revolving door

Three years in, more than half of principals in New York City’s turnaround program have quit or been replaced

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Boys and Girls High School has seen two principals depart since the Renewal program started.

Nearly 60 percent of schools in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature school-improvement program have undergone leadership changes since the program started, according to city data, significantly higher than the 35 percent citywide turnover rate over the same period.

Some of that turnover is intentional: Because de Blasio has opted to revive struggling schools rather than replace them with new ones, a key improvement strategy is to change their leadership. It’s also crucial to have strong leaders running schools in the $383 million “Renewal” program since the job requires coordinating the longer school days, new classroom materials and partnerships with social-service providers that come with it.

But leadership churn can also cause problems. Research suggests it can be especially harmful to low-performing schools, contributing to higher rates of teacher turnover and lower student achievement.

At the same time, the pressure of turning around a low-achieving school on a tight timeline has prompted some principals to leave the system on their own accord, leaving vacancies that can be hard to fill.

“If you think that the leader of a school is not effective then you have to replace them,” said Jason Grissom, a researcher at Vanderbilt University who has studied principal turnover in multiple states. “But then you’ve created a turnover event which can have downsides in the short term. It’s tough for a district.”

Of the 78 current Renewal schools, 45 have seen at least one leadership change — including ten with new principals this fall.

Aimee Horowitz, the superintendent in charge of the Renewal program, said she is not concerned about the rate of leadership turnover, adding that local superintendents weigh their options carefully when replacing principals.

“That’s always a balancing test,” Horowitz said. “We have to think about whether the new principal is more likely to impact change than the principal who is leaving.”

City officials would not say how many Renewal principals were replaced because their superintendents determined they were ineffective compared with the number who retired or quit for other reasons. But regardless of why principals ultimately leave, the education department must convince new leaders to take their place, running schools that are under intense pressure to improve.

At times, the city has resorted to unorthodox staffing arrangements to fill principal vacancies in Renewal schools with leaders they believe will be successful. In one unusual example, the education department coaxed a principal to run Boys and Girls High School, a Renewal school, without giving up his post running a separate higher-performing school — an arrangement that later fell apart.

But as the Renewal program has become more established, Horowitz said, it has been easier to find principals to take on the demanding role partly because word has spread that those schools get extra funding, social services, and support staff.

Several new Renewal principals previously were Renewal program staffers, though Horowitz declined to offer a number.

“We’re past the point of having to convince people to take the position at Renewal schools,” she said. “They’re aware that they’ll be supported.”

Principal Geralda Valcin said she was excited to begin leading a Renewal school, despite the tough task of steering the school back on track. About a year and a half ago, she took over the Coalition School for Social Change in Harlem — which had one of the highest dropout rates in the city — after completing the city’s now-shuttered Leadership Academy training program.

One of the biggest challenges, she said, was raising expectations of teachers and convincing veteran educators who had “been doing the same thing the same way” to adopt new teaching methods.

“I felt like I was stepping into a situation where my predecessor and I had different views,” she said. “You have to take what’s working and figure out the rest.”

Finding effective principals to run the city’s lowest-performing schools has been a persistent challenge.

Under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the education department closed many lower-performing schools, and tried to entice talented leaders — sometimes with offers of salary bumps — to open new small schools where they could start from scratch and hire new teachers.

To create a pipeline of principals, that administration also launched the Leadership Academy, a fast-track training program to funnel leaders from various fields into high-need schools with the promise that they would have lots of freedom in choosing how to run their schools.

Still, the Leadership Academy only ever met a fraction of demand, and officials later stepped back from the practice of offering bonuses, finding that it did not seem to draw more effective leaders.

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city has ratcheted up the amount of experience required to become a principal, and has eschewed the school closures and new school openings that gave principals a chance to start fresh. Instead, the city has bet on giving existing schools more resources and principals more specific instructions on how to revamp floundering schools.

Marc Sternberg, a former deputy chancellor in the Bloomberg administration who previously ran a struggling school in the Bronx, said it is hard to improve troubled schools if their leaders leave quickly or have limited autonomy.

“We are asking some very courageous people to do an impossible job,” said Sternberg, the director of K-12 education for the Walton Family Foundation. (Walton is one of Chalkbeat’s funders.)

“Throw in principal turnover — where the vision-keeper is rotating,” he added, “and you’ve got the inevitable confusion and slippage that that generates.”

Still, some teachers in Renewal schools said principal transitions have brought positive changes.

At J.H.S. 8 in Queens, also called New Preparatory Middle School, one veteran educator said the school’s former principal was disorganized, sometimes sprang new programs on teachers at the last minute, and at one point used a rotating cast of long-term substitutes instead of hiring new teachers. (The former principal did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

But after assistant principal Katiana Louissaint took the helm this fall, morale started improving, said the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous. After a recent round of parent-teacher conferences, teachers stuck around to chat with each other, a rarity under the former principal.

“At the end of the night,” the educator said, “the teachers weren’t running for the door.”

game plan

After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

The campaign to introduce school vouchers to Tennessee has come up short for so many years that supporters are looking closely at another voucher-like approach to give families more control over public funding for their children’s education.

Education savings accounts have gained traction in some other states and are viewed as an attractive alternative for Tennessee in the debate about parental choice.

And with the inauguration soon of a new governor who promised to give parents more education options for their kids, this approach would fit the bill — and even offer a longer menu of services than traditional vouchers would.

“I would like to help lead the charge,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and fierce voucher proponent, who this week was elected speaker pro tempore of Tennessee’s House of Representatives.

“Education freedom, if it’s done correctly, gives students opportunities to do better, and public schools rise to the occasion through competition. Everybody wins,” Dunn added.

Not so fast, say public school officials who view any kind of voucher program as a major step toward privatizing education.

“Outside interests pushing ‘school choice’ options have learned that when ideas like vouchers become toxic to the public, they can be repackaged as education savings accounts, which might be more palatable to lawmakers,” said Amy Frogge, a Nashville school board member who opposes vouchers.

Both approaches raise the same concerns, said Frogge, citing a drain of funding from public schools, increased student segregation, and a lack of accountability for students whose families choose that route.

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

A voucher is taxpayer money that’s restricted to paying for private school tuition and fees for eligible students.

For years, Tennessee lawmakers have tried to start a voucher program and came close in 2016 with legislation sponsored by Dunn. But an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans have foiled every attempt.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn (center) looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

Dunn, who has since risen to the House’s No. 2 leadership position, thinks education savings accounts would be more appealing to rural legislators who see little local benefit in opening the door to vouchers in Tennessee.

“A voucher is dependent upon having a private school being available. But there’s more flexibility with an ESA and you could shop for a lot more educational services for your child no matter where you live,” he said, adding that a better educated workforce could lure more jobs to rural Tennessee.

A 2018 poll by the pro-voucher American Federation for Children found that voters are more open to voucher-like programs like education savings accounts  and “tax credit scholarships” than vouchers, even though all three would siphon off funding from public schools. That’s one reason that backers are avoiding the V-word and re-branding how they talk about “school choice.”

Leaders of the American Federation for Children say they wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation filed this year in Tennessee, whether for vouchers or education savings accounts.

“We’re supportive of both,” said state director Shaka Mitchell. “But because an ESA allows students’ education to be far more customized, I think it’s useful in some ways that a voucher isn’t.”


Do school vouchers work? Here’s what the research says


“School choice” advocates will have two powerful new allies in the governor’s office when Bill Lee is inaugurated on Jan. 19. The governor-elect has hired Tony Niknejad, former state director of the American Federation for Children, to be his policy director, while Brent Easley of TennesseeCAN, another pro-voucher group, is his legislative director.

But it’s uncertain whether Lee — a Williamson County businessman who won his first bid for office — will put his political muscle behind the divisive issue in his early months of governing, especially when he must develop his first proposed budget and a broader vision for his four-year administration.

PHOTO: Ned Jilton II/Kingsport Times-News
Bill Lee was elected Tennessee’s 50th governor in November and will take the oath of office on Jan. 19.

“There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet,” said Rep. Mark White of Memphis, who this week was named chairman of the House Education Committee.

One reason, he said, is accountability for recipients of education savings accounts and the services they choose.

“We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it,” White said. “If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.”

Tennessee already has one program that’s similar to education savings accounts. The state launched launched Individualized Education Accounts for students with certain disabilities in 2017, allowing families to receive up to $6,000 annually to pay for private educational services. This year, 137 students from 38 districts are participating, with 70 percent attending a private school and the rest homeschooled, according to the state’s most recent data.

“When we debated that limited-choice program, people got up and said it would be the end of the world and would destroy public education — but it hasn’t,” said Dunn.

Others point out that, although the state planned for more participants in the program, no one expected families to rush out of public schools. Anyone opting to use the accounts must waive their federal right to receive a “free and appropriate” public education. For students with disabilities, that usually costs far beyond the $6,000 a year allocated to participants.

One bill filed in the legislature’s first week seeks to expand the program to make more students eligible. Rep. Jay Reedy, a Republican from Erin, wants students who are already in private or home schools to be able to participate. Currently, families can apply only if their student is enrolled in public schools.

Full circle

On her first day as Denver superintendent, Susana Cordova visits the school where she was a student

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova addresses students at Barnum Elementary School on Jan. 7, her first day as Denver superintendent.

At a morning assembly marking the first day of Susana Cordova’s tenure as Denver schools superintendent, the most telling moment was not the speeches from current and former mayors pledging their support, or even the remarks from Cordova herself.

It was when Cordova whispered in the ear of third-grader Grace Sotelo. Grace was one of four students chosen to present Cordova with gifts, including a bouquet of flowers. Afterward, the third-grader stepped up for a brief turn at the microphone.

“Doctor — ” Grace said, then paused.

“Cordova,” the new superintendent whispered to her.

“Cordova,” Grace said. “We are proud of your success of being our — ”

“Superintendent,” Cordova whispered.

“Our superintendent,” Grace said. “We know you’ll be the best superintendent we’ve ever had.”

The interaction served as a reminder that the district’s new superintendent started her career in the classroom, teaching students like Grace.

The location of the event was also symbolic. It was held at the school that Cordova, a lifelong Denver resident, attended as a child: Barnum Elementary in southwest Denver. A printout of her fourth-grade school photo — straight-cut bangs, dimples, and a striped turtleneck — hung on a wall behind the risers.

PHOTO: Courtesy Denver Public Schools
Cordova in fourth grade

“When I was a student here at Barnum, one of my very favorite things to do was read,” Cordova told the first-, second-, and third-graders sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the gym floor.

“One of my favorite authors was a woman named Judy Blume. And she wrote a lot of good books. Maybe you’ve read some of them. But Judy Blume also said something that I think is really important. She said, ‘Our fingerprints don’t fade from the lives we touch.’

“That’s what education does. It touches lives. And I want to make sure that our fingerprints — all our fingerprints — are forever part of the story, so that our students are successful.”

Cordova, 52, officially assumed the role of superintendent of Denver Public Schools on Monday, making her the top boss of Colorado’s largest school district with about 93,000 students. Cordova was selected by the school board last month after a four-month national search. She succeeds Tom Boasberg, who served as superintendent for nearly 10 years.

Cordova was an internal candidate. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School, she has worked for the district since 1989 as a teacher, principal, and district administrator. For the past two years, she served as deputy superintendent under Boasberg.

Cordova was the sole finalist for the top job, a decision that sparked accusations from some community members that the search was a sham. In choosing her, the school board noted her depth of experience, her willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints, and how she fit many of the criteria students, parents, and teachers wanted in the next superintendent.

Among them: Cordova is an educator. The previous two superintendents came from the business world. She is also Latina. The previous two superintendents were white men. Only 25 percent of Denver students are white, while 54 percent are Hispanic and 13 percent are black.

Cordova is also bilingual in English and Spanish, and started her career in Denver as a bilingual teacher. Currently, more than a third of Denver students are learning English as a second language. The most common first language spoken by students is Spanish.

Denver students, on the whole, have made academic gains over the past decade. Many people credit the progress to controversial strategies such as replacing struggling schools.

But Cordova faces several big challenges as superintendent, including narrowing persistent test score gaps between students of color and white students, and between students from low-income families and those from wealthier ones.

Last year, 69 percent of Denver students from high- and middle-income families met expectations on state literacy tests, compared with just 27 percent of students from low-income families. About two-thirds of Denver students belong to the latter category.

While Cordova has emphasized the importance of closing those gaps, she said on Monday that her sole focus for the next two weeks will be reaching an agreement on teacher pay with the Denver teachers union. The two sides have been negotiating changes to the district’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, for more than a year. The union has threatened to hold a strike vote if the two sides don’t reach an agreement by Jan. 18.

The union and the district are set to return to the negotiating table Tuesday for the start of several all-day bargaining sessions. Cordova said she plans to attend every one, a departure from her predecessor’s approach to contract negotiations.

“I’m very optimistic we can get to a good solution,” Cordova said in an interview following the event at Barnum. “My closest friends are DPS teachers. I deeply understand and know the complexities of what it means to be a teacher in the district.”

Toward the end of the interview, after the students had returned to class and the custodial staff was stacking the chairs, Cordova was approached by two women with district lanyards around their necks. They introduced themselves as teacher’s aides who’d worked for the district for more than 20 years each. One of them held out her cell phone.

“Could we have a picture with you?”

Yes, Cordova said. In the gymnasium of her old elementary school, festooned for the occasion with yellow and blue crepe paper, the new superintendent stood between them and smiled.