over protest

City panel votes to close three more schools, bringing total to 27

Three more schools will begin closing next year, following a vote by the citywide school board last night that brought the total of schools closed this year to 27.

Members of the Panel for Educational Policy voted to close two transfer schools — Pacific High School and the Bronx Academy High School — as well as P.S. 30, an elementary school in Queens. A spokeswoman for the city’s Department of education said that, including the decision to shutter Ross Global Charter School, 27 schools will begin closing next year.

It was Chancellor Dennis Walcott’s first panel meeting since Mayor Bloomberg named him to the post. Walcott said he hoped to change the tenor of the meetings by answering parents’ questions and publicly debating policy issues at a deeper level than his predecessors did.

Walcott began the meeting by walking down from the stage and into the crowd, where he promised parents, teachers, and students that he and his staff would respect them.

“You will never hear me be disagreeable with you,” he said. “The one thing we understand is these are emotional issues for you…the approach we’re going to take moving forward is be responsive to those issues even when we don’t agree.”

If audience members heard Walcott’s plea for civility, they betrayed no signs. The boos and catcalls that have peppered panel meetings for months reappeared last night, as did animosity between charter school supporters and the district schools they will have to share space with next year.

Wearing light blue shirts, parents and teachers from Coney Island Prep Charter School sat across the aisle from parents of students and teachers at I.S. 303, who wore orange shirts. Per tonight’s panel vote, Coney Island Prep will move into I.S. 303’s building next year, claiming classrooms that the middle school’s teachers said they need for high-needs special education students, but that city education officials have decided they can do without. Throughout the evening, parents and teachers from the two schools traded shots over which was the better school and why the charter school couldn’t move to another building.

Of the three schools that the panel voted to begin phasing out next year, Bronx Academy proved the most controversial. A large group of students, parents, and teachers attended the meeting tonight to defend the school against closure, citing its students’ improving credit accumulation and Regents passage rates.

In the last seven years, Bronx Academy has seen four principals come and go. It is currently on the state’s list of persistently low-achieving schools. Yet in September, the school began the process of transforming itself. It was given a new principal, Gary Eisinger, and it formed a partnership with Good Shepherd Services, a community-based organization that offers students counseling and support. Bronx Academy also switched from semesters to trimesters, allowing students to 18 credits a year instead of 14.

“I’ve worked in transfer schools, and I’ve never seen a principal work this hard,” said Kevin Towns, an advocate counselor with Good Shepherd. “The data you’re [the DOE] using is from the old regime. These people have been here eight months — let’s be real.”

But Department of Education officials said that they had seen enough of the school’s progress to decide that it wasn’t enough to justify keeping Bronx Academy open.

“The principal has come into a tough set of circumstances, and you do see the impact of his leadership in that school,” said Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg. “Even if there has been improvement, it’s well below what we expect to see. And well below what we see across transfer schools citywide.”

Senior Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky said that only two-thirds of Bronx Academy students were showing up to school every day and only a quarter are passing their Regents exams. Many students are still earning too few credits to graduate on time, he said.

“What I’m seeing is the culture in that school has changed and that is powerful and that is what has generated the positive energy, but the academic expectations have not changed,” Polakow-Suransky said.

Anita Batisti, who directs Fordham University’s school support organization, which oversees Bronx Academy, said she couldn’t understand why the city would want to close an improving school.

“I ask you, please give us more time,” she said.

Monica Major, the panel member appointed by the Bronx borough president, said the DOE was rushing to close a school that was just beginning to show signs of improvement. Although Major proposed that the panel table its plans to vote on the school’s closure, her motion was voted down. The panel also voted to open a new transfer school called Bronx Arena that will replace Bronx Academy.

“Marc, I’m really hoping Arena only gets eight months, the same amount of time you gave this school,” Major said to Deputy Chancellor Sternberg.

Asked after the meeting whether eight months would be enough time to judge one of the city’s 11 transformation schools — many of which have been given new principals and support after years of little progress — Walcott sidestepped the question.

“We can’t tolerate slow, incremental change,” he said.

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede