Takeaways

The day after: What we learned at last night's turnaround hearing

A teacher from Lehman High School testifies at Thursday's Panel for Educational Policy meeting. The panel voted to close and reopen Lehman.

Here are seven things you should know about last night’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting, in case you don’t have time to read the live-blog we maintained for more than six hours as the panel weighed whether to approve “turnaround” closure plans for 24 schools.

1. There’s a new form of school closure in town. Usually, when the Department of Education decides to close a school, it embarks on a multi-year process of phasing out the old school and phasing in a new school, or multiple new schools, in its place. The department has used this process well over 100 times in the last decade and has said it results in stronger student performance. This process is what the panel okayed in February, when it signed off on plans to close or shrink 23 schools.

Turnaround is a little different. It speeds up the process so phasing out and in happen at the same time, essentially overnight. It remains to be seen whether years of transition or rapid change can be judged to be more effective at boosting student achievement. The city turned to turnaround this year to make schools eligible for federal funds. But if the city determines that turnaround has advantages over phase-out, the city could use it again in the future.

2. But turnaround isn’t really as new as Mayor Bloomberg made it out to be. On the dais, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said that a panel resolution to prohibit turnarounds was inaccurate because it stated that the reform initiative was unknown in New York City. In fact, Walcott said, the city has used turnaround before –  but to a lesser extent. They also have never called their reform efforts turnaround, a term that comes from the Obama administration’s school reform vocabulary list.

What they have done is close low-performing schools and open new ones in their place that serve all of the same grades and students. When that has happened, in some elementary and middle school overhauls, the principals of the new schools have been bound to hire from the old schools’ staff in accordance with the same clause in the city’s contract with the teachers union that the city is invoking in the turnaround schools.

Walcott pointed out that one of his deputy chancellors, David Weiner, had actually overseen a turnaround school when he was the principal of the now-closed P.S. 314 in Sunset Park. Weiner closed down the school and reopened it as P.S. 503 The School of Discovery.

“I want to change the misinformation that’s saying it hasn’t been done,” Walcott told Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the Queens representative who authored the resolution. “It has been done.”

3. A hearing just isn’t the same without the UFT’s involvement. In the past, the union has chartered buses from all over the city to PEP meetings to make sure the full range of opposition is represented from teachers working in schools being affected by panel votes, and organized dissent has resulted. But this month the union not only cancelled the buses, it sat out of the panel meeting entirely, creating a scattered presence of teachers who attended on their own initiative.

Close to 100 teachers and supporters were at the union’s rally earlier in the day, but the vast majority of them went home after drying off at the union headquarters. Without a critical mass of people, the teachers who did trek to Prospect Heights sometimes found their messages lost amid the sea of organized charter school supporters who turned out to testify on co-locations up for a vote.

In fact, only a fraction of the schools on the turnaround list were represented at all, and only one representative of the seven middle schools at risk — a principal who would be replaced under turnaround — spoke out. Only about two dozen students attended and parents were even less plentiful.

The largest and most contingent at the meeting came from two charter school networks, Democracy Prep and Success Charter, who both brought buses of supporters to back co-location proposals before the panel. For a time during the public comment period, one could forget that turnaround was on the agenda at all.

4. But we haven’t heard the last from the union. Just days after Mayor Bloomberg announced the turnaround plan in January, UFT President Michael Mulgrew left little doubt about how the union planned to respond. “If the Department of Education tries to implement changing these schools from their current status, we will be taking appropriate legal action,” Mulgrew said at the time.

Last night, we saw that the union is dotting all its i’s in preparation for a lawsuit.

Vice President Leo Casey was the only union official to appear at the hearing after most stayed away to protest the panel’s pro forma votes. Why did he make the trek to Brooklyn? “I just want to make an official objection for when we sue them,” Casey said.

A union official said this morning that a lawsuit would not be filed today. The official would not say whether the union had a timeline for lodging a legal complaint.

5. Panel members aren’t just sitting silently before they vote. Critics often mock the panel’s mayoral appointees as “puppets” who do little besides keep their seat warm and wait until it’s time to vote “yes.” The mayoral panelists all voted yes in accordance with Mayor Bloomberg’s wish, doing little to curb the criticism.

But in a departure from the norm, a majority of the mayoral appointees were visibly grappling with the proposals before them.

“I know the panel members want us to engage,” said the first mayoral appointee to ask a question, Jeffrey Kay. Kay asked Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg to repeat some of the key points of the proposal: “Outside of the change of the name of the school and the possible elimination of poor teachers, what else is this program going to do?”

Sternberg was patient, but he also seemed weary as he rehashed the policy points that had already occupied the panel for five hours. “I’ve already said some of this,” Sternberg began.

After hearing Sternberg’s explanation, Kay expressed disbelief that anyone would oppose turnaround and criticized Manhattan representative Patrick Sullivan for calling the plan “barbaric.” Sullivan in turn chided Kay for not understanding some of the complexities of the proposal.

“Maybe if you had actually read the plans” you’d understand it better, Sullivan said. Sullivan was one of several panel members to request the city’s application to the state for federal turnaround funding, and he had spent the days before the meeting poring over more than 800 pages of plans. The city barred the panel members from discussing the applications publicly because they are not final.

Judy Bertgraum, who was appointed earlier this year, said that in her 30 years of working in education in Queens schools, many of the schools on the turnaround list had long been struggling. “The issue with these schools have been there” for years, she said. “I see this as an opportunity that’s never come before. This doesn’t come very often.”

Joan Correale, who became a panel member just in time for the meeting, said her daughter’s Bronx high school had undergone something like turnaround. The process led to principal turnover, but in the end the school was a better place, she says. (Correale had previously served on the panel as the appointee of the Staten Island borough president.)

And Brooklyn’s Gitte Peng said she wanted to know what the DOE’s communication plan was for making sure students and parents understood all of the changes that were about to take place over the next several months. “One concern is the potential for confusion on the part of kids and parents in the community for what next year will bring,” she said.

6. The city thinks good teachers are worth millions of dollars. Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg emphasized that point after multiple panel members, including Fedkowskyj, expressed disbelief that principals would choose to jeopardize their chances of winning millions of dollars in federal funds. Schools are eligible for the funding only if they replace 50 percent of teachers who have been on staff for more than two years, a quota that DOE officials have repeatedly said principals are not required to follow.

“Our direction to them is hire the best possible staff as they can and if that means they are hiring more than 50 percent of their staff then that’s exactly what they should do,” Sternberg said again at the meeting.

Fedkowskyj challenged that talking point. He said he could envision a scenario where principals, lured by money for their schools, would justify a decision not to rehire teachers in order to reach the 50 percent benchmark.

Sternberg quickly interjected and said the money should have no bearing on hiring decisions, even if one teacher stands in the way of reaching the 50 percent quota.

“Any principal that turns down one talented educator, they are making the wrong decision,” Sternberg said.

7. Here are the schools that will undergo turnaround:

Alfred E. Smith CTE High School, Bronx
August Martin High School, Queens
Automotive High School, Brooklyn
Banana Kelly High School, Bronx
Bread & Roses Integrated Arts High School, Manhattan
Bronx High School of Business, Bronx
Flushing High School, Queens
Fordham Leadership Academy, Bronx
Herbert Lehman High School, Bronx
High School of Graphic Communication Arts, Manhattan
I.S. 339, Bronx
J.H.S. 22 Jordan L Mott, Bronx
J.H.S. 80 Mosholu Parkway, Bronx
J.H.S. 142 John Philip Sousa, Bronx
J.H.S. 166 George Gershwin, Brooklyn
John Adams High School, Queens
John Dewey High School, Brooklyn
Long Island City High School, Queens
M.S. 126 John Ericsson, Bronx
M.S 391, Bronx
Newtown High School, Queens
Richmond Hill High School, Queens
Sheepshead Bay High School, Brooklyn
William Cullen Bryant High School, Queens

men of color

New York state charges forward with its ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ initiative

When young men of color enter high school, they often do so with the deck stacked against them. That’s what a panel of young men from Ithaca and Albany told a room of education policy officials and lawmakers on Friday.

“There’s a mold for us that they want us to fit in,” one student said.

“No one realizes how much potential, not only white students have, but every student has,” another added.

New York state’s top education leaders convened in Albany Friday to tackle the problem posed by these young men: How can the state raise educational achievement for boys and young men of color?

Only about 68 percent of black and Hispanic students graduate on time, while 88 percent of their white counterparts do, according to state graduation rates released last week. Male students fare worse than female students, with a 76 percent graduation rate compared to 83 percent for female students.

The conference is part of the state’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, modeled on President Barack Obama’s national program geared toward boosting opportunities for young men of color. Policymakers spearheading New York’s initiative scored a big victory last year, securing $20 million from the legislature and officially becoming the first state to accept Obama’s challenge.

Though the political winds in Washington have changed since then, Friday’s conference sent a clear message that, if the state’s top education officials have anything to do with it, this strand of Obama’s legacy will live on in New York.

Attendees included State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and assorted lawmakers and superintendents.

“For me, this is the end of the beginning,” said Stanley Hansen, the State Education Department assistant commissioner who runs the program. “We will start today: Staff will be contacting your schools and communities, and we will be out there in force.”

So far, the state has split the $20 million into grants that encourage the recruitment of a diverse pool of high-quality teachers, along with family and community engagement, and programs focused on college and career success. The department is pushing for another $20 million in this year’s budget.

But Regent Lester Young, who is leading the effort on New York’s education policymaking board, reminded the crowd that it will take more than funding to radically change outcomes for young men of color.

“This is not about $20 million because this problem, this challenge, is not going to be solved with $20 million,” Young said. “This will be solved when we decide to change the narrative.”

turnaround time

This Harlem school has one of the highest dropout rates in New York City. Meet the principal working to turn it around.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Geralda Valcin, principal at Harlem's Coalition School for Social Change

Just two months after becoming principal, Geralda Valcin’s plan to reduce her school’s dropout rate landed her in a parking lot at Rikers Island.

One of her students at the Coalition School for Social Change had been incarcerated, so she made the trip — with a care package of clean t-shirts and socks in tow — to convince the jail’s staff to enroll him in a U.S. history class, one of the only courses he needed to earn a diploma.

“The principal at Rikers was like, ‘You really came up here to do this?’” Valcin recalls. “It fell on deaf ears.”

The jail wouldn’t let her visit the student or place him in the class Valcin requested, but that was only part of the reason for the trip. “He totally appreciated us for it,” she said. After his release about six months later, the senior returned to school and is on track to graduate this year.

Valcin chalks this up as a success story, but acknowledges she has many other students who need that type of support. At her Harlem school, more than a quarter of the ninth-graders who started in 2012 dropped out at some point during their high school careers, meaning they left without enrolling in another school. Only a handful of other traditional high schools in New York City had higher dropout rates, according to new statistics.

Valcin, who became principal last March after more than five years as assistant principal at Bronx High School for Law and Community Service, says she’s ready for the challenge.

She has spent much of the past year reinforcing systems to identify students early who are at risk of dropping out, and working with her school’s nonprofit partner to intervene. And the stakes are high: Coalition is one of 86 schools in the city’s “Renewal” program for low-performers, which offers schools extra social services and academic support, but which must show signs of progress in return.

Though her previous school wasn’t in the program, it also struggled with low graduation rates. It was “pretty much in the same predicament,” she said. That school boosted graduation rates by almost 20 points during her tenure, eventually besting the current citywide average of 72 percent.

Though graduation rates at her new school have started to climb, Valcin isn’t sanguine about the work ahead of her. For one thing, her students — roughly 92 percent of whom are black or Hispanic — often arrive far behind grade-level. Three-quarters come from poor families; 35 percent have disabilities.

Valcin isn’t willing to speculate about why Coalition’s dropout rate is higher than other schools with similarly high-need populations, and is careful not to assign blame. “The numbers spoke for themselves,” she said. “Coalition hasn’t graduated 50 percent of its students in six years or more. A lot of the work probably wasn’t happening.”

Soon after arriving, she launched a “Saturday academy” to help students stay on track and prepare for the state’s exit exams, and began carefully watching students who had attendance or disciplinary problems early on. “If that pattern begins, you’re almost doomed,” Valcin said.

That’s why, before students start classes in the fall, school staff review their middle school records and conduct home visits, so they can talk about previous problems before they crop up again.

“From the beginning of the year, we have highlighted a cohort of kids that without significant additional support wouldn’t cross the finish line,” said Derek Anello, a program director at Partnership with Children, the school’s nonprofit community partner. “We’re starting with ninth-graders before they’re even in the building.”

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Coalition School for Social Change

The school zooms in on students who don’t earn passing grades during the first few months of school, and offers extra academic help. (Valcin keeps a color-coded spreadsheet on her desk that tracks student progress toward graduation.)

If a student is showing up late — or not at all — they’ll likely get a knock on their door, sometimes from Valcin herself, or from a staff member at Partnership with Children. And if they’re routinely showing up late to class due to an extra-long commute, school officials might help the family find a school that’s closer to home.

City officials are expecting those efforts to produce significant results this year. Under the benchmarks assigned to the school through the Renewal program, its graduation rate should increase to 63 percent this school year, up from 46 percent. The education department considers graduation rates in decisions about whether to close or merge schools in the program.

Partnership with Children’s Anello is optimistic about meeting that goal partly because of Valcin’s embrace of his community organization. “Not every principal allows the [nonprofit partner] to be their right hand,” he added. “That’s not consistent across Renewal schools.”

But the school faces strong headwinds that make it hard to attract students who are more likely to graduate, including intense academic segregation. Among last year’s ninth-graders, for instance, fewer than five students had passed either their eighth-grade math or reading tests.

The school’s inclusion in the Renewal program, historically low graduation rate, and sagging enrollment have also signaled to prospective families that the school doesn’t have a strong track record.

In fact, Valcin has been reluctant to aggressively market the school. “I don’t want to go on the street and say, ‘Hey send your kids to this school’ given the condition we’re in currently.”

But she’s banking on this year’s graduation rate changing that calculation.

“The day after graduation, I’ll be on the corners passing out fliers,” she said.