empty seats

Despite major city investment, struggling ‘Renewal’ schools shed another 6,300 students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Boys and Girls High School has seen two principals depart since the Renewal program started.

The struggling schools in New York City’s “Renewal” improvement program serve nearly 6,300 fewer students today than when the program started, a sign that many families are still shunning the schools even as the city spends hundreds of millions to revamp them.

Eighty-one of the 94 schools in the program — or 86 percent — enroll fewer students now than they did when the program launched in fall 2014, according to a Chalkbeat analysis. The schools with high school grades lost an average of 146 students each, with many shedding far more: DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx serves nearly 600 fewer students today than it did in 2014.

Enrollment had been dwindling at most of the schools in the Renewal program well before it began. But the hugely expensive program — which is projected to cost nearly $839 million over five years — has so far failed to stem the exodus of students. In fact, the year-over-year enrollment drop at those schools was larger after the Renewal program started than in the two prior years.

The schools’ overall enrollment fell from about 45,140 students in 2014 to roughly 38,870 today, according to the analysis. They are losing students in a variety of ways: Some are dropping out, others are transferring, and fewer students who arrive mid-year are being sent to those schools. At the same time, many are enrolling fewer students as demand for their seats diminishes.

“You have 94 schools you’ve sort of said are your loser schools,” said Kim Nauer, education research director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. “We have a system with a lot of choices, and the ‘Renewal school’ label is not helping them.”

Recently, the city has taken steps to boost enrollment at the schools, including by allowing more students to apply to them. As a result, officials said they project a 13 percent increase in incoming sixth-graders at Renewal middle schools this fall.

However, Renewal high schools are expected to enroll 7 percent fewer ninth-graders this September. That suggests that the city’s enormous investment in the schools has not yet rehabilitated their reputation among families and students, who are able to apply to any of the city’s roughly 400 high schools.

Sagging enrollment is an existential threat for New York City schools, since their budgets and staff levels are determined largely by the number of students they serve. When school populations shrink past a certain point, the city must inject them with extra funding just to maintain basic courses like math and English, to say nothing of art classes and extracurricular programs.

This academic year, Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced plans to consolidate seven Renewal schools and shut down three others mainly because they had grown so small.

“Schools with such a low enrollment cannot provide the robust education our students deserve,” she said in December.

In the past, de Blasio administration officials have indicated that the threshold for being able to provide a full range of classes and services is 250 students. There are now 23 Renewal schools serving fewer than 250 students, excluding the 10 schools already slated to be closed or combined.

Brooklyn Generation School in Canarsie has shrunk by 65 students since 2014, despite a higher graduation rate and a suite of new arts classes and counseling funded by the Renewal program. Assistant Principal Louis Garcia said the school has coped with the funding loss by slashing expenses.

“We just don’t buy paper,” he said. “We’re trying to keep everybody on staff.”

The enrollment dip at Brooklyn Generation is dwarfed by that at other Renewal high schools.

Since 2014, Herbert Lehman High School in the Bronx has shed 577 students, John Adams High School in Queens has lost 394 students, and Flushing High School, also in Queens, shrank by 381 students. The population of Brooklyn’s Boys and Girls High School plummeted from 648 to 343 students — a 47 percent enrollment drop from one school year to the next.

Overall, the 35 Renewal schools with high school grades are down 4,900 students since 2014.

The enrollment at many Renewal elementary schools also fell, even though they are assigned students who live near them. For instance, P.S. 132 in Manhattan serves 90 fewer students now than it did in 2014, while P.S. 165 in Brooklyn is down 52 students. The declines could be caused by families opting for charter schools or taking advantage of a federal law that lets them transfer out of the lowest-performing schools.

Part of the overall decline was due to the city intentionally sending some of the Renewal schools fewer students who enter the system after the official admissions process, since those students can pose extra challenges. In addition, some high schools have trimmed their own rosters by referring some of their most struggling students to “transfer” high schools, which are designed to catch up students who are behind in credits.

Still, paltry demand for seats at the Renewal schools appears to be a major enrollment challenge. Staffers at a few schools said the city had done little to help them pull in new applicants.

“They give generic advice about marketing yourself,” said an administrator at a Renewal high school. “It’s just on us to attract students.”

City officials are hoping that their recent efforts will slow the schools’ enrollment slide for the coming year.

Education department spokesman Will Mantell said the city provided four training sessions this fall where Renewal middle and high school leaders learned recruitment strategies, including how to showcase their schools at application fairs and how to use data to target their outreach efforts. Department employees also made house calls last year to tell families about the new services offered at Renewal schools.

And in the latest admissions round, the department opened the Renewal middle schools to any fifth-graders in their boroughs — not just their districts, as is the case for many middle schools. After that change, the schools received about 5,000 additional applications this year, Mantell said.

headcount

New York City school workforce grows, driven by 40 percent rise in teaching assistants

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A teaching assistant worked with a pre-K student in East Harlem in 2014.

New York City’s public-school workforce grew 8 percent over the past decade, according to a new report, driven largely by the rising number of teaching assistants who work with preschool students and students with disabilities — two populations whose numbers have risen even as overall student enrollment declined.

The education department employed about 131,200 people this June — an increase of 10,200 workers since July 2007, according to an analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office released Tuesday. The expansion comes even as student enrollment in district-run schools fell by 1.5 percent, or some 15,300 students, during that same period, the report notes.

While the number of teachers remained basically flat during that time, the department added nearly 8,600 additional teaching assistants, or “paraprofessionals,” as they’re known within the school system — an increase of over 40 percent.

“This is a story about the use of paraprofessionals — that’s the main thing,” said Yolanda Smith, a senior IBO analyst who prepared the report.

The majority of the paraprofessionals who were added during that period work with students with disabilities. Teachers union officials attributed the increase to a citywide effort since 2012 to place more students with disabilities in classrooms alongside their general-education peers, often with the support of a paraprofessional. (An education department spokesman said students are assigned paraprofessionals based on their unique needs.)

Nearly 2,000 of the paraprofessionals hired over the past decade work in pre-kindergarten classrooms, which are required to have both an assistant and a teacher. The number of assistants spiked after 2014, when Mayor Bill de Blasio rapidly expanded the city’s pre-K program.

Full-time paraprofessionals with a high school degree earn a starting salary of around $22,000. While the number of paraprofessionals focused on special-education and preschool students grew during this period, those assigned to general-education classrooms declined by roughly 1,100.

At the same time, the ranks of other school workers expanded 22 percent during this 10-year period. Those more than 2,200 additional employees include nurses, occupational and physical therapists, and “parent coordinators,” who answer families’ questions and help organize school events.

The number of teachers, principals, and assistant principals barely budged over that period, adding just over 500 additional workers. Union officials noted that there was a teacher hiring freeze from 2009 to 2014, but said that in recent years any new hires were essentially balanced out by teachers who retired or chose to leave the system.

Education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement: “We’re focused on recruiting and retaining talented staff that meet the needs of New York City students and families.”

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”