a plan emerges

94 struggling schools will get extra support, but could still face closure

PHOTO: Twitter/NYC Mayor's Office
When Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled the Renewal program in November 2014, he said the city would "move heaven and earth" to help the struggling schools improve. (Photo: Twitter/NYC Mayor's Office)

Faced with rising calls for a strategy to rescue the city’s struggling schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $150 million plan on Monday to flood more than 90 of the city’s lowest-ranked schools with supports for students and staffers.

But in an effort to preempt critics who have accused his administration of giving failing schools a pass, de Blasio made clear that these 94 schools will face consequences if they do not meet certain targets. Even as he rebuked the previous administration for “casually” shuttering schools that were never given adequate assistance, de Balsio said the city will “close any schools that don’t measure up” after three years of intensive support.

“We will move heaven and earth to help them succeed,” de Blasio said during a speech Monday morning in an East Harlem high school, “but we will not wait forever.”

The new plan, dubbed “School Renewal,” turns the city into perhaps the nation’s most prominent test case of the theory that school improvement must extend beyond the classroom. Following the so-called community schools model, the city will bring physical and mental health practitioners, guidance counselors, adult literacy teachers, and a host of other service providers into these schools. They will also add an extra hour of tutoring to the school day and receive money for new after-school seats, summer programs, and more additional teacher training.

The plan also highlights de Blasio’s sharp departure from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reliance on competition and consequences to spur school improvement.

De Blasio allies who had opposed his predecessor’s approach embraced the new tact. Some 70 lawmakers, union and business leaders, and advocates offered their endorsements of the plan in a release sent out by City Hall on Monday.

But critics of the administration pounced on the plan, attacking it as limited and weak. They noted that it leaves out many low-performing schools, it does not specify the exact targets schools must meet, and puts off the most serious sanctions for several years.

“The mayor’s plan is too small, too slow, and too timid,” said Jeremiah Kittredge, CEO of Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter school advocacy group that has been critical of de Blasio’s education policies.

State education department officials apparently shared some of those concerns: A spokesman said Monday that Commissioner John King may force the city to “take additional actions in these schools” next year if he decides they are not making enough progress.

“There are times when struggling schools need significant structural change in order for meaningful progress to occur,” said the spokesman, Dennis Tompkins.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña forcefully defended the plan and the administration’s shift towards collaboration and support, telling reporters Monday that if her predecessors’ more aggressive approach had worked, “I wouldn’t be sitting here now talking about how we’re going to turn the schools around.”

“We want to prove the skeptics wrong,” she added.

Click for more information on the Renewal Schools

The announcement comes 10 months into de Blasio’s term and well into the school year, after educators and advocates have for months urged the city to outline a clear plan for the city’s many low-performing schools. Some educators have said the delay will make it harder to enact major changes this year, and the principal of one long-struggling school who recently resigned said he had lost faith in the city to help his school.

The city was required to submit improvement plans to the state for roughly 250 low-ranked schools this summer, but officials asked for a months-long extension to file final versions. The state gave the city until this Friday to turn them in. However, over the weekend, the city asked for another extension through the end of the year, which the state is currently considering, according to Tompkins.

Even as officials finalize those plans, the city will start to enact parts of the new turnaround program, de Blasio said. Fariña is currently evaluating the principals of the targeted schools, and their teachers will soon get new training. The schools will be sent new guidance counselors this spring, he added.

Other key components will launch later. For example, the schools will not offer the extra support services for students and their families until next year, when they will be sent teams of seasoned principals and teachers to act as coaches.

As the program rolls out over time, schools will be expected to meet certain goals. The only requirement this year is for schools to create individual improvement plans by the spring. Next year, they must hit various targets, including higher attendance, and by 2017 they must show growth in students’ academic performance. Officials said the goals will vary by school, and will take into account student test scores, educators’ efforts to work with families, and the quality of teacher training, among other measures.

Principals hoping to revamp their schools’ academics by removing poor-performing teachers will have to go through the normal evaluation and hearing process, officials said. To ease that process, superintendents will make sure principals properly document instances of teacher misconduct and incompetence, they added.

The 94 schools include some the state has identified as poor performing, and all rank among the bottom quarter in the city as measured by test scores and graduation rates.

The $150 million covers the first two years of the program, and comes from state struggling-school funds and money freed up through cost-savings in the education department budget, officials said. Funding has not yet been secured for the program’s third year, the officials added. De Blasio said more state money is needed to turn around more schools.

“We will need Albany to step up and help us,” he said.

The city’s plan encompasses the School Achievement Initiative, which sent coaches into 23 of the city’s lowest-performing schools this year. It is separate from the $52 million de Blasio set aside earlier this year to create 40 community schools, officials said.

Making community schools the centerpiece of the city’s vision for improving the system is likely to resurface debates about the effectiveness of non-academic services at boosting student achievement. (De Blasio has visited Cincinnati to observe their community schools model, though many of its schools are still struggling to improve their academic performance.)

De Blasio’s school-improvement plan also evokes the Chancellor’s District, a support program in the late 90s and early 2000s for the city’s lowest-ranked schools, though officials said the new program will tailor supports to each school’s needs. Schools in the Chancellor’s District made short-term gains in fourth-grade reading scores but no changes in eighth-grade scores.

The Coalition School for Social Change, where de Blasio made his speech Monday, will be part of the new program. Principal John Sullivan said he hopes to use the new resources to add more social workers, medical and dental services, and help for students who are behind in credits.

“I think the plan will mean a tremendous amount of support for my school community,” he said.

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.