consolidations cont'd

After announcing plans for 12 school mergers, Fariña says to expect many more

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Chancellor Carmen Fariña expects to consolidate a growing number of very small schools next year, which she has asked superintendents to identify, she told city lawmakers Monday.

In a reversal of the previous administration’s policy of creating new small schools, Fariña has announced plans over the past year to combine 25 small schools, arguing that by pooling resources the merged schools are able to offer more advanced classes and enrichment programs. While she did not have an exact count on Monday, Fariña said her conversations with superintendents suggest that many more small schools could benefit from mergers.

“It will certainly probably be more than what we did this year, based on what I’m hearing,” Fariña told reporters after a three-hour City Council hearing on the mayor’s proposed $23.1 billion education spending plan for next school year, where she also answered questions about school safety, transgender students, and calls to make lunch free for all students.

The schools that Fariña has targeted for consolidations so far have been very small, typically with 200 students or fewer, and often low-performing as well. (The plans call for 12 mergers, including one set of three schools.) On Monday she added some other factors that might make schools ideal candidates for mergers: they share a building; one principal is retiring, making it easier for the other to take over; one school is higher performing than the other; or one school has resources, like science equipment or honors classes, that could benefit the other.

When two or three schools consolidate, the money saved by paying for only one principal and administrative staff “goes back into classrooms,” Fariña said, perhaps to fund additional elective classes or after-school programs. She is also considering removing individual grades from schools — such grades six to eight in a school that includes the elementary and middle grades — if just part of a school is under-enrolled, Fariña added.

After Fariña meets with every superintendent, a special merger unit within the education department will create a list of potential consolidations, which officials will discuss with people at each school and the city’s education policy board will vote on, she said.

“Nothing will happen without a lot of discussion,” Fariña told the council.

Here are some other highlights from the chancellor’s testimony and her briefing with reporters:

Fariña defended the city’s school safety record, saying schools are safer than ever.

The mayor’s critics have mounted a fierce campaign featuring TV commercials and rallies (including one planned for Tuesday at City Hall) to convince the public that schools have become more dangerous under his watch. The charter school advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools has said that schools saw more violent incidents last year (using state figures that the city disputes), and more weapons were seized from students.

But Fariña flatly denied those charges on Monday, adding that she has found that schools labeled “persistently dangerous” by the state do not warrant that label. (State policy makers are considering revising how schools earn that label.)

“I happen to think school safety is better than it’s ever been,” she told reporters. “Even one case is too many, but it’s certainly not at the level where I’d say our schools are unsafe.”

She said the city is ahead of the curve in serving transgender students, though its bathroom policy must be revisited.

The Obama administration released guidelines last week on how school districts should protect the rights of transgender students — more than two years after New York City issued similar recommendations.

“We’re so far ahead of the rest of the country,” Fariña told reporters, trumpeting the education department’s new liaison for LGBTQ students. She said the liaison has already trained many superintendents and schools’ parent representatives on LGBTQ-related issues, though several council members said one liaison is not enough.

However, the city might still have to update its transgender-student policy to conform with the new federal guidelines. While the city recommends that those students be allowed to use private bathrooms if they request them, the federal rules say they must be permitted to use whichever bathrooms match their gender identity.

She wouldn’t commit to expanding a free-lunch program, despite pressure from lawmakers.

City Council members continued to press the city to expand a free-lunch program in middle schools to include all students, citing advocates who say an additional 120,000 students would eat the $1.75 lunches if they were free. A council report said that more middle-school students ate lunch as a result of the program, while the city did not lose any federal funding — a concern the mayor has raised.

The council estimates that expanding the program to all students would cost $8.75 million next year. Fariña said Monday that the city is “looking into” the possibility of adding money for free lunches, but that “it’s all a matter of priorities.”

Schools could start getting money for students who arrive mid-year.

It frustrates principals every year: Latecomer students enroll after Oct. 31, when school budgets are set based on enrollment counts, leaving schools to serve extra students without extra funding.

Fariña told lawmakers Monday she’s aware of the issue and is considering possible solutions, such as re-calculating a school’s budget mid-year if it enrolls a certain number of latecomers.

“Any child who comes to your school after October 31 is like a blank slate,” Farina said. “They don’t carry money.”

However, she noted that many schools also lose students during the year but still retain the funding tied to them.

study says...

In new study of school-district effectiveness, New York City falls just below national average

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Each year, state test scores offer a snapshot of how much New York City students have learned. But they say little about how the city’s schools stack up against other districts’, in part because the raw scores largely reflect student demographics — wealthier districts tend to have higher scores.

Now, a major new analysis of several years of test scores from across the country provides a better way to judge and compare districts: Instead of looking at a single moment, it shows how well school systems help students grow their skills over time.

Based on that measure, New York City falls just below the middle of the pack: In the five years from third to eighth grade, its students collectively make about 4.6 grade levels of progress — landing New York in the 35th percentile of districts nationally. By contrast, Chicago students advance the equivalent of six grades within those five years, giving the district one of the highest growth rates in the country.

Still, New York is slightly above average when compared to other large districts with many students from low-income families. And it trounces the state’s other urban districts — including Yonkers, Syracuse, and Rochester, which have some of the nation’s worst growth rates.

“Among big poor districts, it’s better than average,” said Sean Reardon, the Stanford University researcher who conducted the analysis. “In the grand scheme, it’s pretty middle-of-the-road.”

Reardon’s analysis — based on 300 million standardized tests taken by students across more than 11,000 school districts from 2009 to 2015 — is the largest of its kind. It looks both at student proficiency on third-grade math and English tests (that is, what share of students earned a score deemed “proficient”) and student growth between grades three and eight (how much their scores improved over time). Reardon’s research was supported by several foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also provides funding to Chalkbeat.

The analysis controls for the differences in tests across states and over time by converting scores into a common scale that measures growth in grade levels, making it possible to compare nearly every district in the country to one another. (It excludes New York’s scores from 2015 and some grades in 2014 because of the high number of students who boycotted the state tests those years. However, each district’s five-year growth rates is actually an average of its year-over-year growth, so Reardon was still able to calculate a five-year rate for New York.)

Experts generally prefer growth rates over proficiency as a way to evaluate school quality, since growth measures the progress students make in school rather than where they started. Even if a district enrolls many poor students who are less likely than their affluent peers to hit the “proficiency” benchmark, its schools can still help them advance at a rate comparable to or even better than schools filled with wealthier students.

“Growth is way better than achievement,” said Douglas Ready, an education and public policy professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. “We know low-income students start school behind — the question is what do school districts do with the kids they get?”

New York’s growth rate falls just below the national median of 4.8 grade levels. Among big districts, its students made gains similar to those in Dallas and Detroit, and greater than students in Los Angeles, Miami, and Indianapolis.

By contrast, Rochester ranks rock-bottom nationally. In that high-poverty district, where the median income among families with children in the public schools is $26,000, students advanced about three grade levels in five years. Yonkers’ $48,000 median income is much higher, yet its schools barely do better, with students moving just 3.5 grade levels. (Among New York City public-school parents, the median income is $42,000.)

Reardon emphasized that test scores provide an important but incomplete picture of student learning, and growth rates are an imperfect measure of school effectiveness since factors outside of the classroom also influence how much students learn over time.

Still, he argued that officials who rate schools and parents who choose them would do much better to look at a school’s growth rate over its average test scores. In fact, he said, a focus on growth rates could theoretically drive down socioeconomic segregation since higher-income parents might be willing to enroll their children in schools with many poor students and low overall test scores if the schools nonetheless had outstanding growth rates.

Ready, however, pointed out that even when schools and districts are highly effective at helping students make progress, they are still unlikely to close the yawning achievement gaps that separate most poor and wealthier students from the time they start school. Reardon came to the same conclusion.

“The large gaps in students’ academic skills between low- and higher-[socioeconomic status] districts are so large,” Reardon’s analysis says, “that even the highest growth rate in the country would be insufficient to close even half of the gap by eighth grade.”

In response to the analysis, New York City education department officials pointed to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test taken by a representative sample of students in each state and certain districts, including New York. Only one other district among the country’s 10 largest cities performed better in reading and math than New York, which had the highest share of low-income students reach the proficient level on the reading test.

“Our schools are the strongest they’ve ever been, with record-high graduation and college enrollment rates, and improving state test scores,” said the district’s spokesman, Will Mantell.

change up

Just as Lower East Side integration plan takes off, superintendent who helped craft it steps down

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Carry Chan, left, will become acting superintendent in District 1 when Daniella Phillips, right, leaves this month to join the central education department.

The longtime superintendent of the Manhattan community district where parents pushed for a plan to desegregate the local schools is stepping down just as the plan gets underway.

After a decade at the helm of District 1, which includes the Lower East Side and East Village, Superintendent Daniella Phillips is leaving to join the central education department, Chalkbeat has learned. During the yearslong campaign for an integration plan, Phillips acted as a liaison between parents and the education department, which finally approved a new admissions system for the district’s elementary schools this fall.

She will be replaced by Carry Chan, who has also played a role in the district’s diversity efforts as the interim head of a new Family Resource Center, an information hub to help district parents sort through their school options. Chan takes over as acting superintendent on Dec. 18.

The leadership change comes at a crucial time for the district, which also includes a portion of Chinatown. Parents are currently applying to elementary schools, marking the first admissions cycle under the new enrollment system. Under the system, schools give certain students admissions priority based on their economic status and other factors, with the goal of every elementary school enrolling share of disadvantaged students similar to the district average.

It will be up to the new superintendent to help schools recruit and welcome a greater mix of families, and to help steer parents towards a wider range of schools. Advocates hope the district can become a model for the city.

“There is a torch that needs to be carried in order to really, fully execute,” said Naomi Peña, president of the district’s parent council. “The next superintendent has to be a champion for the mission and the cause.”

During heated public meetings, Phillips tried to keep the peace while serving as a go-between for frustrated integration advocates and reluctant education department officials. The tensions sometimes boiled over, with advocates directing their anger at Phillips — though they were eventually won-over and endorsed the final integration plan.

In her new role, she will oversee school consolidations as part of the education department’s Office of School Design and Charter Partnerships. In District 1, Phillips helped steer three such mergers, which often involve combining small, low-performing schools with ones that are higher achieving.

“It has been such a joy and privilege to be District 1 superintendent for over 10 years, and I’m excited for this next chapter in the district and my career,” Phillips said in an emailed statement.

Chan is a former principal who launched the School for Global Leaders, a middle school that focuses on community service projects and offers Mandarin classes. Last year, she joined the education department’s Manhattan support center, where she helped schools form partnerships in order to learn from one another.

Since October, Chan has served as the interim director of District 1’s Family Resource Center, which is seen as an integral part of making the new diversity plan work. Families must apply for seats in the district’s elementary schools, which do not have attendance zones like other districts. The family center aims to arm families with more information about their options, in the hopes that they will consider schools they may not have previously.

“I think we’re all really passionate about this plan and we really want this to work,” Chan said. “Communication is the key, and being transparent with how we’re progressing with this work.”