dotting the i's

Closure meetings underway at schools slated for "turnaround"

Posters from past student theater performances adorned the walls of Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School’s auditorium, where parents gathered Monday for a meeting on school turnaround.

The city has started running through its closure protocol at dozens of low-performing schools it wants to “turn around.”

At Brooklyn’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, Superintendent Aimee Horowitz held a tense meeting with teachers to talk about the closure plan Monday afternoon. Hours later, she detailed the plan to about 50 angry and bewildered parents at an “early engagement” meeting that has for the last two years been the Department of Education’s first step in letting schools know they could be closed.

The pattern is set to repeat this week and beyond at dozens of low-performing schools that were midway through federally mandated overhaul processes known as “transformation” and “restart” until earlier this month, when Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city would instead try to use a different process, “turnaround,” at the schools. The switch, aimed at letting the city sidestep a state requirement that it negotiate new teacher evaluations with the United Federation of Teachers, would require the schools to be closed and immediately reopened after having at least half of their teachers replaced.

The mass-replacement plan drew fire from parents and students who said FDR’s teachers are essential if academic performance is to improve.

“I feel tortured,” said Abdul Sager, a ninth-grader whose first language is Bengali. “If a new teacher comes who doesn’t know about my feelings and strategies … to learn English, it’s going to take more time.”

Parents found out about Monday’s meeting in letters shortly after Bloomberg’s announcement and through automated telephone calls over the weekend announcing a parent-teacher association meeting with Horowitz, according to Robin Piraino, the mother of a ninth-grader. She said the messages didn’t say the meeting would deal with FDR’s proposed closure, and some people who attended the meeting were visibly surprised by the news.

Principal Steven Demarco implored families to push back against the city’s plan by contacting legislators and elected officials. He also promised that FDR would survive the city’s latest efforts to reshape the school.

“We’ve always been a family, we’ve always gotten through,” he said. “Regardless of what we’re called — transformation, restart, turnaround — we are continuing every day to make progress. That will continue until I’m dragged out of here.”

Demarco’s predecessor was in fact yanked from the school. Starting transformation in 2010 required Roosevelt’s longtime principal, Geraldine Maione, to be replaced, so the Department of Education appointed Demarco, a 29-veteran of the school, to take her place. Then the city installed Maione at William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School, another school that was undergoing transformation and could now be closed.

Since 2010, FDR had received millions of dollars in federal School Improvement Grants. Teachers said the funds had financed training sessions and overtime hours for leading after-school English classes for parents, tutoring students, and hosting a new advisory program called freshman and sophomore academies.

“We’ve invested our support in the English Language Learners,” said Jorge Mitey, a Spanish teacher and FDR’s union chapter leader, who had passed out large buttons showing Bloomberg’s face with a red strike-through to people attending the meeting. “They’re coming in on weekends, they’re coming after school. We’ve given them more academic rigor to improve.”

Forty percent of FDR’s 3,400 students are considered English language learners, a data point that teachers said makes it impossible for the school to meet the city’s expectations, especially for its four-year graduation rate. Of the students who entered as ninth-graders in 2006, 59 percent graduated four years later, giving FDR a graduation rate just two points below the city average. The school received B’s on its two most recent city progress reports.

“Current policies do not reflect research on how students learn languages — many of our hardest-working students at this school are English language learners,” said one teacher, who asked not to be named because she is worried about keeping her job. “All research shows that it takes five to seven years to become academically proficient in a second language, and that is only if you have literacy in your first language. But many of our students come in with literacy challenges in their first language, Chinese, Spanish.”

The meetings are a first step in the city’s notification process for school closures. For the last two years, the city has held “early engagement” hearings at schools it is considering shuttering before finalizing the closure slate. Then the city must hold public hearings at each school slated for closure before the citywide school board, the Panel for Educational Policy, votes on them. The panel has never rejected a city proposal. By law, the city must also issue detailed reports about the closures’ impact, called “Education Impact Statements,” at least six months before the start of the school year when the closures would begin — a deadline that is just weeks away.

Other school communities are gearing up to protest the turnaround plan at meetings with superintendents later this week. On Wednesday, teachers at Brooklyn’s John Dewey High School say they will defend the progress the school has made under the restart model to department officials and ask them to let current teachers stay in the school.

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”