lab schools

More schools to experiment with online work, schedule changes

Chancellor Joel Klein is expanding a pilot program that takes the experiments city schools often conduct behind closed classroom doors and brings them to other schools.

Called Innovation Zone, or iZone, the program began this year in ten schools and will grow to include 81 schools next year. At its core is a heavy emphasis on expanding online learning, a major focus of Klein’s tenure at the Department of Education.

Of the iZone schools, more than half will adopt the “virtual school” model. This involves using online Advanced Placement classes and credit recovery courses or simply combining online work and face-to-face instruction. Six schools will alter their schedules to make the school day or year longer and 35 will begin using software that’s designed to change instruction based on how much a student struggles or excels.

One of the six schools that will change its schedule next year is P.S. 50, an elementary and junior high school in East Harlem. A spokeswoman for The After School Corporation said the organization is in talks with P.S. 50 to extend the school day to 6 p.m.

Many of the ideas for iZone schools’ alterations came from public schools like Brooklyn Technical High School, which designed its own online courses, and the Brooklyn Generation School, which radically changed its schedule to create an 11-month school year.

“We know each of these innovations has significant research demonstrating its potential to accelerate student learning,” White said. “Those that have the most impact, we’ll work to scale throughout the system.”

A Brooklyn high school, Victory Collegiate, is going to adopt elements of the Brooklyn Generation School’s schedule, which staggers teachers’ vacations to lengthen the school year and front-loads the school day with core subjects, giving teachers afternoon time to prep.

Next fall, ten schools will begin offering online credit recovery courses. Some, such as Curtis High School, are big schools with students who fail and have to retake courses for innumerable reasons. Others like Chelsea Career and Technical High School are small, but have a proportionally high number of students who are held back because they don’t accumulate enough credits to graduate.

Arthur VanderVeen, who is tasked with overseeing the iZone for the DOE, said the current model of credit recovery isn’t working for many students. “If a student fails a course their options generally are to retake the course in summer school or after school, and usually without very effective results,” he said.

“Schools that use online credit recovery see it’s an alternative approach that’s very engaging. They’re [students] getting that individualized attention and that’s often the difference.”

Online credit recovery programs could also lend some credibility to the process of making up class work or completing extra assignments that sometimes inspires skepticism from critics who see the standards as being too lax.

“This is the kind of delivery system that lends itself to greater rigor, which is what credit recovery needs,” White said. “There are more controls around what a student is obligated to do.”

Twenty schools — many of them with too few high-achieving students to hire a teacher for Advanced Placement classes — will adopt online courses next year. Students at these schools will be able to discuss their work in chat rooms with students and teachers at other schools, VanderVeen said.

Two schools — I.S. 339 and I.S. 228 — are going to become pilots for the School of One program next year, which began as an after-school program in M.S. 131, a Chinatown middle school, last summer. School of One will become part of the day for all three schools next year. The program focuses on math instruction and creates a computer-generated “playlist” of lessons for students.

Nominated by their school support organizations, 110 schools applied to be part of the iZone, which is being funded in part through about $2 million in donations from Cisco Global Education and the Ford Foundation, $3.2 million in stimulus funds, and additional capital fund dollars. DOE officials would not disclose the project’s total cost.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”