who's the boss?

The state names 62 NYC schools that must quickly improve or face takeover

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin-Office of the Governor/Flickr
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.

The state named 62 low-performing New York City schools Thursday that the chancellor will be forced to hand over to an outside manager if she cannot swiftly revamp them.

The possible takeovers stem from a law proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which lays bare a debate between him and Mayor Bill de Blasio about the best way to prop up floundering schools. While de Blasio launched an expensive union-backed program last year that infuses struggling schools with extra resources and support, Cuomo’s plan would empower outside groups to take control of the schools, sidestep union rules, and potentially convert them into charter schools. The law, which passed in April, is a scaled back version of Cuomo’s plan.

Fifty of the schools the law targets are part of de Blasio’s turnaround program. However, the law expands Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s power to make certain changes at the schools, such as requiring all their teachers to reapply for their jobs. The city already forced the entire staffs at two troubled schools to re-interview for their jobs this year, and education department officials said Thursday that they would consider making the principals and teachers at the other state-identified struggling schools do the same.

[See the full list of schools facing takeover here.]

If those schools do not make quick gains under Fariña’s guidance, then she will have to cede control to an outside “receiver,” which could be a school-improvement expert or a nonprofit.

“In these schools, whole generations of students have been left behind,” said recently hired State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who is responsible for enacting the receivership law. “Superintendents have an obligation to act on conditions that have persisted for too long in these schools.”

Under pressure from the state teacher’s union, lawmakers modified Cuomo’s plan before approving it. The law gives districts at least a year to try to improve their schools before receivers are called in, lets them choose those receivers, and makes the receivers negotiate with the teachers unions before carrying out certain actions. It also comes with $75 million to fund improvements at the schools.

Still, the city and state unions have denounced the plan, saying that struggling schools need more resources and fewer harsh interventions. And de Blasio called it a “formula for disaster” earlier this year, saying the state should give the city’s “Renewal” turnaround program time to work.

In fact, New York may be better positioned under the new law than some cities. Many of the powers that receivers have under the law — such as the ability to bring new health and social services into the schools or extend their hours — are elements of the Renewal program. And the city could potentially expand the deal it already hashed out with the principals and teachers unions, which required the staffs at the two schools to re-interview for their jobs before joint city-union hiring committees.

“The schools designated are all schools that the DOE has already invested tremendous resources in and we are closely tracking all indicators of progress,” said city education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye. “There are no surprises.”

The 62 schools all rank among the bottom five percent in the state. Fifty-five of those schools have been in that category since 2012, and now have two years to hit improvement targets before a receiver would take control. The other seven have been bottom-ranked since 2006 and only have one year to post major gains. (One of those seven, P.S. 64 in the Bronx, is in the process of closing.)

The law gives Fariña the same authority as a receiver, which includes overhauling the schools’ curriculums, adjusting their budgets, and replacing their principals. Unlike other school chiefs across the state, Fariña already has the ability to do much of that because the mayor controls the city’s schools, not a school board.

If she chooses to make staffers reapply for their jobs, the law says she must form hiring panels that include her, two people she appoints, and two union appointees. The law also stipulates that no teachers who have been rated “ineffective” twice on their evaluations may be rehired, and at least half of a school’s senior teachers must be retained.

The city must create intervention plans for each of the schools that list goals around attendance, graduation rates, test scores, and discipline. The law gives the state education department until September to tell districts what those goals should be. If the schools fail to hit those targets, then Fariña must choose a receiver to oversee them.

The state has set aside $75 million for the 144 schools across New York that are affected by the new receivership law, but it was unclear Thursday how much of that would be directed to New York City. The city has budgeted more than $538 million over the next three years for its turnaround program. City officials said the 12 schools that could face receivership but are not in the Renewal program have still received extra funding and help from the city.

On Thursday, the head of a pro-charter school group said de Blasio should make the teachers at all 62 schools re-interview for their jobs. Otherwise, “he will be guilty of refusing to take easy steps to end this city’s failing schools crisis,” said Families for Excellent Schools CEO Jeremiah Kittredge.

The city teachers union chief said de Blasio’s program is best suited to revive the city’s struggling schools, not an outside overseer.

“Receivers have no magic wand,” said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. “We have seen that over and over again, in New York State and across the country.”

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.