breaking news

City withdraws "turnaround" plans at two high-profile high schools

Students crowded the auditorium at a public hearing last week at Bushwick Community High School.

When the Panel for Educational Policy meets tonight to consider dozens of proposals for school “turnaround,” two high schools with a host of a heavyweight supporters won’t be on the agenda.

Bushwick Community High School and Grover Cleveland High School were among 26 schools that the department had proposed to close and reopen — with new names and new teachers — in an attempt to win federal school reform funds.

Department officials had said the schools needed radical interventions to help them improve. But today the officials said they had determined after listening to public comment and reviewing performance data that Bushwick and Cleveland didn’t need major changes after all.

The schools “have demonstrated an ability to continue their improvements without the more comprehensive actions that are clearly needed at 24 other schools,” said Chancellor Dennis Walcott in a statement.

The about-face comes weeks after the department yanked seven top-rated schools from the turnaround list and just hours before the panel’s scheduled vote. It also comes after the schools received intense political and community support and, in the case of Bushwick, media attention.

Elected officials in Brooklyn turned out in force to support Bushwick, and the New York Times columnist Michael Powell championed the transfer high school. State officials said the school had been snagged unfairly in an accountability dragnet, and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn signed on to the cause in a series of behind-the-scenes phone calls. Even a top department official signaled confidence in the school last week.

In Queens, elected officials had thrown their support behind all eight high schools on the turnaround roster. But Cleveland got extra attention from State Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, chair of the Assembly’s education committee, who graduated from the school in 1976.

City officials said the decision about which schools to remove from the list was not politically motivated. Instead, they said, Bushwick and Cleveland had each received B grades on recent progress reports and ratings of “proficient” on a different measure of school capacity. A third school with those statistics, J.H.S. 80 in the Bronx, will remain on the turnaround list because its performance has been slipping, officials said.

The eleventh-hour reprieves echoes a similar move in February, when the department withdrew proposals to shrink or close two of 25 schools on the chopping block. One of those schools had received intense support from Harlem politicians.

Bushwick principal Tira Randall said Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky, who had praised the transfer high school during its public hearing last week, called her at home early this morning to let her know the good news.

“The staff and students are so excited. I’m just delighted,” she said. “My assistant put it so eloquently this way: ‘We’re really thankful for this opportunity to turn around without closing.’ … The disruption in the continuity of services that we provide would have probably had some devastating effects on the school.”

But she said the school would not rest on its laurels. “In realizing that we’ve been given this reprieve we realize there is work that remains to be done,” she said.

Randall attributed the decision to the outpouring of support from politicians and and the press. “My gut told me that with all the support clearly the DOE would take a second look,” she said.

At Cleveland, Principal Denise Vittor hadn’t gotten word about the department’s decision shortly after 9 a.m. Reached in her office, Vittor said she and her staff were nervously gearing up for a long evening at the PEP meeting, where students and teachers planned to offer public testimony against the plans. “I was very doom and gloom today, so I hope it’s true,” she said.

When official word came from the just before 10 a.m., assistant principals and teachers heard clapping and cheers from her office.

Cleveland science teacher Russ Nitchman said he was relieved to hear the news but said the school has suffered after months of uncertainty about its future. Cleveland was supposed to undergo the “restart” school reform model and get close to $1.5 million in federal grant money this year. But that option was taken off the table and replaced with the more aggressive reform strategy in January after teacher evaluation talks between the city and UFT fell apart.

“It’s great they’re taking it off the list, but the bottom-line truth is the damage has already been done to a school when you’ve been through this much stuff. It’s been distracting our students from learning,” Nitchman said. “What we’re doing at the school next year will be the same whether it’s turnaround or not turnaround. We have our game plan.”

Nitchman said some teachers would lament the missed opportunity to receive extra federal funding, but the tradeoff would be worth it.

“Having less money hurts, but keeping our staff — which is an excellent staff — is probably more important,” he said.

Randall also said the reprieve was worth the loss of federal funding, which the school began receiving last year under the “transformation” model. “You can’t attach a dollar figure to the work that the staff puts in here,” she said.

Nitchman said he had been planning to attend the PEP hearing tonight and might still go to support the other schools. But he and many other teachers and students at Cleveland, he said, have already shared their concerns with city officials during a spring packed with protests.

Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the Queens representative to the Panel for Educational Policy who has proposed a resolution against turnaround that is also on tonight’s agenda, said he was thrilled by the news but would not let it overshadow his support of the seven other Queens schools that remain on the list.

“It hasn’t been explained to me why it came off the list,” said Fedkowskyj, who graduated from Cleveland in 1984. “We still have seven fights to make tonight.”

the aftermath

What educators, parents, and students are grappling with in the wake of America’s latest school shooting

Kristi Gilroy (right) hugs a young woman at a police check point near the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed by a gunman in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s hard to know where to start on days like this.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead on Wednesday has elicited both terror and anger — and raised debates that are far from settled about how to keep American students safe.

Here are a few storylines we noticed as the country again grapples with a tragic school shooting:

1. You’re not wrong to think it: There have been a lot of mass shootings, and many recent ones have been especially deadly.

Data on school shootings specifically, though, is notoriously murky. As the Atlantic recently noted, varying definitions can contribute to either “sensationalizing or oversimplifying a modern trend of mass violence in America that is seemingly becoming more entrenched.”

But by NBC News’ count, 20 people have been killed and more than 30 have been injured in school shootings this year. That’s a lot — and more news organizations are now trying to keep a careful tally.

2. The consequences of traumatic events like the shooting at Stoneman Douglas are likely to be felt for some time.

A number of studies have found that violent and traumatic events in and outside of school do real damage to student learning, as we’ve reported — particularly among students who are already struggling. Here are some resources for teachers who need to talk to their students about trauma.

3. The tragedy is already renewing debates over whether or how to arm teachers.

Education Week gathered some of those calls from politicians Thursday. “Gun-safety advocates say that teachers can’t safely and quickly move from the mindset of teaching to being asked to fire a gun at an active shooter,” the story also notes.

This doesn’t even get at the debate about whether anyone should have access to the kind of gun the shooter used. Students from the district, for their part, told Broward schools chief Robert Runcie Thursday “that the time is due for a conversation on sensible gun control,” the Miami Herald reported.

Whether other technology and infrastructure can help keep students safe is a topic of ongoing discussion in communities across the country. Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill to help schools buy communications systems that would allow them to talk directly to police and other emergency responders. Officials from districts that already use this equipment described them as a way to increase safety without “turning our schools into prisons,” even as they also assured lawmakers that the radios were just as useful for serious playground injuries and broken-down buses as for the much rarer active shooter situations.

In Tennessee, one school district near Nashville announced plans to close schools next Monday to review all safety plans with school staff and local law enforcement.

4. In some places, the shooting is unlikely to change the school safety debate at all.

In New York City, for example, conversations about school safety in recent years have revolved around discipline policies and metal detectors (though police have seized an increasing number of weapons from city schools). There’s little appetite there to arm teachers.

5. But all across America, the shooting and others like it have added a frightening tone to what it means to teach and learn in schools today.

“I know you are waking up this morning to a nightmare,” a former educator wrote in a “love letters to teachers” on Teaching Tolerance. “I know you are frustrated, tired and weary of the news. I know you are wearing your coat of bravery today.”

“I’m so, so angry and I’m having a hard time today looking at my students and not thinking about what happens when it’s my school’s turn,” wrote one commenter on the Badass Teachers Association Facebook group.

getting to graduation

New York City graduation rate hits record high of 74.3 percent in 2017

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the 2017 graduation rate at South Bronx Preparatory school.

New York City’s graduation rate rose to 74.3 percent in 2017, a slight increase over the previous year and a new high for the city.

The 1.2 percentage point increase over the previous year continues an upward climb for the city, where the overall graduation rate has grown by nearly 28 points since 2005. The state graduation rate also hit a new high — 82.1 percent — just under the U.S. rate of 84.1 percent.

The city’s dropout rate fell to 7.8 percent, a small decline from the previous year and the lowest rate on record, according to the city.

“New York City is showing that when we invest in our students, they rise to the challenge and do better and better,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement Wednesday.

More graduates were also deemed ready for college-level work. Last year, 64 percent of graduates earned test scores that met the City University of New York’s “college-ready” benchmark — up more than 13 percentage points from the previous year. 

However, the gains came after CUNY eased its readiness requirements; without that change, city officials said the increase would be significantly smaller. But even with the less rigorous requirements, more than a third of city students who earned high-school diplomas would be required to take remedial classes at CUNY.

Phil Weinberg, the education department’s deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, noted that CUNY’s college-readiness requirements are more demanding than New York’s graduation standards — which are among the toughest in the country.

We will work toward making sure none of our students need remediation when they get to college,” he told reporters. “But that’s a long game for us and we continue to move in that direction.”

The rising graduation rates follow a series of changes the state has made in recent years to help more students earn diplomas.

The graduation-requirement changes include allowing students with disabilities to earn a diploma by passing fewer exit exams and letting more students appeal a failed score. In addition, students can now substitute a work-readiness credential for one of the five Regents exams they must pass in order to graduate — adding to a number of other alternative tests the state has made available in the past few years.

About 9,900 students used one of those alternative-test or credential options in 2017, while 315 students with disabilities took advantage of the new option for them, according to state officials. They could not say how many students successfully appealed a low test score; but in 2016, about 1,300 New York City students did so.

The news was mixed for schools in de Blasio’s high-profile “Renewal” improvement program for low-performing schools. Among the 28 high schools that have received new social services and academic support through the program, the graduation rate increased to nearly 66 percent — almost a 6 percentage point bump over 2016. Their dropout rate also fell by about 2 points, to 16.4 percent, though that remains more than twice as high as the citywide rate.

However, more than half of the high schools in that $568 million program — 19 out of 28 — missed the graduation goals the city set for them, according to a New York Times analysis based on preliminary figures.

Graduation rates for students who are still learning English ticked up slightly to 32.5 percent, following a sharp decline the previous year that the state education commissioner called “disturbing.” City officials argue that students who improved enough to shed the designation of “English language learner” in the years before they graduated should also be counted; among that larger group, the graduation rate was 53 percent in 2017.

Meanwhile, the graduation-rate gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers narrowed a smidgen, but it remains wide. Last year, the graduation rate was about 83 percent for white students, 70 percent for black students, and 68 percent for Hispanic students. That represented a closing of the gap between white and black students by 0.4 percentage points, and 0.1 points between whites and Hispanic.

Asian students had the highest rate — 87.5 percent — a nearly 2 point increase from the previous year that widened their lead over other racial groups.

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.