At the halfway mark

Half full or half empty? New data shows mixed results for city’s Renewal turnaround program

PHOTO: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Boys and Girls High School, a Renewal school, in March 2015.

Forty-eight percent of the schools in the city’s high-profile turnaround program did not meet even half their goals last year, despite being infused with social services and academic support, according to data released Tuesday.

But that means 45 schools, or 52 percent of the city’s “Renewal” school program, met at least half their goals last school year.

They were judged on benchmarks like attendance, graduation rates, and state test scores, with some of the targets raised last year for schools that met goals early. Just three schools hit all of their targets, city statistics show. Five schools hit none of them.

The new data offers a snapshot of how the city’s $400 million turnaround effort — perhaps the most ambitious program of its kind in the country — is faring two years after it launched.

So is the glass half full, or half empty?

City officials were careful to strike a balance. “There’s strong progress, and there’s a lot of work left to be done,” said Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for school performance. “Research has shown that it takes time for schools to improve.”

Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teacher College, said he was pleased that “that there is no effort to claim overwhelming success” — noting that evidence of the Renewal program’s success or failure would take time to evaluate, and there isn’t enough research to know exactly what is reasonable to expect in the short run.

“You want to see what’s happening more than three years out before you start making conclusions,” he said. “But there are kids in these schools now. Is half the schools making progress enough?”

Tuesday’s numbers are yet another indication of the tightrope city officials must walk. Though school turnarounds can take years, Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised “fast and intense” improvement through his Renewal program.

That means education officials have to find a realistic way of showing progress while acknowledging it will likely come slowly.

After initially refusing to publicly release the Renewal schools’ goals, the city acknowledged in late 2015 that Renewal schools were essentially given three years to hit what were usually one-year goals. Some said the targets were far too easy. (One school’s reading goal, for instance, only required it boost scores by one hundredth of one point — something the Board of Regents chancellor at the time said was “ridiculous.”)

But the education department’s Ashton noted that schools had to improve metrics like graduation rates by 20 percent or more — and many have seen significant gains. Since then, the city has created “challenge targets” for schools that met their Renewal goals early. (Seventy out of the 86 Renewal schools had at least one challenge target set last school year.)

“These are rigorous and realistic benchmarks,” Ashton said. “We’re making these targets so they’re real targets and tough to reach.”

City officials said “all options are on the table” for schools that don’t reach their benchmarks, including possible mergers or closures. But that determination would be made on a school-by-school basis and would also depend on factors like enrollment, the strength of its leadership, and community input, an official said.

For the first time, city officials also noted, the city is posting a more user-friendly document on each school’s website that shows whether they hit last year’s targets, and what their targets are for next year.

The state also released information Tuesday on schools designated as “struggling” in its receivership program. These schools have this year to make “demonstrable improvement” — a complex measure of progress calculated using several indicators of academics and school climate — or they could face takeover by an outside entity.

Of the 24 struggling schools in New York City, which are all also Renewal schools, 15 met their goals last year, city officials said. The scores are only markers of progress right now, but the final stats after this year will determine whether the schools face independent receivership, officials said.

Across the state, 56 of the 62 struggling schools met at least half of their indicator goals. State officials celebrated the news as a good sign.

“I am encouraged that so many schools are showing signs of progress,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa. “Their improvement is a testament to the hard work and dedication of the teachers and administrators, as well as the determination of the students and their families.”

While “struggling” schools have until next school year to improve, “persistently struggling” schools had to meet targets this year. State officials would not speculate on whether any are likely to face takeover next year.

Of the 10 schools across the state that faced receivership heading into this school year, only one failed to show enough progress: J.H.S. 162 Lola Rodriguez De Tio located in the Bronx. The remaining persistently struggling schools dodged that fate this year, but could still be taken over by an independent receiver next year.

Renewal schools that met all of their 2015-16 targets:

New Millennium Business Academy Middle School

P.S. 067 Charles A. Dorsey

Ebbets Field Middle School

Renewal schools that didn’t meet any of their 2015-16 targets:

P.S. 194 Countee Cullen

New Explorers High School

Banana Kelly High School

P.S. 092 Bronx

Holcombe L. Rucker School of Community Research

pencils down

Three things to watch as the release of New York’s test scores draws near

PHOTO: Getty Images

New York’s English and math scores are scheduled to be released this week — at long last. Compared to prior years, the state has delayed their release by a month.

But when the scores arrive, they will come with a big asterisk.

This year, as in the past, the numbers will not be directly comparable to the previous year because of changes to the test itself. Under pressure from teachers, students, and parents who argued that classrooms are too focused on preparing for the exams, the state shortened the tests from three days to two — which means this year’s scores will not allow for an apples-to-apples comparison, state officials said.

By contrast, last year was one of the rare instances in the last decade when the tests did not change, allowing observers to identify trends. New York City posted small gains in reading and math, narrowing the gap with the rest of the state. But with a new test, determining if this pattern has continued will be hard to judge. Here are some questions we’ll be asking as this year’s scores come out.

If the tests aren’t comparable, can they tell us whether students or schools are improving?

The short answer, according to Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, is not really.

State officials will continue to report the share of students who are considered proficient in reading and math, as in previous years. But because the way the exam is scored must change to account for shorter tests, it will be difficult to know whether the tests reflect real changes in student learning.

If scores improve, “Does that mean they did better, or is that an artifact of the changes in testing?” Pallas said. “The state is probably not going to be able to answer that this week.”

That means it will be difficult to use the scores as an overall barometer of the health of the city’s school system and to see what impact some Mayor Bill de Blasio’s biggest education initiatives are having (or not). This lack of clarity will be especially evident, for example, when trying to gauge improvements among schools in the city’s $750 million Renewal turnaround initiative. The city is making final decisions about the 50 schools that remain in the program this school year.

Still, it’s possible city officials will seize on the results if they show gains. When scores rocketed up 8 points in English and one point in math in 2016, de Blasio said the improvements were “pure hard evidence” that his policies were paying off — even as state officials said the scores, when judged against the previous year, were also not an “apples-to-apples” comparison.

How strong is the opt-out movement?

In recent years, roughly one in five students have opted out of the state tests in protest. But in New York City, that percentage has historically been much smaller: just 4 percent of students sat out at least one exam last year, a slight increase from the year before.

Still, the opt-out rate serves as something of a bellwether of attitudes toward state education policy. The movement grew in response to a series of reform initiatives, including a law that became controversial because one of its provisions tied state test scores to teacher evaluations, an element that is currently on hold, and in reaction to the adoption of the Common Core learning standards. After the state rolled out new tests aligned with the standards, scores plummeted.

This year, partly in response to parent opposition to testing, state officials have taken steps to lessen its role (and the time testing takes) in schools. Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives states more leeway than they enjoyed under No Child Left Behind, New York policymakers have shifted some of the focus from standardized exams to other metrics such as chronic absenteeism and have introduced interventions, generally seen as less harsh, at the lowest-performing schools.

Will these changes temper some of the fury that prompted the opt-out movement in the first place? So far it’s unclear. But officials said the opt-out numbers will be released alongside the annual test scores.

What about test-score gaps among different groups of students?

Richard Carranza has repeatedly talked about some of the structural and historical  disadvantages found in the nation’s largest school system since taking its helm, and if history is any guide, this year’s test scores will continue to demonstrate these inequities.

Black and Hispanic students have historically performed far below their white peers, a divide that did not narrow significantly last year. We’ll also be on the lookout for trends among English learners and students with disabilities.

But once again, because of changes to the test, how these disparities are narrowing (or widening) over time may not be clear. Nor will there be a full sense of whether the scores reflect the city’s “Equity and Excellence” agenda, which is largely designed to give schools extra resources, but has drawn criticism for not tackling systemic disparities.

State officials said that the tests should now remain the same for the next two years, meaning this year could serve as a baseline to measure Carranza’s new approach— including his promise to address school segregation — even if the verdict this year remains murky.

listening tour

These parents won’t stop chipping away at literacy and the language barrier in Detroit schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Parent groups have already demanded that the Detroit district hire more bilingual staffers. On Tuesday, it was clear that the same problems exist at charter schools.

If you think it’s hard to navigate Detroit’s troubled school system, try doing it when no one speaks your language.

The latest stop on Chalkbeat Detroit’s listening tour took a parent’s-eye-view of the obstacles facing English language learners, who graduate from high school at lower rates than their English-speaking peers.

One observation: The parents, who play a key role in helping children learn to read, face plenty of obstacles themselves, especially when it comes to communicating across a language barrier.

“You feel that you don’t have value,” said Gloria Vera, describing her interactions with English-speaking school staff. “You feel that you have fewer chances to ask questions. It scares me.”

Several mothers worried about the effects of Michigan’s “read-or-flunk” law, which will hold back third-graders if they aren’t reading on grade level by the end of next year. By one count, 70 percent of English learners in the state could be forced to repeat a grade.

One mom said she wanted to help her daughter learn to read, but worried her English skills were too limited.

Another, Delia Barba, suspects that her daughter has a learning disability, but says her school in mostly Spanish-speaking Southwest Detroit has been slow to investigate because of the language barrier.

Like virtually every parent present, Barba said a few more bilingual staffers would go a long way.

“We don’t know who to talk to,” Barba said, speaking in Spanish. “They don’t speak Spanish.”

At each stop on Chalkbeat Detroit’s listening tour, parents take center stage to tell us the stories we should be covering. (See the results of our last stop here.) This time around, Chalkbeat joined with organizations that work with Detroit parents to hear  from dozens of mostly Spanish-speaking mothers. They traveled through a Tuesday morning rainstorm to the headquarters of Brilliant Detroit, a nonprofit that provides social services like literacy training to families around Detroit.

Some of the parents on hand had already worked with neighborhood organizations like Congress of Communities and the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation to push leaders of Detroit’s main district to provide more access to Spanish-speaking parents, noting their concerns have been brushed off by previous administrations.

“Community residents feel frustrated in 2018, because they have expressed the need for language access repeatedly over the years and a resolution is continually brushed aside,” said Elizabeth Rojas, a community advocate and parent in the district.

round table 2
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Parents traveled to the headquarters of Brilliant Detroit through a rainstorm Tuesday morning to share their experiences with Detroit schools.

At a meeting last month, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti agreed to establish a Spanish hotline and ensure that every school with Spanish-speaking children has someone in the office who speaks Spanish, among other promises.

After surveying  families in the neighborhood, parents are turning their attention to the issue of safety in schools. They’re hoping that schools will hire more bilingual security guards, and that undocumented parents will be allowed to enter school buildings with an alternative form of ID, such as a Mexican passport, a state ID, or even an ID issued by the district itself.

Parents on hand Tuesday reported similar access issues at charter schools in Southwest Detroit. Angelina Romero, who arrived with her family from Mexico within the last two years, worried that her first-grade son wasn’t picking up English at a neighborhood charter school, and that she had trouble communicating with his teacher.

“I’m hoping that the families who came here realize that it’s not just parents at their school that are concerned and active on this issue,” said Jametta Lilly, CEO of the Detroit Parent Network, which co-sponsored the listening session with Chalkbeat.

For Gloria Vera, the language barrier added to the challenge of navigating a broken special education system. After her daughter was diagnosed with autism, officials at a local school told her they didn’t have enough space.

“They told me, no you can’t enroll your child here,” Vera said, speaking in Spanish.

Staff at the school gave her a phone number to call — presumably to the district’s enrollment center — but Vera worried that it wouldn’t do her any good.

“I didn’t know English,” she said. “I felt lost.”

Looming over the conversation was Michigan’s third-grade reading law, which lends a sense of urgency to the already daunting challenge of helping a child read in a second language.

Yesenia Hernandez said she reads to her second-grade daughter in English, but worries that she can’t pronounce words correctly. In these moments, she said in Spanish, it seems that “she’s learning, but I’m just confusing her.”

Working with a group of five other mothers, Hernandez listed out the ways her school could help her to help her daughter. In another  room, other small groups worked on wish lists of their own, and when they compared results, there were striking similarities: The parents wanted to communicate with their children’s schools in Spanish, and they wanted the tools — like classes in English for adults — to help their children learn. One group gave an approving nod to the “parent room” at Priest Elementary-Middle School, where Spanish-speaking parents gather and share information and resources.

wall list
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Parents broke off into small groups to discuss their English language learners’ educations.

Even as they hurry to help their children build reading skills, parents are uncertain about how their children might react to flunking a grade when the state’s high stakes reading requirements go into effect next school year.

Delia Barba thought the policy made sense: “What if they keep saying pass, pass, pass, and he doesn’t know how to read?” she asked.

But Gloria Vera wasn’t so sure. In her neighborhood, an estimated 8 in 10 students spoke some Spanish at home. How many would be held back?

“In this part of Detroit, there should be a solution,” she said.