities, under-resourced communities, and dare to cut LTW,” said southern Brooklyn Councilman Mark Treyger, a former educator who chairs the Council’s Education Committee. “You cannot claim that you are the great equity leader of the city, the fairest big city in America, and then dare to cut LTW.”