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

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.

Behind the numbers

New York City is touting grad rates at its lowest-performing high schools, but far fewer students are graduating from them

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
John Adams High School in Queens, a Renewal school.

When education officials announced this month that New York City had achieved the highest graduation rates in history, they made a point of highlighting the gains in high schools that have struggled for years.

At the city’s 31 “Renewal” high schools — historically low-performing schools that receive extra social services and academic support — graduation rates have increased 7 percent since 2014. That growth is greater than the 4.2 percent average boost across all high schools over the same timeframe (though at 59 percent, Renewal schools’ average grad rate is still still far below the city’s 72.6 percent average).

The city touted these figures as evidence that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal program, which is projected to cost $850 million, is having an effect — good news for education officials who have struggled to point to clear signs of progress in the face of decidedly mixed results.

But despite the increase in graduation rates, Renewal schools are graduating far fewer students than even one year ago, according to a Chalkbeat review, and roughly half of Renewal schools have higher dropout rates than when the program started — a sign that the city is still struggling to persuade students to enroll and stay in them.

Just 3,371 students graduated from Renewal schools last year, 10 percent fewer than the previous year, and 18 percent fewer than the 4,121 who graduated three years ago, immediately before the program started rolling out.

August Martin High School, for instance, has boosted its graduation rate by nearly 14 percent over the past two years. But the Queens school also shed nearly a third of its 679 students over the same period.

“In one sense, it can almost be framed as a marketing problem,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Even though many Renewal schools have been losing students since before they were placed in the program, “schools that are struggling and have been identified [as Renewal schools] are not as attractive to families.”

Enrollment problems pose an existential threat. School funding is partially dependent on the number of students in the building, and as that number slips, schools may need extra cash just to offer core math and English classes — let alone extracurricular activities or art classes. And last month, the city cited low enrollment as one factor in its plan to close or merge nine Renewal schools.

Department of Education spokesman Michael Aciman acknowledged the enrollment drop-off, but pointed out that the rate of decline slowed across Renewal high schools this year. “We are explicitly working with school leaders and families to highlight improvements and help them get the word out about the strong work that is happening in an effort to reverse those trends,” he wrote in an email.

The new data also reveals that while a greater proportion of students at Renewal high schools are graduating, dropout rates have remained stubborn: Sixteen of the 31 Renewal high schools posted higher dropout rates last year than when the program started.

Partly due to enrollment declines, the raw number of students dropping out was about 25 percent lower last year than when the program started. But the overall dropout rate at Renewal schools has increased to 19 percent, about one percentage point higher than it was three years ago, and more than double the city average of 8.5 percent.

Aciman noted several efforts designed to shepherd high school students to graduation, including prep for high school exit exams, and tools that allow educators to better track students who are chronically absent or falling behind on credits.

And he pointed to data that shows progress in reducing in rates of chronic absenteeism and boosts in attendance — signs of engagement, he said, that could ultimately affect future graduation and dropout rates.

“Decreasing the dropout rate at Renewal schools will take time,” Aciman wrote, “but we’re putting the necessary structures and early interventions in place to make sustainable improvements.”