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.

approaching deadline

In year three of New York City’s massive school turnaround program, the big question is: What’s next?

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks with East Flatbush Community Research School Principal Daveida Daniel during a visit of the Renewal middle school.

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.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
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.”

golden years

In Harlem, these elders devote their golden years to improving local schools

PHOTO: Council of Elders/Joe Rogers, Jr.
Harlem Council of Elders members volunteer to read to students.

On the eve of her 92nd birthday, Lottie Raukx wasn’t going to let the aches of arthritis or numbness of neuropathy slow down her fight for Harlem’s public schools.

Armed with a petition to demand that the education department staff her neighborhood’s school with librarians — as it’s required to — she collected pages of signatures from churchgoers and neighbors.

More than 18 months after the effort began, the city and community are at loggerheads over crucial data that has been requested to help local education advocates make their case. But Raukx and the group she belongs to — the Harlem Council of Elders — have not given up.

“You want to see the children get what they deserve and what they need,” Raukx said. “If you can do anything and be helpful in any way, you need to do so — no matter what the age.”

That has been the mission of the Harlem Council of Elders, a group of 20-or-so seniors who have dedicated their golden years to Harlem schools. They have held the education department to task for dragging their feet on public records requests and drummed up attention for the library issue with stories in the press, all while striving to serve as an example to students in Harlem schools.

“It’s a situation where the community needs to step forward and take responsibility for supporting education,” said Galen Kirkland, who founded the Council. “It’s just a fallacy that people can just leave it up to the Department of Education.”

Kirkland launched the Council more than two decades ago — well before he could join the AARP himself. His years of activism had afforded him a vast network of senior citizens who had similarly dedicated themselves to social causes.

“Older folks have an insight and an awareness about challenges and how to overcome them in this society that young folks just don’t understand,” he said. We can “guide young people about how you maneuver and succeed in a society that is often very hostile and not helpful.”

The Council’s goal is nothing short of “confronting and overcoming racism and classism,” Kirkland said. The elders do that by offering students in Harlem the benefit of their long experience, putting positive role models in classrooms and holding the country’s largest school system to account.

In addition to the longstanding campaign for librarians, the Council also organizes an annual event for seniors to read to children in Harlem schools, as well as monthly visits to schools by black professionals.

“We’re interested in our young people coming up and learning things the right way,” said James Allen, 76, who joined the Council after being recruited by a friend at church. “We try to let them know we came through the same way they’re coming up, and it wasn’t easy for us.”

Over the years, the Council has counted many well-known black activists among its members, Kirkland said. They have included former New York Supreme Court Judge Bruce Wright, who famously set low or no bail for black defendants; Alice Kornegay, who created a nonprofit to help secure financing for low-income housing; and Preston Wilcox, who led efforts to decentralize control of New York City schools. Even David N. Dinkins, the first and only black mayor of New York City, has been involved, according to Kirkland.

The organization runs on a small budget; members’ dues and an annual luncheon help support the cause. Meetings are held in free community spaces. Kirkland said its members are motivated by the inequities they see in community schools.

“We have a system today where there’s so much default going on,” he said. “We’ve done what we can to support educators and students, to fill the deficit that exists in the resourcing of community schools.”

The librarian issue is a case in point. With 87 percent of Harlem schools without librarians — compared with the overall city average of 50 percent, according to the latest available figures, from 2013 — the elders saw a cause that they could fight for.

Almost 10,000 students, the majority of whom are black and Hispanic, are in Harlem schools that don’t have librarians, according to the council. That is despite a state law that calls for middle and high schools to be staffed with librarians part-time in schools with fewer than 700 students, and full-time employees in larger schools.

For the elders, librarians are a crucial missing link when it comes to building the reading and writing skills of Harlem’s students. In the neighborhood’s District 5, for example, only a quarter of students passed state English exams last year — compared to almost 41 percent of students across the city.

Librarians could “help them develop their online and print research skills, love of reading, and readiness for college, careers, and civic life,” the group says.

“It’s an important issue to the Harlem community in particular because the children are missing so much,” Raukx said.

The elders’ Change.org petition, and their outspokenness, has helped keep the matter alive. They have remained on the case as the District 5 Community Education Council submitted requests to the state and city for more detailed records on librarian assignments. The official responses to those requests have only clouded the issue more, with conflicting numbers and details provided.

The information provided by the city education department in August was “pitiful,” said District 5 education council President Sanayi Beckles-Canton.

“They list only two schools in the entire district with librarians,” she wrote in a text message. “If this was the case, why did it take them over a year to get the information to us?”

Will Mantell, an education department spokesman, said there have been “challenges” when it comes to hiring librarians citywide. In fact, the state education department in 2014 ordered the city to start complying with the law after the United Federation of Teachers appealed to the commissioner over the issue. Mantell said the city has recruited 45 teachers in the last few years to pursue certification to become librarians.

“We will continue to take steps to encourage certification and hiring of school library media specialists in Harlem and across the City,” he wrote in an email.

Despite those assurances, the Harlem Council of Elders has been frustrated with the slow-moving response of the department when it comes to an issue that is “so basic,” Kirkland said.

That’s what motivates him to keep pushing. Some years ago, his activism brought him back to his old elementary school, P.S. 197. Talking with the principal, he learned the school needed money for books. It was a stark contrast to the “fabulous” education he remembers receiving all those years ago.

“It’s a painful thing to see,” Kirkland said. But, he added, “We feel really positive about the opportunities we’ve had to help fill those gaps.”

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct photo attribution.