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.

Future of Schools

What it could mean for Indianapolis Public Schools if Ferebee is looking at new jobs

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Lews Ferebee

The revelation that Superintendent Lewis Ferebee was a finalist for the top job in the Los Angeles school district could have broad implications at a critical moment for Indianapolis Public Schools — even though he decided not to pursue the job.

Although Ferebee has withdrawn his name from contention in Los Angeles, he still could be an option for other districts. As U.S. News and World Report’s Lauren Camera reported earlier this month, about a dozen cities are on the hunt for new leaders, including large districts such as Houston and smaller districts such as Washington, D.C.

Five years into his tenure as superintendent of Indiana’s largest district, Ferebee’s agenda has been ambitious, potentially making him a desirable candidate for other school districts. He has spearheaded a radical new approach that is transforming the city’s schools by creating innovation schools, which are considered part of the district but managed by charter or nonprofit operators.

In Indianapolis, Ferebee has faced many of the same issues that urban districts across the country are grappling with, such as declining enrollment, pressure to improve academic results, and severe budget crunches.

But while he may have an itch to move on from Indianapolis, his administration is in the midst of closing nearly half of the district’s high schools, and the district is pursuing plans to ask voters for a dramatic boost in school funding.

Here’s how all those changes could be altered by the news that Ferebee is at least weighing other job opportunities.

It’s not a surprise that he was considering a new job.

Urban superintendents don’t often stay for long — the average tenure is just over three years, according to the Council of Great City Schools — so it’s not surprising that a relatively young superintendent who is drawing national attention might be interested in other jobs.

For superintendents to move up in their careers, hopping to new cities is fairly typical.

A native of South Carolina, Ferebee, 43, spent most of his career in North Carolina before moving in 2013 to take the helm in Indianapolis. He has few ties to the city, and critics and supporters alike have long recognized that Indianapolis is likely just one rung on his career ladder.

For school districts where leaders are interested in offering a portfolio of school options, Ferebee’s track record in Indianapolis — and his increasing national prominence — could be particularly appealing.

In 2016, Ferebee was profiled in Education Week as a leader to learn from, and last year, he was chosen as a fellow by The Broad Academy, a leadership development program supported charter advocate and philanthropist Eli Broad.

But his tenure in Indianapolis hasn’t gone perfectly.

Ferebee’s administration has also had some significant stumbles that cast doubt on whether he would be ready for a larger district. Last year, he announced plans to appeal to voters to increase local taxes and school funding. In the face of pushback, however, the district first reduced its request and then suspended the campaign. Now, leaders are hoping that the Indy Chamber will be able to help them craft a plan that will win voter support.

If he left, it might put Indy in a bind — temporarily.

If Ferebee took another job, it would put Indianapolis leaders in a tough position. The school board would need to find his replacement at the same time the district is facing a host of pressing issues, including high school closings, a school board election, and a campaign to convince taxpayers to increase local school funding.

And he could take some of his top deputies with him, as he did when he came to Indianapolis, leaving the district short-handed at a particularly challenging time.

The current board has largely been on the same page with Ferebee when it comes to the most controversial initiatives in the district, such as creating innovation schools and closing high schools. Board members would likely choose a candidate who would sustain those policies.

But a lot of his most controversial changes could stay in place.

A new superintendent would have huge sway over the district’s future direction. But many of the changes Ferebee has led would be difficult to unwind. Innovation schools, for example, have contracts that last several years, and many of them are also authorized as charter schools, so the district would not immediately be able to back away from the innovation strategy.

Plus, innovation schools have strong support from other players in Indianapolis, such as lawmakers and The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that led the push for the hybrid model.

It is also unlikely that the district would change course on its plan to close high schools because the new superintendent would almost certainly take the helm after the painful process of closing schools was already complete.

It would make the November election of the school board more important.

Three of the seven school board seats are up for election in November, and it is likely that the newly elected board would choose Ferebee’s replacement. It’s not yet clear who is running and how strong the competition might be, but the outcome would be especially important if Ferebee leaves.

If he does take another job, it could be an opportunity for critics of his administration. In recent elections, supporters of Ferebee have dominated. But there is a nascent opposition movement that could be influential in the fall election.

Even though he is staying, the honeymoon is over.

Even with Ferebee withdrawing his name from consideration, the revelation that he was interested in the job in Los Angeles could have a ripple effect. It raises questions about how long he plans to stay in Indianapolis and whether he is applying for other positions.

The new uncertainty about Ferebee’s commitment to Indianapolis comes at a particularly tough moment. In the face of a budget deficit of about $26 million, the administration could soon impose cuts across the district. Earlier this month, the district offered $20,000 buyouts to teachers who retire, and Ferebee has said they are considering other cuts, such as hiring freezes and furloughs for administrators. Those cutbacks will be extra painful if school staff and parents lose faith in the administration.

It also could have broad implications for the campaign to raise more money for schools. After district leaders initially fumbled plans to ask voters for additional money, they are planning to put a referendum on the ballot in November. For that measure to succeed, they must convince community members to vote in favor of raising their own taxes, a difficult sell that will also be made harder if the superintendent loses trust from the community.

contract details

Antwan Wilson being paid $60,000 to consult for Denver Public Schools

Antwan Wilson visits a fifth grade math class at the Brightwood Education Campus in Washington on his first day as D.C. schools chancellor. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Denver school district is paying former administrator Antwan Wilson $60,000 to be a part-time consultant for 12 weeks to help to build a strategic plan for a career and technical education program, according to Wilson’s contract.

The contract shows the district determined that Wilson, who was recently forced to resign as Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, was the only person qualified for the consultant job.

“We considered other local or national consulting organizations that could provide these services, but determined they would not be able to meet our needs,” Denver Public Schools Chief Operating Officer David Suppes wrote as justification for why the contract was not put out for competitive bid. Chalkbeat obtained the contract in an open records request.

Suppes cited Wilson’s years of experience managing large urban school districts, as well as his experience leading secondary schools in Denver. Wilson was principal of the now-closed Montbello High School and worked for five years as an assistant superintendent in Denver before becoming superintendent in Oakland, California, and then chancellor in D.C.

He resigned as chancellor in February after it came to light that he skirted the district’s competitive school lottery process to get his oldest daughter into a high-performing school.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a previous Chalkbeat interview that Wilson was a good fit for the consultant job because “he is probably the country’s foremost thinker on these issues around career and technical education and concurrent enrollment,” which allows high school students to take college classes and receive credit for free.

Wilson’s resume says he ran Denver Public Schools’ concurrent enrollment program during his tenure as the assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness from 2009 to 2014. It also notes he led the district’s career and technical education program.

The number of students taking concurrent enrollment classes increased during his tenure, his resume says. Graduation rates increased and dropout rates decreased, partly due to efforts to open new alternative schools, which the district calls “multiple pathways schools,” it says.

Boasberg said Wilson will be helping to expand the district’s career and technical program, called CareerConnect, to those schools.

Wilson’s consultant contract says he will “support the strategic planning process, including stakeholder engagement, evaluation of successful practices used elsewhere, and assisting the team in thinking through systemic needs for the thoughtful growth of the program.”

The contract notes that Wilson’s position is grant funded. It says his fee includes a $69 per-diem expense and $178 in daily lodging expenses. His fee is based on a $150-per-hour rate, it says.

The contract specifies that Wilson will work two days a week for eight hours a day.

In his justification for why the contract was not competitive, Suppes wrote that local consulting companies that have worked with Denver Public Schools in the past “would not have experience in this area” and would have been more expensive at $175 to $200 an hour.

National consulting companies, Suppes wrote, “are often strong in doing this type of work, but might not have the skill depth available.” Plus, he wrote, the national consultants would have charged two to four times as much as the district is paying Wilson.