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Walcott's middle school plan puts new spin on old approaches

In his first major policy speech, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott called for major changes to the ctiy's worst middle schools.

To shake middle schools from mediocrity, the city is turning to school reform strategies it considers tried and true.

In the next two years, the Department of Education will close low-performing middle schools, open brand-new ones, add more charter schools, and push more teachers and principals through in-house leadership programs, Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced today in a 30-minute policy speech, the first of his six-month tenure.

For 10 schools, the city will ask for $30 million in federal funds to try a new reform strategy set out by the federal government, “turnaround,” in which at least half of staff members are replaced, Walcott said.

The efforts — which the city plans to pay for with a mixture of state and federal funds — are meant to boost middle school scores that are low and, in the case of reading, actually falling.

“People have tried and struggled with the complicated nature of middle schools for decades,” he said. “But the plan I’ve laid out is bolder and more focused than anything we’ve tried here in New York City before.”

Experts and advocates who helped engineer the last major effort to overhaul middle schools, a City Council task force that produced recommendations but short-lived changes at the DOE in 2007, disputed Walcott’s characterization. They said Walcott’s announcement reflects a change in style but not substance.

“Much of what he said is not new,” said Carol Boyd, a parent leader with the Coalition for Educational Justice, which has long urged more attention for middle schools. “There is a definite party line, except Joel [Klein] wasn’t able to deliver it with the same believability that Chancellor Walcott does,” she said. Boyd sat on the task force.

“There’s nothing new [or] interesting about this plan,” said Pedro Noguera, the New York University professor who chaired the council’s task force and has spoken out against school closures. “It sounds like more of what they’ve been doing, shutting down failing schools.”

In fact, a centerpiece of Walcott’s plan is the creation of 50 new middle schools over the next two years, roughly half of which will be charter schools. And Walcott said he would ask the City Council to redirect funds it has allocated since 2008 to 51 low-performing middle schools to help other schools that have “shown promise but need continued support to succeed.”

But he said schools that don’t make strides would be shuttered. “We will hold our middle school to the same tough standards we hold our high schools,” Walcott said. “If a school is failing its students, we will take action and phase it out.”

Walcott could have a tough time selling his plan to Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who convened the task force to improve middle schools in 2007. Her office reacted to the news with surprise and skepticism.

“We were disappointed that more of the reforms outlined by the Council’s Middle School Task Force were not incorporated into the Chancellor’s speech,” said Justin Goodman, a spokesman for Quinn, particularly its recommendations to extend learning time and training for current middle school principals and teachers.

Ernest Logan, president of the principal’s union, said Walcott’s initiatives could “breathe life” back into the campaign that Quinn started, which he said was “nearly abandoned.

To operate the new schools, Walcott said the city will need to push more aspiring principals toward middle schools, which typically struggle to find qualified leadership more so than elementary and high schools, as well as create a “new class” of Teaching Fellows to work in middle schools.

Among other school improvement policies, Walcott noted two targeting poor literacy scores: plans to expand the Innovation Zone program to a group of middle schools using Race to the Top funding, and plans to purchase more non-fiction books aligned with the Common Core standards using $15 million from the State.

Walcott said he took inspiration from the reform efforts underway at several high-performing district and charter middle schools, which he has spent the past month visiting.

One school Walcott visited last week was Democracy Prep Harlem, a charter school co-located in the P.S. 92 building, where Principal Emanuel George said the chancellor toured classrooms and asked questions about what how the middle school trains its teaching staff and structures its school day.

“He walked into our World Percussion class, and poked into a reading classroom for 5 to 10 minutes. He said his focus was on meeting the leaders that drive schools,” George said.

George said Walcott left him with the impression that there would be more conversations, and opportunities to share best practices with other principals, to come. There is no formal principal advisory group on middle school improvement set up, according to Josh Thomases, the DOE’s deputy chief academic officer, who participated in some of Walcott’s conversations with principals last week.

But he said Walcott will be looking to principals for further guidance. “I imagine [the meetings] will continue with some regularity,” he said. “We may rotate principals. There are a lot of middle schools doing things right.”

Boyd said large-scale middle school improvements are necessary, but she did not think the widespread opening and closing of schools would be sufficient.

“Sometimes the culture of the previous school is so insidious in the neighborhood that even when you phase it out you still have the same host of problems because you are dealing with the same cohort of children and you haven’t addressed the underlying need,” she said.

talking it out

At NAACP hearing on charter school moratorium, foes and fans find common ground

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Nyla Jenkins, a first-grader at KIPP STAR Harlem College Prep Charter School

When the NAACP called for a moratorium on charter schools last fall, the group’s president and CEO Cornell Brooks said the group wanted a “reasoned pause,” not a “doomsday destruction” of charters.

Still, it ignited a firestorm among charter school supporters and sparked a series of hearings nationwide, the last of which was held Thursday in New York City. But rather than a heated debate, the panelists and public speakers took pains to find common ground.

“We cannot have a situation where schools are pitted against each other,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told the packed auditorium at Harlem Hospital Center.

Many panelists said the problem wasn’t school choice, but the fact that too many parents felt compelled to seek alternatives to struggling district schools.

“If you go into communities where education is working, you don’t see people scrambling around, trying to figure out what school to put their child in,” said Lester Young, a member of the state Board of Regents. “We have communities in New York City right now where parents say there is not one middle school I can place my child in. Now, that’s the issue.”

Still, many of the speakers also acknowledged problems with charter schools, particularly in states where the laws governing them are more lax than they are in New York.

“We want to make sure that those schools are going to accept students that have special needs,” said Rebecca Pringle, vice president of the National Education Association. “We want to make sure that we do not create separate systems that are unequal.”

The charter school advocates on the panel seemed to agree that some charters weren’t working. They were quick to denounce for-profit charters, for instance. “For-profit operators have no business in education,” said Katie Duffy, CEO of Democracy Prep Charter School. Our children “are not assets and liabilities and they shouldn’t be treated as such.”

Rafiq Kalam id-Din II, who founded a charter school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, spoke about the need for more schools like his, founded and staffed by black and Hispanic community members. Without naming names, he called out charter schools that believe “if you don’t sit a certain way, you can’t learn” or are using suspension as a “first response” rather than a last resort.

“Criminalizing the behavior of our children — there should be a moratorium on that,” he said.

But it was Nyla Jenkins, 7, a first-grader at KIPP STAR Harlem College Prep Charter School, who drew the most applause of the night when she took the microphone and declared herself a junior lifetime member of the NAACP. “Let’s find a solution for all of us,” she said.

Building Better Schools

IPS broke its own rules to work with a for-profit charter operator. Now it’s having second thoughts.

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Donnan Middle School was taken over by the state and handed off to be run by Charter Schools USA in 2012. The school now includes an elementary school in partnership with Indianapolis Public Schools.

An unusual partnership between a for-profit charter operator and Indianapolis Public Schools could be on the rocks.

That’s because during its first year of operation, Emma Donnan Elementary School students had some of the lowest test scores in the district and did not make significant gains from the prior year — landing it on the shortlist for district intervention.

If scores are not good this year or in 2018, the district might terminate its contract with Charter Schools USA to operate Donnan, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

“They struggled in last year’s performance,” he said. “They did not perform at our standard.”

Florida-based CSUSA began managing three Indianapolis schools, including Emma Donnan Middle School, after the schools were taken over by the Indiana State Board of Education six years ago. In 2015, they opened Donnan Elementary as an IPS innovation school in the same building as the middle school. The district is responsible for the school’s — so far low — test scores, but the staff are employed by the charter operator, which handles daily operations.

IPS suspended a policy against working with for-profit operators when it agreed to work with CSUSA to launch Donnan Elementary. The move was intended to give the district more involvement in a building that otherwise would be state-controlled and give CSUSA a chance to work with students earlier. Middle schoolers at Donnan often enroll far behind grade level.

Eric Lewis, a senior official with CSUSA, said the organization is “thrilled to be in partnership” with IPS, and he is not concerned about pressure from the district to improve test scores because “we always intend to improve.”

CSUSA operates 77 schools across the country, many of which also have struggled academically. In the six years since Indiana handed management of three IPS schools over to the charter-manager, those schools have not shown significant improvement.

In recent years, CSUSA has appeared poised to expand in Indiana, but earlier this week the Indiana Charter School Board canceled charters for two schools that were expected to be managed by CSUSA because the company had stopped communicating about its plans.

IPS board members have been skeptical of Donnan Elementary’s progress in the past, but they were relatively quiet during a presentation from CSUSA at their meeting Thursday. (Innovation schools must present their progress to their board twice a year.)

Board member Diane Arnold said the report, which included information on enrollment and scores on tests used to track student progress throughout the year, showed more improvement than the last report school leaders presented to the board.

She is cautiously optimistic Donnan will improve with support.

“We kind of pushed the envelope to give them the elementary school,” she said. “My expectation is we should see results. … And I am hopeful.”

But it’s unclear what help the school will get from the district to improve test scores. Lewis said he did not “have any sense” of what resources the district could provide the school through its new intervention process, but “we look forward to partnering with them.”

Board president Mary Ann Sullivan said she was concerned that Donnan appeared on the list of low-performing schools, and she is relying on the staff overseeing innovation schools to track its progress.

“When we have partners … their purpose is to improve student achievement, and (if) that doesn’t happen, then yes, we will absolutely intervene in those schools,” she said. “We are going to be looking for accountability.”