stuck in the middle

How one struggling Bronx school got caught in the crossfire between Cuomo and the State Education Department

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin-Office of the Governor/Flickr
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.

When the state announced a new accountability system designed to hasten turnaround efforts in New York’s lowest-performing schools, it came with a stern warning: Make improvements or risk being taken over by outside management.

A year after that policy took effect, just one school — J.H.S. 162 in the Bronx — has been threatened with a takeover.

The State Education Department celebrated that announcement as a success: Only one school failed to meet its targets, evidence that the program is encouraging most schools to make progress.

But Governor Andrew Cuomo, who pushed for the law, isn’t happy with how it’s been implemented. His office agrees with the state that receivership is working, but says the State Education Department has let too many schools leave the program, significantly weakening its impact.

Some experts and observers argue this is intentional: The State Education Department and Board of Regents are moving away from aggressive accountability measures and are purposely watering down the program.

“It’s probably ongoing evidence of a political struggle over control of the city’s schools,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College. “The state doesn’t want to be in the business of reaching too far in.”

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The logic of Cuomo’s receivership program, modeled after a Massachusetts law, was that schools like J.H.S. 162 needed stricter incentives to improve. In contrast with the city’s union-friendly “Renewal” turnaround program, which costs hundreds of millions of dollars and infuses schools with social services, the receivership program expects schools to make progress in just a year or two. It offers some extra funding and gives districts wider latitude to restructure schools while circumventing union rules, but threatened them with outside management if they didn’t meet their targets.

Unsurprisingly, when the receivership program was floated in 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio blasted the idea. “The notion of a group of bureaucrats 150 miles away trying to determine the fate of our children sounds like a formula for disaster,” he said.

Under the law that passed later that year, Chancellor Carmen Fariña was granted extra authority — the ability to ask teachers to reapply for their jobs, for instance — over city schools the state flagged as its lowest performers. Sixty-two city schools were identified, meaning they were ranked in the lowest five percent statewide, and seven of them had been in the lowest five percent since 2006.

Those seven “persistently struggling” schools, including J.H.S. 162, were given a year to show improvements on everything from test scores to school climate, or else face the specter of independent management.

But almost as soon as the program got underway, it was clear that state education officials wanted to ensure it wouldn’t be too hard to meet mandated improvement goals, which were selected in consultation with the schools themselves.

“These schools had such a long history of low performance,” said Ira Schwartz, assistant commissioner for accountability at the State Education Department, who added that it didn’t make sense to set unreachable targets. “We’re looking really for green shoots at this point.”

Cuomo’s office agrees that it makes sense to set modest goals, but is critical of the state’s decision to release so many schools from the program. The State Education Department has reduced the number of schools in the program over the last year — just 27 remain in New York City, down from 62 when the program launched.

“It’s clear the new law is working – improving our academic institutions so New York’s best and brightest have a fair shot at success,” Cuomo spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer wrote in an email. “This makes it all the more perplexing that SED took action to remove a number of schools from this successful program. There is still a long road ahead, and all parties must be held to account.”

The education department pushed back against the implication that schools leaving the program would not receive state support. “We all know that fragile schools, even those moving in a positive direction, continue to require critical funding and appropriate monitoring so they can continue the important work of supporting students,” SED spokeswoman Emily DeSantis wrote in a statement. (The state is currently involved in litigation over whether some schools that were released should still be eligible for extra receivership funding.)

Asked why more than half of New York City’s receivership schools were dropped from the program since its inception, state officials said they reevaluated each school’s status in February based on 2014-15 data, instead of the 2013-14 data initially used to determine their eligibility. Officials confirmed no new schools have been added to the program, but said more could be added in the future.

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That isn’t much solace for J.H.S. 162, the only school in the state that failed to meet its targets this year, and is now subject to takeover or possible closure.

On paper, at least, it isn’t surprising that the school was initially identified for the receivership program. J.H.S. 162, also known as Lola Rodriguez De Tio, has been among the lowest achieving in the state since 2006, and is part of the city’s Renewal program. It has posted single-digit reading and math proficiency rates, and was only recently taken off the state’s list of “persistently dangerous” schools. Nearly 47 percent of the school’s teachers have left over the past three years, according to data provided by union officials.

J.H.S. 162 Lola Rodriguez De Tio
PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
J.H.S. 162 Lola Rodriguez De Tio

But critics say the fact that only one school was ultimately singled out for takeover shows that the program is hardly the sweeping accountability tool Cuomo originally envisioned.

“To single out one school and say it’s the worst school in the state is misleading on so many levels,” said Eric Nadelstern, a former New York City deputy schools chancellor who is now a professor at Teachers College and visited J.H.S. 162 several years ago. “It’s easy for the school to say there are many other schools in the city and state that match the same criteria.”

Asked about criticisms that the current law arbitrarily singled out one of many low-performing schools for outside management, SED’s Schwartz said, “It was the opposite of arbitrary. There was a very precise algorithm that was shared with everybody. No one is saying there is only one troubled school in New York.”

Schwartz denied that the education department is backing away from the receivership program. In fact, he said, it could serve as a model for broader accountability framework the state is designing under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“If anything, this is a generation ahead of ESSA,” Schwartz said, noting that state policymakers will likely borrow from the receivership program’s emphasis on measures other than test scores to evaluate schools. “This is a pilot in a sense. If it is a successful, we will advocate for its wider adoption.”

Some school leaders see that as an encouraging sign. Though there was some anxiety about the prospect of a takeover, the process of coming up with tangible targets under the receivership program “clarified the work that we had to do,” said Edgar Lin, principal of J.H.S 22 Jordan L. Mott, a Bronx receivership school that was also given one year to show progress. The school hit all of its targets this year, avoiding a takeover, but will have to show gains again next year.

“When we all feel personal responsibility for things, behavior changes,” he added. “We were much more creative and adaptive.”

But uncertainty lingers at J.H.S 162, which could be closed or merged if the city decides to avoid an outside takeover.

The school’s principal, Deborah Sanabria, declined to be interviewed for this story. But on a recent afternoon, a handful of teachers and parents who gathered for dismissal said they hoped the administration would push to keep the school open.

“We are fighting, the school is fighting,” said one teacher who declined to give her name because she said teachers were cautioned against speaking to the press. “They need to give the school more time. They’re working as hard here as any other school I’ve been in.”

getting active

What three New York City teens say about politics today — and getting their peers to vote

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Nuzhat Wahid contributes to a brainstorming session during a recent YVote meeting.

Plenty of adults are frustrated with politics these days, when turning on the television or reading the latest news alert brings a fresh jolt of anxiety. A new organization wants to help teens channel that angst into action.

Founded by educators, organizers and members of the media, YVote plans to work backwards from issues that teens are passionate about to answer the question: “Why vote?” The aim is to recruit students who will be “18 in ’18” — in other words, old enough to vote in the next election cycle — to head to the polls and become the next generation of community activists.

“People in my generation and those older than us haven’t done a great job in being civil in the way they talk to each other,” Liz Gray, a teacher at NYC iSchool and a facilitator for YVote, told students at the organization’s inaugural meeting this month. “So we’re trying to set a new set of norms with all of you.”

About 50 teens from every borough and more than 20 different schools make up the first YVote class. They are an intentionally diverse group of various political stripes, economic backgrounds and countries of origin. Using the Freedom Summer of 1964 and other case studies, students will work throughout the year to design and test their own campaigns. The goal: to encourage civic engagement while learning to listen to others — even when they disagree.

Chalkbeat spoke with three teens who have joined the effort. Here’s what they think about politics and how to get their peers to the voting booth. These interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Millennium Shrestha, 17, Forest Hills High School, Queens

Millennium Shrestha

I’m passionate about: computer sciences. I’d like to connect computers to mankind. I want to bring a change, a computer revolution.

Teens can teach adults about: the clichés that they hold in their thoughts and ideas. I think if you do things exactly as people in the past have done, it’s useless because you know what the outcome is going to be. But if you find new thoughts or ideas to change this world, it works really well. You have to do something weird to get attention.

One way to get teens committed to voting is: not just giving them motivational speeches about what voting is about. There should be a day just focused on getting youth involved in voting. I think it’s easier to get them to vote if you can grab their attention.

I would describe the current political climate as: not that bad. If political systems are monotonous, you’ll never get to the top of the world. It should change periodically. Now we have Mr. Trump, and I actually support Trump for president because now we’ll see different views and ideas. It might be good, it might be bad, but there’s going to be a change.

Faith Vieira, 15, Brooklyn College Academy

Faith Vieira, a rising senior at Brooklyn College Academy, is a member of YVote.
Faith Vieira

I’m passionate about: advocating for youths to be better versions of themselves and spreading influence to affect others — to have a ripple effect.

I think teens can teach adults about: what it was like to be a teen, and how the issues that they face are related to the issues we face. We’re people also, and our voice is important to their success and their social issues, too.

One way to get teens committed to vote is: to show there is an actual effect if they don’t vote, or if they do. To basically show that their voice is getting heard and their choice matters.

I would describe the current political climate as: stressful. The voice that we thought we put out isn’t really being heard. So it’s stressful — but it’s needed because it shows the division that we have in the country. But there’s going to be progress because now people are going to be forced to come together.

Nuzhat Wahid, 16, Academy of American Studies, Queens

Nuzhat Wahid

I’m passionate about: political activism. I’m passionate about world issues and conflict resolution. I like to know more and I like to try to be as open-minded as possible.

I think teens can teach adults about: respect. Recently we’ve seen in the political atmosphere that a lot of people can’t seem to compromise with others. They can’t seem to respect what their peers are saying. They can’t seem to come to an understanding or a resolution. So I think that, given that we are seeing this, we understand what not to do. And when we are adults, we may be able to talk about compromise.

One way to get teens committed to voting is: to educate them more on the voting process. To spread awareness of the fact that there are more elections than just the main, presidential elections. That there are local elections where you can elect your local representatives, and that can affect change.

I would describe the current political climate as: tense. Unworkable. Ineffective.

FAQ

Goodbye, focus and priority schools: Hello, new ways of supporting Indiana’s struggling students, whether their school is an A or an F.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at Phalen Leadership Academy at IPS School 103. The school was on the priority school list for 2016.

Under new federal law, Indiana officials will no longer only have a responsibility to step in to help the state’s worst-performing schools — they’ll be responsible for rooting out problems in high-achieving districts as well.

Currently, Indiana education officials siphon off the state’s most-struggling schools each year for more support or other kinds of state intervention, based on their A-to-F grades. Schools that receive Fs or have graduation rates below 65 percent are called “priority schools,” and schools that receive Ds are called “focus schools.”

The categories serve as a watch-list for both federal and state accountability. Only D- and F-schools that receive federal poverty aid, known as Title I funding, are be eligible to go on the lists.

But going forward, the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act makes some pretty big changes to this system. The law replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015, and the state is currently overhauling its education policy plan to meet the new requirements. The plan is due to the federal government for approval in September.

Below, we break down the new rules and answer some questions.

So what will happen to focus and priority schools?

Those categories will go away, and two new ones will be introduced: “targeted support” and “comprehensive support.”

Targeted support schools are ones where certain group of students are doing poorly on state tests. It’s a distinction that’s focused on trying to close test score gaps between students from different backgrounds, a key aspect of what ESSA was designed to do.

Civil Rights advocates and educators have praised this part of the new law, which they hope will highlight inequities within schools and no longer allow “good” schools to overlook small groups of students who need more help.

“There needs to be a focus on these subgroups specifically because sometimes, when you’re looking at these schools as a whole, it can mask subgroup performance,” said Maggie Paino, director of accountability for the Indiana Department of Education.

Comprehensive support is similar to what are now priority schools.

Which schools would qualify?

Targeted support schools would be ones where groups of students — ethnic groups, English learners, low-income students or students with disabilities — score in the bottom 5 percent of state test-takers for at least two years in a row.

Technically, schools that have high overall grades could still fall into the targeted support category.

Schools that require comprehensive support include those that fall in the bottom 5 percent of passing state tests; any school that receives an F grade; or any high school where the four-year graduation rate is lower than 67 percent.

There’s also a way that schools could transition from targeted to comprehensive support: If a subgroup remains in bottom 5 percent for longer than the state deems appropriate (based on a timeline it gets to create) they will be considered as needing comprehensive support as well.

When do the new categories go into effect?

Beginning in 2018-19, using test results from 2017-18, the state will identify the schools that fall into the two categories, with one exception: Schools requiring comprehensive support based on how subgroups perform wouldn’t be identified for the first time until 2020-21.

The initial identification will happen in the fall, and then schools have the rest of the school year to plan. The state will also publish a list each of year of “at-risk” schools that are in the bottom 6 percent to 10 percent and high schools with graduation rates 70 percent or lower.

How can schools shake off the new labels?

If a school gets a C grade or better for two years in a row, it is no longer categorized as needing comprehensive support.

For schools in targeted support, they have five years to earn two consecutive C grades.

Both types of schools must also create a “strong plan” for how they will maintain their progress and how funding and other resources might change after they no longer need state support.

Do these schools get any extra money from the state to make their plans happen?

They do — multiple grants will be available.

Comprehensive support schools qualify for one to two years of extra Title I dollars to support their work improving their school. The money will be distributed by the state during the schools’ planning year after they are first identified.

Districts with four or more schools in comprehensive support can apply for additional grants to help them put in place bigger turnaround projects, such as transformation zones or innovation network schools.

How long can a school be labeled as comprehensive support?

Four years — the same as the state’s current accountability limit for F grades. After that, more serious consequences come into play.

At that point, Indiana State Board of Education can:

  • Merge the school with a nearby, higher-performing school.
  • Assign a special management team to run all or part of the school.
  • Allow the school to become part of a transformation zone.
  • Allow the school to become an innovation network school.
  • Accept recommendations from the Indiana Department of Education.
  • Delay action for another year if it thinks the majority of students are improving.
  • Close the school.
  • Employ other options as it sees fit.

The state board will continue discussing Indiana’s ESSA plan at its meeting next week.

You can find the state’s entire ESSA plan here and Chalkbeat’s ESSA coverage here.