bus woes

After school bus horror stories, New York City council members propose fixes

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Parents gathered at a press conference outside City Hall to share their horror stories regarding New York City school bus services.

After the school year began with a record number of complaints concerning bus delays and treacherously long routes, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza promised that he isn’t done trying to tackle long-standing problems that have plagued the school bus system.

Testifying on Tuesday at a City Council education committee hearing, Carranza said the results of an independent audit already underway will help guide future reforms and that a recent restructuring of the Office of Pupil Transportation will provide better oversight of the department responsible for shuttling 150,000 students across the country’s largest school system.

“Parents depend on us to get their children — their most prized possessions — safely picked up and delivered to school everyday,” Carranza said.

The city is also planning to expand the use of GPS on buses to allow parents to track routes in real time, and will no longer observe a two-week grace period at the beginning of the school year before levying fines on bus companies for being late. That’s according to Kevin Moran, who is leading the Office of Pupil Transportation after the previous director was ousted.

Bus woes are a regular back-to-school debacle. But this year was historically bad, with the “highest level ever” of complaints, according to Speaker Corey Johnson. There were 130,000 complaints in September, Councilman Mark Treyger said.

Parents this year complained their children were never picked up, arrived to school hours late, and sometimes were trapped for upwards of three hours on circuitous routes home — leaving families to agonize over whether their children were safe. The problems where extensively chronicled in the New York Daily News. Many of the affected students have disabilities, and the city is required to provide them with transportation to programs tailored to their needs.

One 4-year-old was let off the bus blocks from her home and got lost before being picked up by a neighbor and brought to a local hospital, councilman Mark Treyger said.

“We cannot continue to allow these things to happen to our children,” Treyger said.  

With only six months on the job, Carranza’s response to the problems has provided a window into his leadership style. He swiftly fired Eric Goldstein, former Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose reportedly was pressured to leave, an audit was announced, and additional background checks for drivers are now required. The transportation office is no longer lumped in with departments that oversee school food programs and sports offerings.

“There were a lot of practices that were almost insular in the OPT,” he said. “From a systems perspective, that is not best practice.”

City council members are proposing a slew of new bills to address the long-standing problems. One bill co-sponsored by more than a dozen members would require all buses to use GPS tracking, another would create a bill of rights for riders, and another would require the education department to report average travel times for students. Tucked into a bill sponsored by Councilman Ben Kallos is a call for the city to also consider the use of transportation to encourage school integration.

Kallos, who is also behind the legislation to require location trackers, said the city has already allocated funding for the devices in its budget.

“The city just needs to do it. It’s already paid for,” he said. “It is most important for parents and caretakers… so that no one has to worry where the bus is or their child is.”

Before the council hearing, parents shared busing horror stories. Emily Foley, the mother of a 3-year-old who has Down syndrome, said she never knows how long her child will spend on the bus ride home — a problem that poses a health threat since her child relies on a feeding tube.

Eliyanna Kaiser said her twin boys, who have autism, spent more than three hours traveling just 50 blocks to get to school, turning the excitement of the first day back to classes into a long, worrisome wait to find out whether her sons were safe.

She said that GPS tracking would provide data that could be used to push for change and hold the city accountable.

“It’s really hard to argue with me when I have the GPS data,” she said. “With the data out there it will be a lot easier to prove what the problems are, and it’s harder to duck away from it.”

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans. 

carry on

These 16 Denver charter schools won renewal from the school board

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sebastian Cruz waves to Rev. Leon Kelly as he works with children in a classroom during his after-school program at Wyatt Academy in September 2018.

The Denver school board on Thursday night unanimously renewed agreements with 16 of the district’s charter schools. The lengths of those renewals, however, varied from one year to five years — and signaled the board’s confidence in the schools to deliver a quality education.

The board also accepted Roots Elementary’s decision to close and surrender its charter at the end of this school year. The Park Hill school is facing low enrollment and high costs.

Denver Public Schools is a charter-friendly school district that has for years shared tax revenue and school buildings with its 60 publicly funded, independently operated charter schools. The schools are controversial, though, with opponents viewing them as privatizing public education.

Every charter school in Denver has an agreement with the district that spells out how long it’s allowed to operate. To continue running after that time period, the charter school must seek renewal. The arrangement is part of the deal for charters: They get the flexibility to operate independently, but they must periodically prove to the district that they’re doing a good job.

The school board relies on one set of recommendations from Denver Public Schools staff and a second set of recommendations from a districtwide parent committee in deciding how long a leash to give each charter school. The district staff and the parents on the committee consider factors such as test scores, school culture, financial viability, and the strength of a school’s leaders when making their recommendations.

They also consider a school’s rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale based largely on academic factors. The School Performance Framework, or SPF, labels schools either blue, green, yellow, orange, or red. Blue means a school has a distinguished academic record, while red means a school is not meeting the district’s expectations.

The staff recommended the school board renew the charters of all 16 schools that applied. Two other charter schools — DSST: Cole Middle School and Compass Academy — are also up for renewal this year. But because they earned the district’s lowest rating, they must go through a separate process in which they will present a detailed improvement plan. Their renewals will depend on the strength of their plans, which is why they weren’t included in this batch.

The board approved the 16 renewals Thursday without discussion. All of the new terms begin next school year. Here’s the rundown:

STRIVE Prep Federal, a middle school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2006
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, an elementary school in southeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: College View High School, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Green
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Blue
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Elementary School, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, an elementary school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Wyatt Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2003
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School, a middle school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2013
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Denver Justice High School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in central Denver
Year opened: 2009
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

REACH Charter School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

Monarch Montessori, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

STRIVE Prep SMART, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

Academy of Urban Learning, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northwest Denver
Year opened: 2005
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year, with a possible one-year extension

Rise Up Community School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year