a plan emerges

94 struggling schools will get extra support, but could still face closure

PHOTO: Twitter/NYC Mayor's Office
When Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled the Renewal program in November 2014, he said the city would "move heaven and earth" to help the struggling schools improve. (Photo: Twitter/NYC Mayor's Office)

Faced with rising calls for a strategy to rescue the city’s struggling schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $150 million plan on Monday to flood more than 90 of the city’s lowest-ranked schools with supports for students and staffers.

But in an effort to preempt critics who have accused his administration of giving failing schools a pass, de Blasio made clear that these 94 schools will face consequences if they do not meet certain targets. Even as he rebuked the previous administration for “casually” shuttering schools that were never given adequate assistance, de Balsio said the city will “close any schools that don’t measure up” after three years of intensive support.

“We will move heaven and earth to help them succeed,” de Blasio said during a speech Monday morning in an East Harlem high school, “but we will not wait forever.”

The new plan, dubbed “School Renewal,” turns the city into perhaps the nation’s most prominent test case of the theory that school improvement must extend beyond the classroom. Following the so-called community schools model, the city will bring physical and mental health practitioners, guidance counselors, adult literacy teachers, and a host of other service providers into these schools. They will also add an extra hour of tutoring to the school day and receive money for new after-school seats, summer programs, and more additional teacher training.

The plan also highlights de Blasio’s sharp departure from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reliance on competition and consequences to spur school improvement.

De Blasio allies who had opposed his predecessor’s approach embraced the new tact. Some 70 lawmakers, union and business leaders, and advocates offered their endorsements of the plan in a release sent out by City Hall on Monday.

But critics of the administration pounced on the plan, attacking it as limited and weak. They noted that it leaves out many low-performing schools, it does not specify the exact targets schools must meet, and puts off the most serious sanctions for several years.

“The mayor’s plan is too small, too slow, and too timid,” said Jeremiah Kittredge, CEO of Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter school advocacy group that has been critical of de Blasio’s education policies.

State education department officials apparently shared some of those concerns: A spokesman said Monday that Commissioner John King may force the city to “take additional actions in these schools” next year if he decides they are not making enough progress.

“There are times when struggling schools need significant structural change in order for meaningful progress to occur,” said the spokesman, Dennis Tompkins.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña forcefully defended the plan and the administration’s shift towards collaboration and support, telling reporters Monday that if her predecessors’ more aggressive approach had worked, “I wouldn’t be sitting here now talking about how we’re going to turn the schools around.”

“We want to prove the skeptics wrong,” she added.

Click for more information on the Renewal Schools

The announcement comes 10 months into de Blasio’s term and well into the school year, after educators and advocates have for months urged the city to outline a clear plan for the city’s many low-performing schools. Some educators have said the delay will make it harder to enact major changes this year, and the principal of one long-struggling school who recently resigned said he had lost faith in the city to help his school.

The city was required to submit improvement plans to the state for roughly 250 low-ranked schools this summer, but officials asked for a months-long extension to file final versions. The state gave the city until this Friday to turn them in. However, over the weekend, the city asked for another extension through the end of the year, which the state is currently considering, according to Tompkins.

Even as officials finalize those plans, the city will start to enact parts of the new turnaround program, de Blasio said. Fariña is currently evaluating the principals of the targeted schools, and their teachers will soon get new training. The schools will be sent new guidance counselors this spring, he added.

Other key components will launch later. For example, the schools will not offer the extra support services for students and their families until next year, when they will be sent teams of seasoned principals and teachers to act as coaches.

As the program rolls out over time, schools will be expected to meet certain goals. The only requirement this year is for schools to create individual improvement plans by the spring. Next year, they must hit various targets, including higher attendance, and by 2017 they must show growth in students’ academic performance. Officials said the goals will vary by school, and will take into account student test scores, educators’ efforts to work with families, and the quality of teacher training, among other measures.

Principals hoping to revamp their schools’ academics by removing poor-performing teachers will have to go through the normal evaluation and hearing process, officials said. To ease that process, superintendents will make sure principals properly document instances of teacher misconduct and incompetence, they added.

The 94 schools include some the state has identified as poor performing, and all rank among the bottom quarter in the city as measured by test scores and graduation rates.

The $150 million covers the first two years of the program, and comes from state struggling-school funds and money freed up through cost-savings in the education department budget, officials said. Funding has not yet been secured for the program’s third year, the officials added. De Blasio said more state money is needed to turn around more schools.

“We will need Albany to step up and help us,” he said.

The city’s plan encompasses the School Achievement Initiative, which sent coaches into 23 of the city’s lowest-performing schools this year. It is separate from the $52 million de Blasio set aside earlier this year to create 40 community schools, officials said.

Making community schools the centerpiece of the city’s vision for improving the system is likely to resurface debates about the effectiveness of non-academic services at boosting student achievement. (De Blasio has visited Cincinnati to observe their community schools model, though many of its schools are still struggling to improve their academic performance.)

De Blasio’s school-improvement plan also evokes the Chancellor’s District, a support program in the late 90s and early 2000s for the city’s lowest-ranked schools, though officials said the new program will tailor supports to each school’s needs. Schools in the Chancellor’s District made short-term gains in fourth-grade reading scores but no changes in eighth-grade scores.

The Coalition School for Social Change, where de Blasio made his speech Monday, will be part of the new program. Principal John Sullivan said he hopes to use the new resources to add more social workers, medical and dental services, and help for students who are behind in credits.

“I think the plan will mean a tremendous amount of support for my school community,” he said.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.