friendly fire

As 12 early community schools face funding cuts, advocates question city’s long-term commitment

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña (middle) visits a school in East Flatbush.

In New York City, an unexpected fight has flared up between proponents of social service-filled “community schools” and the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, one of the nation’s most outspoken champions of those schools.

The skirmish centers on a dozen community schools that used state grants to finance after-school programs, tutoring, and student health services over the last three years. The city has not yet promised to pick up the tab for the schools when their $6 million expires at the end of June — even though state officials said Monday that the city could use a pool of state funds to do so.

That has frustrated advocates who say those 12 community schools, whose programs date to 2013, were at the forefront of an approach that de Blasio is now trying to establish in nearly 130 other schools across the city. It also has stoked fears that his administration might let the funding lapse at other community schools in the future just as new programs are taking root.

On Tuesday, they wielded a new weapon to make their case: a just-published report that pulls together multiple studies showing that school-improvement programs require between five and 10 years to take hold. The implication is that if the city fails to renew the funding for those dozen schools, it will be ignoring clear research that says the schools need time for their reforms to flourish.

Schools with some future funding in question
  • The Heritage School (Manhattan)
  • P.S. 36 (Manhattan)
  • P.S. 154 (Bronx)
  • MS 376x (Bronx)
  • Fannie Lou Hamer Middle and High School
  • Boys and Girls High School
  • Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School
  • P.S. 503 and P.S. 506 (Brooklyn)
  • M.S. 72 (Queens)
  • Bushwick Leaders High School

“It takes longer than three years — and the research supports that,” said Yolanda McBride, director of public policy at The Children’s Aid Society, which works with six of the schools. “We’re pushing the [de Blasio] administration to acknowledge that.”

The funding fight is just the latest instance of tensions arising between community-school advocates and an administration that has promoted that education model.

After de Blasio unveiled in 2014 his “School Renewal” program to help academically struggling schools partly by flooding them with services for students and their families, some advocates expressed doubt about using the community-school model as a turnaround strategy. And last fall, they staged a rally where they (successfully) called for the city to publish a clear policy to guide new community schools.

The current funding dispute touches on a deeper concern among advocates that the city will treat the community-school approach as a quick fix for struggling schools rather than a permanent model for all its schools.

Their fears are rooted in the Renewal program’s timeline: The 94 schools that were originally part of it were given just three years to make significant academic gains or face closure. (In fact, the city has already announced plans to shutter three of the schools.)

That requirement, and a parallel one at the state level, “reflect maybe political eagerness and expediency, but they don’t reflect research on how school improvement works,” said Megan Hester, a staffer at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and an organizer of the Coalition for Community School Excellence, a new alliance of dozens of advocacy groups and social-service agencies in New York City that work with community schools. The group formed last fall partly to ensure that the community-schools initiative is sustained beyond this administration.

The report commends the city for adopting the community-school model, which it says is an effective strategy for improving schools. But researcher Michelle Renée Valladares said that demanding those gains happen too quickly can undermine a school’s transformation by tempting teachers to focus on test prep. When schools make more structural changes, like overhauling their teaching, they typically see their test scores rise after five years, she said.

“If New York City is saying they have to show gains on their math and English test scores in three years, that’s absolutely bad science,” said Valladares, associate director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, which published the report.

But the de Blasio administration faces enormous pressure from critics, lawmakers, and state educational officials to show that its massive investment — the Renewal program is projected to cost nearly $839 million over five years — is having an impact.

In response, the city education department says that its efforts will result in short-term academic gains by next year but also lasting changes at the troubled schools.

It has replaced the principals at many of the schools, given them new classroom materials, and provided additional training for its teachers, a spokeswoman pointed out. It has also paid for each school to partner with a social-service agency, hire a full-time community school director, and add an extra hour of instruction — though those reforms are more tenuous, since they rely on funding that could vanish when de Blasio leaves office.

Two for one

Schools in Pueblo, Greeley up next as state sorts out struggling schools

Charlotte Macaluso, right, speaks with Pueblo City Schools spokesman Dalton Sprouse on July 22, 2016. (Pueblo Chieftain file photo)

The Colorado Department of Education is expected Monday to suggest that five of the state’s lowest-performing schools, including one that was once considered a reform miracle, hire outsiders to help right the course.

The department’s recommendations for the schools — three in Pueblo and two in Greeley — are the latest the State Board of Education are considering this spring. The state board, under Colorado law, is required to intervene after the schools have failed to boost test scores during the last six years.

Like all the schools facing state intervention, the five before the state board Monday serve large populations of poor and Latino students.

A year ago, Pueblo City Schools was expected to pose the biggest test of the state’s school accountability system. A dozen of the city’s schools were on the state’s watch list for chronic poor performance on state standardized tests. However, most of the city’s schools came off that list last year.

Among the schools still on the list and facing state intervention is the storied Bessemer Elementary, where barely 9 percent of third graders passed the state’s English test last spring.

The school, which sits in the shadow of the city’s downsized steel mill, has been in a similar situation before.

After the state first introduced standardized tests in 1997, Bessemer was flagged as the lowest performing school in the state. District and city officials rallied and flushed the school with resources for students and teachers. Soon, students and teachers at the Pueblo school were being recognized by President George W. Bush for boosting scores.

But a series of leadership changes, budget cuts and shifts in what’s taught eroded the school’s progress.

Pueblo City Schools officials declined to be interviewed for this article.

The 17,000-student school district was preparing to make slightly more dramatic changes to improve things at Bessemer. Officials were going consolidate the school into just three grades, preschool through second, and send the older students to a nearby elementary school that is also on the state’s watch list. That school, Minnequa Elementary, is expected to face sanctions next year if conditions don’t improve.

But the district and its school board backed down after the community rejected the idea.

“With the input gathered, we determined that, at this time, changes to the grade reconfiguration were not in the best interest of the communities involved,” Pueblo Superintendent Charlotte Macaluso said in a press release announcing the changes. “We realize the sense of urgency and will continue to support our schools while closely monitoring improvement at each location.”

The decision to not reorganize the schools was made earlier this week.

Suzanne Ethridge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the city’s teachers union, said the last-minute pullback was troubling. The district, she said, has held up staffing the schools until a final decision was made.

“I just hope we can get to a final plan and we can move on and get these schools going in the right direction,” Ethridge said.

According to documents provided to the state, district officials are expected to tell the state board they want to go along with what the state education department is proposing.

But some in the city are wary of involvement by outside groups because the district has been burned by outside groups in the past.

According to a 2012 Denver Post investigation, Pueblo City Schools had a three-year, $7.4 million contract with a New York-based school improvement company. The company was hired to boost learning at six schools. Instead, school performance scores dropped at five of the six schools.

“It wasn’t a lot of fun,” Ethridge said.

Other schools in Pueblo that will appear before the state board are the Heroes Academy, a K-8, and Risley International, a middle school. The state is recommending that Risley maintain a set of waivers from state law. The flexibility for Risley, and two other Pueblo Middle Schools, were granted in 2012.

The hope was the newfound freedom would allow school leaders and teachers to do what was necessary to boost student learning. That happened at Roncalli STEM Academy and the Pueblo Academy of the Arts.

But Risley has lagged behind.

Macaluso was the principal of Risley before being appointed superintendent last fall.

Like Risley, the state is recommending that two Greeley middle schools be granted waivers and hire an external manager to run some of the schools’ operations.

The state’s recommendation in part runs contrary to what a third party review panel suggested last spring. The panel, which visited all of the state’s failing schools, suggested Franklin be converted to a charter school. That’s because the school lacked leadership, according to the panel’s report.

Greeley officials say the school’s administration team, which has not changed, has received training from the state’s school improvement office, which has proven effective.

As part of the shift, Franklin and Prairie Heights middle schools will change the way students are taught. The schools will blend two styles of teaching that are in vogue.

First, students will receive personalized instruction from a teacher, assisted by digital learning software. Second, students will also work either individually or in teams to solve “real-world problems” on a regular basis.

“These schools have students with some important needs,” said Greeley’s deputy superintendent Rhonda Haniford, who helped designed the plan. “It’s more reason to have a personalized curriculum.”

The 21,000-student school district has already contracted with an organization called Summit to provide the digital curriculum and a cache of projects. The organization will also provide training for the school’s principal and teachers.

Haniford acknowledged that when struggling schools make major shifts it can be difficult, and sometimes student learning fall even further behind. But she said Summit is providing regular training for teachers and principals.

“The district made an intentional decision to support the turn around of these schools,” Haniford said, adding that she was hired last year as part of that effort. “This is one of my top priorities.”

chancellor chat

Chancellor Betty Rosa hits back on criticism that New York is abandoning education reform

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York has moved sharply away from innovative education reforms with “bewildering and humbling speed.” That’s what Robert Pondiscio of the conservative-leaning Fordham Institute wrote in an op-ed posted earlier this month on the organization’s website.

Here in New York City, he writes, Mayor Bill de Blasio is ushering in the “bad old days” by pumping money into struggling schools and relaxing school discipline.

At the state level, Governor Andrew Cuomo and other state officials, after trying to pack too many reforms into a short period of time, have largely backed away from education reform. That coupled with the growing opt-out movement and the departure of New York State Chancellor Merryl Tisch, Pondiscio wrote, spurred the end of an “era of high standards and accountability for schools, teachers, and those who train them—an era that never entirely gained traction in New York.”

New York State Chancellor Betty Rosa hit back Thursday with her own piece for the Fordham Institute, saying that she “could not disagree more.” She argues that focusing on high-stakes testing is not synonymous with having high standards — and that while her standards take a different form, they are no less rigorous.

For example, she cites the Board’s decision to jettison the controversial Academic Literacy Skills Test as part of teacher certification. While Pondiscio blasts the move, Rosa says New York’s certification process remains among the country’s most stringent. “We simply eliminated a costly and unnecessary testing requirement that created an unfair obstacle for too many applicants,” she writes.

Her op-ed is part of a broader push by the Board of Regents to articulate a new vision of accountability that moves away from a strong focus on New York state’s much-maligned 3-8 math and English tests. She and the Regents seem eager to convince critics that those changes do not, in the end, represent a watering down of the goals the state sets for its students.

“We need an opposite narrative,” Rosa said in an exclusive interview with Chalkbeat. She sees her job as not simply setting high bars, she said, but more importantly, “building the steps” to help students succeed.