closure fight

In stunning rebuke, oversight board rejects two of de Blasio’s school closure plans

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered last week at the education department's headquarters to protest the city's closure plans.

An oversight board rejected two of the de Blasio administration’s proposed school closures and voted to postpone a third after an emotional hearing that stretched into Thursday morning — a stunning rebuke by an education panel that typically rubber stamps the mayor’s policies.

The vote by the Panel for Educational Policy came around 2 a.m. Thursday after more than seven hours of testimony from well over 100 parents and elected officials. The panel signed off on the city’s plans to shutter 10 other schools — the largest single wave of closures since de Blasio took office in 2014.

But the board’s decision to block the other closures raises fresh questions about the education department’s criteria for closing schools, and suggests that officials may face a higher bar in future when seeking approval for such controversial moves. The mayor appoints the majority of the panel’s 13 members, who typically green light the city’s proposals.

In this case, the panel faced intense pressure from supporters of the low-performing schools, which are part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $582 million school-turnaround program. They argued that the schools were actually showing signs of improvement but needed more time in the program.

“I believe that this vote and this decision is premature,” said City Councilman Mark Treyger, the chair of the council’s education committee, at the hearing. “School closures can rip a community apart.”

Education department officials have said the schools had either shed too many students or were too low performing to be viable. When deciding which struggling schools to close, officials say they consider the schools’ test scores, attendance, graduation rates, classroom instruction, leadership, and the school’s “overall trajectory for success.”

Still, some community members say that the city has not made it clear when schools perform poorly enough in any of those areas to warrant closure. Instead, many have complained that their schools were arbitrarily chosen for closure while other struggling schools were spared.

The two closures the panel blocked are both Queens schools in de Blasio’s “Renewal” improvement program: M.S. 53 Brian Piccolo and P.S./M.S. 42 R. Vernam. An education department spokesman said those two schools will remain open next year. The panel voted to postpone a decision on a third Renewal school that had been slated for closure, High School for Health Careers and Sciences in Manhattan.

P.S./M.S. 42 had attracted especially vocal responses from parents and elected officials, who were puzzled by the school’s inclusion on the closure list because it has made gains on its test scores and quality reviews  — even outperforming a number of other Renewal schools.

Weeks before the vote, City Hall rescinded one of the closure proposals, citing community pressure. The move inspired advocates at some of the other schools to keep making their case. While it’s unclear what motivated the panel’s “no” votes, they faced strong pressure to closely scrutinize the city’s plans before signing off.

The panel did approve the closure of five other schools in the Renewal program, an effort to rehabilitate the city’s lowest-performing schools with extra social services and academic support. While critics have called the program a misguided attempt to save schools that should instead be replaced, the schools’ supporters have argued that they were not given enough time to turn around since the program launched three years ago.

Including Thursday’s closures, there will be just under 50 schools remaining in the Renewal program, down from an original 94. (Twenty-one schools are being phased out of the improvement program after making progress.)

Thursday’s vote came just hours after news broke that Miami school superintendent Alberto Carvalho will replace retiring schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, overshadowing a hearing that some parents and educators had hoped would draw attention to the city’s closure plans.

The meeting’s tone was reminiscent of similar public hearings under de Blasio’s predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who moved to close dozens of schools and drew fierce protest from local communities. On Wednesday, dozens of people testified against the city’s plans, while audience members interrupted the proceedings with chants of, “Save our schools!”

Here is a list of schools that will officially be closed at the end of this school year. (The oversight panel also approved five school openings and one truncation.)

The five Renewal schools the city will close:

  • P.S. 50 Vito Marcantonio (District 4)
  • Coalition School for Social Change (District 4)
  • New Explorers High School (District 7)
  • Urban Science Academy (District 9)
  • P.S. 92 Bronx School (District 12)

The five other schools to be closed:

  • 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)

forward and back

Four takeaways from a new report on the status of Colorado’s children

Children on floor with building blocks. (Image Source | Getty Images)

Teen pregnancies are way down in Colorado. Teen suicides are alarmingly high. More of the state’s kids are attending full-day kindergarten than ever before, but half of them start school without the skills they need.

These are a few of the findings from the annual KIDS COUNT in Colorado report released today by the advocacy group Colorado Children’s Campaign. While the report always includes a trove of state and county-level data about child well-being, this year’s version — the 25th anniversary edition — touches timely topics ranging from gun control to the state’s school funding formula.

Here are four takeaways from the 147-page report. Read it in full here.

Half of Colorado kids aren’t ready for kindergarten
KIDS COUNT highlights the results of a new state report that looks at how prepared Colorado kids are for kindergarten. The report, mandated by an ambitious 2008 school reform law and released for the first time this year, reveals that just under half of the state’s kindergarteners meet benchmarks in all six areas of kindergarten readiness, which include everything from basic math knowledge to language comprehension and motor development. About a quarter of kindergarteners meet three or fewer benchmarks. (Here’s a look at the debate over the assessments used to gather kindergarten readiness data and one county’s effort to clarify what students need to know when they start kindergarten.)

The KIDS COUNT report also spotlights racial and ethnic disparities in kindergarten readiness, revealing, for example, that 55 percent of Hispanic kindergarteners met at least five of six benchmarks compared to 73 percent of non-Hispanic kindergarteners. While the authors of the KIDS COUNT report laud the new baseline data, they note one major shortcoming: The state report doesn’t pinpoint the specific areas where kids most often fall short, limiting the public’s ability to identify trouble spots.

School funding lags and full-day kindergarten explodes
Picking up on Colorado’s perennial school funding squeeze and recent efforts to get a statewide education tax measure on the ballot, KIDS COUNT examines the state school funding landscape. It shows that in 1995, Colorado spent $402 less than the national per-pupil average with adjustments for regional cost differences. By 2014, that number had ballooned to nearly $2,700 less per student.

Even as the state’s school funding has lagged, there’s been impressive growth in its full-day kindergarten population. This year, nearly 80 percent of kindergarteners are enrolled in full-day programs, compared to 14 percent in 2001-02. Still, the state only pays part of that cost, leaving districts to make up the rest through other government funding or parent tuition dollars.

While some lawmakers routinely seek (and fail to get) full state funding for full-day kindergarten, the coming gubernatorial election could mix things up this year. At least one candidate wants to offer free full-day kindergarten to all Colorado kids.

Colorado’s youth suicide rate is alarming —  and guns figure into the equation
At a time when school shootings are fueling a push for gun control legislation in some quarters, KIDS COUNT’s authors note the prominent role that guns play in youth suicides, especially for boys. About half of males 10 to 19 who die by suicide use firearms. (In comparison, only about 20 percent of suicide deaths in girls involve firearms.)

Besides noting that suicide risk is lowest for youth who live in homes without firearms, the report says, “Evidence suggests that laws aimed at preventing children and youth from accessing firearms reduce firearm suicides among this age group.”

KIDS COUNT also raises concern about Colorado’s high youth suicide rate, which came up in the state legislature earlier this year after a high-profile suicide of a 10-year-old Aurora girl. In 2016, there were 18 suicides for every 100,000 people aged 15 to 19 in the state — higher than in all but two of the last 25 years. The problem is particularly acute in two counties: El Paso and Mesa, where teen suicide rates were 29 per 100,000 in 2016.

Teen pregnancy goal met, with a caveat
One success story highlighted in this year’s KIDS COUNT report is the sharp decline in Colorado’s teen pregnancy rate over the last two-and-a-half decades. Given the likelihood that teen mothers are less likely to graduate from high school, the decrease is good news educationally and otherwise.

In 1991, there were 56 births per 1,000 Colorado teens. In 2016, it was down to 18 — well below the goal of 25 cited in the 1991 edition of KIDS COUNT. (The teen abortion rate has also dropped substantially in the last decade.) Despite major decreases in teen pregnancy for every racial and ethnic group, Colorado’s Hispanic teens still fall short of the 1991 goal with 30 pregnancies per 1,000 young women.

Even with huge strides across the state and nation in reducing teen pregnancy, recent cuts to a federal pregnancy prevention grant don’t bode well. One victim was the nonprofit Colorado Youth Matter, which focused on teen pregnancy prevention and sexual health. The organization, which got most of its funding from the federal grant, closed its doors at the end of December.

Building bonds

‘Trust is being built’ as foundation invests in programs to support Detroit parents and students

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Teacher Michele Pizzo and students Wajiha Begum, Iftiker Choudhury and Demetrious Yancy are closer since she's visited their homes


Anna Hightower didn’t know what to think when her daughter, Jasmine, wanted permission to invite her teachers to visit their home in October. But she pushed past her reluctance and nervousness, baked brownie cookies and opened her doors to two teachers from the Davison Elementary-Middle School.

She discovered a new world of information on being a better parent as a participant in the Detroit main district’s new initiative to empower parents, the Parent Teacher Home Visit Program.

It’s part of a sweeping initiative led by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which announced a three-year, $3 million grant Wednesday with the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The initiative also includes a parent academy which will serve 7,000 parents, and a summer camp for up to 900 pre-kindergartners starting in the fall.

It’s the first grant Kellogg has awarded as part of its $25 million commitment to a major initiative called Hope Starts Here that Kellogg, along with the Kresge Foundation, announced last fall. The two foundations plan to spend $50 million to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat).

Hightower said she believes the home visits are helping set the direction for her daughter’s life.

“I see now that DPS is not just a school for my daughter, but also a GPS,” she said.  “They see where my daughter wants to be, they know the destination and give her the opportunity to see the different routes she can go. They encouraged me as a parent to foster her growth as well.”

By the time the first home visit was over, the new relationships got 12-year-old Jasmine planning to join the school math club, apply to attend Cass Technical High School and consider her college choices.

La June Montgomery Tabron, W.K. Kellogg Foundation President and CEO, helped design the initiative to help the city’s youngest citizens, but Wednesday was the first day she met program participants.

“It just brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “It’s real, it’s practical. These aren’t easy relationships to build, but they are being built and trust is being built.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said rebuilding the district must include making parents stronger advocates for their children’s education.

“Every parent cares about their child’s education,” he said. “The reality, though, is a lot of our parents don’t know how to navigate the system in order to advocate for their child every day. Some of our parents are intimidated by the system. Sometimes, parents are not welcomed by schools, principals and even teachers, and sometimes district staff.”

Parents, he said, also often are carrying heavy loads, working multiple jobs, and struggling to pay bills. While they’re navigating everything, they are challenged to put their children and their  schooling first.

He said he envisions a “critical mass of parents” in every school who will hold the district accountable for its performance: They will demand certified teachers. They will understand how to help their child get a higher SAT test score, complete a financial aid application and help their children become better readers.

“All of this, I probably would say, is part of the greatest reflection of what I want us to be as a district,” he said.

Parents will be able to take classes on topics such as resume writing, scholarships, and college placements tests. The Parent Academy training will be held in schools, libraries, community centers and places of worship across the city.  

Michele Pizzo, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Davison, said volunteering to visit homes has become personal for her.

She’s gained weight eating four- and five-course meals of samosas, biryani rice and rich desserts prepared by families in the school with a majority Bengali student population. She’s made new friends while visiting with her students’ parents, and she better understands her students and feels she knows them better.

Since the fall, when the program was in its pilot stage, she has visited 30 parents after school and on weekends — all in homes except one.

“We try to make the parents feel as comfortable as possible. We walk in, give them a hug, kissing on both cheeks, and there’s a huge meal that takes place,” she said.  “They are able to open up to us, and even if they couldn’t speak English, their child translated for us.”

For seventh-grader Iftiker Choudhury the home visits have made him and his family closer to his teacher.

“I get along with the teacher more, and it’s like very friendly now,” he said. “I’m comfortable now and I talk to her more. My parents knowing her, it creates a bond in all of us.”