damned if you do

A school has a year to prove it can do the (almost) impossible

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PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Opportunity Charter School's flags line 113th street in Harlem, where the school shares a building with P.S. 241.

Opportunity Charter School in Harlem is a rare species in the charter school movement.

Its student body is roughly half general education students and half students with learning disabilities. The two groups learn in classes side by side, following the “inclusion” model. And year after year, students entering the school have some of the lowest test scores in the city — a distinction that’s become a point of pride.

“Lowest achieving kids in New York City. Bottom 10 percent,” Opportunity’s assistant principal, Brett Fazio, said in an interview, with the same delight other school administrators reserve for science fair champions.

But the point of Opportunity, as CEO Leonard Goldberg dreamed it up when he was an administrator at a residential school five years ago, is to take the least and make them champions.

That hasn’t been an easy task and as a result, Goldberg’s school is in trouble. In part, this is because it’s a charter school, subject to the demands of the charter school ultimatum: set your standards high and meet them, or else.

At the same time that the combined middle and high school is preparing its first twelfth grade class for graduation, the city has put the school on probation. Opportunity has one year to improve its test scores or it will lose its charter, something that’s rarely happened among the city’s charter schools.

A School on Trial

Walking through Opportunity’s hallways, there’s no sense that the school is on trial. During the first week of class, students were busy learning the school’s rules, teachers were trying to capitalize on the first-week honeymoon, and a crew of affable bouncers patrolled the hallway. Linger too long between classes? Someone will nudge you on your way. Arrive at school irritable and with an empty stomach? Someone who knows what’s going on at home will pull you aside. There is someone watching Opportunity students at every turn, waiting to see whether they might need managing.

“I think we continue doing what we have been doing,” said Yoly Parra, a Spanish teacher. “For me every day is probation because every day I make sure I’m doing what I have to do for these kids.”

When Goldberg left a residential school in Westchester to found Opportunity in 2004, he convinced Fazio and several other staff members to come with him. Goldberg, who graduated from the Bank Street College of Education and taught students with IEPs for years, was fed up with the traditional special education model.

“I felt marginalized as a teacher,” he said. “The schools’ attitude was: ‘Why bother with your kids?'”

According to Goldberg, Opportunity is on its way to meeting its charter goals, which include having the majority of students score Levels 3 or 4 on the state tests by the time they enter high school, seeing that all eighth graders are promoted to high school, and ensuring that all high school seniors have the ability to go to college.

How well the school has been able to meet that first goal has been the subject of intense scrutiny. State testing data shows that when it comes to moving general and special education students from Level 1 to Level 2 in math and reading, Opportunity has been successful. More of its special education students have made one year of progress than students with learning disabilities throughout the city.

picture-5However, Opportunity has a difficult time getting its Level 2 students past that ceiling. This year, 19 percent of its students tested proficient in English, while 40 percent were proficient in math and though those numbers may seem low, they’re massive improvements over the 2008 scores.

More alarming to state and city officials is the comparatively little progress high scoring students and general education students have made.

Testing data from 2007 and 2008, the two years the school’s charter renewal report studies in depth, shows that most students who regularly score in the top two thirds of the school did not make one year’s worth of progress and, in some cases, slid backward.

“I think it’s great to say that your model is inclusive, but you can’t do that at the expense of the students in general education,” Michael Duffy, director of the Office of Charter Schools for the Department of Education. “You can’t spend a year and make less than a year of progress.”

Many Opportunity teachers and administrators believe the strides they’re making with their nearly 400 students, some of whom enter unable to sound out letters of the alphabet, can’t be picked up in an annual test.

“They don’t have those tools yet to truly, accurately measure us and the achievements that we create,” said Opportunity Charter’s principal, Marya Baker. “Sometimes they’re little steps.”

“I don’t think they [the city and state] understand that you can’t measure students who are four or five years behind on one state standardized test and expect the school to be accountable for a system that has failed them for six or seven years,” Fazio said. “I think that’s a very unfair judgment, but it is a judgment we have to work with.”

Goldberg sees the school as being caught between two masters — the state and the city — who view OCS differently. The state, he said, is focused on whether the school is meeting the goals laid out in its charter, while the city is more interested in signs of progress.

“We’re obviously a school that benefits from a progress lens and not an absolute goal lens,” he said. “Because, if you take the absolute goal of a student who’s coming in at sixth grade and doesn’t know that A sounds like “ah”, then yeah, you’re not going to be successful, but if you see that that student goes from not being able to say A is “ah” to passing the Regents in high school, then that’s huge. And how do you measure that?” he asked.

When it came to the school’s own renewal process, the difference in approach may have been more concrete. In the first report the city submitted to the state and Board of Regents for approval, the Department of Education called for a more lenient, two year probation period, but in its second report, it had downgraded it to one year. A spokesman for the State Education Department would not comment on whether SED had pushed for a shorter time frame.

Duffy, who visited the school last August, said he’s seeing encouraging signs. “I think they’re taking all the right steps,” he said, noting the introduction of an AP English class and several honors English and math classes.

“They had a come-in-everybody mentality, which is a good thing, but they weren’t prepared to handle it,” said one advocate who works with parents of students with disabilities. “Opportunity is trying to do the right thing. They didn’t just run and hide and not take kids like other charter schools did.”

By Goldberg’s calculation, the school is about to send its twelfth grade class into the world with a higher graduation rate than the city average. Asked if he expects the city to give Opportunity Charter a five year renewal, Goldberg said, “Absolutely.”

study says...

In new study of school-district effectiveness, New York City falls just below national average

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Each year, state test scores offer a snapshot of how much New York City students have learned. But they say little about how the city’s schools stack up against other districts’, in part because the raw scores largely reflect student demographics — wealthier districts tend to have higher scores.

Now, a major new analysis of several years of test scores from across the country provides a better way to judge and compare districts: Instead of looking at a single moment, it shows how well school systems help students grow their skills over time.

Based on that measure, New York City falls just below the middle of the pack: In the five years from third to eighth grade, its students collectively make about 4.6 grade levels of progress — landing New York in the 35th percentile of districts nationally. By contrast, Chicago students advance the equivalent of six grades within those five years, giving the district one of the highest growth rates in the country.

Still, New York is slightly above average when compared to other large districts with many students from low-income families. And it trounces the state’s other urban districts — including Yonkers, Syracuse, and Rochester, which have some of the nation’s worst growth rates.

“Among big poor districts, it’s better than average,” said Sean Reardon, the Stanford University researcher who conducted the analysis. “In the grand scheme, it’s pretty middle-of-the-road.”

Reardon’s analysis — based on 300 million standardized tests taken by students across more than 11,000 school districts from 2009 to 2015 — is the largest of its kind. It looks both at student proficiency on third-grade math and English tests (that is, what share of students earned a score deemed “proficient”) and student growth between grades three and eight (how much their scores improved over time). Reardon’s research was supported by several foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also provides funding to Chalkbeat.

The analysis controls for the differences in tests across states and over time by converting scores into a common scale that measures growth in grade levels, making it possible to compare nearly every district in the country to one another. (It excludes New York’s scores from 2015 and some grades in 2014 because of the high number of students who boycotted the state tests those years. However, each district’s five-year growth rates is actually an average of its year-over-year growth, so Reardon was still able to calculate a five-year rate for New York.)

Experts generally prefer growth rates over proficiency as a way to evaluate school quality, since growth measures the progress students make in school rather than where they started. Even if a district enrolls many poor students who are less likely than their affluent peers to hit the “proficiency” benchmark, its schools can still help them advance at a rate comparable to or even better than schools filled with wealthier students.

“Growth is way better than achievement,” said Douglas Ready, an education and public policy professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. “We know low-income students start school behind — the question is what do school districts do with the kids they get?”

New York’s growth rate falls just below the national median of 4.8 grade levels. Among big districts, its students made gains similar to those in Dallas and Detroit, and greater than students in Los Angeles, Miami, and Indianapolis.

By contrast, Rochester ranks rock-bottom nationally. In that high-poverty district, where the median income among families with children in the public schools is $26,000, students advanced about three grade levels in five years. Yonkers’ $48,000 median income is much higher, yet its schools barely do better, with students moving just 3.5 grade levels. (Among New York City public-school parents, the median income is $42,000.)

Reardon emphasized that test scores provide an important but incomplete picture of student learning, and growth rates are an imperfect measure of school effectiveness since factors outside of the classroom also influence how much students learn over time.

Still, he argued that officials who rate schools and parents who choose them would do much better to look at a school’s growth rate over its average test scores. In fact, he said, a focus on growth rates could theoretically drive down socioeconomic segregation since higher-income parents might be willing to enroll their children in schools with many poor students and low overall test scores if the schools nonetheless had outstanding growth rates.

Ready, however, pointed out that even when schools and districts are highly effective at helping students make progress, they are still unlikely to close the yawning achievement gaps that separate most poor and wealthier students from the time they start school. Reardon came to the same conclusion.

“The large gaps in students’ academic skills between low- and higher-[socioeconomic status] districts are so large,” Reardon’s analysis says, “that even the highest growth rate in the country would be insufficient to close even half of the gap by eighth grade.”

In response to the analysis, New York City education department officials pointed to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test taken by a representative sample of students in each state and certain districts, including New York. Only one other district among the country’s 10 largest cities performed better in reading and math than New York, which had the highest share of low-income students reach the proficient level on the reading test.

“Our schools are the strongest they’ve ever been, with record-high graduation and college enrollment rates, and improving state test scores,” said the district’s spokesman, Will Mantell.

change up

Just as Lower East Side integration plan takes off, superintendent who helped craft it steps down

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Carry Chan, left, will become acting superintendent in District 1 when Daniella Phillips, right, leaves this month to join the central education department.

The longtime superintendent of the Manhattan community district where parents pushed for a plan to desegregate the local schools is stepping down just as the plan gets underway.

After a decade at the helm of District 1, which includes the Lower East Side and East Village, Superintendent Daniella Phillips is leaving to join the central education department, Chalkbeat has learned. During the yearslong campaign for an integration plan, Phillips acted as a liaison between parents and the education department, which finally approved a new admissions system for the district’s elementary schools this fall.

She will be replaced by Carry Chan, who has also played a role in the district’s diversity efforts as the interim head of a new Family Resource Center, an information hub to help district parents sort through their school options. Chan takes over as acting superintendent on Dec. 18.

The leadership change comes at a crucial time for the district, which also includes a portion of Chinatown. Parents are currently applying to elementary schools, marking the first admissions cycle under the new enrollment system. Under the system, schools give certain students admissions priority based on their economic status and other factors, with the goal of every elementary school enrolling share of disadvantaged students similar to the district average.

It will be up to the new superintendent to help schools recruit and welcome a greater mix of families, and to help steer parents towards a wider range of schools. Advocates hope the district can become a model for the city.

“There is a torch that needs to be carried in order to really, fully execute,” said Naomi Peña, president of the district’s parent council. “The next superintendent has to be a champion for the mission and the cause.”

During heated public meetings, Phillips tried to keep the peace while serving as a go-between for frustrated integration advocates and reluctant education department officials. The tensions sometimes boiled over, with advocates directing their anger at Phillips — though they were eventually won-over and endorsed the final integration plan.

In her new role, she will oversee school consolidations as part of the education department’s Office of School Design and Charter Partnerships. In District 1, Phillips helped steer three such mergers, which often involve combining small, low-performing schools with ones that are higher achieving.

“It has been such a joy and privilege to be District 1 superintendent for over 10 years, and I’m excited for this next chapter in the district and my career,” Phillips said in an emailed statement.

Chan is a former principal who launched the School for Global Leaders, a middle school that focuses on community service projects and offers Mandarin classes. Last year, she joined the education department’s Manhattan support center, where she helped schools form partnerships in order to learn from one another.

Since October, Chan has served as the interim director of District 1’s Family Resource Center, which is seen as an integral part of making the new diversity plan work. Families must apply for seats in the district’s elementary schools, which do not have attendance zones like other districts. The family center aims to arm families with more information about their options, in the hopes that they will consider schools they may not have previously.

“I think we’re all really passionate about this plan and we really want this to work,” Chan said. “Communication is the key, and being transparent with how we’re progressing with this work.”