rebooting renewal

Fariña, de Blasio and Mulgrew aim to fire up principals at Renewal event

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Michael Mulgrew, Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, pictured together last year, each addressed principals of schools in the Renewal program on Monday.

This school year isn’t yet over, but the principals and nonprofit leaders taking part in the city’s high-stakes school turnaround initiative are already focused on the next one.

A private event for the 94 low-performing schools on Monday featured words of encouragement from Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña, along with time for schools to refine their improvement plans for next year. Principals said the event was part pep rally, part professional development session, and was designed to energize those who will be on the front lines as the city tries to prove it can improve those schools with a combination of academic help and resources to meet students’ non-academic needs.

“I have to say that failure is not an option,” Fariña said, according to a transcript provided by her spokeswoman. “There are many people watching what’s happening in New York City. Not just in the state, but across the country.”

The event, which took place at New York University, also included speeches from teachers union President Michael Mulgrew and principals union President Ernest Logan. Mulgrew told the attendees that the program offered an “opportunity to shut up the critics,” according to a union chapter leader who tweeted some paraphrased remarks.

Their remarks reflect the high stakes attached to the city’s program, which takes a very different approach to school improvement than de Blasio’s predecessor Michael Bloomberg, whose strategies included closing struggling schools and replacing them. De Blasio’s “Renewal” program is meant to offer schools all the resources they need to succeed before the city considers more dramatic shake-ups or closure. But schools don’t have much time: Many of the new services will make their debut at the start of next school year, giving schools two years to meet their goals.

Principals spent Monday finalizing the school improvement plans that are due to the state by the end of July. Drafts were due June 19, and Monday’s meeting gave principals a chance to revise them with feedback from their superintendents. Revised drafts are due Wednesday.

Those plans will include the student performance benchmarks that the schools will have to hit by 2017. Next year, elementary and middle schools will be expected to show improved attendance, while high schools will also be expected to show some academic gains. All schools also have some choice as to how they will be judged, and can choose other metrics, including parent and student survey results and high school graduation data.

“The best Renewal Schools I’ve been visiting already have data all over their bulletin boards,” Fariña told attendees. “When you walk into that office and right away you know who the bottom quartile kids, which kids need more math support, which kids need more reading support.”

A principal who attended said that the presence of city leaders offered a sense of shared responsibility.

“Those are all the people responsible for the work,” said the principal, who declined to provide her name because she was not authorized to discuss the meeting. “Our success is their success and our failure is their failure.”

Also present at the event were representatives from community-based organizations, which are partnering with schools to provide non-academic services as part of a broader strategy to convert the struggling schools into “community schools.” The city is planning to spend up to $108 million on the Renewal program next year, much of which will go toward paying teachers to work longer school days and for contracts with those outside providers.

“This is not an add-on; it’s not an extra, because these are not after school programs,” Fariña said of the programs. “This is: how do you work in classrooms with teachers, particularly if there’s social-emotional support that you’re giving students and teachers?”

word choice

A quietly edited report and dueling blog posts reveal a divide over the ‘portfolio model’

Diane Ravitch speaks at California State University Northridge. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images)

A report on school choice released last month offered this in a list of strategies for improving schools: “creating a portfolio approach that treats all types of schools equally.”

Today, that reference is gone from the report — a small edit that reveals notable disagreements among prominent names in education who often agree.

The report was issued by the Learning Policy Institute, an education think tank started by Linda Darling-Hammond, an influential Stanford professor. Then came a critique from Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris of the Network for Public Education, a pro-public education group that opposes charter schools. And then came the edits to the original report, first noted by Burris and Ravitch.

At the center of the disagreement is the report’s use of the word “portfolio.” The portfolio model is a strategy offering parents the choice of different school types (typically including charter schools) and having a central body holding all schools accountable for results and manages certain functions like enrollment. And the Learning Policy Institute praises Denver, a district that has adopted it.

Denver’s collaboration agreement with its charter schools “drives equitable funding and access for all schools, and strives to replicate the most effective schools of all kinds,” the report says. The report also recommends putting the “focus on educational opportunities for children, not governance structures,” and notes that most school choice in the U.S. involves options within traditional districts.

Ravitch and Burris pushed back on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog. “School governance directly affects the rights and well-being of students,” they wrote, pointing to instances where charter schools have pushed out students with disabilities or shut down abruptly.

That criticism seems to have gotten through. Since the debate began, the Learning Policy Institute has edited its report to remove the term “portfolio” and changed other language. One recommendation — “focus on educational opportunities for children, not governance structures for adults” — became “focus on high-quality learning for children, not the preferences of adults.”

“The language change was made after some public feedback suggested that the use of the word ‘portfolio’ in the report was being misinterpreted,” Barbara McKenna, a spokesperson for the Learning Policy Institute, said in an email. “The report used the word ‘portfolio’ in one of the recommendations in the most straightforward sense of the term — an array of options.”

The report does not indicate that it has been updated since it was published late last month. McKenna said that’s because the revisions weren’t substantial.

Meanwhile, Darling-Hammond and co-authors have responded, and Ravitch and Burris offered an additional rejoinder.

Darling-Hammond said in an interview that she neither rejects nor wholly subscribes to the portfolio model. “Unplanned, uncoordinated, unmanaged choice has a lot of challenges and problems,” she said.

This debate comes as a new group, known as the City Fund, has raised at least $200 million in order to spread the portfolio model to dozens of U.S. cities. Whether the approach reliably improves academic outcomes remains up for debate.

public comment

What to expect from six hours of charter school hearings Wednesday night

PHOTO: Chicago Tribune

The public can weigh in on three new charters, 11 renewals and one potential revocation on Wednesday night during a marathon session of hearings at Chicago Public Schools headquarters on 42 W. Madison Street.

One school, the Near West Side campus of Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men High School, could lose its charter and be forced to close. Parents and families will have a chance to weigh in during a public comment section.

Urban Prep operates three campuses in Bronzeville, Englewood, and University Village. Only the latter, which reported 176 students this fall, is on the list to potentially shutter.

The first hearing, from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., will be about new charters with proposals to open in the fall of 2019:

  • Intrinsic Charter School for a traditional citywide high school;
  • Project Simeon 2000 for a school that would serve at-risk students in middle grades in Englewood, where the district is planning a new $85 million high school to open in 2022;
  • Chicago Education Partnership to open a traditional K-8 school in Austin.

From 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., the district will hear public comment on renewal applications from 11 private operators as well as the proposal to revoke Urban Prep’s University Village campus. The charter and contracts under consideration for renewal are:

  • Noble Network of Charter Schools (whose founder Michael Milkie just resigned amid allegations of improper conduct with alumni)
  • Namaste Charter School
  • Kwame Nkrumah Academy Charter School
  • Horizon Science Academy Southwest Chicago Charter School (Chicago Lawn Charter School)
  • Great Lakes Academy Charter School
  • Foundations College Preparatory Charter School
  • Chicago Math and Science Academy (CMSA) Charter School
  • Hope Institute Learning Academy
  • Excel Academy of Southshore
  • Excel Academy Southwest
  • Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts)

Those interested in submitting comment may register in person before the meetings, send a fax to 773-553-1559, or email