breaking news

State names 123 city schools to improve or close by 2015

New York State’s No Child Left Behind waiver has spawned a new list of struggling schools that education officials could close if they don’t post dramatic improvements by 2015.

That list includes many schools that were identified as struggling by the state in the past and have undergone deep reform interventions or begun phasing out, but now labels them as “priority schools.” In New York City, there are 123 priority schools, nearly double the schools once identified as “persistently low achieving” because their students performed poorly on state tests and posted low graduation rates.

The schools are being called priority schools because their statistics are grim, officials said. The state determined which schools would be identified as priority based on four-year graduation rates (under 60 percent) in high schools and a student growth formula from state test scores in elementary and middle schools that places the schools in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide, per guidelines set by the federal government.

The districts will have just three years to improve these data points, according to a release the State Education Department published late this afternoon, and must submit transitional plans for each priority school by October. And for the first time, State Education Commissioner John King will have the authority to require districts to close the schools that fail to make gains.

Districts generally have several options for funding reforms in these schools through federal School Improvement Grant and Race to the Top Innovation Funding programs. But New York City has fewer.

Because the city and the teachers union have yet to agree on a teacher evaluation plan, state officials said the city is only eligible to receive funding to implement the most stringent of interventions: school closure over a four-year period, through a process known as phase-out, or school “turnaround.” But turnaround is for now off the table because the city lost a lawsuit over its plans to use the turnaround model in 24 schools earlier this summer. It is appealing the decision, but is not likely to see a resolution soon.

SED spokesman Dennis Tompkins said the city would be eligible to receive funds for priority schools it decides to close in the coming school year, and that officials expect the city to propose closure for some of the schools on the list this fall.

Before priority schools, there were Schools in Need of Improvement (SINI), a list of hundreds of schools that the state required to devise improvement plans under NCLB guidelines. The list grew every year, and schools put on the list never came off it.

The new waiver guidelines mean that far fewer schools will have an improvement status compared to previous years. But the interventions for these schools will be more aggressive and more extensive. Ira Schwartz, SED’s assistant commissioner for accountability, told reporters that the new lists hold schools to higher standards than the SINI list did, but at the same time makes the list of schools under pressure more manageable.

“We appplied college and career standards to create these lists. We were testing against higher standards and [we] incorporated growth similar to what we’re doing with teacher and principal evaluations,” he said. “We think this list is more right-sized.”

School districts will also be able to redirect some funds that were once used to fund after school tutoring to new initiatives in the priority schools. The school improvement plans must include an extended learning day and a small increase in parent engagement program spending.

Schwartz said there is a chance some schools could be removed from the priority list if they post significant improvements in the coming year. But once a school begins implementing a reform program, it must stick through it for three years and be accountable for the end results, even if it shows improvements in the short term.

More than a dozen of the city schools that the state identified for intensive improvement, including Christopher Columbus High School and Jamaica High School, won’t have a chance to try. That’s because the city has already began phasing them out as part of a four-year closure plan.

The other priority schools on the list that will be closed within the next four years are: Norman Thomas High School, Washington Irving Academy, John F. Kennedy, Monroe Academy for Business/Law, Metropolitan Corporate Academy, Paul Robeson, Beach Channel, Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education, Jane Addams, and Grace Dodge Career and Technical Education.

The state’s list features all 24 of the former “turnaround” schools the city unsuccessfully moved to close this year, and a handful of schools that opened under the Bloomberg administration—some as recently as 2006 and 2008. The list also has one city charter school: Williamsburg Charter High School.

In addition to the priority school list, the state named 70 school districts, including New York City, as “focus districts,” because their ethnic minority students, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners have performed particularly poorly on the state’s reading and math exams, and have graduation rates far below average. From there, New York City selected more than 200 schools as focus schools, where it must now develop school improvement plans that target the populations of students that are most in need of help.

Many of the priority schools are high schools, but most of the schools that the city picked as focus schools are elementary and middle schools. Two charter schools, Opportunity Charter School and St. Hope Academy Charter School made the focus list.

New York City schools also made up a good portion of the state’s list for top-performing schools, called “Reward and Recognition Schools.” Of the 250 schools on this list, 55 were from New York City. These are schools that have either made the most progress on student achievement and do not have significant achievement gaps.

As part of the recognition, the schools will be rewarded between $150,000 and $300,000 to expand their models of success into more schools or more grades. The state education department said it plans to release yet another list this fall, called “Recognition Schools” that meet most, but not all of the criteria.

Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew said the new lists might motivate the city to close more schools, but the focus list is likely to encourage officials to create improvement plans in schools that have never had ones before.

“They’re already saying they want to close more schools, but they’ve never had a plan for how to help a struggling school,” he said in an interview. “If your crowning achievement is closing more schools than ever before before you leave [office,] that’s the single biggest piece of evidence that [Mayor Michael Bloomberg] is doing a bad job.”

David Bloomfield, a professor of educational leadership at the City University of New York, said the new lists do not seem to represent a significant departure from the NCLB criteria, which determines whether schools are in good standing or not based on similar categories, such as the performance of high needs students. But he said it’s possible they could still motivate political decisions in the city this year.

“Here is a newly prominent sign that there are still so many failing schools in New York City, he said.  “The SINI list became like wallpaper and nobody noticed it. This may encourage the Mayor to close more schools, but it also highlights the number of schools that are still low performing.”

State Education Department Memo on priority, focus and reward schools:

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.