what's next?

The only school in New York threatened with a takeover by state officials may soon learn its fate

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
J.H.S. 162 Lola Rodriguez De Tio, one of six 'Renewal' schools the city plans to close next year.

After months of uncertainty, the city’s education department must submit a proposal Tuesday night outlining its plans for a struggling Bronx middle school, state officials confirmed Monday.

The school, J.H.S 162 Lola Rodriguez de Tio, has earned the unenviable distinction of being the only school in New York designated for outside takeover by the state’s education department.

Under the state’s complex receivership law, bottom-level schools that don’t quickly show signs of improvement on metrics ranging from attendance to test scores can be turned over to nonprofit managers or school improvement experts, effectively forcing Chancellor Carmen Fariña to cede control of the school to an outside entity.

In October, state education officials announced that J.H.S. 162 — which has been among the lowest-performing schools in the state since 2006 — barely missed its improvement goals, which meant the city would have 60 days to come up with a plan for giving up control of the school. At the time, state officials said the city could close or merge the school instead of turning it over to an outside manager.

Though that 60-day deadline came and went more than a week ago, state officials said they extended the deadline until Tuesday night. The city education department did not answer questions about what its plans for the school are, and the school’s principal, Deborah Sanabria, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The fact that J.H.S. 162 has been singled out for outside takeover has struck some education experts as arbitrary — essentially the result of a tug-of-war between the city and state over how to handle struggling schools. Although the school has posted low test scores, it also serves a high-needs population comprised overwhelmingly of low-income black and Latino families. Neither its scores nor demographics set it dramatically apart from several other schools in New York City.

“To single out one school and say it’s the worst school in the state is misleading on so many levels,” Eric Nadelstern, a former city deputy schools chancellor who is now a professor at Teachers College, told Chalkbeat last month. “It’s easy for the school to say there are many other schools in the city and state that match the same criteria.”

Meanwhile, the school has gotten conflicting evaluations from the state and city, adding to the complexity of the situation.

While the state’s receivership program was designed to be stricter and focus on quick improvements with the prospect of a takeover if gains don’t take hold, the city’s Renewal turnaround program (of which the school is also a member) is based on the premise that schools should be infused with resources and given time to improve — though the city has also not shied away from the possibility of additional mergers or closures.

In an ironic twist, the city recently announced that J.H.S. 162 hit 83 percent of its Renewal goals last year, placing it in the top 15 percent of Renewal schools in terms of the proportion of its benchmarks the school reached. Under the city program, the school even met a third of its goals early, making it eligible for certain “challenge targets” (which in some cases actually aren’t all that challenging).

In essence, the state’s benchmarks ended up labeling the school as perhaps the worst in the state, while the city’s own program says it is making noticeable progress — a surprising discrepancy given that city officials have insisted the city’s benchmarks are just as rigorous.

“The school showed improvements on some of their Renewal targets, but not on the measures that counted towards Receivership benchmarks,” city education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email. She did not elaborate further on the difference between the school’s performance on city and state benchmarks.

City officials indicated that its plans for the school will require review from the State Education Department and anticipated that process will happen soon. It was not immediately clear exactly how long that review process will take, and state officials did not respond to additional requests for comment.

“We’re working with the state and once the proposed plan is approved, we’ll engage closely with students, families, school staff and the larger community to ensure students are supported with continuity and a high-quality education,” Kaye wrote.

What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those perimeters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.