rhetoric and realism

Renewal schools get three years to meet one-year goals, clashing with mayor’s rhetoric

PHOTO: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced new education initiatives for New York City schools at Bronx Latin earlier this year.

The city has given the 94 troubled schools in its expensive new improvement program a special pass: They have three years to hit academic targets that other schools must meet in one year.

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, every school in the city is assigned annual goals that take into account how needy its students are. But unlike other schools, the 94 struggling schools in the “Renewal” program won’t get new, harder goals every year.

Instead, they have until 2017 to achieve goals they received in 2014. In the interim, they must reach benchmarks that are a fraction of the size of a typical school’s.

The city has previously refused to release lists of the goals it gave Renewal schools, and education department officials have not publicly discussed how they were created. In response to questions from Chalkbeat on Wednesday, they acknowledged that the Renewal goals were one-year targets spread out over three years.

The officials insisted that the Renewal schools, which serve a disproportionate share of needy students and have struggled for many years, require the extra time to reach their final targets. Several people who work in the schools — which could face closure or other consequences if they fail to achieve the goals — said they agreed, calling the targets “reasonable” and “reachable.”

“I don’t know where those numbers came from,” said an administrator at one school, “but we were pleased that they were as low as they were.”

The goals raise questions about the extent and pace of change that education officials expect to result from the nearly $400 million turnaround program, which de Blasio promised would spur “fast and intense improvement” at these bottom-ranked schools. Despite an infusion of support services for students and training for teachers, the improvements may be more modest and slower to materialize than the mayor’s rhetoric would imply.

The special accommodations also suggest that the city’s annual goal-setting formula could not account for the grim condition of the Renewal schools, or that officials adjusted the targets to help ensure that these much-scrutinized schools would hit them.

“Either their current goals are unrealistic,” said Kim Nauer, education project director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, or officials are “hedging their bets for a press release two years out.”

The customized annual goals the city has given schools since 2014 center on attendance, state test scores, graduation rates, and class credits. They are based on the past performance of schools that serve students of similar demographics and skill levels.

The education department used that same formula to calculate goals for the Renewal schools, which enroll a higher-than-average share of students who are still learning English, live in temporary housing, or have disabilities. But officials decided that even though the formula factored in the schools’ high-needs students, the resulting goals still had to be stretched out over three years to be attainable.

“Whatever system they used to project targets for each school,” explained a person who works with Renewal schools, they “basically said for a Renewal school you get three years to meet that same target.”

For Renewal schools that are performing far worse than schools that serve comparable students, the goals may still be quite challenging to meet. For higher-performing schools, the targets require minimal growth.

For example, Banana Kelly High School in the Bronx must raise its four-year graduation rate from 41 percent this year to 57 percent by June 2017.

But M.S. 53 in Queens only needs to boost its students’ average score on the state reading exams one-hundredth of a level by 2017: from 2.14 to 2.15. It must increase their average math score from 2.03 to 2.12. (Students must score at least a level 3 out of 4 to be considered proficient.)

Other schools started this school year having already hit their 2017 targets.

For instance, Brooklyn Generation School’s final four-year graduation target is 67 percent, yet it posted a 68 percent graduation rate this June. And the middle-school students at the Bronx School of Young Leaders earned an average English score of 2.2 this spring, even as the school’s 2017 goal is a 2.19 average.

Even Banana Kelly, which is still far from meeting its graduation goal, already surpassed one of its 2017 targets this year: 16.5 percent of student met a certain “college readiness” measure, when the school’s final goal is just 6.8 percent.

Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for school performance, said in an interview that the agency is still deciding what to do about schools that met their goals early. Officials don’t want to discourage progress by issuing successful schools new, higher targets.

However, he said the “vast majority” of Renewal schools will need to make significant gains to meet their goals. Considering how needy many of their students are, and how long most of the schools have floundered, it is only fair to give them extra time to reach their targets.

“Most Renewal schools have been struggling for many years,” he said in a statement. “We cannot expect them to turn around overnight.”

Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor at Teachers College, said many past studies have shown that interventions at struggling schools take several years to bear fruit — and even then, they often produce disappointing results.

Setting modest improvement targets for troubled schools can prevent hard-working staffers from becoming demoralized, he said. It also can serve a political purpose, since the mayor’s critics will be sure to pounce if many Renewal schools miss their targets despite the costly intervention.

“Low-balling the goals,” Pallas said, “is a slightly defensive strategy to fight against that possibility.”

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.