rise up

With new ‘Rise’ schools, de Blasio tiptoes through a school-closure minefield

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, center, announced which schools would join the Rise program at a press conference on Monday.

For nearly 20 New York City schools, the news was grim on Monday morning: The city would be moving to close them, shrink them, or combine them with another school.

But for others, Monday’s announcement was a long-awaited boost. Twenty-one schools were named Rise schools, a new designation meant to indicate their progress under Mayor de Blasio’s School Renewal turnaround program.

Officials say that Rise schools will retain the extra social services that had been provided for students and their families, while other extra support will be reduced over time. The Rise program will operate independently, but stay connected to the Renewal one. And the Rise schools will be held accountable for continued improvement, but face less intense scrutiny.

It’s a middle ground that could help answer questions that have vexed the de Blasio administration since it unveiled the program in 2014 as a three-year intervention: What comes after year three? Specifically, can the city reward improvement by freeing the schools from intense oversight without undercutting their progress by pulling out support? And how can the city help schools it labeled as struggling to rebrand so they can attract new students?

“Rise schools are the Renewal schools that have been graduated and promoted,” Chancellor Fariña said Monday. “They will be moving into a different sphere.”

The Rise schools are in four boroughs and include schools like DreamYard Preparatory School in the Bronx, which is still struggling to push its graduation rate over 70 percent, and I.S. 528 Bea Fuller Rodgers School in Upper Manhattan, where fewer than one in five students passed the state math and English tests.

But overall, the city says the schools are on an upward climb, with proficiency rates on state English tests jumping an average of 15 percentage points and attendance rates jumping 4 points since the 2013-14 school year. (At the same time, however, the state made tests easier to pass and also made it easier to earn a diploma over the last three years.)

Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College, called Rise a smart political move for Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“Graduating schools on the grounds that they were successful allows the mayor to declare victory,” he said. 

Despite making gains, students at Rise schools fall below the city average on test scores. About 22 percent of students passed the state English exam and about 17 percent passed math. Citywide, those numbers are significantly higher, with a little over 40 percent passing English and just under 38 percent passing math. The graduation rate for Rise schools — which stands at almost 73 percent — is closer to the city’s projected average at 74 percent. (The city cautioned this number is preliminary and subject to change.)

The Rise program may allow the city to provide these schools — which still need help to maintain and further their gains — with extra support, while allowing them to shed the stigma of being in the city’s Renewal program. Even as the city showered these schools with millions of dollars over the last three years, convincing families to send their children to them was a challenge. Throughout the program, the schools struggled with enrollment, losing thousands of students.

Rise schools will remain “community schools,” a signature piece of de Blasio’s turnaround strategy in which schools are hubs for social and medical services. The schools will also enjoy an expedited roll-out of Equity and Excellence initiatives, including support for computer science, literacy, algebra, and Advanced Placement.

Principal Kyesha Jackson, who runs P.S. 67 in Brooklyn, said she is both excited to maintain the support provided by Renewal and lose the label. Under Renewal, she was able to purchase an online program that assess where students have learning gaps and provides access to lessons that target the area in which a student needs work. She also purchased an electronic literacy program that allows students access to 3,000 books, she said.

Those initiatives and others that she says were integral to improving her school will remain, but when families are researching the school, they will no longer see that it is designated as a struggling school.

“That stigma that a Renewal school is a failing school would be taken away,” she said.

Critics, including longtime de Blasio foe StudentsFirstNY, have pointed out the relatively low rates of students passing state tests at Rise schools.

But at least so far, principals remain hopeful that the new title — coupled with a high level of continuing support — will make a difference.

“We’re not yet where we want to be. But we really are a school on the rise,” said Miles Doyle, principal of Orchard Collegiate Academy in Manhattan at Monday’s press conference. “I welcome this new designation as a Rise school.”  

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.

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.