Beacon Change Leaves Questions

The PS/IS 217 Beacon program will soon get a new off-Island operator, ending the Roosevelt Island Youth Program’s 19-year tenure overseeing the community enrichment program.

The deadline to submit a proposal to the City’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), which manages all Beacon programs, occurred on Tuesday.

The Youth Program (RIYP), led by Executive Director Charles DeFino, was ruled out as a contender for the new contract when PS/IS 217’s principal, Mandana Beckman, refused to sign off on its proposal. (In a procedural change this year, DYCD required the heads of host schools to give approval to potential applicants). The group had tried to rally community support for their inclusion with a petition and letter-writing campaign. A second Island organization, Island Kids, also planned a bid, but was denied the needed signature.

Questions about which group will run the Beacon program (and the summer camp) starting in the fall, have left many parents who depend on the afterschool program uncertain about their plans for the coming year.

RFP Controversy

In response to the principal’s decision, DeFino sent a letter to parents accusing Principal Beckman of abusing her power.

“We were invited to an interview with the principal and her hand-picked committee of teachers and off-Island parents, but the interview was a sham, with the outcome predetermined,” DeFino said in the letter. “We were not given an opportunity to make a presentation, but were just asked to answer some questions. It was clear from the interview that this committee had no interest in the quality of our proposal. We believe that the principal of PS/IS 217 is abusing her power and withholding her signature out of personal bias.”

Beckman has declined to comment on the contents of individual applicants’ presentations. But according to DYCD spokesman Mark Zustovich, principals are required to complete a form outlining why they chose not to sign partnership agreements with any organizations that were denied.

Five bidders for the Beacon contract interviewed with the School Leadership Team (SLT), which includes the principal, the PTA president, and the United Federation of Teachers chapter leader. PS/IS 217’s team also includes five members of the school staff and five parents, three of whom are Islanders. (One Island parent did not attend the interviews.)

According to multiple sources who were present, the RIYP interview was contentious (see editorial, page 2). One SLT member described RIYP Treasurer Steve Kaufman as “aggressively interrogating” Principal Beckman, repeatedly asking her whether she would sign off on more than one group. Others who were present agreed with that description.

According to these sources, Beckman refused to make a commitment to how many applications she would sign, leading him to repeat the question multiple times until Beckman stood and opened the door. Two observers said they thought Beckman intended to call security. At that point DeFino reportedly said, “Let’s get out of here.”

In response to an inquiry from The WIRE, Kaufman disagreed that the meeting was “contentious.” He said that he did “press” the principal multiple times to state her intent to sign multiple RFP applications, and that she told him his questioning made her uncomfortable.

DeFino’s letter went on to state, “We are asking that we are included in the process and given a fair opportunity to continue serving our community; otherwise an agency which has no experience or relationship with Roosevelt Island will be awarded the Beacon contract. This decision will negatively affect youth service on Roosevelt Island for at least the next decade.”

Beacon Summer Camp

Despite the fact that RIYP will no longer be the Beacon provider beginning in September, the group is still contracted to provide services through the end of August. A source from DYCD confirmed, “As of today, RIYP’s registration to run the summer program has not been withdrawn.”

However, multiple RIYP employees have told parents and community members that RIYP must either significantly scale back the Beacon Summer Camp, or cancel it altogether. Registration for the popular camp was held in April.

DeFino did not return any requests for comment and Kaufman declined to address this issue in his response to The Wire.

But according to DYCD, RIYP has already accepted funding for, and agreed to provide, summer Beacon services. DYCD has provided the group with a total of $134,690 ($94,490 for the Beacon Summer program plus $40,200 for their afterschool summer expansion programs).

In addition, RIYP received $100,000 from the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) for a time period running from April 1 through October 1 as part of the extension for its Youth Center contract. RIOC made clear, at the board meeting granting them the extension, that the funds could be used to support the Beacon program, and they are not meant exclusively for youth center use. RIYP also received $14,000 from Ben Kallos’ office.

A DYCD source familiar with the contract said that all Beacon providers were informed of their summer budgets prior to the release of the RFP and had ample opportunity to commit to, and prepare for, the summer programs. The source also clarified that the program is funded through the summer, and the failure to secure sign-off from the principal on the RFP should have no impact on RIYP’s ability to provide the summer camp. Moreover, DYCD does not allow providers to borrow against future funding to provide services. According to the source, “Anticipated funding for the 2017-18 school year cannot be used for programming this summer, regardless of a provider’s financial status.”

When asked to comment, DYCD spokesman Zustovich said, “All current Beacon providers, including RIYP, will receive funding to provide services this summer at a higher level than ever before due to the administration’s increased investment in the Beacon Community Centers. DYCD is in communication with RIYP leadership and, if they decline to provide programming through the summer, DYCD will explore other options to minimize disruption of services to the young people and families of Roosevelt Island.”

Both RIOC and DYCD declined to comment on what would happen to the money already allocated to RIYP if the organization declined to fulfill their existing contract by failing to provide summer services. DYCD did say however, that, “If RIYP changes its mind, DYCD would immediately begin the process of finding another provider in time for the start of summer sessions.”

Island Kids

Although it’s also out of the running for the Beacon contract, Island Kids will continue providing its paid afterschool program at PS/IS 217 for children in pre-K through second grade. According to Director Nikki Leopold, the schedule will include snacks, homework help, enrichment programming, free play and outdoor time.

The longtime Island not-for-profit organization has provided support to the families of Roosevelt Island for 23 years. It also offers toddler classes and support groups, including the Island’s free baby group.

For the upcoming school year, the organization plans to expand its program to include enrichment classes for families who do not need full afterschool care. Classes will run for 45 - 90 minutes in 12 week sessions. They say they will release the schedule of classes within the next few weeks. The classes will take place at 536 Main Street.

Leopold also says that, in line with the Island Kids’ mission to serve the entire Roosevelt Island Community, they expect to offer scholarships to those who might otherwise not be able to participate in the program.

Off-Island Groups

While the program’s provider will change in the fall, the free programing that the Beacon provides will remain. According to DYCD spokesman Mark Zustovich, “DYCD is committed to funding a Beacon program on Roosevelt Island this fall.”

Three off-Island groups interviewed with the school to apply for the Beacon contract:

Stanley M. Isaacs: The Stanley M. Isaacs Neighborhood Center currently runs a Beacon program on the Upper East Side’s Yorkville at the edge of East Harlem and services primarily low-income residents.

According to their website, in 2015, their Beacon program served 529 adults and 305 youth with weekend and evening programming. In addition to an afterschool program for kindergarten through 4th grade, they also offered a “Beacon TweenZone” with after-school programming for middle schoolers that they say is “designed to expose youth to various careers while supporting their socio-emotional growth.” The group works with a long list of partners and community organizations. In addition to a Beacon program, the group also runs a senior center and youth center.

Community Association of Progressive Dominicans: Originally formed in 1979 to serve immigrant communities, the Community Association of Progressive Dominicans (ACDP) currently runs two Beacon programs – one at MS 328 in Washington Heights and another at MS 117 in the Bronx – as well as several other after-school and adult programs throughout the City. According to the Washington Heights-based organization, they currently serve 27,000 children and families annually.

They say they believe in “facilitating community empowerment through education, provision of human services, and the development of individual skills and community leadership.”

The Child Center of New York: Founded in 1953, the Child Center of New York runs more than a dozen afterschool and summer programs in the City, including four Beacon programs at PS/IS 43, Parsons Community School, Virgil Grissom Middle School, and Catherine Count Basie Middle School 72. The group says on its website that it serves more than 26,000 children and families annually. The staff speaks over 22 languages.

The Child Center says it takes a holistic approach, realizing that children don’t grow in isolation but rather as a part of families and communities, and that its research-based methods help youths and adults develop academic, social-emotional, and physical skills.

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