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:

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.