after the fall

After test score criticism, Klein allows more planning time

Teachers are starting the school year with 37.5 more minutes a week to figure out how to raise test scores.

In an email sent to principals on Friday, Chancellor Joel Klein announced that schools are now allowed to convert one period of tutoring time into teacher planning sessions aimed at boosting scores. The four-times-weekly, 37.5-minute sessions were introduced in February 2006 for teachers to offer small-group instruction.

“This time must be used in a structured way to look at data and student work, to examine curriculum and teacher practice and to diagnose what changes and supports are needed to improve performance for the students who need it most,” Klein wrote.

Klein’s email announcement marks the city’s first concrete response to the state’s more stringent test score standards. In July, when the scores were announced, Klein said schools would have to give struggling students “more attention” but didn’t specify how. Mostly, he and Mayor Bloomberg have focused on defending the city’s progress despite lower scores. In the email to principals, Klein dismissed challenges to the city’s claims as “belligerent critiques.”

Klein’s complete back-to-school email to principals is below:

Dear Colleagues,

There’s been a lot of discussion and debate about the impact and meaning of the decision by the New York State Education Department to make testing requirements for student proficiency significantly more demanding.  As school starts, parents and teachers will have questions about what the resultant decline in proficiency throughout our state and City means for students.

The State’s purpose was to align the results better with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which indicated that New York State had dramatically lower proficiency rates than our New York State test had demonstrated.  The State set out to resolve this inconsistency by redefining the cut scores needed to achieve a desired percentage of Levels 1, 2, 3, and 4 after the results were known.  If you increase the score required to pass a test, the number of people that pass is inevitably going to fall.

Understandably, we are all disappointed that the pass rate went down.  When you are working hard to achieve a result, and then it becomes even harder to achieve that same result, it’s frustrating.  But I strongly believe that we shouldn’t be disheartened.  New York State is not alone in having set a proficiency standard that was too low to serve our children; the vast majority of states have similarly low standards.

I know you are working with your networks to interpret these adjustments, their impact, and the instructional strategies you can use to help your students improve. I appreciate the time you’re taking to understand your school-level data thoroughly, especially Progress Reports, which underwent significant changes this year to reflect the higher bar that has been set. I encourage you to check out our Principals’ Portal for helpful information.

As you know, our goal is to have all our teachers working collaboratively to meet students’ individual instructional needs. I have received many requests from principals over the past year to build in regular time for these teacher teams to meet.  I know it’s essential, in order to improve instruction in your school, for you to have built-in time for your teachers to plan in teams.  Moving forward, we will support your SBO requests to use one of the 37.5 minute blocks for teacher teams to meet.  This time must be used in a structured way to look at data and student work, to examine curriculum and teacher practice and to diagnose what changes and supports are needed to improve performance for the students who need it most.  This time and the remaining 37.5 minute blocks will be an important resource that must be used strategically in this tight budget year to raise achievement for our weakest students.  Our networks will be working with you to ensure that this time is used to maximum effect.  These teacher teams are also critical to our efforts to raise the bar as we prepare for the Common Core standards.

Raising standards is the easy part.  The hard part will be getting our students to achieve at higher levels.  There are two important points that I want to reinforce with you directly today to help provide context as you plan for the important work that lies ahead.

High proficiency numbers may make us feel good.  But calling a child proficient who is not on a secure path to college and career success is a disservice to the student, her family and the school system.  That’s why I wrote to you almost a year ago stating that “we must hold our students to standards that are as rigorous as those set by NAEP.”  I know it’s not easy to do this, but we have got to be honest with ourselves. Otherwise, our children will pay a terrible price when they graduate into a globally competitive world that will not be forgiving to them if they are not properly prepared. We need to embrace the change the State has imposed, even if it hurts to see our proficiency results fall in the short-term.

I also want to address head on some of the belligerent critiques of our collective work in the days following the State’s announcement of our scores.  Instead of seeing it for what it is-a call for more demanding standards-some have suggested that the data obliterate the substantial progress that we have made.  That view is wrong.  Had it not been for the tremendous progress made over the last eight years, we could not conceive of how we would meet the new standards.  Other school districts in this State are now at proficiency levels in the mid- to low-20s.  That’s where we would be if not for the good work that you and your staffs have done.
Let me emphasize what you already know: while important, data, like test results and graduation rates, don’t tell the whole story of what’s going on at a school.  Many intangibles matter, and in so many dynamic ways our schools have improved-not all at the same pace or in the same manner.  But this is a very different and greatly improved school system compared to what it was in 2002.  The data also confirm that view.

I am linking here to a presentation that shows in detail the progress we’ve made and how substantial it has been.  Here are some of the highlights-what I see as our biggest accomplishments.


  • On our watch, fourth graders have made big gains-11 scale-score points in English and 11 in math, which reflects an increase of more than a year’s worth of learning. The percentage of kids proficient in math went from 21 percent to 35 percent-a 67 percent increase-and the percentage proficient in English went from 19 percent to 29 percent-a 53 percent jump. (Slide 14) In fourth grade, NYC’s performance now matches that of the nation as a whole, even though NYC serves a much more challenging population. That’s called “closing the achievement gap.” * In the eighth grade, the results are mixed and trending up. We’ve gained 7 points in math, mostly since 2005, and, while we’re flat in English, on the last exam we were up 3 points, boding well for the future. (Slide 4)

New York State tests

  • First, let’s look at how NYC would have performed in the past under the new, much more rigorous proficiency standards adopted by the state.  Applying the new standards, our overall proficiency rate would have gone up by 6.4 points in English (from 36 percent in 2006 to 42.4 today) and by 22.1 points in math (from 31.9 percent in 2006 to 54 percent today). Whichever way you measure it, we’ve made progress.  (Slide 3)* From 2006-2010 our scale scores went up across the board in grades 3-8, by an average of 23 points in math and 13 points in English. Those are big gains. (Slide 4)

High school graduation

  • NYC’s gains in high school graduation and college-going rates are impressive.  From 1990-2002 the City’s graduation rate had stagnated in the mid-forties. Last year, it was 63 percent. (Slide 16)
  • This increase has resulted in significantly more NYC students going to college. From 2002 to 2009, the number of graduates attending City University of New York (CUNY) colleges went from 16,000 to more than 25,000-a 57 percent increase.  At the same time, the percentage of students requiring remediation at CUNY decreased. (Slide 20)

Highlighting this point and responding to vocal critics, former U.S Secretary of Education Richard Riley wrote an article in the Daily News summarizing the City’s achievement results, especially the NAEP gains, concluding that “we should celebrate students and educators in New York City for significant improvements-even as we call for higher levels of performance.”  The current Secretary, Arne Duncan, similarly stated in a recent speech: “And these higher standards [adopted by New York State] in no way erase the gains made by New York City in recent years, gains that showed up not only on the state tests, but also on the national tests, called NAEP.”

As you may also have heard, last week New York State won the Race to the Top federal grant competition which will send more than $240 million to New York City over the next four years.  Winning this competition means that we have additional funds to institute core reforms that will support students’ continued progress.  But it’s about more than the money: this victory validates the significant strides we’ve made as a City to improve student achievement.

I am more confident than ever before that we have the right people in place-our principals, teachers, and other school staff-to make our City’s public schools even stronger tomorrow than they are today.  It isn’t going to be easy-putting children first never has been.  But our students are counting on all of us to work together to help prepare them for success.
Thank you, as always, for your hard work and dedication.  Best of luck for a great first day.

Joel I. Klein

Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”


Jubilation, and some confusion, as Denver schools begin their post-strike recovery

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Lupe Lopez-Montoya greets students at Columbian Elementary School on Thursday after Denver's three-day teacher strike.

Lupe Lopez-Montoya got the text message at 6:15 a.m. The strike was over, the colleague who’d been keeping her up to speed on news from her union told her.

And so as district and teachers union officials celebrated their deal at the Denver Public Library, Lopez-Montoya on Thursday resurrected her regular commute to Columbian Elementary School, the northwest Denver school where she’s the longest-serving tenured teacher.

For the past three days, Lopez-Montoya had stayed out of school as Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association sparred over how teachers in Denver are paid. She still had unanswered questions about the future. But first, it was time to greet students.

One girl ran across the sidewalk to give a hug. “Ms. Montoya’s back,” she shouted, burying her face in the teacher’s side.

Lopez-Montoya began to welcome students into the building. “Line up and you can go get breakfast,” she told one boy. “I’m happy you’re here today.”

The moment kicked off what was a not-quite-normal day in Denver schools. With a deal coming just an hour before some schools were due to start for the day, teachers and families had little time to adjust their plans. The district also had too little time to reopen early childhood classes that have been closed all week; those will reopen on Friday, officials said.

Building principals got an email around 7 a.m. telling them that the strike was over and that many teachers would be coming back to work. In some buildings, central office staff and substitutes who had been filling in for teachers were already on site when teachers returned to work. And some students who commute long distances didn’t get the word in time to go to schools.

By early afternoon, about 81 percent of teachers in district-run schools had shown up to work, and about 83 percent of students had, according to Denver school district spokesman Will Jones.

In the parking lot outside Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, a west Denver elementary school, teachers still clad in the red of their cause gathered in the parking lot to walk in together. Asked what the mood was, reading intervention teacher Denise Saiz said, “Relief!” and her colleagues responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

“We’re really excited to get back to the kids,” said fifth grade teacher Emily Mimovich.

While strike participation was high at the school — it was founded with support from the state and local union as a teacher-led school — the teachers said they did not believe there would be hard feelings between those who walked and those who didn’t.

“We have such a good relationship,” said Reyes Navarro, who teaches Spanish to kindergarten and first-grade students. “We understand that you have to do whatever is right for you.”

Parents also said they were eager to have their children get back to school.

Sarah Murphy, who has a third-grader and a 4-year-old preschool student, said this morning was a “bit of a scramble, albeit a welcome one.” She had both children signed up for a day camp at the University of Denver and was unsure if she should send them to school or to camp because she wasn’t sure teachers would be back at school. Then she got word that camp was canceled for both children — but Denver Public Schools preschools are still closed.

“We were left trying to figure out what to do with our ECE4 since they were still closed,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “We know how hard this has been on everyone, but this morning proved that the ECE program was the hardest hit, short notice every step of the way. We very much look forward to tomorrow when both are back in their normal school routines.”

Not everyone returned to school. Some teachers said they needed a day to collect themselves after an emotional experience. Judy Kelley, a visual arts teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, said she and many of her colleagues live too far away from the school to get there on short notice.

But the majority of teachers who went back to work Thursday describe positive experiences returning to their schools. Ryan Marini, a social studies teacher and football coach at South High School, called it the “best day” in 17 years of teaching.

Suzanne Hernandez, a first-grade teacher at Westerly Creek Elementary in Stapleton, said she and other teachers gathered to walk into school together at 7:45 a.m.

Teachers thanked the subs from central office who were in the building. They headed back to their roles in central offices.

Early in the morning, Hernandez sent a message to her students’ parents to let them know teachers would be back in school. The reaction from students as she greeted them was “overwhelming,” she said.

With the help of paraprofessionals who had prepared lessons, Hernandez said teachers were able to jump right back to where they left off last week.

As far as Valentine’s Day, that celebration will be pushed back until Friday afternoon, she said. For now, teachers are having their own celebration, happy to be back in the classroom.

“I think if there’s any sort of effect from the strike, it’s been a positive one,” she said. “It’s been a very unifying experience.”

Allison Hicks, a teacher at Colfax Elementary, said returning teachers were greeted with hugs, music, smiles and tears.

“After finding out an hour ago we were going back to work, I scrambled home to get ready,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “I am exhausted, but so excited to be back with my students. This day won’t be normal, but knowing I did my part to put my students first is the best feeling to have.”

Kade Orlandini, who teaches at John F. Kennedy High School, said most of the teachers are back in her building, despite the short notice.

“Teachers were ready, and we are jumping right back into instruction,” she wrote. “Attendance seems lower than normal, but students who are here are ready to learn. The atmosphere in the school is very positive all around.”

What was your experience going back to school? What other questions do you have? Take our survey

Chalkbeat’s Ann Schimke, Erica Meltzer, and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this article.