departures

Richard Buery, architect of New York City’s massive pre-K expansion, is leaving City Hall

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, pictured during a school visit in 2014, announced this week that he is leaving his post.

Richard Buery, the deputy mayor who oversaw the de Blasio administration’s celebrated expansion of pre-kindergarten while also trying to ease tensions with the charter-school sector, is stepping down, the mayor said Thursday.

After initially turning down the job — which offered lower pay and greater public scrutiny than in his role as head of the Children’s Aid Society — Buery agreed in early 2014 to pilot the rapid buildout of the city’s free pre-K program, which was the centerpiece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first-term agenda. Within a year and a half, Buery had helped the city create about 50,000 additional pre-K seats while avoiding any major mishaps or controversies — a feat that helped the mayor glide to reelection this month.

“Never before have I had a job where I had 9 o’clock evening daily phone call with my team,” Buery said Thursday at a press conference where de Blasio announced several changes to his cabinet ahead of his second term. Despite its intensity, Buery called the job “an honor and a pleasure.”

Buery — who, until now, was the highest-ranking black official in City Hall and a rumored contender to be the next school’s chief — oversaw several other education initiatives beyond pre-K. Those included the creation of 215 “community schools,” which offer wellness and social services for students and their families; the expansion of after-school programs for middle-school students; and the establishment of a “children’s cabinet” to coordinate the efforts of dozens of city agencies that interact with young people.

More recently, he helped start a new city-run preschool program for 3-year-olds, modeled off the pre-K expansion — an idea the mayor attributed to Buery.

“Richard will be forever remembered as the person who started that initiative on its path,” de Blasio said Thursday.

Buery also played a crucial role as an intermediary between City Hall and the city’s charter-school sector, which have clashed since de Blasio took office promising to reign in the publicly funded but privately run schools. He was ideally positioned to play peacemaker: Before joining the de Blasio administration, he had helped found a Children’s Aid Society charter school, and he counted the leaders of the some of the city’s largest charter networks as friends.

He walked a fine line in his informal mediator role. For instance, he joined the mayor in opposing a state plan to allow more new charter schools to open, yet he sided with charters in their push to receive public money to pay for building rental.

“In Rich, we had a natural ally,” said Steven Wilson, chief executive officer of the Ascend charter network, in an email. “He understood our constraints and challenges, and was always willing to give voice to them with the Mayor.”

“If the administration doesn’t bring in someone similarly experienced, intelligent, and supportive,” he added, “it will be a loss to the sector.”

Yet, not everyone in the charter sector has had a warm relationship with Buery.

Dan Loeb, chairman of Success Academy charter schools — the network that has feuded most bitterly with the de Blasio administration — upbraided Buery in racially charged emails recently published by Politico New York. In a June email, Loeb called Buery “smug and satisfied” and an “apologist for the failing status quo” that leaves “poor black kids” with an inadequate education.

In an interview Thursday, Buery told Chalkbeat that he had tried to bridge the divide between members of the charter sector and City Hall, but the “really toxic, ugly politics that we have” sometimes got in the way.

“There’s still too much unnecessary negativity and ad hominem attacks and I don’t think it’s productive,” he said. “We’d do a lot better if we spent more time talking and less time yelling.”

Buery arrived at City Hall with a compelling backstory.

The son of immigrants from Panama, he grew up in East New York, Brooklyn, before graduating from Stuyvesant High School and enrolling in Harvard at age 16. He later attended Yale Law School, taught at an orphanage in Zimbabwe, and founded multiple youth-focused nonprofit groups.

Buery will remain in his post for the next few weeks while the administration seeks a replacement. In the interview with Chalkbeat, he shot down any suggestion that he might become the city’s next schools chancellor — “I never have aspired to that role” — but also said he did not have another job lined up. 

In his next role, he said, he is seeking a way to push back against the policies of President Donald Trump, which he called “the most un-American administration of my lifetime.”

“In one way it’s a terrible time, a challenging time for the country,” Buery said. “But in another way it’s an incredible opportunity in the country to stand up and articulate the values we believe in and stand up for those values. And I want to continue being a part of that.”

Monica Disare contributed reporting.

To and Through

Newark’s post-grad paradox: More students are entering college, but few earn degrees

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka wants 25 percent of residents to have college degrees by 2025, up from 19 percent today.

When it comes to college, Newark faces a good news-bad news paradox.

More students than ever are graduating high school and enrolling in college, according to a new report. Yet fewer than one in four Newark students earns a college degree within six years of graduating high school — leaving many with limited job prospects in a city where an estimated one-third of jobs require a four-year college degree.

Now, city officials are promising to build on the report. They want to ramp up the rigor of high-school classes and create more early-college programs to increase the odds of students entering college and leaving with a degree.  

“How do we teach our children to perform — to graduate?” Mayor Ras Baraka asked at a press conference Wednesday to mark the official release of the report of Newark students’ college outcomes. “We got them in the door,” he said of students who attend college. “Now how do we make them stay?”

The city’s plans, to which Superintendent Roger León is lending his support, reflect a growing recognition that simply getting students into college is not sufficient — and can even backfire if they drop out before graduation, leaving them with college debt but no degree.

Until recently, the charge given to high schools in Newark and across the country was to foster “college-going cultures.” And these efforts showed promising results: On average, 51 percent of Newark Public School students who graduated high school between 2011 and 2016 immediately enrolled in college, up from 39 percent who did so between 2004 and 2010, according to the report by the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, or NCLC, and Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.

But entering college didn’t guarantee its completion. Of those students who started college straight after high school, only 39 percent earned a degree within six years, the report found.

As a result, educators and policymakers have begun to think harder about how to help students “to and through” college — to ensure they actually earn degrees. Toward that end, Baraka and the NCLC — which includes roughly 40 colleges, schools, nonprofits, and corporations — has set a goal of 25 percent of Newark residents earning college degrees or comparable credentials by 2025.

Today, just 19 percent of Newark adults have associate degrees or higher — compared to 45 percent of adults across New Jersey and 40 percent nationally.

Superintendent León, who began overseeing the city’s schools on July 1, said his main strategy for supporting these efforts will be to expose students to challenging work early on.

“If we don’t do something dramatically in classrooms to improve instruction and make it rigorous,” León said after Wednesday’s event, then students are “getting into college but they’re not completing it.”

Source: “Post-Secondary Outcomes of Newark High School Graduates (2011-2016)” report. Note: The four-year rate is an average of the classes of 2011 to 2013. The six-year rate is from the class of 2011. Graphic: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

For starters, León said he wants high schools to offer more college-level classes. In the 2016-17 school year, just 21 percent of Newark students were enrolled in one or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes — compared to 42 percent of students statewide.

He also vowed to raise the quality of instruction in the district’s traditional high schools. Only 14 percent of their graduates earn college degrees within six years, compared to 42 percent of graduates from the city’s selective magnet schools, the report found.

To do that, León said he will create specialized academies within the traditional schools modeled on the magnets, which have specialized themes such as science, technology, or the arts. The academies, which will partner with colleges, will most likely feature admissions criteria similar to those of magnet schools, which select students based on their academic and attendance records, León added.

And, for the first time, all ninth-grade students this academic year will take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, León said Wednesday. An additional 1,100 eighth-graders who passed at least one of their seventh-grade PARCC exams will also take the PSAT when it’s administered on Oct. 10.

Since 2016, the district has provided the PSAT to all 10th and 11th-grade students. But León said that giving the test to younger students will focus their attention on college and help identity those who are ready for advanced classes. The PSAT is designed to help students prepare for the SAT, which is used in college admissions, and to qualify for National Merit Scholarships.

The district, which was under state control for 22 years until February, is getting some assistance in its effort to improve students’ college outcomes.

For instance, KIPP, the national charter-school network with eight schools in Newark, is sharing its strategies for helping students choose the right college with guidance counselors at three district high schools.

And the higher-education institutions in the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, including Essex County College and Rutgers University-Newark, plan to create more “dual-enrollment” programs that allow high-school students to earn college credits, said NCLC Executive Director Reginald Lewis.

“We’re all going to do a better job,” Lewis said, “of making sure that once Newark residents get in our doors, that we help them persist.”

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”