breaking news

City pulls seven schools with top ratings from turnaround plans

Just days after telling the state that it wanted to “turn around” 33 schools, the city has knocked that number down to 26.

Department of Education officials notified principals at seven of the schools with top grades on the city’s internal assessment of school quality their schools would no longer be slated for turnaround.

Turnaround is a federally prescribed school reform process that requires half of teachers to be replaced. In the model the city is using in order to win federal funds, the schools would have been closed and reopened with new names and new staffs this summer. The department had been criticized roundly for proposing to turn around seven schools that had met the city’s own benchmarks by receiving A’s or B’s on their annual progress reports.

The city’s shocking about-face comes less than a week after the city submitted formal applications to the state for approval and just hours before one of the schools on the list, Brooklyn’s School for Global Studies, was set to have a public hearing about its closure. Another school on the list, Harlem Renaissance High School, had a closure hearing last week.

In addition to Global Studies and Harlem Renaissance, the five other schools no longer slated for turnaround are William E. Grady Career and Technical High School, Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, I.S. 136, William Maxwell Career and Technical High School, and Cobble Hill School of American Studies.

Chancellor Dennis Walcott said in a statement that department officials had concluded the schools could improve without radically overhauling their staffs.

“After careful consideration, including school visits from my leadership team, we have come to believe that these schools have strong enough foundations to improve — and today, I have decided that we will not move forward with proposals to close and replace these seven,” Walcott said in a statement.

Walcott said the department would “continue to support these schools in their growth,” but it was not immediately clear whether schools would receive the same level of additional funding that they would have received under turnaround or would be able to carry out the improvement plans submitted to the state. Five of the schools received millions of dollars in 2010 and 2011 under less aggressive overhaul strategies, and many of their principals credited their rapid improvement to the funds.

Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said she was surprised but “delighted” by the news — provided that the city continues to assist the schools that were pulled off the turnaround list with extra funds.

“I applaud the city for taking a more thoughtful approach to the use of the turnaround model,” she said. “Turnaround was never meant to capture schools that had clearly shown patterns of improving. The last thing we want to do is disturb a school that’s in an improvement pattern. I am deeply gratified by the city’s ability to judge these schools on their own merits.”

Tisch had twice visited at least one of the top-rated schools, Grady, and proclaimed that it was headed in “a fine direction.” During her second visit, she brought along State Education Commissoner John King, who must approve the turnaround applications if they are to receive federal funding.

Reached by phone today, Grady’s principal, Geraldine Maione, said she would inform her teachers about the change tomorrow. “God is good,” she said.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who has been a vocal opponent of the turnaround plans, said the switch underlined the union’s critiques about the city’s school accountability metrics.

“The idea that A and B schools deserved to be closed made a mockery of the DOE’s system, as the agency has apparently now realized,” he said in a statement, adding that some of the other schools on the list also do not meet the city’s criteria for closure. Schools with three consecutive C grades are eligible for closure under the city’s rules, but 13 schools on the turnaround list with C’s on their most recent progress reports had received higher grades in the previous two years.

Mulgrew also urged the city to find ways to help the other 26 schools that are not being removed from the turnaround list. Most of them had been undergoing less aggressive processes known as “transformation” and “restart” — processes that did not require any teachers to be replaced — before Mayor Bloomberg announced the turnaround plan in January.

“There are 26 other schools that have improvement strategies in place,” Mulgrew said. “The focus should now be on helping make those plans a reality, rather than mindlessly closing schools that can and should be fixed.”

Teachers at the schools pulled off of the list reacted with a mixture of shock and relief. The removal caps a tumultuous three-month period in which the schools lost federal funding when the city and UFT failed to agree on new teacher evaluations for them; were proposed to close despite passing grades on the city’s own metrics; and saw their principals participate in a planning process that would have reshaped their offerings and staff rosters.

“This year especially has been so insane that it’s hard to know what’s happening moment to moment,” said a teacher at the Cobble Hill School of American Studies about the latest news. “It’s hard to know how to feel.”

The teacher said Cobble Hill teachers were already scheduled to find out at a faculty meeting Tuesday who would be the school’s principal next year. Now the faculty meeting is likely to contain very different news.

The city will continue to hold closure hearings for the 26 schools remaining on the list while waiting for King’s decision about whether to fund their turnaround overhauls. Two of the schools, Grover Cleveland High School and Herbert H. Lehman High School, have their hearings today.

“Obviously Cleveland is not on the list. This is very disappointing for us but we will not give up,” Diane Rodriguez, a Cleveland senior, told classmates and supporters at a rally before the school’s hearing. “Tonight we will show that we have a voice and will not give in.”

head to head

Protesters face off with member of New York City’s Absent Teacher Reserve outside the mayor’s gym

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Karen Curley, left, talks with Andrea Jackson of StudentsFirstNY

Karen Curley ran into something surprising as she headed into her Park Slope gym on Wednesday: protesters pushing back against the city’s strategy to give her a job.

Curley, 61, a Department of Education social worker who used to work in District 17, has been rotating through different positions for at least two years. She is a member of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers without permanent assignments that is once again at the center of debate over how the city should manage teachers and spend money.

The protesters had gathered outside the Prospect Park YMCA to confront its most famous member, Mayor Bill de Blasio, about the city’s plans to place roughly 400 teachers from the ATR into school vacancies come October. They say the city is going back on an earlier vow not to force the teachers into schools.

“These are unwanted teachers. There’s a reason why they’re just sitting there,” said Nicole Thomas, a Brooklyn parent and volunteer with StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group that organized the protest and often opposes the mayor. “We don’t want these teachers in our schools.”

In fact, the ATR pool includes both teachers whose positions were eliminated because of budget cuts or enrollment changes, and also teachers who have disciplinary records. The city has not disclosed how many teachers in the pool fall into each camp, or which ones will be assigned to positions this fall.

Curley said she was heartbroken when she realized the protest was directed against the Absent Teacher Reserve. “We don’t want to be absent,” she said. “We’re educators.”

She said cost was likely an impediment to their hiring. “The truth is, at this point, I have 20 years in [the school system], which isn’t a lot for someone my age,” she said. But after 20 years, “we’re not likely to be hired elsewhere because we’re high enough on the pay scale that new people can be hired for a lot less money.”

Earlier Wednesday, Chalkbeat cited new figures from the Independent Budget Office placing the cost of the Absent Teacher Reserve at $151.6 million last school year, an average of roughly $116,000 per teacher in salary and benefits. Some principals have balked at the idea of having staffers forced on them in October — and vowed to avoid having vacancies.

Shortly after 10 a.m., the mayor emerged from the gym and hurried into a waiting car without addressing the protesters, who chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, forced placement has got to go.”

Thomas was disappointed he didn’t stop. “He didn’t even acknowledge us,” she said. “And we voted for him.”

Building Better Schools

Hundreds of teachers will be displaced by Indianapolis high school closing plan

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teacher Tina Ahlgren spoke to the Indianapolis Public Schools Board in June about the importance of making the high school closing process easier for teachers.

If the Indianapolis Public Schools Board approves a plan to close three high schools, students won’t be the only ones facing transition: Hundreds of teachers will need to find new positions.

Just what will happen to those educators remains uncertain. District leaders say most teaching positions will be moved, not cut. But educators have raised concerns that the process for reassigning teachers is murky and that the prospect of school closings will push teachers to flee.

A proposal from Superintendent Lewis Ferebee released last month calls for closing Broad Ripple High School and John Marshall Middle School, and converting Arlington and Northwest High Schools to middle schools. Those four schools combined had 329 certified teachers in 2015-2016, the latest year available in the state performance report.

The district would also roll out a new career academy model, where students choose their high schools based on focus areas in fields such as business, construction and medical science.

All that transition means a lot of changes are in store for the hundreds of educators who work at the schools slated to close — and those at the high schools that will launch career academies and take the influx of new students.

For now, the district is not providing much information on what is in store for teachers. The details are expected to come after the IPS board votes on which schools to close in September. Eleven days after the board votes, central office staff are scheduled visit the high schools to discuss the timeline, next steps and personnel decisions.

But Ferebee said it will be even longer before the district has a full picture of how many teachers are needed at the career academies in each school because it depends on where students choose to enroll.

“Much of what we do with certified staff will be driven by enrollment interest of students,” he said.

By closing schools, the district expects to save $4.35 million in “classroom resources,” or expenses from the general fund, according to the report recommending closing high schools. The general fund is typically used to pay for costs including salaries for teachers and other school workers, equipment like computers and supplies needed to run the schools.

The administration does not expect it would save much from shrinking the teaching force, because they anticipate that the number of teachers will stay relatively stable, said deputy superintendent Wanda Legrand. “Our student enrollment will stay about the same.”

IPS union president Rhondalyn Cornett, who leads the Indianapolis Education Association, said that she also expects the number of teachers to remain steady — as long as students don’t start leaving the district for charter and township schools.

The career academies may also lead to more jobs for teachers with new skills and credentials, but it’s not entirely clear how that will play out. Some teachers may already be qualified to teach in the new programs and others may be able to get the extra credentials relatively easily.

Even if the district maintains the same number of students and teachers in its high schools, however, the transition is hard for teachers at the schools that are expected to close, Cornett said.

“They are afraid. They don’t understand how this process works,” she said. “They don’t know what the future holds.”

Cornett said that the district should make the closing process easier for educators by being clear about how they can get jobs at other schools and giving teachers who lost their jobs because of  school closings priority for open positions.

Tina Ahlgren, the 2014 IPS Teacher of the Year, spoke to the board in June about the urgent need to make the process transparent for teachers. Ahlgren has been through this before. She lost jobs at two prior schools after one school was taken over by the state and a magnet program at another school was abruptly moved.

“During each of these transitions, I watched dozens of loyal, effective, IPS educators leave the district due to the chaos that ensued and the broken promises from this district,” she said. “I speak here today to remind you of those challenges in the hopes that we will learn from our past and not repeat those mistakes this time around.”