unlikely friends

Conservative think tank finds ‘meaningful’ academic progress at New York City’s Renewal schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s big bet on pumping millions of dollars into low-performing schools instead of closing them down is creating “meaningful” academic benefits.

That’s according to a forthcoming report from an unlikely source: the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute, a frequent critic of the mayor’s education policies. The report is the first independent analysis to show that the Renewal program is producing academic benefits, as measured by math and reading scores on state tests.

School Renewal — a program that infused 94 of the city’s lowest-performing schools with additional social services, nonprofit partnerships and academic support — tended to produce larger academic gains than the rest of the city’s schools, including those that had similarly low test scores before the program began.

In all, the report estimates, Renewal boosted student achievement by a “meaningful magnitude” — the equivalent of about 49 days of extra instruction in reading and 33 days in math, as measured by gains in state test scores. (The report focuses only on elementary and middle schools. It does not look at academic progress in Renewal high schools, which comprise a little more than a third of the program.)

“The evidence I find is that that the schools are better than they would have been without the label,” said Marcus Winters, the study’s author.

That finding is good news for an administration that has struggled to point to rigorous statistical evidence that its plan for low-performing schools is creating clear progress. It also comes at a key moment, as the program is nearing the end of the third year of what de Blasio initially described as a three-year program (though it is slated to continue next year).

Still, the Manhattan Institute’s relatively positive findings are complicated by a recent analysis conducted by Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas. Using a different statistical model and an additional year of data, Pallas found that Renewal schools generally did not make bigger gains in reading or math when paired with other struggling schools that didn’t receive extra support.

“There’s some hint of progress in raising test scores that wasn’t present in my analysis,” Pallas said, noting the Manhattan Institute analysis focused on one year of data. “It’s not, I think, a strong case.”

In its response to the report, the city seemed reluctant to seize on its specific findings as evidence of the program’s success, pointing instead to general increases in achievement at Renewal schools. “Renewal Schools are making real progress,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman said in a statement. “Across the program, graduation rates are up, chronic absenteeism is down, state test scores are improving, and teachers are developing stronger instructional practices.”

To assess the program, Winters used a model that measured yearly changes in test scores in 2015 and 2016 at Renewal schools compared with those outside the program. The Renewal program had the strongest effect in 2016, the year after it was fully implemented, boosting math and reading scores by a statistically significant margin overall (though the positive benefits were not consistent across all grade levels).

The positive effect becomes less pronounced when Renewal schools are compared to others that also had low scores, or when the timeline is extended to include 2015 data from when the program was still rolling out.

Jonah Rockoff, an education researcher at Columbia University who reviewed the Manhattan Institute report and Pallas’s data, cautioned against claiming the new report offers definitive evidence of the Renewal program’s effect on test scores.

“The [Manhattan Institute] report is more upbeat on Renewal schools raising test scores,” he said. “My sense is that any positive effects are quite small.”

Winters also claims that the Renewal program — which has cost roughly $386 million so far — is both more costly and less effective than former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s approach of giving schools letter grades and closing ineffective ones.

Under Bloomberg’s letter grade system, for instance, schools that received an ‘F’ improved the following year by the equivalent of 36 days of learning in reading and 72 days in math, the report says, more than schools improved under Renewal. But the study does not include a rigorous cost-benefit analysis of Bloomberg’s versus de Blasio’s efforts to improve struggling schools — and city officials said the report’s comparisons are unfair.

“The A-F grading system does not take into account the systemic challenges that many Renewal schools faced when they entered the program,” Aciman said. “The study overestimates the impact that a single letter grade can have on improving a school, and underestimates the impact of the research-based supports that are being implemented at Renewal schools to improve classroom instruction, school climate and student performance.”

Correction: Due to errors in the original Manhattan Institute report, this story has been corrected to reflect the accurate number of extra days of instruction created by the Renewal program and Bloomberg’s accountability system.

'indigenized' curriculum

Denver doesn’t graduate half of its Native American students. This charter school wants to change that.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Tanski Chrisjohn gets help adjusting the microphone at a school board meeting from Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The Denver school district is not serving Native American students well. Fewer than one in four Native American sixth-graders were reading and writing on grade-level last year, according to state tests, and the high school graduation rate was just 48 percent.

Even though that percentage is lower than for black or Latino students, educator Terri Bissonette said it often feels as if no one is paying attention.

“Nobody says anything out loud,” said Bissonette, a member of the Gnoozhekaaning Anishinaabe tribe who graduated from Denver Public Schools and has worked in education for 20 years as a teacher and consultant. “We’re always listed as ‘others.’”

Bissonette aims to change that by opening a charter school called the American Indian Academy of Denver. The plan is to start in fall 2019 with 120 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and then expand into high school one grade at a time. Any interested student will be able to enroll, no matter their racial or ethnic background.

The Denver school board unanimously and enthusiastically approved the charter last week – which is notable given enrollment growth is slowing districtwide and some board members have expressed concerns about approving too many new schools.

But the American Indian Academy of Denver would be unlike any other school in the city. The curriculum would focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math – or STEAM, as it’s known – and lessons would be taught through an indigenous lens.

Bissonette gives a poignant example. In sixth grade, state academic standards dictate students learn how European explorers came to North America.

“When you’re learning that unit, you’re on the boat,” Bissonette said. “I’d take that unit and I’d flip it. You’d be on the beach, and those boats would be coming.”

Antonio Garcia loves that example. The 17-year-old cites it when talking about why the school would be transformational for Native American youth, a population that has historically been forced – sometimes violently – to assimilate into white culture. For decades, Native American children were sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and their languages forbidden.

Garcia is a member of the Jicarilla Apache, Diné, Mexikah, and Maya tribes. A senior at Denver’s East High School, he recalls elementary school classmates asking if he lived in a teepee and teachers singling him out to share the indigenous perspective on that day’s lesson.

“Indigenous students don’t have a place in Denver Public Schools,” Garcia said. “We’re underrepresented. And when we are represented, it’s through tokenism.”

According to the official student count, 592 of Denver’s nearly 93,000 students this year are Native American. That’s less than 1 percent, although Bissonette suspects the number is actually higher because some families don’t tick the box for fear of being stigmatized or because they identify as both Native American and another race.

The district does provide extra support for Native American students. Four full-time and three part-time staff members coordinate mentorships, cultural events, college campus visits, and other services, according to district officials. In addition, five Denver schools are designated as Native American “focus schools.” The focus schools are meant to centralize the enrollment of Native American students, in part so they feel less isolated, officials said.

But it isn’t working that way. While the number of students at some of the schools is slightly higher than average, there isn’t a large concentration at any one of them. Supporters of the American Indian Academy of Denver hope the charter will serve that role.

“It’s very hard being the only Native person that my friends know,” second-grader Vivian Sheely told the school board last week. “It would be nice to see other families that look like my own.”

That sense of belonging is what Shannon Subryan wants for her children, too. Subryan and her daughters are members of the Navajo and Lakota tribes. Her 7-year-old, Cheyenne, has struggled to find a school that works for her. Because Cheyenne is quiet in class, Subryan said teachers have repeatedly suggested she be tested for learning disabilities.

“Our children are taught that listening before speaking is more valued than speaking right away,” Subryan said. “She understands everything. It’s just a cultural thing.”

After switching schools three times, Cheyenne ended up at a Denver elementary with a teacher who shares her Native American and Latina heritage. She’s thrived there, but Subryan worries what will happen when Cheyenne gets a new teacher next year. As soon as Cheyenne is old enough, Subryan plans to enroll her at the American Indian Academy of Denver.

In addition to the school’s “indigenized” curriculum, Bissonette envisions inviting elders into the classrooms to share stories and act as academic tutors, exposing students to traditional sports and games, and teaching them Native American languages. Above all, she said the school will work to hire high-quality teachers, whether they’re Native American or not.

The school is partly modeled on a successful charter school in New Mexico called the Native American Community Academy. Opened in 2006, it has a dual focus on academic rigor and student wellness. Last year, 71 percent of its graduates immediately enrolled in college, school officials said. In Denver, only 38 percent of Native American graduates immediately enrolled.

Several years ago, the New Mexico school launched a fellowship program for educators who want to open their own schools focused on better serving Native American students. Bissonette will be the first Colorado educator to be a fellow when she starts this year.

She and her founding board of directors are hoping to open the American Indian Academy of Denver in a private facility somewhere in southwest Denver. That region is home to the Denver Indian Center and has historically had a larger population of Native American families.

However, she said she and her board members realize the Native American population isn’t big enough to support a school alone. More than half of all Denver students are Latino, and they expect the school’s demographics to reflect that. Many Latino students also identify as indigenous, and Bissonette is confident they’ll be attracted to the model.

“This really is a school from us, about us,” she said.

COUNTING TNREADY

School boards across Tennessee scrap TNReady scores from students’ grades

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

As the school year comes to a close following the standardized testing debacle that concluded in Tennessee this month, many school districts have decided the scores won’t count toward students’ final grades.

Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district, will take up the issue Tuesday when the school board meets in a work session.

Earlier this year, the district was one of about half of the state’s school systems that reported to the state it likely would not use the scores because the results were not expected to be received at least five school days before the end of the year. But that early tally was unofficial.

“The survey was just to let us know what they were planning for so we could have a sense of what districts were planning on doing, but it was not binding in any way,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

Now, one by one, a growing number of districts are opting not to count the scores against students whenever the results are released.

This year’s online testing was plagued with a series of testing snafus, including login troubles, an apparent cyberattack, a dump truck cutting a fiber optic line and the wrong test being issued to some students. It’s the third year in a row that TNReady testing has gone wrong.

Bartlett City Schools decided during a special school board session last week not to use the scores on high school report cards after previously saying it would. So did the Franklin Special School District. The week before, Williamson County, Blount County, and Collierville school board members voted the same.

Millington Municipal Schools also will not be using the scores in that district’s final grades. But the district decided in December not to include the scores, said Stacy Ross, a spokesperson for the district.

“The decision was made because the scores from testing would not be back in time for final report cards,” Ross said in a statement to Chalkbeat.

It’s unclear of the 71 school districts that had initially said they planned to count the scores, how many have changed their minds.

Greene County is one of a few districts that has decided to count the scores as 15 percent of students’ final grades.

Before this year’s testing challenges, state law had required that the high school end-of-course exams count for 15 percent of a high school student’s final grade unless the scores came in too late for report cards.

But after the testing snafus, legislators left it in the hands of school boards to decide how much to count TNReady scores — if at all — toward students’ grades.

High school raw scores are expected to be delivered electronically to districts by May 22 and grades 3-8 scores are expected to be available by June 15, according to the state.