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

survey says

How accessible are New York City’s high schools? Students with physical disabilities are about to find out

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Midwood High School is considered inaccessible to students with physical disabilities.

Michelle Noris began her son’s high school search the way many parents of children with physical disabilities do: by throwing out most of the high school directory.

She knew her son Abraham would only have access to a few dozen of the city’s 400-plus high schools because of significant health needs, despite being a bright student with a knack for writing.

“I tore out every page that didn’t work in advance of showing [the directory] to him,” Noris recalls.

Even once they narrowed the list of potential schools, they still couldn’t be sure which schools Abraham — who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair — would be physically able to enter. The directory lists whether a school is considered partially or fully accessible, which, in theory, means that students should have access to “all relevant programs and services.”

In practice, however, the situation is much more complicated. “We had schools that are listed as partially accessible, but there’s no accessible bathroom,” said Noris, who is a member of the Citywide Council on Special Education. Some “accessible” schools might not have water fountains or cafeteria tables that accommodate students with mobility needs. A school’s auditorium could have a ramp, but no way for a wheelchair-bound student to get up on the stage.

Most of that information is not publicly available without calling a school or showing up for a visit — a process that can be time-consuming and demoralizing. But now, thanks in part by lobbying from Noris and other advocates, the city has pledged to begin filling the information gap. The education department will soon release more detailed information about exactly how accessible its high schools are.

Based on a 58-question survey, the city is collecting more granular data: if music rooms or computer labs are accessible, for instance, or whether there’s a slight step in a library that could act as a barrier. The survey also tracks whether a student in a wheelchair would have to use a side or back entrance to make it into the building.

“Sometimes, [parents] actually have to visit four or five of our schools to see if their child could get to every area of the school that’s important to them,” said Tom Taratko, who heads the education department’s space management division. “We didn’t think that was right.”

Virtually every physical amenity will be documented, Taratko said, down to whether a school has braille signage or technology for students with hearing impairments.

Education department officials are still fine-tuning exactly how to translate the city’s new accessibility inventory into a user-friendly dataset families can use. Some of the new information will be made available in the high school directory, and the results of each school’s survey will be available online.

Officials said the new data would be provided in “the coming weeks” for all high schools in Manhattan and Staten Island. The rest of the city’s high schools should be included before the next admissions cycle.

The survey will help identify which schools could be made accessible with relatively few changes, Taratko explained. “Everything — our shortcomings, our strengths — everything will be out there.”

The decision to release more high school accessibility data comes less than two years after a scathing U.S. Department of Justice investigation revealed “inexcusable” accommodations in elementary schools.

Many of the city’s school buildings were built before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, and despite committing $100 million in its current five-year capital budget to upgrades, many schools are still not accessible. According to 2016 data, the most recent available, just 13 percent of district and charter schools that serve high school grades are fully accessible. About 62 percent are partially accessible, and 25 percent are considered inaccessible.

Making accessibility data public could help change those numbers, said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children who has pushed for greater transparency and praised the initiative.

“Once it’s out there, there’s so much more self-advocacy a parent can do,” Moroff said. “Then they can make requests about specific accommodations.”

Greater transparency is just one step in the process. Moroff hopes the city will consider taking students’ physical disabilities into account during the admissions process so that academically qualified students get preference for accessible schools. Once students arrive, she added, they must be welcomed by the school community.

“There needs to be much more work to hold the schools accountable to actually welcoming those students,” Moroff said. “It has to go hand in hand with making renovations and making accommodations.”

Even though the data comes too late for Noris, whose son submitted applications to just two high schools out of a possible twelve due to accessibility constraints, she is optimistic future families will have an easier time navigating the process.

“They didn’t say, ‘We’re going to do this over the next ten years.’ They said, ‘We’re going to do this in two years,’” Noris said, noting that she hopes more funding is allocated to upgrade buildings. “I think it’s a real example of the Department of Education hearing the needs and being willing to act on it.”

Student activist

With Townsend Harris in turmoil over interim principal, one student quietly takes a leading role

PHOTO: The Classic
Alex Chen walks the hallway during a student sit-in he helped organize at Townsend Harris High School.

While students across the nation have taken to the streets to protest President Trump, some are fighting battles closer to home. Just ask Alex Chen, the student union president at Townsend Harris High School, who is helping to lead a high-profile fight against Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda.

Chen spent much of his February break rallying fellow students, alumni and parents from the elite Queens school to demonstrate in front of City Hall on Friday, asking the city to remove Jahoda from consideration for the permanent post. The controversy has put the 17-year-old in the uncomfortable position of going against his school’s top official.

But Chen insists this isn’t a student vs. principal situation.

“It might have felt like that sometimes, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it more as a community that’s rising up,” he said.

Opposition has mounted against Jahoda since September, when she stepped in to lead the school. More than 3,500 people, including self-identified parents and alumni, have signed a petition against her, claiming that she has harassed faculty, changed course offerings without proper input and that she has been “aloof or even combative” toward students.

In a statement, Jahoda said: “While I am frustrated by many of these inaccurate allegations, I remain 100% focused on serving students and families at Townsend Harris and working to move the school community forward.”

Meanwhile, Chen has been thrust into the spotlight. In December, during a student sit-in he helped organize, he had a tense standoff with Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” the superintendent quipped to Chen in a livestream broadcast by the student newspaper. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Chen spoke slowly, his voice a near whisper. Even when the superintendent suggested Chen had invaded her personal space, Chen stayed quiet and calm.

“I really just wanted to be able to communicate with her,” he later told Chalkbeat.

He returned to class, replaying the scene in his head and wondering whether he had handled it right. When he walked in the door, his classmates burst into applause.

“He’s become this symbol for everyone involved. And I think he earned it,” said Brian Sweeney, an English teacher and newspaper advisor who has Chen in his journalism class. “When you’re in that video with everyone watching, and you’re willing to keep talking and keep saying what you think … there’s a lot of trust for everyone involved.”

Since the sit-in, the School Leadership Team at Townsend took the unusual step of making Chen a co-chair of the board, made up of teachers, parents and union reps.

“I believe it was a matter of trust and productivity. We needed co-chairs who could move forward with the issues at the table, rather than be stuck in tension,” Chen said.

Even while he fights to make sure Jahoda isn’t appointed permanently, Chen said he has maintained a “very professional relationship” with her. In SLT and student union meetings where Jahoda is present, Chen said he makes an effort to “stick to the agenda.”

“We still have to keep the school running,” he said. “In the hallways, I’ll say good morning. I’ll say hello. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

The Department of Education opened applications for a permanent principal on Feb. 1 and said the process takes up to 90 days. The pushback against Jahoda means many are watching the department’s next moves. This week, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz wrote a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña about the matter.

“Accusations and troubling accounts are occurring on a daily basis,” she wrote. “The students of our system deserve to know that the DOE is providing the tools, atmosphere and attention needed to fulfill our responsibilities to them.”

Chen has responsibilities of his own. At home in Hollis Hills, he helps take care of his younger sister and is expected to finish his chores. He’s looking for a job to have a bit of his own money. And with senior year winding down, he spends a lot of time chasing scholarships. Chen hopes to study business at University of Pennsylvania, though lately many people have asked him whether he’ll go into politics.

“I don’t think I will for now, because there’s a lot that goes on in politics that kind of disturbs me,” he said. “After high school, after college, after your youth, it seems like people [tend] to be more self-interested than to help in the community.”