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.”

turnaround time

This Harlem school has one of the highest dropout rates in New York City. Meet the principal working to turn it around.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Geralda Valcin, principal at Harlem's Coalition School for Social Change

Just two months after becoming principal, Geralda Valcin’s plan to reduce her school’s dropout rate landed her in a parking lot at Rikers Island.

One of her students at the Coalition School for Social Change had been incarcerated, so she made the trip — with a care package of clean t-shirts and socks in tow — to convince the jail’s staff to enroll him in a U.S. history class, one of the only courses he needed to earn a diploma.

“The principal at Rikers was like, ‘You really came up here to do this?’” Valcin recalls. “It fell on deaf ears.”

The jail wouldn’t let her visit the student or place him in the class Valcin requested, but that was only part of the reason for the trip. “He totally appreciated us for it,” she said. After his release about six months later, the senior returned to school and is on track to graduate this year.

Valcin chalks this up as a success story, but acknowledges she has many other students who need that type of support. At her Harlem school, more than a quarter of the ninth-graders who started in 2012 dropped out at some point during their high school careers, meaning they left without enrolling in another school. Only a handful of other traditional high schools in New York City had higher dropout rates, according to new statistics.

Valcin, who became principal last March after more than five years as assistant principal at Bronx High School for Law and Community Service, says she’s ready for the challenge.

She has spent much of the past year reinforcing systems to identify students early who are at risk of dropping out, and working with her school’s nonprofit partner to intervene. And the stakes are high: Coalition is one of 86 schools in the city’s “Renewal” program for low-performers, which offers schools extra social services and academic support, but which must show signs of progress in return.

Though her previous school wasn’t in the program, it also struggled with low graduation rates. It was “pretty much in the same predicament,” she said. That school boosted graduation rates by almost 20 points during her tenure, eventually besting the current citywide average of 72 percent.

Though graduation rates at her new school have started to climb, Valcin isn’t sanguine about the work ahead of her. For one thing, her students — roughly 92 percent of whom are black or Hispanic — often arrive far behind grade-level. Three-quarters come from poor families; 35 percent have disabilities.

Valcin isn’t willing to speculate about why Coalition’s dropout rate is higher than other schools with similarly high-need populations, and is careful not to assign blame. “The numbers spoke for themselves,” she said. “Coalition hasn’t graduated 50 percent of its students in six years or more. A lot of the work probably wasn’t happening.”

Soon after arriving, she launched a “Saturday academy” to help students stay on track and prepare for the state’s exit exams, and began carefully watching students who had attendance or disciplinary problems early on. “If that pattern begins, you’re almost doomed,” Valcin said.

That’s why, before students start classes in the fall, school staff review their middle school records and conduct home visits, so they can talk about previous problems before they crop up again.

“From the beginning of the year, we have highlighted a cohort of kids that without significant additional support wouldn’t cross the finish line,” said Derek Anello, a program director at Partnership with Children, the school’s nonprofit community partner. “We’re starting with ninth-graders before they’re even in the building.”

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Coalition School for Social Change

The school zooms in on students who don’t earn passing grades during the first few months of school, and offers extra academic help. (Valcin keeps a color-coded spreadsheet on her desk that tracks student progress toward graduation.)

If a student is showing up late — or not at all — they’ll likely get a knock on their door, sometimes from Valcin herself, or from a staff member at Partnership with Children. And if they’re routinely showing up late to class due to an extra-long commute, school officials might help the family find a school that’s closer to home.

City officials are expecting those efforts to produce significant results this year. Under the benchmarks assigned to the school through the Renewal program, its graduation rate should increase to 63 percent this school year, up from 46 percent. The education department considers graduation rates in decisions about whether to close or merge schools in the program.

Partnership with Children’s Anello is optimistic about meeting that goal partly because of Valcin’s embrace of his community organization. “Not every principal allows the [nonprofit partner] to be their right hand,” he added. “That’s not consistent across Renewal schools.”

But the school faces strong headwinds that make it hard to attract students who are more likely to graduate, including intense academic segregation. Among last year’s ninth-graders, for instance, fewer than five students had passed either their eighth-grade math or reading tests.

The school’s inclusion in the Renewal program, historically low graduation rate, and sagging enrollment have also signaled to prospective families that the school doesn’t have a strong track record.

In fact, Valcin has been reluctant to aggressively market the school. “I don’t want to go on the street and say, ‘Hey send your kids to this school’ given the condition we’re in currently.”

But she’s banking on this year’s graduation rate changing that calculation.

“The day after graduation, I’ll be on the corners passing out fliers,” she said.

moving the goalposts?

New York City is now focusing on academic progress at its lowest-performing schools. Here’s why some experts say that’s a problem.

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
The Richard R. Green campus in the Williamsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx houses multiple schools in the Renewal program.

Ever since Orchard Collegiate Academy was assigned to the city’s Renewal program for low-performing schools, leaders of the Manhattan high school have worked to boost attendance: meeting weekly to hone their strategy, and teaming up with a community organization to contact families to find out why certain students aren’t showing up.

The effort seems to be paying off. The school’s attendance rate increased from 76.6 percent two years ago to 81.5 percent last year, just barely meeting its assigned attendance goal (though still well below the city high school average of nearly 88 percent).

But while Orchard Collegiate — and the 85 other schools in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature turnaround effort — are expected to maintain progress, they were not issued new attendance goals through the Renewal program. Nor did they receive official goals on the quality of the school’s leadership, classroom instruction or school climate, benchmarks that have been issued for the past two years.

Education officials say this is intentional: As the program nears the end of its third year, they argue, it’s time to shift focus toward academic outcomes like state test scores and graduation rates.

Yet even staunch supporters of the city’s approach to school turnaround expressed concerns with that model. They worry that expecting academic gains too soon will set the program up for disappointing results on a national stage, that it sends mixed signals to long-struggling schools over what the city wants them to focus on, and that the program’s success will be tied too closely to student test scores, which may not accurately reflect student learning.

“What they’re really saying is that schools should be showing outcomes in the second year of implementation, which is not realistic,” said Megan Hester, a senior associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, who works closely with community organizations that partner with Renewal schools. “It’s a political timeline and not a school research-based timeline.”

The city’s shift toward evaluating Renewal on academic outcomes is part of a key de Blasio promise: that the program would yield “fast and intense improvement” within three years, spurred by social services like mental health clinics, social workers and vision screenings combined with extra academic support.

That overarching strategy — slated to cost $850 million through 2019 — won over many advocates who criticized his predecessor’s approach, which involved dozens of contentious school closures.

But those same supporters have long worried that expecting speedy transformation is unrealistic, given that schools in the program started out among the city’s lowest performers. Research has shown school turnarounds can take five to ten years, well beyond the city’s initial three-year timeframe, if they happen at all.

Figuring out how much progress is realistic to expect — and when — is a difficult task, experts say, complicating the city’s desire to establish incremental goals struggling schools can realistically achieve.

To thread that needle, the city assigned schools two different types of benchmarks. The first — called “leading indicators” in education jargon — looked at data like attendance and whether the school has strong leadership or rigorous instruction, as measured by surveys and observations.

Those goals were meant to offer initial signs about whether the turnaround efforts were taking hold. Progress on those standards has been uneven: 20 percent of the city’s 86 Renewal schools met none of their leading indicators last year, while 15 percent met all of them.

The second kind of indicators are called “student achievement benchmarks,” and focus on proficiency in reading and math as measured by state test scores for elementary and middle school students, and metrics like graduation rates and state exit-exam completion for high schools students. Some of those benchmarks require only tiny improvements, but many schools have still struggled to meet them.

“Certainly by the end of year three we expect to see noticeable improvements in student achievement,” Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for school performance, said in an interview. He and other officials stressed that the city would still pay close attention to attendance and school climate, and Renewal schools that did not meet last year’s goals are still expected to meet them.

Michelle Renée Valladares, associate director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said she applauded the city’s initial focus on both school climate and academic goals, but worries about the shift toward academic outcomes measured by test scores.

She noted that boosts in attendance might actually have a negative effect on scores, and standardized tests are not ideal short-term measures of student learning.

“Now all these kids are showing up, who weren’t showing up and are probably behind, and now we want you to get their test scores up instantly,” said Valladares, who has advised the city’s education department on how to measure the program. “It doesn’t happen instantly.”

For now, multiple Renewal school leaders said the lack of new leading indicators was unlikely to change their work — at least in the short term.

“Right now, I feel like we’re doing all we can to raise attendance,” said one Renewal school administrator, who said his school was unaware that the city did not plan to issue new leading indicators this year, and spoke on condition of anonymity.

But, he added, the city’s shift might inspire a change of his own. “If they’re telling us we’re no longer measuring it,” he said, “does that mean we might move resources? Maybe.”

The benchmarks aren’t just a way of incentivizing schools to make certain changes, experts said. They have implications for the approach itself.

“Other people are looking to [New York City] about how do sustainable community schools work … and know they’re working,” said Valladares. “It’s really important for them to get it right.”