turnaround tales

At one school, turnaround news called surprising, low on details

Students at the High School of Graphic Communication Arts work on web-design projects Jan. 9.

When the city unveiled its school closure proposals last month, the High School of Graphic Communication Arts was not on the list. So students and staff there were surprised to learn last week that their school might well be closed in June after all.

Many students walking to the Manhattan school’s Hell’s Kitchen building this morning said they were primed for a typical school day, despite the news that Graphics, which received an F on its most recent progress report, would be one of 33 schools to undergo the “turnaround” process this year. Under that plan, which Mayor Bloomberg announced in his State of the City speech last week, the school would reopen in September with a new name and at least 50 percent of the current teachers gone.

Brendan Lyons, the school’s first-year principal, said the news was “definitely a surprise for our organization and our community,” but said he would wait for more details from the city before commenting on potential changes in store for the school.

If the turnaround plan is approved by the State Department of Education, Lyons would be eligible to stay on. But along with a team of educators and union officials, he would be responsible for selecting a new staff, drawing on current teachers for exactly half of the slots.

“Every crisis is an opportunity,” Lyons said. “I’d like to show how our school is a model turnaround that other schools can learn from.”

He added, “Right now we are in the dark, but hopefully in the next week this picture will go from black and white into color.”

Ashley, an 11th-grader who asked to keep her last name private, said teachers at Graphics discussed the turnaround model with students on Tuesday and shared a letter from Chancellor Dennis Walcott outlining the changes the school could expect.

“They said it was going to be a new and improved school, that it will be better,” she said. “But I think it’s going to be the same thing. It was sad to hear that they’d lose their jobs.”

Gamalier Aquin, also in 11th grade, said the school has already made positive strides under Lyons’s leadership, but he doubted that the Turnaround would have a large impact, whether or not it spells the end of some teachers’ jobs.

“The new principal, he’s great. He is in the hallways now, he shows up in classes. The other principal I didn’t even know,” Aquin said. “Honestly, if it’s just changing the name and the number, I’m not sure.”

Even before the turnaround announcement, Graphics was in the process of phasing out its longstanding printing program. Melissa Silberman and Vanda Belusic, Department of Education officials who support career and technical education schools, told me today that the program was unlikely to lead to jobs, so the school is focusing instead on other fields, such as photography and graphic design, that are expanding. They declined to comment on how the school’s turnaround and staff turnover could affect its career curriculum offerings.

bigger issues

Harlem parents want more time to weigh in on school rezoning and merger

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
The city Department of Education has proposed merging P.S. 241 the STEM Institute of Manhattan into P.S. 76 A. Philip Randolph, about eight blocks away in Harlem.

Crystal Bailey’s son came home from school recently with a dirty uniform. Before she could fuss at him, he explained it was muck from science class.

“He’s like, ‘Guess what I learned?’ How could I be mad at that?” Bailey said.

She and dozens of other parents gathered at a public hearing Thursday night to protest plans to merge and rezone their school, P.S. 241 STEM Institute of Manhattan in Harlem.

For parents, elected officials and advocates, the plan in Harlem has grown to symbolize larger issues: school segregation and the impact of charter schools.

“This is an equity issue,” said Emmaia Gelman, a member of the group New York City Public School Parents for Equity and Desegregation.

The Department of Education has proposed to merge P.S. 241 with P.S. 76 A. Philip Randolph, and to redraw the school lines around P.S. 241. Under the plan, families currently zoned for P.S. 241 would be distributed among other local schools: P.S. 76, P.S. 180, P.S. 185/P.S. 208.

“Why do you want to unravel this institution, rather than strengthen it?” Maria Garcia, who has two children at P.S. 241, asked at Thursday’s hearing.

The proposal comes on the heels of another contentious rezoning in District 3, which spans from the Upper West Side to 122nd Street in Harlem. Both plans have highlighted stark differences among the area’s schools.

For more than a year, parents railed against plans to redraw school boundaries on the Upper West Side, where students are packed into high-performing schools. In Harlem, a rezoning plan was presented just weeks before a final vote was expected — and only after the Department of Education proposed to merge a school that has struggled with enrollment and performance on state tests.

Enrollment at P.S. 241 has hovered around 100 students in recent years, despite a federal magnet grant designed to attract families — and integrate the school — by offering a curriculum in science, technology, engineering and math. The school has seen a small uptick in enrollment recently, but parents say it has been squeezed by two charter schools that share its building.

“Why do we have to go?” asked Tasha Clarke, who has two sons at P.S. 241.

The merger and rezoning rely on two separate processes. The citywide Panel for Educational Policy is scheduled to vote on the merger in January.

The District 3 Community Education Council must ultimately vote on the rezoning. Though a vote is scheduled for Dec. 14, council members have begun to voice reservations about the plan.

“Anybody who thinks that this council has decided to vote to approve this is sorely mistaken,” council President Joe Fiordaliso said at the hearing.

Council members shared data they compiled that shows declining enrollment in the area’s schools and growing charter enrollment.

“We’re in crisis,” said council member Daniel Katz.

This isn’t the first time P.S. 241 has fought to keep its doors open. The DOE tried in 2009 to close the school and replace it with charters.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and teachers union sued, arguing that by closing a zoned school, the department was essentially redrawing attendance boundaries. That falls under the purview of Community Education Councils, which vote on all zoning decisions.

Soon after the suit was filed, the DOE dropped its plans to shutter P.S. 241. But CEC member Noah Gotbaum thinks the same issues apply to the proposed merger — and therefore the council could play a crucial role in determining the school’s fate.

“I think we on the CEC need to look at the merger very, very carefully and essentially make a decision on it,” he told Chalkbeat, “and not say that we don’t have the power or the right.”

Out of time

Denver Public Schools reveals schools recommended for closure under new policy

PHOTO: Denver Post
Students dance with brightly colored scarves during a music class at Gilpin Montessori in February.

Three low-performing Denver elementary schools are being recommended for closure under a new school district policy: Amesse, Gilpin Montessori and Greenlee.

Denver Public Schools announced on Thursday the recommendations for Amesse, in the Montbello neighborhood in far northeast Denver, and Gilpin, in the Five Points neighborhood in northeast Denver. On Friday morning, the school district made public the recommendation for Greenlee in the Lincoln/La Alma Park neighborhood in west Denver.

West Early College, a high school on the West High campus, was also facing a possible closure recommendation due to poor school ratings and low test scores. But the district announced Friday morning that it will not be recommended for closure because its score on a recent school quality review revealed it was on the right track toward improvement.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the recommendations at its Thursday meeting.

The district is recommending that Amesse and Greenlee be restarted, meaning the schools would be closed and replaced by a model the district deems more likely to succeed. The recommendation for Gilpin is different: DPS staff is recommending it be closed at the end of the school year but not replaced because of low enrollment projections.

The district’s new school closure policy, called the School Performance Compact, was adopted by the school board last year. It evaluates low-performing schools using three criteria:

— Whether they rank in the bottom 5 percent of schools based on multiple years of school ratings and aren’t exempt from the policy because they’re in the midst of a significant intervention meant to boost performance;

— Whether they failed to show an adequate amount of growth on the most recent state tests;

— And whether they scored fewer than 25 out of 40 points on a school quality review.

Schools that meet all three criteria can be recommended for restart or closure. Though DPS has over the years closed dozens of schools for low performance, next week’s vote will be the first time the school board uses the new policy to make the decision.

Amesse Elementary was “orange” this year on the district’s color-coded rating system, called the School Performance Framework. Orange is the second-lowest rating. In 2013 and 2014, it was “red,” the lowest rating. (There were no ratings in 2015 due to a switch in state tests.)

Greenlee was the same: orange this year and red in 2013 and 2014.

Gilpin Montessori was red this year, orange in 2014 and red in 2013.

All three schools also showed lower-than-average academic growth when compared to other Denver elementary schools on the most recent state tests taken last spring.

The percentages of students meeting or exceeding expectations on those tests were low, too. For instance, just 11 percent of fourth-graders at both Amesse and Greenlee, and 14 percent of fourth-graders at Gilpin, met or exceeded expectations on the state English test.

The school quality reviews for Amesse, Gilpin and Greenlee were conducted in November by SchoolWorks, a Massachusetts-based consulting company. The review teams that visited the schools included SchoolWorks employees and DPS staff members.

The teams rated the schools in 10 different categories for a total possible score of 40 points.

Amesse and Gilpin both scored 24 points. Greenlee scored 22 points. However, all three also scored a “1” in at least one of the 10 categories. Under the district’s criteria, that can trigger a closure recommendation, regardless of a school’s total score. West Early College scored 25 points and had no “1”s.

Amesse got the lowest marks in the categories of classroom instruction and in teachers’ ability to measure student progress and adjust their teaching methods accordingly.

Reviewers did 23 observations and noted seeing many children off-task.

“In one classroom of 23 students, eight students were writing, three students were working with the teacher and 12 students were off talking or wandering around the room,” the review states.

Reviewers also observed teachers giving less-than-helpful feedback.

“For example, when a student answered a question incorrectly, the teacher gave the correct answer and moved on, instead of asking the student to explain his/her thinking,” the reviewers wrote about one classroom they visited.

Greenlee struggled in the same categories.

“Many students were observed not paying attention, staring off into space and not completing assignments,” wrote the review team, which conducted 10 observations. “…most teachers did not attempt to re-engage these students, allowing them to opt out of lessons.”

In Gilpin’s review, which was based on 16 observations, the school did a bit better on classroom instruction but just as poorly on teachers’ ability to assess progress and provide feedback.

“The site visit team observed ineffective feedback in 25 percent of classrooms,” Gilpin’s review states. “In these classrooms, feedback was not specifically connected to the learning goal but rather focused on task completion or attributes of the student’s work. Observed examples included: ‘You’re doing it right;’ ‘Great job;’ or ‘Nice handwriting.’”

Read the full school quality reviews below.