school closures

City plans to close struggling Bronx middle school that faced threat of state takeover

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
J.H.S. 162 Lola Rodriguez De Tio.

New York City will shutter a long-struggling Bronx middle school that has been under threat of state takeover, according to a city plan released Friday, and open a new school in its place.

The plan to close J.H.S. 162 Lola Rodriguez de Tio at the end of the school year allows the city to skirt a state program that would have forced the city to either name an independent manager to run the school or take more dramatic action. An “independent monitor” selected by Chancellor Carmen Fariña and approved by the state education commissioner will oversee the closure.

City officials say they want to open a new school in the building in time for the 2017-18 school year with a dual-language and STEM program, pending state approval.

“This proposed plan is what’s best for the J.H.S. 162 community,” District 7 Superintendent Elisa Alvarez said in a statement, “and I’ll continue to work closely in the coming weeks and months to provide a smooth transition and support students, families and school staff throughout the process.”

The decision is a first step toward clarity for the J.H.S. 162’s teachers and students, who have been waiting to find out how the state’s rules would affect its future. If the plan is approved, many may not return: the school’s current sixth and seventh graders will be able to choose the new school or other nearby options, and teachers will have to compete with others for jobs at the newly created school.

A sudden closure would be a rare move for the de Blasio administration. But the uncertainty that has swirled around J.H.S. 162 this year was a microcosm of the conflict between the city’s approach to improving its struggling schools and a more aggressive approach codified in state law.

Under the state’s 2015 receivership law, schools that had performed poorly on state tests for years were given only a year or two to show academic gains or face the prospect of outside management. The city, meanwhile, has been infusing schools like J.H.S. 162 with extra resources and social services while expecting incremental but steady improvement.

By a couple of measures, J.H.S. 162 was showing signs of improvement. Last year, the school met most of its goals within the city’s “Renewal” turnaround program, and its low English proficiency rates rose from 4 percent to 9 percent. Only 3 percent of its students were proficient in math.

It has also maintained enrollment of roughly 375 students over the past several years, underscoring the unusual nature of the closure. Recently, the city has closed schools immediately when sagging enrollments made them effectively unsustainable.

In recent weeks, there has been little organization at the school to save J.H.S. 162 from closure — neither parent groups nor the school’s principal have spoken out. Even though the city formally submitted its proposal earlier this week, school officials were apparently not part of the decision to close the school, and several parents said there was confusion about the school’s future.

Multiple parents said the school seemed to be making progress. Nelson Santiago, whose daughter attends sixth grade, pointed out that J.H.S. 162 was removed last year from the state’s list of persistently dangerous schools.

But, he said, he was not necessarily opposed to a closure.

“If it’s not up to par, then that means my daughter’s education is not up to par,” he said.

City officials said that parents received phone calls and letters about the plan Friday, and that a town hall meeting was scheduled at the school on Monday at 6 p.m. The proposal must also be approved by the city’s Panel for Education Policy, which will likely vote on the plan in February.

future funding

Trump’s education budget could be bad news for New York City’s ‘community schools’ expansion

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

The Trump administration has proposed eliminating the sole source of funding for New York City’s dramatic expansion of its community schools program, according to budget documents released Tuesday.

Less than two weeks ago, city officials announced its community schools program would expand to 69 new schools this fall, financed entirely by $25.5 million per year of funding earmarked for 21st Century Community Learning Centers — a $1.2 billion federal program which Trump is again proposing to eliminate.

The community schools program is a central feature of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s strategy for high-need schools — a model he called a “game-changer” earlier this month. It is designed to help schools address the physical health and emotional issues that can impede student learning, in part by pairing them with nonprofit organizations that offer a range of services, such as mental health counseling, vision screenings, or dental checkups.

City officials downplayed the threat of the cuts, noting the Republican-controlled congress increased funding for the program in a recent spending agreement and that similar funding cuts have been threatened in the past.

“This program has bipartisan support and has fought back the threat of cuts for over a decade,” a city education official wrote in an email.

Still, some nonprofit providers are nervous this time will be different.

“I’m not confident that the funding will continue given the federal political climate,” said Jeremy Kaplan, director of community education at Phipps Neighborhoods, an organization that will offer services in three of the city’s new community schools this fall. Even though the first year of funding is guaranteed, he said, the future of the program is unclear.

“It’s not clear to [community-based] providers what the outlook would be after year one.”

City officials did not respond to a question about whether they have contingency plans to ensure the 69 new community schools would not lose the additional support, equivalent to roughly $350,000 per school each year.

“Community schools are an essential part of Equity and Excellence and we will do everything on our power to ensure continuation of funding,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in an email.

New York state receives over $88 million in 21st Century funding, which it distributes to local school districts. State education officials did not immediately respond to questions about how they would react if the funding is ultimately cut.

“President Trump’s proposed budget includes a sweeping and irresponsible slashing of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget,” state officials wrote in a press release. “If these proposed cuts become reality, gaps and inequity in education will grow.”

vying for vouchers

On Betsy DeVos’s budget wish list: $250M to ‘build the evidence base’ for vouchers

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Recent research about private-school voucher programs has been grim: In Washington D.C., Indianapolis, Louisiana, and Ohio, students did worse on tests after they received the vouchers.

Now, the Trump administration is looking for new test cases.

Their budget proposal, released Tuesday, asks for $250 million to fund a competition for school districts looking to expand school voucher programs. Those districts could apply for funding to pay private school tuition for students from poor families, then evaluate those programs “to build the evidence base around private school choice,” according to the budget documents.

It’s very unlikely that the budget will make it through Congress in its current form. But the funding boost aimed at justifying private-school choice programs is one way U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is delivering on years of advocacy for those programs. On Monday, she promised the Trump administration would soon lay out the “most ambitious expansion of school choice in our nation’s history.”

DeVos and other say vouchers are critical for helping low-income students succeed and also help students in public schools, whose schools improve thanks to competitive pressure. Private school choice programs have also come under criticism for requiring students with disabilities to waive their rights under IDEA and for allowing private schools to discriminate against LGBT students.

Bill Cordes, the education department’s K-12 budget director, told leaders of education groups Tuesday that the “sensitive” issues around the divide between church and state and civil rights protections for participating students would be addressed as the program is rolled out.