Voice of dissent

Principal union chief says he ‘isn’t impressed’ with progress at city’s Renewal schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Principal union president Ernest Logan (right) criticized the city's Renewal program at a panel moderated by Public Advocate Letitia James (left).

The head of New York City’s principals union panned the education department’s flagship initiative to aid struggling schools Wednesday, ratcheting up his criticism of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school turnaround program.

“Right now everybody is talking about, well, now it’s year three and what did we accomplish?” said Ernest Logan, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators at a panel discussion held Wednesday. “To tell me that we’ve improved attendance 2 percent, 3 percent, I’m not impressed by it. And I don’t think anybody who’s paying money into the public schools is impressed by that.”

Those comments come at a delicate moment for the city’s $400 million Renewal program, one of the largest efforts of its kind to boost bottom-performing schools by flooding them with extra funding, social services and academic support.

De Blasio promised the program, which now includes 86 schools, would usher in “fast and intense” improvement within its three-year time frame — and year three is now underway. That assertion has made even the model’s supporters nervous, since research shows struggling schools can take many years to show significant progress.

But as part of Wednesday’s panel discussion on Renewal schools, moderated by Public Advocate Letitia James, education department officials pushed back on Logan’s claim that the program is floundering.

“There has been significant progress in our Renewal schools,” said Alonta Wrighton, executive director of school renewal for K-8, who cited gains in test scores and said attendance had increased at 91 percent of Renewal schools. “In many schools, they’re totally transformed.”

Still, progress at Renewal schools overall has been mixed. The vast majority of them enroll fewer students now than when the program started in 2014, and nearly half the schools failed to meet even 50 percent of the program’s benchmarks last year.

Some Renewal school principals have resisted the model outright. Michael Wiltshire, the former principal of Boys and Girls High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, famously feuded with the school’s social service provider.

Logan acknowledged that he initially “saw a lot of promise” in the program, but quickly became one of its most proximal critics, assailing what he saw as bureaucratic micromanagement of principals and a sloppy rollout.

“If I told you that we spent $14,000-plus a kid and you know what you only got is a one percent improvement, you’d run me out the country,” he said Wednesday. “So the point is we can’t just talk about the little incremental things that we’re doing.”

High emotions

Denver superintendent sheds light on school closure recommendations, what happens next

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
Parents pick up their children at Amesse Elementary Friday.

While the criteria for Denver school closure recommendations is clearer than ever before, that hasn’t made this week’s emotional conversations at the three low-performing elementary schools facing that fate any easier, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said Friday.

“For school leaders and teachers, they care incredibly deeply about their schools and their kids and they’re very, very committed to them,” Boasberg told Chalkbeat.

“People have respected that there is a clear and transparent process at the intellectual level — and at the emotional level, they’re still very concerned about the changes.”

Denver Public Schools is recommending that Amesse Elementary, Greenlee Elementary and Gilpin Montessori close due to poor school ratings, lagging academic growth and a lack of enough evidence to prove the schools are on a path toward improvement.

The school board is scheduled to vote Thursday on the recommendations, which were made under a new district policy adopted last year and put into effect for the first time this fall.

If the board approves the closures, Amesse and Greenlee would stay open through the end of this school year, 2016-17, and the next school year, 2017-18, Boasberg said.

Each school would be replaced by a new model the following year, 2018-19, he said. The board would choose those models in June 2017 and then give the leaders an entire year to plan — a “year zero” — before asking them to take over in the fall of 2018. Boasberg said the current leaders of Amesse and Greenlee would be welcome to submit plans to reinvent the schools.

The principals at the three schools either declined or did not respond to interview requests.

Walking her second-grader, Clifford, out of Amesse on Friday, parent Sheila Epps voiced her frustration with the district’s closure recommendation. She said in her experience, Amesse is a good school, helping her son get to grade level in reading, writing and math.

She scoffed at what she called DPS’s intense focus on “test scores, test scores, test scores,” saying the district should “stop worrying about rankings” and focus on educating each child.

“As a parent, you feel like there’s nothing you can do,” Epps said. “It’s all up to the district. It’s almost not even worth talking about. It’s like, ‘Now what?’”

The district is recommending a different path for Gilpin. Because of low enrollment projections, Gilpin would close at the end of this school year and not be replaced, Boasberg said.

Students would be guaranteed a seat at one of four neighborhood schools next year: Cole Arts and Science Academy, Whittier ECE-8, University Prep or the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, said Brian Eschbacher, the district’s director of planning and enrollment services. The district would also work with its other Montessori elementary schools to give priority to Gilpin students wishing to continue a Montessori education, he said.

Gilpin’s enrollment is down 30 percent this year from 2013, which is in line with an overall trend in the Five Points neighborhood in northeast Denver, where Gilpin is located, Eschbacher said.

Neighborhood birth rates are also down, meaning there isn’t a big group of infants and toddlers waiting in the wings, and DPS already has 1,000 empty seats in the area, he added.

Said Boasberg: “Even if Gilpin had not been designated under (the policy), we would have either this year or next year … been in a situation where one of the elementary schools in that area would have had to close because of the decline of school-aged kids.”

At 202 students this year, Gilpin is the second-smallest elementary school in the district, Boasberg said. That causes a financial crunch because schools are funded on a per-pupil basis. He said the district is providing Gilpin with an extra $600,000 this year to ensure it’s able to provide smaller class sizes, more teacher aides in the classroom, more staff members to support students’ mental health and a broader array of arts and music offerings.

“We always want to see our schools succeed and we’ve worked hard to provide supports and resources in these cases,” Boasberg said, referring to all three schools recommended for closure. “But while there have been improvements in the schools, we’re not seeing — and haven’t seen now for some time — the kind of growth the kids in the schools need.”

Monica Lubbert lives across the street from Gilpin and sent her third-grade daughter there for several years before pulling her out last year after spring break. Her daughter had fallen behind academically and Lubbert said she didn’t feel the struggling school was capable of catching her up — a shortcoming for which she believes the school district and community share the blame.

“This is not the teachers that did anything wrong. This is not the kids that did anything wrong,” Lubbert said. Instead, she said the district didn’t follow best practices years ago when it converted Gilpin to a Montessori school. “This was the complete … mismanagement of DPS.”

Lubbert also partly attributed the school’s troubles to the fact that many kids who live in the neighborhood go to school elsewhere, as is allowed under the district’s school choice policy. District statistics show 64 percent of children who live in the school’s boundary choiced out this year. Lubbert’s own daughter is attending a private Montessori school.

“This community has gone above and beyond to make every single home in the neighborhood a historically designated home,” she said. But no one seems to care about the school, she added. “How does the community grow and thrive without a school for the kids?”

Boasberg admitted that the district learned some hard lessons over the years about how best to restart low-performing schools, which is what happened at Gilpin. But he said the new policy in effect this year represents a better way to do things.

As for what will happen to the centrally located Gilpin building if the board closes the school, Boasberg said DPS would like for it to remain a school. While the neighborhood doesn’t need any more elementaries, he said the preliminary thinking is to convert it into a secondary school that could draw students from across the city, as Denver School of the Arts, Denver Center for International Studies and Girls Athletic Leadership Academy currently do.

Chalkbeat’s Eric Gorski contributed information to this report.

bigger issues

Harlem parents want more time to weigh in on school rezoning and merger

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.

Crystal Bailey’s son came home from school recently with a dirty uniform. Before she could fuss at him, he explained it was muck from science class.

“He’s like, ‘Guess what I learned?’ How could I be mad at that?” Bailey said.

She and dozens of other parents gathered at a public hearing Thursday night to protest plans to merge and rezone their school, P.S. 241 STEM Institute of Manhattan in Harlem.

For parents, elected officials and advocates, the plan in Harlem has grown to symbolize larger issues: school segregation and the impact of charter schools.

“This is an equity issue,” said Emmaia Gelman, a member of the group New York City Public School Parents for Equity and Desegregation.

The Department of Education has proposed to merge P.S. 241 with P.S. 76 A. Philip Randolph, and to redraw the school lines around P.S. 241. Under the plan, families currently zoned for P.S. 241 would be distributed among other local schools: P.S. 76, P.S. 180, P.S. 185/P.S. 208.

“Why do you want to unravel this institution, rather than strengthen it?” Maria Garcia, who has two children at P.S. 241, asked at Thursday’s hearing.

The proposal comes on the heels of another contentious rezoning in District 3, which spans from the Upper West Side to 122nd Street in Harlem. Both plans have highlighted stark differences among the area’s schools.

For more than a year, parents railed against plans to redraw school boundaries on the Upper West Side, where students are packed into high-performing schools. In Harlem, a rezoning plan was presented just weeks before a final vote was expected — and only after the Department of Education proposed to merge a school that has struggled with enrollment and performance on state tests.

Enrollment at P.S. 241 has hovered around 100 students in recent years, despite a federal magnet grant designed to attract families — and integrate the school — by offering a curriculum in science, technology, engineering and math. The school has seen a small uptick in enrollment recently, but parents say it has been squeezed by two charter schools that share its building.

“Why do we have to go?” asked Tasha Clarke, who has two sons at P.S. 241.

The merger and rezoning rely on two separate processes. The citywide Panel for Educational Policy is scheduled to vote on the merger in January.

The District 3 Community Education Council must ultimately vote on the rezoning. Though a vote is scheduled for Dec. 14, council members have begun to voice reservations about the plan.

“Anybody who thinks that this council has decided to vote to approve this is sorely mistaken,” council President Joe Fiordaliso said at the hearing.

Council members shared data they compiled that shows declining enrollment in the area’s schools and growing charter enrollment.

“We’re in crisis,” said council member Daniel Katz.

This isn’t the first time P.S. 241 has fought to keep its doors open. The DOE tried in 2009 to close the school and replace it with charters.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and teachers union sued, arguing that by closing a zoned school, the department was essentially redrawing attendance boundaries. That falls under the purview of Community Education Councils, which vote on all zoning decisions.

Soon after the suit was filed, the DOE dropped its plans to shutter P.S. 241. But CEC member Noah Gotbaum thinks the same issues apply to the proposed merger — and therefore the council could play a crucial role in determining the school’s fate.

“I think we on the CEC need to look at the merger very, very carefully and essentially make a decision on it,” he told Chalkbeat, “and not say that we don’t have the power or the right.”