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.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.