what's next?

Signs of optimism at Boys and Girls High School, but challenges lie ahead

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A community member speaks at public hearing at Brooklyn's Boys and Girls High School.

Last year was a tumultuous one at Boys and Girls High School. Its former Principal Michael Wiltshire ran two schools at once, eschewed the city’s high-profile turnaround program, and threatened to dissolve a relationship with its nonprofit social service provider. But now, with a new principal in place, there is a sense of optimism at the Bedford-Stuyvesant school.

At least, that was the sentiment at a modestly attended community meeting Monday evening, whose purpose was to explain Boys and Girls’ status as a member of the state’s receivership program for low-performing schools.

In a presentation, the Brooklyn school’s newly appointed principal, Grecian Harrison, ticked off increases in enrollment, attendance, and reductions in violent incidents as signs the school — which is ranked among the lowest five percent across the state — is on the right track.

Boys and Girls is one of 27 schools across the city that are in the state’s receivership program and are under pressure to show improvement. The school has one more year to meet a range benchmarks before the state could theoretically force Chancellor Carmen Fariña to appoint an independent entity to oversee to school.

In her presentation on its status, Harrison noted the school posted an 82.3 percent attendance rate last year, exceeding its state target by slightly less than one percentage point — and met its four-year graduation target of 45 percent.

And enrollment, she added, hit 412 students this year, up from 269 at the end of last school year.

“As you know, we’ve had the opportunity to have some of the most dedicated and supportive alumni, I think, in the tri-state area,” Harrison said, while touting the school’s enrollment gains. “We also have our elected officials, who support Boys and Girls High School to no end.”

But she also acknowledged the school’s struggles in meeting some of its benchmarks, including its success in preparing students for college and careers, and turning around perceptions of safety. She also noted that the school has struggled to get the state to certify its two career and technical education programs, a challenge faced by schools across the city.

The meeting’s subtext, though, was dominated by the school’s embattled former Principal Michael Wiltshire.

Wiltshire took the helm at Boys and Girls in 2014 after city officials let him run the troubled school without giving up his post leading the higher-performing Medgar Evers College Preparatory School. And while Boys and Girls saw gains in attendance and graduation rates under Wiltshire, that high-stakes experiment fell apart last year, and he returned to Medgar Evers full-time.

His tenure was marked by a public clash with nonprofit partner Good Shepherd Services, which provides students with counseling and other supports, and threatened to leave the school last year.

And while she didn’t address that controversy, Harrison’s presentation noted that Good Shepherd is the “lead CBO” and is “at the heart of our school.” When approached by a reporter after the meeting, Harrison referred all questions to the city education department’s press office, which confirmed Good Shepherd will remain at the school this year.

The tone at Monday’s meeting was largely optimistic, even as some parents were confused by the presentation on the school’s status in the state’s receivership program.

“It’s very, very refreshing to have a dedicated principal — that’s not something we’ve had for a long time,” one of the school’s graduates said during the public comment period, a reference to Wiltshire’s tenure.

“We’re right behind you,” echoed PTA President Doratta Smith. “I’m behind any progression, any positive movement for the children.”

Another speaker, Al Vann, a former state assemblyman, said Wiltshire deserved more of the credit.

“Ms. Harrison has only been here a few weeks, and the fact that this school has exceeded the benchmarks to move them towards and out of receivership was done by another principal whose name has not been mentioned,” he said. “Whatever we think of the man, he has a hell of a track record.”

Follow the money

New York City’s finance watchdog demands answers on $600 million school turnaround program

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

The city’s top financial watchdog didn’t wait even a week before pressing Chancellor Richard Carranza on whether the “Renewal” school turnaround program is living up to its nearly $600 million price tag.

“While some Renewal schools have shown improvements,” Comptroller Scott Stringer wrote in a letter to Chancellor Richard Carranza, “inconsistent progress across all Renewal schools suggests the need for a more thorough review of the program’s components and their overall impact.”

The letter, sent just three days after Carranza officially took office, asks for a detailed accounting of how Renewal schools spent money on core elements of the program, including teacher training and extending the school day for an hour — as well as any evidence that those efforts are paying off or being monitored. Two independent evaluations by outside researchers suggest the program has produced only mixed results.

Stringer’s letter appears to be motivated at least in part by a recent round of hotly contested school closures. Since the program’s launch in 2014, 16 of 94 original Renewal schools have been merged or closed. (Another 21 schools are slowly easing out of the program after city officials said they made enough progress.)

“With the decision to now close schools that have not made sufficient progress,” Stringer wrote, “I question whether there have been adequate direction and accountability measures in place to ensure that all school received allocations with sufficient time to show progress, and were directing new resources to high impact programs and interventions.”

Stringer’s letter came just weeks before Carranza began raising his own questions about the Renewal program, which gives long-struggling schools extra academic support and social services. In an interview with Chalkbeat, the new schools chief said the Renewal program did not appear to have a single clear “theory of action.”

The comptroller’s probe also comes at a precarious moment for the program: It is without a permanent leader and it’s also unclear whether the city will phase out or reconfigure it. (Carranza told Chalkbeat he is committed to running a turnaround program of some kind.)

Stringer also touched on a number of other aspects of the program that have drawn criticism from school communities, including how the city identifies which schools should be closed and how the education department helps families find new schools.

According to the comptroller’s letter, multiple schools that met the exact same number of city benchmarks received different decisions about whether they should be closed.

While Stringer acknowledged that the city conducts a holistic review in making closure decisions, “the lack of transparency about these additional factors and how school closure decisions are made is breeding needless distrust in communities.”

An education department spokeswoman, Toya Holness, said the department is “reviewing the comptroller’s letter and will provide a formal response.”


closures ahead

As New York City prepares to close more struggling ‘Renewal’ schools, here’s what we know about ones they’ve shuttered before

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design, a Renewal school, was closed last year.

In the coming days, struggling schools in the city’s “Renewal” improvement program will learn whether they get more time to mount a comeback — or will be shut down for good.

New York City education officials are expected to announce soon which of the low-performing schools will close at the end of this academic year. The decision will have enormous consequences for students and teachers who will have to find new schools — and will likely rekindle debate about the effectiveness of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $582 million effort to turn around troubled schools by infusing them with social services and academic support.

As the Renewal program passed its third birthday in November — a date by which the mayor promised to decide which schools aren’t measuring up — officials have been tight-lipped about which schools are on the chopping block.

Chalkbeat analyzed the previous rounds of closures — nine schools out of the original 94 — to understand which schools might be targeted this time. Perhaps the clearest finding is that it’s difficult to predict which schools the city will shutter.

While all the closed schools had very low graduation rates and test scores, so do other Renewal schools that were spared. The analysis shows there are no strict rules about which schools are shut down and which are given more time to turn around.

That said, here are some takeaways from previous Renewal school closures:

Almost all the closed schools struggled to retain students.

Seven of the nine closed schools enrolled fewer students in the year they were shuttered than when they entered the Renewal program in 2014 — and six shed more than a fifth of their students.

Many of the schools had struggled to recruit and retain students even before the program started — once it did, the schools struggled to staunch the flow. The city considers such shrinkage an existential problem; officials have suggested that schools with fewer than 250 students can become unsustainable since school funding is based partly on enrollment.

Six of the closed schools enrolled fewer than 200 students their final year — including Brooklyn’s M.S. 584, which lost about 25 percent of its population since the Renewal program started, leaving it with just 78 students.

Meeting the city’s goals doesn’t guarantee survival.

The city assigned each Renewal school annual goals around attendance, graduation rates, test scores, and other measures. (The goals have been criticized as overly modest.)

In the past, officials have said “all options are on the table” — including closure — for schools that fail to meet their goals. But those the city has actually shuttered have been all over the map.

For instance, the city closed the Bronx’s Leadership Institute the year after it hit 71 percent of its goals — more than most schools in the program. At the other end of the spectrum, it shuttered Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design, which met just 14 percent of its goals.

In the past, education department officials have said they consider a range of factors when deciding which schools to close, including their academic performance, feedback from families, staff turnover, and previous improvement efforts.

“When making decisions about school closures we carefully assess each school based on multiple measures,” department spokesman Michael Aciman said in an email. “In every case where we’ve proposed a closure, we’ve prioritized family engagement and guaranteed that every student has higher-performing school options.”

However, the mix of factors means it isn’t clear which schools are most at risk of closure. The fact that some were shuttered after meeting most of their city-issued goals only adds to the mystery.

Small gains in graduation rates and test scores aren’t enough.

A handful of shuttered Renewal high schools had boosted their graduation rates while they were in the program, while some middle schools got more students to pass the state exams.

However, the gains were usually small and the majority of students were still struggling.

At the Essence School, the share of students who passed the reading tests more than doubled since it became a Renewal school. But even with that bump, still only 5 percent passed. Meanwhile, math proficiency barely ticked up to 3 percent.

At the high-school level, every shuttered Renewal school saw an uptick in graduation rates.

The increases ranged from 5 to 17 percentage points. However, because most of the schools enrolled were relatively small, they could boost their graduation rates by several points simply by helping a few additional students earn diplomas.

And the schools with the biggest gains — a 17 point jump at Foundations Academy and a 13 point spike at Foreign Language Academy of Global Studies — came at schools with serious enrollment challenges. In their final year, both served fewer than 100 students.