end of the road

After report that New York City is ending its Renewal turnaround program, big questions remain

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

New York City is poised to end its $750 million Renewal Schools program, which city officials knew within a year of its launch in 2014 was unlikely to produce the promised “fast and intense” improvements in academic achievement in many of the city’s lowest performing schools, the New York Times reported on Friday.

The education department would not confirm the program is winding down and did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But in his weekly appearance on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show, de Blasio did not deny the program is ending, and even suggested it is reaching its “natural conclusion.”

However, he bristled at the characterization that the program — which was meant to improve long-struggling schools by giving them extra social services and academic support, including on-site health clinics, coaches for teachers and extended school days — was deeply flawed.

“I think it was the right idea to say we have to invest in these schools,” de Blasio said.

This left educators, parents and students guessing on Friday about what’s next for the 50 schools that are still a part of Renewal, which has been one of the mayor’s signature education initiatives.

“What am I supposed to do now as a parent for my child’s school that’s on the Renewal list?” a parent whose child is in the 11th grade at Martin Van Buren High School asked de Blasio on the show.

One education department administrator, who works with multiple Renewal schools and spoke on condition of anonymity, said it is not yet clear, if the program ends, what the city’s exit strategy would be and whether the schools will continue receiving additional supports and resources.

“It may mean an end to the extended day, it may mean an end for the coaching help, it may mean an end to the community schools partners” the administrator said, referring to nonprofit organizations that have been paired with every Renewal school and which provide services ranging from extra social workers to afterschool programs.

“There seems to be good reason to think that the program is going to be shut down after three quarters of a billion dollars has been pumped into it without much positive impact to point to,” said Aaron Pallas, a researcher at Teachers College who has studied the Renewal initiative.

Two independent analyses conducted by outside researchers, including the one by Pallas, have found the program has had a limited impact on academic performance. (The Times also cited results from an unpublished study from the RAND Corporation, which said on Friday that it does not comment on research in progress and expects to release its full evaluation of the city’s community schools program next year.)

Whether de Blasio will face pressure to come up with a new strategy for intervening in the city’s lowest-performing schools — and what that might be — is unclear. Research does not point to any single approach for turning around low-performing schools. Mayor Bloomberg’s efforts to shut down such schools and replace them led to some gains, research has found, but school closures can also backfire if they only serve to disrupt a student’s education and don’t wind up at a better school.

“In fairness,” Pallas noted, there are not obvious or easy models for the kind of rapid turnaround that de Blasio promised. “The alternative is perhaps quickly closing schools and quickly shunting students in Renewal schools to other schools,” he said, “but we know that’s not great for all students, and it takes time to do it responsibly.”

City officials have insisted that many Renewal schools have made strides, though they have also closed or merged schools that haven’t measured up. 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.

But within a year of its beginning, the Times reported, city officials privately worried that roughly one third of Renewal schools were likely to see little or no improvement — yet continued to champion the program and kept most of the schools open.

Even outside supporters of Renewal were concerned that de Blasio had set unrealistic expectations for an intervention that, at best, was likely to be slow, arduous work. In his speech announcing the program, the mayor promised the schools would see rapid improvements within three years, and the city would “move heaven and earth” to ensure this success.

Moreover, if the Renewal program faltered on a national stage, this failure could undermine the broader “community schools” movement, which has shown signs of promise and holds that struggling schools need extra social services to overcome the effects of poverty that can impede student learning — a central tenet of de Blasio’s turnaround strategy.

De Blasio hoped Renewal would be a definitive answer to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s approach of closing dozens of schools and opening new ones, a process that often drew outrage from school communities and prompted lawsuits from the city teachers union.

“Closing them and replacing them with something that couldn’t necessarily address the problem any better was not the solution,” de Blasio said Friday.

Signs of strain and missteps, however, were evident from nearly the beginning. Expecting quick and significant gains from schools that had struggled for years put enormous pressure on them, many of which did not immediately receive clear guidance — or promised support  — from the education department.

Though Renewal schools had seen declining enrollment well before the program started, the schools struggled to attract students. Education officials, who had initially refused to release any benchmarks at all, eventually acknowledged the schools would get three years to hit targets other schools were expected to meet in one. (More recently, schools were even allowed to backslide and still meet their goals.)

Still, as the program gained steam, some school leaders said the extra support made a big difference. At Juan Morel Campos, a 6-12 school in Brooklyn, school officials used the extra coaches to help teachers adapt to a more rigorous curriculum. And at Longwood Prep, a high school in the Bronx, school leaders have implemented a new data system for identifying students who don’t show up to school.

But indications that the city might be readying to end the program have been accumulating for months. Though officials had previously toyed with the idea of adding schools to Renewal, the education department has acted as if it could be phased out.

Soon after being named chancellor, Richard Carranza criticized the program, saying it seemed to lack a clear “theory of action”; the initiative has gone without a permanent leader since its executive superintendent stepped down in March; and the city has not given Renewal schools goals they are expected to meet this year, despite doing so in the past.

De Blasio, however, sounded a defiant note on the Lehrer show on Friday. “I disagree with the premise of this [Times] article that this was in some way an idea that was not appropriate to the problem,” he said.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.