Save our school

Educators and parents say the city has abandoned their Bronx Renewal school — and now wants to close it

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
J.H.S. 145 parent Annagine Lewis criticized the city's proposal to close the school at a recent public hearing.

Parents and educators pleaded with city officials Tuesday to reconsider a plan to shutter a South Bronx middle school in New York City’s signature turnaround program.

J.H.S. 145 Arturo Toscanini is one of 86 struggling schools that have been offered social services and extra academic support as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal program — but members of the J.H.S. 145 community said the city shortchanged the school.

“We need teachers qualified to serve our [English Language Learner] students,” parent Annagine Lewis told members of the city’s Panel for Education Policy on Tuesday, after waiting over two hours to comment on an item that wasn’t officially on the agenda. “All we got was empty promises.”

Several people — parents, alumni, educators, and elected officials — voiced versions of that argument: that the city had neglected a school it had promised to infuse with resources and then abruptly moved to close it.

J.H.S. 145 is one of nine Renewal schools the city is planning to close or merge next year, and several speakers — some of whom were bussed to the meeting by the United Federation of Teachers — asked the city to postpone a March 22 vote to close the school.

Though J.H.S. 145 is in the city’s turnaround program, initially billed as a three-year initiative designed to rehabilitate struggling schools rather than close them, de Blasio indicated some schools could still be shuttered.

When education officials first announced the plan to close J.H.S. 145 in January, they cited enrollment numbers and test scores. Eight percent of students at J.H.S. 145 were proficient in reading last year, according to state tests, and fewer than 4 percent were proficient in math. Just 287 students attend the middle school, down from 368 three years ago.

“The superintendent’s recommendation for closure was based on careful analysis of the school’s leadership, classroom instruction and the school’s ability to leverage Renewal School resources,” an education official wrote in an email. “We believe that there are stronger school options in this community that will better meet the needs of students and families.”

English teacher Jim Donohue said the city’s decision to close the school runs counter to the Renewal program’s philosophy.

“De Blasio’s own words were that we’re finally going to give schools that have been neglected in the inner city the resources they need,” Donohue said in an interview. “Instead of extra resources, we’ve struggled to get the basic resources to survive.”

Multiple people at Tuesday’s meeting said the city never appropriately staffed J.H.S. 145, whose student population is almost entirely comprised of black and Hispanic students from low-income families. Nearly half the students are English learners, city figures show, and while the school is supposed to offer “transitional bilingual education,” there is just one bilingual teacher and one ESL teacher.

Craig Moss, a technology teacher at the school, said he regularly relies on students to translate. “I have two classes of ELL speakers and I don’t speak Spanish,” he said, adding that the school has not had stable leadership, rotating through three principals in five years.

Education department officials acknowledged that it has been “hard to staff” bilingual positions in the building, but disputed the argument that the school had not been offered adequate support. The school received funding to add two “teacher leader” positions, additional teacher training, the official said, and supports for high-need students, including mental health services and vision screenings.

A hearing to solicit input from the community about the closure plan is scheduled at J.H.S. 145 on March 6.

Follow the money

New York City’s finance watchdog demands answers on $600 million school turnaround program

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

The city’s top financial watchdog didn’t wait even a week before pressing Chancellor Richard Carranza on whether the “Renewal” school turnaround program is living up to its nearly $600 million price tag.

“While some Renewal schools have shown improvements,” Comptroller Scott Stringer wrote in a letter to Chancellor Richard Carranza, “inconsistent progress across all Renewal schools suggests the need for a more thorough review of the program’s components and their overall impact.”

The letter, sent just three days after Carranza officially took office, asks for a detailed accounting of how Renewal schools spent money on core elements of the program, including teacher training and extending the school day for an hour — as well as any evidence that those efforts are paying off or being monitored. Two independent evaluations by outside researchers suggest the program has produced only mixed results.

Stringer’s letter appears to be motivated at least in part by a recent round of hotly contested school closures. Since the program’s launch in 2014, 16 of 94 original Renewal schools have been merged or closed. (Another 21 schools are slowly easing out of the program after city officials said they made enough progress.)

“With the decision to now close schools that have not made sufficient progress,” Stringer wrote, “I question whether there have been adequate direction and accountability measures in place to ensure that all school received allocations with sufficient time to show progress, and were directing new resources to high impact programs and interventions.”

Stringer’s letter came just weeks before Carranza began raising his own questions about the Renewal program, which gives long-struggling schools extra academic support and social services. In an interview with Chalkbeat, the new schools chief said the Renewal program did not appear to have a single clear “theory of action.”

The comptroller’s probe also comes at a precarious moment for the program: It is without a permanent leader and it’s also unclear whether the city will phase out or reconfigure it. (Carranza told Chalkbeat he is committed to running a turnaround program of some kind.)

Stringer also touched on a number of other aspects of the program that have drawn criticism from school communities, including how the city identifies which schools should be closed and how the education department helps families find new schools.

According to the comptroller’s letter, multiple schools that met the exact same number of city benchmarks received different decisions about whether they should be closed.

While Stringer acknowledged that the city conducts a holistic review in making closure decisions, “the lack of transparency about these additional factors and how school closure decisions are made is breeding needless distrust in communities.”

An education department spokeswoman, Toya Holness, said the department is “reviewing the comptroller’s letter and will provide a formal response.”

 



closures ahead

As New York City prepares to close more struggling ‘Renewal’ schools, here’s what we know about ones they’ve shuttered before

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design, a Renewal school, was closed last year.

In the coming days, struggling schools in the city’s “Renewal” improvement program will learn whether they get more time to mount a comeback — or will be shut down for good.

New York City education officials are expected to announce soon which of the low-performing schools will close at the end of this academic year. The decision will have enormous consequences for students and teachers who will have to find new schools — and will likely rekindle debate about the effectiveness of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $582 million effort to turn around troubled schools by infusing them with social services and academic support.

As the Renewal program passed its third birthday in November — a date by which the mayor promised to decide which schools aren’t measuring up — officials have been tight-lipped about which schools are on the chopping block.

Chalkbeat analyzed the previous rounds of closures — nine schools out of the original 94 — to understand which schools might be targeted this time. Perhaps the clearest finding is that it’s difficult to predict which schools the city will shutter.

While all the closed schools had very low graduation rates and test scores, so do other Renewal schools that were spared. The analysis shows there are no strict rules about which schools are shut down and which are given more time to turn around.

That said, here are some takeaways from previous Renewal school closures:

Almost all the closed schools struggled to retain students.

Seven of the nine closed schools enrolled fewer students in the year they were shuttered than when they entered the Renewal program in 2014 — and six shed more than a fifth of their students.

Many of the schools had struggled to recruit and retain students even before the program started — once it did, the schools struggled to staunch the flow. The city considers such shrinkage an existential problem; officials have suggested that schools with fewer than 250 students can become unsustainable since school funding is based partly on enrollment.

Six of the closed schools enrolled fewer than 200 students their final year — including Brooklyn’s M.S. 584, which lost about 25 percent of its population since the Renewal program started, leaving it with just 78 students.

Meeting the city’s goals doesn’t guarantee survival.

The city assigned each Renewal school annual goals around attendance, graduation rates, test scores, and other measures. (The goals have been criticized as overly modest.)

In the past, officials have said “all options are on the table” — including closure — for schools that fail to meet their goals. But those the city has actually shuttered have been all over the map.

For instance, the city closed the Bronx’s Leadership Institute the year after it hit 71 percent of its goals — more than most schools in the program. At the other end of the spectrum, it shuttered Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design, which met just 14 percent of its goals.

In the past, education department officials have said they consider a range of factors when deciding which schools to close, including their academic performance, feedback from families, staff turnover, and previous improvement efforts.

“When making decisions about school closures we carefully assess each school based on multiple measures,” department spokesman Michael Aciman said in an email. “In every case where we’ve proposed a closure, we’ve prioritized family engagement and guaranteed that every student has higher-performing school options.”

However, the mix of factors means it isn’t clear which schools are most at risk of closure. The fact that some were shuttered after meeting most of their city-issued goals only adds to the mystery.

Small gains in graduation rates and test scores aren’t enough.

A handful of shuttered Renewal high schools had boosted their graduation rates while they were in the program, while some middle schools got more students to pass the state exams.

However, the gains were usually small and the majority of students were still struggling.

At the Essence School, the share of students who passed the reading tests more than doubled since it became a Renewal school. But even with that bump, still only 5 percent passed. Meanwhile, math proficiency barely ticked up to 3 percent.

At the high-school level, every shuttered Renewal school saw an uptick in graduation rates.

The increases ranged from 5 to 17 percentage points. However, because most of the schools enrolled were relatively small, they could boost their graduation rates by several points simply by helping a few additional students earn diplomas.

And the schools with the biggest gains — a 17 point jump at Foundations Academy and a 13 point spike at Foreign Language Academy of Global Studies — came at schools with serious enrollment challenges. In their final year, both served fewer than 100 students.