First Person

The good, the bad, the ugly: Turnarounds and profiteers

Van Schoales is executive director of A-Plus Denver, an education advocacy organization. He also is a member of the Democrats for Education Reform advisory board. This post also appeared on the DFER blog.

We recently did some research on the state of school turnarounds in Colorado. I was reminded of that great “spaghetti” western The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. For those of you that don’t remember the movie, it was a tale of intrigue, deceit and murder among three men (not so good, bad, and ugly) in a quest for buried gold in the context of the chaos of the Civil War. It’s one of my favorite movies for the remarkable cinematography, directing, and character acting, not to mention one of the best scores ever. Oh yes, there’s also the interesting sub-texts on war and the West.

So, what’s the connection with the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG)/ turnaround schools program? The SIG program is hardly as interesting as the movie, but turnarounds are filled with struggle, conflict, and failure; often the only ones benefiting are the outside consultants making upwards of $5,000 a day. It’s like the end of the movie where after all the death and destruction, the “not so good” walks into the sunset with the gold. In this case it’s the consultants walking off with a check on their way to the next district. And who says education doesn’t pay?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for identifying the worst schools and doing everything possible to turn them around or, when necessary, replacing them with new high performing schools. My fear, however, is that while the SIG program will have done some good helping to support the development of a few new schools (like several here in Denver), most of the funds will go to ill-conceived and clumsily implemented interventions with little change in student outcomes.

I just don’t believe that many states and districts have the appropriate levels of oversight nor the capacity to manage turnarounds. The current program shovels out $4.5 billion over four years to states with the expectation that state departments of education can effectively oversee the distribution of these funds to improve schools.

Let’s take my home state of Colorado as a detailed example. In Colorado we have a reform-focused and relatively well-run state department of education, but even here, I fear the SIG program will do little to improve our schools. I can only imagine how terrible it is in those states where the departments are in the business of shelling out cash and developing simplistic, check-off the box compliance procedures.

Colorado is positioned to receive a total of $51.4 million in federal SIG dollars, the majority of which will be allocated to support approximately 30 school turnaround schools. So far, 19 schools were awarded grants receiving an average of $2.3 million over three years – not chump change. The state, as all states, encourages its schools to have an outside turnaround partner. The problem is there are very few turnaround partners that have been proven successful.

So the result is that you have numerous outside turnaround partners obtaining big money contracts, without having proven their ability to successfully turnaround a school. While it is fairly difficult to tell at this point who has these contracts, what they are expected to do and for how much, it’s clear there is a great deal of money being made by these contractors who have yet to prove their effectiveness. The only good news is that the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) has just undergone reorganization and the new assistant commissioner has pledged to look into these questions and hold districts along with providers accountable.

Well, what about the results so far? I know it’s only the first year for test results, but you’d expect some schools to have shown improvement, right? As far as I can tell this has only occurred in a few schools like West Denver Prep in Denver, which is a school that was just opened as one of three schools (and the only new charter) housed in the Lake Middle School turnaround complex. Overall, SIG grant funded schools in CO have not really improved as a group and some have even gotten worse.

Pueblo, Colorado’s five schools, for example, have shown no substantive improvement. Student growth in reading and math ranged from 22% to a high of 47% compared to student growth at a high performing Denver SIG school (West Denver Prep) with reading and math growth at 63% and 88%. In short, in these already low-performing Pueblo schools, students are actually losing ground, their achievement scores will be worse as a result of attending these schools. There are, however, several Denver SIG schools showing some growth like Lake middle school, even if they have not yet made much progress on the percent of students reaching proficiency, which is the end goal.

And what about the money being spent on outside turnaround partners? While perusing the CO Department of Education’s website, I was surprised to discover that of those firms working as turnaround partners some disclosed cost structures which ranged from $800 per day (only one) to a high of about $7,000 a day; that must be one hell of a five-day workshop with an army of coaches.

Even more surprising was the fact that not one of the firms listed on the website responded “YES” to whether they provided a “performance guarantee contract,” regardless of cost. There was also a section on the website where the consulting firms gave references and examples of their work. The Leadership and Learning Center provided Carlile Elementary in Pueblo as a reference, a school that is far below the state median growth in all subjects (not a school I’d pitch as a success).

So where do we go from here? Do we wait till the feds have burned through $4.5 billion in the next couple of years, watch hundreds of new school turnaround businesses prosper while there is little change in student achievement for the nations’ worst schools?

I hope not. Let’s take a timeout and figure out how best to invest these precious public dollars so that our most disadvantaged kids have a quality education. While we may not know much about how to turn around low-performing schools, we do know how to create new high performing schools for the most disadvantaged students. Maybe more funding from SIG should go to new school development, not weaker transformations.

In addition, the SIG program should undergo its own “turnaround” so districts and providers are held accountable for results from each year of the grant. State departments of education should be easily able to retract or extend funding if the schools are not meeting performance targets. State departments of education should also have strict performance contracts for managing their portfolio of turnaround schools. The kids trapped in failing schools deserve better leadership from our district, state and federal officials.

Somewhat ironically as one of the consultants, a former New York City education commissioner, Dr. Rudy Crew, said in a New York Times article published shortly after the grants were being given out, “This is like the aftermath of the Civil War, with all the carpetbaggers and charlatans.”

Crew’s firm, Global Partnership Schools, has a multi-year agreement for more than $6 million dollars from the Pueblo 60 School District. Global Partnership received half of the funding from SIG for Pueblo. Not a bad return on investment for Global Partnership; I wish I could say the same for taxpayers given the results of those Pueblo schools. I’ve heard a rumor that CDE may intervene in some way given the progress in Pueblo.

It’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in education reform.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.