meeting preview

Six new charter schools could open in New York City following Regents vote

PHOTO: Monica Disare
The New York State Board of Regents

New York state’s top education policymakers will vote on six New York City charter schools in their last meeting before summer break.

The schools range from a Queens high school hoping to help students who have fallen behind to a Brooklyn elementary school that wants to incorporate martial arts into the school day. If they earn the Regents’ approval, the schools could open in the fall of 2019.

The Board of Regents is also slated to discuss its plans to implement the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, a law that outlines how states will evaluate schools and support those that are struggling. Some of the state’s plans have drawn ire from the state teacher’s union, which fears schools with large numbers of families boycotting state tests.

However, the plan is unlikely to have a large impact on New York City, which has seen significantly lower opt-out rates than in other areas of the state. Also, state officials and other advocates have forcefully pushed back on the idea that these schools will face consequences.

Additionally, the board will discuss testing, school integration, and new ways to help students graduate – all topics that have broad interest across the state.

Here’s what we will be watching:

New set of charter schools

There could be a spate of new options for students in the fall of 2019 if six charter schools receive Regents approval.

While the board also voted for the creation of five New York City charter schools at its November meeting, Monday’s votes are not a done deal. The board rejected two schools at its last meeting. It was the first time the board rejected schools that had already earned a stamp of approval from the state education department.

If approved, the schools will provide seats for nearly 2,700 students once all of their grade levels are up and running. Officials at the proposed schools are hoping to open a new school in every borough except for Manhattan. Several are focused on helping traditionally underserved students, such as those with disabilities or who have dropped out of school. Many vow to have an intensive focus on preparing students for college.

Every Student Succeeds Act

The board is gearing up to explain how officials will put the state’s Every Student Succeeds Act plan into action – and some rules have already sparked attention.

A federal mandate requires that 95 percent of students take state tests, which could become a problem in New York state where about one in five families boycotted the exams last year. At Monday’s meeting, officials will likely discuss what happens if schools fall below the required bar.

The state teachers union is not happy with the state’s current solution, arguing that, under some circumstances, schools with persistently high opt-out rates may have to use Title I funding to increase test participation. (This money is used to help high-poverty schools.) In some extreme cases, union officials argue, these schools could even be closed for high opt-out rates.

“The draft ESSA regulations make a direct frontal assault on the rights of parents to opt-out their children from the state testing system,” reads a letter from the union to State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

But there are several reasons to believe that this will not have a major impact on New York City. First, the city has a much lower opt-out rate than many other districts in the state. Only 3 percent of students opted out of English exams and 3.5 percent opted out of math last year. Also, the schools would have to be Title I schools to see any funding shifts as a result of this rule, which would likely exclude some schools in wealthier neighborhoods that have high opt-out rates.

Additionally, before schools had to use Title I funds to increase test participation they would have years to execute plans to boost their numbers. Further, state officials said they do not envision any circumstance in which they would close schools based on high opt-out rates and closures would be at the discretion of the state education commissioner.

“There should be no financial penalties for schools with high opt-out rates,” said state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis. “Our ESSA regulations lay out a multi-year process to address low participation rates that includes, after four years of consistently low participation rates, the possibility of the district directing funds for outreach to parents or other measures to increase participation.”

Extra credit

Policymakers are also preparing broader discussions about several important topics, including testing, integration and graduation requirements. It’s unclear which specific areas they will cover, but in the past policymakers have decided against applying for a federal innovative testing program or outlined possible ideas for integrating schools.

The conversation about graduation requirements will be centered on an option that allows students to substitute an arts assessment for  their final required Regents exam for an arts assessment. Additionally, state officials are slated to talk about a change in how much instructional time schools have to log before they can receive state education funding.

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.