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.

D.C.

What you should know about the White House’s proposal to merge the education department into a new agency

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

The White House is proposing the federal education department merge with the labor department to form the Department of Education and the Workforce, officials announced Thursday.

It’s an eye-catching plan, given how relatively rare changes to the Cabinet are and the current prominence of Betsy DeVos, the current head of the education department who has proven deeply unpopular with educators since her confirmation hearings last year. Education Week first reported the proposed merger on Wednesday.

Here’s what we know so far about what’s going on and why it matters.

The news

The Trump administration announced a big-picture government reorganization Thursday, and the education-labor merger is one part of that.

The new department will have four main sub-agencies: K-12; higher education and workforce development; enforcement; and research, evaluation and administration.

It comes after DeVos proposed acquiring programs from the labor department that have to do with educational programs for unemployed adult workers, reintegrating ex-prisoners, and “out-of-school” youth, according to the New York Times.

The two departments already work together on some adult education and vocational training programs, according to the the Wall Street Journal. In an interview with the Associated Press, director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney said that there are currently 40 different job training programs spread over 16 agencies. This merger would be one attempt to change that.

DeVos said she supports the plan.

“This proposal will make the federal government more responsive to the full range of needs faced by American students, workers, and schools. I urge Congress to work with the Administration to make this proposal a reality,” DeVos said in a statement.

The implications for K-12 education

Today, the department distributes K-12 education money and enforces civil rights laws. It’s small for a federal agency, at 3,900 employees. On a symbolic level, a merged department would be de-emphasizing education.

The existing set of offices overseeing K-12 education would move into the new agency, according to the document, which says those offices will be “improved” but not how.

The education department’s Office of Civil Rights will become a part of the new department’s “enforcement” sub-agency.

The plan doesn’t mention any cuts to the agency or its offices, though Secretary DeVos has proposed cuts in the past.

Why this might not happen

The proposal would require congressional approval, which will likely be a difficult battle. Past attempts to eliminate the Department of Education in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t gain any traction, and both lawmakers and unions have expressed skepticism toward the new plan.

Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate labor and education committee, quickly put out a statement criticizing the plan.

“Democrats and Republicans in Congress have rejected President Trump’s proposals to drastically gut investments in education, health care, and workers — and he should expect the same result for this latest attempt to make government work worse for the people it serves,” she said

dreamers

‘I fought to be here.’ Amid national debate, Newark students share their immigration stories

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Hawkins Street students read their work at the book launch.

Today, Yorleny is a sixth-grader at Hawkins Street School in Newark’s Ironbound section. But not long ago, she was a young immigrant making a treacherous journey to the United States in pursuit of a better life.

“My story of how I came to America to find the American dream is a very hard one,” she wrote in a personal essay about her journey. “I gave up so much to be here. I fought to be here.”

At a time when many immigrants to the U.S. are beset by fear and uncertainty after thousands of children were recently separated from their parents at the border, Yorleny is part of a group of students and teachers at her neighborhood school, which includes prekindergarten through eighth grade, who are speaking up about their own immigration stories. More than 70 of their reflections are collected in a new, self-published book called, “The Hispanic American Dreamers of Hawkins Street School.”

The project began long before the current border crisis and President Trump’s claim this week that people trying to enter the U.S. “could be murderers and thieves and so much else.” But in that context the book has gained new significance — a way to remind the students of their own dignity and tenacity, and their right to live and dream in America.

They need to know they have a voice,” said Ana Couto, a Spanish-English bilingual teacher at Hawkins Street who led the project. “This is not a time for us to shy or hide away. It’s a time for us to show that they’re strong.”

Read excerpts from the book by the principal, a bilingual teacher, and a fourth-grade student.

The book chronicles the students’ family histories, which often entail voyages north from Central and South America, and their aspirations — to master English; to become doctors, police officers, dancers; to one day visit the countries their parents left behind. Harrowing references to violence and poverty in their past — “We came mostly for our safety because people right now are eating from trash cans,” writes a boy from Venezuela, where food shortages have been endemic — are followed by descriptions of their new lives juggling schoolwork and friendships.

In Yorleny’s case, she left behind her mother and siblings in Honduras, according to her essay, which was translated from Spanish. Traveling north with two cousins, she walked for hours at a time and slept on floors. Along the way, they were “grabbed” by immigration officers and detained for three days.

Finally, Yorleny made it to the U.S. and connected with her father. Now, she is focused on studying hard and learning English — but she still longs to spend Christmas with her family and to be reunited with her mother, who used to give her a kiss each morning before school.

“I need those kisses and hugs from my mother,” she wrote, “but someday I will have that with me.”

After Trump was elected in 2016, following vows to crack down on illegal immigration, Newark city and school officials spoke out in defense of the city’s foreign-born population, who make up nearly 30 percent of residents. Mayor Ras Baraka said Newark would remain a “sanctuary city” for immigrants who are living in the country illegally or under a temporary protected status, while the school board passed a resolution reiterating immigrant students’ rights and the district hosted an informational fair for undocumented students and families.

On Tuesday, amid the latest immigration flare-up, Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order to prevent state resources from being used to support federal authorities in separating children and parents as they attempt to cross the southern border. The following day, in response to the growing backlash, Trump ordered families to be detained together rather than split up.

But even as New Jersey leaders signal their support for immigrants, it falls on individual schools to comfort students who are distraught by recent events. At Hawkins Street, many students are immigrants and 36 percent are still learning English — the highest percentage of any elementary school in the city. Incoming Superintendent Roger León, whose parents came to Newark from Cuba, attended the school.

After the presidential election, many Hawkins Street students felt like their new lives in the U.S. were threatened.

“We had students in crisis,” said Principal Alejandro Lopez, who organized class discussions about the election and provided some students with counseling. “They were literally having breakdowns because they felt that they would be deported, that their parents would be targeted.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Ana Couto, the bilingual teacher who led the project, handed out the published books to students.

The idea for the book came later, when the school held an Hispanic Heritage Month event this past November. Couto’s fifth-grade students wanted to sing or dance, but she convinced them that they would have a greater impact by telling their own stories.

The students stood on stage wearing black T-shirts that read, “Thanks to our parents, we are living the Hispanic American Dream.” One by one, with their backs to the audience to focus attention solely on their words, the students read their personal essays.

Hilary, whose family came from the Dominican Republic, talked about teaching English to her mother “who faced discrimination in getting a job” because she spoke only Spanish.

Steven recalled planting corn and beans with his father in El Salvador, before his family left to escape violent crime. Now in the U.S., his father is a cook who “makes pizzas, hamburgers, fries and salads.”

Andrea did not say where her family came from, only that her parents left because it was too dangerous.

“Now we feel safer,” she wrote in her essay. “This is now my family’s country.”

Couto, who is in her third year teaching but only her first as a bilingual instructor, decided to collect the essays in a book. She invited students from across the school to submit essays, and interviewed second-graders to get their thoughts. A team of students helped type the submissions, while a group of teachers — and Couto’s sister — helped edit.

Some staff members also contributed essays.

Principal Lopez wrote about being the child of undocumented immigrants who left the Dominican Republic when they were still teenagers. Couto, whose family is Portuguese but grew up alongside Spanish-speaking immigrants in Newark’s North Ward, wrote that she identified with the “never giving up-survivor fire” in her bilingual students.

Two teachers, Jennifer Palumbo and Catherine Moore, shared their remarkably similar childhood stories. Both were born in Bogota, Colombia in the same year and placed in an orphanage before being adopted by American parents. Both were given new names and spoke only English at home. And both would later study Spanish and try to learn more about where they came from.

“Young children think that we don’t understand what they’re going through,” said Moore, who teaches fifth and sixth-grade science, “but we may understand a lot more than they think.”

On Monday, the student authors filed into the school library for a launch party. The books, which the school’s parent-teacher organization had paid about $500 to have printed, were concealed under a Puerto Rican flag. Celebratory cookies and muffins were arrayed on a long table.

Standing at a podium, Lopez congratulated the students for sharing their stories and defying a stereotype of immigrant students as quiet and meek. Couto said she was in awe of the students’ strength as they made new lives in America even as they longed for the family and friends they’d left behind.

“We use the word ‘grit’ every day here at Hawkins,” she told them. “And now that I know you better, I see that you all have a lot of grit in you. You’re warriors, and I just lack the words to tell you how proud I am of you all.”

Then Couto handed out the books, which the students asked her to sign. A few read their contributions, including a girl whose essay will go in the collection Couto is already planning for next year — “The African American Dreamers of Hawkins Street School.”

Near the back of the room sat a fifth-grader named Adamaris. She had written about staying with her sister in the U.S. so she could continue her education, even though her mother lives in Honduras. She described how badly she misses her mother — especially on Christmas and Christmas Eve, which is also her birthday.

But now she had the summer to look forward to, when she would visit her mother and show her the book.

“I’m going to read it for her,” she said. “She’s going to be proud of me.”