vignettes

Schools slated for turnaround say they're already getting better

Teachers and students at the Flushing closure hearing wore red and glitter horns to represent the school's mascot, the Red Devils.

The Department of Education isn’t paying attention to recent improvements at the school it has proposed for “turnaround,” teachers and students said at two of the schools Wednesday evening.

At Flushing High School, teachers said during a public hearing about the turnaround plan that a recent leadership change had created conditions for success — and that any consideration of the school’s performance should taken into account its large immigrant population. At the Bronx High School of Business, teachers said the staff had been overhauled this year but hadn’t yet had a chance to demonstrated success.

The city has been holding public hearings about the turnarounds, which would require schools to be closed and reopened after replacing many teachers, since late last month. The final two hearings are tonight, and the city’s Panel for Educational Policy is set to vote on the 26 total proposals next week. It has never rejected a city proposal.

Flushing High School

According to the dozens of students and teachers who testified at Wednesday night’s closure hearing, Flushing High School is on the upswing after suffering from years of poor leadership and budget cuts.

More than 100 protesters of the city’s plan to close the school using the turnaround model struck a tone of optimism and passion as they sat in the Flushing auditorium, wearing red T-shirts and, in some cases, glittery horns to represent the school’s mascot, the Red Devils. A group of sophomores from a band class drummed forcefully on plastic tubs before city officials began the hearing, chanting, “Save our school.”

Deputy Chancellor David Weiner cited the school’s low four-year graduation rate — 60 percent for the past two years — as the main reason the Department of Education believes Flushing would benefit from turnaround. As he spoke, teachers and parents in the audience sporadically shouted over him. “Nobody wants this!” one called. “Fix truancy,” another shouted. A third person yelled, “They’re not English-speaking,” referring to Flushing’s large number of English Language Learners. Of Flushing’s 3,075 students, 618 are ELLs.

Jenny Chen, a Chinese teacher, said the school’s performance only appears to be lagging because many students arrive needing more than four years of English as a second language instruction to reach proficiency.

“Most of my students sitting in the audience are seniors. Three years ago when they left their motherland to start a new life at Flushing High School they barely spoke any English,” Chen said in her testimony. “To my mind, their achievements are more significant than those from Stuyvesant High School who will attend a prestigious college because our students’ social and economic background is extremely disadvantaged.”

Other people who testified said another factor out of teachers’ and students’ control — the school’s leadership — had led to poor performance.

Laura Spadacini, a long-time assistant principal at Flushing, said Cornelia Gutwein, the principal from 1997 to 2010, had made little effort to graduate students in four years and employed administrators who were unfamiliar with graduation requirements or student transcripts.

“The former principal here paid no attention to the graduation rate. You are holding us responsible for the mistakes that were made over the course of years,” she said. “We’re finally given an opportunity to move forward and the DOE decides to close us down.”

Spadacini also said Principal Carl Hudson, until last year a teacher at Flushing, had improved upon the previous administration but got only eight months to prove himself. The city already invited teachers and families to a “meet and greet” with the educator slated to replace him, Magdalen Radovich, now an assistant principal at another Queens school.

“We have a law program, an enterprise program, all cited in the [the city’s Education Impact Statement], and the kids are moving forward with these programs,” Spadacini added in an interview. “If we could expand what’s happening there to the rest of the building, there’s no need to close the school.”

Bronx High School of Business

Unlike at Flushing and other school turnaround hearings where droves of students and teachers have banded together in protest, things were quiet at the Bronx High School of Business.

No more than 40 students, parents, and teachers attended a public hearing about the small high school’s proposed turnaround, and their mood reflected resignation rather than resistance. Still, the school’s supporters said positive changes were underway and should be given a chance to boost the school’s performance.

Department of Education deputy chancellor Laura Rodriguez explained the department’s rationale in at a meeting held in the large auditorium of the Taft Educational Complex, which houses four different high schools. “By closing and replacing the Bronx High School of Business, we are seeking to rapidly create a school environment that will prepare students for college and life,” Rodriguez said.

The school landed on the state’s “Persistently Low-Achieving” schools list last year. As a result, last September it received a federal grant to undergo “restart,” and founding Principal Enrique Lizardi brought in a number of new expert teachers to teach English and special education. (Lizardi resigned last month; he would not be allowed to stay on under the rules of turnaround.)

Those teachers have not yet had a chance to show results, the school’s supporters said, since the decision to close the school was coming before students would take this year’s Regents exams. The teachers have not even served out a full year before the department decided to replace the school, they said.

“They’re not letting us continue the work we were doing with these kids,” said Elizabeth Solis, a teacher brought in under the restart model who is also the school’s union chapter leader. “The kids are sad, confused and upset but they feel powerless. The closing of the Bronx High School of Business is not about the children.”

Few students spoke at the hearing, but those who did said they were disappointed in the message the closure plan was sending. Rashid Gladden, a soft-spoken sophomore, said, “By shutting down this high school, you’ll hurt students. My teachers taught me to become a better leader and persevere.”

Sarah Tan, who covered the Bronx High School of Business hearing, is a graduate student at Columbia University’s journalism school

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised more than $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent running in District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. 

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since the state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.