An education U-turn

From power to paperwork: New York City principals adjust to a reined-in role under Carmen Fariña

Global Technology Preparatory, the school where Baiz felt "powerless." (Photo by Monica Disare/Chalkbeat)

David Baiz was disheartened.

He had turned in his annual comprehensive plan on how to improve the middle school where he was principal, Global Technology Preparatory in East Harlem. Now, New York City education department officials had reviewed the plan and offered feedback.

Baiz opened the officials’ comments expecting substantive suggestions about how to help his students, who faced many challenges. That’s not what he found.

“Some of their feedback is, like, ‘Misspelled this,’ ‘Space this out,’” Baiz said. “If it’s a formatting issue, a grammatical issue, why are we going through this feedback process?”

Baiz sees the experience as part of a pattern of micromanagement and misplaced priorities by education department officials since he became principal in 2013, the same year that Bill de Blasio was elected mayor and began reshaping the school system to align to his own vision.

Baiz isn’t the only principal to chafe under the de Blasio administration. While principals’ opinion of Chancellor Carmen Fariña started high, their satisfaction with her handling of school oversight has dropped by 10 points on a city survey since 2014. In more than a dozen interviews, principals told Chalkbeat that while the administration had brought some welcome changes to the city’s schools, it has also ramped up its scrutiny of their daily decisions and made it harder to get some of the help they need.

Part of Fariña’s goal in trying to rein in a disjointed system was to make it tougher for struggling principals to slip through the cracks. But for some principals, the shift to centralized decision-making — with newly empowered superintendents playing a leading role — has had unintended consequences.

When Baiz wanted to tap department resources to help him improve teaching and learning at his school, he said he was told he had to run the request by his superintendent. And his superintendent vetoed his plan to hire an assistant principal — even though he had the money and a person picked for the job. (The city did not dispute Baiz’s account.)

The result: He had less time in the classroom to help students and coach teachers, he said.

“I really could have used the support, I would have really appreciated it, and I was told no,” Baiz said. “I felt powerless. And I feel like there was no recourse for me.”

"When there were no mandates whatsoever and everybody did whatever they wanted, it got to a lot more inequity."Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Until recently, powerlessness would have been an unfamiliar feeling for many New York City principals. Many of them came on board under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who served three terms as mayor and, along with his longest-serving schools chief, espoused a radical new doctrine ripped from the business world: that principals should be treated as the CEOs of their schools.

At a recent NYC Leadership Academy event, former Chancellor Joel Klein explained his vision for elevating principals.

“That’s the way you change a system: Get great leadership, hold them accountable but empower them,” he said. “Don’t try to micromanage them. Don’t try to control them. Let them do their work, and let them rise to greatness. I saw that time and again.”

Eric Nadelstern, the Klein deputy who designed the autonomy zone, explains that it reversed the typical paradigm in which principals are subservient to superintendents in running their schools.

“In almost every school district in the country, you’ve got a kind of command-and-control paramilitary structure,” Nadelstern said. “And here, we tried to come up with a structure where the school was at the top of the pyramid.”

The city began testing the theory in 2004 in a small-scale “autonomy zone” that soon expanded into a citywide approach. Principals would receive more control over hiring, budgets, and curriculum, and in return, would be judged based on student achievement. If they didn’t measure up, they could be fired. Eventually, the city created a system of “networks” which principals could opt into, that would support schools with instruction and operations, including payroll, human resources and transportation.

That structure held the most promise when schools were in good shape, with strong and responsible leaders, and the Bloomberg administration worked to ensure that was the case as often as possible. But over time, evidence mounted that weak oversight combined with a rigid accountability system could be a dangerous mix for weaker principals in struggling schools — of which there are many.

“Some principals, particularly new and inexperienced ones, are floundering without adequate direction and support,” a 2010 report by the Center for New York City Affairs concluded.

“Sometimes inexperienced people may make bad choices,” Kathleen Cashin, a former superintendent in New York City who now sits on the Board of Regents, New York State’s education policy body, told Chalkbeat. “We need to have checks and balances on power, especially when we’re dealing with children.”

Fariña was skeptical of the autonomy zone from the start. (Nadelstern said their disagreement over principal autonomy was one reason Fariña left the Department of Education in 2006. The department did not comment on that assertion.)

When de Blasio plucked her from retirement to run the school system, Fariña immediately said she would explore flipping the power structure back, to put more authority in the hands of superintendents.

“I think having the person who evaluates you be the person who supports you is very important, and that’s really what the superintendents will be doing,” Fariña said in 2014.

Soon after, Fariña announced she would dissolve the roughly 55 networks and replaced them with seven centralized “field support centers,” staffed with many of the same people, while reestablishing the superintendent as the principal’s main point of contact. Superintendents — whom Fariña required to have at least three years as a principal — would be her “eyes and ears,” she said. (Some of the networks run by nonprofits, such as New Visions for Public Schools, would continue to give resources and guidance to schools and are now called affinity groups.)

That meant superintendents would have a greater role in the daily lives of principals — to shape instruction, ensure that principals follow the rules, and maintain consistency across the system.

“When there were no mandates whatsoever and everybody did whatever they wanted, it got to a lot more inequity,” Fariña told Chalkbeat.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

But consistency and oversight come at a cost — to principals and their students.

Weekly chancellor emails sent to principals and filled with compliance items, like letters to send home with students and reminders about emergency trainings, are longer than before, principals say. And there is more follow-up, they say. The feelings seem more acute among middle and high school principals whose schools were a larger focus of Bloomberg’s efforts.

“The reality is that under Bloomberg you would click submit [on a required document], and you would never hear back,” said one principal. “Now we hear back three times with revisions being required over and over and over.” (Many principals interviewed for this story declined to comment on the record since they felt doing so could put their jobs in jeopardy.)

Too often, principals said, the administration has them fending off audits, attending meetings that aren’t necessarily relevant to their schools, and generally contending with bureaucracy. One principal told us, for example, that officials have asked multiple times for details about where Respect for All anti-bullying posters hang in a school.

Another said those kinds of tasks result in time away from students. “It certainly results in principals spending a lot more time at their desk responding to emails from central administrators and less time in the classroom,” said an administrator from Queens who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Brady Smith, principal at the James Baldwin School in Manhattan, said that at the start of the restructuring, he spent important hours readying his school for inspection on a range of topics, from academic integrity to how schools enroll students. He says he has come to appreciate the importance of regulations, like ones that govern how to award credits correctly. But there are tradeoffs, Smith said.

“When you’re in an office preparing for an audit, you’re not in a classroom,” said Smith, who said he’s now spending less time on audits.

Some observers say applying that level of scrutiny to all aspects of running a school can stifle innovation.

“If you give people the opportunity to color outside the lines, that’s when you’re going to innovate,” said Andrea Gabor, a journalist who is writing a book on the future of education reform and wrote about Baiz. “You’re either moving forward or you’re moving backward.”

As an example, one principal pointed to the city’s summer school curriculum. Previously, schools and networks were on their own to decide what students would learn over the summer. Now, principals must use the city’s curriculum or request permission to opt out.

The principal decided not to apply for the right to use an in-house curriculum because of the hassle involved.

“There’s like eight extra layers of paperwork,” said the principal. “There just seems to be a complicated, centrally run program for everything.”

Principal Baiz with one of his students at Global Technology Preparatory (Photo courtesy of Baiz)

Education department officials said principals who dislike the system are out of the norm — and pointed to a city survey showing that principals generally give their superintendents high marks. (That’s the same survey, however, that shows their satisfaction with the chancellor has decreased.)

“By any measure, our superintendents are driving the system forward, in partnership with FSCs [field support centers],” said Senior Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson. “Test scores and graduation rates are going up across the city, there are strong approval ratings on the Principal Satisfaction Survey, and our principals can speak to exactly how their superintendents are helping them improve instruction and student achievement.”

Officials also dispute the idea that they exert excessive control over what happens in schools, pointing to the fact that schools’ use of centrally chosen curriculum dropped in the last four years. They also point to the PROSE program, which allows some schools to bend city or union rules to try a more creative approach.

Fariña defended her style in an interview with Chalkbeat, arguing that she understands principals because she was one herself. She said she offers advice primarily to help, not to force principals to change their leadership style.

“I’ve had the years [of] experience. I share it,” Fariña said. “It doesn’t mean you have to do it. But look, these are some of the things I’ve learned. Feel free to take what you need from it.”

***

In Fariña’s view, putting superintendents back in the driver’s seat is key to ensuring that schools make the changes they need to improve. Danielle DiMango, superintendent of District 25 in Queens, said she spends more time now than under Bloomberg visiting schools in her district and schools are benefitting from her presence.

She helps principals think through their goals, reviews their curriculum and instruction, and provides honest feedback. If she sees something a principal needs to improve, she tries to offer resources and alternative ideas.

"With Bloomberg, it was like running a hamburger joint, but it was my own hamburger joint. And with de Blasio, I’m running a McDonald’s and I have to serve the Big Mac."Ari Hoogenboom

Her expanded role allows her to influence principals throughout the year, instead of simply swooping in at the end of the year to evaluate them, she said.

“I’m not just speaking to principals about, ‘These are the things we have to do,’” DiMango said. “It’s really about how we make changes in our schools.”

That is working for some principals. Two years ago, Reginald Higgins, principal of P.S. 125 in Upper Manhattan, decided he wanted to take a school that was once on the verge of closure and infuse it with a focus on learning through play.

Throughout the process, he said he received support from his superintendent, who works in his building, he said. Importantly, his superintendent understood his school community, Higgins said, which was a key goal behind Fariña’s decision to dissolve the disparate networks and organize the new system around geography.

“My network leader was from the Bronx [and] didn’t really understand the unique challenges of what our school had to deal with,” Higgins said.

Yet some aspects of the support system appear to be working against superintendents like DiMango and principals like Higgins.

When Fariña re-empowered superintendents, she did not fully rebuild the staffing structure in superintendent’s offices that existed in the pre-Bloomberg days — and had drawn criticism for being a bloated bureaucracy. As a result, some say superintendents have more authority, but they can’t always provide the support needed to make good use of their ideas.

“The superintendents have the responsibility and, on paper, they have the authority to make things happen,“ said Clara Hemphill, editor of the school-review website Insideschools. “But they really don’t have the staff or the budget to do much. That’s a complaint I hear very consistently.”

That could leave superintendents unable to respond to schools’ individual needs, principals say.

“It doesn’t feel like the superintendent makes an effort to see what’s working in the school and understand what’s working in the school,” said a Brooklyn principal who asked to remain anonymous. “It more seems like they come in with an agenda of ‘We want to see X, Y, and Z.’”

Compounding the matter, the field support centers, which are supposed to provide that extra support on operational and instructional issues, are not technically under the control of the superintendents.

“By and large, superintendents feel they need to have those resources under their control,” said outgoing principals union president Ernest Logan. “If I go to my superintendent and I say I still need additional resources to do something, there’s nobody who can get that for them. Principals believe it’s haphazard.”

The field support centers are also in charge of larger swath of schools. Whereas the networks had 18 to 35 schools each, the centers serve anywhere from 69 to 323.

Shannon Waite, who used to work in human resources at a network, said the networks were small enough that she could go visit schools that were experiencing problems.

“I didn’t have 200 schools so I didn’t have to be chained to my desk,” Waite said.

On the ground in schools, that shift can feel like a barrage of emails and a lack of support.

“The network would send people out to help you with SESIS,” said the Queens administrator, referring to the city’s troubled special education data system. “Now, the go-to is to forward an email and tell you what to do.”

Ari Hoogenboom, principal of Abraham Lincoln High School, spelled out the pros and cons. Fariña’s system is likely to minimize wayward principals from breaking the rules or getting in over their heads. But in the long run, it might also discourage stronger principals from taking risks that could help students.

“With Bloomberg, it was like running a hamburger joint, but it was my own hamburger joint,” Hoogenboom said. “And with de Blasio, I’m running a McDonald’s and I have to serve the Big Mac.”

An education U-turn

Carmen Fariña wants to help New York City teachers get better at teaching. But some of her own reforms are getting in the way

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
The math team at P.S. 294 in the Bronx discuss a recent lesson during the 80 minutes of professional development time carved out by the city's most recent contract with the teachers union.

It was a Monday afternoon and school was out at P.S. 294. But there was plenty of learning happening inside the blue-and-yellow building in the Bronx.

Teams of teachers were gathered in classrooms on almost every floor. One group discussed a recent math lesson on how to identify patterns; another analyzed which questions had stumped students during recent statewide tests. A third was thinking about new ways to encourage discussion in the classroom.

In each huddle, they were learning a valuable lesson from each other: how to become better teachers.

What’s happening at P.S. 294 is what Carmen Fariña envisioned when she became chancellor of the country’s largest school system. Among the veteran educator’s most deeply held beliefs is that school improvement starts in the classroom — by helping teachers get better at teaching.

“To me, everything that happens in the classroom is the most crucial thing in the building,” Fariña told Chalkbeat.

Many of Fariña’s reforms reflect that vision, including the city’s contract with the teachers union, which carves out time for professional development each week. But another set of changes Fariña made — overhauling the education department bureaucracy — has sometimes worked at cross purposes, taking power away from those who know schools best.

Strapped superintendents and staffers sidelined in support centers now oversee much of the training teachers encounter. Fariña herself acknowledges it has sometimes been a struggle to meet the diverse needs of schools under the new system.

One Bronx principal said he sees that struggle firsthand.

“What some people call ‘supporting instruction with professional development,’ other people would call ‘bloated bureaucracy,’” the principal told Chalkbeat. “I have no interest in their professional development, and they don’t know my school.”

***

Like much of what has happened at the education department under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the chancellor’s emphasis on teaching the teachers marks a radical shift from the preceding administration.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein wanted great teachers in every classroom, too. But their position was that it was easier to hire top talent than cultivate it. Instead of pouring resources into teacher improvement, they set about measuring teachers to weed out those who were ineffective.

“Joel didn’t believe in professional development at all,” said Eric Nadelstern, who served as deputy chancellor for school support and instruction under Klein. “His question was, ‘Is it easier to change the teacher — or to change the teacher?’” Klein himself did not agree to be interviewed for this story.

When Fariña took the helm, educators took heart that one of them was in charge again. With 50 years of experience in New York City classrooms, she was the first chancellor in more than a decade who didn’t need a waiver, which the state requires when a school leader does not have the experience set by law for the job.

“When de Blasio named Fariña chancellor, it was a message,” said Norm Fruchter, a researcher at New York University who previously served as a de Blasio appointee to the Panel for Educational Policy. “The pendulum was going to shift back towards valuing instruction.”

In one of her first moves as chancellor, Fariña helped hammer out a contract with the United Federation of Teachers, the union that had clashed for years with Bloomberg and Klein. Among its most significant changes: giving teachers 80 minutes after school every Monday to work on improving their craft. The contract also created new leadership positions that gave extra pay to skilled teachers who agreed to take on coaching roles in their schools.

Taken together, those moves helped create a structure for helping teachers improve within their own schools.

“The thing with the most value in schools is time,” said Phil Weinberg, deputy chancellor of the department’s Division of Teaching and Learning. “The biggest thing that we’ve done is to honor the fact that learning has to happen by creating time.”

Share your thoughts on the quality of New York’s professional development for educators in our short survey.  

***

In the education world, there is much debate around whether professional learning really works. Plenty of research suggests that typical models do not. Educators have their own disparaging vocabulary to describe those models: drop-and-go, spray-and-pray, even drive-by professional development. The idea is that one-off lectures and workshops are rarely effective in changing teacher practice, let alone improving how much students are learning.

However, recent research suggests there are ways to get it right. A review of 35 different studies, released in June by the Learning Policy Institute, found common themes in professional learning programs that actually improve student performance. Those programs provide coaching, are collaborative and typically happen on the job — much like what’s happening at P.S. 294.

P.S. 294 The Walton Avenue School serves students who are traditionally among the city’s lowest-performing — those who are homeless, learning English, or have disabilities. Yet it outperforms the city average on standardized tests.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Daniel Russo (center) working with the math team at P.S. 294

The school has taken on Algebra for All, a de Blasio initiative that helps schools change the way they teach math. P.S. 294 also has teacher leaders paid to share their knowledge with teams of their colleagues. Those teams then work together in the 80 minutes each week reserved for professional development. All of that comes together under a principal, Daniel Russo, who makes sure teachers get the feedback they need to improve their practice.

“We come back every couple of months and say, ‘How are we doing on this? What fell by the wayside and what are ways that we can do better?’” Russo said. “Everyone is going to contribute to, and benefit from, the greater knowledge that there is in the room.”

For all its ambitions, the 80 minutes don’t always work as planned. In about a dozen interviews with teachers and principals, many school staff said they appreciate that the Monday sessions have provided time and space to think about their practice. But others said that time can feel wasted or forced.

“Everyone is very busy at our school, and that’s just another meeting that has to take place to plan more meetings,” a Bronx high school teacher told Chalkbeat. (The teacher, like many educators interviewed for this story, agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity.)

“A lot of times we’re not really sure what we’re going to do on a given day,” the teacher said. ”It’s not very focused throughout the year.”

***

Why, then, are some schools making good use of the new training time and at others, teachers feel like it’s being frittered away?

One factor: changes to the way principals are supervised and how schools get support.

Under Bloomberg and Klein, principals who needed help turned to dozens of “networks” scattered throughout the city. Principals opted into networks based on their schools’ needs, regardless of where the school or network were located in the city. The network providers were expected to solve problems for schools, or principals could vote with their feet and join different networks.

"That’s the system-wide idea of support now: taking people away from kids."David Baiz, former principal of Global Technology Preparatory

As chancellor, Fariña took a different approach. She promptly rebuilt the department’s Division of Teaching and Learning, which had been dissolved after she left the DOE in 2007. Once again, there was an office at the Department of Education’s central headquarters dedicated to actively helping schools decide what and how to teach.

She also empowered superintendents, calling them the “instructional leaders” of their districts, and upped the years of experience required to land the job. They evaluate principals but are also responsible for making sure schools get the support they need.

In the place of networks, Fariña opened “field support centers,” which serve hundreds of schools but don’t hold supervisory power. Unlike networks, most centers only work with schools located in the same borough. Superintendents and support centers are expected to work together to help schools improve teaching.

Crucially, that doesn’t always happen. The result can work against the 80 minutes, by distancing decision-making about professional development from schools — and complicating it, too.

Our principal is “held with her hands behind her back,” said Corey Taylor, a music teacher at P.S. 33 in the Bronx. “She has to do what she’s being told by her higher-ups.”

Now, principals are expected to ask their superintendents for help, who then turn to field support centers. Some principals and support centers do work directly together, though Weinberg said that’s not the preferred system.

“The ideal thing is that you’re in constant conversation with your superintendent,” he said. “It would be hard for each borough field support center to hear 145 different requests every day, from each of their schools.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Teachers at a training for Computer Science for All, a citywide initiative

Relationships between superintendents and support centers don’t always run smoothly, and both are tasked with overseeing many schools. Superintendents have staffs of around six people, yet may be responsible for dozens of schools. Support centers work with up to 323 schools, with an average caseload just below 200.

With superintendents acting as a filter between schools and support centers, many principals report a divide between what they’re offered and what they want to learn.

“There’s a disconnect between the reality of what’s going on in classrooms, and the offerings,” one Manhattan principal told Chalkbeat. “It usually comes down to: Teachers need to learn, very specifically, techniques, tips, philosophies that affect their own practice.”

When they work well, support centers might send staff to a school to provide targeted help requested by its principal. But, faced with heavy caseloads, the centers often respond to schools’ needs by creating borough-wide professional development sessions that can vary in quality. In the city’s most recent survey of principals, only 73 percent said they were satisfied with the support they get from the centers.

One Manhattan teacher said she went to sessions offered by the support center last year and was disappointed with what she found. The presenters led a lesson on “guided reading,” a technique that includes introducing vocabulary and breaking students into groups, but they seemed fuzzy on how to execute the practice in the classroom.

“Teachers were actually correcting them,” the teacher said. “They’re removed and they forget what it’s like to be a teacher.”

***

Despite Fariña’s emphasis on classroom-based learning, many of the support centers’ professional development sessions are happening outside schools, while class is in session. At three separate support centers, almost all the trainings for teachers offered during the month of May were held during school hours.

"We’ve set aside the time. We’ve set up the space. Can we just manage it?"Michael Mulgrew, president of the teachers union

That wouldn’t have happened under Bloomberg, according to Nadelstern, the former Klein deputy. He said his policy was that teachers and principals should not be pulled away from schools while students are in the building.

“That’s the system-wide idea of support now: taking people away from kids,” said David Baiz, the former principal of Global Technology Preparatory in East Harlem. “That’s not really the best way that adults learn: to sit in a meeting away from the context of their work environment and then try to come back and incorporate it.”

In addition to out-of-office professional development, superintendents host monthly meetings, pulling principals out of their schools for the entire day. In some cases, they include meals paid for by vendors who present professional development sessions based on educational products they’re selling.

“There’s just this feeling among almost every principal that I know,” a Bronx principal told Chalkbeat. “Like meeting after meeting after meeting and requirement after requirement are being added, and really drowning out the time needed for real collaboration.”

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Fariña admitted that professional development run by outside vendors is “not that effective.” She also acknowledged there have been growing pains as the superintendents and field support centers try to meet the needs of all the schools they serve.

“It’s been more of a struggle in some places where there was a more diverse need,” she said.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools chancellor Carmen Fariña looks over a card from students in her office.

To address that, Fariña said the centers have been working on “modules” based on different areas of need. A module may highlight effective strategies for teaching students who are learning English, for instance, and come with a series of professional development courses that can be run over a period of multiple weeks.

“Each principal can adapt it as they see fit,” Fariña said.

***

Weinberg said it is easy, in a system as large as New York City, to point to “random” weak points.

“What our real goal is, is continuous improvement,” he said. “I think that we make mistakes, oftentimes, by looking at one anecdotal example as a way of disproving a larger movement.”

Michael Mulgrew, president of the teachers union, said the department needs to pay closer attention to how schools are using the resources that are now available. While the the 80 minutes of professional development time is a game-changer, he said, it can also vary in usefulness depending on school culture, principal leadership and how well superintendents and the field support centers can provide help.

“We’ve set aside the time. We’ve set up the space. Can we just manage it?” Mulgrew said. “The fact that the chancellor made this a priority when she came in is the reason why you see the school system moving forward. My fear is, have we reached a plateau?”

It may be tricky, however, to balance the kind of oversight that Mulgrew envisions with the personalization that teachers and principals say is necessary for effective professional development. But the city is evaluating its own work to make sure it’s hitting the mark for teachers and schools.

“Teaching is really fascinating and difficult work,” Weinberg said. “We need to approach this hard job with the humility that says we have the ability to learn more — and we want to learn more.”

Chalkbeat reporters Monica Disare and Alex Zimmerman contributed to this report.

An education U-turn

Shut out but scraping by: Inside the struggling schools excluded from New York City’s biggest improvement efforts

Principal Taeko Onishi greets a student outside Lyons Community School. (Photo by Alex Zimmerman/Chalkbeat)

On a bright Tuesday morning, Principal Taeko Onishi propped open the heavy bronze doors at Lyons Community School, waving her students in with hugs and high-fives.

From this perch, Lyons looks like a thriving school. But on paper, it looks like one in trouble. Few of its middle school students are proficient in reading or math, as measured by state tests. At the high school, more than half of students were absent at least 10 percent of the school year. And when students graduate, 90 percent are not prepared for college.

“In many ways, we look like a deeply failing school,” says Onishi. But talk to her about the story behind those statistics, and it’s clear her school is serving some of the city’s highest-need students: those who are far behind their peers academically when they arrive, and are struggling with the effects of poverty.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has staked a huge portion of his education agenda on improving schools like Onishi’s. His administration has chosen roughly 215 schools to receive extra support through two overlapping programs that operate on a similar premise: Students can’t learn effectively if their out-of-school needs — from having clean clothes to basic medical services — aren’t being met.

Those two programs — Community Schools and School Renewal — both offer a massive infusion of resources for wraparound supports. But the city’s 86 current Renewal schools were chosen specifically because they had been among the city’s least successful schools for years. They receive extra academic help, stricter oversight, and are expected to show gains or face the possibility of closure. The city has spent $386 million on Renewal schools alone since the program was announced in 2014.

But Onishi’s school didn’t make the cut for either program. Instead, it is one of at least dozens of schools whose populations closely resemble the schools in the city’s programs in terms of need, but which have received starkly different treatment.

Getting into the programs is hardly a panacea. A Chalkbeat analysis found that schools outside these programs did not appear to fare worse academically, and their principals say they’re happy to escape the stigma of being labeled low-performing that often comes with the Renewal program, even as they envied the resources associated with it. The label can make it difficult to attract students, principals said, sending schools on a downward spiral that can end in closure.

Without Renewal or community school status, though, principals like Onishi are left to cobble together a range of social services largely on their own, with varying degrees of success. It’s an experience that highlights a downside of de Blasio’s resource-intensive approach: Some high-need schools are now better equipped to handle the challenges of poverty than others. “Our philosophy is [similar to] a community school,” Onishi added. “We just don’t have the money to do it.”

***

In announcing the Renewal program in 2014, de Blasio promised “fast and intense” improvements in nearly 100 struggling schools — identified based on their persistently low graduation rates, test scores, and the quality of their teaching and leadership. The plan? Rather than penalize them, he would flood them with the resources he said they desperately needed, closing them only as a “last resort.”

“If we do not see improvement after three years — and after all of these reforms and new resources — we will close any schools that don’t measure up,” de Blasio said at the time.

That was a major departure from the approach of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, who thought that only steep, immediate consequences could spur schools to change. Under his leadership, the city closed 157 schools it said weren’t working. Independent research later found that students benefited, but teachers and students were often demoralized — and the closures drew lawsuits from the city teachers union.

“It was really every school out for itself,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College. Autonomy in exchange for accountability, the theory went, was “the invisible hand that would result in positive performance.”

While de Blasio’s approach is less punitive — he’s only closed 10 schools thus far — it has been criticized for not producing changes quickly enough. Meanwhile, dozens of other schools have struggled with the same challenges as Renewal and community schools, without the same coordinated support.

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
The Richard R. Green campus in the Bronx

Take the North Bronx School of Empowerment. It’s one of three middle schools on the Richard R. Green campus in the Bronx. All serve an outsized share of students in poverty, who arrive on the first day of school far behind grade level, and struggle with high rates of chronic absenteeism and low state test scores.

But unlike the other two schools in the building, the School of Empowerment wasn’t chosen for the city’s Renewal program. And while the principals sometimes share teachers and after-school programs, there is a noticeable difference between the Renewal school and its non-Renewal neighbors.

The biggest one for that school’s principal, Magdalen Neyra: having enough counselors on hand so that each child has an adult in the building who knows their background. When a student doesn’t show up, there’s someone who can call home and coax them back to school — or intervene when the student is acting out.

“When [Leaders of Tomorrow] has that student in crisis, they have someone who’s a go-to,” Neyra said, referring to one of the Renewal schools in her building. “Even though they try to include us as much as possible, we haven’t been able to have that level of support.”

***

It’s not that Neyra and other principals like her are out in the cold. They’re benefitting from other education department initiatives, many of them new under de Blasio.

The city regularly sends a literacy coach to help revamp her school’s approach to reading instruction, which she credits with boosting state reading scores by 10 percent (though at 16 percent proficiency, the school is still far below the city and district averages). And, for the first time, Neyra’s seventh-graders were able to visit colleges outside of New York, through the city’s College Access for All program.

Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, principal of Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters (which is not a Renewal or community school) said the city’s college access program has been a boon for his school as well. He’s used the extra funding to run SAT prep sessions, and hosts parent breakfasts at every grade level to walk families through various stages of the application process.

His school is also part of Single Shepherd, which has placed over 100 additional counselors and social workers in two of the city’s neediest school districts: District 7 in the South Bronx and District 23 in Brooklyn.

“I took it and did cartwheels,” Cardet-Hernandez said. The extra counselors have meant the school isn’t just responding to the most severe crises: a death in a student’s family, or a move into temporary housing. “We’re now talking about a student failing a class as a crisis.”

Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack identifies these city programs, which are part of a constellation of initiatives known as “Equity and Excellence,” as the primary mechanism for improving schools that aren’t being flooded with new resources.

But critics say the school-by-school approach relies on programs that don’t touch every campus and, in some cases, won’t be fully phased in until well after de Blasio leaves office.

One initiative, for instance, aims to outfit every school in the system with computer science classes by 2025 — an example, one school leader said, of an initiative that doesn’t address core educational needs. “We barely have functioning internet,” the principal said. “There’s stuff like that that just doesn’t connect in a real way.”

Wallack pushed back on the idea that the initiatives are too fragmented and don’t represent as aggressive a strategy as the previous administration’s.

“It absolutely is a systems change with every bit of urgency,” he said. “Equity and Excellence for All is a chain of initiatives that will be there for children and families from birth through their entry into college,” he explained. “They all work together and we have a system for helping leaders turn them into a coherent strategy for each school.”

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Even if they are helping, they aren’t always enough.

James Waslawski, principal of New Directions Secondary School in the Bronx, has used a state grant to bring in an organization that provides extra counselors for his middle school students, who are mostly over-age and off-track — a funding stream that will diminish next school year.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Principal James Waslawski designed New Directions Secondary School for middle school students who are over-age and off-track.

“We’re going to be scrounging this coming year to maintain the partnership,” Waslawski said, adding that he would likely scale back on bringing in outside coaches to help support his teachers.

School leaders like Waslawski may take it upon themselves to recruit social service providers. But even once those providers are in the building, schools are getting very different levels of support from the city to help manage the partnerships.

Principals in the city’s community school program (including Renewal schools) are given “community school directors” — extra leaders hired at each school who often take on key responsibilities for managing the school’s social services, identifying exactly what students need and lining up support. But schools outside the program — even those with social service partnerships — don’t automatically receive the extra staff member.

“I think there’s almost a requirement now that you’re identifying [community] partners,” said one Bronx principal who spoke on condition of anonymity. “You have principals who are focusing less time on instruction because they’re trying to manage and develop partnerships.”

That means they’re stacking one tall order on top of another, said Megan Hester, an organizer at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform who works closely with several community schools.

“Principals are instructional leaders and managers; they can’t all be expected to also have expertise in mental health, social-emotional development, community engagement, trauma, conflict resolution,” Hester said. “It’s already more than a full plate for principals of struggling schools to manage high-quality instruction for a diverse student population.”

Onishi, the principal at Lyons Community School (which is not, despite its name, in the city’s community schools program) knows that struggle firsthand. She said she works hard to offer her students active learning experiences, including regular visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that culminate in students giving their own parents a guided tour. But her staff often double as case managers, helping a student who got into a fight off-campus and faced assault charges, for instance, or one who didn’t have access to mental health medication after her mother lost health insurance.

Onishi says there are many other times when staff members don’t have the time to make the trip to court or to repeatedly follow up with a family after a student’s attendance slips.

“A lot of it just comes in from our staff who are willing to put in hundreds of extra hours,” Onishi said, noting the school’s counseling staff has grown, but is still not adequate. Three years ago, Onishi applied to be part of the city’s community schools program, which was recently expanded to 69 new schools, but her school was rejected.

“There will be other opportunities to begin to lay the groundwork to become a community school,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña wrote in a letter explaining the rejection. We “encourage you to keep your eyes and ears open for other opportunities as they arise.” But exactly how to break into the community schools program is unclear, said Onishi and other principals interviewed for this story.

When the city announced the latest round of community schools, Onishi says she was surprised by the news — no one had told her the program was expanding.

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Meanwhile, few principals are clamoring to be part of Renewal, the city’s turnaround program that offers similar resources for low-performing schools. “I don’t think anyone wants that label on their school,” Neyra said.

Waslawski echoed that concern. “The things that they’re doing to encourage those Renewal school staffs to move in the right direction — that’s the right thing. But it’s all couched in the idea of failure.”

Being marked as a failing school can also hurt enrollment, some said, something many struggling schools already contend with.

“I wouldn’t want some sort of fancy name like a ‘support school,’ and you have to send out a mass mailing that your school is struggling — not in this climate with charter schools and school choice,” one principal said.

That’s a very real threat, say some people who work in Renewal schools. One Renewal school administrator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the program has brought much-needed counselors, social workers, and instructional coaches into the building — but has also made it harder to attract students.

“I suspect there is a lot of talk around the district,” the administrator said, referring to guidance counselors at feeder schools who might not recommend attending. Enrollment “is now going down low enough that it’s a major issue.”

Since funding is tied to enrollment, there can be significant consequences when parents vote with their feet. (Renewal schools have struggled to persuade parents to enroll; and to date 16 of the original 94 schools have been merged or closed.)

Other principals said they would rather retain their autonomy than receive an infusion of resources in exchange for the designation as a turnaround school, and face constant scrutiny or micromanagement.

“The message we have absorbed as principals, the message we’re getting, is you will lose the privilege to call the shots at your school that you see fit,” said one Brooklyn principal.

Some principals outside the program, however, said there were elements of Renewal they are envious of, including the chance to exchange strategies with other school leaders. “I’m not talking about visiting a school that is already high-achieving — I’m talking about a school that is just like mine,” said a different Brooklyn principal. “I don’t have that much opportunity to do that.”

And not all Renewal principals said the program has damaged their schools’ reputation. Some say it has led to improvements that could ultimately attract more families. Leaders of Tomorrow, a long-struggling Renewal middle school in the same building as Neyra’s North Bronx School of Empowerment, now has more than a dozen new mentors for students, a health clinic, and new professional development opportunities for teachers.

“We have hard data that we’ve looked at and the kids who are being mentored — their attendance has improved, their grade point averages have improved, their suspensions have dropped,” said Sean Licata, the school’s principal.

“We did not take the [Renewal] moniker as a bad thing,” he added. “It’s not the first thing we say … but with the services and the support, it’s an advantage.”

Neyra’s school could get the best of both worlds. Starting next year, Young Scholars Academy, one of the Renewal schools in the building, will be merged into her school. The move will come with some extra support but not the Renewal designation.

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Extra services may help schools address the effects of poverty, but they don’t automatically produce academic payoffs. Pallas, the professor at Teachers College, found that the Renewal program did not yet appear to generate higher test scores or graduation rates compared with schools that have similar student demographics and were comparably low-performing when the program started.

“Based on the best evidence I see, the program is not having a meaningful impact on academic outcomes,” he said.

That doesn’t mean the program isn’t working at all, he added, noting that the social services may have value of their own, even if they don’t directly lead to academic improvements. Officials often point to other measures of success, including improvements in attendance and school climate, that could come before academic gains.

Just ask Onishi. She says adequate social services are a prerequisite for learning and without them, principals like her are swimming upstream.

“The biggest thing we need is support for families and kids for all these things that extend beyond the daily work of the school,” Onishi said. “We’re all kind of maxed out.”