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.

Changing course

After pressure from school board members, University of Memphis middle school drops its academic requirement

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University of Memphis' elementary, Campus School, is one of the highest achieving schools in the state.

Leaders of a popular elementary school known for its high academic performance are changing the entrance requirements at a proposed middle school in hopes of creating a more diverse student body.

After the Shelby County Schools board raised concerns that the University of Memphis’ plans would continue a pattern of student enrollment from its elementary school, Campus School, that is mostly white, university leaders said last week they would drop the academic requirement for the middle school.

Most Memphis students do not meet state standards for learning. Under the revised proposal, students would need satisfactory behavior records and fewer than 15 unexcused absences, tardies, or early dismissals.

In addition, the school is meant to be a learning lab for teachers earning their degrees. School leaders hope these teachers will eventually return to the Memphis school system to work with children who live in poverty. But currently, the student body doesn’t reflect the population school leaders want to serve.

“We need to make sure that new teachers are getting everything they need. That way you then can learn how to be successful in a diverse community,” board member Miska Clay Bibbs said.

White students made up two-thirds of the elementary school in 2017, the highest percentage in the district. Only 8 percent of the students lived in poverty — the lowest in the district. By comparison, more than half of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty while only 8 percent are white.

The Memphis district has added more speciality schools in recent years to attract and retain high-achieving students, including white students, who might otherwise choose a private school or schools in the surrounding suburbs. Campus School is one that attracts a lot of white families.

It wasn’t always like that, board member Michelle Robinson McKissack said. She and other board members urged university leaders to do more intentional outreach to the surrounding neighborhood that would have priority in admissions.

“It’s surprising to me that it did seem to be more diverse when I was a child going to Campus in the mid-70s than today,” she said. “And I want to ensure that University Middle looks like Campus looked when I was going to school there.”

Until recently, Campus School was the only school with a contract in the district. Compared to charter schools, contract schools have more say in how they choose students. That allows the University of Memphis to give priority to children of faculty and staff.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University Middle would be housed in the former St. Anne Catholic School near Highland Street and Spottswood Avenue.

Paul Little and his wife chose their house because of its proximity to Campus School. If the university’s middle school had been open, he would have enrolled his oldest daughter there. He considered other public options, but ultimately decided on an all-girls private school.

“For a long time, I was against private schools in general because if people with high academic achievers pull their kids out of public school, you’ve left a vacuum,” he said.

Little, a White Station High School graduate, disagrees with the assertion that Campus School is not diverse, citing several international students who are children of University of Memphis faculty.

At a recent school meeting, “when I looked out over the cafeteria, I saw a lot of diversity there… That’s never been a concern for me,” he said. He said he was encouraged by the university’s outreach plans “to make the school as diverse as possible.”

Board members are expected to discuss the contract with University of Memphis on Tuesday night, vote the following week, and then open online applications to the school Jan. 30. The school would open in August with sixth-graders with plans to add one grade each year after that.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.