School Closings

Ahead of school closure vote, New York City families protest and anxiously await new options

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
P.S. 92 parent Jeanelle Valet protested that school's closure at recent rally in front of the education department's headquarters.

When Jeanelle Valet learned that the city planned to close P.S. 92, the Bronx elementary school her three children attend, she struggled to understand why.

She knew the school had a history of low performance, but it seemed to be working for her children. And it didn’t take much research to find other schools with lower attendance rates and similar test scores that avoided a spot on the closure list.

“I have gone through a lot of data for all these other schools,” Valet boomed through a megaphone as she stood on the steps of the education department’s headquarters, where advocates and parents gathered this week in protest. “There are other schools on the ‘Renewal’ list that aren’t getting closed that should be closed.”

On Wednesday, an oversight panel will vote on the city’s plans to shutter 13 schools — including P.S. 92 and seven others in the city’s “Renewal” improvement program — that officials decided are too low performing or have shed too many students to keep open. It’s the largest single round of closures since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014.

School closures are inherently disruptive and controversial — even schools with dismal academic records can inspire fierce loyalty from families and educators. The outcry against closures was loud and sustained under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who shut down dozens of low-performing schools and replaced them with new ones.

De Blasio has weathered a much smaller backlash because he has shuttered far fewer schools and on account of his $582 million Renewal program, which has flooded low-performing schools with extra social services and academic support rather than immediately closing them. Yet his approach has invited its own set of critiques.

The fact that de Blasio promised to “move heaven and earth” through his Renewal program to revamp troubled schools has prompted even some allies to question whether the program has fallen short. And the small number of closures has left parents like Valet wondering why their school was targeted when others were spared, and has fueled suspicions among some that de Blasio may be making space for more charter schools. (An education department spokesman denied that and said only four of 18 schools set to be closed or merged will be replaced by charter schools.)

Now, even as families at some of the schools rally against the closures, they are also wondering where their children will end up if the plans go through. While the city has promised to place them in higher-performing alternatives, many are skeptical — and still waiting for details.

“No one has told us anything,” Valet said.

The Panel for Educational Policy — an oversight board where the majority of members are appointed by the mayor — will vote on the closures Wednesday evening. In the past, it has signed off on nearly all of the city’s proposed closures, though five of the 13 members voted against shuttering a Bronx middle school last year. If the latest round of closures are approved, 26 of the original 94 Renewal schools will have been closed or merged with other schools.

Since launching the Renewal program in 2014, de Blasio has made clear that he would consider shutting down schools that failed to make “fast and intense” improvements after receiving extra support. Still, that has not insulated him from attacks from all sides: Critics of his approach say he should have closed the worst-off schools sooner rather than spending years trying to save them, while some ideological allies question his decision to close any schools at all.

“This administration, like its predecessor, relies too frequently on school closings as a remedy for failing schools,” Public Advocate Letitia James wrote in a recent letter to schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. “Rather than helping students, closures disrupt whole communities.”

Even the union-backed Alliance for Quality Education — which has generally endorsed de Blasio’s turnaround strategy — implied in a statement last week that the city was partly to blame for some schools’ failure to improve, saying that the Renewal program’s support for schools has been “uneven.”

The group also argued that the education department “arbitrarily” targeted schools for closure — echoing a complaint made by many families and faculty members.

For instance, supporters of P.S./M.S. 42 in Queens have pointed out that the school has made gains on its test scores and quality reviews — even outperforming a number of other Renewal schools. Yet it is one of the schools slated for closure.

In the past, education department officials have said they consider a range of factors when deciding which schools to close.

“We look carefully at a school’s test scores, attendance, graduation rates, classroom instruction, leadership and the school’s overall trajectory for success,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman said in a statement. “For each school proposed for closure, we believe that students will be better served at a higher performing school.”

But critics say it’s often unclear how those criteria are applied to individual schools.

“There’s a lack of clarity, a randomness, in how schools are closed,” said Angelica Otero, executive director at Bronx Power, an organization that has organized parents against the closures. “That’s what feels really unfair.”

Adding to the frustration, de Blasio recently reversed his administration’s decision to close a Brooklyn high school. Because he cited community pressure, the reversal raised questions about whether politics play a role in closure decisions — while also giving other schools hope that protests might change the mayor’s mind.

“We were like, ‘Okay, it’s possible,’” Otero said when Brooklyn Collegiate was taken off the closure list. “Let’s keep working.” (Aciman, the education department spokesman, said the city reversed the planned closure after the community raised concerns about “limited high school options in Brownsville.”)

While families fight the closures, they are also worried about what will happen if they lose. City officials have promised to help students in the closing schools enroll in ones that are better performing. However, a Chalkbeat analysis found that students leaving closed schools often attend others that still perform below the city average.

Meanwhile, several parents said they are anxiously awaiting the individual enrollment help that city officials say is coming in early March after the closure plans are formally approved. For now, many parents like Magdalana Espinosa, who has children at two different Renewal schools slated for closure, do not know where their children are headed after their schools shut down.

“I’m not sure where I’m going to put my kids,” she said.

exclusive

Shelby County Schools wants to shutter charter school that opened outside district limits

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management

Shelby County Schools is recommending the closure of a charter school situated in a Memphis suburb, outside the district’s limits.

Gateway University High School, which just concluded its first year, found building space in Bartlett just two weeks before the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year. The charter school’s leader, Sosepriala Dede, had planned to open in downtown Memphis, but had trouble finding a suitable space there.

Dede, the founder, president and CEO of Gateway, told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the school is just days away from securing a facility in Memphis. The charter network has signed a letter of intent — but not yet a lease — for a building now occupied by National College on Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Dede said.

“We’re aware we needed to move. We have every intent to be within [the district’s] boundaries this fall,” he said, adding his team vetted “at least a dozen” buildings this year before settling on this one.

Tennessee’s attorney general in September said charter schools do not have authority to open outside the district in which they were authorized. And earlier this year, the state legislature passed a law requiring charter schools to secure school buildings inside their home district’s borders.

In a September letter, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen directed Shelby County Schools to “support Gateway’s effort” to relocate within the district’s boundaries based on the attorney general’s opinion. The decision to locate Gateway in Bartlett also drew opposition from the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, the local funding body for district schools.

Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management, said the district also warned Gateway that if it did not find a building within district boundaries by May 31, he would recommend revoking its charter.

“You have the commissioner getting an attorney general opinion, saying you guys gotta move; you have our contract that says you got to be in our boundary, and third, you now have a Tennessee code saying you’ve got to do this,” Leon said. “And despite all of that, the leadership at Gateway hasn’t been able to do this yet.”

The recommendation will be on the agenda for the school board’s work session Tuesday. A vote would follow on June 26. Dede was part of the Tennessee Charter School Center’s fellowship to train leaders of new schools. He is also is a former charter network leader for Gestalt Community Schools and a former principal at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School when Gestalt operated it.

Below you can read the letter Shelby County Schools sent to Gateway’s board chair Anthony Brown on June 1.

Update, June 15, 2018: This story has been updated to reflect what Education Commissioner Candice McQueen sent Shelby County Schools in regards to Gateway and copies of correspondence between Shelby County Schools, Gateway, and the Tennessee Department of Education.

A new approach

Denver’s school board is taking a break from its school closure policy

PHOTO: Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post
A teacher returns test scores to her class at Lake International School in Denver in 2012.

The Denver school board will hit pause this year on a controversial policy that calls for closing low-performing schools, as board members embark on a citywide listening tour that has the potential to change how the district defines school success.

The pause would be in effect for the 2018-19 school year. It would impact schools with chronically low test scores. The district has sought to replace such schools with new ones deemed more likely to get kids reading and doing math on grade-level – a policy that has generated significant pushback and even shouts of “shame!” at board meetings.

Instead of facing closure or replacement, low-performing schools this year would be required to give the board “written and verbal reports regarding their ongoing or proposed improvement strategies,” according to a memo written by board member Lisa Flores and district official Jennifer Holladay, who oversees the department that makes school closure recommendations.

The district would provide the board with information about the school’s academics, culture, and operations, and the board would use it “to exercise oversight of struggling schools’ improvement plans and understand the needed supports, and make decisions to move forward with those plans or choose an alternate path,” according to a written presentation.

School closure isn’t entirely off the table. That “alternate path” could be closure – or, more likely, consolidation with another school – if a low-performing school also has dwindling student enrollment, Flores said.

At a school board work session Monday night, Flores pitched the new approach as a “third way” – a middle ground between the strict school closure policy in place for the past two years and the inconsistent way the district previously dealt with struggling schools.

The board would use the “third way” approach as it gathers community feedback on its planned listening tour about what student success looks like, how the district should define a “quality school,” and how it should respond when schools miss the mark.

Board members did not take a formal vote on it, but they informally agreed to move forward. The board’s policy of intervening when schools continue to struggle despite extra help and district funding would remain in place, but the consequences would be softened.

“I see this as a real opportunity for DPS to take a good intent here, which is really about serving kids, and take it to the next iteration, where we can do better for our communities,” board president Anne Rowe said. She said that while the strict policy was well meaning, it had unintended consequences that “can be really, really painful.”

Critics of the district’s policy have said closing a school is disruptive and communicates to students and teachers that they’re not good enough. Those critics are gaining political power. Last year, Denver voters elected one new school board member, Carrie Olson, who opposed the policy and two who questioned how it was being carried out.

Other board members have defended the policy by saying the district can’t let students languish in schools that aren’t working. The district is falling short of ambitious goals it set to improve academic achievement by 2020. It’s notable that Flores, the board member who proposed the new approach, has been a supporter of the district’s accountability policy.

Van Schoales, CEO of the education advocacy organization A Plus Colorado, which has supported the district’s school improvement efforts, is wary of the new approach.

“This sounds as if they’re going to say that kids can sit for another year in schools … not supporting them to read or write, which I think is unfortunate,” Schoales said. “I’m very concerned that they’re just kicking the can down the road.”

Denver Public Schools is seen as a national leader when it comes to holding schools accountable, a key part of what’s known as the “portfolio strategy” of managing both district-run and charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently managed. Before formalizing the current policy, the district closed or replaced struggling schools of both types, but without consistent criteria for when to do so. That led to complaints it was playing favorites.

In an effort to be more fair, the school board in 2015 adopted a policy called the “school performance compact.” It says the district should “promptly intervene” when struggling schools met certain criteria. The criteria were developed in a set of guidelines separate from the policy, and they have changed over the past two years.

Last year’s criteria were:

  • If a school was rated “red,” the lowest of the district’s ratings, two years in a row; or
  • If a school was rated “red” in the most recent year and either “red” or “orange,” the second-lowest rating, in the two preceding years; and
  • If a school’s students did not show enough academic progress on the most recent state tests, the school would be subject to closure or “restart,” meaning the school could get a new operator or a new academic model.

Only one school met those criteria last year: Cesar Chavez Academy, a K-8 charter school in northwest Denver. In a move that avoided a public battle, Cesar Chavez struck a deal with a more successful charter school, Rocky Mountain Prep, to take over its building and give enrollment preference to its students. Cesar Chavez shut its doors at the end of last month.

Three district-run elementary schools met the criteria the first year the policy was in effect in 2016: John Amesse, Greenlee, and Gilpin Montessori. Because of Gilpin’s declining enrollment, the school board voted to close it at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

The board decided to “restart” John Amesse and Greenlee, which both had healthy enrollments despite years of poor test scores. With input from the community, the school board chose new academic programs for both schools. Those programs will start this fall.

But the 2016 decisions were fraught with controversy. Parents at Gilpin accused the district of meddling with the school’s scores to seal its fate, a claim the district denied. A community process to pick new programs at John Amesse and Greenlee didn’t go as planned.

Flores and Holladay cited those and other issues in their memo. The memo says that while having strict criteria for when to close schools is helpful because the decisions can no longer come as a surprise to parents and teachers, such “bright-line rules” also have downsides.

“School staff and community members often did not feel heard about positive aspects of their schools,” the memo says, “and some board members, including Ms. Flores, felt restrained – unable to exercise judgment within these difficult decisions.”

The memo also says the policy put “significant additional pressure” on the district’s color-coded school rating system, which came under fire from the community this year on multiple fronts. The ratings – called the “school performance framework,” or SPF, ratings – are largely based on state test scores. The district typically releases school ratings each fall.

Nine low-rated schools are listed in the memo as potentially eligible for closure or restart in 2018-19 under the criteria the board is now set to disregard this year. Depending on their ratings this year, the nine schools could go through the new process outlined in the memo.

They are:

A tenth school, Venture Prep High School, was also potentially eligible, according to the memo. But Venture Prep, a charter school, decided on its own to close at the end of this school year after not attracting enough students for next year.

At its work session Monday night, the school board discussed picking two of its seven members to work with district staff to develop a “data dashboard” for every “red” school.

Board members would help determine which data – about a school’s academic progress, for example, or its culture – would be included in the dashboard. The board would then use that data to make decisions about the school’s future and its proposed improvement plan.

The idea, Flores said, is that “we would have our ‘red’ schools … come and present to the board on their path forward.” Those presentations, along with the data from the dashboard, would allow the board to “engage with each of those schools about what comes next,” she said.

As for how the policy would be carried out beyond next year, Flores told her fellow board members she expects the feedback they hear on their listening tour “is going to be important in informing what the ‘school performance compact’ looks like in the future.”