closing calls

Graduation rates show closing schools not always the worst

When choosing which schools to close, city officials say they pick the worst of the worst. But new graduation data released today shows that the city doesn’t always follow its own criteria.

Earlier this year, Department of Education officials announced their intention to close 19 schools based on the schools’ abysmal graduation rates and low test scores. Many of the schools on the list were high schools where less than half of all students graduated and progress reports were dotted with Cs and Ds. But absent from that list was Washington Irving High School, which has the city’s lowest graduation rate among traditional high schools and the highest drop-out rate.

In January, the Panel for Education Policy voted to begin closing a school 16 blocks north of Irving: Norman Thomas High School. Washington Irving was spared. But a look at the school’s graduation numbers and progress reports shows that in some respects, Irving is performing more poorly than Thomas is.

Washington Irving once was one of the city’s behemoth schools: a grand building in the middle of Gramercy filled with students from Harlem and the Bronx. Like Norman Thomas, it serves a high number of students with learning disabilities and recent immigrants, many of whom don’t speak English. In the last three years, Norman Thomas received Ds on its report cards, while Washington Irving was given two F grades and a C. Most recently, Norman Thomas’ graduation rate has increased slightly to 43 percent, while Washington Irving’s has decreased to 39 percent.

Both schools are on the State Education Department’s list of 34 city schools that it wants to see replaced.

Throughout the school closing hearings, critics have charged that the schools the DOE wanted to close didn’t meet the department’s own criteria and that some were even improving. At a City Council hearing, Deputy Chancellor John White defended the department’s choices.

“This is not a random list; these are the lowest performers even considered among a set of schools where students are not achieving at acceptable levels,” White said.

Going by graduation and drop out data for the class of 2009, Washington Irving is the city’s lowest performer, not including transfer schools and schools that have already been closed based on similar data. It’s not the only struggling school the city has decided to keep open, but it stands out when compared to those that are being closed this year, such as Global Enterprise High School, which has a graduation rate of 53 percent and received two Cs and a B on its progress reports in the last three years.

But DOE spokesman Daniel Kanner said the department focused on other criteria when deciding to keep Irving open.

“We look at a variety of factors when determining which schools to target for phase out and the 19 schools that we proposed to be phased out demonstrated a long-standing inability to serve students well,” Kanner said. “We take different actions based on different circumstances.”

Unlike some other schools that were closed for poor grades and graduation rates, the DOE saw Washington Irving floundering and gave it a boost.

Rather than close the school after it received two F grades, the department assigned Washington Irving an executive principal, Bernardo Ascona, who was given a $25,000 bonus to improve the school’s academics. The DOE also began downsizing the school, which had over 2,500 students in 2006 and has about 1,400 this year, according to its website.

“We’ve seen the school move from an F to a C,” Kanner said. “We’ve seen significant increases in 9th grade credit accumulation. We have more work to do but we have taken action and we’ll continue to build on the progress that we see they’ve made over the last year.”

Washington Irving students  said they like the new principal, but with so many students cutting class (the attendance rate hovers around 70 percent), the school hadn’t improved.

“The principal is trying really hard, but the students aren’t helping him achieve what he wants to,” said Imane Saif, a sophomore.

Ascona did not respond to requests for comment.

Superintendent search

Nashville school official is one of four finalists to become Newark’s next superintendent

Sito Narcisse

A top Nashville schools official is one of four finalists vying to become Newark’s next superintendent.

Newark’s school board has not announced the finalists, but Sito Narcisse, currently chief of schools of the 88,000-student Metro Nashville Public School system, is in the running, Chalkbeat has learned. Narcisse, who has also been a high-ranking official in two large Maryland school districts and a principal in Boston and Pittsburgh, confirmed the news on Monday. The son of Haitian immigrants who spoke French-Creole at home as a child growing up on Long Island, he later helped open two high schools for recent immigrants who were still learning English.

The other finalists, Chalkbeat has previously reported, are former Baltimore city schools chief Andres Alonso, Newark Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory, and Newark Assistant Superintendent Roger Leon. (Alonso previously declined to comment, and Leon did not respond to an email.)

Newark’s last state-appointed superintendent, Christopher Cerf, stepped down on Feb. 1 when the school board officially regained control of the district after 22 years of management by the state. As the district transitions back to local supervision, it must adhere to a state plan that stipulated that there be a national search for the next superintendent and three finalists for the full board to vote on. However, the state last month granted a request by the board to name four finalists instead of three.

The finalists will introduce themselves to the public at a forum on Friday, though the audience will not be allowed to ask questions. The school board will then interview the candidates in private on Saturday, before they are expected to make their selection at the public board meeting on May 22.

Narcisse was also a semifinalist for the superintendent position in Duval County, Florida until Monday, when the school board there voted not to advance him to the second round of interviews, according to the district’s website. (Unlike Newark, that school system posted all the candidates’ applications online and will livestream the school board’s interviews with the finalists.)

Alonso, the other candidate from outside Newark, was recently in the running to become Los Angeles’ next superintendent before withdrawing his name last month. Both he and Narcisse may face an uphill battle in Newark, where several board members and many residents have said they would prefer a local educator to run the school system now that it is back in local hands after decades of state oversight.

In an interview Monday, Narcisse told Chalkbeat that if he was hired in Newark he would work hard to get to know the district and “become a part of that community.” He added that many of the schools he oversaw in Tennessee and Maryland served low-income students who dealt with trauma and poverty similar to the kinds faced by many Newark students.

“I know I’m not from Newark,” he said. “But the children of Newark have the same set of issues, the same set of challenges.”

Narcisse began his career as a high-school French teacher in a suburban district outside Nashville, before opening a public school in Pittsburgh and then taking over a struggling high school in Boston. He later held district leadership roles in Montgomery County and Prince George’s County, Maryland, where he helped design the new schools for immigrants still learning English.

In 2016, he became chief of schools for the Metro Nashville system, the second-highest position in the district, where he is responsible for overseeing 169 schools. In that role, he helped establish a high school where students can earn associate’s degrees, brought new science and technology programs into the middle schools, and participated in a public-private partnership to boost students’ reading skills, he said. His salary is $185,000 per year, according to his application for the Duval County position.

He said that he has absorbed several lessons over the years on how to improve struggling schools: Find a strong principal, provide lots of staff training, and invest in extra support services for students. He also cited another lesson that could be especially apt in Newark, where many residents rejected the sweeping policy changes enacted by Cami Anderson, a prior state-appointed superintendent.

“The other part is to not to do reform to them — but to be a part of the work with them,” he said, referring to community members. “That’s how change and sustainability happens.”

family matters

Lashing out at de Blasio administration, Mulgrew says educators lack paid parental leave because of ‘gender bias’

PHOTO: Philissa Cramer
UFT President Michael Mulgrew

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew tore into the city Monday for not providing paid parental leave to city teachers, calling the situation a case of “gender bias.”

Mulgrew, whose union is 77 percent women, was among the leaders testifying about the need for a paid parental leave policy Monday at a joint hearing of the City Council’s committees on education and civil service and labor.

In some of his harshest criticism of the de Blasio administration, Mulgrew criticized city leaders for saying leave should be negotiated in contract talks and come with concessions.

“I believe this is clearly gender bias on behalf of the City of New York and I do believe now it’s being used completely as a bargaining chip against our union, the union with the high female [membership],” Mulgrew said. “So I’m quite aggravated and pissed off at the city on this whole thing.”

Under the Department of Education’s current policy, teachers who want paid leave after having a baby must use accrued sick days. The policy applies only to birth mothers, not educators who become parents through surrogacy or adoption.

The UFT’s fight, spurred in part by a petition that went viral last fall, comes after the city extended six weeks of fully paid time off to its non-union workforce in 2016, covering about 20,000 managerial employees.

The city has pointed out that those workers made concessions, including giving up raises and vacation days, in exchange for their leave. The administration has also estimated that extending this program to all UFT members could cost $1 billion over four years.

Bob Linn, the city’s labor commissioner, testified Monday that paid leave was an issue that would be addressed during negotiations with the UFT, whose contract expires in November. “We will be reaching agreements on this issue,” he said.

Here’s what three UFT members who spoke Monday told the council:

Carolyn Dugan, a special education teacher in Manhattan at PS/IS 180

“I went into labor at my school because I was trying to save all my sick days for my maternity leave.
I wanted to maximize the little time I had with my newborn, so instead of taking a few days to rest before the baby was born, I worked up to very last moment and I ended up going into labor at

Eric Rubin-Perez, a school counselor at the John F. Kennedy Jr. School in Queens

“I had managed to save over 65 days in my bank that I had always planned on using for child care leave. I attended a UFT workshop on paternity leave in the fall of 2013. To my shock, I learned that as a father I was only allowed to use three personal days. It didn’t matter how many days I had saved in my bank, I was not able to use any of them. All those times I made the treacherous commute in the snow to my school in Elmhurst, Queens, from my home in Suffolk County, or when I came back to work after oral surgery didn’t matter, because I could not use any of my days. My husband who worked on Long Island got six weeks of paid paternity leave so it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t get anything.”

PHOTO: Jessica Jean-Marie
Teacher Jessica Jean-Marie returned to work last week.

Jessica Jean-Marie, teacher in New York City public schools

“Last week, I returned from maternity leave after 11 weeks from having my second child. I tried working until I went into labor so that I could have a full 12 weeks — six weeks using sick days and six weeks off payroll on unpaid child care leave — at home with my son. I couldn’t do it. The physical pain and the mental stress became too much. I worked up until the week of my due date, hoping my son would come sooner than later so I can maximize my leave. He arrived three days past due.”