On a recent Tuesday morning, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña walked into a classroom at Longwood Preparatory Academy in the Bronx, where students were absorbed with gleaming iMacs and recording equipment.
She paused for a moment, watching the teacher shuttle between students experimenting with audio-editing software.
“Look at the attention these kids are getting,” Fariña said, praising the school’s new vocational program in digital media. “It’s a feeling of renewed vigor and energy.”
With the smell of fresh paint still hanging in the air, Fariña’s visit was meant to highlight the enormous investments the city has made in dozens of schools that have floundered for years — including this one.
Under its former name, Banana Kelly, the school suffered from one of the highest dropout rates in the city, churned through four principals in five years, and struggled with serious safety incidents. (A previous principal was doused with pepper spray, and in 2012 was shot with a BB pellet outside the building.)
Now — as one of several back-to-school check-ins at some of the 78 schools the city is currently trying to revamp — Fariña was eager to praise the school’s energetic principal and its recent gains. Its attendance and graduation rates have improved in recent years, though its 2016 graduation rate (which is the latest figure publicly available) still lagged behind schools with similar student populations.
The visit comes as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s three-year effort to revive long-struggling schools, including the former Banana Kelly, is rapidly approaching its third birthday this November. The “Renewal” program — which has cost at least $383 million so far — is arguably the mayor’s most ambitious education reform, an effort to nurse some of the city’s lowest-performing schools back to health with extra social services and academic support rather than shut them down.
And while some experts say it’s too soon to expect big payoffs, de Blasio’s three-year timeline for “fast and intense improvement” has invited scrutiny into whether the program is translating into better outcomes for students.
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña tours Longwood Prep with Principal Asya Johnson (right) and student Heaven Molina.
“Enough time has elapsed that there is an appetite for looking at results,” said Aaron Pallas, a Teachers College professor who has studied the program.
Meanwhile, the exit strategy for schools in the Renewal program remains unclear. Despite promises that schools released from the program won’t lose the extra support they’ve come to rely upon, some school personnel are nervous that extra funding, counselors, and social services could be scaled back.
“There are some principals whose reaction is: ‘We really need to get it together because next year these [partner organization] resources might not be here,’” said Derek Anello, a program director with the nonprofit Partnership with Children who oversees staff in four Renewal schools. “Lots of people are experiencing it as the last of the three years.”
Planning for life after Renewal
Felicia Guerrier has helped usher in a new wave of social services at P.S. 298 Dr. Betty Shabazz in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a Renewal school where 96 percent of students come from low-income families, and which used to suffer from “a love drought and a resource drought,” as she recently put it.
She supervises two new full-time social workers, oversees vision and dental services now offered out of the school’s auditorium, and coordinates with a nursing service that helps keep student health issues like asthma and diabetes in check — resources she says have led to a big boost in attendance and family involvement at the school.
But she’s already started handing off some of her responsibilities, out of a concern that the nonprofit she works for, Partnership with Children, might eventually be forced to reduce its role at the school. (Some nonprofits in Renewal schools are unsure whether their contracts will be extended past this school year.)
Guerrier explained that she’s now taking a back seat in meetings, making sure the assistant principal is in the loop to coordinate with health providers, and positioning the school’s parent coordinator to help run a food pantry for students and their families.
“I’m feeling the pressure to make sure there is some type of lasting power with what’s happening even when I’m gone,” she said.
While the mayor vowed in 2014 that the original cohort of 94 Renewal schools would be revamped or shuttered within three years (16 schools have already been closed or folded into other schools), the city has indicated the program will continue beyond this year. And officials stressed that the work of nonprofit organizations like Partnership with Children won’t end even if schools are taken out of the program.
“Steady improvement is key, and of course we will evaluate each school that is ready to transition from the program and provide them with the right supports to maintain their improvement,” Aimee Horowitz, the executive superintendent for Renewal schools, said in a statement.
An unclear exit strategy
Even as the Renewal schools move forward with their reforms, a big question hangs over them: How exactly do they exit the program? So far, no schools have left it without being combined with another school or closed.
This August, Mayor de Blasio said that would change. In addition to more closures, he said some schools could graduate out of the program, and others might stay past the three-year deadline.
“We have to work out the details,” de Blasio said, “but we’re not going to leave a school in the lurch.”
In making decisions about which schools to shutter or merge in the past, the city has looked at test scores, enrollment changes, principal effectiveness, and attendance rates — though officials have said there aren’t strict cutoffs, making it difficult to predict which schools could depart the program this fall.
If schools are released from Renewal, it remains to be seen whether they’ll continue to enjoy the same level of support and extra resources.
Brian Bradley, principal of Renaissance School of the Arts in East Harlem, said he is preparing for the possibility that this will be his school’s last year in the program. Renewal, he said, has made a real difference: Additional training for teachers has improved classroom instruction, aggressive outreach is boosting attendance, and the community school director has taken over once-overlooked administrative responsibilities.
“We have a great partnership and that has been the number one thing,” he said.
The school only banked on three years of support, but Bradley noted he has come to rely on extra funding the school receives to lengthen the school day. It’s a feature of the Renewal program that has a dual payoff, he said: more time for student learning and a pay bump that helps reduce teacher turnover.
While he’s already looking for sponsorships or other ways to fund his new programs, he’s aware that his school might have improved its way out of extra money and help.
“I have definitely used the phrase ‘victim of our own success,’” he said, “and that could be the reality.”
Looking for results
The program’s three-year anniversary doesn’t just create uncertainty for Renewal schools, it also raises questions about whether de Blasio’s signature turnaround program is working.
Some advocates of the mayor’s strategy have expressed concerns that his promise of rapid improvement was too aggressive. They say school turnarounds usually require well over three years, especially when they hinge on cultivating partnerships with social service organizations — a new task for many school leaders.
City officials have pointed to better attendance, test scores and graduation rates in some schools, but many others have not yet made significant academic gains. And researchers who have tried to sort out whether the program has led to academic improvements have reached mixed conclusions.
Using three years of test score data (including the results released last month), the Manhattan Institute’s Marcus Winters found that the program is generally boosting math and English scores in elementary and middle schools.
But using a different statistical method that compares Renewal schools to similar ones that didn’t receive extra resources, Teachers College’s Pallas found the program appeared to have no effect on test scores or graduation rates. (He has not yet updated his analysis to include the latest test scores.)
Renewal schools remain under pressure to raise their scores. To aid in that process, education staffers who work with the schools have pushed them to target increasingly specific groups of underperforming students, according to Partnership with Children’s Derek Anello.
“In the prior two years we were more general in what the goals were,” Anello said. Now, “There’s really a microscope on every number and how we move the needle.”
Yet even if schools don’t make huge strides this year, some observers say the mayor is unlikely to change course. Many argue that adding social services to high-need schools enhances students’ health and wellness, even if it doesn’t result in swift academic improvements. The city has invested heavily in creating social service-rich “community schools,” which include more than 130 schools outside the Renewal program.
Even if Renewal’s academic results are mixed, Professor Pallas of Teachers College predicts that de Blasio won’t face strong political pressure to scale back his resource-intensive approach to school improvement, which has generally earned support from local politicians and the teachers union.
The program “resonates with progressives’ desire to support community-based schools,” he said. But, he added, “at some point somebody’s got to make the difficult decision about whether the benefits are worth the investments they’re making.”