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.

choice and competition

It’s not just Detroit. Across Michigan, ‘active and aggressive’ competition imperils schools

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Eric Lupher of the Citizen Research Council of Michigan, Benjamin Edmondson of Ypsilanti Community Schools, Randall Davis of Albion-Marshall School District and Scott Menzel of Washtenaw County Intermediate School District testify before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission

Detroit is not the only district struggling with lower enrollment and other challenges related to competition from charter schools and surrounding districts. On the other side of the state, similar forces led to the Albion school district’s demise.

After years of declining enrollment, falling revenue, poor student performance and school closures in the district, the Albion district in western Michigan faced a difficult problem: How to keep the district from dying. The city of Albion had a large number of students, but many of them travelled outside the city to attend school, forcing the Albion Community Schools district to merge with nearby Marshall Public Schools in July 2016.

Albion’s story was one of many shared Monday with state’s Civil Rights Commission, which held its first in a series of public hearings Monday in Ypsilanti to hear firsthand about issues confronting school districts. Representatives from public policy organizations, school districts, as well as parents, educators and advocates from Detroit and around the state shared stories of hardships and difficult decisions they face.

The commission is charged by the state’s constitution with investigating alleged discrimination. It launched the hearings this week after learning from education experts that state schools are in crisis. The goal of the hearings is to determine if minority students and those with special needs have faced discrimination in the state’s schools.

Albion’s story came from Randall Davis, superintendent of the Albion-Marshall School District, who told commissioners he blamed what happened to Albion schools — a district that had primarily served low-income, African-American students — on a law passed more than two decades ago that allowed students in Michigan to attend any school in any district that would take them.

“Schools of choice decimated the schools,” Davis said. “They had three or four of our contiguous districts that were driving into their district picking kids up. It was active and aggressive….I believe that is not the intention of schools of choice, but that’s what happened.”

The hearing was not intended to focus on competition from charter schools and between neighboring districts, but many of the people who testified came from traditional district schools or from policy organizations, so much of the testimony centered on the consequences of choice in Michigan.

Individuals also came forward to raise various concerns about equity in schools. The commission did not hear from charter school advocates but the commission plans to hold at least two other hearings.

“We also open it up to anyone to offer their opinions,” said Vicki Levengood, communications director for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. “We encourage people on all sides to bring their messages to the hearings.”

The next hearing will be July 23 but a location has not yet been set, she said.

At the first hearing Monday, Benjamin Edmondson, Superintendent of Ypsilanti Community School District, painted the grim, poignant picture confronting him when he became the district’s school chief in 2015.

The Ypsilanti district lacked money to pay for services students needed such as social workers, homeless services, school safety officers, and washers and dryers. The district only managed to provide those services by partnering with the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University and community colleges.

“Those partnerships are critical,” he said. “I don’t know how we would survive without those entities buying into the district.”

Edmondson said his district had lost 300 students before he arrived, costing the district nearly $2.4 million. That forced him to scrap advanced placement classes and meant he couldn’t pay teachers enough to fully staff his classrooms. Graduation rates were low and the district was swimming in debt. The district’s challenges were compounded by the fact it competes with the nearby Plymouth-Canton Community Schools district, which enrolls more than 17,000 students. “We were David and Goliath,” he said.

The district also faces a “strong charter school presence,” he said, recalling a charter school representative who came vying to purchase a vacant district building. He said he felt threatened by the potential buyer’s ability to automatically take 300 students from the district.

“Here I am a new superintendent with a new school board and I just want to paint the story,” he said. “In 2015, we had declining enrollment, white flight, poverty, low expectations, low wages, high debts and priority schools, neighboring charter schools, and a state takeover threat for our schools.”

This year, Edmondson said the district is improving but still facing daunting challenges.

With population declines and fewer students in districts, even with consolidated districts, Michigan’s districts are too small, Eric Lupher of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan told commissioners. He said it means school districts from around the state are struggling because they are losing so many students to surrounding districts.

For example, he said Ypsilanti Community School District is continuing to bleed students to Ann Arbor, Plymouth-Canton and other districts. Ferndale schools are gaining almost 800 students from Oak Park and Detroit schools, but is losing about 350 students to districts further from city line such as Royal Oak and Berkley schools.

The issue isn’t limited just to southeastern Michigan, he said, pointing to Wyoming Public school district, about five miles from Grand Rapids, which has lost students to nearby Jenison and Grand Rapids.

“It’s a bigger issue, and it’s a lot bigger than just consolidation,” he said. “It’s the choice we’ve offered. I’m not here to speak ill of choice, but it’s creating issues we’re not dealing with.”

The eight commissioners listened intently through the six-hour hearing at the Eagle Crest Conference Center, Ann Arbor Marriott in Ypsilanti, occasionally asking questions.

Commissioner Jeffrey Sakwa at one point expressed sympathy for the superintendents. “You guys are in a tough place,” he said.

While Michigan once had nearly 600 school districts, Sakwa said, that number is shrinking.  

Sakwa blamed competing school districts as a primary reason for the changes.

“It’s like Burger King, McDonald’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken all on the corner trying to steal everybody’s lunch every single day,” he said.

PHOTO: By Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Helen Moore

About 20 people from Detroit, Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor spoke during the public comments portion of the hearing. Among them was longtime Detroit education advocate Helen Moore. “Don’t play games with us,” she told commissioners over applause that sometimes drowned her words.

“You know the discrimination we have received as black people and our children. You know that during slavery it was against the law to read. This is what’s happening to our children now.”


Prize money

A million dollars, 570 hopefuls, and 15 winners: How a new competition aims to boost babies and toddlers

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images
Boy displaying drawing.

A Colorado team is one of 15 winners to share in $1 million awarded by a Denver-based organization as part of a new contest recognizing innovative efforts benefitting children from birth to 3 years old.

The Boulder-based team will receive $80,000 for a project that helps little kids acquire language, thinking, and social-emotional skills using a cell phone app inside a stuffed animal.

Gary Community Investments, which gives grants and makes for-profit investments to benefit low-income children and families, announced the winners of the Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Tuesday afternoon. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

The Colorado team that won prize money developed a tool called MindScribe. It works like this. An adult slips a cell phone with a special application into the belly of a stuffed zebra. The app prompts the child to explain what they are doing or making and asks follow-up questions, such as “What happened next?” and “Why?”

MindScribe founder Layne Hubbard, a Ph.D. student in computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder, said her work as a teacher at Boulder’s Children’s House Preschool inspired the project.

“I thought back to storytelling and how powerfully the children’s original stories catalyzed growth, development, and connectedness,” she wrote via email. “I realized that I wanted to scale this opportunity to reach young children across diverse early childhood communities, especially those which are multilingual, low-income, or affected by trauma or disability.”

One little girl who stars in a MindScribe’s demonstration video describes her crayon drawing of a garden — and her fictional protagonist’s desire to change “boring weather” — to the MindScribe zebra for seven minutes.

But the girl, Mia, isn’t oblivious to the cell phone inside the paunchy stuffed animal. Instead, she’s delighted.

She explain how it works to her father, saying, “This is like the teacher but with a radio inside the teacher.”

Mindscribe, which is still in the pilot stage, began with three languages and is now available in 11.

The Early Childhood Innovation Prize, unveiled by Gary last fall, is distinctive because there are few contests that focus on very young children — despite a large body of evidence showing that high-quality care and education for this group yield significant financial and societal dividends.

Leaders at Gary invited prize submissions from teams with advanced ideas, early-stage ideas, and nascent concepts. Five advanced winners received $100,000 each, five early-stage winners received $80,000 each, and five beginning-concept winners receiving varying shares of $100,000. Gary also recognized seven teams, including one from a Colorado Springs-based network of child care centers, that didn’t win money but offered promising ideas.

The contest used an online platform that made each submission publicly viewable and allowed teams to get feedback from fellow candidates, and in some cases, mentoring from experts.

“We really wanted the prize to be an engaging opportunity for people in the early childhood field,” said Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director.

Gary received 570 submissions, with winning ideas coming from nonprofit and for-profit groups, universities, city governments, and the National Head Start Association.

One winning team aims to eradicate book deserts by putting children’s reading materials in public spaces like barber shops and beauty salons. Another proposes classes on mindfulness to reduce child care providers’ stress levels. Several feature technology solutions — to improve child care business operations or promote early developmental screenings.

Clothier said although most of the prize winners are testing projects outside Colorado, their ideas could eventually be replicated here. She said the organization has not decided whether to hold the innovation competition again.