What one Denver turnaround school principal learned during his ‘Year Zero’

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Jesse Tang is the new principal at Denver's Schmitt Elementary.

Jesse Tang and his crew walked through the grass surrounding the playground last week at an affordable housing complex in southwest Denver. Dressed in blue slacks and a button-down shirt, his Denver Public Schools badge dangling near his hip, Tang helped plunk down several cardboard boxes on a blue picnic table as the kids began to gather.

Inside the boxes were hot dogs, sweet potato fries, juice boxes and little cups of mandarin oranges.

“Javi!” Tang called to a boy he knows from Schmitt Elementary, where he’s set to begin his first official year as principal in August. “Javier! Do you want a hot dog?”

He did. So did more than 15 other kids who converged on the picnic in bare feet, pajamas, shorts and neon T-shirts, some of the older ones leading younger ones and helping them squeeze ketchup and pierce the foil on their juice boxes.

For the past year, Tang has been preparing to take over as principal of Schmitt Elementary, a struggling school a couple blocks away where 95 percent of the 400 students are minorities and 97 percent qualify for federally subsidized lunches, an indicator of poverty. On state tests last year, just 12 percent met or exceeded expectations in reading and 8 percent did in math.

While an interim principal handled the day-to-day operations of the school, Tang got to know Schmitt, soliciting opinions about how to improve academic performance and crafting a plan.

It’s a strategy DPS calls Year Zero — and the district is hoping it makes the gargantuan task of school “turnaround” more doable, achievable and sustainable. This past year, DPS deployed the approach at three elementary schools: Schmitt, Goldrick and Harrington.

“We’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to digest the lessons we’ve learned from turnaround efforts so far,” Susana Cordova, DPS’s acting superintendent, told Chalkbeat shortly after Tang began his work at Schmitt in June 2015. “One of the things we saw that made the biggest difference was the quality of the plan that’s created, the ownership of that plan by a leader, and the ability of the community to have a voice in the process.”

We sat down with Tang — who grew up the son of immigrants in California, taught in Chicago, helped found a school in New York City and attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education — to ask him about his Year Zero experience.

Here are six questions and answers from our interview that provide insight into how Tang spent the past year and what he learned. They have been edited for clarity and length.

When you came in, what was your directive? What was your goal?

I think the goal of my first couple of months was to build relationships. And to learn as much about the community and the school as I possibly could.

And so initially, I was just present at the school, walking around, introducing myself, asking questions, listening, inviting people to come in and share more.

One of the first things you did was set up a school redesign committee of six family members and six staff members. You also held forums with the broader community. What did you learn about Schmitt in your Year Zero?

I’ve learned a lot about the community that we serve. … The neighborhood itself has gone through a lot of change. Informal relationships are very, very important. And so members know each other through many different ways, through years of history with each other. And that very much leads to our identity as a school being very community-based but also helps me think about the school beyond the walls of our building.

I’ve also learned that with increasing expectations around student achievement outcomes, we’ve got to invest in the support of our teachers and in their ongoing learning and development. … They’re going to be the secret to our success because they work with our students every single day.

The last thing I’ve learned about Schmitt is, because of the history that’s here, people’s biggest fears are that we were going to lose some of the things that made us special to begin with. … Year Zero helped me hold that tension of, change is necessary but you can be a part of it and you can help guide it and it’s not going to forget or throw out the special things about our school.

What are some of those things?

There are some community events, such as a fall festival, a fifth-grade trip to Mesa Verde. There are certain pictures in the hallway of former teachers who have passed on. Those things mean a lot to the generations of people who were here before. …

Digging beyond the surface of that event or that picture, I keep coming back to community. …

Many staff members have children who go to Schmitt or went to Schmitt themselves or grew up in this neighborhood. … To be honest, we talked about some of the drop in enrollment that came when we were announced as a turnaround school … We also have so many families who have made the decision to continue to come here because this place means something to them. And they’d rather be here and be a part of the change than leave and go somewhere else. …

That’s evident when you walk the hallways: people know each other, people care about each other, people look out for other people’s kids. … That is what I sensed when I came here and I had that kind of ‘diamond in the rough moment.’

There’s a sense of community here that if we can harness its power, if we can realize that potential, could be a huge resource to draw from in doing this work.

How much time did you spend at the school this past year?

It varied throughout the school year and increased as the year went on. At the beginning of the year, I spent about half my time on-site, engaging families, running redesign meetings, just building relationships. And then about half the time in the beginning part of the year, I was off-site doing turnaround professional development. …

Once January came and it was the spring semester, I spent much more than 50 percent of my time here. It was an opportunity for me just to continue to see how the school was running, to get an idea of what changes need to be made. We also then shifted into the recruitment and hiring season for this upcoming school year.

You also did dozens of home visits to get to know students and their families. Is there a story from one of those visits that has stuck with you?

Yeah, there are two.

We visited (one family) before last year’s school year began. This was a family for whom we might have traditionally negative ideas of how they engaged in school or how the children behaved.

And the fact that the first time I met the family, we just went to say, ‘The school year hasn’t even begun. We’re excited for you to come back. Tell me about you, tell me about your work, tell me about your life,’ immediately impacted the kind of relationship that I was able to build with them.

And so while that same parent has expressed frustration and perhaps guardedness with other staff in the building, every single time I see Mom or Dad, I always bring it back to that visit. ‘How’s So-and-So?’ Or ‘What are you doing in this job?’ And immediately, you see a visible change from interacting with others to interacting with me. And I don’t say that because there’s anything intrinsically in me that elicits that. It’s just the basis upon which I met them.

Another one was just the other day. We visited a family and it was an impromptu visit. We were just dropping off fliers to say, ‘We’re having a picnic next week!’ And they invited us in, served us some delicious bread from their home country of Eritrea. They served us tea, and it turned into 30 minutes of just talking about their family, how and when they came to the United States, looking at baby pictures, hearing about extended family, what the kids have been doing over the summer. I learned a lot about the refugee experience and who helped their family along the way, how they ended up in Denver, how they ended up in this neighborhood.

I knew the family for a whole year. But it wasn’t until last week when I was in the home, when there wasn’t an agenda, when I wasn’t checking my email, when I wasn’t running in and out of classrooms, (that I was able) to take the time to get to know the family that way.

Given what you learned in your Year Zero, what’s your plan for Year One?

Our turnaround plan has four main shifts.

The first one is a shift in our leadership structure. We talked about needing increased family engagement and teacher development and support. My belief was that the principal-and-an-assistant-principal model was just not enough leadership support. … So what we’ve done is shifted from that model to a principal and three deans, two who will support curriculum and instruction and one who’s going to support school culture. …

The second one is a language shift — so moving from the English Language Development model that we had to the multilingual model that we have now (in which English language learners will learn English and native English speakers will learn Spanish to promote bilingualism and celebrate students who speak more than one language). In so doing, we’re also opening up more collaboration time for our general education teachers. …

The third one has to do with time. We’re extending school day by about 15 minutes, which buys us more professional development and training time. …

Our fourth shift has to do with project-based learning. It’s the one that we’re starting off and ramping up in the next two or three years. So we’re just looking at project-based learning as an additional instructional model that helps us integrate across disciplines — so how reading and math impact science and social studies and writing throughout.

Getting the diploma

New York eases graduation requirements for students with disabilities

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

In a significant change to New York’s graduation requirements, students with disabilities will soon be able to earn an alternative diploma without passing any of the state’s exit exams.

Instead, the state will allow them to replace a minimum score on the Regents exams with a work-readiness credential, which they can earn through work experience and vocational classes or by passing an exam that assesses entry-level work skills.

Supporters, including parents who lobbied for the rule change, say it is a reasonable way to prevent students with disabilities from missing out on a diploma because of low test scores. But critics have argued the policy would lower the state’s graduation standards.

On Monday, when the state Board of Regents approved the change as an “emergency measure,” state officials tried to preempt any suggestion that the change would water down the standards.

“We’re not saying that they have to do less. We’re saying that the standards are the same and the requirements are the same,” said Angelica Infante-Green, a deputy education commissioner, during the Regents’ monthly meeting. “What we’re talking about is, if you have a disability that precludes you from actually passing the exam, or demonstrating what you know with the current exams, this is the mechanism to do it.”

A Regents committee voted in favor of the rule Monday after it was added to their meeting agenda without prior notice or public comment — prompting an outcry from at least one education advocacy group. If the full board signs off Tuesday, the change will go into effect immediately, enabling students to graduate under the new requirements as early as next month.

The state currently grants different types of high-school diploma. A traditional “Regents” diploma requires students to pass four Regents exams. An alternative “local” diploma is available to certain students — including those with disabilities, who are still learning English, or who have struggled academically — who pass two exams or meet other requirements.

Students with disabilities only need a score of 55 (or 52, on appeal) on their math and English exams rather than the usual 65 to earn a local diploma. Under the new policy, they will not need to achieve any minimum score.

Instead, superintendents will review students’ work to check that it reflects appropriate knowledge of the material, students must pass their classes and participate in the exams. They will also have to earn a work-readiness credential called the Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential, or CDOS.

The credential, created in 2013 for students with disabilities, is meant to certify that students are ready for employment. There are two ways to earn it: One option allows students to complete 216 hours of vocational coursework and participate in job shadowing. The other lets students take an approved work-readiness exam, some of which have been criticized for lacking rigor.

It is unclear how many students would benefit from this new option. (Last year, only 418 students with disabilities took advantage of a “superintendent’s review” option allowing them to earn a local diploma by passing just the math and English Regents exams.) State officials have not estimated how many students may benefit from the new option but said they do not expect it to be a large number.

The policy is designed to help students like Lauren Elie and Brandon Pilnik, whose mothers were among the parents lobbying the state for years to change the graduation rules. After Monday’s vote, they burst into applause.

Brandon and Lauren, who are dating and each have a disability, are both one Regents exam shy of a diploma. Lauren, who missed the qualifying score on her English exam by one point, is working with kindergarteners as a teacher’s aide; Brandon is a musician who plays at a senior rehab center. Both have had to take internships instead of full-time jobs because they lack diplomas, their parents said.

“I was very excited, beyond excited,” said Betty Pilnik, Brandon’s mother, who has been fighting for the policy change for more than two years. “Anyone who knows Brandon knows that he deserves this.”

Ashley Grant, an attorney at Advocates for Children, said some of her organization’s clients have completed their required high-school courses but struggled to pass the exit exams. She said it was encouraging that the state is creating a route to graduation that bypasses the exams — which she does not consider to be the same as easing requirements.

“Simply removing the barrier of Regents exams doesn’t mean standards are being lowered,” she said.

But some proponents of strong state standards took the opposite view. Stephen Sigmund, executive director of the advocacy group High Achievement New York, who criticized the last-minute addition of the measure to the Regents’ agenda, noted that the latest graduation change comes just a year after the state created the “superintendents’ review” graduation option.

“The Regents shouldn’t make significant policy changes with an 11th hour and 59th minute addition to the agenda,” he said in a statement. “Removing another graduation requirement, demonstrating a minimum score on ELA and Math Regents exams, so soon after the last change is the wrong direction.”

The state will expected public comments on the new policy through Feb. 12. After that, the Regents are expected to vote on a permanent rule change in March.

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.

tabling SALT

Here’s how the Republican tax plan could threaten New York’s education funding

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin-Office of the Governor/Flickr
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.

Republican lawmakers in Washington appear poised to approve sweeping tax legislation, which New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has dubbed an “economic death blow” to the state.

That blow, advocates say, could punch a hole in school budgets.

Schools across New York are already shortchanged billions of dollars, according to school-funding advocates, even as the state faces a $4.4 billion budget gap. The tax plan, if approved, has the potential to divert even more state and local funding from schools.

“I’ve been dealing with the state budget for more than 30 years and this is as volatile and uncertain as anything I can recall,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

The House and Senate must still combine their tax bills and pass a final version. Below is a guide to some of the worst-case scenarios for New York schools if that happens.

“Downward pressure” on local taxes

A provision of the tax plan would sharply reduce state and local tax (often called SALT) deductions a proposal that would hit high-tax states like New York hardest. The average SALT deduction in New York is $22,169, according to a report form the Governor Finance Officers Association, using data from 2015.

Advocates worry that voters whose tax burdens rise without the deductions will be less inclined to sign off on increases to their local school board budgets, which voters approve in most parts of the state. In New York City, school funding may be more insulated because residents do not vote on a budget.

However, the city could feel pressure to offset the lost SALT deductions by lowering local income taxes — a move that could shrink budgets across city agencies, including the education department.

“It stands to reason that there will be downward pressure for us to reduce our local taxes, which in turn would create less revenue for city services,” said New York City spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein in an email.

Flight of the super taxpayers

A small number of super-wealthy New Yorkers help keep the state and city governments afloat.

In New York City, about 25,000 families contribute more than 40 percent of the city’s personal income-tax revenue, according to the most recent figures analyzed by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

Their tax burdens could balloon without the SALT deductions, spurring a rush to lower-tax locales. While some experts said a mass exodus is highly unlikely, in a district where approximately 57 percent of school funding comes from the city budget, any significant loss of tax revenue could strike a serious blow to school funding.

“People who live on Park Avenue are not going to move to Alabama to pay lower taxes,” said Michael Borges, executive director of the New York State Association of School Business Officials. “But they may move to Scarsdale because they don’t have to pay a city income tax.”

A three-way “tidal wave of disaster”

Lost local revenue isn’t the only way school budgets could take a hit. In fact, it could be part of a triple whammy.

The tax plan would leave the federal government with a gaping $1.4 trillion deficit. Experts expect lawmakers may eventually plug the hole by slashing spending on healthcare and possibly other programs like education.

“It may result in lower federal funding for everything,” said George Sweeting, deputy director at the city’s Independent Budget Office. “If that happens, that would have an impact on federal funding for New York City.”

Still, school districts only get a fraction of their funding from the federal government. In New York City, federal money accounts for just 6 percent of school spending. (By contrast, 37 percent of the city’s education funds come from the state.)

However, federal spending cuts could have an indirect impact on New York’s education funding. If Washington provides less healthcare funding, for instance, New York could have to pick up the tab — creating a ripple effect, where it would have less to spend on schools.

The federal pressure would come at the same time New York is already facing a $4.4 billion budget deficit. Officials from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office say the tax plan would be a blow to New York — but they also insist that Cuomo is committed to funding education.

Still, schools are staring at a “loss of federal aid, a loss of state aid, and a loss of local revenue,” Borges said. “It’s like a tidal wave of disaster.”

An under-the-radar change would cause “significant harm”

Finally, a little-noticed bond issue in the tax plan could cause New York schools pain.

Congressional Republicans would remove provisions that help schools borrow money for school construction projects, according to a letter signed by Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. The loss would “significantly harm districts’ finances,” it reads.

This measure would have a devastating impact on schools, school districts, local taxpayers and, most significantly, our students,” the letter continues. “That impact would be felt most dramatically by districts in poverty; in other words, the districts that would be hurt most are those that can least afford it.”