Turnaround Tactics

Test scores highlight the challenge ahead for city’s ‘Renewal’ turnaround program

PHOTO: Yvonne Albinowski/Ramapo for Children

This year’s state test results showed the city school system creeping forward, but they also told another story: the city’s new school-improvement program has a grueling climb ahead of it.

Schools were chosen for the “Renewal” turnaround program largely because of their low test scores, and while many made minor gains and some pulled significant shares of students out of the lowest score bracket this year, their results remained strikingly far below the city average, according to testing data released Wednesday.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to revamp rather than replace those schools, whose troubles predate his administration. The latest test results underscore just how ambitious a three-year turnaround plan is, especially since year one was mainly devoted to helping the Renewal schools craft improvement plans. As de Blasio tries to pull off this feat, skeptical state lawmakers will be scrutinizing the program’s progress and the state education department will be poised to seize control of struggling schools that don’t rapidly improve.

“The Renewal schools obviously are schools that didn’t get enough investment in the past and had a lot of problems,” de Blasio said Wednesday. “We expect that it’s going to take a lot of work and investment to get them where they need to be, but we’re confident they will move.”

The average English pass rate for the 63 Renewal schools where students took the grades 3-8 state exams this year was 7.5 percent, compared to the city’s 30 percent average. In math, the Renewal pass rate was about 7 percent, compared to 35 percent for the city. Only about a quarter of schools had English pass rates in the double digits (the highest rate was 18 percent), while just one-fifth saw double digit pass rates in math (with a high of 21 percent).

Though extremely low, those average Renewal pass rates reflect increases over 2014: In English, a 1.4-point boost, and 1.1 points in math. Forty-one schools made slight English proficiency gains, and 36 saw bumps in math. At the same time, 20 schools saw their English pass rates slip slightly, as did 27 schools in math.

Renewal schools have much lower test scores than the city average, but they also enroll more students who tend to score poorly. The 94 schools in the program serve larger shares of non-native English speakers, students with disabilities, and students in temporary housing, as well as more black and Hispanic students, than the city average, according to an analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office. (They are also more likely to have low-rated teachers and funding shortfalls, which de Blasio has tried to address by boosting their budgets.)

Considering how far behind many students are when they enter these schools, another measure of their progress is how many students they can push out of the bottom score zone (Level 1 out of four). In both subjects, roughly half of the schools managed to shrink their share of bottom scores. P.S. 154 in the Bronx managed to downsize its group of Level 1 students in English by 17 percentage points, while that borough’s Academy for Personal Leadership and Excellence reduced its Level 1 math cohort by 14 percentage points.

In meetings with Renewal school leaders, education department officials have said such progress is an important accomplishment. Chancellor Carmen Fariña suggested that during the city’s test-score release announcement yesterday when she explained that pushing students slightly forward in reading can have a ripple effect.

“If you can’t read, you can’t do social studies, you can’t do science, you can’t do anything else,” she said. “So being able to move those Level 1’s to Level 2’s is crucial.”

That step-by-step approach to improvement is reflected in the goals the city gave each Renewal school in May and June. An elementary school was told to raise its students’ average math test proficiency score on the Level 1 to 4 scale to a 2.14 by 2016 — a .03 bump from the school’s 2014 average, according to the principal. A middle school was told to increase its students’ average English score by .15 points on that four-point scale by 2017, according to a goal-setting document obtained by Chalkbeat.

“We were pleased that they were as low as they were,” said an administrator from that middle school, referring to the goals, which he said seemed reasonable since the school has many students still learning English.

Whether the state officials keeping close tabs on the Renewal program will be content with modest gains, or whether they will expect those schools to make greater strides toward the city averages, remains to be seen.

In op-ed last week expressing concern over de Blasio’s handling of the city school system, State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said he had “unanswered questions” about the Renewal program. He added that while the city’s schools should set up every student to succeed, “I have serious doubts about whether that mission is being fulfilled.” (Flanagan, a Republican, has sparred before with de Blasio, a Democrat who tried to help his party take control of the senate.)

Meanwhile, under a recent state law, 50 of the Renewal schools have between one and two years to make significant improvements. If they fail to post adequate gains, then the state will hand over control of the schools to an outside manager.

Speaking at an education conference Thursday that Fariña also attended, state Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said the city and its partners faced a choice with its bottom-ranked schools.

“I think they’ve got to make a decision,” she said. “How long do you stick with a failing school?”

Sarah Darville and Stephanie Snyder contributed reporting.

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.

Future of Schools

Indiana’s graduation rate has barely changed in 6 years while most of the nation is on the rise

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum
Mbeomo Msambilwa walks down the hallway at the newcomer school

Indiana has failed to significantly increase the number of students who finish high school even as it leads the nation in embracing school choice policies that have been praised by some education advocates across the nation.

From 2007 to 2011, Indiana’s graduation rate steadily climbed from 78 percent to 87 percent. But since 2011, it has risen just one-tenth of one percentage point. Data released by the state this week showed 87 percent of students graduated in 2017, down slightly from 89 percent in 2016.

That’s a sharp contrast with trends across the country. The most recent national graduation rate was lower than Indiana’s, but it increased by about 5 percentage points between 2011 and 2016. The rate is calculated by dividing the number of students who graduate after four years by the number in a high school cohort.

While Hoosier graduation rates have remained stagnant over the past six years, state education policy has been in upheaval.

Since 2011, Indiana policymakers have limited the power of teachers unions, changed how teachers are evaluated, created an A-F grading system for schools and began taking control of schools with poor performance. They vastly expanded the state’s charter school system and established a statewide program where some students could get public money to pay for private school tuition.

Although politicians at the time did not promise that these changes would guarantee widespread higher academic performance, it was part of their arguments in advancing the new policies. But graduation rates have barely budged.

“We recognize there is still work to be done, and will continue to partner with local districts to ensure every student graduates prepared for life beyond high school,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement.

The picture is more positive in Marion County, with notable gains in some schools and districts. Wayne Township’s Ben Davis University High School graduated 100 percent of its seniors, the highest in Marion County.

At the district level, Franklin Township had the highest graduation rate (97 percent). Beech Grove Schools, which enrolls just over 3,000 students, made the biggest jump of any district in the county, increasing 8 percentage points to 95 percent.

Indianapolis Public Schools also made gains in graduation rates for the second year in a row. Eighty-three percent of students graduated, up 6 percentage points from 2016. The improvement significantly narrowed the gap between the district and the state average. The increase this year is especially notable because there was also a decline in the number of graduates who earned diplomas without passing state tests. Indiana requires students to pass state tests to graduate unless they can get a waiver by meeting other criteria.

The district has made increasing the number of students who graduate a priority in recent years, including by hiring high school graduation coaches who are tasked with helping students get to the finish line.

In IPS, most of the gains were at schools slated to close at the end of this year. The only campus with a substantially higher graduation rate that will remain open is Arsenal Technical High School. The district’s highest graduation rate was at Broad Ripple High School (98 percent), which will close.

Across the state, Asian (88 percent) and white (89 percent) students, and students who do not come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (95 percent) have the highest graduation rates. Black students and kids with special needs had graduation rates below 80 percent.

The biggest change was among students who are learning English as a new language. They had a graduation rate of 61 percent, down 14 percentage points from last year.