Re(new)al schools

New York City moves to close 14 struggling schools, including site of Bronx stabbing

PHOTO: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this year with Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

The New York City education department plans to close 14 low-performing schools at the end of the academic year, officials announced Monday, marking Mayor Bill de Blasio’s most aggressive effort to date to shutter struggling schools.

Nine of the proposed closures involve schools in the city’s “Renewal” program, which has marshalled millions of extra dollars and other support for troubled schools. Among the five other schools the city wants to close is the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, the Bronx middle and high school where a student fatally stabbed a classmate in September and which students and parents have described as chaotic and plagued by unchecked bullying.

The closures will leave over 3,900 students searching for new schools to attend next fall, and more than 400 teachers seeking new jobs.

The city will also move to combine five Renewal schools that enroll very few students, and remove the middle-school grades from a school that currently serves grades 6 to 12. (Find the full list of proposed changes here.)

“The kids come first in any decision,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said at a press conference, which the mayor did not attend. “All the decisions we made and we’re announcing today have that at the forefront.”

Unlike his predecessor in City Hall — who favored closing struggling schools and replacing them with new ones — Mayor de Blasio decided early in his first term to blanket low-performing schools with extra help, including teacher coaches, extended school days, health clinics, and funding to embed social-service providers in schools. The investments, de Blasio promised, would spur “fast and intense” improvements within three years.

The changes proposed Monday, which still must be approved by an oversight panel during its meeting in February, amount to an acknowledgement that it was not enough to turn around some of the city’s most struggling schools. De Blasio has said from the program’s unveiling that he would consider shuttering schools that failed to improve despite the help.

The closures and mergers would leave 46 schools in the turnaround program, which started with 94 schools in 2014 and now includes 78.

While the Renewal program was originally cast as an intensive three-year intervention, the remaining schools will be entering their fourth year in the program — and Fariña suggested it could extend for even longer.

“We’re not giving up on it at all,” she said.

But the city isn’t adding more schools to the program. While observers suspect the program’s huge price tag could be a factor, Fariña pointed to broader initiatives meant to infuse schools citywide with literacy coaches, Advanced Placement courses, and computer science.

“We expect that to make a big difference,” she said.

Evidence of the Renewal program’s success has been mixed. Schools have made only modest gains in test scores and graduation rates, researchers have found, while continuing to struggle with low enrollment and high turnover among principals and teachers.

Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College who has followed Renewal closely, says that record raises an important question: What will the city do differently at the remaining schools?

“The schools that remain in Renewal are the ones I call the ‘hard cases’: These are schools that have not been making progress in the same ways others have,” he said.

Renewal officials and superintendents will soon ramp up their presence in the remaining schools, which will be expected to hit specific goals by next November, officials said.

While Monday’s announcement was de Blasio’s biggest school shake-up to date, the administration did close nine schools before the program reached the three-year mark this November. It also merged several other schools with ones that tended to be slightly higher performing. In the past, some school communities have mounted mostly unsuccessful campaigns to delay or stop the closure process, while others have been silent.

Families in the affected schools will receive letters about the proposals and personal phone calls Monday, officials said. The department’s enrollment office would work individually with the students to make sure they land in high-performing schools, they said — a difficult task once the traditional high school application deadlines have passed.

Officials said teachers would also receive help finding new placements. However, it’s likely that some will end up in the pool of teachers who lack permanent positions and act as roving substitutes — a costly group that the de Blasio administration has been trying to shrink.

In some cases, the education department is planning to open new schools in the place of the shuttered campuses, much like it did with J.H.S. 162 Lola Rodriguez de Tio in the Bronx, which closed in 2016 and saw I.S. 584 open in its place this fall.

The city’s teachers union, generally an ally of de Blasio, did not comment directly on the city’s plan to close schools — a policy it fought forcefully under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. United Federation of Teachers head Michael Mulgrew blamed poor leadership, as evidenced by teacher turnover, for the schools’ potential demise in a statement.

“No matter how serious the challenges, if the leadership of a school is good, teachers will stay. If it isn’t, they leave,” Mulgrew said.

The United Federation of Teachers said half of the positions at new schools must be reserved for educators from the closed campuses. Fariña sounded a note of caution on Monday, noting that “nowhere near” that many teachers at I.S. 584 came from its predecessor, for example. (That could be due to teachers not applying to the new school or not having licenses that qualify them for the open positions, according to the union.)

Even as the city seeks to shutter schools in the $582 million Renewal program that have made insufficient progress since the program started, it is also creating a new pathway for improving schools to graduate out of the program. Twenty-one schools that have made academic and attendance gains will leave the Renewal program at the end of the academic year and become “Rise” schools, freeing them from intense oversight by the education department.

The nine Renewal schools the city plans to close are:

  • P.S. 50 Vito Marcantonio (District 4)
  • Coalition School for Social Change (District 4)
  • High School for Health Careers and Sciences (District 6)
  • New Explorers High School (District 7)
  • Urban Science Academy (District 9)
  • P.S. 92 Bronx School (District 12)
  • Brooklyn Collegiate: A College Board School (District 23)
  • P.S./M.S. 42 R. Vernam (District 27)
  • M.S. 53 Brian Piccolo (District 27)

The five other schools the city plans to close are:

  • KAPPA IV (District 5)
  • Academy for Social Action (District 5)
  • Felisa Rincon de Gautier Institute (District 8)
  • Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation (District 12)
  • Eubie Blake School (District 16)

The schools the city plans to merge are:

  • Holcombe L. Rucker School of Community (District 8), becoming part of Longwood Preparatory Academy, another Renewal school
  • Entrada Academy (District 12) into Accion Academy
  • Middle School of Marketing and Legal Studies (District 18) into East Flatbush Community and Research School
  • Middle school grades of Gregory Jocko Jackson School (District 23) into Brownsville Collaborative Middle School

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.

Correction: An earlier version of this story cited an incorrect number of students — over 4,500 — who are affected by the closures. In fact, 3,950 students currently attend the 14 schools that the city has proposed closing. Just over 4,500 students attended the schools last academic year.

charter talks

Hopson weighs charters as school turnaround tool for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leads Shelby County Schools in Memphis, home to Tennessee's highest concentration of low-performing schools.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has opened a crack in the door to charter school partnerships that might help his district avoid losing more schools to Tennessee’s turnaround district.

Hopson emailed his principals this week to clarify his recent comments to the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal about possibly recruiting charter organizations for turnaround work. The report’s original headline read: “Hopson says he’s willing to hand schools over to charters, if they have a plan for improvement.”

The superintendent quickly turned to Twitter to label the headline “misleading and inaccurate” and, as he sought to regain control of dialogue on the thorny matter, dispatched an email to his school principals.

“…It is my top priority to ensure all of our schools have the necessary resources to provide students with the high-quality education they deserve,” he wrote on Tuesday. “If the Tennessee Department of Education offers us the opportunity to select a charter operator that is willing to collaborate closely with District leaders to improve a school instead of losing it to the (Achievement School District), then I believe it is our responsibility to explore the option.”

Hopson’s comments hint at a potentially significant shift for a district that has battled openly with the charter sector over students being absorbed by the state’s 6-year-old turnaround initiative known as the ASD.

They also point to the tough spot that the superintendent is in.

On the one hand, the growth of the city’s charter turnaround sector has been a thorn in the side of local school leaders since 2012 when the state-run district began taking control of low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators. Now with 29 Memphis schools, the ASD has siphoned off thousands of students and millions of dollars in an already under-enrolled and under-funded school environment — and made mostly anemic academic gains. (The local district also oversees about 50 charter schools that it’s authorized.)

On the other hand, Shelby County Schools has its hands full trying to improve a substantial number of struggling schools. It’s made some important headway through its Innovation Zone, which adds resources, extends the school day, and pays more to top principals and teachers who are willing to do some of the toughest education work in America. But the iZone is an expensive model, and few of its schools have exited the state’s priority school list.

In addition, some education reform advocates are lobbying to shift Memphis to a “portfolio model,” in which districts actively turn over schools to charter operators and manage them more like stocks in a portfolio. In other words, successful ones are expanded and failing ones are closed. Indianapolis has a robust portfolio model and, last fall, the philanthropic group known as the Memphis Education Fund took several Memphis school board members there for a tour. (The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

In his email to principals, Hopson said the school board ultimately would decide whether to authorize charter schools for the district’s turnaround work, and that he expects to discuss the matter with members in the coming weeks.

“All that said, I want to be very clear that my preference would always be to keep schools under the governance of (Shelby County Schools),” the superintendent added.

Hopson has been in discussions with the state Department of Education about several school improvement avenues available in Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law. Among them is an option for Shelby County Schools to voluntarily convert priority schools to a charter, according to department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

One school board member told Chalkbeat he needs more information from the district and state before he would support any move forward. Chris Caldwell added that he thinks the board isn’t up to speed on options under the state’s new education plan.

“At this point, there’s so little information that I’ve been given,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to conjecture what (a charter conversion) would actually will be like, but I have reservations with any kind of collaboration with the state.”

What would it take for such a shift to be successful?

One Memphis charter advocate says the ground rules are already in place because of a charter compact developed in recent years to address turf issues such as facilities, funding, and accountability.

“In order for a charter to manage a district school that’s underperforming and for it to be successful, that charter needs to have supports from the district to be successful,” said Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The next school board work session is scheduled for Jan. 23.

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 106 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a district where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.