consolidated ed

Anxieties grow for some vanishing schools in city’s merger plans

Carole-Ann Moench, a teacher at Global Neighborhood Secondary School, expresses her reluctant support for a plan to merge the school with P.S. 96. To the right is Deputy Chancellor of Operations Elizabeth Rose. ( Photo by Geoff Decker )

Emotions were raw but attendance was sparse at a school meeting in East Harlem on Tuesday night as city officials moved a step closer to merging two struggling schools with dwindling student enrollments.

The consolidation, which will allow P.S. 96 to absorb students and teachers from Global Neighborhood Secondary School next year, is one of five mergers the city’s education policy panel will vote on this fall. City officials have taken pains to ensure that the plans face minimal resistance, holding meetings with staff and parents at the affected schools as early as June.

So far, that plan has largely worked. But as the process continues — and five schools prepare to no longer exist — the East Harlem meeting hinted at some of the tensions to come, especially in neighborhoods with clear memories of the divisive school-closure policies of the last mayoral administration.

“I don’t understand how they’re closing our school down,” said Yvonne Figueroa, the parent-teacher association president at Global Neighborhood, which opened in 2008 aiming to serve new immigrants. “Why can’t they just leave our school open and make it the new middle school?”

“It feels like our school’s being taken away from us,” said Carole-Ann Moench, who has taught English at Global Neighborhood since 2009.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has presented the mergers as part of her larger school-improvement strategy, with a higher-performing school sometimes absorbing a struggling one in the same building or located nearby. Efficiency is the primary driver of other merger plans, where both schools have posted low reading and math scores for years.

The plans have the official support of the teachers and principals union, local elected parent councils, and school administrations. Even some teachers, like Moench, who have raised concerns at meetings, say they aren’t opposed to the plans.

That doesn’t mean she doesn’t see it as a huge shift. “To be honest, it feels like our school’s closing,” she said. “We didn’t have much of a choice in any of this.”

2016-17 merger plans (so far)

  • Crown Heights: M.S. 354 with M.S. 334 (Proposal)
  • East Harlem: The Global Neighborhood Secondary School with P.S. 96 (Proposal)
  • ChinatownP.S. 137 with P.S. 134 Henrietta Szold (Proposal)
  • Bedford StuyvesantJ.H.S. 057 with M.S. 385 (Proposal)
  • Throggs Neck (Bronx): Urban Assembly Academy of Civic Engagement with Mott Hall Community School (Proposal)

School closure is a loaded concept in New York City. More than 100 schools were permanently shuttered under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg for poor academic performance. He replaced them with new schools, including many charter schools, that usually served new students and were staffed by new principals and teachers.

That strategy sparked lawsuits and protests led by the United Federation of Teachers, as well as many dozens of public hearings packed with teachers, activists, and parents who opposed the closures, some lasting hours into the night.

In his campaign for mayor, Bill de Blasio vowed not to close any low-performing district schools until they were given more support, a promise he’s so far kept. He also promised that the concerns of parents, teachers, and parent councils would be respected as decisions were made.

Without forceful backlash from unions and parents, officials are now focused on addressing the quieter challenges of unifying (or planning to unify) two teams of teachers and two groups of students.

In some buildings, schools that are merging are already aligned under one principal, bell schedules are synced up, and students from different schools are spending more time together. At two schools set to merge in Crown Heights, M.S. 354 and M.S. 334, a “master principal” has been appointed to help unite the teaching staffs.

In other cases, it could take more work to smooth over differences.

Tanya Castro-Negron, a parent at P.S. 137, an elementary school in Chinatown set to merge with P.S. 134, said tensions have festered since the schools were forced to share a building 10 years ago. P.S. 137 is seen as “the ugly stepchild,” she said.

“There’s so much bad blood,” she added.

In East Harlem, Global Neighborhood moved into the P.S. 96 building this year to prepare for the merger. Frankie Quinones, president of P.S. 96’s PTA, acknowledged that both schools are still adjusting.

“There’s always going to be issues in the beginning,” said Quinones. “But time will tell.”

Some remain unconvinced that a combined school will be greater than the sum of its parts, especially when both schools have struggled to keep up enrollment, as is the case of the mergers in Chinatown’s P.S. 134 and P.S. 137. Both schools saw their test scores increase last year, but P.S. 137’s reading and math proficiency rates topped out at 16 percent.

“You’re taking two failing schools and putting them together,” Castro-Negron said. “How do we know that this is going to be effective?”

In East Harlem, neither Global Neighborhood nor P.S. 96 are part of the Renewal initiative, but both are struggling on several levels.

Proficiency rates on last year’s state English and math tests ranged from 5 percent to 13 percent in the schools, and there are fewer than 300 students enrolled in the schools’ middle school grades. Global Neighborhood had just 26 new sixth graders this year, though the schools still have their own principals and staffers.

Because enrollment largely determines school funding, schools with few students receive less money that is often used for support services for students with disabilities and English language learners. It also makes it harder to pay teachers for elective classes and extracurricular activities. That can create a negative spiral, where enrollment and funding struggles coincide with academic struggles.

The mergers should change those patterns, said Elizabeth Rose, the department’s deputy chancellor of operations.

“It is completely different from a school closure,” Rose said. “In this case, all students and staff will continue to be part of an ongoing, operating school. That’s the most important thing.”

Rose said more 2016-17 mergers would be proposed this winter. The Panel for Educational Policy is set to vote on the Crown Heights and East Harlem mergers on Nov. 19 and on the remaining proposals on Dec. 16.

charter talks

Hopson weighs charters as school turnaround tool for Shelby County Schools

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leads Shelby County Schools in Memphis, home to Tennessee's highest concentration of low-performing schools.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson appears to be cracking open the door to charter school partnerships that might help his district avoid losing more schools to Tennessee’s turnaround district.

Hopson emailed his principals this week to clarify his recent comments to the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal about possibly recruiting charter organizations for turnaround work. The report’s original headline read: “Hopson says he’s willing to hand schools over to charters, if they have a plan for improvement.”

The superintendent quickly turned to Twitter to label the headline “misleading and inaccurate” and, as he sought to regain control of dialogue on the thorny matter, dispatched an email to his school principals.

“…It is my top priority to ensure all of our schools have the necessary resources to provide students with the high-quality education they deserve,” he wrote on Tuesday. “If the Tennessee Department of Education offers us the opportunity to select a charter operator that is willing to collaborate closely with District leaders to improve a school instead of losing it to the (Achievement School District), then I believe it is our responsibility to explore the option.”

Hopson’s comments hint at a potentially significant shift for a district that has battled openly with the charter sector over students being absorbed by the state’s 6-year-old turnaround initiative known as the ASD.

They also point to the tough spot that the superintendent is in.

On the one hand, the growth of the city’s charter turnaround sector has been a thorn in the side of local school leaders since 2012 when the state-run district began taking control of low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators. Now with 29 Memphis schools, the ASD has siphoned off thousands of students and millions of dollars in an already under-enrolled and under-funded school environment — and made mostly anemic academic gains. (The local district also oversees about 50 charter schools that it’s authorized.)

But on the other hand, Shelby County Schools has its hands full trying to improve a substantial number of struggling schools. It’s made some important headway through its Innovation Zone, which adds resources, extends the school day, and pays more to top principals and teachers who are willing to do what’s generally considered among the toughest education work in America. But the iZone is an expensive model, and few of its schools have exited the state’s priority school list.

In addition, some education reform advocates are lobbying to shift Memphis to a “portfolio model,” in which districts actively turn over schools to charter operators and manage them more like stocks in a portfolio. In other words, successful ones are expanded and failing ones are closed. Indianapolis has a robust portfolio model and, last fall, the philanthropic group known as the Memphis Education Fund took several Memphis school board members there for a tour. (The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

In his email to principals, Hopson said that the school board ultimately would decide whether to authorize charter schools for turnaround work, and that he expects to discuss the matter with members in the coming weeks.

“All that said, I want to be very clear that my preference would always be to keep schools under the governance of (Shelby County Schools),” the superintendent added.

Hopson has been in discussions with the state Department of Education about several school improvement avenues available in Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law. Among them is an option for Shelby County Schools to voluntarily convert priority schools to a charter, according to department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

One school board member told Chalkbeat he needs more information from the district and state before he would support any move forward. Chris Caldwell added that he thinks the board isn’t up to speed on options under the state’s new education plan.

“At this point, there’s so little information that I’ve been given,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to conjecture what (a charter conversion) would actually will be like, but I have reservations with any kind of collaboration with the state.”

What would it take for such a shift to be successful?

One Memphis charter advocate says the ground rules are already in place because of a charter compact developed in recent years to address turf issues such as facilities, funding, and accountability.

“In order for a charter to manage a district school that’s underperforming and for it to be successful, that charter needs to have supports from the district to be successful,” said Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The next school board work session is scheduled for Jan. 23.

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 110 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a city where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.