Classes have started, but some struggling schools still await clear guidance from the city

The principal of Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, one of the city’s lowest performing schools, emailed the schools chancellor the week before classes started asking to see the city’s intervention plan for his school. As of last week, he said, he still had not received a final version.

At another bottom-ranked school, the principal said he and his staff crafted their own school-improvement plan over the summer, but are still waiting for official feedback. He said city officials have not shared any plans of their own with the school, even though the state requires it to have a three-year turnaround strategy in place this year.

School-support network officials “told me to be patient, that the city has a plan for priority schools,” said the principal, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation. “That was in February or March. This is the end of September.”

More than two weeks into the school year, principals of some of the city’s most troubled schools say they still don’t know how exactly the city plans to intervene — and that the delays will make it harder for them to turn around their schools this year.

In fact, the state ordered such struggling schools to turn in improvement plans by July 31 and start acting on them by the start of the school year. But the city has so far only submitted “placeholder” plans created by the schools, and has asked for an extension until the end of October to submit the final versions, according to state officials.

The delays and limited release of information have prompted questions about whether Mayor Bill de Blasio and his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, consider these schools a top priority and if they have a clear plan in place to turn them around.

“De Blasio and the chancellor knew coming in that this was a huge problem that they had all these schools that were struggling,” said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University. “They put all their emphasis on preschool, but they don’t seem to get that they’re dealing with a much larger system.”

Gassaway said his school needs a well-thought-out improvement plan from the city, but “that’s the one thing that’s absent.” (Patrick Wall)

More than 90 schools in the city qualify as “priority schools,” a federal designation for the bottom 5 percent of schools in a state based on their test scores and graduation rates. Those schools must carry out “whole-school reforms” this year. Most of the schools have received federal grants to fund and guide those changes, but 29 that did not still need turnaround plans.

The whole-school reform calls for a performance review of the principal and teachers and the replacement of anyone deemed unsuccessful, more learning time for students, and a more rigorous academic program. Schools were supposed to describe those overhauls in their improvement plans, which the city asked for a three-month extension to submit.

Tom Dunn, a state education department spokesman, said the state and city are working together to make sure that next year the final plans are submitted and approved before the start of the school year.

Dunn added that schools usually craft the plans “under the direction and guidance of the district.” But the principal of the low-performing school that designed its own improvement plan this summer said it received almost no guidance.

The school’s leadership team filed an initial plan in June, then updated versions in August and last week, according to the principal. So far, the school has only received feedback on the budget portion of the plan, he said.

Meanwhile, the principal said he asked for extra money to hire a social worker, a math coach, and a reading specialist but got no response. Eventually, the school team gave up hope that they would get extra resources this year and designed their plan based on what was already available.

“We’re trying to rescue the school from priority status, so we can’t wait,” he said. “We’re trying to help ourselves.”

While those school-level plans are still being completed, the city has started to quietly roll out another intervention program for about two-dozen troubled schools. Some of the 29 schools that require whole-school overhauls are part of the program, which has been dubbed the “School Achievement Initiative,” while others are not.

Schools that are in the program have only been given basic information about it, according to principals. Meanwhile, new “school redesign” directors that are a key feature of the program only recently started visiting the schools to begin crafting customized improvement plans.

City officials briefed the leaders of the 23 schools in the program the week before school started. According to people who attended the meeting, the education department official overseeing the program gave a short PowerPoint presentation but said she couldn’t share copies of the slides with the principals until the mayor and chancellor publicly announce the program, which they have yet to do.

The program has “yet to be made transparent to schools,” one principal said, “let alone unveiled to the public.”

Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn is one of only two city schools to ever receive three straight F’s on its annual progress report. (Patrick Wall)

One of the schools in the program is Boys and Girls High School, a long-struggling institution in Bedford-Stuyvesant that is one of only two city schools to ever receive three straight F’s on its annual progress report. (The state considers it an “out-of-time” school because it has gone so long without enacting an approved overhaul, forcing the city to take even more drastic action there than at other struggling schools.)

So far the city has sent in two academic coaches and a former principal, who will act as the school’s redesign director, according to Bernard Gassaway, Boys and Girls’ principal. The school was also put under the oversight of a special superintendent who will monitor all the high schools in the intervention program.

The city also made the unusual decision not to send Boys and Girls any new students during the school year. Many critics, including Gassaway, have long said that struggling schools wind up with more of these “over-the-counter” students who often have greater needs than other students. It is unclear if other schools in the program will be granted a similar late-enrollment freeze — at least one other principal in the program said he had not been told.

Gassaway, who has opposed the city’s intervention plans for his school before, sent Fariña an email last month asking to see a final version of the school’s plan.

“BGHS is doomed to fail if we are expected to implement a plan in September 2014 that we have not seen since its first draft in July 2014,” he wrote on August 26. As of last week, he said he still had not received a copy of the final plan.

In an interview, Gassaway said the city’s delay would make it harder to improve the school.

For instance, he said he requested extra money in June to hire six new teachers with dual certifications in special education and other subjects. He said he only received that funding last month, after many teachers with those sought-after credentials had already been hired. By that time, he was only able to find two teachers with the dual certifications, he said.

“What would have helped this whole situation at Boys and Girls High School this year would have been a well-thought-out plan,” he said. “And that’s the one thing that’s absent.”

An education department spokeswoman said department officials started discussing a school-improvement plan with Gassaway and the school’s leadership team in the spring and continued to do so over the summer. The department has worked closely with Gassaway to identify and address the school’s needs, she added.

The city is taking a similar “proactive approach” with all of its struggling schools, developing tailored interventions for each one, said the spokeswoman, Devora Kaye.

“We are deeply committed to improving outcomes in all of our schools and ensuring that we meet the whole needs of each child and family,” she said.