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.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised more than $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent running in District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. 

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since the state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.