Looking back

The year that was: Looking back at 2010's education headlines

It’s the last day of 2010 and we’re flipping back our calendars to the very beginning for a look at the education goings-on of this past year and what they bode for the future. That is, tomorrow.

January

The year began with a 20-day race through public hearings on the city’s plans to close 19 schools. At Beach Channel High School, Jamaica and Columbus high schools, in front of Mayor Bloomberg’s house, Metropolitan Corporate Academy, and other schools (but not Kappa II), teachers, parents, and students rallied against the closure plans. Yet the mayoral appointees on the citywide Panel for Educational Policy, at a meeting that lasted until 4 a.m., voted to approve closing all of the schools.

Meanwhile, in Albany, legislators were negotiating changes to state law that would improve the state’s chances in the Race to the Top competition, which offered millions of federal dollars in exchange for education reforms. Gov. Paterson proposed eliminating the charter school cap altogether, in accordance with the Obama Administration’s preferences, and lawmakers spent the day of Race to the Top’s deadline trying — and ultimately failing — to reach an agreement. The state submitted its bid anyway, initially refusing to release it and ultimately revealing a host of long-shot promises and bizarre furniture requests.

Other changes were afoot in Albany. Because of our reporting, the state reversed a policy that barred charter schools from giving priority in admission to students identified as English language learners.

Back in New York City, it was mostly business as usual, with a new round of budget cuts, the fifth in two years, an impasse in union contract negotiations, and yet another reorganization of how schools get support from the central administration.

February

The shortest month was long on conflict. First, the teachers union sued to stop the 19 school closures that were approved in January. We looked at what would happen to their teachers — hint: the group of teachers without positions, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve pool, would swell — and to their students.

A second front opened over whether to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, something national union president Randi Weingarten said she could support and local United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew initially said he couldn’t. When the city unveiled a new tenure process that would use test scores, the UFT immediately put up a legal challenge, arguing that the city had violated the union’s contract. Tying test scores to teacher evaluations wasn’t in the city’s list of contract demands (which were accidentally released about this time) but it might as well have been. Topping the list: flexibility in firing.

And communities in Harlem, the Lower East Side, Queens, and Red Hook were divided by vicious fights over charter school siting.

March

New York State was named one of 16 Race to the Top finalists but went home empty-handed, just as it had been expected to. Officials vowed to try again in the competition’s second round.

Also entering round two: The school closure showdown. High school decision letters went out late because of the court battle. Two days after decision letters were sent to students the State Supreme Court ruled the closure votes “null and void”, finding that the city hadn’t followed the complex state law governing school closures. We explained the implications, which included the placement of some students at schools the city said were too bad to keep open.

That’s not to say that the city and union couldn’t agree on anything. In fact, they worked on a deal to close the rubber rooms. And together they quaked at the doomsday budget being floated in Albany, which would have slashed $400 million from the city’s schools.

In other news: the number of teachers without positions decreased. New York State’s NAEP reading scores stayed flat and the city’s graduation rate went up. NYU historian Diane Ravitch’s book about came out and so did our own Elizabeth Green’s New York Times Magazine article on making a better teacher. The city restricted bake sales and parents protested, yelling, “Viva el cupcake!”

April

April was the month the Department of Education eliminated its division of teaching and learning and announced a major push toward online education. It was also the month that lawyers for the city revealed their argument for why the school closures should go through as planned: At least we tried to follow the rules.

Michael Mulgrew won his first full term as UFT president in a landslide vote but met some up-and-coming adversaries in the group Educators 4 Excellence, formed to lobby against “last in, first out” layoff rules.

The city announced it would close rubber rooms by the end of the year but it didn’t reach any agreement with the union on other contract issues, including “last in, first out.” We judged the rubber room timeline too optimistic.

We visited one school where classes felt like rubber rooms of their own and met students from several other schools who had defied the odds.

Looking toward Race to the Top’s second round, the State Senate introduced a bill to double the number of charter schools, while Harlem Senator Bill Perkins held his own heated charter school hearings.

May

The charter cap bill zipped through the State Senate but stalled in the Assembly. After a month of delay, legislators hashed out a last-minute deal to more than double the charter cap to 460. But questions remained about how other components of the new charter school law would be implemented.

The city planned for $750 million in cuts to schools and massive teacher layoffs, the nitty-gritty of which we explained. Education Secretary Arne Duncan stopped in New York City (and altered his itinerary at the request of the teachers union) to call for a federal schools bailout.

The city looked for extra change by charging schools for lunches that students left unpaid and permitting schools to fire parent coordinators.

The State Education Department and the teachers union inked a deal to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores; the city pushed back against the court ruling barring its school closures; and State Senator Eric Adams told baggy-panted students to Stop the Sag.

June

We read the state’s bulked-up second-round Race to the Top application so our readers didn’t have to. The state promised to replicate city initiatives; meanwhile, the city promised the feds it would “turn around” a host of struggling schools.

Mayor Bloomberg cut teacher raises to save money and prevent teacher layoffs— postponing speculation that layoffs would happen to 2011 — and teachers rallied against budget cuts. Devising their 2010-2011 budgets, principals started excessing teachers. Also shedding numbers: The schools kept open by court ruling, where we revealed that the city had discouraged enrollment.

We said goodbye to the rubber rooms and DOE press secretary David Cantor and hello to hip-hop Regents prep. The city and union ended the school year fighting over when the next one would begin: The city tried to delay the first day of school until after Rosh Hashanah, which fell during the week after Labor Day, but abandoned the plan, blaming the union.

July

Bad news abounded in July. The state admitted that test standards had been too low for too long. Thousands of students had been misled into thinking they had proficient skills, and once standards were raised, the proportion of city students passing the state reading tests dropped by more than 25 percent. After years of announcing gains, Mayor Bloomberg was left scrambling for a message. The city promised extra attention but not extra money for struggling students.

Also falling short: The city’s appeal in the school closure legal fight. An appeals court upheld the ruling barring the closures, though the city said it would stay the course on opening new schools.

New York State ended the month a Race to the Top finalist for the second time, but with improved prospects for winning. And the city started getting ready to adopt toughened, national curriculum standards.

August

City and state officials went to Washington, D.C., to pitch the state’s Race to the Top application and brought home about $700 million in school funds, of which about $300 million would go to the city. The federal “edujobs” bill sent about $200 million — and hope for a layoff-free year — to New York City.

Otherwise, the month was about as boring as a fifth-grader’s summer homework. Breaking the monotony: Chancellor Klein threatened to use emergency powers to expand a Lower East Side charter school (but didn’t), and protesters distressed by lower state test scores derailed the month’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting. We also revealed that a Brooklyn charter school was holding classes in illegal space and dug up 1974 footage of Muhammad Ali’s visit to PS 41.

September

The school year started — and then started again — with too many teachers (though too few in classrooms), not enough kindergarten spaces, and scheduling problems. We live-blogged the first day of school, traveling with Chancellor Klein to all five boroughs.

During September, we met the Independent Budget Office’s new education watchdog, teachers who built their own data systems to make up for problems in the city’s, and fans — and foes — of the education documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman.'” The city quietly released lower progress report grades based on diminished test scores. We learned some bad news — just half of the year’s summer school students were promoted — and some good news: City students reversed a trend and posted an SAT score boost.

We also got a hint of the policy issues that would define the school year: more budget cuts, major problems on the value-added teacher data reports, and changes to tenure policy, for which Mayor Bloomberg promised new rules, the union be damned.

October

In collaboration with WNYC, we launched “The Big Fix,” a reporting project about the city’s various efforts to fix failing high schools. Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx escaped the chopping block only to start the school year with a stripped down budget, growing needs, and students who mostly wanted to be there. William Grady High School banked on a new principal for needed improvements. And officials at Chelsea Career and Technical Education High School moved student by student toward a higher graduation rate.

Aiming to avoid more legal problems, the city started laying the groundwork for school closures early.  It closed out the month with 47 schools on the at-risk list and conflict with the teachers union over whether the city had tried to help them or neglected them. The city didn’t improve its relationship with the union when it said it would flout an agreement and release individual teachers’ value-added scores. The union immediately headed to court to halt the release.

The state told districts how to spend their Race to the Top spoils, we looked into the chancellor’s school visit history, and Eva Moskowitz got permission to open a charter school on the Upper West Side. The GothamSchools team found time during this busy month to travel to North Carolina for its first wedding (mine!).

November

Not much happened in November. We threw a party. And Joel Klein shocked the city (and most of his own deputies) by announcing his resignation after eight years as chancellor. Jaws dropped even further when Bloomberg announced that Cathie Black, a publishing executive with no experience or apparent interest in education, was his pick to take Klein’s place. We joined the scrum of journalists analyzing Black’s preparedness, Bloomberg’s mysterious search process, and the circumstances of Klein’s abrupt departure.

Parents, teachers, voters, and lawmakers took a stand against Black’s appointment, but Gloria Steinem gave her okay. That wasn’t enough for a special state panel convened to consider whether Black should receive the waiver required for non-educators to become chancellor — a majority of its members voted against her. City and state officials worked through the Thanksgiving weekend to reach a deal that would let Black become chancellor as long as a DOE official, Shael Polakow-Suransky, became her second in command in charge of academics. The next week, Black made her first visit to a city public school since her appointment.

Rupert Murdoch, Joel Klein’s new boss, bought Wireless Generation, a major education technology company based in Brooklyn. Looking forward, it’s unclear what Klein’s relationship will be with the company. But that’s for the future. For the past, here’s our take on Klein’s career at the DOE.

In non-Cathie Black news, Andrew Cuomo, no friend of teachers unions, was elected governor, but union-backed candidates won many other races. A preliminary budget brought back the specter of teacher layoffs, this time 6,100 in 2011. The city said it missed its rubber room deadline for just 16 teachers. And new, lower high school progress report grades came out, but some schools got higher grades that paved the way for them to stay open.

Then, bedbugs struck.

December

Where was Cathie Black? The DOE wouldn’t say, so we joined the NYC education press corps in calling on the city to reveal her whereabouts. We found her on the phone and on TV, but not at any low-performing schools.

Parents and elected officials filed lawsuits to block Black’s appointment. But during the year’s last days, a State Supreme Court judge dismissed all three of the suits, clearing the way for Black to take over on January 3, the first day of school after the winter recess.

Black’s first piece of business — assuming there’s no remaining fallout from a riot over bathroom access at Murry Bergtraum High School — is likely to be presiding over the latest round of school closures. The city finalized its intentions to close 26 schools, fewer than the maximum number possible but still the most in any year. Mulgrew promised a serious fight over the closures, suggesting the city might see a repeat of 2010’s school closure showdown in 2011.

There’s much more to look forward to in 2011, from changes to the way school safety data gets reported, continued sparring over teacher data reports, a new tenure process for new teachers, and, if Klein’s final missive is to be trusted, a push to address the ATR situation. The city is also looking at more federally mandated turnarounds next year, although federal reforms could be in jeopardy as the balance of power shifts in Washington. If nothing else, we can at least count on a musical performance featuring the PS 22 chorus during the Oscars in February.

You made it to the end of 2010! Have a happy New Year’s Eve and we’ll see you back here on Monday.

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.”

reunion

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.