Takeaways

The day after: What we learned at last night's turnaround hearing

A teacher from Lehman High School testifies at Thursday's Panel for Educational Policy meeting. The panel voted to close and reopen Lehman.

Here are seven things you should know about last night’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting, in case you don’t have time to read the live-blog we maintained for more than six hours as the panel weighed whether to approve “turnaround” closure plans for 24 schools.

1. There’s a new form of school closure in town. Usually, when the Department of Education decides to close a school, it embarks on a multi-year process of phasing out the old school and phasing in a new school, or multiple new schools, in its place. The department has used this process well over 100 times in the last decade and has said it results in stronger student performance. This process is what the panel okayed in February, when it signed off on plans to close or shrink 23 schools.

Turnaround is a little different. It speeds up the process so phasing out and in happen at the same time, essentially overnight. It remains to be seen whether years of transition or rapid change can be judged to be more effective at boosting student achievement. The city turned to turnaround this year to make schools eligible for federal funds. But if the city determines that turnaround has advantages over phase-out, the city could use it again in the future.

2. But turnaround isn’t really as new as Mayor Bloomberg made it out to be. On the dais, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said that a panel resolution to prohibit turnarounds was inaccurate because it stated that the reform initiative was unknown in New York City. In fact, Walcott said, the city has used turnaround before –  but to a lesser extent. They also have never called their reform efforts turnaround, a term that comes from the Obama administration’s school reform vocabulary list.

What they have done is close low-performing schools and open new ones in their place that serve all of the same grades and students. When that has happened, in some elementary and middle school overhauls, the principals of the new schools have been bound to hire from the old schools’ staff in accordance with the same clause in the city’s contract with the teachers union that the city is invoking in the turnaround schools.

Walcott pointed out that one of his deputy chancellors, David Weiner, had actually overseen a turnaround school when he was the principal of the now-closed P.S. 314 in Sunset Park. Weiner closed down the school and reopened it as P.S. 503 The School of Discovery.

“I want to change the misinformation that’s saying it hasn’t been done,” Walcott told Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the Queens representative who authored the resolution. “It has been done.”

3. A hearing just isn’t the same without the UFT’s involvement. In the past, the union has chartered buses from all over the city to PEP meetings to make sure the full range of opposition is represented from teachers working in schools being affected by panel votes, and organized dissent has resulted. But this month the union not only cancelled the buses, it sat out of the panel meeting entirely, creating a scattered presence of teachers who attended on their own initiative.

Close to 100 teachers and supporters were at the union’s rally earlier in the day, but the vast majority of them went home after drying off at the union headquarters. Without a critical mass of people, the teachers who did trek to Prospect Heights sometimes found their messages lost amid the sea of organized charter school supporters who turned out to testify on co-locations up for a vote.

In fact, only a fraction of the schools on the turnaround list were represented at all, and only one representative of the seven middle schools at risk — a principal who would be replaced under turnaround — spoke out. Only about two dozen students attended and parents were even less plentiful.

The largest and most contingent at the meeting came from two charter school networks, Democracy Prep and Success Charter, who both brought buses of supporters to back co-location proposals before the panel. For a time during the public comment period, one could forget that turnaround was on the agenda at all.

4. But we haven’t heard the last from the union. Just days after Mayor Bloomberg announced the turnaround plan in January, UFT President Michael Mulgrew left little doubt about how the union planned to respond. “If the Department of Education tries to implement changing these schools from their current status, we will be taking appropriate legal action,” Mulgrew said at the time.

Last night, we saw that the union is dotting all its i’s in preparation for a lawsuit.

Vice President Leo Casey was the only union official to appear at the hearing after most stayed away to protest the panel’s pro forma votes. Why did he make the trek to Brooklyn? “I just want to make an official objection for when we sue them,” Casey said.

A union official said this morning that a lawsuit would not be filed today. The official would not say whether the union had a timeline for lodging a legal complaint.

5. Panel members aren’t just sitting silently before they vote. Critics often mock the panel’s mayoral appointees as “puppets” who do little besides keep their seat warm and wait until it’s time to vote “yes.” The mayoral panelists all voted yes in accordance with Mayor Bloomberg’s wish, doing little to curb the criticism.

But in a departure from the norm, a majority of the mayoral appointees were visibly grappling with the proposals before them.

“I know the panel members want us to engage,” said the first mayoral appointee to ask a question, Jeffrey Kay. Kay asked Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg to repeat some of the key points of the proposal: “Outside of the change of the name of the school and the possible elimination of poor teachers, what else is this program going to do?”

Sternberg was patient, but he also seemed weary as he rehashed the policy points that had already occupied the panel for five hours. “I’ve already said some of this,” Sternberg began.

After hearing Sternberg’s explanation, Kay expressed disbelief that anyone would oppose turnaround and criticized Manhattan representative Patrick Sullivan for calling the plan “barbaric.” Sullivan in turn chided Kay for not understanding some of the complexities of the proposal.

“Maybe if you had actually read the plans” you’d understand it better, Sullivan said. Sullivan was one of several panel members to request the city’s application to the state for federal turnaround funding, and he had spent the days before the meeting poring over more than 800 pages of plans. The city barred the panel members from discussing the applications publicly because they are not final.

Judy Bertgraum, who was appointed earlier this year, said that in her 30 years of working in education in Queens schools, many of the schools on the turnaround list had long been struggling. “The issue with these schools have been there” for years, she said. “I see this as an opportunity that’s never come before. This doesn’t come very often.”

Joan Correale, who became a panel member just in time for the meeting, said her daughter’s Bronx high school had undergone something like turnaround. The process led to principal turnover, but in the end the school was a better place, she says. (Correale had previously served on the panel as the appointee of the Staten Island borough president.)

And Brooklyn’s Gitte Peng said she wanted to know what the DOE’s communication plan was for making sure students and parents understood all of the changes that were about to take place over the next several months. “One concern is the potential for confusion on the part of kids and parents in the community for what next year will bring,” she said.

6. The city thinks good teachers are worth millions of dollars. Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg emphasized that point after multiple panel members, including Fedkowskyj, expressed disbelief that principals would choose to jeopardize their chances of winning millions of dollars in federal funds. Schools are eligible for the funding only if they replace 50 percent of teachers who have been on staff for more than two years, a quota that DOE officials have repeatedly said principals are not required to follow.

“Our direction to them is hire the best possible staff as they can and if that means they are hiring more than 50 percent of their staff then that’s exactly what they should do,” Sternberg said again at the meeting.

Fedkowskyj challenged that talking point. He said he could envision a scenario where principals, lured by money for their schools, would justify a decision not to rehire teachers in order to reach the 50 percent benchmark.

Sternberg quickly interjected and said the money should have no bearing on hiring decisions, even if one teacher stands in the way of reaching the 50 percent quota.

“Any principal that turns down one talented educator, they are making the wrong decision,” Sternberg said.

7. Here are the schools that will undergo turnaround:

Alfred E. Smith CTE High School, Bronx
August Martin High School, Queens
Automotive High School, Brooklyn
Banana Kelly High School, Bronx
Bread & Roses Integrated Arts High School, Manhattan
Bronx High School of Business, Bronx
Flushing High School, Queens
Fordham Leadership Academy, Bronx
Herbert Lehman High School, Bronx
High School of Graphic Communication Arts, Manhattan
I.S. 339, Bronx
J.H.S. 22 Jordan L Mott, Bronx
J.H.S. 80 Mosholu Parkway, Bronx
J.H.S. 142 John Philip Sousa, Bronx
J.H.S. 166 George Gershwin, Brooklyn
John Adams High School, Queens
John Dewey High School, Brooklyn
Long Island City High School, Queens
M.S. 126 John Ericsson, Bronx
M.S 391, Bronx
Newtown High School, Queens
Richmond Hill High School, Queens
Sheepshead Bay High School, Brooklyn
William Cullen Bryant High School, Queens

study says...

Can charter operators turn around district schools? In Atlanta, two are trying and finding extra challenges

A UNICEF Kid Power Event at Charles R. Drew Charter School in Atlanta, Georgia in 2016. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images for UNICEF)

When Atlanta Public Schools decided to hand over control of one of its struggling elementary schools, the leaders of a small charter network raised their hands.

In its application to run the school, Kindezi leaders said it had posted strong results at its two charter schools and was ready to spread its model. But the job proved much more difficult than they expected.

The students at the turnaround school were far behind academically, and many were entering and exiting the school, making it tough to establish a new school culture.

“One of the things that we weren’t really prepared for was the level of trauma for a lot of our student population,” said Danielle Washington, the Kindezi turnaround principal. “Knowing superficially — looking at the demographics — what the environment was like [and] actually being in it is very different.”

“Frankly, organizationally, we weren’t ready to do it,” said Dean Leeper, Kindezi’s founder.

A new study on Atlanta’s turnaround efforts shows that Kindezi’s results were uneven, as were results at a few other Atlanta schools taken over by an outside operator.

The Kindezi school had some clear successes: large gains on math tests, as well as moderate improvements in reading. But students’ already-low science and social studies scores dropped sharply, and suspension rates spiked, too.

At three other schools run by another external operator, math scores also jumped — but so did suspensions, and scores in other subjects were flat.

The results come from just one or two years of data, and most agree that a successful turnaround takes more time. The same study also showed tepid results for an improvement strategy that kept the schools under district control.

Still, the mix of findings and reported struggles in Atlanta underscore the challenges of exporting charter models to new environments, especially existing schools. This charter takeover approach has taken root in a growing number of cities, including Camden, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, and San Antonio.

“If you’re going to use charters, you have to realize that even those that are experienced and seasoned are not going to enter into this [turnaround] work totally prepared,” said Joshua Glazer, a professor at George Washington University who has studied charter takeovers in Tennessee. “There is going to be a significant learning curve.”

The challenge: Two external groups, four struggling schools

Two local groups won Atlanta’s competitive application process to take over five schools the district considered low performing: Kindezi and Purpose Built Schools, a nonprofit connected to the Drew charter school.

They won backing from national philanthropy. Two of the schools got $325,000 start-up grants from the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation. (Walton is a funder of Chalkbeat.) The two turnaround groups also got money from RedefinED, a local nonprofit that recently received funding from the City Fund. Walton also paid $900,000 for the research firm Mathematica to study Atlanta’s turnaround strategies.

The four schools the researchers examined saw big changes after the external groups took over. Their teachers were no longer employed by the district, for one, and those who wanted to remain had to reapply for their jobs.

The schools, though, continued to enroll students from the neighborhood, keeping attendance boundaries intact — unlike the enrollment setup for most charter schools.

The results were all over the place.

After one year, Kindezi-school students in grades three through five jumped from the 29th percentile in the district in math to roughly the 43rd percentile — a big improvement. There was also an uptick in English scores.

But results on science and social studies exams (only administered to fifth-graders) fell precipitously compared to similar schools — dropping from the 24th to the 13th percentile in social studies, for instance.

Washington, the Kindezi principal, said that may be a result of her school’s choice to emphasize basic math and reading skills after realizing how far behind students were.

“We had to make some tough decisions on what to prioritize,” she said. “We definitely paid for it on the science and social studies end, but we were able to make some dents [in] reading.”

The Kindezi school also saw a sharp increase in suspension rates, though some staff members suggested that that might be because suspensions had previously been under-reported.

The three other schools — which followed the Drew charter model, with extra learning time and nonacademic support — also had mixed results. In year one, math scores increased and chronic absenteeism declined, compared to similar schools. There were no clear effects in three other subjects, though, and suspension rates jumped 8 percentage points.

In the first school taken over, math scores continued to improve in year two, but there were still no gains in other subjects. And, alarmingly, chronic absenteeism increased by 8 percentage points.

Turnaround leaders say challenges are greater than in charter schools

Barbara Preuss, who oversees principals at Purpose Built Schools, said her network had found that the students at turnaround schools were much different than the students they had previously served.

“Our children live in an environment where they experience a lot more trauma than children that are attending Drew charter,” she said. “We also are dealing with a high transiency rate, which the charter school does not have.”

In response, Preuss said the schools have brought therapists and social workers to schools; connected families to pro bono housing lawyers; and begun offering after school programs, providing dinners, and stocking food pantries. The schools have even directly employed two dozen parents to help with things like attendance and family events.

Preuss said the schools had seen attendance rates grow and student turnover and suspensions decline this year.

Washington said the Kindezi school had adapted as well, adding time for science and social studies in the second half of this year.

Leeper said the experience offers a lesson to other charter leaders.

“I do think some of the charter world … we underestimate the challenges that are faced in the traditional public schools,” he said. “It definitely is humbling.”

That sentiment, Glazer said, mirrored what he heard from charter leaders who had attempted takeovers in Tennessee. “That could be right off the pages of our transcripts from Memphis,” he said.

Atlanta’s district-focused turnaround strategy also didn’t produce major improvements

Having charter school operators take over struggling district schools has succeeded at raising test scores in New Orleans and in Boston. In Memphis, though, the strategy had no effect, even after five years.

Meanwhile, school turnarounds have proven difficult with or without charter schools.

Atlanta’s other turnaround strategy, beginning in the 2016-17 school year, flooded 13 district schools with additional support, including math and reading specialists, an extended school day or year, and coordinators to connect students with out-of-school support.

Results were uneven at those schools, too, the Mathematica study found, with bumps in math scores in year two but no other clear improvements.

“You can find examples of places that have successfully turned schools around other district management and you can find examples of places that have successfully turned around using charters,” said Brian Gill, one of the Mathematica researchers. “It’s not as if there is any clear indication that one of these approaches is superior to the other.”

Code of conduct

Tennessee’s ‘parent dress code’ bill clears first legislative hurdle

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

Every Tennessee school district would have to develop a code of conduct for parents and other school visitors under a bill that narrowly advanced out of a House subcommittee on Tuesday.

The measure aims to tamp down on problems that arise when visitors show up to school wearing inappropriate attire, using inappropriate language, playing loud music, or bringing other unwelcome behaviors on campus.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson

“We’re telling school districts to come up with a baseline level of behavior for any person who steps on campus,” whether it’s a parent, vendor, or guest, said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat who is sponsoring the proposal along with Sen. Dolores Gresham, a Republican from Somerville.

“It’s all about contributing to an enhanced or better learning environment,” Parkinson said.

Parkinson has gotten national attention with his so-called “parent dress code” bill, which he filed after getting complaints from parents about sexually suggestive or gang-inspired clothing that other parents were wearing to school.

The bill passed 4-3, but not before several lawmakers questioned the proposed mandate, especially when school districts already can create a code of conduct for visitors if they see a need.

Rep. Jerry Sexton, a Republican from Bean Station, called the measure “overreach” by state government, and Rep. Ryan Williams, a Republican from Cookeville, agreed.

“I don’t like us telling locals to do something they can do anyway,” Williams said.

Parkinson emphasized the importance of having a process in place so that parents and other visitors understand what’s appropriate attire or behavior when they enter a school building.

The problem “is pervasive because nobody has told people what is expected. What we’re doing is more of an awareness campaign,” Parkinson said.

Rep. Mark White, who chairs the full House Education Committee where the bill is now headed, said he supports the idea.

“When I visit schools, it’s a shame that you have to address this because parents should know better,” White said, citing inappropriate clothing as the biggest problem. “I’ve seen too much of it, and it’s not a pretty sight.”

Rep. David Byrd added that the policy might also cut down on fights at sporting events on school campuses, even as others expressed concern that the proposal could open up school districts to even more problems.

“The reason we don’t have such a code of conduct is because the enforcement is questionable,” said Chuck Cagle, an attorney who represents the state superintendents group.

Tennessee law already requires school districts to develop a code of conduct for students.