closing bell

Despite pushback, education panel votes to close five schools in de Blasio’s turnaround program

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Marilyn Espada, president of District 9's Community Education Council, protested the closure of J.H.S. 145 Wednesday night.

After outcry from some school communities, and near silence from others, the city’s plan to close five schools in its signature turnaround program was approved Wednesday night.

The vote from the Panel for Educational Policy, which must sign off on school closures, came after nearly four hours of angry comments from parents, educators, and elected officials, many of whom said the city had gone back on its promise of giving their schools time to improve.

“They buried us while we were breathing,” said Deidre Walker, a math teacher at J.H.S. 145, a Bronx middle school that will now close at the end of the school year. “The resources weren’t given.”

All five schools are part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal initiative, a program designed to flood them with additional academic resources and social services to help sow improvements rather than closing them outright — the approach favored by the Bloomberg administration.

Given previous mergers and closures, the education panel’s vote will mean that, starting next school year, 78 schools will remain in the program, down from an original 94.

Throughout the closure process, city officials told the schools that they had shed too many students and were too low-performing to remain open. The six Renewal schools the city has identified for closure this year — including the five approved Wednesday night — all have fewer students than when the program began in the 2014-15 school year.

And all five schools are clearly struggling, according to the city’s metrics, which is not surprising since the program explicitly targeted bottom-performing schools. At the Essence School in Brooklyn, one of the schools that will be closed, 5 percent of its students were proficient in math or reading last school year — far below city averages.

But the schools slated for closure are not necessarily the lowest-performing ones in the program, a fact that was repeatedly raised Wednesday night. Twenty-six Renewal schools met fewer benchmarks than Essence did last year, for instance, according to city figures.

Before the vote, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña defended the closure plan, saying it is in “the best interests of children” — a claim that was immediately interrupted with boos from the audience.

An education department spokeswoman, Devora Kaye, previously said that multiple factors were taken into account beyond those metrics, including feedback from families, staff turnover, history of interventions or improvement, and “research from schools in similar situations.”

The six Renewal schools approved for closure will be shuttered immediately, starting next academic year, rather than being phased out.

Two of them are junior high schools in the Bronx: J.H.S.145 Arturo Toscanini and J.H.S 162 Lola Rodriguez de Tio, a “persistently struggling” school the panel had already voted to close as part of a deal with the state.

Two high schools in the Bronx are also slated for closure: Leadership Institute and Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design; as are two Brooklyn middle schools: M.S. 584 and the Essence School.

The city held hearings at each of those schools in advance of the vote, some of which attracted dozens of speakers imploring education officials to reconsider, or at least postpone, the decision.

A consistent complaint at those meetings was that the city’s closure plans clashed with promises that schools would have three years to improve. The program is still several months shy of its third birthday, and many of the social services that schools received have only been in place for a year and a half.

Among the most contentious closures was J.H.S. 145. Multiple teachers and parents said the city neglected to provide essential resources. Nearly half the students are English learners, and while the school is supposed to offer “transitional bilingual education,” there is just one bilingual teacher and one ESL teacher on staff.

At the meeting, Chancellor Fariña acknowledged staffing problems at the school — “I’m not going to deny that we haven’t been able to fill all the vacancies” — but she added that the school was provided “a tremendous amount of resources.”

Some parents have also expressed concern over where their children will go to school next year, a decision that will have to be made quickly. A Chalkbeat analysis found that many students who left closed Renewal schools wound up at schools that performed better than the ones they left — but were often below the city average.

While some school communities showed up in force to oppose the closures, others have been relatively quiet. At Leadership Institute, a Bronx high school, a recent closure hearing ended after just a few minutes without any members of the public showing up to comment.

Wednesday’s vote also approved the merger of three other Renewal schools: Frederick Douglass Academy IV Secondary School (to be merged with the Brooklyn Academy of Global Finance), Automotive High School in Brooklyn (with Frances Perkins Academy), and M.S. 289 Young Scholars Academy of the Bronx (with North Bronx School of Empowerment).

Automotive is the only merged school that will absorb the school with which it’s being merged, and stay in the Renewal program.

Finally, the panel also approved truncating the middle school grades at two Brooklyn Renewal schools: P.S. 306 Ethan Allen and P.S. 165 Ida Posner.

devos watch

Obama-era discipline rules should be scrapped, Trump school safety commission says

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Trump administration officials say it’s time to reverse Obama-era guidelines meant to curb suspensions and expulsions, especially for students of color.

The federal school safety commission recommends the move in a report released Tuesday, saying that efforts to address racial disparities in discipline may have made America’s schools less safe. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to rescind the guidance soon, notching a victory for the conservative campaign to link school discipline reforms with unsafe schools — a connection that remains questionable.

“One of the things that the commission was concerned with was the recurring narrative that teachers in the classroom or students in the hallway and on campus were afraid because individuals who had a history of anti-social or in some instances, aggressive, trending toward violent, behavior were left unpunished or were left unchecked,” a senior Trump administration official told reporters Tuesday. “So that is the first move that the report makes, to correct for that problem.”

The school safety commission’s 177-report also recommends:

  • More access to mental health services for students
  • Various approaches to school safety, which could include considering “arming some specially selected and trained school personnel”
  • More training around how to prepare for an active shooter

Those conclusions come from a commission formed after a school shooter in Parkland, Florida left 17 dead in February. Chaired by DeVos and composed of just four members of President Trump’s cabinet, the commission has hosted a series of hearings and courted controversy by avoiding discussion of gun control measures.

Scrapping the school discipline guidance is especially notable. That guidance was issued in January 2014 by the Obama education and justice departments, and it told school leaders to seek out alternatives to suspension and other penalties that take students out of the classroom.

It also noted that black and Hispanic students were suspended much more often than other students, and that suspensions were correlated with higher dropout rates and lower academic achievement. Significant, unexplained racial disparities in discipline rates could trigger a federal review into whether a district had violated civil rights law, it warned.

To civil rights leaders, this was an effort to address racism in schools. To conservatives, it represented government overreach. In schools where suspensions were reduced without alternatives, the guidance encouraged misbehavior to go unpunished, they argued.

That argument is expanded in the safety commission’s report.

“When school leaders focus on aggregate school discipline numbers rather than the specific circumstances and conduct that underlie each matter, schools become less safe,” the report says.

Disparities in discipline rates may not have to due with discrimination, it says, but “may be due to societal factors other than race.” It also says “local circumstances” may play a role in behavior differences “if students come from distressed communities and face significant trauma.”

There’s limited evidence that cutting back on suspensions made schools less safe. One study in Chicago found that when the district modestly cut down on suspensions, student test scores and attendance actually rose as a result. There’s also not much known about how effective alternatives, like restorative justice, have been either.

Read the entire report here:



Matt Barnum contributed reporting.

funding battle

Defiant, Cuomo invites ire resisting more New York State funding for schools

PHOTO: Philip Kamrass/Office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo during his 2018 State of the State address.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo once again laid the responsibility of equitable school funding on local districts Monday, earning the nickname “Ebenezer Scrooge” from an advocacy group and kicking off what could be a contentious fight over education spending.

In a speech to the New York City Bar Association, Cuomo released his legislative priorities for the first 100 days of his new term as governor. He devoted a small portion of his comments to education, immediately sparking anger from his critics.

Cuomo directly placed responsibility for funding schools on local districts, saying the money is “not fairly distributed by them.” He pointed to a law he pushed to pass last year that required school districts to compile a report on how state funding is distributed among schools.

“The truth is the poorest schools do not receive any more funding than the richer schools from their local districts,” Cuomo said. “And that, my friend, is a critical injustice because the poorer schools have a great need that needs to be funded.

Then, Cuomo called the foundation aid program — designed to send extra dollars to high-needs school districts — and the 1993 lawsuit filed by New York City parents that laid the groundwork for foundation aid as “ghosts of the past” and part of “a political game.”

“The question is the local distribution of aid,” Cuomo said. “That’s what we have to focus on if we’re actually going to move from political pandering to progressive policy. It’s a question of math and theory, not philosophy and political posturing.”

Advocates say the state still owes the education department about $4 billion in foundation aid funding. The state halted funding under the formula during the recession. In 2017, Cuomo proposed changing it to a level that advocates described as a “repeal.” But Cuomo’s proposal could not overcome these advocates’ opposition and failed to pass.

“Cuomo is the Ebenezer Scrooge of public schools, starving children of much needed resources and state funding,” said Jasmine Gripper, legislative director for the union-backed advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education, in a statement after Cuomo’s speech.

The problem, Gripper said, is that under Cuomo, the “state doesn’t provide enough funding to meet the growing needs that result from growing poverty and increased numbers of English language learners.”

A Chalkbeat analysis of New York City’s school funding data found there are funding disparities, which can amount to thousands of dollars per pupil, between schools, largely because of the Fair Student Funding Formula that sends more dollars to schools with hard-to-serve students, like those with disabilities or those from low-income families.

Some educators, including school principals, argue this formula does not go far enough to address school inequities — holes often filled by rich PTAs.

In the past, some scholars have questioned whether spending more money on schools necessarily results in sufficiently better outcomes for students. But a new review of the research suggests that additional money can play a role in student academic performance. But how that money is spent also likely matters.

The state Department of Education recently proposed a $2.1 billion increase in school funding, most of it tied to boosting foundation aid dollars. The state teachers union and Alliance for Quality Education lauded the Board of Regents’ proposal.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Teachers Federation, said it’s “time to take the politics out of state resources for education,” adding that low-income students have been “shortchanged for years” by the state formula.

As they have in the past, state education policymakers also endorsed a $4.9 billion, three-year phase-in of the money many argue is still owed under foundation aid.

“As we said when we released our proposal last week, all children should have access to a high-quality education regardless of their race, where they live or where they go to school,” said Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. “We look forward to working with the legislature and the executive to achieve this for all New York’s children.”

With more progressive Democrats in the Senate who campaigned on boosting education spending, Cuomo’s comments could signal a contentious budget fight ahead. Lawmakers must hash out a budget pan by April 1, and Cuomo’s budget proposal is expected in January.

Lawmakers don’t typically grant the full funding request from state policymakers. Last year, for example, legislators approved $1 billion in more funding for education, which was still more than half a billion dollars less than what the Board of Regents asked for.