out of the loop

As education officials negotiate the fate of a Bronx middle school, ‘everything is up in the air’

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Nelson Santiago with his daughter, Savannah Torres, a sixth-grader at J.H.S. 162

When city officials submitted a proposal to the State Education Department this week about whether to close, merge or cede control of a Bronx middle school, one constituency was kept out of the loop: the school itself.

“Everything is up in the air,” said Yolanda Montalvo, who sits on the school leadership team at J.H.S 162 Lola Rodriguez de Tio, and is a member of the PTA. The school’s administration “doesn’t know what the last decision will be.”

J.H.S. 162 has drawn outsized attention for being the only school in New York threatened with a takeover under the state’s receivership program, which is supposed to create consequences for low-performing schools if they don’t show improvements within a year or two.

The school is the first in the state to face the prospect of a takeover under the 2015 receivership law.

State officials have said the city could propose a merger or closure in lieu of a takeover by an outside manager — and on Tuesday, the city sent a letter to the state with a proposal.

So far, that letter has been kept secret; city and state officials would not release it to Chalkbeat.

On Wednesday afternoon, some parents said they participated in meetings at the beginning of the school year focused on the consequences the school might face under the state receivership program. But they noted there had not been an effort to gather input from them to specifically inform the city’s proposal, and there were rumors the school could be shuttered.

That sense of uncertainty was evident among school officials minutes before a school leadership team meeting Wednesday that was abruptly cancelled. The school’s principal, Deborah Sanabria, declined to comment for this story.

“That’s not something they’ve brought to our attention as of yet,” said parent Nelson Santiago, referring to the city’s proposal. After picking up his daughter early from school Wednesday — because she’d been hit by another student, he said — Santiago explained that the school is headed in the right direction.

Despite the bullying his sixth-grade daughter experienced this year, he added, J.H.S. 162 was taken off the state’s list of “persistently dangerous schools.”

Still, if the state determined that the school was not performing, Santiago said it should be shut down. “If it’s not up to par, then that means my daughter’s education is not up to par.”

Rafael Capestany, who has two children at the school, agreed that there have been some signs of improvement, and said he hopes the school stays open despite its designation as among the worst in the state. “Whenever there’s a situation where students might fight, they handle it real fast,” he said. “I don’t see why they would have to close the school down.”

In addition to being part of the state’s receivership program, the school is also part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s high-profile Renewal program, which is designed to be less punitive. Under the city’s approach, low-performing schools have been infused with resources and social services and are expected to show gains over time. In a surprising discrepancy, J.H.S. 162 hit 83 percent of its benchmarks in the city’s program — a sign of improvement — but was still singled out by the state for a takeover.

Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy chancellor in the city’s department of education and current professor at Teachers College, said it is odd that the city would keep the school out of the loop on its plans, especially because it has invested so heavily in it as a community school.

“If the idea is that the schools should be part of the solution,” Nadelstern said, “to deny the vital information they need to keep doing that job effectively is not a good strategy.”

Still, others pointed out that if the city does get approval from the state to merge or close the school, the city will be legally required to hold hearings and solicit public comment — a process parents will be able to influence.

“The community would have a full opportunity to give its input once state approval had been secured,” said David Bloomfield an education law expert at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

City education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye emphasized that meetings were held at the beginning of the school year to inform families about the potential effects of the state’s receivership program.

“DOE officials have worked with [the State Education Department] as well as the superintendent — who knows the school best — to ensure the next steps for the J.H.S 162 community are best for kids,” Kaye wrote in an email.

“Starting next week, we will begin having a town hall forum and small group meetings to provide families with information and resources to make the right decisions for their child.”

The date and time of the town hall has not yet been announced.

it's official

An integration plan is approved for Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Middle schools in District 3, including Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Visual Arts, pictured above, will give struggling students priority in admission, the local Community Education Council announced.

The New York City education department on Wednesday approved a plan to integrate middle schools in Manhattan’s District 3, the culmination of years of advocacy amid vocal pushback against admissions changes aimed at creating more economically and academically diverse schools.

The plan marks the city’s first attempt under Mayor Bill de Blasio to integrate middle schools across an entire district, an effort that garnered national attention after the schools Chancellor, Richard Carranza, tweeted a blunt criticism of parents who protested the proposal.

Announcing approval of the plan, Carranza said in a statement that he hopes District 3 will serve as a model for other communities aiming for more diversity.

“Students benefit from integrated schools, and I applaud the District 3 community on taking this step to integrate their middle schools,” he said.

The new admissions system builds on growing momentum to unravel deep segregation in the country’s largest school system. A few weeks ago, de Blasio announced a contentious plan to overhaul admissions at the city’s elite specialized high schools. And later on Wednesday,  a set of recommendations is expected to be unveiled for integrating middle schools in Brooklyn’s District 15.

Under the plan approved in District 3, students who are poor, struggle on state tests, and earn low report card grades will be given admissions priority for a quarter of seats at the district’s middle schools. Of those seats, 10 percent would go to students who struggle the most, and 15 percent would go to the next-neediest group.

Education officials had considered weighing a number of different criteria to determine which students would get priority. They settled on a mix indicators including student poverty and academic achievement because it “identifies students most likely to suffer the consequences of long-term segregation in District 3,” according to a statement released by the Community Education Council, a group of parent volunteers who have supported the district’s integration efforts. 

Since academic performance is often linked to race and class, the new admissions system could integrate schools on a number of different measures. But in aiming for academic diversity explicitly, the district is pushing for a unique and controversial change. In District 3 and across New York City, high-performing students are often concentrated in a tiny subset of schools.

Parents who worried their children would be elbowed out of the most selective schools pushed hard against the plan, including a woman featured on a viral NY1 video saying that the proposal tells hard-working students “life sucks.”  

“I think it was definitely a much harder concept for parents to understand,” said Kristen Berger, a parent on the local Community Education Council who has helped lead the integration effort.  “We have a lot of talk about meritocracy… anything that challenges it, challenges a very basic concept parents have.”

With those concerns in mind, the district says it will boost training training for school staff in strategies to help struggling students. The district will also provide anti-bias training for all middle school staff and teachers will also focus on culturally relevant education practices, which ensure that all students are reflected in what is taught in classrooms.

Despite the backlash, the proposal would actually have a modest impact on many district schools, according to city projections. Among the schools expected to change the most is the Computer School, which would see a 16-point increase in the number of needy students who are offered admission. Still, only 28 percent of students would be poor and have low test scores and report card grades.  

Schools that currently serve the greatest number of struggling students aren’t expected to change much, if at all, according to projections. Many of those schools are in Harlem, prompting education council members to push the education department to do more for those schools.

The council pledged to take on the work itself. Parents want to weigh whether new school options are needed, and “address long-standing challenges such as disparities in resource allocation,” the council’s statement said.

“We need a Harlem vision. That’s really important and that’s key to the next steps,” Berger said.

Spread the wealth

A few Colorado charter schools won ‘the lottery’ in this year’s round of school construction grants

Samantha Belmontes, 7, tries to keep a foam ball rolling in the center of her tennis racket for as long as she can in a class at Ricardo Flores Magón Academy in 2011. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Five Colorado charter schools are among the nearly three dozen schools getting new roofs, HVAC systems, or even entire new buildings courtesy of state land proceeds, lottery funds, and marijuana tax revenue.

The State Board of Education this month approved $275 million in grants through the Building Excellent Schools Today or BEST program, with schools and districts contributing an additional $172 million for $447 million in total construction projects.

This is the largest award the state has ever given, a 60 percent increase from the nearly $172 million given out last year. It’s also likely to be the largest award for some time to come. With this grant cycle, the board that oversees the BEST program used up its existing ability to issue debt, similar to the limit on a credit card, and next year’s grants will be limited to cash awards of roughly $85 million.

Charter schools traditionally have not done well in the competition for BEST grant money – a sore point for advocates because the schools can’t bond off property tax revenue like school districts can –  but this year, with more to spend overall, the committee that distributes the money also gave more of it to charter schools.

In a typical year, the grant program funds about half of the requests that come in, after prioritizing them based on a number of criteria, including health and safety concerns. This year, almost 70 percent of requests were funded.

Jeremy Meyer, a spokesperson for Colorado Department of Education, said officials in the capital construction program also made a deliberate effort to reach out to charter schools and explain the requirements of the grant program. Some of the successful applicants had applied before and were able to make refinements to this year’s applications. Representatives of charter schools, meanwhile, said this iteration of the BEST board seems more receptive to their needs.

“A lot of it was a function of them having more resources to distribute,” said Dan Schaller of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. “It’s a very positive development, but it’s important to keep it in context that over the last five years, charter schools have received in aggregate less than 1 percent of the funding.”

About 13 percent of Colorado students attend charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run and exempt from some rules.

Legislation passed in the 2018 session increases the amount of marijuana tax money going to the grant program to 90 percent of all recreational marijuana excise tax revenue. Before, it had been capped at $40 million a year, even as the state took in far more pot tax money than was originally projected. Of this money, 12.5 percent will be set aside for charter school facilities needs.

However, state lawmakers balked at allowing the BEST program to borrow off of marijuana revenue, given the uncertain regulatory future under President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is hostile to legal marijuana.

Without the ability to issue new debt, future awards are more likely to go to roof replacements and new heating and cooling systems than to new buildings, like the new elementary school approved in Adams 14 or the new buildings for Ricardo Flores Magón Academy in northwest Denver and Swallows Charter Academy in Pueblo.

Having the state fund a new building for a charter school is “like winning the lottery,” said Jane Ellis, who works with charters to find low-cost financing for their facilities.

This was Flores Magón Academy’s third attempt at getting a BEST grant. The state-authorized charter school serves roughly 300 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, most of them from low-income families. The school sits in a pocket of unincorporated Adams County at West 53rd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard, near Regis University, and most of the school’s families live in Denver.

In 2011, the school bought the Berkeley Gardens Elementary building, which had been shuttered for a decade. The school was built in 1906 and has several additions.

“Each add-on is very unique and reflective of its decade and comes with its own delightful challenges,” said Kaye Taavialma, a former executive director of the school who is working as a consultant on the building project. “We have to be very cognizant and aware of any precipitation.”

The roof leaks, the pipes leak, there aren’t enough bathrooms, and there’s asbestos in the walls and in the glue that holds down multiple layers of carpet. Portions of the school have been blocked off due to mold problems. The office is in the center of the building, without a clear line of sight on the entrances, creating security concerns. During one storm, a window blew out in a classroom. Fortunately, no students were injured, Taavialma said.

The school got $15.5 million from the BEST program and through a waiver only has to contribute $818,000 to the total project cost, rather than the $3.3 million that would normally be required under a state matching formula. The new building will be built on the site of the play fields and should open to students during the 2020-21 school year.

“For our school, this is tremendous because coming up with $3 million would have been darn near impossible,” Taavialma said. “As we see charters continue to proliferate and they’re being asked to move into buildings that either weren’t constructed to be school buildings, or like we experienced, a school building that has been sitting vacant for a long time, I hope this is a trend that continues.”

You can see the full list of grant winners here.