In residence

With federal funds lost, city sending trainees to stronger schools

Chancellor Dennis Walcott talks to teachers at M.S. 223 while principal Ramon Gonzalez looks on during a visit last week. M.S. 223 is working with nine teaching residents this year.

A program to train and keep new teachers inside some of the city’s most struggling schools is expanding to include better-performing schools as well.

The New York City Teacher Residency launched last summer at two schools that were receiving federal funds earmarked for overhauling struggling schools. The point of the program, city officials said at the time, was to create a talent pipeline for schools that have trouble attracting teachers.

But because the city and its teachers union did not agree on a new teacher evaluation system by a state deadline, the funds were cut off in January. The city is going forward with plans to double the size of the residency program anyway, but instead of sending new residents only to struggling schools, it is also directing them to schools that the city has touted as success stories. And it is picking up the bill out of the Department of Education’s regular budget.

The department opened the program to stronger schools in order to expose the teachers-in-training to a wider range of “best practices” and mentorship from experienced teachers, officials said.

“Think, what would it actually be like if these teachers were trained at a successful school instead of at a failing school?” said Ashley Downs, the special education director at M.S. 223 in the Bronx who is helping to mentor that school’s nine residents.

Chancellor Dennis Walcott visited M.S. 223 on the day before school started last week, telling teachers, “I think this is a tremendous school. You’ve had major accomplishments.” Two other schools newly receiving residents, Frederick Douglass Academy VII and Bushwick School for Social Justice, have also won accolades: FDA VII was honored for its success in helping to close the racial achievement gap for boys, and BSSJ is one of three schools on the campus Mayor Bloomberg visited last year to tout an increase in the city’s graduation rate.

The city did not abandon struggling schools. One school that now has teaching residents, J.H.S. 22 in the Bronx, also participated in the program last year. And some of this year’s crop of 56 new residents are assigned to two other schools that also received the federal funds, known as School Improvement Grants. They are Angelo Patri Middle School and Bread and Roses Integrated Arts High School.

Residency programs have been on the rise in New York City and across the country, as education officials increasingly view them as an expensive but effective way to prepare new teachers for challenging classrooms. They are seen as a more rigorous approach than that offered by alternative certification programs such as Teach for America and the city’s Teaching Fellows, which put new teachers in charge of classrooms after just a few weeks of training.

The residents work as teaching assistants for one year while pursuing masters degrees in education at St. John’s University, earning a salary of $22,500 and health benefits. They must commit to working in city schools for four years after completing the program.

Last year, the department used SIG funds to help foot the residency program’s steep bill: $1.3 million, or $50,000 for each of the 22 residents. In addition to paying residents’ salaries, the department pays mentor teachers $3,000 for each resident she supports, employs a program director, and subsidizes participants’ graduate school tuition.

This year, the Department of Education is shouldering the program’s increased cost centrally, according to Erin Hughes, a spokeswoman.

Downs said both the residents and the South Bronx middle school stand to benefit from the partnership. That’s because the residents will be learning from teachers with a track record of success, and M.S. 223 will have extra hands on deck, she said. Plus, she said, when the school looks to fill positions next year, some possible candidates will already be versed in M.S. 223’s culture.

M.S. 223 is expanding to include high school grades and agreed to take on residents under the condition that they could apply for jobs when the school adds a ninth grade in 2013.

Downs said she is already seeing differences between the residency program and other teacher training programs. For one, she said, the residents arrived before the start of the school year, so they got to watch experienced teachers set up their classrooms and take part in curriculum planning.

“If you walk in for the first time in October and the class is already running smoothly and the teacher’s just teaching the material, it seems like magic,” Downs said. “You don’t realize all the things that the teacher had to do to get the classroom to that point.”

good news bad news

New York City is sending fewer latecomer students to Renewal schools, but questions remain

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
John Adams High School in Queens, a Renewal school.

New York City is sending significantly fewer latecomer students — typically among the most difficult to serve — to schools in its flagship turnaround program.

Over the past three years, the number of students sent to schools in the city’s Renewal program outside the normal admissions process has declined 19 percent, according to new data from the education department, outpacing a 10 percent decrease in schools citywide over the same period.

The reduction suggests that schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has stuck to her promise to stem the tide of latecomer students — often newly arriving immigrants, students with special needs, and those who struggle with homelessness — to some of the city’s most struggling schools.

But it’s unclear if that policy change is making a significant difference on the ground.

For one thing, since Renewal schools have been losing students, the proportion of latecomer students has essentially gone unchanged. Even though the city has sent a smaller number of latecomer students to these schools, roughly one in five students at Renewal schools were over-the-counter last year, just slightly less than three years ago.

“It’s a good start,” said Norm Fruchter, a researcher at New York University who authored a report that found the city disproportionately sends those students to low-performing high schools. But “one out of every five is a tough challenge for schools that are already challenged,” Fruchter added. “I would have hoped for a reduction in the percentage.”

Every year, thousands of students enter city schools outside the normal admissions process, students who are generally harder to serve and can disrupt school schedules mid-year. But since New York City’s middle and high school admissions process is largely based on a choice process, less desirable and lower-performing schools tend to have more open seats for latecomers.

When the city designated an original 94 Renewal schools as low performing enough to merit an influx of extra resources, some school staffers wondered how they were supposed to stoke “fast and intense” improvements while the city continued to send them high-need students mid-year. That’s partly why Fariña announced two years ago those schools would receive fewer latecomers.

But sending fewer students to struggling schools can also create problems, and has sparked concern among some school leaders. Most Renewal schools have been shedding students for years, so limiting the number of latecomers may contribute to enrollment problems that can result in less funding or potentially even closure.

At Harlem’s Coalition School for Social Change, for instance, enrollment has dropped 44 percent over the past three years, a main reason principal Geralda Valcin is planning to ask the city to send more students over the counter — not fewer.

“Will it be harder with these kids coming on board? Absolutely,” Valcin said. “But with less kids I get less money” for teachers.

Education department officials emphasized that they work individually with schools, superintendents and families to find appropriate placements for latecomers, and said that enrollment declines at Renewal schools have started to level off.

“We’ve worked to support steady turnaround at Renewal schools by helping schools balance the need to grow enrollment with their ability to serve [over-the-counter] students,” Michael Aciman, a department spokesman, wrote in an email. He added that as Renewal schools see improvements, it might make sense to send them more latecomers.

Figuring out how to equitably place latecomer students has been a consistent challenge across administrations. Under Mayor Bloomberg, the city often clustered students who arrived mid-year at struggling schools and those the city was in the process of closing. Some of those problems have not completely gone away: As Chalkbeat reported earlier this year, the city sent some latecomer students to Renewal schools it planned to close, and Renewal schools still enroll more latecomers than the 15 percent city average.

The statistics education officials provided for this story does not include school-level breakdowns, making it difficult to tell if the city is still clustering lots of latecomers at certain Renewal schools, or whether struggling schools outside the Renewal program have received fewer latecomers.

City officials did not respond to a question about whether they see the current distribution of late-arriving students as a problem. But at least one Renewal school leader said it’s important for the city to pay attention to how those students are distributed system-wide — not just whether one segment of struggling schools are seeing fewer of them.

“I think all schools should be receiving students over the counter in equal and fair ways,” said one Renewal school leader. “Renewal schools should not be treated differently than others.”

Rhode rage

New study deepens nation’s school turnaround mystery, finding little success in Rhode Island

PHOTO: Anjelika Deo / Creative Commons

The country’s smallest state tried to accomplish a big task in 2012: improve its struggling schools without firing principals or making other dramatic changes.

Instead, Rhode Island gave schools the option to do things like add common planning time for teachers, institute culturally appropriate instruction for students, and expand outreach to families.

A new study on those efforts says they didn’t help — and in some cases may have even hurt — student achievement.

It’s the latest in a string of research painting a grim picture of school turnaround efforts under the No Child Left Behind waivers the Obama administration granted to states. Recent studies show that those turnaround plans did not improve student achievement in Louisiana or Michigan, though they did have a positive effect in Kentucky.

The analysis, published in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Policy, leaves states in a tough spot. Under the new federal education law, ESSA, they are still required to identify and intervene in the lowest performing 5 percent of schools. What to do, though, has perplexed education policymakers for years.

The Rhode Island study suggests one option that may not be effective, at least at raising test scores: simply letting struggling schools choose from a menu of broad changes.

The researchers, Shaun Dougherty and Jennie Weiner of the University of Connecticut, looked at two tiers of struggling schools in the state: “warning” and “focus” schools. Schools in both categories had to choose four changes to make. Focus schools, the lower-performing group, had to select from a prescribed list, while warning schools could also could come up with their own strategies.

“Almost none of the schools chose the most severe options because of none of them had to,” said Dougherty.

Based on two years of data, the results were largely discouraging. Turnaround schools did not boost reading or math scores more than comparable schools that didn’t have to make any changes. And the focus schools, which had to make even more changes, actually seemed to do worse than the turnaround schools that made fewer.

“More interventions might not always be better and may have unintended consequences that impact a school’s long term ability to improve,” write Dougherty and Weiner.

An important caveat for the studies in Rhode Island, Michigan, and Louisiana, which all used a similar method, is that it’s impossible to know how the accountability system affected schools that narrowly avoided being labeled low-performing and served as the comparison group for the turnaround schools. If those schools made extensive improvements for fear of facing turnaround in future years, that might mask gains in the turnaround schools.

Still, the latest research adds to the pile of studies showing the challenges of improving long-struggling schools.

Another Obama-era federal school turnaround program — School Improvement Grants — also showed disappointing results. Schools receiving those grants also had to implement a broad array of strategies, but had less power to choose which changes to make. The grants also came with additional federal money and in most cases required firing the principal.

There is some evidence that providing additional money and support, paired with a requirement that schools replace a significant share of staff, is a more promising approach. But this is challenging to implement in areas where teachers are scarce and can prompt fierce political and community pushback.

In fact, back in 2010, the Obama administration faced one of its first major rifts with national teachers unions after it backed the large-scale firing — consistent with federal turnaround rules — of teachers at a Central Falls, Rhode Island high school.

Few schools ended up implementing such a drastic approach, though. In Central Falls, the district ultimately agreed to rehire all of the fired teachers.