Future of Schools

Want to understand Betty Rosa’s vision? Check out the Bronx ‘community school’ she visited.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. cut the ribbon for a new playground at P.S. 55/Success Academy Bronx 2.

On the first day of school Thursday, Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa stood next to a giant pair of scissors in front of a jungle gym at P.S. 55 in the Bronx, preparing to announce the opening of a new million-dollar playground.

She chose to visit that school largely because of the playground and what it represents.

The playground, which will be shared by P.S. 55 and the charter school in its building, is the latest in a series of resources — among them a health clinic, garden, and child-care center — that Principal Luis Torres has cobbled together to improve the lives of his students and their families.

“It’s not just about literacy and math. It’s about saving lives,” said Torres, who Rosa has mentored for many years. He added, “My philosophy started from Dr. Rosa’s vision.”

In many ways, P.S. 55 embodies Rosa’s philosophy that students’ social and emotional needs must be met before they can learn, and that a school’s academic performance is essential but should not be the only measure of its success. During Rosa’s tenure, the state has put more emphasis on schools like P.S. 55 that provide students with an array of social services — often called “community schools” — and has sought new ways to evaluate schools in addition to their test scores.

Yet it remains an open question whether the community-school model necessarily improves academic performance — especially in schools with especially needy populations and longstanding academic challenges, like P.S. 55. The vast majority of its students live in poverty, and nearly one-fifth have disabilities. While its scores ticked up this year, only 15 percent of students passed the state English exams and 19 percent passed math — rates far below the citywide averages, but on par with the high-poverty Bronx district where it’s located.

On Thursday, Rosa said the community-school approach — which often involves adding health clinics and counseling services at schools, along with art and nutrition programs — is crucial for boosting test scores at a school like P.S. 55. But, echoing her mentee, she said that can’t be the sole or even primary motivation for attending to students’ mental, physical, and emotional needs.

“The intent is not to push the needle on test scores,” Rosa said. “I think that when children are healthy, mentally ready, have had good entry points, have had a community that supports them, that prepares students to be ready.”

Some studies of community schools’ impact on student achievement have found mixed results. A recent study showed that mental, physical and academic interventions improved students’ attendance and graduation rates but did not raise their test scores, though other research has found that support services did lead to higher scores.

Torres attributed his test score gains over the past year to the network of supports and community partners he has cultivated in the school. But he also said he sees his job as far more expansive than simply improving his students’ math and reading scores.

“It matters to me but it’s not my sole purpose,” said Torres, who is so devoted to the community-school model that he has taken to referring to his school as C.S. 55, instead of P.S.

The chancellor’s assent to the top of the Board of Regents came after a series of dramatic shifts in education policy, including the adoption of tougher learning standards, test-based teacher evaluations, and more rigorous graduation requirements. Endorsed by groups that opposed those policies and boycotted the state tests, Rosa represented an abrupt end to that era of controversial changes.

By the time Rosa took control of the board, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had moved away from those harsher policies and made the creation of more community schools a top priority.

The Board of Regents has also started to pay more attention to schools’ resources. As part of the plan it is required to create under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act law, it is designing a tool that could display schools’ funding levels, teacher qualifications, and the diversity of their student bodies, in addition to academic measures like test scores.

On Thursday, Rosa also visited the charter school that shares a building with P.S. 55, Success Academy Bronx 2, where she toured a classroom and complimented students’ orange and blue uniforms. The charter network is known for emphasizing test scores and, though Success Academy Bronx 2 has significantly fewer economically disadvantaged students than P.S. 55, it also has far higher test scores.

The visit was meant, in part, to show solidarity between district and charter schools. The two schools have been spotlighted before for forging a close and mutually beneficial relationship.

But Rosa’s visit to Success comes at a politically awkward moment.

Last month, she forcefully condemned racially charged comments made by Success Academy’s board chair, hedge-fund manager Dan Loeb. She also recently railed against a new proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers — a change supported by Success.

Soon after the visit on Thursday, the state released a joint letter by Rosa and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia decrying the teacher certification proposal.

“Simply put, such action is an affront to a critical tenet in education: rigorous and high-quality teacher preparation programs foster high-quality teachers who increase the likelihood of students achieving proficiency on state standards,” the letter said.

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.