rhetoric and realism

Renewal schools get three years to meet one-year goals, clashing with mayor’s rhetoric

PHOTO: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced new education initiatives for New York City schools at Bronx Latin earlier this year.

The city has given the 94 troubled schools in its expensive new improvement program a special pass: They have three years to hit academic targets that other schools must meet in one year.

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, every school in the city is assigned annual goals that take into account how needy its students are. But unlike other schools, the 94 struggling schools in the “Renewal” program won’t get new, harder goals every year.

Instead, they have until 2017 to achieve goals they received in 2014. In the interim, they must reach benchmarks that are a fraction of the size of a typical school’s.

The city has previously refused to release lists of the goals it gave Renewal schools, and education department officials have not publicly discussed how they were created. In response to questions from Chalkbeat on Wednesday, they acknowledged that the Renewal goals were one-year targets spread out over three years.

The officials insisted that the Renewal schools, which serve a disproportionate share of needy students and have struggled for many years, require the extra time to reach their final targets. Several people who work in the schools — which could face closure or other consequences if they fail to achieve the goals — said they agreed, calling the targets “reasonable” and “reachable.”

“I don’t know where those numbers came from,” said an administrator at one school, “but we were pleased that they were as low as they were.”

The goals raise questions about the extent and pace of change that education officials expect to result from the nearly $400 million turnaround program, which de Blasio promised would spur “fast and intense improvement” at these bottom-ranked schools. Despite an infusion of support services for students and training for teachers, the improvements may be more modest and slower to materialize than the mayor’s rhetoric would imply.

The special accommodations also suggest that the city’s annual goal-setting formula could not account for the grim condition of the Renewal schools, or that officials adjusted the targets to help ensure that these much-scrutinized schools would hit them.

“Either their current goals are unrealistic,” said Kim Nauer, education project director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, or officials are “hedging their bets for a press release two years out.”

The customized annual goals the city has given schools since 2014 center on attendance, state test scores, graduation rates, and class credits. They are based on the past performance of schools that serve students of similar demographics and skill levels.

The education department used that same formula to calculate goals for the Renewal schools, which enroll a higher-than-average share of students who are still learning English, live in temporary housing, or have disabilities. But officials decided that even though the formula factored in the schools’ high-needs students, the resulting goals still had to be stretched out over three years to be attainable.

“Whatever system they used to project targets for each school,” explained a person who works with Renewal schools, they “basically said for a Renewal school you get three years to meet that same target.”

For Renewal schools that are performing far worse than schools that serve comparable students, the goals may still be quite challenging to meet. For higher-performing schools, the targets require minimal growth.

For example, Banana Kelly High School in the Bronx must raise its four-year graduation rate from 41 percent this year to 57 percent by June 2017.

But M.S. 53 in Queens only needs to boost its students’ average score on the state reading exams one-hundredth of a level by 2017: from 2.14 to 2.15. It must increase their average math score from 2.03 to 2.12. (Students must score at least a level 3 out of 4 to be considered proficient.)

Other schools started this school year having already hit their 2017 targets.

For instance, Brooklyn Generation School’s final four-year graduation target is 67 percent, yet it posted a 68 percent graduation rate this June. And the middle-school students at the Bronx School of Young Leaders earned an average English score of 2.2 this spring, even as the school’s 2017 goal is a 2.19 average.

Even Banana Kelly, which is still far from meeting its graduation goal, already surpassed one of its 2017 targets this year: 16.5 percent of student met a certain “college readiness” measure, when the school’s final goal is just 6.8 percent.

Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for school performance, said in an interview that the agency is still deciding what to do about schools that met their goals early. Officials don’t want to discourage progress by issuing successful schools new, higher targets.

However, he said the “vast majority” of Renewal schools will need to make significant gains to meet their goals. Considering how needy many of their students are, and how long most of the schools have floundered, it is only fair to give them extra time to reach their targets.

“Most Renewal schools have been struggling for many years,” he said in a statement. “We cannot expect them to turn around overnight.”

Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor at Teachers College, said many past studies have shown that interventions at struggling schools take several years to bear fruit — and even then, they often produce disappointing results.

Setting modest improvement targets for troubled schools can prevent hard-working staffers from becoming demoralized, he said. It also can serve a political purpose, since the mayor’s critics will be sure to pounce if many Renewal schools miss their targets despite the costly intervention.

“Low-balling the goals,” Pallas said, “is a slightly defensive strategy to fight against that possibility.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.