what's next?

The only school in New York threatened with a takeover by state officials may soon learn its fate

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
J.H.S. 162 Lola Rodriguez De Tio, the lone school to face state receivership thus far

After months of uncertainty, the city’s education department must submit a proposal Tuesday night outlining its plans for a struggling Bronx middle school, state officials confirmed Monday.

The school, J.H.S 162 Lola Rodriguez de Tio, has earned the unenviable distinction of being the only school in New York designated for outside takeover by the state’s education department.

Under the state’s complex receivership law, bottom-level schools that don’t quickly show signs of improvement on metrics ranging from attendance to test scores can be turned over to nonprofit managers or school improvement experts, effectively forcing Chancellor Carmen Fariña to cede control of the school to an outside entity.

In October, state education officials announced that J.H.S. 162 — which has been among the lowest-performing schools in the state since 2006 — barely missed its improvement goals, which meant the city would have 60 days to come up with a plan for giving up control of the school. At the time, state officials said the city could close or merge the school instead of turning it over to an outside manager.

Though that 60-day deadline came and went more than a week ago, state officials said they extended the deadline until Tuesday night. The city education department did not answer questions about what its plans for the school are, and the school’s principal, Deborah Sanabria, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The fact that J.H.S. 162 has been singled out for outside takeover has struck some education experts as arbitrary — essentially the result of a tug-of-war between the city and state over how to handle struggling schools. Although the school has posted low test scores, it also serves a high-needs population comprised overwhelmingly of low-income black and Latino families. Neither its scores nor demographics set it dramatically apart from several other schools in New York City.

“To single out one school and say it’s the worst school in the state is misleading on so many levels,” Eric Nadelstern, a former city deputy schools chancellor who is now a professor at Teachers College, told Chalkbeat last month. “It’s easy for the school to say there are many other schools in the city and state that match the same criteria.”

Meanwhile, the school has gotten conflicting evaluations from the state and city, adding to the complexity of the situation.

While the state’s receivership program was designed to be stricter and focus on quick improvements with the prospect of a takeover if gains don’t take hold, the city’s Renewal turnaround program (of which the school is also a member) is based on the premise that schools should be infused with resources and given time to improve — though the city has also not shied away from the possibility of additional mergers or closures.

In an ironic twist, the city recently announced that J.H.S. 162 hit 83 percent of its Renewal goals last year, placing it in the top 15 percent of Renewal schools in terms of the proportion of its benchmarks the school reached. Under the city program, the school even met a third of its goals early, making it eligible for certain “challenge targets” (which in some cases actually aren’t all that challenging).

In essence, the state’s benchmarks ended up labeling the school as perhaps the worst in the state, while the city’s own program says it is making noticeable progress — a surprising discrepancy given that city officials have insisted the city’s benchmarks are just as rigorous.

“The school showed improvements on some of their Renewal targets, but not on the measures that counted towards Receivership benchmarks,” city education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email. She did not elaborate further on the difference between the school’s performance on city and state benchmarks.

City officials indicated that its plans for the school will require review from the State Education Department and anticipated that process will happen soon. It was not immediately clear exactly how long that review process will take, and state officials did not respond to additional requests for comment.

“We’re working with the state and once the proposed plan is approved, we’ll engage closely with students, families, school staff and the larger community to ensure students are supported with continuity and a high-quality education,” Kaye wrote.

'rigorous and realistic'

Some struggling New York City schools can lose ground and still hit performance targets

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious promise to transform struggling schools, some of New York City’s bottom-ranked schools can backslide this year and still hit new goals that the city has set for them.

For the first time, the city has told schools in its $582 million “Renewal” program to aim for test scores, graduation rates, or attendance rates that fall within a certain range, rather than hit a specific target. But some ranges include goals that are below the schools’ current levels.

For instance, Bronx Collegiate Academy posted a 67 percent graduation rate last year. This year, its city-issued goal is to land between 63.6 and 81.9 percent — meaning its graduation rate can go down and still fall within its target range.

At the Bronx’s J.H.S. 123, the goal is for students to earn an average score on the state English tests of between 2.3 and 2.45 — despite already achieving a 2.42 average last year. (Students must earn a 3 or higher on the 4-point scale to be considered proficient.)

The latest round of goals continues a pattern of modest targets for schools in de Blasio’s signature school-turnaround program, even as the city loads them with extra social services, extended hours, and bigger budgets. Some experts say the goals are appropriate for schools that started so far behind, and note that school turnaround can take years. But others say the goals set a low bar, and question whether they are designed to make it easier for the de Blasio administration to claim its pricey program was a success.

What’s more, the new goal ranges have created some confusion among school leaders about what they are expected to achieve and what will happen if they don’t.

“If [the goals] really are supposed to be guiding stars and shaping what schools are doing on a day-to-day basis,” said Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, “fuzzy ranges with unclear accountability consequences is not the way to do it.”

The goals are one of the factors officials consider when deciding whether schools in the Renewal program have made sufficient progress or should instead be closed or merged with other schools.

But if they are meant to provide low-performing schools with clear targets and a sense of urgency, the new ranges have instead created some confusion. The city offered online trainings on the goals, but some school leaders remain unsure of what’s expected of them.

“What we’ve been told is: ‘You need to reach for the upper range of your benchmark,’ said an administrator at a Brooklyn Renewal school, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s not a fixed number, so what’s good enough and what isn’t?”

Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for accountability, acknowledged that the new goal ranges had left some people confused.

Still, he defended them as “rigorous and realistic,” and said schools are expected to aim for the upper end of the range. The ranges are meant to encourage schools to focus on making progress rather than fixating on a single number, he added

“If you just have one number as a target then it’s all or nothing,” Ashton said. “We don’t want it to be all or nothing.”

The tweaks partially reflect the political dilemma the education department faces when assigning goals to the city’s lowest-performing schools: Overly modest goals could invite criticism that such small gains do not justify the program’s hefty price tag, while overly ambitious goals could set the program up for failure.

Yet despite their caution, officials have fallen into both traps.

Early goals they set for Renewal schools required such slight improvements that a top state official called them “ridiculous.” Still, many schools have failed to meet those goals, providing ammunition to some critics who say the program has been a costly disappointment.

Some schools have made strides, including a group of 21 “Rise” schools that officials say have made enough progress to begin transitioning out of the Renewal program. Pallas, the Teachers College professor, said that officials may have assigned achievable goals to the program’s remaining schools as a way to ease even more out — raising questions about the city’s long-term plans for the program.

“Setting low targets could allow the department to shift more of the schools to the Rise category, which is the declaring-victory category,” he said. “I think we’re all still wondering what the future of this program is going to be.”

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.