MERGE AHEAD

School merger proposal would cap long struggle for STEM Institute in Harlem

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
The city Department of Education has proposed merging P.S. 241 the STEM Institute of Manhattan into P.S. 76 A. Philip Randolph, about eight blocks away in Harlem.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña is making good on her promise to consolidate the city’s smallest and lowest-performing schools.

The city Department of Education is proposing a school merger that will fold the tiny P.S. 241 STEM Institute of Manhattan into P.S. 76 A. Philip Randolph, about eight blocks away in Harlem.

If the plan moves ahead, it will end STEM Institute’s long fight to keep its doors open as enrollment at the elementary school has hovered around 100 students. It could also play into a contentious battle to redraw school boundaries on the Upper West Side.

The STEM Institute has struggled on state tests, with only 8 percent of students scoring proficient in math last year. It serves a high-needs population: almost 40 percent of students have disabilities. The school has also had difficulty attracting students, even after landing a multi-million dollar federal grant in 2010 to start a magnet program focusing on science, technology, engineering and math.

P.S. 76’s state test results are comparable to STEM’s. But its enrollment was five times higher last year, and the school has its own building — unlike STEM, which shares its space with two charter schools.

Chancellor Fariña has embraced consolidations as a way to save money on staffing and spend more on services for students. Department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said the consolidation would allow more students to benefit from P.S. 76’s partnership with the Harlem Children’s Zone, and lead to more arts programming for students and more training for teachers.

But the merger plan is also an acknowledgement that the high-profile magnet grant — and some small enrollment gains in recent years — weren’t enough to keep STEM Institute afloat. Kaye said that school’s curriculum would transfer to P.S. 76.

The district superintendent has begun meetings with staff at both schools, and parents will be informed of the proposal on Tuesday, Kaye said in an email. The merger will also require approval from the Panel for Educational Policy.

“Each school consolidation involves an individualized approach,” Kaye wrote. “The goal is always to provide a strong learning environment and expanded resources to best serve all students.”

The news comes at the tail end of a separate rezoning process that has dragged on for more than a year in District 3, which encompasses the Upper West Side and a portion of Harlem. Families, school leaders and the Community Education Council have debated the best way to redraw zone lines to reduce overcrowding and boost student diversity at a handful of schools in the district’s southern end.

So far, none of those proposals affect schools north of 110th Street.

With the merger now on the table, CEC President Joe Fiordaliso said the city should rework those rezoning plans to include the STEM Institute.

“Parents for [P.S.] 241 need and deserve to know where their children will be zoned,” he said.

That would be an extraordinarily tight timeline for engagement with families further uptown, given that the city is expected to present a final draft proposal for the Upper West Side’s rezoning on Wednesday and the CEC is scheduled to cast an up-or-down vote on Nov. 9.

Kaye said the department would “work with the CEC to address zoning issues raised by this potential consolidation.” City planning officials have indicated at recent meetings that they do not want to delay a decision on the Upper West Side plan.

As students lined up to buy after-school empanadas on Monday, a handful of parents said they had not heard about the possibility of a merger between the STEM Institute and P.S. 76.

One parent, Luis Diaz, said he had been impressed with STEM Institute, especially a partnership with a local community center that offers tutoring.

“So far, the school has been good,” said Diaz, who has two daughters at the school.

Community voices

Memphians weigh in on Hopson’s investment plan for struggling schools

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks Monday night to about 175 educators, parents and students gathered to learn about Shelby County Schools' plan to make new investments in struggling schools

After years of closing struggling schools, Shelby County Schools is changing course and preparing to make investments in them, beginning with 19 schools that are challenged by academics, enrollment, aging buildings and intergenerational poverty.

This May, 11 of those schools will receive “treatment plans” tailored to their needs and based on learnings from the Innovation Zone, the district’s 5-year-old school turnaround initiative. The other eight schools already are part of a plan announced last fall to consolidate them into three new buildings.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin talked up the new dynamic Monday night during a community meeting attended by about 175 educators, parents and students. In his proposed budget for next school year, Hopson has set aside $5.9 million to pay for supports for the 11 schools dubbed “critical focus” schools. 


Here’s the framework for the changes and which schools will be impacted.


Monday’s gathering was first in which Memphians got to publicly weigh in on the district’s new game plan. Here’s what several stakeholders had to say:

Quinterious Martin

Quinterious Martin, 10th-grader at Westwood High School:

“It really helped me to hear that the label of ‘critical’ is going to help us out, not pull us down. I was worried when I first heard our school would be on the list of critical schools, but I get it now. The point is to help the schools out, not make them feel worse. To me, one thing Westwood really needs is more classes to get us ready for our future careers, like welding or mechanics. My commitment tonight was to always improve in what I do.”

Deborah Calvin, a teacher at Springdale Elementary School:

“I enjoyed the presentation tonight. I think it’s so important to know everyone is on the same page. The plan will only be successful if everyone in the community is aware of what the goals are. I think they made it really clear tonight that just more money doesn’t help turn a school. It takes a lot of community support. We really need more parent involvement at Springdale. Children need support when they go home. They need someone to sit down with them and work through homework or read.”

Catherine Starks, parent at Trezevant High School:

“Honestly, I think this is just going through the motions and something to keep parents quiet. Some schools may be getting the supports they need, but not all of them are. Trezevant is one that is not. … We need good leadership and we need someone to be advocates for our kids. I want to see the kids at our school get the support they need from the principal, the guidance counselor, the superintendent. Trezevant has had negative everything, but now we need some positive attention. And we really need the community to step up.”

Neshellda Johnson and daughter Rhyan

Neshellda Johnson, fourth-grade teacher at Hawkins Mill Elementary School:

“Hawkins Mill has been in the bottom 5 percent for awhile and has been targeted (for takeover) by the state for about four consecutive years. …  It’s refreshing to see that, instead of putting us on the chopping block, the district is looking to actually invest in us and give us the tools we need so we can continue to have growth. … I’m looking to the district for academic supports with regards to reading, more teachers assistants, more time for teaching and less time for testing, and more after-school and summer enrichment programs. And in addition to supports for our students, I’m hopeful there will be supports offered for our parents. We have a need for mental health and counseling services in our area.”

Vision quest

Colorado lawmakers want to reimagine the state’s schools. Here’s how.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

What should Colorado schools look like in 2030, and how should the state pay for them?

Those are two big questions a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers hope to answer in the next several years.

State Reps. Millie Hamner and Bob Rankin, as well as eight lawmakers with deep experience shaping education policy, are asking their colleagues this spring to approve a bill that would create a legislative process for rethinking the state’s entire public education system.

“Right now, there’s dissatisfaction with our system,” said Rankin, a Carbondale Republican and member of the state’s budget committee. “We’re sort of average. We’re average in the U.S. We’re average in the world. That’s not good enough for Colorado.”

The bill’s sponsors have two outcomes in mind: Create a vision for improving and modernizing Colorado schools and change the way the state pays for them. The plan, they think, could create enough support to convince voters to send more money to schools as needed.

“We realize it’s time to have a conversation with the state of Colorado around what is it that they want for their kids, how can we achieve that and how can we fund it,” said Hamner, a Frisco Democrat and vice-chair of the state’s budget committee, noting two recent failed attempts at the ballot to raise statewide taxes for schools.

The discussion over the future of Colorado’s schools comes as states are being handed more control over education policy. The nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, has fewer requirements than previous iterations of the federal law.

And soon, Colorado will no longer be bound by agreements it made with the Obama administration. The state may re-evaluate and perhaps repeal some of the policies it enacted during the last decade in an effort to win federal money.

“We’ve all been working hard, but I’m not convinced we’ve been working toward the same direction — the right direction,” Hamner said.

House Bill 1287 would create a series of committees to craft a vision and strategic plan for the state’s schools.

Already, it is being met with caution by some district-level school board members who hold dear their constitutionally protected local control.

“I can see the noble desire to invest in a vision and strategic plan. But many school districts have already done this locally,” said Doug Lidiak, a member of the Greeley school board. “I worry the outcome is more education bills coming from our state legislature.”

The idea faces other challenges: educators who feel taxed by a slew of mandates and are wary of change; school leaders already dealing with with tightening school budgets; and growing inequalities between schools on the Front Range and in the more rural parts of the state.

“Whatever comes out of this process needs to take into consideration the various differences of districts in size and geography,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Some education lobbyists at the Capitol have also voiced concern that the process laid out in the bill is too bureaucratic and could take too long to address urgent needs.

The bill would create a series of committees.

The first legislative steering committee would be made up of a dozen state lawmakers, including the chairs of the House and Senate education committees and two members of the Joint Budget Committee.

A second executive advisory board would be made up of the state education commissioner, two members of the State Board of Education, representatives from the early childhood leadership commission and higher education department. The governor would also have a representative on the advisory board.

The third committee would be made up of teachers, parents, school board members, education policy advocates, representatives of the business community and others. These individuals would be appointed by the legislative steering committee.

The work would be done in four stages.

In the first phase, the committees would take stock of Colorado’s current education landscape and create a process to solicit input on what the state’s schools should look like. The second phase would collect that input. The vision and plan would be drafted in the third phase. And lawmakers would consider any legislation necessary to make the vision and plan a reality in the fourth phase.

The bill also requires the committees to meet periodically after the vision and plan are adopted to monitor how the plan is being carried out across the state.

Rankin, the House Republican, said Colorado’s education system could benefit from short-term fixes, but that it was important to take the long view, too.

“If you fight a lot of tactical battles, it ought to fit into your overall strategy,” he said. “We’re trying to build something the public can buy in to.”