Making the grade

More schools met threshold for closure on new progress reports

Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky briefed reporters on the new progress report cards this morning.

Almost twice as many elementary and middle schools are eligible for closure under the Department of Education’s longstanding rules this year, according to the schools’ 2011-2012 progress reports.

Since 2007, the city has given schools a letter grade each year based largely on calculations of their students’ test scores. Schools that receive an F, D, or three consecutive C’s or worse can be closed.

Last year, 120 schools fell into that category, and the department ultimately moved to close 10 of them. But this year, 217 schools received those grades, suggesting that this year’s closure toll could be greater than in the past.

The most dramatic change was a jump in schools receiving their third straight grade of C or below — from just five last year to 114 this year.

The striking jump is a late-onset effect of the state’s 2010 decision to raise the proficiency bar on its state tests. In 2009, just two schools had received F’s and 84 percent earned A’s. But that year, most schools saw their test scores fall, and nearly 70 percent of schools saw their progress report grades drop, too. The progress reports released today were the third since the change.

Caught in the metrics were some popular schools, such as Central Park East I and the Earth School in Manhattan, as well as 16 of Staten Island’s 52 elementary and middle schools.

It is possible that more schools than usual will start the first phase of the closure process, called “early engagement,” this year, Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky told reporters during a briefing about the progress reports today. But he said most schools with middling progress report scores would not need to worry.

“Early engagement is still going to be a significantly smaller subset of these schools,” he said. “There are triple C’s in this group that I’m not really worried about… that are nowhere near the point where we would consider them for closure.”

Progress report grades are a big factor in the city’s school closure decisions. But officials also take into account the schools’ enrollment data, safety data, and leadership quality, and other department accountability metrics.

The progress reports have drawn criticism for their complex and ever-changing algorithms and for sometimes awarding low scores to top schools and high scores to schools not considered desirable. But Polakow-Suransky said the reports have grown more sophisticated and accurate as the city has devised new ways to judge schools, such as by awarding them extra credit for helping high-needs students boost their test scores.

He touted this year’s adjustments, which include a new score for middle school students’ pass rates in core courses, and noted that most schools’ letter grades didn’t change much: 86 percent of schools received the same rating as last year or rose or fell by just one letter grade.

Tallying middle school students’ course passing rates allowed city officials to identify “a handful” of schools that had much higher pass rates in core subjects than on standardized tests.

“In the ones that we found, there really was grade inflation,” he said. “The standards were off in those schools and they needed a reality check.”

Department officials could not immediately provide a list of those schools, but Polakow-Suransky said the schools’ progress reports were adjusted so they were not unduly rewarded for having high course pass rates.

“This is the balancing act that is challenging around measuring school performance,” he said. “There’s always a risk when there’s data that doesn’t have the security of a standardized exam that this can happen.”

One metric that was not factored into the reports this year, but is set to be included next year, was a look at how each middle school’s recent graduates are faring in high school. The data, culled from the city’s “Where Are They Now?” reports that track student cohorts over several years, appeared on this year’s reports in a non-graded form.

Overall, of the 1,193 schools to receive grades for last year, 304 schools received an A, 421 received a B, 365 received a C, 80 received a D, and 23 received an F. Principals of A-rated schools receive bonuses of $5,000 to $25,000.

As has always been the case, Queens schools scored the highest, on average, compared to other boroughs. In a PowerPoint presentation delivered to reporters, department officials also called attention to the scores of charter schools and the 250 elementary and middle schools opened under the Bloomberg administration. Both beat the city average, the department noted.

Several charter school networks, including Democracy Prep and Success Academies, sent press releases touting their progress report scores. And in a statement, James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, celebrated the 45 charter schools that scored A’s, calling them ”another sign that charters are making tremendous progress,” in a statement. Seven of the top 15 schools were charter schools.

“We hope they will share their lessons broadly to help make every public school great,” he said. The statement also touted the charter schools’ performance on one piece of the progress report: student growth. About a third of city charter schools earned A’s in that section, compared to 16 percent of schools citywide.

Teachers union officials did not comment on the progress reports this year, though in the past they have criticized the reports for their heavy emphasis on test scores and for not offering principals strategies to improve their schools. Instead, the union shared a table of data from the reports showing that several of the highest-performing charter schools had very high suspension and student attrition rates. The officials said those schools were at an advantage because many students who would post low test scores leave instead, the officials said.

Union officials also noted that several other high-scoring charter schools are new and do not yet have students in all grades.

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.