State pressuring city for improvement plans, to partial response

State officials have grown anxious that the city won’t make a deadline to apply for $400 million in federal grants to improve failing schools.

Education Commissioner John King registered his anxiety in a letter last week to Marc Sternberg, head of the city Department of Education’s portfolio planning office. In an email, King wrote that the city has had months to finalize its plans for the grants, known as School Improvement Grants, and he wanted enough time to review the proposals before he approves them. That must happen before the end of the month.

King said he wanted to see the city’s plans by yesterday. The city responded by submitting a key section of the application: an explanation of how it plans to phase out 12 schools deemed “persistently lowest achieving” by the state.

According to details of the plan, released today, the city requested a total of $5.1 million to replace the schools with 17 smaller ones – or $300,000 per school. Five of the new schools opened this year and the rest are scheduled to open over the next two school years. (A list of the planned schools and their locations is below.)

The money will be used to ease the transition as low-performing schools phase out and new ones open in their place. The list includes only new schools, not schools that are already open, but will be moved into the buildings where phase-outs occur.

The plans come after months of wavering on the city’s application. “We have been limited in our ability to review NYC’s application because you have either submitted place holders for certain portions of the application or you have informed us that what you have submitted is evolving and will be resubmitted,” King wrote in his email to Sternberg.

The phase-out plans don’t entirely satisfy King’s request, however. “We have not yet received that completed application, ” said SED spokesman Jonathan Burman.

The application is to qualify for a slice of the $700 million in Race To The Top federal funds that New York State won last year. All districts in the state – especially those with low-performing schools – are required to submit detailed plans for how they would carry out reforms the state promised in its Race To The Top bid.

The city’s indecision on what to do with its “persistently lowest achieving” schools has been overshadowed by another still-up-in-the-air component of the federal grant application. The application requires the city and its teachers union to come to an agreement on teacher evaluations. Those negotiations are ongoing but neither side has signaled that an agreement is near.

Spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz acknowledged that the dwindling timeframe was “sensitive” but declined to comment further. She called the ongoing conversation with union officials “productive.”

There’s more than money on the line. The UFT and NAACP has filed a lawsuit against the DOE’s plan to close of 22 schools, including the 12 listed in the application. Union lawyers argue that without state approval, no school closures should be allowed to move forward.

Here’s the complete email from King to Sternberg:


As you are aware, SED has been informed by USED that it is their expectation that NY will make SIG 1003(g) awards by July 31st. You also are aware that we have provided you extended time and flexibility to finalize your applications. To this point, we have been limited in our ability to review NYC’s application because you have either submitted place holders for certain portions of the application or you have informed us that what you have submitted is evolving and will be resubmitted. Accordingly, to ensure that SED has sufficient time to review your application, I am requesting that NYCDOE submit a completed application package, including your  plans for the phasing in and phasing out of schools, that fully describes the intervention models that will be implemented at each school by no later than C.O.B on July 7. This submission should constitute your final application as you would like for it to be reviewed.

Please call me if you have any questions.



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 [email protected]

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”