closing time

It’s official: The city confirms plans to close or merge nine Renewal schools next year

Chancellor Fariña pictured with Mayor Bill de Blasio. (Ed Reed for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio)

Citing poor performance and low enrollment, education officials announced a proposal Monday to close six schools in New York City’s high-profile Renewal program and merge three others.

The proposal comes as the program, which involves spending hundreds of millions of dollars to flood low-performing schools with additional social services and academic resources, nears the end of its third year. Though Mayor Bill de Blasio has, unlike his predecessor Michael Bloomberg, been reluctant to close schools, he has also said that some might need to be shuttered as a “last resort.”

City officials called Monday’s proposal “aggressive” and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña indicated the move is “what is best for students.”

“During this process we will work individually with every student and family to ensure they have a seat at a higher-performing school where they will receive the instruction and support they need to succeed,” Fariña said in a statement.

The Renewal program initially included 94 of the city’s most troubled schools, but due to previous mergers and closures that number had shrunk to 86. If the city’s proposal is approved by the Panel for Educational Policy — which is set to vote on it in March — 78 schools will remain in the program next year, according to the city’s press release.

That implies Renewal, which officials have explicitly called a three-year program, will continue into a fourth year. Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email that the Renewal program will “continue to support schools that are improving,” but did not say how long the city anticipated the program would continue.

The plan includes closing six schools immediately, instead of phasing them out, starting next academic year: Two of them are junior high schools in the Bronx: J.H.S.145 Arturo Toscanini and J.H.S 162 Lola Rodriguez de Tio, a “persistently struggling” school the city had already proposed closing as part of a deal with the state.

Two high schools in the Bronx are slated for closure: Leadership Institute and Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design; as are two Brooklyn middle schools: M.S. 584 and the Essence School.

The city also plans to merge three schools: Frederick Douglass Academy IV Secondary School (to be merged with the Brooklyn Academy of Global Finance), Automotive High School in Brooklyn (with Frances Perkins Academy), and M.S. 289 Young Scholars Academy of the Bronx (with North Bronx School of Empowerment).

Automotive, according to the city’s proposal, will be the only merged school that will absorb the school with which it’s being merged, and stay in the Renewal program. But all of the merged schools would still get supports through the city’s community schools program.

Finally, the city’s plan includes truncating the middle school grades at two Brooklyn Renewal schools: P.S. 306 Ethan Allen and P.S. 165 Ida Posner.

The announcement comes three days after the New York Times first reported the closures and mergers.

In the case of the closures, according to the city, the Department of Education took into account performance and enrollment and included “a careful analysis of each school community.”

The six schools the city has identified for closure all have fewer students than when the Renewal program began in the 2014-15 school year. M.S. 584, for instance, has roughly 80 students this year, down from 224 six years ago.

Enrollment drops have plagued the vast majority of the city’s Renewal schools, which have collectively shed more than 6,000 students since the program launched.

In terms of performance, all six schools are clearly struggling. At the Essence School, for instance, 5 percent of its students were proficient in math or reading last school year — far below city averages.

But they are not necessarily the lowest-performing schools in the program, according to the city’s own benchmarks. The Essence School met one-third of the goals the city set for it last year — on measures including attendance and “rigorous instruction” — and even had one of its school climate goals converted into a “challenge target” because it was met before the deadline.

City figures show 26 Renewal schools met fewer benchmarks than Essence did last year. Asked why some lower-performing schools were not closed, the education department’s Kaye noted that a number of factors were considered beyond academic achievement and enrollment: feedback from families, staff turnover, history of interventions or improvement, and “research from schools in similar situations.”

“For each school we evaluated all these areas and have determined that closure would be the best course of action,” Kaye wrote.

Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter group that has consistently criticized the Renewal program, seized on the news of the closures and mergers as evidence of the program’s failure.

“Thousands of kids are still languishing in Renewal schools that are even worse than those now slated for closure,” CEO Jeremiah Kittredge wrote in a statement. The organization pointed to several schools in the program that have lower test scores and graduation rates than those the city plans to close.

But multiple observers said the city’s closure plans don’t necessarily mean the program isn’t working, especially since it explicitly targeted troubled schools.

“De Blasio had run on a campaign not to close schools, but that was destined to have mixed results on a school-by-school basis,” said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “You have dozens of schools [in the Renewal program] and a relative handful have been demonstrably unsuccessful. That’s not surprising.”

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia also weighed in on the city’s proposal. “I’ve visited many of the city’s Renewal schools and have seen firsthand the hard work that’s taking place,” she said in a statement. “While many of these schools are showing important signs of progress, some continue to struggle — and those situations must be addressed appropriately.”

Megan Hester, an organizer at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform who has closely followed the program, wondered how the city might better serve the students who would potentially be displaced by the closures. City officials said they will launch a series of town hall meetings at each school starting next week, and offer individual support for parents to find new schools.

“I think for parents the question is, these schools weren’t able to be improved, so what’s the plan for the children in these neighborhoods?” Hester said. “What is the city learning from that and what are they going to do differently to make sure the next strategy works?”

Update 4:39 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect additional responses from education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye.

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”