no takeover

25 struggling New York City schools are safe from takeover, state officials say

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
MaryEllen Elia

New York City will not be forced to close or cede control of 25 low-performing schools targeted by a state program that threatens long-floundering schools with takeover by an outside manager.

State officials said Tuesday that all city schools in the “Receivership” program’s crosshairs met enough of their goals to avoid more serious consequences. In total, just two out of 63 schools statewide did not meet their 2016-17 goals, the officials said; neither school is in New York City.

“I have visited many of these schools, and I am seeing schools tackle their issues in new and positive ways, which is encouraging,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in a statement. “At the same time, much work remains to be done in many of these schools.”

In 2015, state officials identified 62 city schools that for years had ranked among the bottom 5 percent statewide. The schools were given at least ten improvement goals each, including measures like attendance, suspension, and graduation rates. If they failed to make “demonstrable improvement” in those areas, the state could force the city to appoint an outside manager to run them.

But so far, almost all schools in the program have managed to avoid serious interventions. To date, just one New York City school has been threatened with outside takeover: a middle school in the Bronx that the city closed last year and replaced with a new school. (City officials also decided to to close another Receivership school, the Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design — a move that state officials did not publicly demand.)

At the same time, state officials have gradually reduced the number of city schools in Receivership over the past two years — from 62 down to 25 — a fact that drew criticism from Gov. Cuomo’s office.

To avoid interventions, schools in the Receivership program must earn at least 67 percent on a grading scale that factors in their goals. Districts must review the performance of schools that fail to meet that threshold, determine why they struggled, and “monitor and support” them over the current school year, according to state officials.

In New York City, five schools fall into that category. They will not face immediate takeover, but will be subjected to ongoing scrutiny this year.

Among the five city schools that fell below the 67 percent threshold are DeWitt Clinton High School (45 percent) and Flushing High School (62 percent). The city recently announced that the staffs at both schools will be forced to reapply for their jobs.

The state education department’s decision to force so few schools to undergo takeover has previously frustrated the governor. But Cuomo, who pushed for the Receivership law as a more aggressive intervention for struggling schools, has warmed to the approach favored by Mayor de Blasio and the state’s unions: infusing low-performing schools with resources instead of shutting them down.

Aaron Pallas, a Teachers College professor, said the state officials’ decision not to intervene in most Receivership schools could reflect their desire to move the state away from more aggressive, top-down reforms. 

“One easy way to do that is to declare victory and say schools have met the targets we set even if they’re not actually meeting those targets,” said Pallas, adding that the complexity of the state’s benchmarks make it difficult to know for sure.

But the 25 city schools in the Receivership program may not be completely out of the woods. All of those schools are also part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Renewal” turnaround program. Earlier this year, the mayor said more Renewal schools will be closed.

“These schools have made an important step in the right direction,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement. “I will continue to closely monitor these schools on a range of factors including academic outcomes, teacher retention, attendance and the ability to engage families as partners.”

new schools

Denver approves more schools that will wait ‘on the shelf’ to open, despite pushback

PHOTO: Photo By Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Grant Beacon Middle School student Jeriah Garcia works out an algebra problem on his school-supplied tablet in 2012.

In a split vote, the Denver school board last week approved three more middle schools — but none will open right away.

Though they are modeled after successful existing schools, and though district officials feel an urgency to improve school quality districtwide, the three will wait with more than 20 others until a school building becomes available.

That could happen if the district closes a struggling school or builds a brand new one. But slowing enrollment growth means it will likely not build many schools in the coming years.

The number of approved schools on hold until they find a campus has grown over the years, even as the school board adopted a policy in 2015 that calls for replacing chronically low-performing schools with new ones deemed more likely to succeed.

This approach earned Denver a national reputation in education reform circles, but the growing backlog of schools with no clear path to opening has led to frustration among charter school operators and questions from some supporters about how committed Denver is to this model.

The makeup of Denver’s school board has changed, and not all of the new members believe closing struggling schools is good for students. In voting on the three new middle schools, three of the seven board members expressed concerns about the concept of keeping approved schools “on the shelf” because it presupposes existing schools will be shuttered.

Carrie Olson, a former Denver teacher, campaigned last year for a seat on the board on a platform of opposing school closures. Her candidacy was backed by the Denver teachers union, which also supported board member Jennifer Bacon, another former teacher.

Olson and Bacon voiced the strongest reservations about approving the three schools, temporarily called Beacon Network Middle Schools 3, 4, and 5. The schools would be run by the same administrators who oversee Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon middle schools.

Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon are “innovation schools,” which means they have more financial and programmatic freedom than traditional district-run schools but not as much independence as charter schools. The two schools focus on personalized learning, partly by giving students access to technology that allows them to learn at their own pace. Each is rated “green,” the second-highest rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale.

Olson and Bacon said they don’t doubt additional Beacon schools would serve students well. Rather, Bacon said, she’s concerned about having too many of the same type of school and about the length of time schools should be allowed to wait before opening. Being approved by the school board doesn’t guarantee that a school will open.

In the end, the three Beacon schools were approved to open in the fall of 2019 or thereafter. Olson voted no on all three. Bacon voted no on two of them and yes on the third.

Board president Anne Rowe, vice president Barbara O’Brien, and members Lisa Flores and Happy Haynes voted yes on all three. Angela Cobián, who was elected last fall along with Olson and Bacon, voted yes on two schools and abstained from voting on the third.

Cobián said her votes were meant to reflect that she supports the Beacon schools but shares her fellow board members’ concerns. She said she’s committed to making sure the district supports existing schools so they don’t get to the point of closure or replacement.

There are at least 24 schools already waiting for a campus in Denver. Nineteen of them were proposed by four homegrown, high-performing charter school networks. The district’s largest charter school network, DSST, has eight middle and high schools waiting to open.

District officials said they plan to spend time over the summer thinking through these concerns.

Jennifer Holladay, who leads the department that oversees charter and innovation schools, said staff will develop recommendations for how long schools should be allowed to sit on the shelf and whether the district should continue to accept “batch applications” for more than one school at a time, which has been common practice among the homegrown networks.

Payment dispute

Disputes with Tennessee testmakers aren’t new. Here’s an update on the state’s lawsuit with Measurement Inc.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

The testing company fired by Tennessee’s education department two years ago may have to wait until 2019 to settle the case, according to documents recently obtained by Chalkbeat.

As the future of the state’s current testing company, Questar, remains uncertain after a series of testing snafus this year, Tennessee continues to build a case against the first company it hired to usher in online testing three years ago.

The $25.3 million lawsuit, filed by Measurement Inc. of North Carolina, says the state owes about a quarter of the company’s five-year, $108 million contract, which Tennessee officials canceled after technical problems roiled the test’s 2016 rollout. So far, the state has paid the company $545,000.

The 2016 test was meant to showcase TNReady, the state’s new, rigorous, online testing program. But the online exam crashed, and the state abandoned it, asking Measurement Inc. to pivot to paper tests. After numerous delays in delivering the paper tests, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen fired the company.

Measurement Inc. filed a lawsuit last June, and the state Department of Education responded in January with a counterclaim saying the company did not fulfill its duties. Now, the state and the company have through spring 2019 to build their cases and call witnesses. (You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim below).

The company argues that the state’s decision to cancel online testing and switch to paper was a series of “unrealistic, arbitrary, and changing demands,” and therefore, the state shares blame for the canceled test.

But the state department countered in its January response that Measurement Inc. breached its contract and didn’t communicate truthfully about the status of the online exam.

After Measurement Inc., Tennessee entered into a two-year contract with Minnesota-based Questar to revive the TNReady online exam. In 2017, the state opted to only use paper exams, and testing went smoothly for the most part, outside of delays in returning test results.

But things didn’t go well this spring, when Tennessee tried to return to online testing under Questar. The reasons for the complications are numerous — but different from issues that ruined the online test’s 2016 debut.

Although Tennessee completed its online testing this spring,  it was beset with technological glitches, a reported cyber attack on the testing system, and poor internet connectivity. Many districts are not planning to use the scores in student grading, and teachers can opt out of using the scores in their evaluations.

The state is negotiating with Questar about its $30 million-a-year contract and also is asking Questar’s parent company, Educational Testing Services, to take on the design work of TNReady. McQueen did not offer specifics about either, but any changes must be approved by the legislature’s fiscal review committee.

Questar’s two-year contract ends Nov. 30, and the state either will stick with the company or find its third testing vendor in four years.

You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim, in full below:

Measurement Inc.’s June 2017 claim:

The Department of Education’s January response:

Measurement Inc.’s February response: