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.”

Student activist

With Townsend Harris in turmoil over interim principal, one student quietly takes a leading role

PHOTO: The Classic
Alex Chen walks the hallway during a student sit-in he helped organize at Townsend Harris High School.

While students across the nation have taken to the streets to protest President Trump, some are fighting battles closer to home. Just ask Alex Chen, the student union president at Townsend Harris High School who is helping to lead a high-profile fight against Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda.

Chen spent much of his February break rallying fellow students, alumni and parents from the elite Queens high school to demonstrate in front of City Hall on Friday, asking the city to remove Jahoda from consideration for the permanent post. The controversy has put the 17-year-old in the uncomfortable position of going against his school’s top official.

But Chen insists this isn’t a student vs. principal situation.

“It might have felt like that sometimes, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it more as a community that’s rising up,” he said.

Opposition has mounted against Jahoda since September, when she stepped in to lead the school. More than 3,500 people, including self-identified parents and alumni, have signed a petition against her, claiming that she has harassed faculty, changed course offerings without proper input and that she has been “aloof or even combative” toward students.

In a statement, Jahoda said: “While I am frustrated by many of these inaccurate allegations, I remain 100% focused on serving students and families at Townsend Harris and working to move the school community forward.”

Meanwhile, Chen has been thrust into the spotlight. In December, during a student sit-in he helped organize, he had a tense standoff with Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” the superintendent quipped to Chen in a livestream broadcast by the student newspaper. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Chen spoke slowly, his voice a near whisper. Even when the superintendent suggested Chen had invaded her personal space, Chen stayed quiet and calm.

“I really just wanted to be able to communicate with her,” he later told Chalkbeat.

He returned to class, replaying the scene in his head and wondering whether he had handled it right. When he walked in the door, his classmates burst into applause.

“He’s become this symbol for everyone involved. And I think he earned it,” said Brian Sweeney, an English teacher and newspaper advisor who has Chen in his journalism class. “When you’re in that video with everyone watching, and you’re willing to keep talking and keep saying what you think … there’s a lot of trust for everyone involved.”

Since the sit-in, the School Leadership Team at Townsend took the unusual step of making Chen a co-chair of the board, made up of teachers, parents and union reps.

“I believe it was a matter of trust and productivity. We needed co-chairs who could move forward with the issues at the table, rather than be stuck in tension,” Chen said.

Even while he fights to make sure Jahoda isn’t appointed permanently, Chen said he has maintained a “very professional relationship” with her. In SLT and student union meetings where Jahoda is present, Chen said he makes an effort to “stick to the agenda.”

“We still have to keep the school running,” he said. “In the hallways, I’ll say good morning. I’ll say hello. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

The Department of Education opened applications for a permanent principal on Feb. 1 and said the process takes up to 90 days. The pushback against Jahoda means many are watching the department’s next moves. This week, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz wrote a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña about the matter.

“Accusations and troubling accounts are occurring on a daily basis,” she wrote. “The students of our system deserve to know that the DOE is providing the tools, atmosphere and attention needed to fulfill our responsibilities to them.”

Chen has responsibilities of his own. At home in Hollis Hills, he helps take care of his younger sister and is expected to finish his chores. He’s looking for a job to have a bit of his own money. And with senior year winding down, he spends a lot of time chasing scholarships. Chen hopes to study business at University of Pennsylvania, though lately many people have asked him whether he’ll go into politics.

“I don’t think I will for now, because there’s a lot that goes on in politics that kind of disturbs me,” he said. “After high school, after college, after your youth, it seems like people [tend] to be more self-interested than to help in the community.”

under study

No longer at the bottom: These 20 schools are Tennessee’s model for turnaround

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Whitehaven Elementary School students work on a robotics project. The Memphis school has moved off of the state's list of lowest-performing schools.

When Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment this week of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, she cited a small number of schools as the exception.

Twenty have improved enough in the last five years to move off of the state’s list of “priority schools” that are in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent.

Of those, the State Department of Education has conducted case studies of 10 former priority schools in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Hardeman County:

  • Chickasaw Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Douglass K-8, Shelby County Schools
  • Ford Road Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Gra-Mar Middle, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Hamilton Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Treadwell Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Hamilton County Schools
  • Whiteville Elementary, Hardeman County Schools
  • City University Boys Preparatory High, Shelby County Schools
  • Springdale Elementary, Shelby County Schools

The first six are part of state-supported innovation zones in Memphis and Nashville. Two schools — in Chattanooga and Hardeman County — have received federal school improvement grants. The last two did not receive federal or state interventions but were studied because their scores improved at a faster rate than 85 percent of schools in 2015.

Ten other former priority schools, all in Shelby County Schools in Memphis, have improved with only local or philanthropic support. The state plans to examine these closer in the coming months:

  • Alcy Elementary
  • Cherokee Elementary, Innovation Zone
  • Hickory Ridge Middle
  • Manassas High
  • Manor Lake Elementary
  • Memphis Academy of Science & Engineering High (charter school)
  • Memphis School of Excellence High (charter school)
  • Oakhaven Middle
  • South Park Elementary
  • Whitehaven Elementary
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A classroom at Ford Road Elementary in Memphis, which is among those that have exited the state’s list of lowest performing schools.

McQueen told lawmakers Tuesday that it’s “a little embarrassing” that only 16 percent of priority schools have moved off of the state’s 2012 and 2014 lists that identify 126 failing schools.

The case studies, in part, have informed the school improvement component of Tennessee’s new plan for its schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“… We have learned that a combination of school leadership, effective teaching with a focus on depth of instruction around standards, and services focused on non-academic supports has led to strong outcomes in these schools,” McQueen said in a statement Wednesday.

Tennessee’s proposed new plan for turnaround work would gives more authority to local districts to make their own improvements before the state-run Achievement School District steps in.

One ASD school — Brick Church in Nashville — also has moved off of the state’s priority list, but was excluded from the state’s analysis because there were not enough years of test data to compare since its takeover by the state-run district.

“What we can’t do as a state is support — in terms of funding and time — district interventions that don’t work,” McQueen said. “We have to learn from what is working because we know we have much more work to do and many more students that have need.”

Chalkbeat reporter Grace Tatter contributed to this report.