Building Better Schools

Read Mayor Bill de Blasio’s speech outlining a $150M plan for school improvement

The city will spend $150 million to turn around more than 90 struggling schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday, and is prepared to reorganize or close schools that don’t succeed after getting additional help.

The 94 schools will be designated “community schools” and offer a variety of extra services like English classes for parents and mental-health services meant to address students’ and families’ out-of-school needs. Each of the schools will add an extra hour of instruction to the school day and receive funding for extra after-school seats, summer programs, and additional teacher training.

Speaking at the Coalition School for Social Change in East Harlem, De Blasio said the city would “move heaven and earth” to help the schools succeed, and sharply criticized the Bloomberg administration for consigning low-performing schools to closure and starving them of resources. But the mayor’s three-year plan includes new accountability measures for the schools, which will be expected to meet new standards or face staff changes, reorganization, or closure.

“If we do not see improvement after three years – and after all of these reforms and new resources – we will close any schools that don’t measure up,” de Blasio said. “Not casually, as was too often done in the past, but as a last resort – if necessary.”

The announcement comes eight weeks into the school year and follows advocates’ increasingly vocal calls for a struggling-schools plan from city officials. The city was required to submit improvement plans to the state for roughly 250 low-ranked schools this summer, but asked for months-long extension. De Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña have said for weeks that a plan was forthcoming.

We’ll have more on the city’s plan throughout the day. Here’s de Blasio’s full speech, as prepared for delivery:

Thank you, Chirlane. Boy am I lucky to have such an amazing partner in life. And this City is lucky to have a First Lady so committed to all of our families.

It is a pleasure to be here at the Coalition School for Social Change, with our City officials and commissioners, community members and leaders, and our elected officials, including our Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district we are in. And I would like to thank Principal John Sullivan for hosting us.

This school is in the heart of East Harlem, a community full of enormous pride and energy, which I felt the minute I walked in the door. This is a perfect place to be talking about our subject today – improving education in New York City. The energetic leadership of Principal Sullivan and the dedication of teachers and administrators have brought a new vitality to this school—and students report excitement about a curriculum that offers everything from architecture to computer repair.

But, unfortunately, as a state designated “Focus School,” for much of its recent history, it was forced to fend for itself by the last administration. And that is why we are here today. We reject the notion of giving up on any of our schools—and any of our children.

That is why I chose Carmen Fariña as Schools Chancellor—a tenacious leader with a proven track record for helping schools. And it is why we are announcing a bold new plan for turning around our City’s struggling schools.

Before I get to that, I’d like to start by taking you back to December 1994. It was not a particularly historic month for the world—but it was a big one for the de Blasio family. That is when Chirlane and I first laid eyes on Chiara. As those of you who are parents know, in that instant so many thoughts go through a new parent’s mind. Love, of course. But also panic. All of a sudden, you are responsible for a child’s life. And that moment changes everything. There is now someone whose future you care about even more than your own.

If I had to trace when my interest in public education became personal it was that day – 20 years ago, at Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn, when Chirlane and I suddenly had a whole new reason to care about New York City schools.

Chirlane and I sent Chiara—and later, Dante—to public schools in Brooklyn. And we became active public school parents. I served on the school board, and Chirlane and I went to more parent-teacher conferences and school plays than we could count.

Today, I stand before you as the first Mayor in New York City history to send a child to public schools while in office. For every public school parent who has ever complained about not wanting their local school to be closed or not liking how high-stakes testing was being used, and said to themselves, “things would be different if the Mayor knew what it was like to have a child in public schools,” now is our time. Chirlane and I worried—as every parent has since the dawn of time—how we would educate Chiara and Dante for adulthood.

We know what it is like to walk a small child to school on that nervous first day—to let go of that tiny hand—and then to agonize over whether you have chosen the right school and whether your child will thrive there. And we have lived through the rest of the milestones until that final year of high school, when you worry about what comes next. We have been through what every public school family in this city goes through. We get it – because we have lived it. From our family to your family, we say: we want you to have what we had—schools that work.

Our experience as public school parents has guided our vision for the public schools, including our firm commitment to make parents our partners. I want to say at the outset: New York has many kinds of schools, including charter and religious schools, and all of them play an important roleWe want to support all of them—and the children who go there. But today I will focus on district schools, which educate the vast majority of our children.

Before I talk about where we are going, I want to talk for a moment about where we have been.Over the sweep of decades, we have left children behind—year after year. We divided our school system into “good schools” and “bad schools.” And we wrote off the ones we called “bad.”

Many of you know first-hand what those written-off schools looked like. They were resource-poor. Teachers were hamstrung. The best teachers generally did not want to work in these schools. And parents were shut out. These schools—their teachers—parents—students—felt put down. Because they were put down—by Mayors, and even some schools chancellors.

And those discouraging words matter. Because just as a can-do attitude can be a key factor in success—a can’t-do attitude all but ensures failure. At the same time we were writing off schools, we were writing off students. We divided our children into those we believed could succeed and those we were convinced would fail. We decided some of them had the right to dream great dreams, and others would have the bright hopes of youth extinguished at an early age.

My Administration rejects these cruel divisions. Not only because they are morally wrong, but because their underlying assumptions are wrong. No neighborhood or school has a monopoly on brains and talent. The man who discovered the vaccine for polio, Jonas Salk, was born to a poor immigrant family right here in East Harlem. The first Latina on the Supreme Court—the brilliant Sonia Sotomayor—grew up in public housing in the Bronx’s Soundview neighborhood. The person who helps save the world from global warming could be enrolled in pre-k in East Harlem right now—and we need to make sure she gets the education she needs to do it.

We need to reform the school system so every neighborhood has high-quality schools, every school is one parents would want to send their children to; and every child receives the education he or she needs to succeed in life. In other words, we need a system committed to success for all—and we cannot wait.

I have talked a lot about the tale of two cities. We have said we want to create “One city, rising together.” To get there, we must create “One school system, rising together.” At Riverside Church in the spring, I made a commitment to “shake the foundations” of the school system. In education, there is nothing more foundational than early childhood learning. We believed every child in the city should receive pre-K as a matter of right. And in our first nine months, we secured the funding and put the plans in place. As a result, every 4-year-old will get a free, high-quality pre-k education, and a fairer start in life. Our “Pre-K For All” initiative has gotten a lot of attention.

But we are carrying out other, equally ambitious reforms which are also having a profound impact. First, we have made an historic investment in extending the school day – nearly doubling the number of middle school students in extended-day programs.  Programs that reach young people at an age when it is so easy to get pulled in the wrong direction.

Over 40,000 middle school students who would have been hanging out on the streets or home alone will now spend that time learning and creating.  These programs provide high-quality academic enrichment, tutoring, and extra help with school work. Like “Pre-K For All,” these extended-day programs: Give students educational opportunity and social support at a key age; and put them in a better position to succeed in life. Second, we have dramatically increased the role of parents in our schools.  There is a basic principle every parent understands: Los pádres son los priméros y mejóres maéstros de nuéstros níños. Parents are our children’s first and best teachers. Las escuélas funciónan mejór cuándo los pádres se siénten bienvenídos, cuándo están involucrádos – y cuándo puéden participár en la educación de sus híjos. Schools work best when parents feel welcome, when they are involved – and when they participate in their children’s education, regardless of what language they speak at home.

Our new teachers’ contract builds in more time for teachers to reach out to parents: forty additional minutes every Tuesday for face-to-face meetings, phone calls, and emails. This extra time makes an enormous difference. At P.S. 149 in Jackson Heights – Parents used to wait until November to meet their children’s teachers – if they met them at all. And because teachers did not have to stay as late under the old contract, meetings had to occur during the school day, when many parents couldn’t attend.

This year, thanks to the new contract, P.S. 149 held a “Family Night” attended by 700 parents and caregivers.  Our belief in parental involvement is not just an article of faith. There is research showing it makes a big difference. A Harvard Graduate School of Education study from 2012 found: Strong teacher-family communication increased class participation by 15 percent; and increased the likelihood students completed their homework by 40 percent.

Third, we have greatly expanded teacher professional development. Since June, we have had more than 13,000 participants, including over 8,000 teachers in our training sessions. Fourth, we have created a new, more innovative kind of school – known as PROSE schools. We have given them more independence to depart from DOE and union rules when they think it makes sense to rewrite the playbook. And in everything from teaching methods to hiring decisions, they are adapting to meet the specific needs of their communities and students.

The initiatives we put in place in our first 10 months are not just good ideas – they are having a real impact on the quality of teaching, and on the connection students and families feel to schools. We have started to reimagine education.  And we have put down a new foundation for everything to follow.

Today, I want to tell you about what is coming next. We are making a major commitment to a model we believe will improve education citywide. And we are making it the centerpiece of a major new initiative to turn around struggling schools.

The model is Community Schools. We have talked about Community Schools before, but today we are announcing plans to use them in a much bigger way. Community schools embody the values we believe should drive public education and make a real difference in student achievement.

So what are Community Schools? They are schools built on a philosophy that has been described as “whole child, whole school, whole community.” “Whole child” means they focus on all of a child’s needs – not just academics. They address a child’s mental, physical, social and emotional well-being in addition to their academic needs. And, in many cases, these schools address problems at home.

Our Schools Chancellor likes to say, “If a child is hungry she cannot focus.” That is why a Community School might have a food pantry for students’ families. A parent who does not understand English may have trouble helping a child with homework. That is why a Community School might offer English language classes for parents. Children from every economic background come to school with their own particular challenges, including mental health needs.

Community schools have ways to identify children who are struggling – and to offer help early in their lives. The second part of the Community School philosophy is “whole school.” This is the idea that principals, teachers, and parents should work as close partners to address the needs of all kids—from the most troubled to the valedictorian.

In the past, too often parents were only invited to come to school when there was a problem. Community Schools see parents as collaborators every step of the way. Chirlane and I have always seen Chiara and Dante’s schools not just as schools, but second homes —an extension of our family. That is the Community School model. Schools in which parents are not only included – but feel right at home.

Finally, “whole community” means Community Schools have strong connections to their neighborhoods.  Some schools have fallen into the trap of shutting out the community and acting like self-declared islands. Community Schools are neighborhood hubs – open to everyone, often on evenings and weekends. There is another way to think about Community Schools: as schools for “The Way We Live Now.

Our schools were created in a vastly different era, which ran on the agricultural calendar, when families did not always need two incomes, when most women did not work outside the home, when high school was meant to prepare many graduates for factory jobs and unskilled labor. We cannot expect a model created in the 1800s to deliver a 21st century education. Community Schools are designed for us, here and now: they invite parents and other members of the community in on their own schedule; and they prepare students for the jobs of today – which increasingly require skills previous generations could not have dreamt of.

So, what would you see if you walked into a Community School and took a look around? Many of the things you see in any school. A principal. Teachers. Classrooms. But you might also see doctors, nurses, and psychologists, who are identifying challenges students have, and working on them.  Some of these challenges are small, but critical, like a student who does not have eyeglasses and cannot see the blackboard. Others are bigger.

P.S. 78, the Stapleton Lighthouse Community School in Staten Island, makes mental health a priority. It has a Behavior Intervention Team with a guidance counselor, psychologist, and social workers, as well as staff from two nearby mental health clinics.  It identifies students with challenges like ADHD or depression and gets them help quickly, before their education suffers.

So, as we continue our tour of a Community School, what else do we see? Parents – a lot of parents. Community schools make sure parents know that they have a stake in the school their children attend.  Getting parents involved is not just a nice idea – it is critical for an effective school.  When parents believe in a school – when they are truly invested – their children benefit.  Parents work closely with teachers. Homework assignments get done. More reading time happens at home.

There’s one more thing we see as we look around a Community School: more resources. Community Schools understand there are a lot of people rooting for New York City school kids who want to help, and they draw on all of the community’s resources. One newly-designated Community School on the Lower East Side got Lowe’s to donate a washer and dryer for parents to use. The washer and dryer helps ensure that even the poorest parents can send their kids to school with clean clothing. And they get parents comfortable coming to their children’s school.

At this same school, NYU Dental comes every week to do checkups and cleanings. And Creative Artists Agency, the big talent agency, gives children who are living in temporary housing backpacks, thanksgiving dinners for their families, and holiday presents.Other Community Schools have partnerships with major museums, local businesses, and civic groups. A former employer of mine likes to say that “it takes a village to raise a child.” Community schools understand that in our modern world it takes a neighborhood to educate one. Community Schools can – and in time will – make a difference in every part of the city.

But we will be using them, in particular, as a tool for helping the schools that need it most. I said I would be talking about a plan for turning around struggling schools. Today, I am announcing a $150 million initiative. It’s officially called “The School Renewal Program.” But I like to think of it by a simpler name: “No Bad Schools” because that is what it is about – ensuring no child in the City goes to a school that does not provide a high-quality education.

Now, “bad school” is not a formal educational term, but it is, for too many parents and students, a reality, and how many people in this City refer to certain schools. For decades, there have been schools everyone knows are not working, even if there are good administrators, teachers, parents and students who are part of them.

Our new initiative is focused on 94 struggling schools. These are the schools we have identified as most in need of help, and we are beginning with them. Remember, these are the kind of schools the system wrote off in the past in two ways – both harmful to students.

First, in many cases, with neglect – letting schools commit educational malpractice year after year on innocent students. In other cases schools like these were abruptly shut down with too much reliance on test scores in making the decision and not enough effort to save them. Often, the closing added insult to injury – because after years of neglect, a school the community was deeply attached to was declared a failure, when in fact it was City government that had failed.

By not doing enough to make the school a success, like giving it the resources it needed or the principal and staff it needed, as schools were phased-out, they had fewer resources – from courses, to services for students with special needs. We are going to do something different, something rarely tried before. We are going to give these schools the tools they need to succeed. I want to say at the outset that we are already doing a great deal for these struggling schools – things that were not being done before.

I told you about some of these: extended-day programs, increased programs to bring in parents, and extra professional development time for teachers. But now we will be going much further, with a new set of initiatives designed to turn every one of our Renewal Schools into a successful school. First, we will transform every Renewal School into a Community School. This is a major step, which will completely change how these schools operate.

Second, we will provide something parents and educators agree is critical: more time in the school day. Every student in a Renewal School will get an extra hour of instructional time every day. I know it may make a lot of students unhappy, but there is no better way to get students to learn than putting them in a classroom with a capable teacher and getting down to work.  Renewal Schools will also be getting extra after-school seats, further increasing the time students have to learn.

Third, Renewal Schools will get extra professional training for teachers. And finally, we will offer high-quality, academically focused summer programs at all of the Renewal Schools, so students will have significant extra time in the calendar year to learn. We are backing all of this with a major investment of dollars.

These 94 Renewal Schools will get an additional $150 million. This is a considerable amount of money – but it is just a start. The total cost of turning around all of our schools will be significantly more. We will need Albany to step up and help us.

The last part of Renewal Schools is in some ways the most important: accountability.  I want to be clear about our vision. We will plan for success, and we will dedicate more resources to achieving it. But we will also hold our schools and educational professionals responsible for failure, and we will use our power under the teachers’ contract, and other means, to do it.

We will apply this vision – of extra help, but full accountability – to every one of these struggling schools. And we will do it in three ways.

First, through teachers – the great majority of our teachers are highly capable and hardworking – and have been clamoring for more support, and we will give it to them.

But there are also teachers who are not delivering for students. We will work with these teachers and help them do better with more resources, including high-performing teachers to serve as mentors. But we will also do more to document the problems of poorly performing teachers, and while respecting their due process rights, we will make changes in the faculty of schools that fail to improve despite these significant new efforts at supporting them.  We know this kind of accountability is necessary and we know it’s something most teachers support as strongly as we do.

Second, through Principals – as our Chancellor will tell you, nothing helps a school turnaround more than a great principal. And many struggling schools have principals like John Sullivan who are right for the job, but some principals need to do better and our job is to help them. That includes having experts from inside and outside the school system provide intensive coaching.

And we are increasing the role our superintendents play supervising and supporting principals of Renewal Schools. We have already brought in a new team of superintendents, and they will spend more time providing coaching and guidance. But if these efforts do not work, we will use the authority the law gives us to remove principals and other school leaders, and put in leaders who can get the job done.

Third, through the schools themselves – we will give Renewal Schools every chance to become better and stronger, including unprecedented levels of support. We will move Heaven and earth to help them succeed, but we will not wait forever. If we do not see improvement after three years – and after all of these reforms and new resources – we will close any schools that don’t measure up. Not casually, as was too often done in the past, but as a last resort – if necessary.

Holding schools accountable is critical – because all of the reform plans in the world will make little difference if there are no consequences for failing.

These are our blueprints for reform, and for shaking the foundations of education in New York City. Our Renewal Schools initiative begins immediately. We have already begun taking the critical first steps, including the following. The Chancellor is evaluating principals and other leaders of Renewal Schools – to make sure our school leadership improves immediately.

We will begin mentoring principals and increasing professional development for teachers without delay – to improve instruction right away. We are starting right now to recruit more guidance counselors and other staff to be added to struggling schools in the spring.  And we are acting quickly to create and strengthen Parent Teacher Association and School Leadership Teams. These groups give parents a voice in their children’s schools, but not all schools have ones that are functioning. We will ensure that these vital parent organizations exist in every Renewal School by January 15.

In the Second Year, more changes will be visible in all Renewal Schools. With the new school year, we will be adding highly experienced Master Teachers to work with existing faculty. We will place additional mental health professionals, guidance counselors, and other professionals in Renewal Schools.

And we will have in place – pending approval of Council of School Supervisors & Administrators – innovative “Ambassador Teams.” These expert teams will come in from the outside, and will include a highly skilled principal, assistant principals, and teachers to lead the school and assess the school needs, and they will act quickly and decisively to bring about necessary changes.

We will demand fast and intense improvement – and we will see that it happens. My impatience for change comes from a very personal place. As I said, Chirlane and I stand here before you today not as Mayor and First Lady, but as proud public school parents, and we developed these reforms not just as public servants, but as people who have spent much of our adult lives as the father and mother of public school students.

It is partly about what public school parents know – from long experience with the school system. But it is really about something much deeper: that profound responsibility that every parent feels, that total commitment we have to our children.

A parent does not just hope their children’s lives turn out well. For them, it is the most important thing in the world. To make it happen, parents cross oceans, scrimp on their own wishes and dreams, and if need be, they risk their lives.  Because what matters to them more than anything else is their children’s future. This total commitment to our children was something Chirlane and I felt from the moment we first laid eyes on Chiara. And we felt it again when we first saw Dante.

And it is something I know every parent here today felt the minute they became a mother or father. Parents believe in their children with a pure faith, and fight for them with undying tenacity.

These are the values our school system must have – a parent’s faith in every child, and a parent’s commitment not to give up. And that is my promise to you today – that we believe in every child in the New York City schools, and we will not give up on a single one.

Thank you.

 

Q and A

Former Success Academy lawyer hoping to start own charter network wants to ‘take it to the next level’

As the former top lawyer for Success Academy, Emily Kim had a hand in almost every aspect of New York City’s largest and most controversial charter-school network — from negotiating lunch times for schools in shared buildings to defending Success in court.

After spending six years with Success, Kim is setting off to launch her own charter network with locations in Manhattan’s District 6, which includes Inwood and Washington Heights, and the Bronx’s District 12, which includes the south and central Bronx. Called Zeta Charter Schools, she hopes to open in 2018.

PHOTO: Photo courtesy of Emily Kim
Emily Kim

Kim is still a big believer in Success — two of her children go there, and she praised its lightening-rod leader, Eva Moskowitz, as “brilliant” — but she thinks she has something different to offer.

“I chose the best schools possible for my own children,” she said during a recent interview with Chalkbeat near her home on the Upper West Side, “but I’m still going to innovate and take it to the next level.”

The school’s co-founders — Jessica Stein and Meghan Mackay — also have ties to Success, as do several board members listed in the school’s charter application. (One of the board members, Jenny Sedlis, is a Success co-founder and director of the pro-charter advocacy group, StudentsFirstNY.)

But Kim’s vision also seems tailored to avoid some of the usual critiques of charter schools, including that they rely on harsh discipline policies. By contrast, her plan for Zeta calls for limiting the use of suspensions. She also wants her schools to be diverse, though she admits that will be difficult in residentially segregated areas like the Bronx.

A mother of three, Kim has taught in classrooms in New York City, Long Island and even West Africa. She worked on special education issues in Philadelphia district schools before heading to law school at Temple and Columbia. While working as a corporate litigator, she took on a case pro-bono for Success — and was soon offered a job as the network’s first general counsel.

Below are edited highlights from our interview with Kim earlier this month where she described how her experience as an Asian-American growing up in Iowa shaped her views on school segregation, why she believes high-stakes tests are important, and what role she sees for charter schools like hers.

Kim talked about sending her son to Success:

My child was 4 years old when all of this kind of unfolded. The first school I visited was Eva’s school, Harlem 4.

… I was so astounded by what I saw — which is the energy of the teachers. Just the level of dedication, commitment, the joy and energy of their teachers — I was blown away.

Then Eva gave a talk at the end. She was clearly a hard-driving, almost in a sense, from my perspective then, a business person. So I thought, “That’s the type of person who should be running schools.”

What’s your role going to be as you launch your own charter schools?

I’ll be the CEO. I want to take all of the great things that I saw at Success and at other schools and — like in any other enterprise — I want to take the best of the best, and I want to implement it.

And then I want to work on implementing some of the ideas that I have as well.

What’s your goal for your schools?

The number one goal is to just create additional education opportunities. As a parent, I feel this very strongly: No parent should have to send their child to a school that is not a good school.

… Our schools are going to prepare kids for the tests, and the reason is that tests are access to power. And whether you like it or not, if you want to go to college — to a good college — if you want to go to law school like I did, you take the SATs. You take the LSAT. You have to do a good job.

How are you going to measure your schools’ success?

Academic outcomes are first and foremost because truly, if I can’t hit the academic outcomes, there’s no point. I’m wasting everybody’s time and I don’t want to do that. That’s number one.

… We’re looking at going backward from very rigorous high school and college curricula, and working backwards from there. So that’s our vision when we’re establishing our schools. What do kids need to be successful in college?

And it’s not just the testing outcomes, but it’s also the soft skills that kids need in order to get there. Kids need to be able to self-regulate, and that’s got to start in elementary school, in order to be successful in middle school.

On what her schools will look like:

One of the most important elements of our school design is going to be technology.

We’re still in early days, but I’m visiting many schools across the nation that are doing things that are very exciting in technology. I’m also going to be looking in the private sector to understand what are the skills that kids need to actually be innovators. I’d love if one of our students were able to invent an app that made a difference in the world.

Many New York City schools, district and charter alike, are highly segregated by race and class. Kim spoke about the city’s segregation:

In New York City, with the exception of Success Academy and other high-performing schools, you can go to the playground and look at the skin of the children who are playing there or look around the neighborhood and the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood, and you’ll know the quality of the school. It’s a terrible, terrible situation. And that’s 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

And how her own background informs her views on the issue:

I grew up in Iowa. I was one of the very few students who looked like me. My dad was a math professor. There were very few African Americans, few Hispanics, and very few Asians. That was hard in a lot of ways in that I grew up with a lot of teasing and whatnot. But I also was forced to navigate a world that I didn’t understand from my own experience.

… I have the perspective that it shouldn’t [just] be the case that minorities are integrating into the larger majority population. The majority population also has to integrate themselves in the minority enclaves. As long as we have this idea that it has to go one way only, that’s perpetuating the problem.

Have the city’s charter schools done enough when it comes to integration?

… It’s just so challenging for charters because honestly, opponents of charters use the segregation idea as another weapon against charters in terms of why they’re not serving the greater good — because they’re segregated.

Well, they’re segregated because they went into areas that were low income. Unfortunately, those kids weren’t getting a good education.

So what should the mission of charter schools be?

Charter schools were largely, originally intended to bring options to children who didn’t have them — so that would be low-income [students]. That’s not really my vision of charter schools. I think that charter schools are places where innovation can happen.

… I would love for what we learn through our [research-and-development] approach to be implemented at district schools. I’m very interested in district reform. I think there are a lot of challenges to district reform, but we’d love to come up with solutions that can be applied in other contexts.

Kim explained her decision to leave Success and start her own schools:

Staying with Success surely would have been a very rich experience, but I also thought I wanted to build something and I had some ideas.

… It was a really hard decision. But I’m really glad I did and every day I’ve made that decision, I feel like I’ve made the right decision.

I guess it will be answered once I have the schools up and running. If they’re doing well, then I’ll have my answer.

approaching deadline

In year three of New York City’s massive school turnaround program, the big question is: What’s next?

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks with East Flatbush Community Research School Principal Daveida Daniel during a visit of the Renewal middle school.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña walked into a classroom at Longwood Preparatory Academy in the Bronx, where students were absorbed with gleaming iMacs and recording equipment.

She paused for a moment, watching the teacher shuttle between students experimenting with audio-editing software.

“Look at the attention these kids are getting,” Fariña said, praising the school’s new vocational program in digital media. “It’s a feeling of renewed vigor and energy.”

With the smell of fresh paint still hanging in the air, Fariña’s visit was meant to highlight the enormous investments the city has made in dozens of schools that have floundered for years — including this one.

Under its former name, Banana Kelly, the school suffered from one of the highest dropout rates in the city, churned through four principals in five years, and struggled with serious safety incidents. (A previous principal was doused with pepper spray, and in 2012 was shot with a BB pellet outside the building.)

Now — as one of several back-to-school check-ins at some of the 78 schools the city is currently trying to revamp — Fariña was eager to praise the school’s energetic principal and its recent gains. Its attendance and graduation rates have improved in recent years, though its 2016 graduation rate (which is the latest figure publicly available) still lagged behind schools with similar student populations.

The visit comes as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s three-year effort to revive long-struggling schools, including the former Banana Kelly, is rapidly approaching its third birthday this November. The “Renewal” program — which has cost at least $383 million so far — is arguably the mayor’s most ambitious education reform, an effort to nurse some of the city’s lowest-performing schools back to health with extra social services and academic support rather than shut them down.

And while some experts say it’s too soon to expect big payoffs, de Blasio’s three-year timeline for “fast and intense improvement” has invited scrutiny into whether the program is translating into better outcomes for students.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña tours Longwood Prep with Principal Asya Johnson (right) and student Heaven Molina.

“Enough time has elapsed that there is an appetite for looking at results,” said Aaron Pallas, a Teachers College professor who has studied the program.

Meanwhile, the exit strategy for schools in the Renewal program remains unclear. Despite promises that schools released from the program won’t lose the extra support they’ve come to rely upon, some school personnel are nervous that extra funding, counselors, and social services could be scaled back.

“There are some principals whose reaction is: ‘We really need to get it together because next year these [partner organization] resources might not be here,’” said Derek Anello, a program director with the nonprofit Partnership with Children who oversees staff in four Renewal schools. “Lots of people are experiencing it as the last of the three years.”

Planning for life after Renewal

Felicia Guerrier has helped usher in a new wave of social services at  P.S. 298 Dr. Betty Shabazz in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a Renewal school where 96 percent of students come from low-income families, and which used to suffer from “a love drought and a resource drought,” as she recently put it.

She supervises two new full-time social workers, oversees vision and dental services now offered out of the school’s auditorium, and coordinates with a nursing service that helps keep student health issues like asthma and diabetes in check — resources she says have led to a big boost in attendance and family involvement at the school.

But she’s already started handing off some of her responsibilities, out of a concern that the nonprofit she works for, Partnership with Children, might eventually be forced to reduce its role at the school. (Some nonprofits in Renewal schools are unsure whether their contracts will be extended past this school year.)

Guerrier explained that she’s now taking a back seat in meetings, making sure the assistant principal is in the loop to coordinate with health providers, and positioning the school’s parent coordinator to help run a food pantry for students and their families.

“I’m feeling the pressure to make sure there is some type of lasting power with what’s happening even when I’m gone,” she said.

While the mayor vowed in 2014 that the original cohort of 94 Renewal schools would be revamped or shuttered within three years (16 schools have already been closed or folded into other schools), the city has indicated the program will continue beyond this year. And officials stressed that the work of nonprofit organizations like Partnership with Children won’t end even if schools are taken out of the program.

“Steady improvement is key, and of course we will evaluate each school that is ready to transition from the program and provide them with the right supports to maintain their improvement,” Aimee Horowitz, the executive superintendent for Renewal schools, said in a statement.

An unclear exit strategy

Even as the Renewal schools move forward with their reforms, a big question hangs over them: How exactly do they exit the program? So far, no schools have left it without being combined with another school or closed.

This August, Mayor de Blasio said that would change. In addition to more closures, he said some schools could graduate out of the program, and others might stay past the three-year deadline.

“We have to work out the details,” de Blasio said, “but we’re not going to leave a school in the lurch.”

In making decisions about which schools to shutter or merge in the past, the city has looked at test scores, enrollment changes, principal effectiveness, and attendance rates — though officials have said there aren’t strict cutoffs, making it difficult to predict which schools could depart the program this fall.

If schools are released from Renewal, it remains to be seen whether they’ll continue to enjoy the same level of support and extra resources.

Brian Bradley, principal of Renaissance School of the Arts in East Harlem, said he is preparing for the possibility that this will be his school’s last year in the program. Renewal, he said, has made a real difference: Additional training for teachers has improved classroom instruction, aggressive outreach is boosting attendance, and the community school director has taken over once-overlooked administrative responsibilities.

“We have a great partnership and that has been the number one thing,” he said.

The school only banked on three years of support, but Bradley noted he has come to rely on extra funding the school receives to lengthen the school day. It’s a feature of the Renewal program that has a dual payoff, he said: more time for student learning and a pay bump that helps reduce teacher turnover.

While he’s already looking for sponsorships or other ways to fund his new programs, he’s aware that his school might have improved its way out of extra money and help.

“I have definitely used the phrase ‘victim of our own success,’” he said, “and that could be the reality.”

Looking for results

The program’s three-year anniversary doesn’t just create uncertainty for Renewal schools, it also raises questions about whether de Blasio’s signature turnaround program is working.

Some advocates of the mayor’s strategy have expressed concerns that his promise of rapid improvement was too aggressive. They say school turnarounds usually require well over three years, especially when they hinge on cultivating partnerships with social service organizations — a new task for many school leaders.

City officials have pointed to better attendance, test scores and graduation rates in some schools, but many others have not yet made significant academic gains. And researchers who have tried to sort out whether the program has led to academic improvements have reached mixed conclusions.

Using three years of test score data (including the results released last month), the Manhattan Institute’s Marcus Winters found that the program is generally boosting math and English scores in elementary and middle schools.

But using a different statistical method that compares Renewal schools to similar ones that didn’t receive extra resources, Teachers College’s Pallas found the program appeared to have no effect on test scores or graduation rates. (He has not yet updated his analysis to include the latest test scores.)

Renewal schools remain under pressure to raise their scores. To aid in that process, education staffers who work with the schools have pushed them to target increasingly specific groups of underperforming students, according to Partnership with Children’s Derek Anello.

“In the prior two years we were more general in what the goals were,” Anello said. Now, “There’s really a microscope on every number and how we move the needle.”

Yet even if schools don’t make huge strides this year, some observers say the mayor is unlikely to change course. Many argue that adding social services to high-need schools enhances students’ health and wellness, even if it doesn’t result in swift academic improvements. The city has invested heavily in creating social service-rich “community schools,” which include more than 130 schools outside the Renewal program.

Even if Renewal’s academic results are mixed, Professor Pallas of Teachers College predicts that de Blasio won’t face strong political pressure to scale back his resource-intensive approach to school improvement, which has generally earned support from local politicians and the teachers union.

The program “resonates with progressives’ desire to support community-based schools,” he said. But, he added, “at some point somebody’s got to make the difficult decision about whether the benefits are worth the investments they’re making.”