school closing season

At three hearings, one idea: City's plans would undo successes

Eighth graders Ciara Shack (L) and Karla Lorenzo (C), along with sixth grader Eliza Fuentes (R) do an impromptu step cheer between testimonies, chanting the school’s motto: “M.S. 45 going down the line, we gotta get an education to survive.” (Photo: Casey Baker)
M.S. 45 eighth-graders Ciara Shack (L) and Karla Lorenzo (C) and sixth-grader Eliza Fuentes (R) do an impromptu step cheer at a hearing about the school’s proposed closure. They chanted the school’s motto: “M.S. 45 going down the line, we gotta get an education to survive.” (Photo: Carey Reed)

A citywide sprint through dozens of public hearings about the Department of Education’s plans to close, open, and move schools this year continued on Wednesday with spirited meetings at multiple schools.

At M.S. 45 in East Harlem, which the city wants to close at the end of the year, supporters said the school was on the verge of turning around after years of poor leadership. Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn, on the chopping block for the second time in a year, got praise for serving its many immigrant students. And at the Tilden Campus, also in Brooklyn, students and teachers argued that three schools’ success could be undone if a new charter school moves into the building.

The hearings are a required part of the city’s process to close or open schools. The Panel for Educational Policy, which has never rejected a city proposal, is set to vote on the plans March 11.

M.S. 45

Frustrations ran high at M.S. 45 S.T.A.R.S. Prep Academy as community members pleaded with city officials to allow the school’s current principal more time to continue making improvements.

“Give her a chance. Give her a chance,” many in the crowd clapped and chanted, as officials tried to end the hearing about the the city’s plan to close the school in June. The 50 students, parents, graduates, teachers, and community members who gathered at the East Harlem school were referring to Alexa Sorden, who took over as interim acting principal in September.

“This year feels like no other year,” said Radames Vasquez, a student in his third year at M.S. 45. “When Ms. Sorden came in the school this year, there was a whole lot of garbage from last year and she cleaned up the garbage real fast.”

Sorden replaced Tomasz Grabski, who was assigned to S.T.A.R.S. Academy in the fall of 2010 after leaving his previous school amid parent protests.

According to a 2010 New York Times article, Grabski resigned from Muscota New School in Inwood after parents accused him of being ineffective and petitioned the city for his removal. Parents at S.T.A.R.S. said he carried his ineptitude with him to M.S. 45. They said he would lock himself in his office, allowing students to roam the halls and be disruptive.

CAPTION (Photo: Casey Baker)
Interim Acting Principal Alexa Sorden listens to supporters of M.S. 45 argue for the school’s future. (Photo: Carey Reed)

“I don’t understand how it is that you, the DOE, knew we were a failing school, yet you put a failing principal in our school,” said Providencia Padilla, parent association president and an M.S. 45 alum.

But Marc Sternberg, the department official in charge of closing and opening schools, said enrollment and performance were so low at S.T.A.R.S. Academy that it should close at the end of the year. In its place, the city has proposed allowing Harlem Village Academy Leadership, which already shares the building on First Avenue and 120th Street, to expand.

Enrollment at S.T.A.R.S has gradually declined from 306 sixth through eighth graders two years ago to 142 students today. Nearly a quarter of students are English language learners, and a fifth require special education services.

Sternberg said while the school may receive many applications, only a small percentage of applicants placed M.S. 45 as their first choice.

Still, the school has committed supporters. Eighth-grader Kweisi Mullings took a few moments to gather courage before addressing the audience and panel, which included Monica Cofield, the head of the school’s support network, and Senior Supervising Superintendent Donald Conyers.

“Please do not close our school down,” Mullings read from his mobile phone. “Give us a chance.”

–Carey Reed

Sheepshead Bay High School

As evidence that her school is doing a good job, despite its lagging scores, Sheepshead Bay’s current student government vice president offered up herself as Exhibit A.

“I came here as a foreigner, knew very little English, knew very little about this country, and Sheepshead nurtured me,” said senior Asma Begum, reading from her notes. “Now I’m in AP English class and I’m very proud of myself.”

English Language Learners make up 25 percent of the students at Sheepshead Bay, which the Department of Education has proposed phasing out and replacing with smaller schools. Over 100 current and former students, parents, and teachers joined department officials and the District 22 Community Education Council for a hearing about the closure plan on Wednesday evening.

CAPTION (Photo: Andres David Lopez)
Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm explains the city’s plan to close Sheepshead Bay High School at a hearing about the proposal. (Photo: Andres David Lopez)

“Please don’t close the school,” said Begum, who kicked off the public comment portion of the hearing. “If we are given the proper amount of time, we can improve.”

The city has proposed opening four high schools in the building as Sheepshead Bay phases out. The schools include a four-year high school and transfer high school operated by the Department of Education and two charter high schools operated by the nonprofit New Visions.

Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said the city’s decision to close Sheepshead Bay was based on its poor performance. The school’s four-year graduation rate is 51 percent, lower than the city average of 65.5 percent. Sheepshead Bay has also been identified among the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state by the New York State Education Department.

It is also one of several schools that the city is trying to close for a second time. Last year, it was one of 24 schools slated for a form of closure called “turnaround” until a judge upheld a labor ruling that turnaround violated the city’s agreement with the teachers union.

An explanation for the school’s struggles came in the night’s most common refrain, offered by scheduled speakers and by members of the audience in spontaneous outbursts, “Sheepshead Bay takes everybody!” The school does not screen its students and has many students with disabilities, as well as English language learners.

“We are proud to have the underperformers in our school community,” said Maribel Pena, president of the parent teacher association.

Jay Appelblatt, an alumnus who has taught social studies at the school for 13 years, said the students’ many challenges made it hard for the school to raise its graduation rate. “When a kid gets here from Uzbekistan, not speaking one word of English, they’re not getting out of here in four years,” he said.

That’s not to say that teachers don’t try to pull students along, said senior Presley Guobadia.

“She grabs me and she walks me to class. She’s like a second mother to me,” Guobadia said of guidance counselor Sherry Satchell,

“And we have a lot of people here that are working just as hard, if not harder, to try to ensure these children get to where they need to go,” Satchell said. “We are not failures. These children are not failures.”

Principal John O’Mahoney, who was fined last year for violating city ethics rules, was silent during the hearing while sitting to Grimm’s right. He declined to comment for this article.

–Andres David Lopez

Tilden High School

Community leaders including City Councilman Jumaane Williams turned out at a third hearing held on Wednesday, even though no school was up for closure.

That no school is closing on the Tilden Campus is precisely the reason that the New American Academy Charter School should not move in, as the department has proposed, said Eric Waterman. Waterman, who is parent coordinator at the Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School, previewed the hearing in an interview with GothamSchools.

If a school were phasing out, there might be room for the charter school, Waterman said, but as it stands, all three high schools in the building are in good standing, and all would have to make sacrifices to accommodate yet another neighbor.

Kurt Hahn could lose seven classrooms under the department’s proposal, meaning that teachers would no longer have their own classrooms and the arts and culinary offerings could be at risk, he said. The two other schools in the building — It Takes A Village Academy and the Cultural Academy for the Arts and Sciences — would also have to trim their offerings, he said.

Waterman said students were motivated to speak out at the closure hearing because they had not yet had a chance to voice their opinions about the proposed changes.

“This proposal was proposed and will probably be implemented without the community’s input. It’s something that the DOE has forced on our environment,” Waterman said.

Plus, he noted, while the city says the neighborhood needs stronger elementary schools, the charter school is a replica of a district-run school whose students have not yet taken any state tests.

“You can’t say you’re bringing in high quality when you haven’t rated it high quality yet,” Waterman said. “We’re smarter than that.”

–Philissa Cramer

To and Through

Newark’s post-grad paradox: More students are entering college, but few earn degrees

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka wants 25 percent of residents to have college degrees by 2025, up from 19 percent today.

When it comes to college, Newark faces a good news-bad news paradox.

More students than ever are graduating high school and enrolling in college, according to a new report. Yet fewer than one in four Newark students earns a college degree within six years of graduating high school — leaving many with limited job prospects in a city where an estimated one-third of jobs require a four-year college degree.

Now, city officials are promising to build on the report. They want to ramp up the rigor of high-school classes and create more early-college programs to increase the odds of students entering college and leaving with a degree.  

“How do we teach our children to perform — to graduate?” Mayor Ras Baraka asked at a press conference Wednesday to mark the official release of the report of Newark students’ college outcomes. “We got them in the door,” he said of students who attend college. “Now how do we make them stay?”

The city’s plans, to which Superintendent Roger León is lending his support, reflect a growing recognition that simply getting students into college is not sufficient — and can even backfire if they drop out before graduation, leaving them with college debt but no degree.

Until recently, the charge given to high schools in Newark and across the country was to foster “college-going cultures.” And these efforts showed promising results: On average, 51 percent of Newark Public School students who graduated high school between 2011 and 2016 immediately enrolled in college, up from 39 percent who did so between 2004 and 2010, according to the report by the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, or NCLC, and Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.

But entering college didn’t guarantee its completion. Of those students who started college straight after high school, only 39 percent earned a degree within six years, the report found.

As a result, educators and policymakers have begun to think harder about how to help students “to and through” college — to ensure they actually earn degrees. Toward that end, Baraka and the NCLC — which includes roughly 40 colleges, schools, nonprofits, and corporations — has set a goal of 25 percent of Newark residents earning college degrees or comparable credentials by 2025.

Today, just 19 percent of Newark adults have associate degrees or higher — compared to 45 percent of adults across New Jersey and 40 percent nationally.

Superintendent León, who began overseeing the city’s schools on July 1, said his main strategy for supporting these efforts will be to expose students to challenging work early on.

“If we don’t do something dramatically in classrooms to improve instruction and make it rigorous,” León said after Wednesday’s event, then students are “getting into college but they’re not completing it.”

Source: “Post-Secondary Outcomes of Newark High School Graduates (2011-2016)” report. Note: The four-year rate is an average of the classes of 2011 to 2013. The six-year rate is from the class of 2011. Graphic: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

For starters, León said he wants high schools to offer more college-level classes. In the 2016-17 school year, just 21 percent of Newark students were enrolled in one or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes — compared to 42 percent of students statewide.

He also vowed to raise the quality of instruction in the district’s traditional high schools. Only 14 percent of their graduates earn college degrees within six years, compared to 42 percent of graduates from the city’s selective magnet schools, the report found.

To do that, León said he will create specialized academies within the traditional schools modeled on the magnets, which have specialized themes such as science, technology, or the arts. The academies, which will partner with colleges, will most likely feature admissions criteria similar to those of magnet schools, which select students based on their academic and attendance records, León added.

And, for the first time, all ninth-grade students this academic year will take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, León said Wednesday. An additional 1,100 eighth-graders who passed at least one of their seventh-grade PARCC exams will also take the PSAT when it’s administered on Oct. 10.

Since 2016, the district has provided the PSAT to all 10th and 11th-grade students. But León said that giving the test to younger students will focus their attention on college and help identity those who are ready for advanced classes. The PSAT is designed to help students prepare for the SAT, which is used in college admissions, and to qualify for National Merit Scholarships.

The district, which was under state control for 22 years until February, is getting some assistance in its effort to improve students’ college outcomes.

For instance, KIPP, the national charter-school network with eight schools in Newark, is sharing its strategies for helping students choose the right college with guidance counselors at three district high schools.

And the higher-education institutions in the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, including Essex County College and Rutgers University-Newark, plan to create more “dual-enrollment” programs that allow high-school students to earn college credits, said NCLC Executive Director Reginald Lewis.

“We’re all going to do a better job,” Lewis said, “of making sure that once Newark residents get in our doors, that we help them persist.”

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”