Building Better Schools

Best of 2015: A behind-the-scenes look at one school’s struggle to improve

Brooklyn Generation School has committed teachers, but a 50 percent graduation rate. It was created to replace a massive, troubled school, but its statistics still lag far behind the city average. It has long tried to help students cope with their out-of-school problems, but trauma at home still finds its way into classrooms.

The school’s struggles raise a question that has stymied districts across the country: Can a low-performing schools where most students arrive ill-prepared to learn become a high-performing school? And if so, how?

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to improve schools centered on shutting down struggling schools and replacing them with new ones. Now, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new “Renewal” program for Brooklyn Generation and 93 other low-performing schools is designed to show that there can be another way, offering a combination of academic help and resources to meet students’ non-academic needs alongside a mandate to improve by 2017.

Chalkbeat reported from inside Brooklyn Generation as the Renewal program rolled out over the past five months. During that time, various city and state officials visited the school, consuming the time and energy of administrators who desperately wanted good reviews. New funding for student counseling and arts programs was put to quick use, but hands-on help for teachers has yet to materialize.

Meanwhile, two sophomores, Iszzy and Elodie Oriental, are counting on their school to help rocket them from Canarsie, Brooklyn, to the elite universities of their dreams. For Brooklyn Generation and the 15-year-old twins, will all their hard work be enough? And will they get the help they need to reach their goals by 2017?

Reporting by Patrick Wall • Photography and video by Stephanie Snyder • Editing by Sarah Darville

A pivotal moment for a school and the program designed to improve it

As the Renewal program rolls out in February, Brooklyn Generation’s leaders and teachers get a sense of the tests ahead, while the twins continue their uphill climb to college.

Waiting for help and worn out by the status quo

By March, Brooklyn Generation is in the middle of a series of high-stakes reviews, each one concluding the school’s academics must improve. But as the teachers keep working with the same needy students, they have yet to receive clear direction.

A community grows stronger

As the year winds down, the school has found new ways to help students deal with trauma but little has changed in the classroom, raising questions about how the program will deliver on its long-term promises. And as the twins head into their junior year, their future remains tied to their school’s.

Meet the sophomores of Brooklyn Generation

 

More about the Renewal program

Support for this series was provided by The Equity Reporting Project: Restoring the Promise of Education, which was developed by Renaissance Journalism with funding from the Ford Foundation.

good news bad news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhode rage

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

PHOTO: Anjelika Deo / Creative Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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