explainer

Unraveling three and a half months of "turnaround" twists: Part I

Since Mayor Bloomberg announced plans to “turn around” dozens of struggling schools during his State of the City speech in January, the city has hammered out specifics while holding two rounds of raucous meetings at each of the schools that could be overhauled.

Meanwhile, community members, politicians, and union officials have argued against turnaround at rally after rally — even as the city’s plans evolved. On Thursday, they will air those arguments one more time as the Panel for Educational Policy — which has never rejected a city proposal — sits down to hear public testimony and then vote on 26 turnaround plans.

In two posts, we will summarize how the city got here, what turnaround entails, and what could happen after Thursday. First, some recent history:

What exactly is turnaround, anyway?

Turnaround is one of four federally prescribed school overhaul strategies that cities can adopt to qualify for School Improvement Grants. The SIG program was developed to entice states and school districts to improve the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools after U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan committed to funding overhauls. The program has gotten mixed reviews across the country but still has sent school districts into a frenzy trying to win scarce funds, which can amount to millions of dollars per school for three years.

If districts want the funds, they must select one of the four strategies for each school on the list. They can close the schools and disperse their students; partner them with nonprofit groups or turn them into charter schools under “restart”; add new resources and programs under “transformation”; or choose turnaround.

Turnaround is the most aggressive strategy and requires that a school’s principal and programming be changed. In the most controversial requirement, it also mandates that at least half of teachers be replaced. This requirement has made turnaround highly controversial in many districts that have tried to use it.

In the version of turnaround that New York City has developed in an effort to follow rules set out in its contract with the teachers union, the schools would be closed and reopened immediately. A team of administrators and union members would rehire a portion of teachers using a process outlined in the contract’s 18-D clause.

Why does the city want to use turnaround?

The initial impetus for the turnaround plan, which Mayor Bloomberg announced during his State of the City speech in January, was pragmatic: The city wanted to be able to receive federal School Improvement Grants for the schools without adopting new teacher evaluations, which was a requirement for the less aggressive overhaul strategies.

The switch was also political: Bloomberg said he was forced into the plan because the union refused to agree on new evaluations. (In fact, the city had backed out of negotiations about evaluations in the 33 schools in late December, then struck an agreement in February on the main issue that had impeded a deal.) Announcing the turnaround plan allowed Bloomberg to appear tough on the union and sound like he had moved closer to his oft-stated goal of being able to low-performing weak teachers.

But city officials have also argued that turnaround is also the fastest way to help the schools improve because it would allow them to shake up their teaching staffs overnight. Here’s what we reported when Bloomberg vowed to go through with the turnaround plans even after the city made progress on teacher evaluation negotiations:

Bloomberg said the aggressive overhaul strategy was necessary because no teachers would be removed from schools because of low scores on the new evaluations for at least a year and a half.

“It would be unconscionable for us to sit around for two years and do nothing, so we’re going to use the 18-D process,” he said, referring to a clause in the city’s contract with the teachers union that the city says allows turnaround’s rehiring process.

Department of Education officials have made educational arguments for the changes at public hearings in the last month. They say an aggressive change could be successful at jolting schools into improvement where other efforts have fallen short.

Why these schools?

Schools have taken a circuitous path onto Thursday’s PEP agenda. All sit on the state’s list of “Persistently Lowest-Achieving” schools, which was first generated in January 2010 and updated in December 2010 in accordance with guidelines set out by the U.S. Department of Education. Schools landed on the list if they had the lowest test scores of all schools receiving Title I funding, which goes to schools with many poor students, or if their graduation rate was under 60 percent for three straight years.

At the time that the lists were compiled, the city’s graduation rate was under 60 percent, and many high schools were added to the PLA list. In 2010 and 2011, the city began overhaul strategies at 33 of the schools but halted them after the breakdown in teacher evaluation talks in December. When Bloomberg announced the turnaround plan in January, 27 of the schools remained on the list, but the city added six new schools to replace others that it opted not to propose for turnaround, including two that were already slated for closure.

The list of low-performing schools had not been updated in more than 16 months, and some schools had shown improvement, often by crossing the 60 percent graduation rate threshold. Last month, the city removed seven schools from the list that had received A’s and B’s on their most recent city progress reports, leaving the 26 whose turnaround proposals are set to go before the Panel for Educational Policy.

Why is the PEP involved?

Since 2009, when the state law about the city’s school governance system was revised, the panel has had to listen to public comment before deciding on city proposals to close or site schools. The panel is only deciding about whether to close the schools, not whether the turnarounds will get federal funding; that decision is up to State Education Commissioner John King, who has said he wouldn’t finish evaluating the city’s applications until next month. The city has said it would go through with the overhaul strategy even if King does not sign off on the federal funds, although officials have signaled that they do not think that outcome is likely.

What does the teachers union think about turnaround?

For many reasons, the United Federation of Teachers is livid about the city’s turnaround plans. The union has long opposed school closures and has even sued to stop them in each of the last two years. Second, the turnaround closures are especially galling to the UFT because Bloomberg blamed the schools’ struggles on teachers at the schools, rather than on dysfunction in the school organizations, which the city has cited in other school closures. Department of Education officials have dialed down that rhetoric in the months since Bloomberg’s announcement, but the original branding still smarts.

In addition, the turnaround process that the city devised strikes, at least in ideology, at two concepts that the union holds sacrosanct: that layoffs should happen according to reverse seniority, and teachers should not be blamed for low academic performance at schools with many high-needs students. Many of the turnaround schools have large numbers of English language learners and students who entered already far below grade level.

And, perhaps most important, the city is blaming turnaround on the union’s recalcitrance in teacher evaluation talks. But the union called for mediation to smooth talks back in December, and the city demurred, even after an agreement on the sticky issue of appeals for low-rating teachers. An evaluation deal would have allowed the schools to be switched back into less aggressive overhaul processes that do not require any teachers to be displaced, an outcome that seems less likely with every day that preparations for turnaround are underway.

The union’s resistance hasn’t come in the form of organized protests. UFT President Michael Mulgrew has petitioned King not to approve the federal funding for the city, and individual schools’ union chapter leaders spoke out at closure hearings. But the larger effort is likely to be happening behind the scenes, where union lawyers are sure to be going over the department’s adherence to procedural rules with a fine-toothed comb. Any missteps would be fodder for a legal challenge.

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”