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.

smaller cohort

Smaller cohort of charter schools to open in Memphis in 2018

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Daphnè Robinson, director of charter schools for Shelby County Schools, offers recommendations to the school board.

With charter schools comprising a fourth of Shelby County Schools, district leaders say they’re setting a higher bar for opening new ones in Memphis.

The school board approved only three out of 14 applications on Tuesday night, just months after the district overhauled its charter school office to strengthen oversight of the growing sector.

Opening in 2018 will be Believe Memphis Academy, Freedom Preparatory Academy, and Perea Elementary. The approvals mean the district will oversee 55 charter schools, easily the largest number of any district in Tennessee.

But it’s significantly less than last year, when the board green-lighted seven applicants. Since then, Shelby County Schools has doubled the size of its charter oversight office and stepped up scrutiny of applications.

“We want to strengthen the process every school year because, when it comes down to it, the lives of our kids are at stake and millions of dollars in taxpayer money,” said Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management.

This year, the district hired a new leader and new staff for its charter office. It’s also using several application reviewers from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the group that last year recommended a slew of changes for opening, managing and closing charter schools.

But even with all the changes, the school board didn’t follow all of the staff’s recommendations. Perea’s application had been recommended for denial but, after much discussion, the board voted 7-2 to let the group open an elementary school inside the recently closed Klondike Elementary building. Board members pointed to Perea’s long record of success in operating a preschool at Klondike.

The other two approvals were in line with staff recommendations. Believe Memphis Academy will be a literacy-focused college preparatory school serving students in grades 4-8 in the city’s medical district. Memphis-based Freedom Prep will open its fifth school, which eventually will serve grades 6-12 in the Whitehaven and Nonconnah communities.

Board member Teresa Jones expressed concern about deviating from staff recommendations on Perea.

“We have a process. And by all accounts, it’s not a perfect process, but it’s been applied to everyone,” she said.

But Billy Orgel, another board member, said the charter office should have taken into account the long-standing preschool’s performance, even though it’s never operated an elementary school.

“There is a track record with the funders. There is a track record with the school,” he said, adding that “no process is perfect.”

Groups vying for approval this year wanted to open schools that range from an all-girls program to a sports academy to several focused on science, technology, engineering and math.

Feeling flexible

How five Aurora schools in an “innovation zone” are making budget decisions to meet their own needs

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Crawford Elementary School Principal Jenny Passchier observed a writing lesson in October 2015.

When Aurora Public Schools went looking for ways to save money earlier this year, one casualty was a district-wide contract for a service that provides a translator on the phone when one is not available in person.

The decision could have hurt Crawford Elementary School, where students speak about 35 languages and the service is used at least weekly— more at the start of the school year.

But Principal Jenny Passchier was not without options. As one of five schools that comprise Aurora Public Schools’ year-old innovation zone, Crawford has greater autonomy from district rules and budgeting decisions.

So when school resumed a couple of weeks ago, families at the five innovation zone schools got phone calls they could understand because leaders of the schools chose to keep paying for the translation and drop other district services to make up the difference.

“It’s very critical that we have some way to get ahold of our families,” Passchier said. “Especially in maybe more informal situations. We don’t always have translators that are readily available in person, so that was a critical piece that we needed to keep.”

That decision provides a window into what autonomy looks like in Aurora’s innovation zone, Superintendent Rico Munn’s biggest reform bet to date to lift achievement in a district with a challenging student population and poor academic track record.

With the innovation zone, Aurora officials are turning to a school model that other districts across the state and country have tried, with mixed results. Innovation status provides schools charter school-like autonomy, but the schools are operated by the district instead of independently.

The five schools in northwest Aurora started rolling out their innovation plans last school year.

Taking advantage of the state’s innovation law, APS officials created the zone to give schools greater flexibility from some state laws, union or district policies so principals could govern things like curriculum, hiring practices, school calendars and budgets in ways that might improve achievement at their schools.

Last year, in the first year of innovation status, district officials worked with principals of the five schools in the zone to figure out what district services they could do without, and what extra services they wanted to pay for with the money they might have instead.

Principals started by looking at what their school needed help with and then district officials worked with them to analyze how well the existing services worked.

In the case of the TeleLanguage service, district officials calculated that the average district school used the translation service for about 909 minutes, or about 15 hours, per school year. But each of the five schools in the innovation zone used the service for about 2,978 minutes per school year — about three times as often as the average district school.

After the analysis, the five schools decided to drop several services, including cutting the district’s human resources department, and in exchange the schools were given about $500,000 extra in the 2017-18 budget.

How the money is being spent

  • Translation services, $14,000
  • Health Sciences Academy at Aurora Central, $30,000
  • College and career services, $30,000
  • Parent support budget for Student Engagement Advocate, $5,000
  • Talent acquisition and marketing budget, $40,000
  • Three full-time positions, $305,189
  • Individual school supports: Crawford, $20,000; Paris, $20,000; Boston K-8, $20,000; Aurora West, $30,000; Aurora Central, $36,000

“I led all five principals through the process of evaluating the needs of their schools,” said Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools, including the innovation zone. “My approach was very much facilitating what ideas they had for who they were.”

As a zone, the five schools created three new positions with the extra $500,000. The schools hired a student engagement advocate to help communicate with families and improve student attendance (a position that would no longer exist at the district level); a director of instruction and leadership development; and a director of talent and acquisition to pick up some of the district HR department’s traditional duties.

The woman hired for that last role already has helped the five schools fill positions that still were open as school started.

Passchier described the budget redesign process as collaborative and said she spent a lot of time reflecting on her school’s needs.

“We were able to identify what are the zone-wide themes that we can support, but also what are unique things we need at the school level,” Browne said.

Each school made ia case for its own funding needs. For instance, Aurora Central High School hired an additional student engagement advocate that would be dedicated just to the 2,000-student high school. One of the staff person’s primary responsibilities: helping improve poor attendance.

Passchier said Crawford staff wanted to continue some reading work they’d done with a grant that was ending. The school is now using about $5,000 to continue work with a consultant the school found helpful in teaching students to read.

Officials say it’s too early to know how well the redesigned budget is working for the schools, but Passchier said she’s already seeing benefits two weeks into the school year.

The director of student engagement, who will work with the five schools to help them engage families and students with a goal of increasing attendance, already has been at Crawford several times, Passchier said.

Browne said that if principals find other district services they want to reconsider or analyze as the school year unfolds, the budget for the five schools may change.