At the halfway mark

Half full or half empty? New data shows mixed results for city’s Renewal turnaround program

PHOTO: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Boys and Girls High School, a Renewal school, in March 2015.

Forty-eight percent of the schools in the city’s high-profile turnaround program did not meet even half their goals last year, despite being infused with social services and academic support, according to data released Tuesday.

But that means 45 schools, or 52 percent of the city’s “Renewal” school program, met at least half their goals last school year.

They were judged on benchmarks like attendance, graduation rates, and state test scores, with some of the targets raised last year for schools that met goals early. Just three schools hit all of their targets, city statistics show. Five schools hit none of them.

The new data offers a snapshot of how the city’s $400 million turnaround effort — perhaps the most ambitious program of its kind in the country — is faring two years after it launched.

So is the glass half full, or half empty?

City officials were careful to strike a balance. “There’s strong progress, and there’s a lot of work left to be done,” said Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for school performance. “Research has shown that it takes time for schools to improve.”

Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teacher College, said he was pleased that “that there is no effort to claim overwhelming success” — noting that evidence of the Renewal program’s success or failure would take time to evaluate, and there isn’t enough research to know exactly what is reasonable to expect in the short run.

“You want to see what’s happening more than three years out before you start making conclusions,” he said. “But there are kids in these schools now. Is half the schools making progress enough?”

Tuesday’s numbers are yet another indication of the tightrope city officials must walk. Though school turnarounds can take years, Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised “fast and intense” improvement through his Renewal program.

That means education officials have to find a realistic way of showing progress while acknowledging it will likely come slowly.

After initially refusing to publicly release the Renewal schools’ goals, the city acknowledged in late 2015 that Renewal schools were essentially given three years to hit what were usually one-year goals. Some said the targets were far too easy. (One school’s reading goal, for instance, only required it boost scores by one hundredth of one point — something the Board of Regents chancellor at the time said was “ridiculous.”)

But the education department’s Ashton noted that schools had to improve metrics like graduation rates by 20 percent or more — and many have seen significant gains. Since then, the city has created “challenge targets” for schools that met their Renewal goals early. (Seventy out of the 86 Renewal schools had at least one challenge target set last school year.)

“These are rigorous and realistic benchmarks,” Ashton said. “We’re making these targets so they’re real targets and tough to reach.”

City officials said “all options are on the table” for schools that don’t reach their benchmarks, including possible mergers or closures. But that determination would be made on a school-by-school basis and would also depend on factors like enrollment, the strength of its leadership, and community input, an official said.

For the first time, city officials also noted, the city is posting a more user-friendly document on each school’s website that shows whether they hit last year’s targets, and what their targets are for next year.

The state also released information Tuesday on schools designated as “struggling” in its receivership program. These schools have this year to make “demonstrable improvement” — a complex measure of progress calculated using several indicators of academics and school climate — or they could face takeover by an outside entity.

Of the 24 struggling schools in New York City, which are all also Renewal schools, 15 met their goals last year, city officials said. The scores are only markers of progress right now, but the final stats after this year will determine whether the schools face independent receivership, officials said.

Across the state, 56 of the 62 struggling schools met at least half of their indicator goals. State officials celebrated the news as a good sign.

“I am encouraged that so many schools are showing signs of progress,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa. “Their improvement is a testament to the hard work and dedication of the teachers and administrators, as well as the determination of the students and their families.”

While “struggling” schools have until next school year to improve, “persistently struggling” schools had to meet targets this year. State officials would not speculate on whether any are likely to face takeover next year.

Of the 10 schools across the state that faced receivership heading into this school year, only one failed to show enough progress: J.H.S. 162 Lola Rodriguez De Tio located in the Bronx. The remaining persistently struggling schools dodged that fate this year, but could still be taken over by an independent receiver next year.

Renewal schools that met all of their 2015-16 targets:

New Millennium Business Academy Middle School

P.S. 067 Charles A. Dorsey

Ebbets Field Middle School

Renewal schools that didn’t meet any of their 2015-16 targets:

P.S. 194 Countee Cullen

New Explorers High School

Banana Kelly High School

P.S. 092 Bronx

Holcombe L. Rucker School of Community Research

talking it out

At NAACP hearing on charter school moratorium, foes and fans find common ground

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Nyla Jenkins, a first-grader at KIPP STAR Harlem College Prep Charter School

When the NAACP called for a moratorium on charter schools last fall, the group’s president and CEO Cornell Brooks said the group wanted a “reasoned pause,” not a “doomsday destruction” of charters.

Still, it ignited a firestorm among charter school supporters and sparked a series of hearings nationwide, the last of which was held Thursday in New York City. But rather than a heated debate, the panelists and public speakers took pains to find common ground.

“We cannot have a situation where schools are pitted against each other,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told the packed auditorium at Harlem Hospital Center.

Many panelists said the problem wasn’t school choice, but the fact that too many parents felt compelled to seek alternatives to struggling district schools.

“If you go into communities where education is working, you don’t see people scrambling around, trying to figure out what school to put their child in,” said Lester Young, a member of the state Board of Regents. “We have communities in New York City right now where parents say there is not one middle school I can place my child in. Now, that’s the issue.”

Still, many of the speakers also acknowledged problems with charter schools, particularly in states where the laws governing them are more lax than they are in New York.

“We want to make sure that those schools are going to accept students that have special needs,” said Rebecca Pringle, vice president of the National Education Association. “We want to make sure that we do not create separate systems that are unequal.”

The charter school advocates on the panel seemed to agree that some charters weren’t working. They were quick to denounce for-profit charters, for instance. “For-profit operators have no business in education,” said Katie Duffy, CEO of Democracy Prep Charter School. Our children “are not assets and liabilities and they shouldn’t be treated as such.”

Rafiq Kalam id-Din II, who founded a charter school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, spoke about the need for more schools like his, founded and staffed by black and Hispanic community members. Without naming names, he called out charter schools that believe “if you don’t sit a certain way, you can’t learn” or are using suspension as a “first response” rather than a last resort.

“Criminalizing the behavior of our children — there should be a moratorium on that,” he said.

But it was Nyla Jenkins, 7, a first-grader at KIPP STAR Harlem College Prep Charter School, who drew the most applause of the night when she took the microphone and declared herself a junior lifetime member of the NAACP. “Let’s find a solution for all of us,” she said.

Building Better Schools

IPS broke its own rules to work with a for-profit charter operator. Now it’s having second thoughts.

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Donnan Middle School was taken over by the state and handed off to be run by Charter Schools USA in 2012. The school now includes an elementary school in partnership with Indianapolis Public Schools.

An unusual partnership between a for-profit charter operator and Indianapolis Public Schools could be on the rocks.

That’s because during its first year of operation, Emma Donnan Elementary School students had some of the lowest test scores in the district and did not make significant gains from the prior year — landing it on the shortlist for district intervention.

If scores are not good this year or in 2018, the district might terminate its contract with Charter Schools USA to operate Donnan, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

“They struggled in last year’s performance,” he said. “They did not perform at our standard.”

Florida-based CSUSA began managing three Indianapolis schools, including Emma Donnan Middle School, after the schools were taken over by the Indiana State Board of Education six years ago. In 2015, they opened Donnan Elementary as an IPS innovation school in the same building as the middle school. The district is responsible for the school’s — so far low — test scores, but the staff are employed by the charter operator, which handles daily operations.

IPS suspended a policy against working with for-profit operators when it agreed to work with CSUSA to launch Donnan Elementary. The move was intended to give the district more involvement in a building that otherwise would be state-controlled and give CSUSA a chance to work with students earlier. Middle schoolers at Donnan often enroll far behind grade level.

Eric Lewis, a senior official with CSUSA, said the organization is “thrilled to be in partnership” with IPS, and he is not concerned about pressure from the district to improve test scores because “we always intend to improve.”

CSUSA operates 77 schools across the country, many of which also have struggled academically. In the six years since Indiana handed management of three IPS schools over to the charter-manager, those schools have not shown significant improvement.

In recent years, CSUSA has appeared poised to expand in Indiana, but earlier this week the Indiana Charter School Board canceled charters for two schools that were expected to be managed by CSUSA because the company had stopped communicating about its plans.

IPS board members have been skeptical of Donnan Elementary’s progress in the past, but they were relatively quiet during a presentation from CSUSA at their meeting Thursday. (Innovation schools must present their progress to their board twice a year.)

Board member Diane Arnold said the report, which included information on enrollment and scores on tests used to track student progress throughout the year, showed more improvement than the last report school leaders presented to the board.

She is cautiously optimistic Donnan will improve with support.

“We kind of pushed the envelope to give them the elementary school,” she said. “My expectation is we should see results. … And I am hopeful.”

But it’s unclear what help the school will get from the district to improve test scores. Lewis said he did not “have any sense” of what resources the district could provide the school through its new intervention process, but “we look forward to partnering with them.”

Board president Mary Ann Sullivan said she was concerned that Donnan appeared on the list of low-performing schools, and she is relying on the staff overseeing innovation schools to track its progress.

“When we have partners … their purpose is to improve student achievement, and (if) that doesn’t happen, then yes, we will absolutely intervene in those schools,” she said. “We are going to be looking for accountability.”