'two tiers'

While some struggling schools get extra attention, others wait for more help

Educators from the struggling schools in the city's "School Renewal" program met in December.

Months after the high-profile launch of a $150 million turnaround program for struggling schools, the city has heaped extra supports on some of the schools while others are still waiting for the intensive help they expected.

Mayor Bill de Blasio faces pressure from the state to prove that his “School Renewal” program can quickly revamp those schools — including from some state lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is pushing a plan to let outside groups take over troubled schools across the state. Last week, de Blasio told state lawmakers that plan was unnecessary in New York City because his program will provide the 94 low-performing schools in the Renewal program with “extraordinary support” and will close those that do not improve within three years.

But even though that countdown has started for all the schools, only a portion have received serious help since the program kicked off in November, according to principals and other staffers at those schools.

A group of high-priority schools within the Renewal program — including some that were part of the de Blasio administration’s first turnaround effort — have been assigned principal mentors and teacher coaches, assessed by city officials and given specific goals for this year, and sent fewer challenging students. Meanwhile, some other Renewal schools have only met with program officials once, have not been given specific targets, and have not been assigned mentors or coaches.

“It’s March and we don’t even have a plan,” said one principal who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity. “And this is considered year one of the intervention.”

All the schools in the Renewal program were flagged by the state for poor performance, with many required to enact top-to-bottom reforms this year. Each ranked among the lowest quarter of city schools for the past three years based on student test scores and graduation rates, according to the city. Still, some have received more attention than others.

Those schools include ones that were part of an initial turnaround effort targeting 23 schools, which the education department quietly launched at the start of the school year before folding it into the Renewal program. High schools in that original effort, dubbed the “School Achievement Initiative,” were placed under the oversight of a single superintendent, assigned turnaround directors, and had teachers trained in an approach to writing instruction pioneered by New Dorp High School in Staten Island.

One of those schools is Richmond Hill High School in Queens. The city has sent it a retired principal to act as a leadership coach, along with math and literacy coaches for teachers; dispatched officials to periodically monitor the school’s progress; agreed not to send it students who had to leave their previous schools for safety reasons; and given it extra funding, which the school has used to add after-school and Saturday sessions for students, according to the principal and Stephen Duch, the principal’s leadership coach.

Duch said the state identified Richmond Hill and other schools in that first initiative early last year as ones in need of rapid improvements. As a result, they have enjoyed earlier and more sustained support from the city than other Renewal schools, according to Duch and others familiar with the high-priority schools.

“There’s two tiers” in the Renewal program, Duch said. (Education department officials deny that there are formal tiers within the program.)

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

While the city has been deeply involved with that subset of schools, administrators and staffers at four other Renewal schools say they have noticed few changes since it was launched last fall.

Three of the schools reported meeting only once with Renewal officials so far. (The fourth, which was part of the School Achievement Initiative, said the burst of attention it received at the start of school year quickly fizzled.) The city has not provided the schools with principal mentors, teacher coaches, or improvement goals for the year, according to people at those schools.

The city has organized training workshops for Renewal schools. However, they have been off-site meetings that schools can send representatives to, not the intensive school-based coaching that some schools expected. One of those was a daylong conference last month hosted by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, which provided an overview of that group’s literacy approach, an attendee said. The person was told that the Reading and Writing Project will host a total of five such sessions for Renewal schools this year, but will not offer coaching at his school as teachers try the approach.

“So far we’re jumping through the hoops,” said the Renewal school staffer, “but nothing’s actually happening at our school.”

Education department officials said they are tailoring their support based on each school’s needs, but that all 94 Renewal schools are getting help.

For instance, the schools have sent a total of 600 staffers to the city’s training conferences, and all have some type of after-school program in place, such as tutoring, test prep, or arts classes. They are beginning to participate in a review by outside researchers that will include teacher interviews, officials said, though a recent email to principals said the researchers will not visit classrooms until next school year.

This spring, the schools will get extra funding to help them craft improvement plans for next school year, and will be partnered with outside groups that will help them add health and social services, officials said. Eventually, all the schools will be assigned leadership coaches, they added.

“Schools across the city are receiving professional development and individualized plans to turn around these historically failing schools,” said department spokeswoman Devora Kaye, adding that a “one-size-fits-all approach” did not help the schools improve in the past. “If there are not results, all options are on the table to ensure our students are getting the high quality education they deserve.”

One upgrade that de Blasio has repeatedly promised all the Renewal schools is “an additional hour of instructional time for every child, every day,” as he told lawmakers last week. But principals union officials said that will require negotiations that have yet to occur. And teachers union president Michael Mulgrew said Wednesday that the logistics of adding an extra hour will not be worked out until after the city finishes analyzing each school’s strengths and weaknesses.

“This is all planning and needs assessments right now,” he said.

Kaye, the department spokeswoman, would not say when schools will get the extra hour.

While most Renewal schools are still in the early planning stage, those that have already received robust support since the start of the school year say they are making progress. Duch, the leadership coach assigned to Richmond Hill High School, said he has already seen “tremendous, tremendous growth.” The school’s principal, Neil Ganesh, agreed.

“I have received extensive support from the [Department of Education],” he said in an email, “and I’m pleased to say we are already seeing results.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”