out of the loop

As education officials negotiate the fate of a Bronx middle school, ‘everything is up in the air’

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Nelson Santiago with his daughter, Savannah Torres, a sixth-grader at J.H.S. 162

When city officials submitted a proposal to the State Education Department this week about whether to close, merge or cede control of a Bronx middle school, one constituency was kept out of the loop: the school itself.

“Everything is up in the air,” said Yolanda Montalvo, who sits on the school leadership team at J.H.S 162 Lola Rodriguez de Tio, and is a member of the PTA. The school’s administration “doesn’t know what the last decision will be.”

J.H.S. 162 has drawn outsized attention for being the only school in New York threatened with a takeover under the state’s receivership program, which is supposed to create consequences for low-performing schools if they don’t show improvements within a year or two.

The school is the first in the state to face the prospect of a takeover under the 2015 receivership law.

State officials have said the city could propose a merger or closure in lieu of a takeover by an outside manager — and on Tuesday, the city sent a letter to the state with a proposal.

So far, that letter has been kept secret; city and state officials would not release it to Chalkbeat.

On Wednesday afternoon, some parents said they participated in meetings at the beginning of the school year focused on the consequences the school might face under the state receivership program. But they noted there had not been an effort to gather input from them to specifically inform the city’s proposal, and there were rumors the school could be shuttered.

That sense of uncertainty was evident among school officials minutes before a school leadership team meeting Wednesday that was abruptly cancelled. The school’s principal, Deborah Sanabria, declined to comment for this story.

“That’s not something they’ve brought to our attention as of yet,” said parent Nelson Santiago, referring to the city’s proposal. After picking up his daughter early from school Wednesday — because she’d been hit by another student, he said — Santiago explained that the school is headed in the right direction.

Despite the bullying his sixth-grade daughter experienced this year, he added, J.H.S. 162 was taken off the state’s list of “persistently dangerous schools.”

Still, if the state determined that the school was not performing, Santiago said it should be shut down. “If it’s not up to par, then that means my daughter’s education is not up to par.”

Rafael Capestany, who has two children at the school, agreed that there have been some signs of improvement, and said he hopes the school stays open despite its designation as among the worst in the state. “Whenever there’s a situation where students might fight, they handle it real fast,” he said. “I don’t see why they would have to close the school down.”

In addition to being part of the state’s receivership program, the school is also part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s high-profile Renewal program, which is designed to be less punitive. Under the city’s approach, low-performing schools have been infused with resources and social services and are expected to show gains over time. In a surprising discrepancy, J.H.S. 162 hit 83 percent of its benchmarks in the city’s program — a sign of improvement — but was still singled out by the state for a takeover.

Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy chancellor in the city’s department of education and current professor at Teachers College, said it is odd that the city would keep the school out of the loop on its plans, especially because it has invested so heavily in it as a community school.

“If the idea is that the schools should be part of the solution,” Nadelstern said, “to deny the vital information they need to keep doing that job effectively is not a good strategy.”

Still, others pointed out that if the city does get approval from the state to merge or close the school, the city will be legally required to hold hearings and solicit public comment — a process parents will be able to influence.

“The community would have a full opportunity to give its input once state approval had been secured,” said David Bloomfield an education law expert at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

City education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye emphasized that meetings were held at the beginning of the school year to inform families about the potential effects of the state’s receivership program.

“DOE officials have worked with [the State Education Department] as well as the superintendent — who knows the school best — to ensure the next steps for the J.H.S 162 community are best for kids,” Kaye wrote in an email.

“Starting next week, we will begin having a town hall forum and small group meetings to provide families with information and resources to make the right decisions for their child.”

The date and time of the town hall has not yet been announced.

By the numbers

Early reports indicate New York opt-out rates are decreasing statewide, a possible sign of eased tension

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Early opt-out estimates started rolling in Wednesday, the day after students sat for their first round of New York state standardized tests this year.

The number of families refusing to take the controversial tests seems to have decreased slightly in Rochester, the Hudson Valley, Buffalo and Albany. In Long Island, typically an opt-out hotbed, the rates thus far seem similar to last year. It’s still too soon to tell in New York City, but the number of families refusing to take tests has been traditionally been much lower in the city than in the rest of the state.

These are only preliminary numbers, based mostly on reports from school districts. Both High Achievement New York and New York State Allies for Public Education are tracking these reports closely and providing early tallies. The state will release an official tally this summer and would not provide any information at this time. But if it is true that opt-out rates are declining, it could be a sign that tension is slowly seeping out of what has been a charged statewide education debate.

“I think slowly and steadily, the situation is calming,” said Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that promotes testing. “The changes that the state made are good changes and have helped calm the water.”

On the other side, Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, said the numbers still look strong, the decreases are “very minor” and there is still a lot of information to be collected.

“The reality is, whether the numbers go up or down, there’s still a major problem with the testing in our state,” Rudley said.

Over the past few years, the number of families opting their children out of tests statewide has been on an upward trajectory, as teachers and parents protested what they saw as an inappropriate emphasis on testing. (There are currently three testing sessions each for English and math administered to students in public school grades 3-8.)

Backlash to the tests heightened in response to the state’s decision to adopt the Common Core learning standards and to tie those test results to teacher evaluations. The opt-out rate climbed to one in five students in 2015.

Partly in response to the movement, the state began to revise learning standards and removed grades 3-8 math and English tests from teacher evaluations tied to consequences. The Board of Regents selected a new leader, Betty Rosa, endorsed by opt-out supporters. Last year, the tests themselves were shortened slightly and students were given unlimited time to complete them. But, officials were unable to quell the tension. Roughly the same number of students sat out of the tests last year as the year before.

It’s difficult to estimate whether the opt-out rate has increased or decreased in New York City yet, said Kemala Karmen, a New York City representative for NYSAPE. She said that, anecdotally, in schools she has been in contact with, opt-out rates have either remained constant or decreased. Yet she has also heard of opt-outs in schools that had not reported them in the past. Karmen is also critical of the state’s changes to testing, which she thinks do not do nearly enough to assuage parents’ concerns.

New York City has traditionally had much lower opt-out rates than the rest of the state. While statewide 21 percent of families opted out last year, less than three percent did in the city. In part that’s because the movement hasn’t taken hold with as strongly with black and Hispanic families, who make up the majority of the city’s student body. Still, the movement’s political ramifications are being felt statewide.

iZone lite

How Memphis is taking lessons from its Innovation Zone to other struggling schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Sharon Griffin, now chief of schools for Shelby County Schools, confers with Laquita Tate, principal of Ford Road Elementary, part of the Innovation Zone during a 2016 visit.

One of the few qualms that Memphians have with Shelby County’s heralded school turnaround initiative is that more schools aren’t in it.

The district’s Innovation Zone has garnered national attention for its test score gains, but it’s expensive. Each iZone school requires an extra $600,000 annually to pay for interventions such as an extra hour in the school day, teacher signing and retention bonuses, and additional specialists for literacy, math and behavior.

But instead of just replicating the whole iZone model, the district is trying a few components on some of its other struggling schools.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitehaven High School is the anchor school for the Empowerment Zone, the first initiative to employ lessons learned from the iZone.

Last year, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson launched the Empowerment Zone, a scaled-down version of the iZone for five Whitehaven-area schools in danger of slipping to the lowest rankings in the state. The iZone’s most expensive part — one hour added to the school day — was excluded, but the district kept teacher pay incentives and principal freedoms. And teachers across the five schools meet regularly to share what’s working in their classrooms.

This year, district leaders are seeking to inject iZone lessons in 11 struggling schools that Hopson would rather transform than close. His team has been meeting with the principals of those “critical focus schools” to come up with customized plans to propel them out of the state’s list of lowest-performing schools.

As part of that effort, Hopson’s budget plan calls for providing $5.9 million in supports, including $600,000 for retention bonuses for top-ranked teachers at those schools. Spread across the 11 schools, that investment would shake out to about $100,000 less per school than what the iZone spends.

“We’re trying to provide targeted academic support based on the individual school needs. And that can include a lot of our learnings from the iZone as well as a host of other suggestions,” Hopson told school board members last month.

The iZone launched in 2012 and now has 21 schools in some of Memphis’ most impoverished neighborhoods. The initiative was thrust into the national spotlight after a 2015 Vanderbilt University study found the turnaround effort had outpaced test gains of similarly poor-performing Memphis schools in a state-run turnaround district.

Overseeing the iZone has been Sharon Griffin, the former principal who has become Hopson’s chief catalyst and ambassador on school improvements happening in Tennessee’s largest district. In January, he promoted Griffin from chief of the iZone to chief of schools for the entire district.

Griffin has long touted good leadership as the key to the iZone’s successes. The turnaround model relies on placing top principals in struggling schools and giving them the autonomy to recruit effective teachers to put in front of students. Academic supports and daily collaboration across iZone schools are also important tenets.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Shelby County Schools has branded its Innovation Zone to showcase one of its most successful initiatives.

In her new role, Griffin is trying to equip principals across the school system to carry out the district’s academic strategies and spread the iZone culture of leadership and collaboration districtwide.

The latest “critical focus” initiative represents the most significant investment so far to magnify the iZone model. It also shows the level of confidence that Hopson has in Griffin, her team, and their strategies.

“We recognize that if we truly want to turn around our schools, it can’t be just one teacher at a time. It has to be one team at a time,” Griffin said Monday. “And we know if we hire the most effective leader, they hire the most effective teachers, and we’re building a team and a cadre of greatness. … Human capital is going to be our secret weapon.”

As for which iZone components will be culled this spring for each of the 11 critical-focus areas schools, that’s under review. In keeping with the iZone model, those schools are being assessed to create a “school profile” that will determine the course for interventions. Among the possibilities: Adding staff, lengthening the school day, and ramping up after-school programs.

“We’re looking at all our schools and making sure that we’re not duplicating our resources. Then we’re taking additional resources and aligning them to one mission,” Griffin said. “ … We want to give our schools an opportunity to put their own spin on an aligned curriculum and professional development.”