Vox populi

Voices from turnaround hearings reflect on schools' qualities

Public hearings about the city’s plan to “turn around” dozens of struggling city schools have attracted vociferous protest. But behind the anger and frustration we found teachers and students who had carefully considered their schools’ need to improve and the potential effects of the turnaround plan.

At six hearings in four boroughs, teachers and students said their schools had not been given enough time to improve with the help of federal School Improvement Grants, and warned that turnaround would make improvement more difficult. Here’s what some of them told us when we asked them to delve deeper into their thoughts about their schools’ pasts, presents, and future.

Joe Puntino, social studies teacher at Automotive High School

What changes have the School Improvement Grants brought to your school so far?

“I don’t know where this money went. Last year, the one when we were [using the federal model called] transformation, it seemed to me that most of the money went to pizza. Every event we had, the students had, there were 20 pizza pies.

The only thing that I see that New Visions, [the non-profit that supervises Automotive,] has actually done, which is a good thing, is they brought in something called “Datacation,” which is a great tool. It’s the best thing they’ve done. It’s basically a one-stop store for teachers. Gradebook, anecdotal logs, contact information. It’s a great tool. The only thing I can positively say that they did well. Other than that, they walk around into our classrooms, they jot down notes and you hear nothing.”

In what areas do you think the school needs further improvement?

“For the students coming in here, there can’t be 40 percent with [Individualized Education Plans for special education students]. Any school’s going to fail with 40 percent IEPs. There had to be a better proportion of non-IEPS to IEPs. We’ll take them, we’ll teach them, we love them, but 40 percent? Any school isn’t going to make the benchmark that the state wants.”

Alona Geller, English teacher and Cheerleading coach at Sheepshead Bay High School

What changes have the School Improvement Grants brought to your school so far?

“I started here when I was 22 years old. And I’ve been teaching for seven [years]. I think a lot of improvements have taken place. Any money granted to us is used for trips and programs and supplies, the kids have everything tha they need, and I know friends of mine in other schools don’t have those things.

This year in particular, we have City Year in the building, the ninth graders have a lot of support, and they’re thriving in away I haven’t seen before. City Year greets the kids at the door, they provide tutoring services, they’re in our classrooms, they follow the kids all day long and see what subjects they’re struggling with. They really keep up the morale for the students and for the teachers.”

Tony Cipolla, a social studies teacher at Grover Cleveland High School

What changes have the School Improvement Grants brought to your school so far?

What we’re starting now are these Small Learning Communities, and that will really be starting in full force next year. Students will be able to chose which small learning community they want to go into, based on interest. There’s one for health, there’s one for hospitality and tourism. The goal with that is that the more interested they are in school the better their attendance would be, the better their participation would be, and everybody wins.

The new principal, [Denise Vittor]—She’s been a great benefit for all of us.  She spent many years at Queens Vocational High School, and she has a track record of turning schools around.

Robin Kovat, social studies teacher at Sheepshead Bay High School

What changes have the School Improvement Grants brought to your school so far?

“Well, they instituted [the “restart” reform model], and we started it, and then they threw this wrench into our works, so the morale now is really going down because part of it involves a buy-in for the staff but nobody knows if they’re going to be here next year. I think dividing it into academies would really be wonderful if we keep the people here who can actually make a difference, who have been shown to make a difference, who have already made a difference.”

Vashtee Ragoonanan, a senior at Grover Cleveland High School

Some teachers at your school may be replaced under the turnaround plan. How would that affect the school?

“If they replace 50 percent [of the teaching staff], student bonds are going to be lost and kids are going to be disconnected with their teachers. I’m afraid students will start losing interest in their class and stuff like that, that they’re not even going to try. Those bonds with teachers are very important.

In the plant science program with Mr. [Russell] Nitchman, we produce our own vegetables and we sell them. We have a greenhouse on the side of our building and we’re working right now to grow produce we can sell at our school, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, vegetables.”

In what areas do you think the school needs further improvement?

“The school does need to improve academically, but to get there, definitely not by firing 50 percent of the staff. Maybe more funding for our school, maybe if we get more funding we could possibly get more technology.”

Lakisha Innocent, a junior at Sheepshead Bay High School

In what areas do you think the school needs further improvement?

“The attendance is really bad, and the lateness. And just to increase the Regents [exam] grades because people really don’t study. Students just need to be motivated more, to have a reason to come to school.”

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.


Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.