Building Better Schools

Read Mayor Bill de Blasio’s speech outlining a $150M plan for school improvement

The city will spend $150 million to turn around more than 90 struggling schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday, and is prepared to reorganize or close schools that don’t succeed after getting additional help.

The 94 schools will be designated “community schools” and offer a variety of extra services like English classes for parents and mental-health services meant to address students’ and families’ out-of-school needs. Each of the schools will add an extra hour of instruction to the school day and receive funding for extra after-school seats, summer programs, and additional teacher training.

Speaking at the Coalition School for Social Change in East Harlem, De Blasio said the city would “move heaven and earth” to help the schools succeed, and sharply criticized the Bloomberg administration for consigning low-performing schools to closure and starving them of resources. But the mayor’s three-year plan includes new accountability measures for the schools, which will be expected to meet new standards or face staff changes, reorganization, or closure.

“If we do not see improvement after three years – and after all of these reforms and new resources – we will close any schools that don’t measure up,” de Blasio said. “Not casually, as was too often done in the past, but as a last resort – if necessary.”

The announcement comes eight weeks into the school year and follows advocates’ increasingly vocal calls for a struggling-schools plan from city officials. The city was required to submit improvement plans to the state for roughly 250 low-ranked schools this summer, but asked for months-long extension. De Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña have said for weeks that a plan was forthcoming.

We’ll have more on the city’s plan throughout the day. Here’s de Blasio’s full speech, as prepared for delivery:

Thank you, Chirlane. Boy am I lucky to have such an amazing partner in life. And this City is lucky to have a First Lady so committed to all of our families.

It is a pleasure to be here at the Coalition School for Social Change, with our City officials and commissioners, community members and leaders, and our elected officials, including our Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district we are in. And I would like to thank Principal John Sullivan for hosting us.

This school is in the heart of East Harlem, a community full of enormous pride and energy, which I felt the minute I walked in the door. This is a perfect place to be talking about our subject today – improving education in New York City. The energetic leadership of Principal Sullivan and the dedication of teachers and administrators have brought a new vitality to this school—and students report excitement about a curriculum that offers everything from architecture to computer repair.

But, unfortunately, as a state designated “Focus School,” for much of its recent history, it was forced to fend for itself by the last administration. And that is why we are here today. We reject the notion of giving up on any of our schools—and any of our children.

That is why I chose Carmen Fariña as Schools Chancellor—a tenacious leader with a proven track record for helping schools. And it is why we are announcing a bold new plan for turning around our City’s struggling schools.

Before I get to that, I’d like to start by taking you back to December 1994. It was not a particularly historic month for the world—but it was a big one for the de Blasio family. That is when Chirlane and I first laid eyes on Chiara. As those of you who are parents know, in that instant so many thoughts go through a new parent’s mind. Love, of course. But also panic. All of a sudden, you are responsible for a child’s life. And that moment changes everything. There is now someone whose future you care about even more than your own.

If I had to trace when my interest in public education became personal it was that day – 20 years ago, at Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn, when Chirlane and I suddenly had a whole new reason to care about New York City schools.

Chirlane and I sent Chiara—and later, Dante—to public schools in Brooklyn. And we became active public school parents. I served on the school board, and Chirlane and I went to more parent-teacher conferences and school plays than we could count.

Today, I stand before you as the first Mayor in New York City history to send a child to public schools while in office. For every public school parent who has ever complained about not wanting their local school to be closed or not liking how high-stakes testing was being used, and said to themselves, “things would be different if the Mayor knew what it was like to have a child in public schools,” now is our time. Chirlane and I worried—as every parent has since the dawn of time—how we would educate Chiara and Dante for adulthood.

We know what it is like to walk a small child to school on that nervous first day—to let go of that tiny hand—and then to agonize over whether you have chosen the right school and whether your child will thrive there. And we have lived through the rest of the milestones until that final year of high school, when you worry about what comes next. We have been through what every public school family in this city goes through. We get it – because we have lived it. From our family to your family, we say: we want you to have what we had—schools that work.

Our experience as public school parents has guided our vision for the public schools, including our firm commitment to make parents our partners. I want to say at the outset: New York has many kinds of schools, including charter and religious schools, and all of them play an important roleWe want to support all of them—and the children who go there. But today I will focus on district schools, which educate the vast majority of our children.

Before I talk about where we are going, I want to talk for a moment about where we have been.Over the sweep of decades, we have left children behind—year after year. We divided our school system into “good schools” and “bad schools.” And we wrote off the ones we called “bad.”

Many of you know first-hand what those written-off schools looked like. They were resource-poor. Teachers were hamstrung. The best teachers generally did not want to work in these schools. And parents were shut out. These schools—their teachers—parents—students—felt put down. Because they were put down—by Mayors, and even some schools chancellors.

And those discouraging words matter. Because just as a can-do attitude can be a key factor in success—a can’t-do attitude all but ensures failure. At the same time we were writing off schools, we were writing off students. We divided our children into those we believed could succeed and those we were convinced would fail. We decided some of them had the right to dream great dreams, and others would have the bright hopes of youth extinguished at an early age.

My Administration rejects these cruel divisions. Not only because they are morally wrong, but because their underlying assumptions are wrong. No neighborhood or school has a monopoly on brains and talent. The man who discovered the vaccine for polio, Jonas Salk, was born to a poor immigrant family right here in East Harlem. The first Latina on the Supreme Court—the brilliant Sonia Sotomayor—grew up in public housing in the Bronx’s Soundview neighborhood. The person who helps save the world from global warming could be enrolled in pre-k in East Harlem right now—and we need to make sure she gets the education she needs to do it.

We need to reform the school system so every neighborhood has high-quality schools, every school is one parents would want to send their children to; and every child receives the education he or she needs to succeed in life. In other words, we need a system committed to success for all—and we cannot wait.

I have talked a lot about the tale of two cities. We have said we want to create “One city, rising together.” To get there, we must create “One school system, rising together.” At Riverside Church in the spring, I made a commitment to “shake the foundations” of the school system. In education, there is nothing more foundational than early childhood learning. We believed every child in the city should receive pre-K as a matter of right. And in our first nine months, we secured the funding and put the plans in place. As a result, every 4-year-old will get a free, high-quality pre-k education, and a fairer start in life. Our “Pre-K For All” initiative has gotten a lot of attention.

But we are carrying out other, equally ambitious reforms which are also having a profound impact. First, we have made an historic investment in extending the school day – nearly doubling the number of middle school students in extended-day programs.  Programs that reach young people at an age when it is so easy to get pulled in the wrong direction.

Over 40,000 middle school students who would have been hanging out on the streets or home alone will now spend that time learning and creating.  These programs provide high-quality academic enrichment, tutoring, and extra help with school work. Like “Pre-K For All,” these extended-day programs: Give students educational opportunity and social support at a key age; and put them in a better position to succeed in life. Second, we have dramatically increased the role of parents in our schools.  There is a basic principle every parent understands: Los pádres son los priméros y mejóres maéstros de nuéstros níños. Parents are our children’s first and best teachers. Las escuélas funciónan mejór cuándo los pádres se siénten bienvenídos, cuándo están involucrádos – y cuándo puéden participár en la educación de sus híjos. Schools work best when parents feel welcome, when they are involved – and when they participate in their children’s education, regardless of what language they speak at home.

Our new teachers’ contract builds in more time for teachers to reach out to parents: forty additional minutes every Tuesday for face-to-face meetings, phone calls, and emails. This extra time makes an enormous difference. At P.S. 149 in Jackson Heights – Parents used to wait until November to meet their children’s teachers – if they met them at all. And because teachers did not have to stay as late under the old contract, meetings had to occur during the school day, when many parents couldn’t attend.

This year, thanks to the new contract, P.S. 149 held a “Family Night” attended by 700 parents and caregivers.  Our belief in parental involvement is not just an article of faith. There is research showing it makes a big difference. A Harvard Graduate School of Education study from 2012 found: Strong teacher-family communication increased class participation by 15 percent; and increased the likelihood students completed their homework by 40 percent.

Third, we have greatly expanded teacher professional development. Since June, we have had more than 13,000 participants, including over 8,000 teachers in our training sessions. Fourth, we have created a new, more innovative kind of school – known as PROSE schools. We have given them more independence to depart from DOE and union rules when they think it makes sense to rewrite the playbook. And in everything from teaching methods to hiring decisions, they are adapting to meet the specific needs of their communities and students.

The initiatives we put in place in our first 10 months are not just good ideas – they are having a real impact on the quality of teaching, and on the connection students and families feel to schools. We have started to reimagine education.  And we have put down a new foundation for everything to follow.

Today, I want to tell you about what is coming next. We are making a major commitment to a model we believe will improve education citywide. And we are making it the centerpiece of a major new initiative to turn around struggling schools.

The model is Community Schools. We have talked about Community Schools before, but today we are announcing plans to use them in a much bigger way. Community schools embody the values we believe should drive public education and make a real difference in student achievement.

So what are Community Schools? They are schools built on a philosophy that has been described as “whole child, whole school, whole community.” “Whole child” means they focus on all of a child’s needs – not just academics. They address a child’s mental, physical, social and emotional well-being in addition to their academic needs. And, in many cases, these schools address problems at home.

Our Schools Chancellor likes to say, “If a child is hungry she cannot focus.” That is why a Community School might have a food pantry for students’ families. A parent who does not understand English may have trouble helping a child with homework. That is why a Community School might offer English language classes for parents. Children from every economic background come to school with their own particular challenges, including mental health needs.

Community schools have ways to identify children who are struggling – and to offer help early in their lives. The second part of the Community School philosophy is “whole school.” This is the idea that principals, teachers, and parents should work as close partners to address the needs of all kids—from the most troubled to the valedictorian.

In the past, too often parents were only invited to come to school when there was a problem. Community Schools see parents as collaborators every step of the way. Chirlane and I have always seen Chiara and Dante’s schools not just as schools, but second homes —an extension of our family. That is the Community School model. Schools in which parents are not only included – but feel right at home.

Finally, “whole community” means Community Schools have strong connections to their neighborhoods.  Some schools have fallen into the trap of shutting out the community and acting like self-declared islands. Community Schools are neighborhood hubs – open to everyone, often on evenings and weekends. There is another way to think about Community Schools: as schools for “The Way We Live Now.

Our schools were created in a vastly different era, which ran on the agricultural calendar, when families did not always need two incomes, when most women did not work outside the home, when high school was meant to prepare many graduates for factory jobs and unskilled labor. We cannot expect a model created in the 1800s to deliver a 21st century education. Community Schools are designed for us, here and now: they invite parents and other members of the community in on their own schedule; and they prepare students for the jobs of today – which increasingly require skills previous generations could not have dreamt of.

So, what would you see if you walked into a Community School and took a look around? Many of the things you see in any school. A principal. Teachers. Classrooms. But you might also see doctors, nurses, and psychologists, who are identifying challenges students have, and working on them.  Some of these challenges are small, but critical, like a student who does not have eyeglasses and cannot see the blackboard. Others are bigger.

P.S. 78, the Stapleton Lighthouse Community School in Staten Island, makes mental health a priority. It has a Behavior Intervention Team with a guidance counselor, psychologist, and social workers, as well as staff from two nearby mental health clinics.  It identifies students with challenges like ADHD or depression and gets them help quickly, before their education suffers.

So, as we continue our tour of a Community School, what else do we see? Parents – a lot of parents. Community schools make sure parents know that they have a stake in the school their children attend.  Getting parents involved is not just a nice idea – it is critical for an effective school.  When parents believe in a school – when they are truly invested – their children benefit.  Parents work closely with teachers. Homework assignments get done. More reading time happens at home.

There’s one more thing we see as we look around a Community School: more resources. Community Schools understand there are a lot of people rooting for New York City school kids who want to help, and they draw on all of the community’s resources. One newly-designated Community School on the Lower East Side got Lowe’s to donate a washer and dryer for parents to use. The washer and dryer helps ensure that even the poorest parents can send their kids to school with clean clothing. And they get parents comfortable coming to their children’s school.

At this same school, NYU Dental comes every week to do checkups and cleanings. And Creative Artists Agency, the big talent agency, gives children who are living in temporary housing backpacks, thanksgiving dinners for their families, and holiday presents.Other Community Schools have partnerships with major museums, local businesses, and civic groups. A former employer of mine likes to say that “it takes a village to raise a child.” Community schools understand that in our modern world it takes a neighborhood to educate one. Community Schools can – and in time will – make a difference in every part of the city.

But we will be using them, in particular, as a tool for helping the schools that need it most. I said I would be talking about a plan for turning around struggling schools. Today, I am announcing a $150 million initiative. It’s officially called “The School Renewal Program.” But I like to think of it by a simpler name: “No Bad Schools” because that is what it is about – ensuring no child in the City goes to a school that does not provide a high-quality education.

Now, “bad school” is not a formal educational term, but it is, for too many parents and students, a reality, and how many people in this City refer to certain schools. For decades, there have been schools everyone knows are not working, even if there are good administrators, teachers, parents and students who are part of them.

Our new initiative is focused on 94 struggling schools. These are the schools we have identified as most in need of help, and we are beginning with them. Remember, these are the kind of schools the system wrote off in the past in two ways – both harmful to students.

First, in many cases, with neglect – letting schools commit educational malpractice year after year on innocent students. In other cases schools like these were abruptly shut down with too much reliance on test scores in making the decision and not enough effort to save them. Often, the closing added insult to injury – because after years of neglect, a school the community was deeply attached to was declared a failure, when in fact it was City government that had failed.

By not doing enough to make the school a success, like giving it the resources it needed or the principal and staff it needed, as schools were phased-out, they had fewer resources – from courses, to services for students with special needs. We are going to do something different, something rarely tried before. We are going to give these schools the tools they need to succeed. I want to say at the outset that we are already doing a great deal for these struggling schools – things that were not being done before.

I told you about some of these: extended-day programs, increased programs to bring in parents, and extra professional development time for teachers. But now we will be going much further, with a new set of initiatives designed to turn every one of our Renewal Schools into a successful school. First, we will transform every Renewal School into a Community School. This is a major step, which will completely change how these schools operate.

Second, we will provide something parents and educators agree is critical: more time in the school day. Every student in a Renewal School will get an extra hour of instructional time every day. I know it may make a lot of students unhappy, but there is no better way to get students to learn than putting them in a classroom with a capable teacher and getting down to work.  Renewal Schools will also be getting extra after-school seats, further increasing the time students have to learn.

Third, Renewal Schools will get extra professional training for teachers. And finally, we will offer high-quality, academically focused summer programs at all of the Renewal Schools, so students will have significant extra time in the calendar year to learn. We are backing all of this with a major investment of dollars.

These 94 Renewal Schools will get an additional $150 million. This is a considerable amount of money – but it is just a start. The total cost of turning around all of our schools will be significantly more. We will need Albany to step up and help us.

The last part of Renewal Schools is in some ways the most important: accountability.  I want to be clear about our vision. We will plan for success, and we will dedicate more resources to achieving it. But we will also hold our schools and educational professionals responsible for failure, and we will use our power under the teachers’ contract, and other means, to do it.

We will apply this vision – of extra help, but full accountability – to every one of these struggling schools. And we will do it in three ways.

First, through teachers – the great majority of our teachers are highly capable and hardworking – and have been clamoring for more support, and we will give it to them.

But there are also teachers who are not delivering for students. We will work with these teachers and help them do better with more resources, including high-performing teachers to serve as mentors. But we will also do more to document the problems of poorly performing teachers, and while respecting their due process rights, we will make changes in the faculty of schools that fail to improve despite these significant new efforts at supporting them.  We know this kind of accountability is necessary and we know it’s something most teachers support as strongly as we do.

Second, through Principals – as our Chancellor will tell you, nothing helps a school turnaround more than a great principal. And many struggling schools have principals like John Sullivan who are right for the job, but some principals need to do better and our job is to help them. That includes having experts from inside and outside the school system provide intensive coaching.

And we are increasing the role our superintendents play supervising and supporting principals of Renewal Schools. We have already brought in a new team of superintendents, and they will spend more time providing coaching and guidance. But if these efforts do not work, we will use the authority the law gives us to remove principals and other school leaders, and put in leaders who can get the job done.

Third, through the schools themselves – we will give Renewal Schools every chance to become better and stronger, including unprecedented levels of support. We will move Heaven and earth to help them succeed, but we will not wait forever. If we do not see improvement after three years – and after all of these reforms and new resources – we will close any schools that don’t measure up. Not casually, as was too often done in the past, but as a last resort – if necessary.

Holding schools accountable is critical – because all of the reform plans in the world will make little difference if there are no consequences for failing.

These are our blueprints for reform, and for shaking the foundations of education in New York City. Our Renewal Schools initiative begins immediately. We have already begun taking the critical first steps, including the following. The Chancellor is evaluating principals and other leaders of Renewal Schools – to make sure our school leadership improves immediately.

We will begin mentoring principals and increasing professional development for teachers without delay – to improve instruction right away. We are starting right now to recruit more guidance counselors and other staff to be added to struggling schools in the spring.  And we are acting quickly to create and strengthen Parent Teacher Association and School Leadership Teams. These groups give parents a voice in their children’s schools, but not all schools have ones that are functioning. We will ensure that these vital parent organizations exist in every Renewal School by January 15.

In the Second Year, more changes will be visible in all Renewal Schools. With the new school year, we will be adding highly experienced Master Teachers to work with existing faculty. We will place additional mental health professionals, guidance counselors, and other professionals in Renewal Schools.

And we will have in place – pending approval of Council of School Supervisors & Administrators – innovative “Ambassador Teams.” These expert teams will come in from the outside, and will include a highly skilled principal, assistant principals, and teachers to lead the school and assess the school needs, and they will act quickly and decisively to bring about necessary changes.

We will demand fast and intense improvement – and we will see that it happens. My impatience for change comes from a very personal place. As I said, Chirlane and I stand here before you today not as Mayor and First Lady, but as proud public school parents, and we developed these reforms not just as public servants, but as people who have spent much of our adult lives as the father and mother of public school students.

It is partly about what public school parents know – from long experience with the school system. But it is really about something much deeper: that profound responsibility that every parent feels, that total commitment we have to our children.

A parent does not just hope their children’s lives turn out well. For them, it is the most important thing in the world. To make it happen, parents cross oceans, scrimp on their own wishes and dreams, and if need be, they risk their lives.  Because what matters to them more than anything else is their children’s future. This total commitment to our children was something Chirlane and I felt from the moment we first laid eyes on Chiara. And we felt it again when we first saw Dante.

And it is something I know every parent here today felt the minute they became a mother or father. Parents believe in their children with a pure faith, and fight for them with undying tenacity.

These are the values our school system must have – a parent’s faith in every child, and a parent’s commitment not to give up. And that is my promise to you today – that we believe in every child in the New York City schools, and we will not give up on a single one.

Thank you.

 

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”