special circumstances

Citing NCLB changes, transfer school seeks overhaul exemption

A transfer school that the city is planning to close is desperately trying to escape an accountability dragnet planted by No Child Left Behind.

Its plight could reshape how other transfer schools are assessed under a new accountability system the state is working to devise.

Bushwick Community High School is one of 33 schools that Mayor Bloomberg has said he wants to shut down and reopen after replacing half of the teachers. It landed on the list after its low graduation rate triggered penalties under city, state, and federal accountability systems.

BCHS teachers say the school is being penalized because it enrolls only students who have been unsuccessful in other high schools, making it unlikely for them to graduate on time. This week, the staff submitted a letter to Bloomberg arguing that he should remove BCHS from the list schools that the city is planning to “turn around.”

“BCHS’s placement on the PLA list is the illogical conclusion of a crude, one-size-fits all accountability system,” they wrote. “As a transfer school, BCHS is designed to be part of the solution for struggling students in the city, but the current accountability metrics punish us for working with our students while allowing the source of their failures to go undetected.”

It’s a position that state officials support and are even trying to turn into policy.

State education officials have visited the school often in recent months at the behest of Regent Kathleen Cashin, who believes the school was unfairly placed on the list.

“We must change the metrics to allow these schools to stay open,” said Cashin, who was accompanied by Chancellor Merryl Tisch on two of her visits to the school last last year. Ira Schwartz, the state education official in charge of devising a new accountability system for the state, has also met with teachers and administrators at the school.

Schwartz is leading efforts to craft New York’s application for a waiver from the draconian proficiency requirements of the Bush-era law No Child Left Behind. The state’s application, which will be finalized and submitted to the U.S. Department of Education next month, is set to include new language that will allow the state to have greater flexibility to assess transfer schools.

The schools have long been lumped in with traditional high schools for accountability purposes, even though their students are very different. Students who enter transfer schools have already struggled in other high schools, and many have been incarcerated, homeless, or parented children.

“These transfer schools provide an enormous opportunity for these students to turn themselves around,” said Tisch.

The new language would remove consequences from transfer schools if their graduation rates fall short — an inevitability when students enroll years into their high school careers, already far behind where they should be.

Tisch said she supports the special language in the NCLB waiver being considered for transfer schools. But she declined to comment on whether BCHS should be removed from the state and city accountability programs.

The school opened in 2004 with a mission of serving students no other high schools would enroll. Unlike most transfer schools, which require students to have earned some credits in other high schools, BCHS enrolls any student 17 or older who walks through the doors.

“This sets us apart from most other transfer schools,” said Aaron Boyle, a teacher at the school. “Our mission has always been to be open for all students to pursue their high school diploma.”

But it quickly earned a reputation for having one of the city’s lowest graduation rates and landed on the state’s list of schools facing consequences because of their performance. Last year, just 25 percent of students graduated in 6 years, the second lowest rate in the city. Among students who entered the school with fewer than 22 credits, the school ranked dead last.

Federal regulations allowed the state to evaluate transfer schools on a case-by-case basis when compiling their list of “persistently low-achieving” schools, an Obama administration designation that is based on NCLB’s rankings of schools.

No transfer schools landed on the state’s first list of “persistently low-achieving” schools, compiled in January 2010. But when an updated list came out in December 2010, two transfer schools were on it. One was BCHS.

For the last year and a half, the consequences of being on the list were palpable but not disruptive, teachers said. As a “restart” school, BCHS was partnered with a nonprofit group that took over some management duties. The nonprofit, New Visions, was leading efforts to pilot new teacher evaluations and helping teachers scrutinize student work.

Meanwhile, teachers at the school were helping state officials craft the language about transfer schools for the NCLB waiver and growing optimistic that the state was recognizing the BCHS’s plight.

But when Bloomberg announced that he would abandon the “restart” program in favor of a different plan that would not require him to negotiate new teacher evaluations with the city teachers union, the wind went out of BCHS’s sails.

“The state has already acknowledged that we’re not supposed to be on the PLA list and they’re actively pursuing a way to get us off it,” said David Donsky, a veteran teacher and UFT chapter leader. “The problem is the mayor might shut down our school before we can get reprieved.”

Superintendent Karen Watts will meet with staff  and parents tonight as part of an early engagement process that the city is organizing for each of the 33 schools due for closure under the turnaround model.

The full letter BCHS sent to Bloomberg is below.

An Open Letter to Mayor Bloomberg From the Staff of One of the 33 PLA Schools

January 18, 2012

Dear Mr. Mayor,

One of the 33 PLA schools you are proposing to close with the Turnaround Model is Bushwick Community High School (BCHS).  Taking such a step would recklessly intensify a process which is already being misapplied to our school, and would be a mistake with dire consequences for the young people of NYC who are most at risk.

BCHS is a transfer school, a second-chance high school serving students 17-21 years-old coming from unsuccessful experiences at other high schools in the city.  BCHS is not a “failing school” but one where students achieve significant academic growth.  Moreover, our school succeeds with some of the most challenging students: students who have previously dropped out of high school, students who have failed all their classes for years, students with learning disabilities, students who are parents, students who have been incarcerated, students who are involved with gangs, students without parents or guardians.

If BCHS is a good school, why is it on the PLA list? 

Good question.  The answer is that the PLA list is determined by the traditional measures of a school’s four-year graduation and Regents passing rates.  However, because we are a transfer school, BCHS students come to us for the exact reason that they are off-track from finishing their academic requirements on a four-year timeframe.  Most of our students begin at BCHS at age 17 or 18 with fewer than 15 credits.  It is mathematically impossible for our students to graduate “on time,” due to the lack of success they had at their previous schools.  Yet, we are the ones being held accountable under the current system.

Do you have any evidence to support the claim that BCHS is successful? 

Yes.  Students routinely demonstrate improved outcomes over their prior school experience with us, and on the transfer school-specific Alternative Cohort, our school made AYP for Regents exam performance in the 2010/11 school year.  Additionally, our school’s NYC Progress Report highlights much of our success.  Compared to the other transfer schools BCHS is given a 95% for improving student attendance, a 90% for our English Regents pass rate, and a100% for our Math Regents pass rate.  This means BCHS is performing at the top of our peer group of schools in these vital areas.  These factors contribute to our grade of “B” for “Student Progress.”

In addition, the city’s most recent Quality Review of the school characterized BCHS as “proficient overall” with many “well-developed” areas.  Here’s a quote from the city’s last quality review:  [BCHS] embraces some of the city’s most over-aged and under-credited students reflecting their philosophy that all students deserve a second chance. To this end, all stakeholders are highly effective in collectively supporting the specific needs of each individual student in a safe, secure environment that students love to come to.

BCHS’s placement on the PLA list is the illogical conclusion of a crude, one-size-fits all accountability system.  As a transfer school, BCHS is designed to be part of the solution for struggling students in the city, but the current accountability metrics punish us for working with our students while allowing the source of their failures to go undetected.  This contradiction has been widely recognized and is currently being addressed by New York State.  For BCHS to be gutted in the meantime by political brinksmanship would be a tragic consequence of an accountability process gone awry.

What are the consequences of removing half the staff?

Devastating.  Our school currently has a strong team of talented and highly motivated teachers, but being on the PLA list has already hindered our ability to attract and retain talented teachers.  Last year, because we were on the PLA list, none of the seven teachers who were eligible for tenure were approved by the superintendent, despite being recommended for tenure by our principal.  As a result, many left.  Replacing them wasn’t easy.  One replacement, a first-year teacher, had to leave the school in December.  We are still searching for a suitable replacement.  If we can’t replace one teacher, how will we replace half the staff?  Where would these replacements come from?  Ironically, we would be forced to recruit from the 1500 teachers laid off by the closing of the other 32 schools.  Is this disruptive game of musical chairs really your solution?

You have been an advocate for improving the teacher evaluation system.  We acknowledge the shortcomings of the previous system and would welcome a new system that accurately assesses our abilities and gives us useful feedback.  However, a process with the pre-determined conclusion of 50% of teachers being pushed out is hardly a fair or effective effort along those lines.  It is a cynical blame game that will remove many good teachers, extinguish collaborative efforts and relationships among the faculty, fill the school with a bunch of new teachers, and demoralize those who remain.  How is that a winning scenario for our students?

We acknowledge the NYC school system faces enormous challenges, but sacrificing teachers as simple scapegoats is not a solution.  The path you are pushing our schools down will only result in more children left behind.  Let’s end the political games and work together on collaborative, comprehensive strategies that can truly improve the complex issues of our school system.


The Staff of Bushwick Community High School

Building Better Schools

How a new principal led her neighborhood school to the biggest ISTEP gains in Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 39 had the largest jump in passing rates on the state math and English tests in the district.

Breakfast at School 39 was a little bit hectic on a recent Wednesday, as staff urged kids to eat their bananas, yogurts and cereal.

But principal Stacy Coleman was calm as she stood among the tables of kindergartners and first graders. “Big bites now,” she said, as the bell approached.

Coleman is in her second year as principal of School 39, also known as William McKinley, a traditional neighborhood school on the edge of Fountain Square. In Coleman’s first year of leadership, the school achieved an unusual feat: Passing rate on both the math and English ISTEP climbed to 28 percent in 2017, up 9.7 percentage points over the prior year — the biggest jump of any school in Indianapolis Public Schools.

That progress caught the eye of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who highlighted McKinley as a school the district could learn from.

“We hired a great new leader,” said Ferebee. “She’s really focused on the culture of the school and using data to inform instruction.”

A Michigan native, Coleman has been an educator for seven years. She joined IPS three years ago as assistant principal at School 31, also known as James A. Garfield, a neighborhood school two miles from the campus she now leads.

Chalkbeat sat down with Coleman to talk about School 39 and the school’s remarkable jump in passing rates. Below is an excerpt from our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

What’s your school community like here?

We are a working-class neighborhood. Our families are working class — very supportive parents. Teachers call, they answer. They are up here. They care about their child’s well-being.

The neighborhood around us is changing. Gentrification is occurring, and it’s moving fast. However, we have not seen a change in our population of students yet.

We canvas the neighborhood quite often, me and my parent involvement educator. A lot of people we’ve talked to don’t have kids, and if they do have kids, they are not school-age yet.

You guys had this big bump in your test scores — the biggest in the district. What did you think when you saw that?

I felt so filled with emotion because I saw all the hard work that my teachers were doing, and I saw what we were doing with the kids. It just was nice to see the gains from the hard work.

You’re seeing the flowers that you’ve planted.

What do you think led to this big jump in test scores?

We really focused on making this a positive and safe environment for our students — and our staff. Changing staff morale, changing student morale and motivation.

We focused on empowering our teachers and putting that ownership on them.

What did you do to empower your teachers?

Allowing for professional learning community meetings to be teacher directed. It’s not like a staff meeting. It’s teachers talking and collaborating with each other, being transparent in our teaching practices, opening the doors of our classroom for other teachers to come in.

We did instructional rounds. Teachers went into other classrooms and observed a problem of practice and debriefed about those and put specific strategies into their classrooms.

As a teacher, I found a lot of power in those professional learning community meetings because that was when you got to delve into the numbers. You delve into the data and really understand how your students are doing.

Was there anything you feel like you stole from the last school you were at where you were assistant principal?

We do a lot of positive behavior interventions and supports here at William McKinley. We did a lot of them at James A. Garfield. We amped them up, last year and again this year.

Like, this year, we have Coleman cash. Every day a student is nominated by their teacher, and they get to go to the front of the lunch line. They get to sit at a special table in the cafeteria with a tablecloth and a centerpiece. They also get to invite a friend. They get to talk when everybody else is silent. All those good things.

On Friday, for staff, we are going to be superheroes. Then we take a picture, and classes are going to vote on them.

The students get to see us enjoying ourselves, and it’s a little bit of a fun Friday.

We’re just making it a great place to work and a great place to learn for our students.

Educator diversity

Aurora Public Schools’ principals more racially diverse this year, but district still lagging behind

File photo of kindergarten students at Laredo Elementary in Aurora.

In the most diverse city in Colorado, school district officials have struggled to hire and retain principals of color.

The issue isn’t unique to Aurora Public Schools. But one change made three years ago to how Aurora hires principals is now slowly increasing diversity among school leaders, officials say.

The revamped hiring process wasn’t aimed at increasing diversity, but rather at increasing quality and minimizing biased or preferential hiring decisions, officials say.

“Systems that are more likely to have bias are less likely to have diversity,” said John Youngquist, Aurora’s chief academic officer. “Systems that are engaging these kinds of processes that allow people to demonstrate behaviors they’ve practiced over time, are ones that allow those high quality candidates to get to the top. I know is this is a practice that increases the level of diversity.”

This fall, 10 percent of Aurora principals are black, and 14 percent are Hispanic, up from 9 percent that were black and 7 percent that were Hispanic last year.

It’s an improvement, but the numbers still represent a gap with the diversity in the district and in the city. Eighteen percent of Aurora Public Schools students are black and more than 50 percent are Hispanic. The city of Aurora has similar demographics, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates.

State data tracking both principals and assistant principals by race showed the Aurora district had lower percentages of school leaders who were black or Hispanic in 2016 than in 2013. Numbers for the current school year are not yet available.

This year, the numbers of teachers who are not white are smaller and farther from representing the student or community demographics than they are for principals.

Research has shown that students of color benefit from having teachers of color. Having diverse and highly qualified principals helps leaders in turn attract and hire high quality and diverse teachers, Youngquist said.

Aurora superintendent Rico Munn said that increasing diversity is a priority but said he isn’t sure how many educators of color Aurora schools should aspire to have.

“For our workforce to mirror the community, I don’t know that there’s enough educators in the state,” Munn said.

Elizabeth Meyer, associate professor of education and associate dean for undergraduate and teacher education at CU Boulder, said all districts should be striving to see an upward trend in the numbers, not necessarily trying to reach a certain percentage as a goal.

She said that issues in diversifying teachers and principal pools are similar, but that teachers of color who are supported can be the ones who can then go on and become principals.

“We’re already limited because teaching demographics are overwhelmingly white women,” Meyer said. “We do need to find ways to make teaching a more desirable profession, especially for people of color.”

Meyer said that while there are nationwide and statewide issues to be addressed, districts need to incentivize teachers by paying higher wages, create environments that are inclusive for teachers already in the district and have visible leaders of color.

“It’s not enough to just want to recruit people in,” Meyer said. “Retention is the other part of the problem.”

When Youngquist’s office led the change in how the Aurora district hires principals, the focus was to increase the quality of school leaders and remove bias that could allow a person to be invited into the process “just with a tap on the shoulder,” he said.

The new process requires a team of district leaders and other principals to observe candidates as they are asked to model practices through scenarios and demonstrations of situations they’re likely to confront as principals.

Yolanda Greer, principal of Aurora’s Vista Peak Exploratory was one of the first to go through that new hiring process three years ago.

Yolanda Greer, principal of Vista Peak Exploratory in Aurora.

“I will tell you at the end of it I certainly felt like I had been through a triathalon of some sorts,” Greer said. “But I do recall saying at every point, ‘I’m so impressed. I’m so appreciative that APS is taking the thoughtfulness that went behind creating this process to make sure we have leaders that are prepared.’ It made me want to be here even more.”

Speaking at a community meeting last month, Munn said the neighboring districts of Denver and Cherry Creek can offer more money, so Aurora must focus on other appeals to hire and retain diverse educators.

“We have to think about what’s the right atmosphere or what’s the right way that we can recruit or retain people in a way that makes them want to be part of what we’re doing here in APS,” Munn said. “Our ultimate winning advantage there is that we have a strong connection to the community. We also demonstrate to potential staff members that we are a district that has momentum. We are a district where there is opportunity. We are a district that can truly impact the community that we serve.”

Greer said she felt that draw to Aurora long before she applied for the principal position.

“I think because there was a public perception that Aurora was an underdog,” Greer said. “It’s a great opportunity to not only impact the school but the district and community.”

Though Aurora district officials are happy with how the principal process is playing out, they started working with a Virginia-based consultant last year to look at all hiring practices in the district. Munn said part of that work will include looking at whether the district is doing enough to increase diversity.

Like most school districts, Aurora has sent officials to recruit new educators from Historically Black Colleges and Hispanic Serving Institutions.

One thing that Greer said is in a district’s control is allowing a culture where issues of inequity can be discussed. In Aurora, she said she feels comfortable raising issues of student equity if she sees them.

For her, seeing other people of color in leadership positions in the district, including the superintendent, also made her feel welcome.

“In Aurora when I walk into leadership meetings, there’s a lot of people that look like me, so there’s that connectivity,” Greer said. “There’s open conversations and people listen.”

Earlier this year, Greer was reminded of the impact that leaders of color can have when her elementary students were asked to dress up for the job they hoped to have when they grew up.

Several of the students came to school dressed as their principal, Greer said.

“I want to make sure students of color can see someone that looks like them,” she said. “When they can see me in the specific role in education and they can say, ‘Wow, that can be something admirable and I want to aspire to that,’ it’s a big deal.”