breaking news

City pulls seven schools with top ratings from turnaround plans

Just days after telling the state that it wanted to “turn around” 33 schools, the city has knocked that number down to 26.

Department of Education officials notified principals at seven of the schools with top grades on the city’s internal assessment of school quality their schools would no longer be slated for turnaround.

Turnaround is a federally prescribed school reform process that requires half of teachers to be replaced. In the model the city is using in order to win federal funds, the schools would have been closed and reopened with new names and new staffs this summer. The department had been criticized roundly for proposing to turn around seven schools that had met the city’s own benchmarks by receiving A’s or B’s on their annual progress reports.

The city’s shocking about-face comes less than a week after the city submitted formal applications to the state for approval and just hours before one of the schools on the list, Brooklyn’s School for Global Studies, was set to have a public hearing about its closure. Another school on the list, Harlem Renaissance High School, had a closure hearing last week.

In addition to Global Studies and Harlem Renaissance, the five other schools no longer slated for turnaround are William E. Grady Career and Technical High School, Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, I.S. 136, William Maxwell Career and Technical High School, and Cobble Hill School of American Studies.

Chancellor Dennis Walcott said in a statement that department officials had concluded the schools could improve without radically overhauling their staffs.

“After careful consideration, including school visits from my leadership team, we have come to believe that these schools have strong enough foundations to improve — and today, I have decided that we will not move forward with proposals to close and replace these seven,” Walcott said in a statement.

Walcott said the department would “continue to support these schools in their growth,” but it was not immediately clear whether schools would receive the same level of additional funding that they would have received under turnaround or would be able to carry out the improvement plans submitted to the state. Five of the schools received millions of dollars in 2010 and 2011 under less aggressive overhaul strategies, and many of their principals credited their rapid improvement to the funds.

Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said she was surprised but “delighted” by the news — provided that the city continues to assist the schools that were pulled off the turnaround list with extra funds.

“I applaud the city for taking a more thoughtful approach to the use of the turnaround model,” she said. “Turnaround was never meant to capture schools that had clearly shown patterns of improving. The last thing we want to do is disturb a school that’s in an improvement pattern. I am deeply gratified by the city’s ability to judge these schools on their own merits.”

Tisch had twice visited at least one of the top-rated schools, Grady, and proclaimed that it was headed in “a fine direction.” During her second visit, she brought along State Education Commissoner John King, who must approve the turnaround applications if they are to receive federal funding.

Reached by phone today, Grady’s principal, Geraldine Maione, said she would inform her teachers about the change tomorrow. “God is good,” she said.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who has been a vocal opponent of the turnaround plans, said the switch underlined the union’s critiques about the city’s school accountability metrics.

“The idea that A and B schools deserved to be closed made a mockery of the DOE’s system, as the agency has apparently now realized,” he said in a statement, adding that some of the other schools on the list also do not meet the city’s criteria for closure. Schools with three consecutive C grades are eligible for closure under the city’s rules, but 13 schools on the turnaround list with C’s on their most recent progress reports had received higher grades in the previous two years.

Mulgrew also urged the city to find ways to help the other 26 schools that are not being removed from the turnaround list. Most of them had been undergoing less aggressive processes known as “transformation” and “restart” — processes that did not require any teachers to be replaced — before Mayor Bloomberg announced the turnaround plan in January.

“There are 26 other schools that have improvement strategies in place,” Mulgrew said. “The focus should now be on helping make those plans a reality, rather than mindlessly closing schools that can and should be fixed.”

Teachers at the schools pulled off of the list reacted with a mixture of shock and relief. The removal caps a tumultuous three-month period in which the schools lost federal funding when the city and UFT failed to agree on new teacher evaluations for them; were proposed to close despite passing grades on the city’s own metrics; and saw their principals participate in a planning process that would have reshaped their offerings and staff rosters.

“This year especially has been so insane that it’s hard to know what’s happening moment to moment,” said a teacher at the Cobble Hill School of American Studies about the latest news. “It’s hard to know how to feel.”

The teacher said Cobble Hill teachers were already scheduled to find out at a faculty meeting Tuesday who would be the school’s principal next year. Now the faculty meeting is likely to contain very different news.

The city will continue to hold closure hearings for the 26 schools remaining on the list while waiting for King’s decision about whether to fund their turnaround overhauls. Two of the schools, Grover Cleveland High School and Herbert H. Lehman High School, have their hearings today.

“Obviously Cleveland is not on the list. This is very disappointing for us but we will not give up,” Diane Rodriguez, a Cleveland senior, told classmates and supporters at a rally before the school’s hearing. “Tonight we will show that we have a voice and will not give in.”

Big gains

No. 1: This Denver turnaround school had the highest math growth in Colorado

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
University Prep Steele Street students at a celebration of their test scores Friday.

Denver’s University Prep faced a gargantuan task last year: Turn around a school where the previous year just 7 percent of third- through fifth-graders were on grade level in math and 6 percent were on grade level in English.

On Friday morning, dozens of those students — dressed in khaki pants and button-up sweaters — clustered on the lawn to listen to officials celebrate their charter school, University Prep Steele Street, for showing the most academic growth in Colorado on last spring’s state standardized math tests.

The high-poverty school also had the eighth-highest growth on state English tests. Another Denver charter, KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy high school, had the first-highest.

“I want to say clearly to all of you that no one is ever going to tell you what you can and can’t do — ever,” University Prep founder and executive director David Singer told his students. “You’re going to remind them what you did in a single year.”

By the end of last year, 43 percent of University Prep Steele Street third- through fifth-graders were at grade level in math and 37 percent were at grade level in English, according to state tests results released Thursday.

University Prep Steele Street students scored better, on average, than 91 percent of Colorado students who had similar tests scores the year before in math and better than 84 percent of students who had similar scores in English.

As Singer noted Friday, that type of skyrocketing improvement is rare among turnaround schools in Denver and nationwide.

“This might be one of the biggest wins we’ve ever seen in our city, our state and our country of what it truly means to transform a school,” he said.

Many of the kids were previously students at Pioneer Charter School, one of the city’s first-ever charters. Founded in 1997 in northeast Denver, Pioneer had struggled academically in recent years, posting some of the lowest test scores in all of Denver Public Schools.

In 2015, Pioneer’s board of directors decided to close the school, which served students in preschool through eighth grade. University Prep, an elementary charter school a couple miles away, applied to take it over. But unlike many school turnarounds, it wouldn’t be a gradual, one-grade-at-a-time, phase-in, phase-out transition. Instead, University Prep would be responsible for teaching students in kindergarten through fifth grade on day one.

“When Pioneer Charter School became an option and we looked at our results up to that point of time and what we believed to be our capacity … we saw an opportunity,” Singer said.

A former math teacher at nearby Manual High School, which has itself been subject to several turnaround efforts, Singer started University Prep after becoming frustrated with the reality faced by many of his teenage students, who often showed up with gaps in their knowledge.

“When you walk into school at 14 or 15 and have a huge gap, the likelihood you get to be whatever you want to be is diminished,” he said.

The key to changing that, Singer realized, would be to start students on a path to success earlier. That’s why University Prep’s tagline is, “College starts in kindergarten.”

“It’s a significantly better pathway than the one of intense catch-up on the backend,” Singer said.

University Prep Arapahoe Street opened as a standalone charter school in 2010. Last year, its fourth- and fifth-graders outperformed district averages on both the English and math tests.

Several teachers and staff members from the original campus helped open Steele Street in 2016. The school started with 226 students, 89 percent of whom qualified for subsidized lunches. Ninety-seven percent were students of color and 71 percent were English language learners, more than twice the percentage in the district as a whole.

The biggest difference from the year before, Singer said, were the expectations. The work was more rigorous and there was more of it: three hours of literacy and more than 100 minutes of math each day as part of a schedule that stretched from 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Lauren Argue was one of the teachers that moved from the original campus to Steele Street. She and Singer said the other big difference was the honest feedback students received from their teachers. That included sharing with students the fact that they were several grade levels behind, and starting the year by re-teaching second-grade math to fourth-graders.

“We had conversations of, ‘Here is where you’re at,’ but also expressing our unwavering belief that, ‘By the end of the year, you will grow a tremendous amount,’” Argue said.

While those hard conversations may have been uncomfortable at first for students and their families, Argue said they embraced them once they saw the progress students were making — progress that teachers made sure to celebrate at every opportunity.

“Kids learned the joy of what it means to do hard academic work and get through to the other side,” Singer said. “That became a source of pride.”

Ten-year-old Abril Sierra attended Pioneer since preschool. This year, she’s a fifth-grader at University Prep. On Friday, she said that while at times she thought her brain might explode, it felt good to tackle harder work. She credited her teachers with helping her achieve.

“The things that changed were definitely the perspective of how the teachers see you and believe in you,” Sierra said. “…They make you feel at home. You can trust them.”

By the numbers

NYC announces it will subsidize hiring from Absent Teacher Reserve — and sheds light on who is in the pool

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Ever since the city announced a new policy for placing teachers without permanent positions into schools, Chalkbeat and others have been asking questions about just who is in the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve.

Now we have some answers.

The education department released figures on Friday that show a quarter of teachers currently in the the pool were also there five years ago, and a third ended up in the ATR because of disciplinary or legal issues. The average salary for teachers this past year was $94,000, according to the data.

The city also said it would extend budget incentives for schools that hire educators from the ATR, a change to its initial announcement. Principals have raised concerns about the cost of hiring from the ATR, since its members tend to be more senior, and therefore more expensive, than new teachers.

The ATR is comprised of teachers who don’t have regular positions, either because their jobs were eliminated or because of disciplinary issues. It cost almost $152 million in the last school year — far more than previously estimated — and currently stands at 822 teachers.

In July, the city announced a plan to cut the pool in half by placing teachers into vacancies still open after the new school year begins — even potentially over principals’ objection.

Critics have argued that the city’s new placement policy could place ineffective teachers in the neediest classrooms. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis called the move “shockingly irresponsible” in a statement.

“There are reasons why no principal has chosen to hire them and this policy is bad for kids, plain and simple,” she said.

But Randy Asher, the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School who is now responsible for helping to shrink the pool, called the new policy “a common sense approach to treating ATR teachers like all other teachers,” since they now have the opportunity to be evaluated by a school principal.

Here’s what the latest numbers tell us about who is in the pool.

How did educators end up in the Absent Teacher Reserve?

Most of the educators in the ATR were placed there because their schools had closed (38 percent) or due to budget cuts (30 percent.)

Another 32 percent entered the pool because of a legal or disciplinary case.

How effective are they?

A majority — 74 percent — received an evaluation rating of “highly effective,” “effective” or “satisfactory” in 2015-16, the most current year available. Current ratings for teachers citywide were not immediately available, but in 2014-15, 93 percent of teachers overall were rated effective or highly effective, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Twelve percent of teachers in the pool received an “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” rating in 2015-16, and about 7 percent received a “developing” rating, one step up from ineffective.

Some teachers in the ATR say evaluations can be unfair since teachers are often placed in classrooms outside of the subjects they are equipped to teach and because they are bounced between classrooms.

Asked whether teachers with poor ratings would be placed in classrooms, Asher said “all” teachers in the ATR have traditionally been placed in school assignments.

“They’re in schools, no matter what. It’s a question of what is their role in the school, and how are they supported and evaluated,” he said. “Obviously we will look at each individual teacher and each individual assignment on a case-by-case basis.”

How experienced are they?

Teachers in the ATR have an average of 18 years of experience with the education department, and earn an average salary of $94,000. By comparison, the base salary for a New York City teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000.

How long have they been in the pool?

Almost half the educators who are currently in the pool were also there two years ago. A quarter were in the ATR five years ago. That doesn’t mean that teachers have remained in the ATR for that entire time. They could have been hired for a time, and returned to the pool.

Still, the figures could be fuel for those who argue educators in the ATR either aren’t seriously looking for permanent jobs — or that the educators in the pool are simply undesirable hires.

How will schools pay for them?

Teachers in the ATR have argued that their higher salaries are one reason principals avoid hiring them — a concern that principals voiced in a recent Chalkbeat report.

“This is part of the injustice of the ATR placement,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “Schools might not want them and they will cost schools more in the future, taking away from other budget priorities.”

Under the policy announced Friday, the education department will subsidize the cost of ATRs who are permanently hired, paying 50 percent of their salaries next school year and 25 percent the following school year.

Where have they worked previously?

This question is important because the answer gives a sense of where educators in the ATR are likely to be placed this fall. The education department’s original policy called for an educator to be placed within the same district they left, but the change announced in July allowed for placement anywhere within the same borough.

Almost half of ATR members, as of June 2016-17, came from high schools. That isn’t surprising: Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein targeted large high schools for closure, breaking them up into smaller schools as part of a turnaround strategy.

Of the school districts serving K- 8 students, District 19 in Brooklyn’s East New York and District 24 in Queens had among the most educators in the ATR. Each had 26.

What subjects do they teach?

The largest share of teachers in the ATR — 27 percent — are licensed to teach in early childhood or elementary school grades. Another 11 percent are licensed social studies teachers, 9 percent are math teachers and 8 percent are English teachers.

Questions have been raised in the past about whether the teachers in the pool had skills that were too narrow or out of date. A 2010 Chalkbeat story found that a quarter of teachers then in the pool were licensed to teach relatively obscure classes like swimming, jewelry-making and accounting.