turnaround tales

Global Studies bets 'transformation' funds on new tech, staff

School for Global Studies "master" teacher, Natasha Blakley, prepares for the start of school in the Brooklyn school's new computer lab, purchased with federal funds.

To Joseph O’Brien, principal of Brooklyn’s School for Global Studies, there is no clearer indication of how new federal funds have led to higher achievement than Room 326.

The classroom-turned-computer lab, outfitted with 35 Apple computers purchased last winter, is being used by students to recover credits toward graduation and study languages online, and by parents who lack Internet access at home. In addition to two laptop carts and new smartboards for a dozen classrooms, the lab replaces the school’s once-meager technology offerings, which included aging classroom computers hampered by viruses and two broken smartboards.

“For the first time, our students were able to have a dedicated room where they could use the computer on their own time, whether after school or on their lunch hour, with staffed personnel,” he said.

Tasked with raising the school’s graduation rate when the Department of Education appointed him to run Global Studies last year, O’Brien sees the new lab as a main tool. He paid for the lab with $170,000 of the $890,000 in federal School Improvement Grants awarded to Global Studies because it landed on the state’s list of lowest-performing schools last year—requiring the city to overhaul it.

For Global Studies and 10 other schools on the list, the city chose “transformation,” meaning they would receive new principals and nearly $2 million in School Improvement Grants over three years to buy extra supplies and support. The city is starting to overhaul another 33 schools this year under three improvement models.

As the 6th through 12th-grade school enters its second year of transformation — bringing it a second infusion of cash — O’Brien said change is already being felt.

“We are no longer the school that we once were,” he said. “This school is really becoming an oasis of learning.”

Now he just has to convince families that that’s true. 

“In the last five years I can count on one hand how many kids have gone to Global” from P.S. 58, a high-performing elementary school in nearby Carroll Gardens, said Lorie Glazer, a guidance counselor there. “It’s a school that is in the district, but it’s not a very sought-after school for our students.”

For years, enrollment at Global Studies has been shrinking, down to 400 this year. DOE space estimates, which many believe are inflated, say it could accommodate another 150 students or more.

“We’re always looking for more students. I want to get an awareness for our school and how successful we are right now,” said O’Brien, who previously was an assistant principal at Ralph R. McKee Career and Technical High School in Staten Island. “But that reputation is very difficult to break.”

Boosting enrollment would cushion the school’s budget — schools get more money for each student they serve, so adding students would pay off in Global Studies’ budget long after transformation funds are set to dry up — and also bring it one crucial step away from being shuttered. The city takes demand for a school into account when deciding which schools to close.

But getting more families to sign on could be a tall order. The low-slung building on Court Street, which houses two schools, has long kept a low profile. Some would-be applicants were likely scared away after the school made news in 2008 when several students were arrested for giving teachers a laxative-spiked cake as a senior prank, and again in 2009 when the principal at the time was arrested for allegedly attacking her husband with a box-cutter.

The real damage came when the high school was one of just nine schools to land an “F” on its city’s progress report last year. O’Brien called the grade “a scarlet letter” that he hopes will change when the city releases new school grades next month.

He said the new data would show a significant jump in the school’s graduation rate and English Regents exam passing rate.

O’Brien’s emphasis on testing reflects a sharp shift in philosophy for the school, which was founded as an alternative high school where students would be graded on projects instead of standardized tests. Because the school belongs to the Coalition of Essential Schools, students have in the past been exempted from almost all of the Regents exams required for graduation at most schools. But beginning this year, 9th-graders will take all the exams mandated by the state.

Luis Sierra, a junior who has attended the school since sixth grade, said this year, teachers seem to be taking academics more seriously, telling students that they wouldn’t tolerate late work, as some did in the past.

Another student, an 11th-grader who attended middle school on Long Island, said the school was becoming more demanding. “The change is good,” she said. “It’s more like what I’m used to. It’s what I need — the classes before weren’t really challenging.”

O’Brien attributes the boost in performance, in part, to the presence of computers that allow students to use Plato Online, a curriculum software program, to recover credits after failing classes—a practice that has come under scrutiny for allowing teachers to give students passing grades they have not earned. Global Studies students said they have been scrambling to make up credits after disorganization under the previous principals put them off track to graduate.

O’Brien said the computers also allow students who do not have Internet access at home time to complete assignments and become more aware of their graduation requirements and goals they need to meet—something that he hopes will attract more families to Global Studies.

O’Brien spent $170,000 of his federal grants on computer technology and on hiring Clare Daley, the school’s technology teacher. He has also funded in-class coaching for teachers and has plans to bolster after-school programming this year with band and drama programs, which will make use of the school’s new black-box theater, which was once an empty classroom.

And at a time when many schools’ staffs are contracting, O’Brien has added a host of new positions. In addition to Daley, over two years, he has brought on an assistant principal of safety and security, a band teacher, one “turnaround” teacher and six “master” teachers (one of whom left last year).

“They’re trying to fix [the school],” one student said about the new administration while waiting for class to begin on a recent morning. She said the school seemed more organized this year, with students getting their new schedules and Metrocards for the first time before the year began.

But she said change had come at a cost: “All the good teachers left” over the summer, she said.

Twelve of the school’s 29 teachers are new this year, a fact that O’Brien related to the transformation process.

“Some teachers felt like being a transformation school is a lot of work,” he said. Six teachers left for other schools in June.

O’Brien said he was confident that teachers who stayed are on board with plans to improve the school.

One of them is Daley, who is helping students receive certification in Microsoft Office and IC3—a computing curriculum recognized in the technology industry.

“We’re also looking into becoming an Apple site, so students could be certified as Apple technicians,” she said. “That means they would be able to walk out of here able to land a position at Apple.”

Daley said that, besides providing students with valuable job skills, the computers are addressing a need particular to the high-poverty school’s families.

“Sometimes the assumption is that all students have the resources that we have at home. Many of them don’t have access to technology at home,” Daley said.

According to O’Brien, parents will be able to use the computer labs outside of class time to search for jobs and take online classes in a second-language thanks to a newly-purchased site license for the entire school community to use Rosetta Stone language software. This year every teacher received an iPad, which they will use to track student performance, access transcripts, and take notes.

“I thank god every day that we have the School Improvement Grant funds,” he said.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.