renewed debate

New York City lawmakers grill officials on controversial ‘Renewal’ program

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Mark Treyger peppered education department officials with questions at an oversight hearing on Tuesday.

New York City lawmakers asked pointed questions about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s controversial school-improvement program Tuesday, suggesting that it may hurt the city’s broader effort to infuse schools with a host of social services.

De Blasio’s conservative critics have long attacked his $582 million “Renewal” program as a misguided effort to save troubled schools that should be shuttered and replaced. But during his first oversight hearing as chairman of city council’s education committee, Councilman Mark Treyger, did not question the program’s premise so much as its implementation and results.

The sharp questioning comes at an uncertain moment for the program’s future. What was originally billed as a three-year intervention is now approaching its fourth year. And even as some of the original 94 Renewal schools have made enough progress to begin transitioning out of the program, an oversight panel is set to vote Wednesday on the education department’s plans to shut down eight additional Renewal schools that have failed to make major gains.

Treyger — who has criticized de Blasio in the past despite being his ideological ally — was not just concerned about the Renewal program during Tuesday’s hearing.

He worried aloud that the Renewal program’s mixed record could jeopardize the city’s push to create more “community schools” with extra social workers, mental health services, and even laundry machines. A core feature of the Renewal program is turning struggling schools into social service-filled community schools, while also extending their school days and providing extra academic help.

“The concept of a community school has now become confused with the negative image of a low-performing Renewal school,” Treyger said, adding that he hopes every city school will ultimately become a community school. “In an unfortunate muddying of the waters, the city’s community school model has come under increasing scrutiny as a school-improvement strategy.”

Treyger’s comments echo what many of de Blasio’s allies have long feared: That the broader push to infuse high-need schools with new services — which now includes 227 city schools and will cost $195 million this year alone — would be tied to a school-improvement strategy that has not lived up to the mayor’s promise of “fast and intense” turnarounds.

While Treyger said he’s visited Renewal schools that are improving and benefiting from the program, he also offered some broad critiques of it — a stark contrast to a more friendly hearing in 2015 where Treyger’s predecessor, Councilman Daniel Dromm, said it was “refreshing to hear all the work that’s being done to turn around our struggling schools.”

Treyger suggested that the program’s bumpy rollout and the stigma attached to schools targeted for improvement have hamstrung some Renewal schools from the start. He and other city lawmakers also raised questions about the schools’ high teacher and principal turnover, whether the city’s benchmarks are rigorous enough, and what criteria the city uses to close Renewal schools.

City officials have already moved to close or merge 26 of the program’s original 94 schools, citing poor performance or low enrollment. Beginning this year, they are also slowly transitioning another 21 schools that have shown signs of progress out of the program.

Education department officials acknowledged some of the challenges associated with improving long-struggling schools, but argued during the hearing that the program has shown “encouraging” signs of progress with many of the schools seeing higher graduation rates, test scores, and attendance rates.

City officials said there had also been better teacher retention at Renewal schools than in the past, and believe the remaining schools will make enough progress to eventually exit the program.

“We are confident in most of these 47 schools,” said Laura Feijoo, who supervises superintendents, referring to the remaining Renewal schools. “They are headed in that direction.”

Some city council members asked whether schools that begin to ease out of the program will backslide if some of their extra supports are taken away. Education officials stressed that schools leaving the program will remain community schools, and will not lose funding.

As for the program itself, Feijoo said it will not disappear overnight.

“The Renewal school program is not over,” she said. “We’re going into year four.”

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 49 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 57 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

Out of the game

The businessman who went to bat for apprenticeships is out of Colorado’s governor’s race

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Noel Ginsburg, an advocate for apprenticeships and a critic of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, has withdrawn from the Democratic race for governor.

Ginsburg, a businessman who had never run for office before, always faced a tough road to the nomination. He announced Tuesday that he would not continue with the petition-gathering or assembly process after his last place finish in the caucus, where he got 2 percent of the vote.

In an interview with The Denver Post, Ginsburg said, “I don’t believe I have the resources to be fully competitive.”

Just last month, Ginsburg released an education platform that called for the repeal of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, the signature legislative achievement of former state Sen. Mike Johnston, also a candidate for governor.

Ginsburg runs CareerWise, an apprenticeship initiative of Gov. John Hickenlooper that allows students to earn money and college credit while getting on-the-job experience starting in high school. His platform called for expanding apprenticeship programs and getting businesses more involved in education.

He also promised to lead a statewide effort to change the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to retain more revenue and send much of it to schools. He said that schools, not roads, should be the top priority of Colorado’s next governor.

Ginsburg will continue at the head of CareerWise, as well as Intertech Plastics, the company he founded.

Johnston, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne have all turned in signatures to place their names on the ballot. Former Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the endorsement of two teachers unions, is not gathering signatures and will need at least 30 percent of the vote at the assembly to appear on the ballot. Kennedy finished in first place at the caucus earlier this month.