empty seats

Despite major city investment, struggling ‘Renewal’ schools shed another 6,300 students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Boys and Girls High School may soon get a new principal.

The struggling schools in New York City’s “Renewal” improvement program serve nearly 6,300 fewer students today than when the program started, a sign that many families are still shunning the schools even as the city spends hundreds of millions to revamp them.

Eighty-one of the 94 schools in the program — or 86 percent — enroll fewer students now than they did when the program launched in fall 2014, according to a Chalkbeat analysis. The schools with high school grades lost an average of 146 students each, with many shedding far more: DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx serves nearly 600 fewer students today than it did in 2014.

Enrollment had been dwindling at most of the schools in the Renewal program well before it began. But the hugely expensive program — which is projected to cost nearly $839 million over five years — has so far failed to stem the exodus of students. In fact, the year-over-year enrollment drop at those schools was larger after the Renewal program started than in the two prior years.

The schools’ overall enrollment fell from about 45,140 students in 2014 to roughly 38,870 today, according to the analysis. They are losing students in a variety of ways: Some are dropping out, others are transferring, and fewer students who arrive mid-year are being sent to those schools. At the same time, many are enrolling fewer students as demand for their seats diminishes.

“You have 94 schools you’ve sort of said are your loser schools,” said Kim Nauer, education research director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. “We have a system with a lot of choices, and the ‘Renewal school’ label is not helping them.”

Recently, the city has taken steps to boost enrollment at the schools, including by allowing more students to apply to them. As a result, officials said they project a 13 percent increase in incoming sixth-graders at Renewal middle schools this fall.

However, Renewal high schools are expected to enroll 7 percent fewer ninth-graders this September. That suggests that the city’s enormous investment in the schools has not yet rehabilitated their reputation among families and students, who are able to apply to any of the city’s roughly 400 high schools.

Sagging enrollment is an existential threat for New York City schools, since their budgets and staff levels are determined largely by the number of students they serve. When school populations shrink past a certain point, the city must inject them with extra funding just to maintain basic courses like math and English, to say nothing of art classes and extracurricular programs.

This academic year, Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced plans to consolidate seven Renewal schools and shut down three others mainly because they had grown so small.

“Schools with such a low enrollment cannot provide the robust education our students deserve,” she said in December.

In the past, de Blasio administration officials have indicated that the threshold for being able to provide a full range of classes and services is 250 students. There are now 23 Renewal schools serving fewer than 250 students, excluding the 10 schools already slated to be closed or combined.

Brooklyn Generation School in Canarsie has shrunk by 65 students since 2014, despite a higher graduation rate and a suite of new arts classes and counseling funded by the Renewal program. Assistant Principal Louis Garcia said the school has coped with the funding loss by slashing expenses.

“We just don’t buy paper,” he said. “We’re trying to keep everybody on staff.”

The enrollment dip at Brooklyn Generation is dwarfed by that at other Renewal high schools.

Since 2014, Herbert Lehman High School in the Bronx has shed 577 students, John Adams High School in Queens has lost 394 students, and Flushing High School, also in Queens, shrank by 381 students. The population of Brooklyn’s Boys and Girls High School plummeted from 648 to 343 students — a 47 percent enrollment drop from one school year to the next.

Overall, the 35 Renewal schools with high school grades are down 4,900 students since 2014.

The enrollment at many Renewal elementary schools also fell, even though they are assigned students who live near them. For instance, P.S. 132 in Manhattan serves 90 fewer students now than it did in 2014, while P.S. 165 in Brooklyn is down 52 students. The declines could be caused by families opting for charter schools or taking advantage of a federal law that lets them transfer out of the lowest-performing schools.

Part of the overall decline was due to the city intentionally sending some of the Renewal schools fewer students who enter the system after the official admissions process, since those students can pose extra challenges. In addition, some high schools have trimmed their own rosters by referring some of their most struggling students to “transfer” high schools, which are designed to catch up students who are behind in credits.

Still, paltry demand for seats at the Renewal schools appears to be a major enrollment challenge. Staffers at a few schools said the city had done little to help them pull in new applicants.

“They give generic advice about marketing yourself,” said an administrator at a Renewal high school. “It’s just on us to attract students.”

City officials are hoping that their recent efforts will slow the schools’ enrollment slide for the coming year.

Education department spokesman Will Mantell said the city provided four training sessions this fall where Renewal middle and high school leaders learned recruitment strategies, including how to showcase their schools at application fairs and how to use data to target their outreach efforts. Department employees also made house calls last year to tell families about the new services offered at Renewal schools.

And in the latest admissions round, the department opened the Renewal middle schools to any fifth-graders in their boroughs — not just their districts, as is the case for many middle schools. After that change, the schools received about 5,000 additional applications this year, Mantell said.

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”