renewed questions

Three big questions as de Blasio’s school turnaround program approaches the three-year mark

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his high-profile turnaround plan for 94 of the city’s lowest-performing schools, he promised to flood them with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of social services and academic support so they could meet an ambitious goal: “fast and intense” improvement within three years.

This week, as the so-called Renewal initiative approaches the end of its third year, education officials proposed to close or merge nine schools in the program, after previously closing or consolidating eight others. Those decisions, and uneven progress at many of the remaining Renewal schools, reopens longstanding questions about how the program is working, how it should be judged — and what its future looks like.

Here are three of the biggest ones:

Is the program working as intended?

De Blasio’s Renewal schools are arguably the country’s biggest bet on the “community schools” model, which treats external barriers to learning as something schools can address. In New York City, the approach has involved extending the school day, adding social services like mental health counseling and dental clinics, and partnering with community organizations (whose contracts extend through next year).

One benefit of the community schools approach is that many of the resources schools are getting don’t depend on external validation. If students are getting mental health screenings or eyeglasses, for instance, the program is working.

But answering bigger questions about whether schools are being transformed academically is more complicated.

There are some positive signs. Individual schools have reported that the extra resources — such as coaches who help teachers adopt a more rigorous curriculum — are having an effect. And the city says attendance and school climate in Renewal schools are improving.

But roughly half the schools in the program aren’t meeting most of the city’s benchmarks, many of which were modest to begin with. And the program has so far not stemmed the tide of students who continue to leave the city’s bottom-performing schools. Roughly 86 percent of Renewal schools enroll fewer students than they did when the program launched in 2014.

If the program yields mixed results, how will the city continue to justify it?

De Blasio’s promise that the program would offer fast improvements within three years is at odds with what many experts and advocates — and even Department of Education officials — say: School turnarounds, when they work, can take years longer.

“Shifting [school] culture takes more than two years; it probably takes five to 10 years,” said Jeremy Kaplan, a director of community education at Phipps Neighborhoods, a community organization working in several Renewal schools. “I think there’s a sense of urgency connected to a mayoral promise.”

But having made that initial three-year pledge leaves de Blasio, now campaigning for reelection, in the difficult position of figuring out how to articulate a theory of change around an expensive program that may, in the short-term, show only small gains. Meanwhile, the mayor’s critics will continue to argue the slow pace of change harms students in those schools, which should be closed instead.

“Once the city starts down the road of closing schools I think there will be more pressure to close more of them,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College. “It becomes harder to sustain the argument to continue a Renewal-type program if it appears not to be working.”

What will be different for Renewal schools after year three?

Since its inception, the education department has explicitly said that Renewal is a three-year program, but always acted as if it would continue beyond that point. Overall, the city has budgeted nearly $850 million for the program through 2019, according to the Independent Budget Office.

“I would think that, over time, [community schools] will stay no matter what,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña told Chalkbeat in August. “If schools have a certain amount of budget, we don’t take it away from them the next year, regardless of what it is.”

But whether there will be significant changes after year three is still unclear. Will the education department add features or nix others based on what has worked over the last three years? And how will the city’s big bet on community schools ultimately be judged?

“A lack of progress is clearly an indicator that things aren’t working,” said Pallas. “But what’s the threshold for deciding if the growth is sufficient? I don’t have the answer.”

late arrivals

Students were allowed to enroll in some of the city’s lowest-performing schools — even after they were slated for closure

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design, one of the schools set to be closed next year.

When New York City’s education department announced plans to close a handful of struggling schools in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s turnaround program, they argued the schools were simply too low-performing to stay open.

But while officials were making that argument, students were still being sent to them. In total, 25 students were allowed to enroll across at least some of the six closing Renewal schools after January 1. The full closure plans became public January 6.

Those who enroll after the traditional admissions process is over — referred to as “over-the-counter” students — are often among the hardest students to serve. Many are behind academically, are recent immigrants, have experienced homelessness, or were previously incarcerated.

The city’s decision to allow late-arriving students to enroll in schools they planned to close likely does them a disservice, multiple experts said.

“If they’re going to take the drastic and final step of closing a school, it means that they’ve decided that this school is so limited in what it does for kids that it shouldn’t stay open anymore,” said Norm Fruchter, an NYU researcher who authored a study about how the city assigns late-arriving students, and is generally supportive of de Blasio’s education policies. “Why send any more kids there?”

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has vowed to reduce the number of mid-year students sent to Renewal schools, and the department previously banned several of the city’s most troubled schools from receiving them.

“The policy makes sense,” Fruchter added. “This seems to violate that.”

Fruchter and others acknowledged that deciding where to place the tens of thousands of students who arrive on the education department’s doorstep in the middle of each school year is a challenge.

At the high school level, which is governed by a complex application process, the most desirable schools often have few slots available mid-year, significantly limiting the options for those who arrive late. His research has shown those students are disproportionately sent to struggling schools, which tend to have more open seats.

In the context of the city’s Renewal program, late arrivals pose a difficult catch-22. Many of the schools in the turnaround program are struggling to attract new students, which would bring additional funding. But those schools are perhaps least able to handle an influx of students who are likely to need additional help.

It isn’t a new problem. The Bloomberg administration also struggled to find seats for students who arrived mid-year, and disproportionately placed them in schools that were later closed, or were already undergoing that process.

Deidre Walker has seen that tension play out at her own school. A math teacher at J.H.S. 145 in the Bronx, one of the schools that will be closed next year and received new students, Walker said latecomers are often still learning English or require services like occupational therapy. The school, she said, isn’t always able to meet their needs.

“If you continue to send more and more students that need more and more services in a situation where people are struggling, you need to send more bodies that can deal with the demand,” she said, noting that her school only has one English as a Second Language teacher. “That’s not happening.”

Concern that the school did not receive sufficient resources despite being in the city’s Renewal program was a constant refrain during its contentious closure process.

Michael Aciman, an education department spokesman, said in a statement that mid-year placements are “determined on a case-by-case basis to meet the needs of individual students and families. All students attending a Renewal school slated for closure will have a seat at a higher performing school next year.”

Officials noted that the closure plans for five of the six schools were not officially approved until March, so “these schools were subject to the same enrollment guidelines as other Renewal schools.”

Members of multiple schools that will be closed next year expressed surprise that the city would continue to send students to the schools it planned to dismantle. A teacher at Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design, a Bronx high school which has received 11 students since January 1, said she didn’t understand the city’s rationale for sending them more students.

And a senior leader at a community organization that partners with one of the soon-to-be-closed schools, said “it’s hard to imagine a justifiable reason” for the decision. “Those students will inevitably need to start anew again in just six months’ time.”

Other observers were more circumspect. Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College, said that given the thousands of students who are assigned mid-year, sending 25 to closing schools did not seem like a large number.

It is possible that there were logistical reasons for sending them. Some may have been previously enrolled in those schools, for instance, the situation of at least one student who enrolled at J.H.S. 145 in the middle of this year. For others, it could have been the closest school or one that enabled them to stay with a sibling.

“Over-the-counter students are sometimes hard to place,” he said, adding: “It’s hard to know in this case what the logic was.”

closing argument

As vote on Renewal school closures nears, the city has vowed to find students better schools. Can it keep that promise?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Students from Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design protest the planned closure of their school at a recent public hearing.

On a recent Wednesday night, Superintendent Paul Rotondo listened to tear-filled pleas from students not to close their Bronx high school, Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design. He watched exasperated teachers criticize his recommendation to shutter the school. And he absorbed parent confusion over where their children would go school next year.

Rotondo made them a promise. “If this proposal passes, we will find you a better school,” he said, citing the high school’s low graduation rate (38 percent) and college readiness statistics. “I wouldn’t promise you something that’s not available.”

But what are the chances a student at Monroe, among the least successful high schools in the city, will wind up at a significantly “better” school if it closes?

It’s an important question for parents and students, as city officials are scheduled to vote this Wednesday on whether to shutter five more Renewal schools — low-performers that were offered extra academic resources and social services in the hopes of stoking a turnaround.

To assess the city’s promise of a better education for students at schools on the chopping block, Chalkbeat took a look at where students went after attending the only two Renewal high schools closed so far — Foundations Academy High School in Brooklyn and Foreign Language Academy of Global Studies in the Bronx. (A Renewal middle school also closed last year, but is not included in this analysis.)

The data generally back the city’s claim. Most of the schools that accepted the displaced students posted higher graduation rates, attendance, and test scores — and have more experienced teachers than the schools they left. That isn’t entirely surprising; the schools that closed were considered among the city’s worst. But the schools those students later attended were, in some cases, also struggling, often performing below city averages on those same measures.

These findings come with an important caveat: The city data show which schools students later attended, but does not include how many students went to them, making it impossible to say what proportion of students went to higher- or lower-performing schools. Still, the numbers reveal an overall picture of the schools in which those students enrolled.

First the good news: Of the roughly 70 schools that accepted students from Renewal high schools that closed last year, 65 percent had higher attendance rates. Ninety-six percent had students with higher average scores on eighth-grade state math and reading tests, 97 percent had higher graduation rates, and 75 percent had a higher share of experienced teachers.

Almost every school that took in students from Foundations Academy, for instance, posted a graduation rate above 50 percent, the average at Foundations. Every single student who left Foundations wound up at another school with an attendance rate over 78 percent, their former school’s average.

Data source: NYC DOE. Note: Two schools that accepted students from Foundations Academy High School were excluded from this analysis due to incomplete available data. (Graphic by Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat)

Still, on those same metrics, many schools that took on students from closed ones underperformed city averages. More than half of the new schools had lower attendance and higher rates of chronic absenteeism than average. Three-quarters posted lower rates of eighth-grade math and reading proficiency, and three-quarters had higher concentrations of poverty.

But there are bright spots, even compared with city averages. Sixty-eight percent of the schools that took students in posted graduation rates above the city’s 72.6 percent average.

Data source: NYC DOE. Note: Four schools that accepted students from Foreign Language Academy of Global Studies were excluded from this analysis due to incomplete available data. (Graphic by Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat)

Chalkbeat’s findings dovetail with a previous study on school closures in New York City that found shuttering low-performing schools was linked to better academic outcomes among the students who would have attended them later.

But for students who were enrolled at the high schools when they closed, the evidence suggests little impact, according to James Kemple, executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, and author of the school closure study.

“The only research available in New York City suggests that closing a high school is not likely to have much effect — positive or negative — on the students who were enrolled in the school at the time of the closure,” he said.

That may not comfort many parents, some of whom worry about disruptions to their children’s education, or are skeptical that they’ll find significantly better schools.

Cecilia Cadette, a parent at Monroe Academy, said she doubts that her son Dontee will wind up at a school that is better able to serve him, especially given his complicated medical needs. Under a new principal, Monroe has been making strides, she said, and Dontee has started to find academic success.

“Now I have to make time to do some research, go around to the [Department of Education] to say, ‘OK, my son’s school is shut down and I need a school where they’re going to provide a safe environment and [where] he’ll continue to thrive,” Cadette said. “I dread going through that process.”

Officials have promised individualized counseling for parents and students to help them enroll at higher-performing schools. Students at closing schools will still have to fill out applications for up to 12 schools, as in the traditional admissions process, an education official said. Students will not be able to apply to screened, specialized or audition-based high schools — roughly one third of all city high schools — but the official said plenty of seats at strong schools are available.

Finding students a spot at schools that are technically higher-performing but still face challenges may not satisfy all parents, advocates and elected officials.

At an education hearing Tuesday, City Councilwoman Inez Barron raised doubts about the city’s approach. “I think every parent should have a right to send their child to a top-performing school,” she said. “Not to another neighborhood school which is doing marginally better.”

The Panel for Educational Policy will vote on the closures on March 22 at the High School of Fashion Industries in Manhattan. The meeting is scheduled to start at 6 p.m.

Sarah Glen contributed data analysis and Christina Veiga contributed reporting.