turnaround tales

'Restart' partners say they plan to ease into management role

The radical “restart” plans for 14 struggling schools seem likely to get off to a slow start.

In exchange for millions of dollars in federal School Improvement Grants, the city announced this week that it would turn over the reins of 14 schools to nonprofit Education Partnership Organizations. But with the start of the school year just weeks away, those groups say that much of their first year will be spent assessing needs and adding support, not making drastic changes.

“Whenever you’re in a position of partnering, you’re always balancing the need of that sense of urgency with the idea that there is a certain risk or downside to, say, overhauling the master schedule two weeks before school starts,” said Doug Elmer, the director of Diplomas Now, which will manage Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn and Newtown High School in Queens.

The nonprofits put in their bids to take over schools — where they’ll control everything from curriculum to hiring to budgeting — in May. But after a delay while the city and teachers union hammered out a deal over teacher evaluations in the struggling schools, the groups learned only in the last two weeks that the city wanted them to become EPOs. And they found only just this week which schools they would take over. The city had asked the schools and organizations to rank each other, then paired them off.

“It was a little bit of a flurry,” said Sheepshead Bay Principal Reesa Levy of the matching process. But she said she was excited to work with Diplomas Now. “We’re actually thrilled. I think maybe this will give us that extra push.”

The federal government has promised up to $2 million a year for three years for the restart schools. Next week, the city’s school board, known as the Panel for Educational Policy, is set to vote on contracts for the EPOs that range from $690,000 to $1,885,000 annually.

Five days into the planning process, Elmer said that Diplomas Now is focused on what it knows it could implement quickly and effectively: additional support for teachers and students.

Levy said that she had already spoken with Elmer multiple times and that her school would be getting a full-time “transformation facilitator,” a full-time social worker, and City Year volunteers to serve as role models and tutors in the classroom.

Bob Hughes, president of New Visions, said his organization has no immediate plans to change the leadership teams at the three schools it is taking over, Automotive High School, Bushwick Community High School, and John Adams High School. “We want build on the strengths that they have,” he said, while noting that New Visions might make those changes in the future.

New Visions ran the support network for Automotive and Bushwick last year, and Bushwick’s principal Tira Randall said that her first choice had been to work with New Visions again.

Tim Farrell, New Visions’ communications director, said the partnership organization funding would allow for more extensive partnerships with organizations like Turnaround for Children for mental health support, CUNY’s At Home in College program for college readiness, and ReServe for college advising.

Other “restart” schools also had existing relationships with their newly-matched partner organization.

The Southern Regional Education Board, a group founded to improve schools in southern states but which now has programs in schools nationwide, was matched as an EPO with Grover Cleveland High School and Richmond Hill High School. SREB personnel had worked with Grover Cleveland already to set up and oversee the school’s ninth-grade academy last year.

“The difference in this effort will be that we’ll be focusing on expanding leadership capacity and expanding to the entire school,” said Scott Warren, SREB’s director of state initiatives who is overseeing the partnership.

The EPOs replace the superintendents of the schools that undergo restart, something that the city principals union criticized this week. But who exactly would fill the direct supervisory roles for these schools is not yet clear. Warren said that the SREB is interviewing candidates this week, and Farrell said that New Visions will be announcing a new director for the EPO soon.

Since the restart model hasn’t been tried in New York City before, schools and their EPOs will be working at breakneck speed to make plans before the start of the school year.

“The resources School Improvement Grants bring to table are terrific, but unfortunately, sometimes the timeline doesn’t leave for the traditional half or full year of planning,” Elmer said.

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.