accountability absence

Under de Blasio, no measures of success or failure for schools serving the neediest kids

(Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)

Thousands of families were left wondering how well their children’s schools are performing this week after the city released new school report cards — but left out schools serving the city’s neediest students.

Together, the schools enroll as many students as the city of Buffalo. Yet they have not received public report cards since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office nearly two years ago, even though the same schools received yearly progress reports under the previous administration.

Schools that have now been left out of two rounds of annual reports include “transfer” schools, which enroll drop-outs and students who fell far behind at traditional high schools, and schools in District 75, which serve students with severe disabilities at over 300 sites across the city. Together, the two groups of schools enroll roughly 35,000 students.

“There’s no information for you to make your own assessments outside of visiting the schools in person,” said Lori Podvesker, a policy manager at INCLUDEnyc, a support agency for young people with disabilities, and whose son attends a District 75 school in Manhattan. “That’s so fundamentally wrong.”

Most city schools were issued two public reports Tuesday: a “snapshot” for parents and a “guide” for educators. The reports include key school data, including test scores, graduation rates, and the results of parent and teacher surveys.

The reports are designed to hold schools publicly accountable for their results and to help families decide where to enroll their children. They are also meant to give schools “a set of urgent priorities on which to focus improvement efforts,” as an education department press release put it.

An education department spokeswoman said the city is still deciding how to fairly measure the performance of transfer and District 75 schools, since they serve such challenging populations. In the meantime, the most recent report cards available for those schools date from 2013 — before de Blasio took office.

“You’re sort of letting those schools off the hook in terms of any accountability measures,” said Kim Nauer, education research director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. The need to come up with fair metrics for those schools should not keep them waiting indefinitely for reports, she added.

“Parents need them,” she said, “and the schools need to know that people are looking at their results.”

The city began issuing schools annual “progress reports” in 2007 under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The reports, which assigned schools A-to-F letter grades, were used to reward top-ranked schools and to identify some low-performers for closure.

District 75 schools initially did not get reports, but within a few years the city designed modified reports for those schools that used different metrics. For instance, transfer schools were rated partly by how many students graduate within six years of entering high school — not four years, like traditional high schools. Both groups of schools were judged in comparison to how well other schools were doing that served the same types of students.

On the campaign trail, de Blasio promised to remove the letter grades from school reports and replace them with more nuanced metrics. Soon after he took office, his new schools chief, Carmen Fariña, said during a conference for city educators that the new administration would also find a fairer way to assess transfer schools, according to Erin Santana, a transfer school employee who attended the 2014 conference.

As promised, de Blasio’s revamped school reports did not feature letter grades when they were introduced last fall. But transfer schools did not receive reports with updated measures — instead, they got no reports at all.

“Fariña definitely stood on the stage and told us to our faces that they were going to change the way they evaluate transfer schools to reflect the population that we serve,” said Santana, who runs a job-readiness program at Aspirations High School, a Brooklyn transfer school. “To my knowledge, that hasn’t happened.”

It is no easy task to find reasonable and valid ways to evaluate these schools, which work with very specific groups of city students. District 75 schools serve students with autism, cognitive delays, and other serious disabilities, many of whom do not take the state’s typical standardized tests. Transfer schools enroll older students who have struggled at traditional high schools or stopped attending school altogether, often because they became caught up in the criminal justice system.

Using normal metrics to rate those schools would likely provide an unfairly negative view of their performance. Since transfer schools have some control over their admissions, it could also discourage them from accepting students who are the least likely to graduate — and who most need their services.

Still, experts say it is possible to come up with fair rating systems for the schools. For instance, District 75 schools could be judged on the progress their students make in reaching their individual learning goals and to what extent they provide students their mandated special-education services.

Meanwhile, the lack of any reports for these schools creates challenges for families who want to monitor how their children’s schools are performing, or who are looking to move a child to a different school. That is especially true for transfer schools, since they each have different admissions criteria. And to make matters more complicated, the city has not published an updated directory for those schools as it has for traditional high schools.

“When a student has to find a transfer school, it’s already a difficult process,” said Ashley Grant, a staff attorney at Advocates for Children. “So to not have all that information in one place is extremely challenging.”

Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said that parent and teacher surveys are still available for these schools, and that students can also ask their guidance counselors for help. She added that the schools have “unique challenges,” and that the department is working with educators to find a way to a fair and accurate way to evaluate them.

Update: Kaye sent the additional response below after the story was published.

She pointed out that former Mayor Bloomberg did not introduce progress reports for any schools until five years after taking office, and said those for transfer and District 75 schools were “oversimplified” and did not include measures that matter to parents, such as a school’s social-emotional support for students and its efforts to help them prepare for college or work.

“‎The first full school year of the de Blasio administration was 2014-15 and the data for that school year was available as of September, 2015,” she added in a statement. “We just finished the reports for the largest school types and we are working on developing the first fair and useful reports for the other school types to best inform students, parents, educators and community members.”

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”