An education U-turn

Mayor Bill de Blasio has made many education promises. Here’s what he’s delivered so far — and what he hasn’t

First Lady Chirlane McCray (far left), walks with guidance counselor Rashida Sealy (left), student Chyna Huertas (center), Mayor Bill de Blasio (right) and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

As Albany lawmakers clash over the future of mayoral control of city schools — and with the mayoral primary just months away — Chalkbeat has taken a close look at Mayor Bill de Blasio’s track record on education. What did he set out to do? Who benefits? And what does it mean for the city’s 1.1 million students?

As you’ll see in our week-long series, “An Education U-Turn,” New York City’s progressive mayor started with two different goals: He wanted to undo some of his predecessor Michael Bloomberg’s most radical reforms — moving away from closing long-struggling schools, for example. But he also wanted to set his own education agenda.

Our project dissects three different pieces of that plan: We looked in depth at the school system’s organization, struggling schools left out of the city’s main improvement programs, and the state of teacher training under Fariña, who is passionate about it.

But those topics represent only a small piece of the mayor’s approach to governing the country’s largest school district. Here’s a look at his promises on education — many of which date back to the campaign trail — and where they stand today.

[Jump to: new initiativesaccountabilityleadershipcharter schoolsteachers and principals]

 

PHOTO: Rob Bennett/Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio
Mayor Bill de Blasio visits Sunnyside Community Services Pre-K in Queens in March 2014

New or expanded initiatives

Universal pre-kindergarten

On the campaign trail: De Blasio called for “truly universal pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds.”

Mission accomplished. While Governor Andrew Cuomo blocked his plan to fund pre-K through a tax on wealthy households, the state did kick in $300 million for the plan. After a quick ramp up, de Blasio has created nearly 70,000 seats. While the program is far from perfect — it’s been criticized for being racially segregated, for instance — it is widely hailed as a success. In a recent poll, New York City voters ranked pre-K as the mayor’s top achievement.

In April, the mayor announced plans to extend the program to 3-year-olds, though it was not immediately clear whether he would be able to raise enough money to do so. The plan would also transfer oversight of roughly 20,000 children ages 0-3 from the Administration for Children’s Services to the Department of Education.

Creating more community schools

July 2014: “Community schools are to me … one of the thrusts that will have potentially the biggest impact.” Specifically, he committed to creating 100 community schools that could offer medical and social services, art and fitness programs, tutoring and more to students and their families.

Did it — and then some. The city has announced three rounds of community school expansions. First, it turned 40 schools into community hubs in June 2014 with $52 million in state funding. De Blasio said at the time that the schools’ success would be measured by improvements in student health, attendance and parent engagement as opposed to solely test scores.

Then the city brought the model to 94 of the city’s lowest-performing schools, dubbed “Renewal Schools.” In May 2017, the mayor announced another expansion, to 69 additional schools, bringing the total to 215. President Donald Trump’s budget raised questions about whether the city could afford the expansion.

Access to opportunity

On the campaign trail: “Let’s be honest about where we are today,” the mayor said during his campaign kickoff. “This is a place that in too many ways has become a tale of two cities, a place where City Hall has too often catered to the interests of the elite rather than the needs of everyday New Yorkers.”

Equity and Excellence: To improve the quality of all schools, the administration has launched several initiatives under the umbrella of “Equity and Excellence.” (Former Chancellor Joel Klein also used the phrase to describe his very different approach to the city’s schools.) The mayor has been criticized for the long timeline on these initiatives, some of which won’t be fully realized until 2026.

Here are some of the key components:

Universal Literacy

Goal: All students will read on grade level by the end of second grade.

Progress: The city hired 103 reading coaches during spring 2016. They were sent to districts in the Bronx and Brooklyn chosen because they had the largest share of third-grade students earning a level 1 of 4 on the state English exams.

Algebra for All

Goal: All students will complete algebra no later than ninth grade. By 2022, all students will have access to an algebra course in eighth grade, and to academic supports in elementary and middle school.

Progress: More than 400 teachers from fifth to 10th grade were offered special training in math instruction. Now, 67 elementary schools have “departmentalized” math to ensure that at least one teacher per school has special math training.

AP for All

Goal: 75 percent of students will be offered at least five AP classes by fall 2018. By fall 2021, students at all high schools will have access to at least five AP classes.

Progress: In 2016-17, new AP courses were added at 63 schools, including 31 that did not offer any last year. AP for All teachers get special training, including at a summer institute. Thousands more students are taking AP exams, though the upward trend predates de Blasio.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Mayor Bill de Blasio learns about computer science from a student at the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology in the Bronx

Computer Science For All

Goal: By 2025, all NYC public school students will receive computer science education in elementary, middle, and high school. Over the next 10 years, the DOE will train nearly 5,000 teachers in computer science.

Progress: The city has trained 526 teachers across 298 schools participating in the program this year, putting the teacher-training rate on track to meet the goal. The program isn’t without its critics, though, some of whom argue that training non-specialists to teach computer science isn’t the best approach.

College Access For All

Goal: All middle school students will have the opportunity to visit a college campus and that every high school senior will graduate with a “college and career plan.”

Progress: The city announced in June that the program would expand to 193 middle schools next year, in addition to the 171 schools already participating. Meanwhile, 100 high schools were trained and received funding to improve college awareness. The city also started offering SATs during the school day and provides a fee waiver for CUNY applicants.

Single Shepherd

Goal: Every student in grades 6-12 in Districts 7 and 23 will have an assigned guidance counselor or social worker to help them in and out of school.

Progress: In 2016-17, the city hired 140 shepherds to serve 16,000 students across 51 schools. Your job will be “whatever it takes,” Fariña told them at an early training. While the ratio of 100 students per shepherd has raised eyebrows, it’s still lower than the recommended guidelines for social workers, which allow 250 students per adult. And some schools say having extra hands on deck makes a big difference.

District-charter partnerships

Goal: Allow district and charter schools to collaborate and share best practices.

Progress: 108 district and charter schools have partnered, including schools co-located in the same building, a district-wide program in Brooklyn’s District 16, and a partnership with Uncommon Schools. An additional 28 schools will be chosen to participate this coming fall.

PHOTO: The Children's Aid Society
Students participate in after-school activities at the community school at P.S. 61 Francisco Oller in the Bronx

Creating new after-school programs

On the campaign trail: De Blasio promised to “dramatically expand after-school programs for all middle schools students.”

Major increase. Prior to the expansion, the Department of Youth and Community Development and the DOE combined served an estimated 56,369 middle schoolers in 239 schools and community centers. In the first year of the middle school expansion (2014-15), that number nearly doubled to 111,448. This year, the city is slated to serve 116,000 middle school students.

Improving special education services

On the campaign trail: Pointing to low graduation rates for students with special needs, de Blasio promised “real reforms that provide the educational preparation for college and careers upon graduation.” He also pledged to improve the computer system for tracking their information, known as SESIS, and to improve bus service.

Fewer battles. After the administration curbed legal challenges against parents who want the city to pay for their children with disabilities to attend private schools, and the number of students getting tuition reimbursed between 2011 and 2015 rose 42 percent. The city also paid families without a legal fight 50 percent more often.

Uneven delivery. A recent study on special education services provided by the Department of Education found that in 2015-16, many students had long wait-times for services or got only some of the services they were mandated to receive. In November 2016, the city announced plans to improve SESIS, which was first launched under Mayor Bloomberg. The plan, though far from comprehensive, included a dozen new full-time positions for staffers and $6.3 million over five years for software upgrades and additional maintenance.

Improving English language learner services

On the campaign trail: De Blasio noted “there has been no school system-wide program to bring their achievement up to the level of other students. There are some effective programs that can serve as a model for a citywide effort.”

More programs. In April 2016, Fariña announced the opening of 38 new dual language and transitional bilingual education programs. Another 68 programs are set to open in September, including for the first time, an Urdu program.

Nothing to show yet. While graduation rates for all students continued to climb this past year, English learners experienced a dramatic drop in both New York City and the state. The city was quick to defend itself, saying its graduation rate was flat if you consider the number of students who were classified as English learners the year they graduated along with those who learned the language well enough to test out.

Reducing class sizes

On the campaign trail: As mayor I would want to be held accountable for reducing class size. If in four years we don’t decrease class size, we’re making a huge mistake.”

Still an issue. A 2016 report found that classrooms across the city grew more crowded over the last decade, especially for the youngest students. The city added 44,000 new seats in overcrowded areas through its 2016 budget.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Expanding career and technical education

June 2015: “A career in technical education is where the strands all meet. And I’m very, very proud that New York City is being used as a model here for this effort,” the mayor said.

Solid progress. With industry partners, the city is opening 40 new CTE programs aligned to labor market needs by 2019. It will have to contend with the state’s long and stringent approval process for CTE programs.

Diversifying specialized high schools

April 2014: “We cannot have a dynamic where some of our greatest educational options are only available to people from certain backgrounds,” the mayor said, endorsing a push to change admissions practices at some specialized schools.

Scaled-back ambitions. Early in the mayor’s tenure, Fariña also expressed support for a bill in the state legislature that would require the five specialized schools under the city’s jurisdiction to consider multiple measures, including state test scores and attendance, and the city formed a task force of principals to consider new policies. The city’s newly released school diversity plan focuses on getting more students of color to score high on the exam. It promises to expand programs that have all been in place since 2016, to little effect so far.

Improving diversity overall

August 2016: “There’s some really great new models that look at economic diversity and other factors that allow us to do the work of diversifying schools,” the mayor said. “So to folks who say we want to see more, I understand where they are coming from and my simple answer is: You’re going to see more.”

Small steps. The mayor’s highly anticipated diversity plan, released in June, landed with a thud. Critics blasted the city’s refusal to use the word “segregation” in the plan and what some saw as its reliance on small-bore solutions. It does eliminate “limited unscreened” admissions in an effort to make access to those high schools more fair.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Advocates protest school suspension policy in August 2016

Reducing suspensions

On the campaign trail: “There are too many suspensions. We’re not utilizing some of the tools we have to address problems.”

Significant progress. Suspensions have plummeted by 30 percent. And in 2015, the mayor announced plans to reduce punitive approaches to school discipline, expand the use of restorative justice, and develop metal detector protocols. In 2016, he followed that up by barring most suspensions for children in grades K-2 and letting principals request that metal detectors be added or removed from their schools.

Accountability

Reducing the emphasis on standardized testing

On the campaign trail: “I would put the standardized testing machine in reverse. It is poisoning our system.” His platform included commitments to eliminate single-test admissions for gifted and talented programs and specialized high schools and to increase the use of portfolio assessments in schools.

On trend. As the state has scaled back testing and how scores can be used, the city has followed suit. But the city is still using test scores to decide who gets into gifted programs.

Changing how schools are graded

On the campaign trail: De Blasio said the letter grades should be done away with. “Educators, experts and parents will be convened to determine if the progress reports are the most effective long-term way to evaluate schools,” he said in 2013.

New approach. Department of Education officials eliminated letter grades, though schools still get summative progress reports.

Reducing school closures

On the campaign trail: “To too many people over at the Tweed building, closing a school is a panacea,” the mayor said. “They think it will solve all our problems.”

Big changes. Mayor de Blasio has largely avoided closing schools, except as a “last resort.” According to the city, 54 schools that began to phase out under the last administration were closed between 2014 and 2016. Under de Blasio, four schools were closed in 2016, and there were 12 consolidations involving 25 schools. An additional 6 schools are closing this year, with an additional 8 consolidations involving 16 schools.

Improving struggling schools

2014: “We will demand fast and intense improvement – and we will see that it happens.” That’s how the mayor described the “renewal schools” program, an effort to improve 94 struggling schools.

Not so fast. Though the mayor promised improvements within three years, we are nearing that deadline and the signs are mixed at best. Graduation rates at the city’s 31 Renewal high schools have increased 7 percent since 2014, more than the 4.2 percent average boost across all high schools over the same timeframe. But the schools also graduated far fewer students, and dropout rates went up at nearly half the schools.

Changing the support structure for schools

On the campaign trail: “Districts matter,” the mayor said. “We need to find a way to get parents to be able to talk to someone at the district level; teachers, parents relating to leadership at the district level again.”

Major shake-up. Fariña dramatically reorganized the city’s school system, re-empowering superintendents, reining in principals’ autonomy and eliminating networks in favor of more centralized borough field support offices. Principals say the result is more scrutiny over their daily decision-making.

PHOTO: NYC Mayor's Office/Flickr
Mayor Bill de Blasio held a press conference to demonstrate business leaders’ support for mayoral control in May 2016.

Leadership

Mayoral control

January 2016: “As you know, I believe fundamentally, as a matter of philosophy, that mayoral control should be made permanent. I don’t believe there is another system that works,” the mayor said.

No luck. De Blasio has sought multi-year extensions of mayoral control three years running, but has been granted only single-year extensions thus far.

Appointing Panel for Educational Policy members

On the campaign trail: De Blasio said the mayor should appoint the majority of members, but that they should serve fixed terms so that they have “freedom to actually speak their mind.”

Didn’t happen. De Blasio did appoint the majority of members, but they were not appointed to fixed terms. They rarely, if ever, vote against the city.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Thousands of parents and students attended a charter school rally hosted in September 2016

Charter schools

Giving charter schools free space in public buildings

On the campaign trail: “There is no way in hell that Eva Moskowitz should get free rent, OK? There are charters that are much, much better endowed in terms of resources than the public sector ever hoped to be. It is insult to injury to give them free rent.”

That didn’t work out. Before de Blasio even had a chance to follow through on his pledge to charge rent to charter schools, the state legislature banned it and, in fact, required de Blasio to pay for the space of any new charter. And when de Blasio tried to kick out three Success Academy schools from public school space, he was sued and quickly found space for them in leased buildings. Charter schools continue to claim the city is sitting on valuable classroom space they could use.

Expanding the city’s charter sector

On the campaign trail: “We don’t need new charters.”

Growing sector. Since the mayor took office, the charter sector has continued to grow and now serves more than 100,000 city children. In an interview with Chalkbeat, Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz predicted that the state would lift its cap and the sector would double within four years.

Harsh words. While the mayor made some conciliatory gestures early on, his more recent rhetoric has been more critical, like when he took a dig at charters last summer for focusing too heavily on test prep and “excluding kids with behavior issues that have to be addressed or who don’t test well.”

Teachers and principals

Evaluating teachers and principals

On the campaign trail: “The new system is a tremendous improvement over the past,” de Blasio said. “I remain concerned about the extent to which scores on state tests will factor into teacher evaluations and believe we need to watch closely how the pilot use of student surveys to rate teachers plays out in our schools.”

Significant rollback. The state’s policymaking body did most of the heavy lifting by placing a moratorium on the use of state 3-8 math and English tests in teacher evaluations. But the union also pushed for more “authentic assessments” in evaluating teachers and, in a 2016 deal, the city continued its shift away from using multiple-choice tests to judge them.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
NYC Men Teach staffer Chimere Stephens moderated a discussion between prospective teachers and retired principals in 2016

Attracting and retaining local teachers

On the campaign trail: “The city needs to encourage New Yorkers to consider teaching as a profession by expanding ‘grow your own’ programs in high schools, teacher residency programs, and partnerships with CUNY and SUNY colleges.” His platform called for the creation of new categories like “lead teachers” and “master teachers” to encourage retention.

Making progress. De Blasio followed through by creating teacher leadership positions, with higher pay and more responsibility, which were negotiated into the city’s 2014 contract with the United Federation of Teachers.

New hires. The administration hired 1,000 teachers each of the two years of the Pre-K for All expansion. Those teachers received professional development sessions, onsite coaching and access to other resources. The mayor also announced NYC Men Teach, an initiative to train or hire 1,000 male teachers of color by 2018. The city says 912 have been put on the path to certification or hired since November 2015, and it expects to reach its goal by fall 2018.

Correction: This story has been corrected to clarify that not all of the 912 male teachers of color in the NYC Men Teach program have been hired.

An education U-turn

Carmen Fariña wants to help New York City teachers get better at teaching. But some of her own reforms are getting in the way.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
The math team at P.S. 294 in the Bronx discuss a recent lesson during the 80 minutes of professional development time carved out by the city's most recent contract with the teachers union.

It was a Monday afternoon and school was out at P.S. 294. But there was plenty of learning happening inside the blue-and-yellow building in the Bronx.

Teams of teachers were gathered in classrooms on almost every floor. One group discussed a recent math lesson on how to identify patterns; another analyzed which questions had stumped students during recent statewide tests. A third was thinking about new ways to encourage discussion in the classroom.

In each huddle, they were learning a valuable lesson from each other: how to become better teachers.

What’s happening at P.S. 294 is what Carmen Fariña envisioned when she became chancellor of the country’s largest school system. Among the veteran educator’s most deeply held beliefs is that school improvement starts in the classroom — by helping teachers get better at teaching.

“To me, everything that happens in the classroom is the most crucial thing in the building,” Fariña told Chalkbeat.

Many of Fariña’s reforms reflect that vision, including the city’s contract with the teachers union, which carves out time for professional development each week. But another set of changes Fariña made — overhauling the education department bureaucracy — has sometimes worked at cross purposes, taking power away from those who know schools best.

Strapped superintendents and staffers sidelined in support centers now oversee much of the training teachers encounter. Fariña herself acknowledges it has sometimes been a struggle to meet the diverse needs of schools under the new system.

One Bronx principal said he sees that struggle firsthand.

“What some people call ‘supporting instruction with professional development,’ other people would call ‘bloated bureaucracy,’” the principal told Chalkbeat. “I have no interest in their professional development, and they don’t know my school.”

***

Like much of what has happened at the education department under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the chancellor’s emphasis on teaching the teachers marks a radical shift from the preceding administration.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein wanted great teachers in every classroom, too. But their position was that it was easier to hire top talent than cultivate it. Instead of pouring resources into teacher improvement, they set about measuring teachers to weed out those who were ineffective.

“Joel didn’t believe in professional development at all,” said Eric Nadelstern, who served as deputy chancellor for school support and instruction under Klein. “His question was, ‘Is it easier to change the teacher — or to change the teacher?’” Klein himself did not agree to be interviewed for this story.

When Fariña took the helm, educators took heart that one of them was in charge again. With 50 years of experience in New York City classrooms, she was the first chancellor in more than a decade who didn’t need a waiver, which the state requires when a school leader does not have the experience set by law for the job.

“When de Blasio named Fariña chancellor, it was a message,” said Norm Fruchter, a researcher at New York University who previously served as a de Blasio appointee to the Panel for Educational Policy. “The pendulum was going to shift back towards valuing instruction.”

In one of her first moves as chancellor, Fariña helped hammer out a contract with the United Federation of Teachers, the union that had clashed for years with Bloomberg and Klein. Among its most significant changes: giving teachers 80 minutes after school every Monday to work on improving their craft. The contract also created new leadership positions that gave extra pay to skilled teachers who agreed to take on coaching roles in their schools.

Taken together, those moves helped create a structure for helping teachers improve within their own schools.

“The thing with the most value in schools is time,” said Phil Weinberg, deputy chancellor of the department’s Division of Teaching and Learning. “The biggest thing that we’ve done is to honor the fact that learning has to happen by creating time.”

Share your thoughts on the quality of New York’s professional development for educators in our short survey.  

***

In the education world, there is much debate around whether professional learning really works. Plenty of research suggests that typical models do not. Educators have their own disparaging vocabulary to describe those models: drop-and-go, spray-and-pray, even drive-by professional development. The idea is that one-off lectures and workshops are rarely effective in changing teacher practice, let alone improving how much students are learning.

However, recent research suggests there are ways to get it right. A review of 35 different studies, released in June by the Learning Policy Institute, found common themes in professional learning programs that actually improve student performance. Those programs provide coaching, are collaborative and typically happen on the job — much like what’s happening at P.S. 294.

P.S. 294 The Walton Avenue School serves students who are traditionally among the city’s lowest-performing — those who are homeless, learning English, or have disabilities. Yet it outperforms the city average on standardized tests.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Daniel Russo (center) working with the math team at P.S. 294

The school has taken on Algebra for All, a de Blasio initiative that helps schools change the way they teach math. P.S. 294 also has teacher leaders paid to share their knowledge with teams of their colleagues. Those teams then work together in the 80 minutes each week reserved for professional development. All of that comes together under a principal, Daniel Russo, who makes sure teachers get the feedback they need to improve their practice.

“We come back every couple of months and say, ‘How are we doing on this? What fell by the wayside and what are ways that we can do better?’” Russo said. “Everyone is going to contribute to, and benefit from, the greater knowledge that there is in the room.”

For all its ambitions, the 80 minutes don’t always work as planned. In about a dozen interviews with teachers and principals, many school staff said they appreciate that the Monday sessions have provided time and space to think about their practice. But others said that time can feel wasted or forced.

“Everyone is very busy at our school, and that’s just another meeting that has to take place to plan more meetings,” a Bronx high school teacher told Chalkbeat. (The teacher, like many educators interviewed for this story, agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity.)

“A lot of times we’re not really sure what we’re going to do on a given day,” the teacher said. ”It’s not very focused throughout the year.”

***

Why, then, are some schools making good use of the new training time and at others, teachers feel like it’s being frittered away?

One factor: changes to the way principals are supervised and how schools get support.

Under Bloomberg and Klein, principals who needed help turned to dozens of “networks” scattered throughout the city. Principals opted into networks based on their schools’ needs, regardless of where the school or network were located in the city. The network providers were expected to solve problems for schools, or principals could vote with their feet and join different networks.

"That’s the system-wide idea of support now: taking people away from kids."David Baiz, former principal of Global Technology Preparatory

As chancellor, Fariña took a different approach. She promptly rebuilt the department’s Division of Teaching and Learning, which had been dissolved after she left the DOE in 2007. Once again, there was an office at the Department of Education’s central headquarters dedicated to actively helping schools decide what and how to teach.

She also empowered superintendents, calling them the “instructional leaders” of their districts, and upped the years of experience required to land the job. They evaluate principals but are also responsible for making sure schools get the support they need.

In the place of networks, Fariña opened “field support centers,” which serve hundreds of schools but don’t hold supervisory power. Unlike networks, most centers only work with schools located in the same borough. Superintendents and support centers are expected to work together to help schools improve teaching.

Crucially, that doesn’t always happen. The result can work against the 80 minutes, by distancing decision-making about professional development from schools — and complicating it, too.

Our principal is “held with her hands behind her back,” said Corey Taylor, a music teacher at P.S. 33 in the Bronx. “She has to do what she’s being told by her higher-ups.”

Now, principals are expected to ask their superintendents for help, who then turn to field support centers. Some principals and support centers do work directly together, though Weinberg said that’s not the preferred system.

“The ideal thing is that you’re in constant conversation with your superintendent,” he said. “It would be hard for each borough field support center to hear 145 different requests every day, from each of their schools.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Teachers at a training for Computer Science for All, a citywide initiative

Relationships between superintendents and support centers don’t always run smoothly, and both are tasked with overseeing many schools. Superintendents have staffs of around six people, yet may be responsible for dozens of schools. Support centers work with up to 323 schools, with an average caseload just below 200.

With superintendents acting as a filter between schools and support centers, many principals report a divide between what they’re offered and what they want to learn.

“There’s a disconnect between the reality of what’s going on in classrooms, and the offerings,” one Manhattan principal told Chalkbeat. “It usually comes down to: Teachers need to learn, very specifically, techniques, tips, philosophies that affect their own practice.”

When they work well, support centers might send staff to a school to provide targeted help requested by its principal. But, faced with heavy caseloads, the centers often respond to schools’ needs by creating borough-wide professional development sessions that can vary in quality. In the city’s most recent survey of principals, only 73 percent said they were satisfied with the support they get from the centers.

One Manhattan teacher said she went to sessions offered by the support center last year and was disappointed with what she found. The presenters led a lesson on “guided reading,” a technique that includes introducing vocabulary and breaking students into groups, but they seemed fuzzy on how to execute the practice in the classroom.

“Teachers were actually correcting them,” the teacher said. “They’re removed and they forget what it’s like to be a teacher.”

***

Despite Fariña’s emphasis on classroom-based learning, many of the support centers’ professional development sessions are happening outside schools, while class is in session. At three separate support centers, almost all the trainings for teachers offered during the month of May were held during school hours.

"We’ve set aside the time. We’ve set up the space. Can we just manage it?"Michael Mulgrew, president of the teachers union

That wouldn’t have happened under Bloomberg, according to Nadelstern, the former Klein deputy. He said his policy was that teachers and principals should not be pulled away from schools while students are in the building.

“That’s the system-wide idea of support now: taking people away from kids,” said David Baiz, the former principal of Global Technology Preparatory in East Harlem. “That’s not really the best way that adults learn: to sit in a meeting away from the context of their work environment and then try to come back and incorporate it.”

In addition to out-of-office professional development, superintendents host monthly meetings, pulling principals out of their schools for the entire day. In some cases, they include meals paid for by vendors who present professional development sessions based on educational products they’re selling.

“There’s just this feeling among almost every principal that I know,” a Bronx principal told Chalkbeat. “Like meeting after meeting after meeting and requirement after requirement are being added, and really drowning out the time needed for real collaboration.”

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Fariña admitted that professional development run by outside vendors is “not that effective.” She also acknowledged there have been growing pains as the superintendents and field support centers try to meet the needs of all the schools they serve.

“It’s been more of a struggle in some places where there was a more diverse need,” she said.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools chancellor Carmen Fariña looks over a card from students in her office.

To address that, Fariña said the centers have been working on “modules” based on different areas of need. A module may highlight effective strategies for teaching students who are learning English, for instance, and come with a series of professional development courses that can be run over a period of multiple weeks.

“Each principal can adapt it as they see fit,” Fariña said.

***

Weinberg said it is easy, in a system as large as New York City, to point to “random” weak points.

“What our real goal is, is continuous improvement,” he said. “I think that we make mistakes, oftentimes, by looking at one anecdotal example as a way of disproving a larger movement.”

Michael Mulgrew, president of the teachers union, said the department needs to pay closer attention to how schools are using the resources that are now available. While the the 80 minutes of professional development time is a game-changer, he said, it can also vary in usefulness depending on school culture, principal leadership and how well superintendents and the field support centers can provide help.

“We’ve set aside the time. We’ve set up the space. Can we just manage it?” Mulgrew said. “The fact that the chancellor made this a priority when she came in is the reason why you see the school system moving forward. My fear is, have we reached a plateau?”

It may be tricky, however, to balance the kind of oversight that Mulgrew envisions with the personalization that teachers and principals say is necessary for effective professional development. But the city is evaluating its own work to make sure it’s hitting the mark for teachers and schools.

“Teaching is really fascinating and difficult work,” Weinberg said. “We need to approach this hard job with the humility that says we have the ability to learn more — and we want to learn more.”

Chalkbeat reporters Monica Disare and Alex Zimmerman contributed to this report.

An education U-turn

Shut out but scraping by: Inside the struggling schools excluded from New York City’s biggest improvement efforts

Principal Taeko Onishi greets a student outside Lyons Community School. (Photo by Alex Zimmerman/Chalkbeat)

On a bright Tuesday morning, Principal Taeko Onishi propped open the heavy bronze doors at Lyons Community School, waving her students in with hugs and high-fives.

From this perch, Lyons looks like a thriving school. But on paper, it looks like one in trouble. Few of its middle school students are proficient in reading or math, as measured by state tests. At the high school, more than half of students were absent at least 10 percent of the school year. And when students graduate, 90 percent are not prepared for college.

“In many ways, we look like a deeply failing school,” says Onishi. But talk to her about the story behind those statistics, and it’s clear her school is serving some of the city’s highest-need students: those who are far behind their peers academically when they arrive, and are struggling with the effects of poverty.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has staked a huge portion of his education agenda on improving schools like Onishi’s. His administration has chosen roughly 215 schools to receive extra support through two overlapping programs that operate on a similar premise: Students can’t learn effectively if their out-of-school needs — from having clean clothes to basic medical services — aren’t being met.

Those two programs — Community Schools and School Renewal — both offer a massive infusion of resources for wraparound supports. But the city’s 86 current Renewal schools were chosen specifically because they had been among the city’s least successful schools for years. They receive extra academic help, stricter oversight, and are expected to show gains or face the possibility of closure. The city has spent $386 million on Renewal schools alone since the program was announced in 2014.

But Onishi’s school didn’t make the cut for either program. Instead, it is one of at least dozens of schools whose populations closely resemble the schools in the city’s programs in terms of need, but which have received starkly different treatment.

Getting into the programs is hardly a panacea. A Chalkbeat analysis found that schools outside these programs did not appear to fare worse academically, and their principals say they’re happy to escape the stigma of being labeled low-performing that often comes with the Renewal program, even as they envied the resources associated with it. The label can make it difficult to attract students, principals said, sending schools on a downward spiral that can end in closure.

Without Renewal or community school status, though, principals like Onishi are left to cobble together a range of social services largely on their own, with varying degrees of success. It’s an experience that highlights a downside of de Blasio’s resource-intensive approach: Some high-need schools are now better equipped to handle the challenges of poverty than others. “Our philosophy is [similar to] a community school,” Onishi added. “We just don’t have the money to do it.”

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In announcing the Renewal program in 2014, de Blasio promised “fast and intense” improvements in nearly 100 struggling schools — identified based on their persistently low graduation rates, test scores, and the quality of their teaching and leadership. The plan? Rather than penalize them, he would flood them with the resources he said they desperately needed, closing them only as a “last resort.”

“If we do not see improvement after three years — and after all of these reforms and new resources — we will close any schools that don’t measure up,” de Blasio said at the time.

That was a major departure from the approach of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, who thought that only steep, immediate consequences could spur schools to change. Under his leadership, the city closed 157 schools it said weren’t working. Independent research later found that students benefited, but teachers and students were often demoralized — and the closures drew lawsuits from the city teachers union.

“It was really every school out for itself,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College. Autonomy in exchange for accountability, the theory went, was “the invisible hand that would result in positive performance.”

While de Blasio’s approach is less punitive — he’s only closed 10 schools thus far — it has been criticized for not producing changes quickly enough. Meanwhile, dozens of other schools have struggled with the same challenges as Renewal and community schools, without the same coordinated support.

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
The Richard R. Green campus in the Bronx

Take the North Bronx School of Empowerment. It’s one of three middle schools on the Richard R. Green campus in the Bronx. All serve an outsized share of students in poverty, who arrive on the first day of school far behind grade level, and struggle with high rates of chronic absenteeism and low state test scores.

But unlike the other two schools in the building, the School of Empowerment wasn’t chosen for the city’s Renewal program. And while the principals sometimes share teachers and after-school programs, there is a noticeable difference between the Renewal school and its non-Renewal neighbors.

The biggest one for that school’s principal, Magdalen Neyra: having enough counselors on hand so that each child has an adult in the building who knows their background. When a student doesn’t show up, there’s someone who can call home and coax them back to school — or intervene when the student is acting out.

“When [Leaders of Tomorrow] has that student in crisis, they have someone who’s a go-to,” Neyra said, referring to one of the Renewal schools in her building. “Even though they try to include us as much as possible, we haven’t been able to have that level of support.”

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It’s not that Neyra and other principals like her are out in the cold. They’re benefitting from other education department initiatives, many of them new under de Blasio.

The city regularly sends a literacy coach to help revamp her school’s approach to reading instruction, which she credits with boosting state reading scores by 10 percent (though at 16 percent proficiency, the school is still far below the city and district averages). And, for the first time, Neyra’s seventh-graders were able to visit colleges outside of New York, through the city’s College Access for All program.

Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, principal of Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters (which is not a Renewal or community school) said the city’s college access program has been a boon for his school as well. He’s used the extra funding to run SAT prep sessions, and hosts parent breakfasts at every grade level to walk families through various stages of the application process.

His school is also part of Single Shepherd, which has placed over 100 additional counselors and social workers in two of the city’s neediest school districts: District 7 in the South Bronx and District 23 in Brooklyn.

“I took it and did cartwheels,” Cardet-Hernandez said. The extra counselors have meant the school isn’t just responding to the most severe crises: a death in a student’s family, or a move into temporary housing. “We’re now talking about a student failing a class as a crisis.”

Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack identifies these city programs, which are part of a constellation of initiatives known as “Equity and Excellence,” as the primary mechanism for improving schools that aren’t being flooded with new resources.

But critics say the school-by-school approach relies on programs that don’t touch every campus and, in some cases, won’t be fully phased in until well after de Blasio leaves office.

One initiative, for instance, aims to outfit every school in the system with computer science classes by 2025 — an example, one school leader said, of an initiative that doesn’t address core educational needs. “We barely have functioning internet,” the principal said. “There’s stuff like that that just doesn’t connect in a real way.”

Wallack pushed back on the idea that the initiatives are too fragmented and don’t represent as aggressive a strategy as the previous administration’s.

“It absolutely is a systems change with every bit of urgency,” he said. “Equity and Excellence for All is a chain of initiatives that will be there for children and families from birth through their entry into college,” he explained. “They all work together and we have a system for helping leaders turn them into a coherent strategy for each school.”

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Even if they are helping, they aren’t always enough.

James Waslawski, principal of New Directions Secondary School in the Bronx, has used a state grant to bring in an organization that provides extra counselors for his middle school students, who are mostly over-age and off-track — a funding stream that will diminish next school year.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Principal James Waslawski designed New Directions Secondary School for middle school students who are over-age and off-track.

“We’re going to be scrounging this coming year to maintain the partnership,” Waslawski said, adding that he would likely scale back on bringing in outside coaches to help support his teachers.

School leaders like Waslawski may take it upon themselves to recruit social service providers. But even once those providers are in the building, schools are getting very different levels of support from the city to help manage the partnerships.

Principals in the city’s community school program (including Renewal schools) are given “community school directors” — extra leaders hired at each school who often take on key responsibilities for managing the school’s social services, identifying exactly what students need and lining up support. But schools outside the program — even those with social service partnerships — don’t automatically receive the extra staff member.

“I think there’s almost a requirement now that you’re identifying [community] partners,” said one Bronx principal who spoke on condition of anonymity. “You have principals who are focusing less time on instruction because they’re trying to manage and develop partnerships.”

That means they’re stacking one tall order on top of another, said Megan Hester, an organizer at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform who works closely with several community schools.

“Principals are instructional leaders and managers; they can’t all be expected to also have expertise in mental health, social-emotional development, community engagement, trauma, conflict resolution,” Hester said. “It’s already more than a full plate for principals of struggling schools to manage high-quality instruction for a diverse student population.”

Onishi, the principal at Lyons Community School (which is not, despite its name, in the city’s community schools program) knows that struggle firsthand. She said she works hard to offer her students active learning experiences, including regular visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that culminate in students giving their own parents a guided tour. But her staff often double as case managers, helping a student who got into a fight off-campus and faced assault charges, for instance, or one who didn’t have access to mental health medication after her mother lost health insurance.

Onishi says there are many other times when staff members don’t have the time to make the trip to court or to repeatedly follow up with a family after a student’s attendance slips.

“A lot of it just comes in from our staff who are willing to put in hundreds of extra hours,” Onishi said, noting the school’s counseling staff has grown, but is still not adequate. Three years ago, Onishi applied to be part of the city’s community schools program, which was recently expanded to 69 new schools, but her school was rejected.

“There will be other opportunities to begin to lay the groundwork to become a community school,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña wrote in a letter explaining the rejection. We “encourage you to keep your eyes and ears open for other opportunities as they arise.” But exactly how to break into the community schools program is unclear, said Onishi and other principals interviewed for this story.

When the city announced the latest round of community schools, Onishi says she was surprised by the news — no one had told her the program was expanding.

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Meanwhile, few principals are clamoring to be part of Renewal, the city’s turnaround program that offers similar resources for low-performing schools. “I don’t think anyone wants that label on their school,” Neyra said.

Waslawski echoed that concern. “The things that they’re doing to encourage those Renewal school staffs to move in the right direction — that’s the right thing. But it’s all couched in the idea of failure.”

Being marked as a failing school can also hurt enrollment, some said, something many struggling schools already contend with.

“I wouldn’t want some sort of fancy name like a ‘support school,’ and you have to send out a mass mailing that your school is struggling — not in this climate with charter schools and school choice,” one principal said.

That’s a very real threat, say some people who work in Renewal schools. One Renewal school administrator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the program has brought much-needed counselors, social workers, and instructional coaches into the building — but has also made it harder to attract students.

“I suspect there is a lot of talk around the district,” the administrator said, referring to guidance counselors at feeder schools who might not recommend attending. Enrollment “is now going down low enough that it’s a major issue.”

Since funding is tied to enrollment, there can be significant consequences when parents vote with their feet. (Renewal schools have struggled to persuade parents to enroll; and to date 16 of the original 94 schools have been merged or closed.)

Other principals said they would rather retain their autonomy than receive an infusion of resources in exchange for the designation as a turnaround school, and face constant scrutiny or micromanagement.

“The message we have absorbed as principals, the message we’re getting, is you will lose the privilege to call the shots at your school that you see fit,” said one Brooklyn principal.

Some principals outside the program, however, said there were elements of Renewal they are envious of, including the chance to exchange strategies with other school leaders. “I’m not talking about visiting a school that is already high-achieving — I’m talking about a school that is just like mine,” said a different Brooklyn principal. “I don’t have that much opportunity to do that.”

And not all Renewal principals said the program has damaged their schools’ reputation. Some say it has led to improvements that could ultimately attract more families. Leaders of Tomorrow, a long-struggling Renewal middle school in the same building as Neyra’s North Bronx School of Empowerment, now has more than a dozen new mentors for students, a health clinic, and new professional development opportunities for teachers.

“We have hard data that we’ve looked at and the kids who are being mentored — their attendance has improved, their grade point averages have improved, their suspensions have dropped,” said Sean Licata, the school’s principal.

“We did not take the [Renewal] moniker as a bad thing,” he added. “It’s not the first thing we say … but with the services and the support, it’s an advantage.”

Neyra’s school could get the best of both worlds. Starting next year, Young Scholars Academy, one of the Renewal schools in the building, will be merged into her school. The move will come with some extra support but not the Renewal designation.

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Extra services may help schools address the effects of poverty, but they don’t automatically produce academic payoffs. Pallas, the professor at Teachers College, found that the Renewal program did not yet appear to generate higher test scores or graduation rates compared with schools that have similar student demographics and were comparably low-performing when the program started.

“Based on the best evidence I see, the program is not having a meaningful impact on academic outcomes,” he said.

That doesn’t mean the program isn’t working at all, he added, noting that the social services may have value of their own, even if they don’t directly lead to academic improvements. Officials often point to other measures of success, including improvements in attendance and school climate, that could come before academic gains.

Just ask Onishi. She says adequate social services are a prerequisite for learning and without them, principals like her are swimming upstream.

“The biggest thing we need is support for families and kids for all these things that extend beyond the daily work of the school,” Onishi said. “We’re all kind of maxed out.”