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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.

closing argument

At rancorous meeting, Denver school board stands by decision to close school but questions process

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Supporters of Gilpin Montessori School march to a school board meeting Thursday.

Shouts of “Shame!,” pleas from parents to save a diverse and storied elementary school and an acknowledgement of a flawed process were not enough Thursday to convince the Denver school board to reverse its decision to close Gilpin Montessori School.

Ultimately, board members said, Gilpin’s long record of poor academic performance sealed its fate, despite missteps in how a new Denver Public Schools policy meant to make emotional school closure decisions more objective was carried out.

“This is such a painful process as a board member and such a difficult decision,” said Rachele Espiritu, who represents the northeast Denver neighborhood where Gilpin is located.

Espiritu started to say that she too had looked at the academic data but before she could finish, the crowd — which had grown more hostile as the hours-long board meeting wore on — stood up and walked out of the auditorium at DPS headquarters chanting, “Vote them out!”

“We didn’t want to sit there and listen to their patronizing comments,” said parent Beth Bianchi.

Dozens of parent and community members showed up to the meeting armed with signs and personal anecdotes about how the school was their village and how their children were thriving and learning, not falling behind and languishing as board members believed.

One issue that caught the attention of board members — and caused some to publicly grill DPS staff — was the supporters’ assertion that Gilpin had been misjudged under one of the criteria of the new school closure policy, called the School Performance Compact.

The policy uses three criteria to determine which schools should be closed:

— If a school ranks in the bottom 5 percent of all DPS schools (with the exception of those that are in the midst of an official turnaround process) based on multiple years of school ratings;

— And fails to show an adequate amount of growth on the most recent state tests;

— And scores fewer than 25 out of 40 points on a school quality review.

Gilpin met all three criteria, having scored 24 points on its school quality review. On Dec. 15, the board voted unanimously to close Gilpin and two other low-performing elementary schools.

But after weeks of research and open records requests that revealed what one Gilpin parent deemed “a hot mess,” supporters called the school’s quality review score into question. They believe it should have been higher — 25 points — based on the scoring rubric and a comparison of what reviewers wrote about Gilpin and what they wrote about other schools.

DPS didn’t conduct the reviews, which involved two-day visits to 16 Denver schools in which reviewers observed classrooms and spoke with staff, parents and students. To maintain objectivity, district officials said, they hired a third-party consulting company, Massachusetts-based SchoolWorks, with which they’d worked for years.

DPS staff explained Thursday that SchoolWorks’ process involves coming up with an initial score for a school and then reviewing it more than once for quality assurance. During that process, Gilpin’s final score was lowered from 25 points to 24 points, which “is not an anomaly,” said Jennifer Holladay, executive director of DPS’s Portfolio Management Team.

Records provided by DPS show that scores at 13 of the 16 schools SchoolWorks reviewed were altered. Holladay stressed that “at no point did myself or my colleague ask SchoolWorks to change its ratings.” Gilpin supporters had accused district staff of willfully lowering the score because DPS wanted to close Gilpin to make room for a charter school.

“This process is not transparent,” Gilpin supporter Virginia Delgado said. “Set the precedent now: Do not close Gilpin. Teachers of Gilpin, thank you for what you did. You scored 25 points.”

Some board members said they also struggled to understand why Gilpin’s score had been changed. In addition, they questioned whether the district was doing enough to help students who will be displaced by the closure. DPS announced last week that it plans to open a Montessori program at nearby Garden Place Academy and provide Gilpin students with transportation to and priority at Garden Place and several other local schools.

The crowd was not assuaged, booing board members and staff and shouting “Support Gilpin!”

Some of the harshest criticism came from board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who said she is “really disappointed in how the district has worked to implement what’s a tough policy.” She said that while the board isn’t backing away from closing low-performing schools, DPS — and its top leaders — did a poor job of anticipating and responding to community concerns.

“We didn’t give this community the very best the district has to offer,” she said. “… Even if you don’t like the final decision we all agreed upon, you deserve our best thinking.”

After Gilpin supporters walked out, the board meeting ended abruptly without any member heeding supporters’ call to move to reconsider the decision to close Gilpin. As of Thursday night, the school was still slated to be shuttered at the end of this school year.

contract sport

UFT files labor complaint against KIPP charter school

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew

An unusual dispute between the United Federation of Teachers and the elite KIPP charter chain spilled into public view Thursday after the union issued a press release accusing KIPP Academy Charter School in the Bronx of threatening to fire teachers if they did not vote to decertify the union.

The union’s claims, which were filed with the National Labor Relations Board this week and are disputed by KIPP, assert that school administrators encouraged staff members to sign a petition that would bar the UFT from representing its teachers.

The situation is uncommon because most charter schools in New York City aren’t unionized and are built partly on the premise that union rules are impediments to a sound education. But KIPP Academy is a “conversion” school, one of few district schools that morphed into charter schools.

The school’s 16-year-old status as a district-cum-charter school is likely at the heart of the dispute over whether its staff members are contractually tied to the UFT. Union officials say roughly 80 of its teachers and other staff members are covered by the city’s contract with the UFT — an idea that KIPP disputes.

“Except for collecting your dues from every paycheck, the union has not ever actively represented you,” Jim Manly, the superintendent of KIPP schools in New York City, wrote in a letter Thursday to staff across the city. The union’s NLRB complaint “and the aggressiveness of their press release is a preemptive effort by the UFT to block your individual ability to decide whether or not you want to be represented by the UFT.”

The latest disagreement over whether the UFT can enforce the city’s contract at KIPP Academy seems to have started boiling over this summer, when the union filed a grievance that alleges a laundry list of contractual violations.

KIPP’s Manly characterized the union’s grievance as a way of making “fundamental changes in the way we educate our students.” He added that staff members had previously tried to get the union decertified in 2010, but were blocked by the UFT.

KIPP co-founder David Levin emphasized the unusual nature of the UFT’s complaint. “For the past 22 years, KIPP Academy’s success has been the collaboration and effort among our educators, students, and parents,” he wrote in a statement. “In all that time, the UFT has never been involved in our school or raised any issues or concerns before now.”

In an interview, union officials said the grievance was filed over the summer for clear contract violations, and that KIPP’s attempt to coerce teachers into rejecting the union was directed in retaliation.

“Charter school employees, like other workers, have a right under federal law to organize and bargain collectively, rights that charter schools must respect,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement.

The NLRB will investigate the UFT’s complaint, but in the meantime, you can read their allegations, and KIPP’s full response to its staff members.