closures ahead

New York City will close another round of schools in de Blasio’s Renewal turnaround program

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman/Chalkbeat
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a previous set of closure plans.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is widely expected to wind down his signature program for struggling schools. But before he does, city officials are planning to close a handful of turnaround schools, decisions that will be announced publicly in January.

The city has closed 14 Renewal schools since the program launched in 2014 with 94 schools. Now, the education department is poised to close more, according to a senior department official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Decisions about which schools will be on the chopping block have not yet been formally made, the official said. But the education department is planning to close fewer than last year, the largest single round of Renewal closures to date, when seven schools were ultimately shuttered.

It’s not entirely surprising that the department is eyeing additional closures. Though de Blasio has said they are a “last resort,” the city began closing some of the 94 original Renewal schools within a year of the program’s launch.

The closure decisions again throw the $750 million turnaround program into the spotlight, underscoring that despite a raft of extra social services and academic support, the extra resources have largely not lived up to the mayor’s promise of “fast and intense” improvements.

The looming closures also raise questions about the future of school turnaround in New York City. De Blasio has said the program, which is in its fourth year of what was initially described as a three-year effort, is reaching its “natural conclusion,” and that decisions about the 50 remaining Renewal schools will be made by the end of this school year. Yet city officials have declined to explain what will happen to schools that will avoid closure and have not made enough progress to leave the program.

“There’s a great deal of uncertainty about what their futures are,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College who has studied the turnaround program. “The chancellor hasn’t said much of anything that is suggestive of a comprehensive strategy of dealing with the remaining Renewal schools in particular, or struggling schools in general.”

When the Renewal initiative launched, city officials framed it as the antithesis of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s approach, which involved closing over 150 schools and replacing them with new — often smaller — ones. Research has found that strategy showed some promise. But it also drew fierce protest from teachers, union officials, and disrupted long-standing neighborhood institutions. A number of the new schools continued to struggle, however, and would eventually become Renewal schools.

By contrast, de Blasio sought to keep schools open whenever possible. The city instead gave low-performing schools additional funding, access to non-profit organizations that would help provide physical and mental health services, and academic resources, such as additional teacher training and leadership coaches.

Research on de Blasio’s approach shows its effect on school improvement has been mixed at best. And the New York Times recently reported that city officials initially predicted that about a third of schools in the program would never make significant strides.

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 Renewal. No schools have been added to the program since it began.

An education department spokeswoman did not respond to specific questions about the program and the city’s future plans for struggling schools, including how closure decisions will be made. In the past, officials said they consider a range of factors, including schools’ academic performance, feedback from families, staff turnover, and previous improvement efforts.

Increases in graduation rates and test scores have not been enough to spare some schools from being shuttered — and the city has even closed schools that have met a majority of their goals.

“We believe in investing in our schools,” education department spokeswoman Danielle Filson said in a statement. “We will share an update on the Renewal program by the end of the school year.”

Many Renewal schools still post test scores and graduation rates that are far below average, which could invite extra scrutiny. At Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx, 57 percent of students graduate on time — roughly 20 points below the city average. At I.S. 117, 8 percent of students passed state math tests last year, and 16 percent were proficient in reading — an increase from 2015 when just 5 percent of students were proficient in either subject, though still far below average.

If Renewal schools performing below expectations avoid closure, it’s unclear how the city will continue to intervene to improve them. City officials have said Renewal schools will not lose the extra funding they received, or their “community school” designations, which are a core element of the Renewal program and allow schools to partner with nonprofit organizations and offer a range of social services, including mental health counseling and dental clinics.

Some observers said it’s possible the city won’t replace Renewal with another distinct turnaround program, especially since it has created headaches for de Blasio, and instead opt for a squishier system of support for struggling schools.

“That would be the politically wise way to go,” said Robin Veentstra-VanderWeele, the chief program officer at Partnership with Children, which serves as the nonprofit partner in eight city turnaround schools. “If you don’t tell anyone what the target is they don’t know what to shoot.”

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at EdReports.org and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.