space debates

City scraps divisive co-location plan for Boys and Girls, as focus shifts to leadership change

PHOTO: Annie Ma
Boys and Girls High School.

The city is withdrawing a divisive proposal to move a high-performing Brooklyn school into the building of its long-struggling neighbor, officials said Monday. But allies of the school indicated that another fight — over who should be the principal — is just beginning.

The plan would have moved Medgar Evers College Preparatory School, a selective school, into the building of Boys and Girls High School, long among the city’s worst-performing schools. It was first floated by Michael Wiltshire, who since 2014 has been principal of both schools in an unusual arrangement that even some former allies say has failed.

Supporters of Boys and Girls have in the past opposed plans that would limit the historic school’s use of its massive redbrick building in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. But it was parents from Medgar Evers who rejected the space-sharing proposal last month, angry that the city would not meet their demands.

Chief among the demands: that Medgar Evers students use a separate entrance at the Boys and Girls campus so they would not have to pass through metal detectors. That demand galled people at Boys and Girls and the other two schools in its building who felt that Medgar Evers was asking for special treatment.

The decision comes as Boys and Girls’ politically connected supporters are already discussing who will replace Wiltshire and what schools could share its Bedford-Stuyvesant building other than Medgar Evers.

Although Wiltshire has said he has not yet decided whether to step down as “master principal” of both schools, he has interviewed for a principalship in Long Island. He also told the Wall Street Journal last week that he was unsure whether he wanted to continue working for the education department after it was revealed that its investigators found he had failed to properly report an instance of student-on-student sexual harassment that occurred in December. Wiltshire said he had followed department protocol.

On Monday, several people at a meeting organized by the local education council said the school’s superintendent, Michael Alcoff, told them that the search for a new principal has already started. The community leaders, teachers union representatives, alumni, and others at the meeting said they want to make sure they are involved in choosing his replacement.

“It looks like a principal is going to be chosen, and I’m going to be pissed off if I’m not involved in that,” City Councilman Robert Cornegy said during the public meeting, where he promised to contact schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña about Boys and Girls’ future.

The city gave Wiltshire a large bonus and the title of “master principal” when he agreed to take over Boys and Girls in Oct. 2014. A few months later, he pitched the idea of combining that school with Medgar Evers, the selective school two miles away in Crown Heights that he has helmed for over a decade.

Wiltshire had long complained about Medgar Evers’ facilities: The building is so overcrowded that some of its 1,200 students must meet in outdoor trailers, while its track team must sprint down its hallways since the building lacks a gymnasium. Meanwhile, Boys and Girls’ sprawling building is only 25 percent occupied, according to the city.

“I see this as an opportunity to get the facilities that our kids deserve,” Wiltshire told Medgar Evers parents during a meeting last year about the plan. He added, “If we don’t move to that facility, someone else is going to take it.”

Eventually, the city made a formal proposal to move Medgar Evers into Boys and Girls’ building, though the schools would remain separate entities. Proponents of the move argued that it would also benefit Boys and Girls, since its students would be able to take honors classes at Medgar Evers and teachers at the two schools could collaborate.

But others felt that Wiltshire was mainly motivated by a desire to secure more space for Medgar Evers. In April, a Boys and Girls alumni group claiming to have 5,000 members sent a letter to Chancellor Fariña saying “the appearance of a conflict of interest” on Wiltshire’s part is of “grave concern.”

However, it was the resistance at Medgar Evers that appears to have convinced the city to drop the plan for now.

Last month, students and some parents held a rally against the move, and the school’s parent-faculty leadership team sent a notice to education department officials officially rejecting it. The team cited several reasons, including that Medgar Evers would only have access to some of the science labs in the shared building and that students would have to travel further to take early-college classes at Medgar Evers College.

The email also noted that Medgar Evers serves students in grades six to 12, while the Boys and Girls campus houses a “transfer school” for older students who struggled in previous settings. A “a significant number of them are older than 20 years old and some others are able to legally purchase, possess and use alcohol and tobacco,” it said.

Lorna Fairweather, a Medgar Evers parent and leadership team member, said in an interview last month that some parents were concerned about their children interacting with the older students.

“The parents do not want to have our sixth-graders commingling with 19 and 20-year-olds who are not in uniform,” she said, adding that they had a requested a separate entrance for Medgar Evers students.

Those concerns infuriated some people in the Boys and Girls campus, including the principal of the transfer school, according to people familiar with her thinking. Several people said they did not oppose the move, but they strongly rejected Medgar Evers’ demands.

“We welcome them, but we want it to be very clear that it will be equal,” NeQuan McLean, president of District 16 community education council, said at the meeting Monday morning before the decision to cancel the move was announced. “There will not be a separate entrance … We’re not going to stand for that kind of segregation.”

Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose shared the decision with leaders at the Boys and Girls campus schools Monday afternoon. In an email, an education department spokeswoman said the agency was withdrawing the proposal while “further discussion and community engagement is underway.”

Even before the announcement, the Boys and Girls backers discussed other schools that could potentially move into its building if the Medgar Evers move fizzled. One possibility is Bedford Academy High School, a selective public school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, they said at the Monday morning meeting.

Several people also said the city’s experiment letting Wiltshire run two schools simultaneously had failed, and that his replacement should be dedicated solely to Boys and Girls.

“Turning a school around requires time, effort, energy, and commitment that one person cannot give to two schools,” said Sam Penceal, a 1962 graduate of Boys High and a leader of the alumni group.

upheaval

Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”

technical difficulties

This personalized learning program was supposed to boost math scores. It didn’t, new study finds

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

A program that Bill Gates once called “the future of math” didn’t improve state test scores at schools that adopted it, according to a new study.

The research examines Teach to One, a “personalized learning” program used in schools across 11 states and which has drawn support from a number of major funders, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. (Gates and CZI are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

At five schools in Elizabeth, New Jersey, students who used Teach to One didn’t improve any faster than similar students who didn’t use the program, even after three years. The results underscore the limited evidence for claims that such technology programs can dramatically improve student learning, even as they have become magnets for philanthropic dollars.

“The original aspirations, that Teach to One programs were going to have huge positive effects on math scores — we can rule that out with these studies,” said Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia professor who studied an earlier iteration of the program.

Teach to One says its approach is designed to help students steadily learn math skills, regardless of how unprepared or advanced they are. Students spend time on a computer as well as with a teacher and working in small groups. Students receive individualized schedules each day based on their progress, and a computer program adapts the curriculum to students’ strengths and weaknesses in the form of a “playlist.”

New Classrooms, the organization behind Teach To One, suggests that the Elizabeth results aren’t the full story.

It points to a separate analysis released this week that looks at a broader group of schools — 14, from several districts — that used the program. That study shows Teach to One students making above-average gains on a test known as the MAP, which is taken on a computer with questions changing as students answer correctly or incorrectly.

New Classrooms co-founder Joel Rose suggested in a statement that those computer-adaptive tests capture something that state tests can miss: students’ progress.

“What seems to be emerging is a real tension in math between approaches focused on long-term academic growth and state accountability systems,” he said.

Rockoff said there might be something to New Classroom’s argument that the study using adaptive test is better able to showcase students’ gains. “If [students] are at a grade four level but they’re in grade six, teaching them grade four material is going to hurt them on the state test,” he said.

But the author of the second study, Jesse Margolis, and a number of other researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat note that it cannot show whether Teach to One caused any of the students’ gains, though — a major limitation.

“While this study cannot establish causality, it is encouraging,” Margolis wrote. (The New Jersey study is better able to establish cause and effect, but it also has limitations and does not rely on random assignment.)

The New Jersey study isn’t the first to show that Teach to One didn’t improve test scores: so did Rockoff’s 2015 report on three New York City middle schools that looked at both state and MAP tests.

One possible explanation is that Teach to One is helpful to students in some places but not others. Margolis said his study examined the same five Elizabeth schools as the Columbia study and also found minimal gains there, but that schools elsewhere seemed to see larger improvements.

Researcher John Pane of RAND, a leader in studying personalized learning, says the results are important to understanding a field with limited research to date.

“Because we have so little evidence on personalized learning,” he said, “every data point can be helpful for us to start triangulating and piecing together what works and what doesn’t work.”