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.

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.