Learning Leaders to shutter

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(Photo: Learning Leaders/Youtube)

Learning Leaders, a nonprofit that trains volunteers to work in hundreds of low-income schools across the city, will shut down next month because of difficulty obtaining enough money from the city Department of Education, the organization announced Feb. 16.

The $2.5 million organization, which bills itself as the “largest and most experienced” nonprofit supporting family and community engagement in city schools, will close March 15. The organization will lay off its staff of approximately 20 full-time employees, as well as some part-time workers.

Learning Leaders, which uses government money to supplement its foundation and other private funding sources, 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, Learning Leaders Executive Director Jane Heaphy said.

“We did use our own reserves to keep the programming going while we worked and worked to get what we had hoped would come from DOE, but we’re sad that we’ve run out of time for that to happen,” said Heaphy.

Learning Leaders coordinates more than 4,000 parents and community volunteers to help in elementary and middle school classrooms, and offers academic supports such as one-on-one tutoring, office assistance and literary programs in primarily low-income neighborhoods. About three-quarters of the school’s populations are people of color, one quarter are immigrants, and nearly half speak a language other than English at home, according to the organization.

Over the past two years, Learning Leaders received DOE funding for the Families Fostering Success to increase the number of schools offering parent-volunteer training. But Heaphy, who has been with the organization for five years, said those grants represented short-term commitments that were far short of the long-term work required to recruit, screen and train volunteers.

The organization was, at one time, a department within the former city Board of Education, but was spun off as an independent organization in the 1970s with the city providing a funding and staffing base. While demand has grown, the nonprofit has shrunk its budget, collected “partnership fees” from participating schools and reached out to private donors in the face of reduced funding from the DOE, Heaphy said.

“While they have been supportive of the program, they feel it’s a good program, they cite funding challenges of their own,” she said.

About two-thirds of the organization’s funding comes from donors and foundations such as IBM, the New York Community Trust, The Pinkerton Foundation and Time Warner Cable. It has also considered mergers or alliances with other nonprofits, but Heaphy said the leadership couldn’t envision a sustainable funding model comprised of more private funding.

While other programs operate similar training and volunteer programs, none do it “at the scale” of Learning Leaders, which operates in more than 300 schools, Heaphy said. “We’re worried about how that will get picked up and whether parents will be continued to be used as a resource to help schools,” she said.

DOE spokeswoman Yuridia Pena said the department was “grateful for the hard work of Learning Leaders to support leadership of hundreds of New York City public school parents and saddened that they are closing their doors.”

She added that, “In the coming weeks, we will work closely with school communities to ensure quality programs like family literacy and mentoring remain accessible to families across the city.”

Learning Leaders had a three-star rating with Charity Navigator as of October 2016 and assets of $3.8 million as of June 2015, according to its most recent publicly available audit.

“We’re heartbroken to close our doors, but we have reached the point where we can no longer finance our current operations or envision a sustainable business model for the future,” Jeremy Koch, chairman of Learning Leaders, said in a statement.

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