Looking ahead

Five big questions facing New York City schools as a new year begins

More than one million students will stream through school doors on Wednesday, the start of a high-stakes year for New York City.

This is school year number two for the mayor, who will be trying to pull off a number of complicated education initiatives at once.

Sixty-five thousand four-year-olds will be in full-day pre-kindergarten, a record for the city. Nearly 130 schools are scheduled to get new mental or physical health services, putting a new school-improvement strategy to the test and posing another logistical challenge for city officials. And a new system for helping 1,600 schools manage nitty-gritty issues like budgets and training is making its debut.

Other challenges are educational. The city has promised to improve its low-performing schools by flooding them with resources, but students are still entering those schools far behind. Meanwhile, Mayor Bill de Blasio will have to fend off state officials critical of his management of the school system.

As teachers and students head into day one, here are five big-picture questions facing the city’s school system.

Will the “Renewal” school-turnaround program make inroads?

The city spent much of last year helping its low-performing schools develop plans for how they would improve. This year, the strategies will be put to the test at the 94 “Renewal” schools, whose progress is being closely monitored by state officials and by critics of the mayor’s approach.

De Blasio is betting on the idea that struggling schools don’t need to have their staffs overhauled or be replaced with charter schools. Instead, the city is spending millions on teacher training, principal coaches, extra support for English learners, and partnerships with social service organizations.

De Blasio’s Wednesday afternoon visit to the Renaissance School for the Arts in East Harlem will highlight how those partnerships can add time to the school day. The expanded learning initiative, which will cost the city $12.6 million this year, will staff Renaissance’s after-school program with AmeriCorps fellows.

At another planned stop on Wednesday, Chancellor Carmen Fariña will join union leaders for a tour of Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies High School in the Bronx, which is part of another city initiative to convert schools into “community schools” offering an array of services for local residents and families.

The visit to Morris Academy is symbolic for another reason. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration created the school after shuttering Morris High School, and Bloomberg used to return to the building to tout the success of his aggressive school-closure policies. Fariña’s visit is likely to focus on very different themes.

Will newly powerful superintendents and borough centers effectively replace the old “network” system?

One of the biggest changes schools have experienced over the last year is nearly invisible to most parents and students — a wholesale reorganization of the city’s “school support” teams. But for most principals, the changes will be fundamental, and it won’t take long for them to get a sense of what it will be like to work under the new arrangement.

The reorganization comes as the system’s 45 superintendents take on greater authority over the schools within their geographic domains. That power shift has unnerved some principals who have grown accustomed to being solely in charge of how their schools are run. But Fariña saw the move as necessary to create more uniformity across the city’s schools and ensure schools in need of extra support are not left unsupervised.

Replacing the 55 smaller support teams called “networks” are seven new borough support centers, which opened this summer. Now, principals will be relying on the centers to help them with everything from ordering classroom supplies to supporting students with disabilities.

What will come of the push for more family engagement?

Chancellor Fariña has said that the first step to improved student performance is improved attendance, particularly for the one in five city students who are chronically absent. Getting parents more involved is crucial for accomplishing that, Fariña has said in interviews leading up to the start of the school year.

The city’s community-schools effort is designed to get parents into school buildings, whether for English language classes, Zumba, or free laundry services. This will also be the second year that teachers will have dedicated time during the workday to contact parents. Whether those efforts will reduce chronic absenteeism will be closely watched by researchers and advocates who agree with Fariña’s methods.

Meanwhile, the education department will be confronting new and old challenges for showing that it is responsive to parent concerns.

The city has announced plans to merge a handful of schools with declining enrollments with other schools — moves that could spark emotional reactions from teachers and families of schools being officially eliminated. The city’s education policy panel will have to formally approve the mergers, as well as analyze another round of contentious charter school co-location proposals under a new law that encourages the city to find space in its buildings for new charter schools.

How will the de Blasio administration campaign for mayoral control?

The mayor’s fiercest political rivals, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Republican state lawmakers, have the ability to curtail or revoke the mayor’s control over the city school system. This spring, they gave de Blasio just a one-year extension of mayoral control.

Before June, when mayoral control expires again, de Blasio will have to mount a campaign to convince them that he should be given a longer lease on mayoral control.

This year, Republican Senate leader John Flanagan said he wanted to see evidence of de Blasio’s school-turnaround program taking shape, more information about the city’s spending, and for de Blasio and members of his administration to participate in hearings.

Will year two of pre-K run as smoothly as year one?

The first year of the city’s pre-kindergarten expansion encountered few hiccups — a significant feat, since the city more than doubled the number of available seats in full-day programs. But the expansion’s second year is in some ways more ambitious.

Last year, the city leaned heavily on experienced organizations and converting half-day seats into full-day seats. This year, as the city expands from 53,000 seats to over 60,000 seats, the pre-K operation will be stretched further, though it hasn’t appeared to run into new problems yet.

If the logistics go smoothly, attention will likely shift to the quality of the programs. The city has a vast and varied challenge in the years ahead in making sure that students in new, old, expanded, and community-organization-run programs are getting a similar learning experience to those in public school programs.

How I Lead

This Memphis principal says supporting teachers and parents helped pull her school out of the bottom 10 percent

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Yolanda Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years, and was previously the academic dean.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Principal Yolanda Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

It takes a lot of walking to manage two schools. Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years and was previously the academic dean. She temporarily took over Frayser Achievement Elementary when the schools had to share space this year because of maintenance issues at Georgian Hill’s original building.

“I am constantly on the move,” Dandridge said. “How else can you keep up with elementary students?”

Both schools are part of the Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools but has struggled to accomplish the task.

This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent. In 2016, before Dandridge took charge, Georgian Hills was in the worst 2 percent of schools.

Dandridge was honored by the achievement district for her work.

“She is a real standout among our principals of someone who understands what it takes to turn things around,” said interim achievement district leader Kathleen Airhart.

Dandridge talked to Chalkbeat about how she gets to know her students, her efforts to motivate teachers, and why school buildings are important.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

I tell my teachers to always stay focused on the “why” behind their careers. For me, my “why” was the fact that my little brother got all the way through elementary school without learning to read. He wasn’t able to read until the fifth grade. He came from a family of educators, and he still slipped through the cracks. If that could happen to him, it could happen to so many kids.

I started teaching in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and I taught in that state for more than a decade. I came to Memphis as a teacher, I was asked later to consider taking on the principal role at Georgian Hills. I said, “You want me to do what?” Now, I’m grateful for all those years in the classroom and as an academic dean to prepare me for this role.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

Any chance to get into the classroom, I will. If a substitute teacher doesn’t come, which does happen sometimes, I will teach the students in that classroom for a day. I love getting to know students by helping out in the classroom.

I am also constantly walking the hallways of both schools. That’s how I start the morning — I greet students and their parents by name when they walk into the school. I walk students to their classrooms. I’m constantly monitoring the hallways.

When a new student registers for classes, the first thing the office staff knows to do is call me down so I can meet them.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

I really prefer to always consider the experiences that a child may have had prior to entering our building.  When you approach discipline with a keen awareness of the types of situations a child might have or experience, it really makes you a better educator.  And you understand that the best thing for us to do is to ensure that students know and understand that we have their best interests in mind. When children connect with you and other teachers in this way, discipline is less challenging.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m very proud of what we’ve done at Georgian Hills and now at Frayser to really focus on our teachers.

Every Wednesday after school, we’ll have a period of professional development. I try to be attentive to what my teachers tell me they want to learn more about. There is a lot of coordination on lesson plans in particular. Teachers work together on their lesson planning, and I also will personally give feedback on a teahers’ lesson plans. My biggest, driving question is “What do my teachers need most?” They don’t need to be spending hours everyday lesson planning when they can collaborate. We can help there.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

Evaluating teachers has always provided me with the opportunity to hear and see the creativity and passion that our teachers bring to the classroom.  My thought on evaluations is to take the anxiety out of it and ensure that teachers are comfortable and understand that the overall process is about improving their skills and enhancing the tools in their toolbox.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent of schools in Tennessee.

When I was early in my teaching career in Mississippi, I had a student with a single mom. Her mom was an amazing support system for me and my classroom. She was always wanting to volunteer at the school. But she struggled to provide basic needs for her daughter — she was struggling to get a job. But she was trying so hard. There’s a stigma of parents, especially in low-income communities, not participating or caring about their child’s education. This mom was giving her all, and it changed my view of parental support. The school needed to find ways to also support her.

And so as a principal, I’m always thinking about how I can support my parents and invite them into the school. So that they feel welcome and wanted, and also so they are encouraged in their own role in their child’s education. We hold math and science nights, where parents learn how to do math games or science experiments at home with their kids. We provide them with materials and knowledge so that they can provide enrichment in their own home.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

We, like many schools in Memphis, don’t have the facilities we need for our students. Georgian Hills had to vacate our school building due to an issue with the roof. That created a hard environment for this school year — moving to a new building where we share space, and then me taking on that school as its school leader when the principal left. Honestly, I thought this year could break me as a school leader. But it didn’t, and it didn’t break our school either. We had a culture in place where our teachers felt supported among the chaos of the start of the year. After a year of repairs, we’re planning on moving back to our original building this fall.

But the issue here is that we don’t have the school buildings we need. Schools should be palaces in a community.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

You have to mobilize people’s efforts to “win.” The first secret to this is to love your people. They are here for a purpose and you have to help them understand the higher purpose that they are here to serve.  You have to have the right people in place, be responsible for developing them, and have the courage to let them go when student’s needs aren’t being met. Finally, transparency rules.

oversight

Aurora school board to consider one-year charter contract for school with conflict of interest

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

Aurora’s school board is set to decide Tuesday whether to renew the charter of a well-rated school that long has served children with special needs — but that also has become caught up in questions over conflicts of interest and opaque finances.

Aurora district administrators, concerned about operations of Vanguard Classical School, are recommending just a one-year charter extension rather than the usual five-year contract.

District staff members told the school board earlier this year that they were unsure about the school’s relationship with Ability Connection Colorado, the nonprofit that started the school and provides services through a $350,000 agreement. Not only does that contract lack specifics, but also the nonprofit’s CEO, Judy Ham, serves as the president of the charter school’s board and has signed agreements between the two organizations on behalf of Vanguard.

“You can see the clear conflict of interest concern that arose for us,” Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the school board in February.

The charter school board president disputes the findings of the conflicts of interest, but said the school is going to comply with all of the contract’s conditions anyway.

Vanguard, which first opened in 2007, was created to serve students with special needs in an inclusive model, meaning, as much as possible those students are blended into regular classrooms. Currently, the charter operates two campuses. One, near Lowry, enrolls about 500 K-8 students, and the second, a K-12 campus on the east side of the city, enrolls about 745 students. More than half of the students at each campus qualify for free or reduced price lunches, a measure of poverty.

In reviewing Vanguard, the district found it has a higher percentage of students who perform well on some state tests than the district does. The school also has a good rating from annual state reviews.

But the unclear relationship between the school and its founding nonprofit have raised doubts.

Although the relationship and service agreements the school has with the nonprofit aren’t new, Aurora’s concerns came up during an interview step that was added to the charter renewal process this year. Last time Vanguard went through a review from the district, five years ago, the district’s office of autonomous schools that now oversees charter schools did not exist. Staff describe previous reviews as compliance checklists.

Ham told district reviewers in that new step during the review process, that she never recused herself from board votes involving her employer.

But Ham now says that she misspoke, and meant that she has never recused herself officially because she just doesn’t vote on matters involving Ability Connection Colorado.

“It felt like (it was) a loaded question” Ham said. “But I don’t recuse myself because I don’t ever vote. It’s almost like a foregone conclusion.”

Browne also told the board he was concerned with the lack of detail about the $350,000 service agreement.

“Considering the amount that that contract was for, we were very concerned about the lack of detail regarding those services,” Browne said. He also pointed to school staff’s “lack of clarity with regard to what they were paying for and what they were receiving.”

Ham said the charter school has rewritten and added more detail to the agreements about what Ability Connection Colorado does for the school, which she said includes payroll services, human resources, building management, and risk assessments for students. The school’s west campus also shares a building with the nonprofit.

“We are on-call 24-7,” Ham said. “We wanted to provide everything so that the school could focus on being able to do the most important thing which is educating the children, knowing that inclusive education is hard to do.”

But what the functions of the nonprofit are aren’t clear, according to Aurora administrators.

“The school should not be wondering what services they are or are not receiving from the company,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, Aurora’s charter school coordinator.

Administrators recommend a renewed contract include stipulations such as governance training for the school’s board, meant to address conflicts of interest.

Ben Lindquist, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said that there are laws that could apply to give charter school authorizers like Aurora authority over conflict-of-interest issues.

“It should be within the purview of an authorizer to inquire into conflicts of interest if it perceives they are there,” Lindquist said. “But there’s not just one way to remedy that.”

Among the contract’s conditions, the district will also ask that Vanguard’s board be more transparent about recording board votes on significant decisions. Initially, district staff also said they considered asking Vanguard to remove the current board and replace all members, but officials said they ran into some problems with what they were allowed to ask the school to do.

“There’s a very interesting place we are in where we are the authorizer — we don’t run the school and we want to maintain that delineation,” Browne said. “However if we feel like there is something that could be a potential challenge for the school, we feel like it’s our duty to do what we can to suggest or recommend those changes.”