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.

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.