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.

'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.