renewed questions

Mayor de Blasio says fate of 50 turnaround schools will be decided this year

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

Mayor Bill de Blasio offered new clues Wednesday about the future of dozens of struggling schools that remain in the city’s Renewal turnaround program, saying the schools will learn their fate this school year.

Now in the fourth year of what was originally billed as a three-year effort, the Renewal program has been a pillar of the mayor’s education agenda. It aimed to rapidly turn around 94 long-struggling schools by adding extra social services and academic supports and will have cost the city over $750 million by the end of this school year.

Of the 50 schools that remain in the program, “We expect a lot of those schools to graduate out,” de Blasio said at a morning press conference at P.S. 377 in Queens,but ultimately this is the year to decide what happens with all of them.”

City officials have been reluctant to offer definitive answers about how long the program will continue and what benchmarks schools need to reach to no longer be considered in need of extra support and oversight. De Blasio’s comments on Wednesday offer a new timeline for answering some of those questions and suggests the city may be looking to make significant changes this school year.

“We gave an extra year because we thought it was worth it,” de Blasio said. “We thought the additional investment would make a big difference for a lot of them.”

The city has always acted as if the Renewal program would extend beyond the three-year mark, but just days after starting as the city’s new schools chancellor in April, Richard Carranza expressed concerns about the program, saying it didn’t appear to have a clear “theory of action” (though he has since backed off that stance).

Questions remained on Wednesday as schools opened for the year about how the program is being supervised and what the city’s goals are for each school.

Despite hiring a round of new senior officials, Carranza has not replaced the Renewal program’s superintendent, who stepped down in March. The education department has also not publicly released any of the goals the schools are expected to reach this year, which typically include metrics like test scores, attendance, and graduation rates. (And unlike previous years, neither the mayor nor chancellor visited any Renewal schools on the first day of school.)

“The goal posts have never been very clear — either in terms of specific outcomes that would guide hard decisions or timelines,” said Aaron Pallas a professor at Teachers College who has studied the Renewal program.

A spokesman for the mayor’s office referred questions about de Blasio’s comments to the education department. Will Mantell, a department spokesman, said the city expects to “share an update this fall” about the city’s plans for the program but did not offer details or explain the city’s targets for each school.

“We’re continuing to provide Renewal Schools with unprecedented supports under First Deputy Chancellor [Cheryl] Watson-Harris’s leadership,” Mantell said in a statement.

The program, pitched as an alternative to large rounds of school closures under the Bloomberg administration, has offered additional supports such as extending the school day, providing academic coaching for teachers, adding social services like mental health counseling and dental clinics, and partnering with community organizations.

The initiative has prompted fierce debate about whether this approach is the best way to turn around the city’s lowest-performing schools. While the city argues the program is making a difference and some school leaders have appreciated the extra assistance, researchers have found that the program has not generated significant academic improvements measured by test scores and graduation rates.

Of the 94 original schools, 14 have been closed, nine have left the program after being merged with other schools, and city officials said 21 have shown enough progress to slowly ease out of the program. No schools have been added to the program since it began in 2014.

On Wednesday, Carranza suggested some of the responsibilities for overseeing school turnaround efforts would fall to nine recently-created “executive superintendents” who Carranza said he vetted partly for their “experience in turning around schools and supporting academic growth in schools.” And he said Renewal schools would not lose the extra support they have been given — similar to the help a wider group of “community schools” receive — even as the program may evolve.

“If you invested those kinds of resources in building a community school network and approach around a school, then as a school gets better why in the world would you ever pull that away?” Carranza said.

Mapping a Turnaround

This is what the State Board of Education hopes to order Adams 14 to do

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District on April 17, 2018.

In Colorado’s first-ever attempt to give away management of a school district, state officials Thursday provided a preview of what the final order requiring Adams 14 to give up district management could include.

The State Board of Education is expected to approve its final directives to the district later this month.

Thursday, after expressing a lack of trust in district officials who pleaded their case, the state board asked the Attorney General’s office for advice and help in drafting a final order detailing how the district is to cede authority, and in what areas.

Colorado has never ordered an external organization to take over full management of an entire district.

Among details discussed Thursday, Adams 14 will be required to hire an external manager for at least four years. The district will have 90 days to finalize a contract with an external manager. If it doesn’t, or if the contract doesn’t meet the state’s guidelines, the state may pull the district’s accreditation, which would trigger dissolution of Adams 14.

State board chair Angelika Schroeder said no one wants to have to resort to that measure.

But districts should know, the state board does have “a few more tools in our toolbox,” she said.

In addition, if they get legal clearance, state board members would like to explicitly require the district:

  • To give up hiring and firing authority, at least for at-will employees who are administrators, but not teachers, to the external manager.
    When State Board member Steve Durham questioned the Adams 14 school board President Connie Quintana about this point on Wednesday, she made it clear she was not interested in giving up this authority.
  • To give up instructional, curricular, and teacher training decisions to the external manager.
  • To allow the new external manager to decide if there is value in continuing the existing work with nonprofit Beyond Textbooks.
    District officials have proposed they continue this work and are expanding Beyond Textbooks resources to more schools this year. The state review panel also suggested keeping the Beyond Textbooks partnership, mostly to give teachers continuity instead of switching strategies again.
  • To require Adams 14 to seek an outside manager that uses research-based strategies and has experience working in that role and with similar students.
  • To task the external manager with helping the district improve community engagement.
  • To be more open about their progress.
    The state board wants to be able to keep track of how things are going. State board member Rebecca McClellan said she would like the state board and the department’s progress monitor to be able to do unannounced site visits. Board member Jane Goff asked for brief weekly reports.
  • To allow the external manager to decide if the high school requires additional management or other support.
  • To allow state education officials, and/or the state board, to review the final contract between the district and its selected manager, to review for compliance with the final order.

Facing the potential for losing near total control over his district, Superintendent Javier Abrego Thursday afternoon thanked the state board for “honoring our request.”

The district had accepted the recommendation of external management and brought forward its own proposal — but with the district retaining more authority.

Asked about the ways in which the state board went above and beyond the district’s proposal, such as giving the outside manager the authority to hire and fire administrative staff, Abrego did not seem concerned.

“That has not been determined yet,” he said. “That will all be negotiated.”

The state board asked that the final order include clear instructions about next steps if the district failed to comply with the state’s order.

Changing fortune

Late votes deliver a narrow win for Jeffco school bond measure

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Voters in Jefferson County narrowly approved a $567 million bond request that will allow the school district to improve its buildings.

Jeffco Measure 5B, the bond request, initially appeared to have failed, even as voters supported Measure 5A, a $33 million mill levy override, a type of local property tax increase, by a comfortable margin. But as late votes continued to be counted between Election Day and today, the gap narrowed — and then the tally flipped.

With all ballots counted — including overseas and military ballots and ballots from voters who had to resolve signature problems — the bond measure had 50.3 percent of the vote and a comfortable 1,500 vote margin.

In 2016, Jeffco voters turned down both a mill levy override and a bond request. Current Superintendent Jason Glass, who was hired after the ballot failure, made efforts in the last year to engage community members who don’t have children in the district on the importance of school funding. This year’s bond request was even larger than the $535 million ask that voters rejected two years ago.

“We are incredibly thankful to our voters and the entire Jeffco community for supporting our schools,” Glass said in a statement. “The 5A and 5B funding will dramatically impact the learning environment for all of our students. Starting this year, we will be able to better serve our students, who in turn will better serve our communities and the world.”

The money will be used to add new classrooms and equip them, improve security at school buildings, and add career and technical education facilities.