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 in March 2015 and touted its progress under Wiltshire.

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

leadership matters

Meet the leader behind one Memphis school’s Blue Ribbon success

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Principal Yolanda Heidelberg celebrates during a schoolwide event in November at Jackson Elementary, one of two Memphis schools honored as a 2016 National Blue Ribbon School.

In many ways, Jackson Elementary School is an anomaly in Memphis.

In a district in which more than 78 percent of students are black, 71 percent of Jackson Elementary’s students are Hispanic. And more than 99 percent of its students come from poor families, much higher than the district average. Yet its most recent state test scores outpaced Shelby County Schools in most every subject, earning Jackson Elementary a 2016 Blue Ribbon designation by the U.S. Department of Education for closing the performance gap between poor and minority students and their more affluent and white peers.

To insiders, Jackson is known affectionately as Heidelberg University, named in honor of the school’s inspirational leader.

As principal of the 350-student school, Yolanda Heidelberg fosters an all-hands-on-deck attitude that creates a vibrant learning environment for both students and teachers.

Parents volunteer in preparation for Jackson Elementary School's annual Hispanic heritage festival.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Parents volunteers decorate for the school’s annual Hispanic heritage festival.

“We’re a family school,” Heidelberg said. That, in turn, trickles down to interactions with parents, who frequently pack the auditorium for parent meetings.

The confidence that Heidelberg exudes is a far cry from how she felt when interviewing for the job in 2001. At the time, Hispanics made up less than a quarter of the school’s enrollment. But district leaders expected the composition to change dramatically as more Hispanic families moved into the neighborhood. Heidelberg was asked if she spoke Spanish and had to answer no.

“I was frightened by that because I wasn’t sure I could help,” Heidelberg recalls of eventually landing the job. “But that became my greatest strength.”

Her lack of knowledge about serving English language learners drove Heidelberg to dive into research on how to help her incoming students feel welcome and flourish academically.

And it worked.

Jackson ES in Memphis
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Hispanic students comprise 71 percent of the school’s student population, much higher than the district average.

In 2012, Jackson Elementary was named a state Reward School for achieving top growth rates in scores across multiple years. In 2015, the most recent year for which standardized test scores are available, nearly 60 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in state math tests and nearly 70 percent in science. About 40 percent of students did the same in reading.

The school’s success can be traced to Heidelberg’s persona, leadership, coaching and resourcefulness, according to faculty members.

When she was unable to get the former Memphis City Schools to provide translation services to produce literature for parents, Heidelberg found help from the Memphis Police Department. Those services came in handy when she needed content translated for event programs, marquees and even the school’s website.

“I never wanted language to be a barrier for us. … I never want language to hinder our progress,” she said.

Heidelberg also works with area churches and businesses that provide volunteer tutors for Jackson’s after-school programs.

Yolanda Heidelberg's favorite place at Jackson Elementary School: the Wall of Fame that displays former students who have gone on to college.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Heidelberg’s Wall of Fame celebrates former students who have gone on to college.

The focus on academics is clear when entering the school, where a prominent display celebrates former students who have gone on to college.

Among staff, teamwork and collaboration are viewed as school values.

Strategies used by teachers of English language learners are often found in mainstream classrooms. Classroom teachers work closely with ELL teachers to plan lessons and skew work toward visuals. To show their mastery of a topic, students can do presentations and projects that aren’t text-heavy but still build language skills.

“We work really hard together — meeting kids where they’re at,” said Charnisha Phipps, a third-grade teacher.

“What sets us apart is that we’re not in competition with each other. We operate as one unit,” adds Lavonda Brown, who teaches fifth grade. “Here we share. We build on each other’s strengths.”

Carla Wilson teaches English language learners but she still attends classroom teacher meetings, for instance, and sometimes steps in other classrooms to offer extra support. “Just because I’m an ESL teacher doesn’t mean I’m only going to be doing that. We go in and do whatever needs to be done,” she said.

The culture is apparent in the front office too, where students and parents vote each month for a “star” staff member. The prize? A lunch out with Heidelberg — and a half day off.

For Heidelberg, the prize is the National Blue Ribbon award, shared this year with 278 other public schools across the nation. While there’s no material benefit, the designation is viewed as a badge of honor in education.

“This is just a validation of the hard work we’ve done over the years,” she said. “It’s finally being recognized.”

charter lineup

Tennessee’s ASD soon will lose one of its first charter school networks, but others say they’re still in the game

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson speaks to parents and teachers in November at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School, which will lose its charter operator at the end of the school year.

This fall’s surprise announcement that Gestalt Community Schools is leaving Tennessee’s school turnaround district doesn’t appear to be a bellwether for other charter networks operating in the Achievement School District.

Of the state’s 13 charter operators, half that spoke with Chalkbeat said they have no plans to exit the ASD. And several are open to expanding under the state-run district, which oversees 33 schools in Memphis and Nashville.

“Aspire is focused on growing in Memphis,” said Allison Leslie, Memphis superintendent for the California-based network, which operates three schools in the city and tried last year to add a fourth.

Leaders for Capstone Education Group and Frayser Community Schools said their Memphis-based networks also would like to expand under the ASD. Capstone wants to grow from three to five schools in Memphis by 2021, while Frayser Community Schools, now with one school, has expressed interest in managing the two that Gestalt will leave behind.

Other operators characterize Gestalt’s decision as an outlier rooted mostly in enrollment challenges in North Memphis. The network had sought to turn around two low-performing schools in an area where the city’s population of school-age children had hollowed out in recent years.

Gestalt Community Schools was one of the first charter networks to join Tennessee’s turnaround district that launched in 2012; now it will be the first to depart. Leaders of the Memphis-based network announced plans in October to pull out at the end of this school year. CEO Yetta Lewis blamed chronic under-enrollment, exacerbated by a state-imposed cap on out-of-zone enrollment for ASD schools. Gestalt will continue to operate five other Memphis charter schools authorized by Shelby County Schools.


Read our Q&A with Gestalt Community Schools CEO Yetta Lewis about why Gestalt is leaving the ASD and lessons learned.


The work has been hard for ASD charter operators tasked with taking schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and turning them around in five years — a goal that ASD leaders now acknowledge was unrealistic.

Created in 2010 with the help of federal Race to the Top funding, the ASD recruited and incentivized charter networks to join its portfolio of schools and granted them broad discretion in hiring, curriculum, instruction and budgeting. But especially in Memphis, charter leaders have grappled with high student mobility, extreme poverty, a lack of shared resources, barriers to school choice, and on-the-ground opposition in communities with intense loyalty to neighborhood schools.

Like schools statewide, charters also have had to deal with the void in state test scores in 2015-16 due to Tennessee’s cancellation last spring of its new TNReady assessment for K-8 students. The bumpy testing transition prompted ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson to halt takeovers of low-performing schools for one year.

Enrollment has been another challenge. Gestalt has not been alone in that struggle, but its two ASD schools — Klondike Elementary and Humes Middle — suffered some of the district’s largest enrollment losses: about 13 percent of their student population in the last year.

“We keep trying something new or different but came to realize that over the last four years, people have moved pretty steadily out of North Memphis,” Lewis said.

With a limited pool of high-quality national charter networks, the ASD is working to cultivate more local operators to be part of its future expansion. This fall, the district kicked off a series of trainings in Memphis and Nashville, inviting community leaders to learn about the basics of charter schooling in Tennessee and how to create schools through the ASD.

Chalkbeat reporter Laura Kebede contributed to this story.