closing time

With little debate, education panel signs off on de Blasio’s first school closures

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Parents and teachers speak at an April meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy to consider the co-location of Success Academy Bronx 3 in a building with three district middle schools.

Five years ago, the city voted to close 22 schools in a marathon Panel for Educational Policy meeting that drew not one, but two sessions that stretched into the early hours of the morning.

This year, the principal at Foundations Academy was one of only a handful of speakers who attended the panel meeting to take up school closures. When he grabbed the microphone to give his school one last plug, Neil Monheit was melancholy but resigned.

“I recognize that it’s a very small school. It’s difficult to sustain our work,” Monheit said, before adding he hopes his students find “places where they can flourish and can go forward.”

Foundations Academy, a high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, is one of three small schools that the panel voted to close on Wednesday, citing low enrollment and funding shortfalls. The other two schools, Peace Academy Middle School and The School for the Urban Environment, are middle schools also located in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

This trio marks the first set of schools Mayor Bill de Blasio has moved to close. De Blasio has long distanced himself from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg by promising to close struggling schools only as a last resort, after first ensuring that they have all of the resources they need.

But it did not make sense to invest more in these schools because they are too small to sustain the kinds of services that are necessary to help students learn, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said.

“It is not fair to put students in schools without giving them services,” Fariña said. “If you don’t have an art teacher, you don’t have a guidance counselor, you don’t have a homeroom monitor and things, then it’s not really a school.”

Each of the schools suffered from poor enrollment. Peace Academy enrolled just just 12 sixth graders this year, and Foundations Academy enrolled just 113 students.

They also struggled academically. Two schools— Urban Environment and Peace Academy — were a part of the city’s “Renewal” turnaround program. No students passed the state English exam at Urban Environment over the last two years.

At Peace Academy, just 2 percent of students were proficient in English and 7 percent of students were proficient in math. Foundations Academy had the city’s fourth-lowest high school graduation rate.

The previous administration closed dozens of schools, a policy that earned the scorn of the teachers union and often resulted in emotional protests at schools and meetings of the Panel for Educational Policy.

The tenor of this meeting was quite different. The resolutions all passed unanimously with very little pushback from the board or from the public. Only a handful of people took advantage of the public comment period and one used her testimony to ask, “Why didn’t this happen sooner?”

Unlike most of the schools closed by the Bloomberg administration, which were phased out by not admitting new students, these three schools will close at the end of the school year. The students will need to find new middle and high schools to attend.

The panel also approved two consolidations, Peace and Diversity Academy into The Metropolitan High School in the Bronx’s District 12, and Young Scholars’ Academy for Discovery and Exploration into Brighter Choice Community School in District 16.

The city has also closed one low-performing charter school, and announced plans this year to close three more.

diversity push

Denver Public Schools is identifying more students of color as highly gifted, but big disparities remain

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

In the second year of an effort to provide students of color greater access to Denver Public Schools’ magnet programs for highly gifted students, white and Asian students continue to be over-identified and Hispanic and black students continue to be under-identified.

The district did see a small bump in the percentage of black students identified as highly gifted after testing this year. But the percentage of Hispanic students identified — after a sizable jump in the first year of universal testing — stayed flat.

In short, while Hispanic and black students make up 69 percent of students districtwide, they make up just 29 percent of the population identified as highly gifted by the district’s new universal testing system. Highly gifted students are a subset of gifted students, and in DPS are eligible for nine specialized magnet programs, including one at the highly sought-after Polaris at Ebert Elementary.

The lack of diversity in Denver’s highly gifted program reflects the difficulty school districts nationwide face in trying to ensure their gifted programs reflect the complexion of their populations.

In January, New York City officials launched a task force to investigate persistent inequities in gifted education there and last year debate sprung up in Maryland’s largest school district after a report on school choice recommended controversial changes to promote greater racial equity in its highly gifted magnet programs.

While experts say that gifted students are found among all racial and ethnic groups, schools’ identification practices have historically favored upper-income white students. Until recently, Denver’s identification system typically required in-the-know parents who could seek out special testing for their kids.

“We’re kind of digging out of having that application-driven process,” said Rebecca McKinney, director of the district’s gifted and talented department. “It’s going to take us quite a few years.”

Last year, DPS launched a universal screening program that tested every kindergarten, second- and sixth-grade student for giftedness.

This year, it has formalized a program called the “talent pool” that gives kids who weren’t identified as gifted — but could be later — access to gifted services.

With gifted services set aside for about 10 percent of students at a school, talent pool students are added at schools where smaller percentages of students are designated as gifted. The idea is to ensure that each talent pool reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of the school.

McKinney said while the talent pool concept has existed in some form for years, now for the first time, students in the pools will be formally tracked to see how much growth they achieve and whether they end up getting officially identified as gifted.

Unlike highly gifted students, who are eligible for special magnet programs, gifted students in DPS receive extra services at their home schools.

Last year, after the first round of universal screening, district officials were heartened by increases in the proportion of Hispanic students identified as highly gifted. About 25 percent of students in that category were Hispanic, double their percentage in the highly gifted population the year before.

For black students, who make up about 13 percent of students districtwide, the first round of universal screening made almost no difference. They comprised 3 percent of the highly gifted pool — almost exactly the same as before universal screening began.

But things improved a bit this year, with about 5 percent of black students identified as highly gifted in the screening last fall.

“We’re still definitely not where we want to be,” McKinney said.

She said certain factors, such as low-income status or English-language learner status, can mask giftedness when students are screened. District officials have looked into having classroom teachers instead of gifted and talented teachers give the screenings because research shows students do better when they are familiar with the adult administering the assessment.

The district is also investing more in training for teachers and parents. Last August, the district brought in Joy Lawson Davis, a prominent advocate of diversity in gifted education, to provide teacher training.

Lawson Davis, a board member with the National Association for Gifted Children, will return in March for a training at Greenlee Elementary and an evening event focused on engaging parents as advocates for gifted children.

While Lawson Davis’s parent night will focus on black parents, McKinney said she plans to seek out speakers who can lead similar events for Hispanic parents.

Shrinking

It’s official. Achievement School District will close a second school in Memphis

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
KIPP Memphis University Middle is closing after three years of operation under the state-run Achievement School District. The school operates in a former school building operated by Shelby County Schools.

In the months since KIPP decided to pull out of one of its state-run charter schools, officials with Tennessee’s turnaround district have been publicly mum about what happens next, leaving most to believe the Memphis school will close at the end of the school year.

A top official with the Achievement School District now confirms that’s the plan.

The ASD is not seeking a successor to KIPP for Memphis University Middle School and “is not obligated to look for another operator,” said Bobby White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

White noted that the South Memphis school was started from scratch — and is not an existing low-performing school taken from the local district with the charge of turning it around.

University Middle thus becomes the second ASD charter school that will close under the 5-year-old turnaround district. Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary, a turnaround school also in Memphis, is already slated to shut down this spring after its operator, Gestalt Community Schools, pulls out of the ASD completely. KIPP will continue to operate three other ASD schools in Memphis and four other charters through Shelby County Schools.

The confirmation of a second closure comes as state leaders are reexamining the ASD’s structure and purpose and proposing to curtail its ability to grow — even as the state-run district struggles with sustainability due to a lack of students in Memphis, where the bulk of its schools are located. A bill filed recently in the legislature would stop the ASD from starting new charter schools such as KIPP’s University Middle, rather than just overhauling existing schools that are struggling.

The ASD was created as a vehicle to dramatically improve schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent but began authorizing charter organizations to start some new schools as well. The pending legislation, which is supported by leaders of both the State Department of Education and the ASD, would return the district to its original purpose.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Bobby White is the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

KIPP’s Memphis board cited low enrollment and a remote location when voting last December to pull out this spring from University Middle, which it opened in 2014. Its leaders have told parents they plan to merge the school with KIPP Memphis Preparatory Middle, another ASD school located about nine miles away.

Even with KIPP’s departure, ASD officials had authority to continue to operate University Middle with another manager. However, the challenges with enrollment and location made that option highly unlikely.

The middle school is housed in the former White’s Chapel Elementary School building, which Shelby County Schools closed in 2013 with 181 students — more than KIPP was able to attract under the ASD.

Under-enrollment was also cited by leaders of Gestalt, a Memphis-based charter organization that announced last fall plans to pull out of both of its ASD schools. The state-run district has since found a new operator for one Gestalt school and confirmed last month that it plans to close the other.