Department of Education Senior Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg and Shipnia Bytyqi, a graduate of the high school he founded who now teaches at a charter school in the city, took the stage last week at Teach for America New York's annual gala.
Teach For America used its annual New York City benefit last week to wade into the city's political debate. Praising the Bloomberg administration's education record, founder and board chair Wendy Kopp vowed that Teach For America and its supporters would fight to preserve the mayor's education legacy after he leaves office at the end of the year.
"No matter who takes office," Kopp said, "we are creating an unstoppable force."
The remarks reflected Teach For America's transition to playing a stronger role in public dialogue about education.
Kopp suggested that the organization would not throw its support behind a single candidate. "Progress isn't a function of one leader," Kopp said. Instead, she said, the educational change Teach For America supports requires "a constellation of committed souls."
The strength of that constellation was on display at the nonprofit's gala, held Wednesday at the glittering Waldorf Astoria hotel. In one night, the organization announced it raised $6.7 million, and speakers included Charlie Rose and Richard Parsons, the former CEO of Time Warner and Teach For America board member who also chairs Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Education Reform Commission.
M.S. 45 eighth-graders Ciara Shack (L) and Karla Lorenzo (C) and sixth-grader Eliza Fuentes (R) do an impromptu step cheer at a hearing about the school's proposed closure. They chanted the school's motto: “M.S. 45 going down the line, we gotta get an education to survive.” (Photo: Carey Reed)
A citywide sprint through dozens of public hearings about the Department of Education's plans to close, open, and move schools this year continued on Wednesday with spirited meetings at multiple schools.
At M.S. 45 in East Harlem, which the city wants to close at the end of the year, supporters said the school was on the verge of turning around after years of poor leadership. Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn, on the chopping block for the second time in a year, got praise for serving its many immigrant students. And at the Tilden Campus, also in Brooklyn, students and teachers argued that three schools' success could be undone if a new charter school moves into the building.
The hearings are a required part of the city’s process to close or open schools. The Panel for Educational Policy, which has never rejected a city proposal, is set to vote on the plans March 11.
Frustrations ran high at M.S. 45 S.T.A.R.S. Prep Academy as community members pleaded with city officials to allow the school's current principal more time to continue making improvements.
Students from Bronx Academy of Letters line up to speak at a public hearing last week about changes that are proposed to their school's building. (Photo: Elana Eisen-Markowitz)
At a public hearing where accusations flew about who is responsible for a South Bronx school’s challenges, only one person stood up to take blame.
“I apologize publicly for not doing what was expected by the community of me,” said William Hewlett, the founding principal of M.S. 203, at a hearing last week about the school’s proposed closure.
The Department of Education announced in January that it would seek to shutter M.S. 203, open since 2001, because of low performance. The middle school’s test scores put it among the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state, and it earned a C grade or lower on its last three city progress reports, which focus on student growth.
As M.S. 203 phases out, the department announced, a charter elementary school, Bronx Success Academy 1, that had shared its building for a year would be able to expand to serve middle school grades. Two other schools in the building — the Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters and P168, which serves students with severe disabilities — would stay on, but with new neighbors.
Students who attend schools the city is shuttering for poor performance will be allowed to leave, under a new policy that the Department of Education is rolling out at school closure hearings that begin tonight.
For the last decade, the Department of Education has closed schools — more than 150 in all — through a phase-out process in which no new students enter but existing students stay on until they graduate, up to three years after the closure decision. By the time the schools finally close their doors, only barebones staff and program offerings remain for the final students.
"The past policy was sort of like saying, 'We’re going to get divorced in two years but we have to live together until then.' It was not tenable," said Clara Hemphill, who has reported about the impact of closures on schools and students as the editor of Insideschools. "It seems only fair that children should not be trapped in a school that the DOE has deemed to be failing."
Now, the department will give each student in phaseout schools a list of higher-performing schools to which they can apply as part of the regular transfer process. When the department decides which transfer requests to approve, students from phaseout schools will be assigned first, starting with the neediest students who are looking for a new school.
The Brooklyn Youth Advisory Council, with leaders from the Coro New York Leadership Center, recommended co-location policies to Department of Education officials on Monday.
Sharing space doesn't have to hurt schools, high school students told Department of Education officials Monday night. Done right, students said, co-location can give schools strength in numbers.
In a hallmark policy, the Bloomberg administration has closed many large high schools and opened multiple smaller schools in the same buildings. Now, hundreds of schools coexist in shared spaces, an arrangement that can be uneasy at times.
After carrying out surveys and focus groups with nearly 400 students on four co-located campuses in Brooklyn, members of the youth council this week made recommendations for how to reduce tension and make the most of the space-sharing to top department officials, including Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg.
At the top of their list: youth councils on all co-located campuses to plan joint academic and extracurricular activities, and youth courts to deal with infractions of co-location rules.
New York City's process for assigning students to schools still sets some of the schools up to fail, State Education Commission John King charged today.
"I continue to have concerns about enrollment," King said. "I worry about the over-concentration of high-needs students in particular buildings without adequate supports to ensure success."
King made the comments to reporters during a break in a meeting of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's state education reform commission, which met this morning in the Bronx.
City officials have acknowledged King's concerns when petitioning the state for aid, but they have never conceded that high concentrations of needy students could hurt schools. Today, the Department of Education official in charge of enrollment said recent changes to the way some students are assigned to schools, made quietly last summer, were meant to increase choices for families, not respond to King's concerns or help struggling schools.
King's concerns reflect longstanding criticism about the Bloomberg administration's school choice policies. For years, critics have charged that the department overloads some schools with needy students, making it hard for them to show progress or even sustain their past performance. An internal department report completed in 2008 and obtained by GothamSchools last year concluded that a high school's size and concentration of low-achieving and overage students strongly predicts its graduation rate.
Three months after the city asked the state for federal funds to fuel school 'turnaround' efforts, the state has responded — with a resounding "maybe."
In a letter released late Friday, State Education Commissioner John King said the way the city plans to overhaul 24 struggling schools meets the state's requirements. But he said he would only hand over the federal funds, known as School Improvement Grants, if the city meets steep conditions.
To meet some of those conditions, the city would need to come out ahead in arbitration with the teachers union over collective bargaining rules at the 24 schools. It must also prove that community members were looped in on the city's planning process.
The arbitration, which covers a dispute over whether the city may use a process outlined in the teachers union contract for schools that close and reopen (called 18-D), is set to end next week. If the union comes out ahead, hiring and firing decisions at the schools would be reversed and, according to King's letter, the city would not be able to collect the SIG grants, which total nearly $60 million.
Earlier this year, King said he saw the city's proposal as "approvable." But he stayed quiet as the city signaled it would not force schools to adhere to a central requirement of turnaround set by the U.S. Department of Education: that they replace at least 50 percent of their teachers.
King's letter today says the city must meet the federal government's staffing requirements.
State turnaround advisors say "the percentage matters," SED spokesman Dennis Tompkins said over email. "18-D is the mechanism to achieve the required percentage."
A panel of speakers, with student Ajee Joyner seated third from left, was situated in front of a display of student work at Harlem Renaissance High School.
Three schools facing the same fate — a federally prescribed school reform strategy known as "turnaround" — registered their opposition in very different ways at public hearings Wednesday evening.
The hearings are a required part of the city's school closure process. In order to execute turnaround at 33 schools, qualifying them for a total of about $60 million in funding, the city must close and reopen the schools after changing their names and many of their teachers. Tuesday's hearings were the first in a series that extends to April 19, a week before the Panel for Educational Policy is set to vote on the turnaround plans.
At Sheepshead Bay High School, students and staff argued that the school is doing well despite a challenging student population. At Automotive High School, teachers acknowledged that the school desperately needs help — but they said past failures gave them little confidence the city could deliver it. And the community struck an entirely different tone at Harlem Renaissance High School, which would only be lightly touched by turnaround's most stringent requirements.
Harlem Renaissance High School
Opposition to turnaround was all in a name for students, parents, and teachers at Harlem Renaissance, a transfer high school that accepts students who have been unsuccessful at other schools.
A large portion of the school's 200 students turned out for the hearing, and many of the people who testified said their top priority was maintaining the school's name. A representative of the local community district testified that "Harlem" is an essential part of the name to preserve as the neighborhood continues to gentrify and change in character. Ajee Joyner, a senior, focused on the word "renaissance" and explained that she had learned it meant "rebirth" — a poignant definition for students who failed at or even dropped out of other schools.
"From the moment I walked through the doors, the theme of experiencing your own personal renaissance was constantly reinforced," said Joyner. "Every staff member reminds us on a regular basis that we can become whatever we want if we allow ourselves to be reborn in our learning and our educational paths."
Few schools' turnaround protests appear to focus on the renaming requirement. But at Harlem Renaissance, that could be the biggest disruption because it won't have to replace any teachers: 10 of the 18 teachers joined the staff in the last two years, so they would be counted as new under the federal rules about teacher replacement.
Department of Education officials are telling principals of schools slated for "turnaround" not to worry about quotas when they decide which teachers to hire for next year.
This guidance conflicts with the federal guidelines for the reform model, which require a school to replace at least half its teachers. It also contradicts the words of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other city officials, who have done little to dispute this figure before alarmed teachers, students and parents at meetings held throughout the city.
The 50 percent figure has been repeated again and again in months since Bloomberg's announcement, at forums, protests, union press conferences, and city presentations. Superintendent Aimee Horowitz told families and staff at Brooklyn's William E. Grady High School and Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School that "up to 50 percent of the remaining faculty can be re-hired," while at least 50 percent will have to leave. At a meeting of the Citywide Council on High Schools, Deputy Chancellor Elaine Gorman distributed a presentation that said part of the plan was to "re-hire no more than 50 percent."
But behind the scenes, department officials have been telling principals to ignore this requirement. They said they have told principals at the 33 schools to hire the best teachers available without fretting over whether they are new or would be returning.
"Our goal is for schools to hire and recruit the most qualified teachers who meet the high standards set by their principals — not to remove a certain percentage of staff," said Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg. "As that happens, we will work with the state to secure millions of dollars in funding that these new schools need and deserve."
Principals who have been working on developing plans for the replacement schools say they plan to follow the department’s instructions and are anticipating replacing far fewer teachers than 50 percent. Multiple principals said they were expecting to replace about a quarter of their teachers over the summer.
Principals of many of the schools proposed for radical overhauls this summer have begun trekking each Tuesday to the Department of Education's headquarters at Tweed Courthouse to prepare.
There, department officials are briefing them on how to shepherd their schools through the next six months during a weekly "Turnaround Schools Institute." The institute launched several weeks ago, after Mayor Bloomberg announced that 33 schools would be closed and reopened after having their leadership, programs, and teaching staffs shaken up under a federally prescribed process called "turnaround."
The institute is an adaptation of the "New Schools Intensive," a six-month training seminar that the department has run for principals of new schools for nearly a decade, according to Marc Sternberg, the department official in charge of school closures and new schools, who himself participated in the new school program when launching the Bronx Lab School in 2004.
The main idea, Sternberg said, is that the principals can work both with Department of Education officials and with other school leaders preparing for an unprecedented school overhaul process this fall. Multiple offices are involved in designing the programming, which borrows also from school overhaul trainings conducted in Chicago and North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg district and from efforts by nonprofit groups such as New Visions for Public Schools, which works with some of the city schools proposed for turnaround.
Parents and children hold a brief press conference to oppose the closure of P.S. 161's middle school.
At the same time that supporters of Satellite III were laying blame for their school's decline Thursday night, backers of Crown Heights' P.S. 161 said they were confident their new principal could reverse that school's slide.
Three years ago, P.S. 161 was an in-demand primary school, with more than three quarters of its students performing at or above grade-level. This year, the school is under-enrolled, D-rated, and set to lose its middle school grades, according to a Department of Education proposal.
Citing the school's low test scores, which show less than half of students passing state tests, and a steep drop in enrollment between fifth and sixth grades, city officials said truncating the middle school grades will benefit the school in the long-run. Without a middle school, they said, the school could focus efforts to boost achievement in the elementary grades.
"Let me be clear that the school is not closing," Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg told the crowd of 70-some parents, students, and education activists peppered through the school auditorium. "We see the truncation of the middle school as an opportunity to focus on the existing strengths of the school and reinvest in what is working here."
Parents and community leaders said the middle school remains a high point in a district with dwindling middle school options.
"The CEC is very concerned about what is going on in general in District 17 this January," said Claudette Agard, a member of the elected Community Education Council for the district. "We have four schools on this [closure] list. We are not defending failure, but the failure that you are citing and you are speaking of is not under this leadership."
PTA President Demetrius Lawrence, the father of two current students and one graduate, said the school's new principal, Michael Johnson, has the skills to turn the middle school around but needs more time.
Judy O'Brien, the librarian at two schools in the building the city has proposed for a new charter school, speaks against the co-location plan. (Video below.)
Tensions ran high at the city's first charter school co-location hearing of the year Tuesday night as advocates and opponents of the city's plan to open a new Success Academy school in Brownstone Brooklyn packed the proposed site.
Officials from the Department of Education and SUNY's Charter School Institute defended plans to add Brooklyn's third Success Charter Network school to a four-story Cobble Hill building that already houses three other schools, saying that the building has space for all four schools.
The charter school would admit 80 to 90 kindergarten and first-grade students in 2012 and grow by one grade per year until becoming a kindergarten through 5th-grade school.
According to the DOE official in charge of new schools, Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg, enrollment at the charter school would ultimately increase to somewhere between 500 and 640 students, and the total number of students in the building would climb to 1,400 or more.
"That would bring the school to 108 percent occupancy," he said.
In response, a member of the sometimes-rowdy audience who said he was a teacher and was later ejected by police after he shouted inappropriate words called out, "Where do you want the kids to learn, the bathrooms? Where do the other 8 percent go to class?"
Deputy Chancellors Kathleen Grimm and Marc Sternberg hear feedback from parents on plans to rezone schools in District 2.
The Department of Education's third — and likely final — proposal for rezoning in Manhattan's District 2 received a lukewarm reception from Lower Manhattan parents at a public hearing Monday night.
DOE officials retracted some of the more controversial elements of the department's rezoning proposal but warned that some overcrowded schools would not see relief, prompting grumbling from parents who had come to urge the officials to build more schools in the district.
In the revised plan, unveiled this week, Tribeca's popular P.S. 234 and the Greenwich Village's P.S. 41 and P.S. 3 will not be rezoned. Two of the original proposals, which called for the rezoning of schools in Lower Manhattan, Chelsea, and Greenwich Village, were unanimously rejected by the District 2 CEC earlier this month.
Now, the rezoning's only major effect would be to trim some Lower Manhattan school zones to create a zone for the Peck Slip School, a new elementary school that is set to open in Tweed Courthouse next fall.
City officials, including deputy chancellors Marc Sternberg and Kathleen Grimm, said the change in plans was a response to vocal opposition from parents at P.S. 234, who argued that altering the school's zone would change its character. But Sternberg and Grimm stressed that the tradeoff is that their latest proposal would not meet demand for school seats in the neighborhood. The parents had urged the officials to build more schools rather than shifting students among existing ones.
"You're right to ask for more, but we don't know if we can give you more," Sternberg said. "We are looking for solutions where the money falls short, as it most certainly will."
Some schools who pulled low grades on the progress reports handed out last week are already getting notice that the city is seriously worried about their performance.
Department of Education officials have identified 20 schools — 11 with middle school grades and 12 in Brooklyn alone — for "early engagement conversations" that could lead either to closure or another lease on life. This is the second year that the city, eager to stem some of the public outcry over school closures, has held conversations with low-performing schools before announcing which schools it plans to close. This year's notice comes even earlier than last year, by a few weeks.
Department officials compiled the shortlist by looking at schools' progress report grades, their Quality Reviews, the results of state evaluations, and the efforts they've already undertaken to improve. But in starting the early conversations, the department hopes to learn why the schools are struggling and whether other efforts could help them, according to Marc Sternberg, the DOE deputy chancellor in charge of school closures.
So far, the DOE has sent letters to elected officials in the schools' districts, the districts' elected parent councils, and their superintendents. Next, principals and DOE officials will jointly begin holding a series of meetings with families and teachers to discuss each individual schools' options.
"We'll take the feedback into consideration as we explore options to improve performance and support student success, and continue to work with all of our schools to ensure that students have access to high quality options," Sternberg said in a statement.
One principal, whose school received an F on its progress report, said she was "shocked and humiliated" when she found out her school would be listed publicly.
"Even though the F grade implies that we’re failing, we’re certainly not a failing school and we're not failing our children," the principal said.
Long before there were federally funded "turnaround" schools, Nyree Dixon was turning around Brooklyn's P.S. 12. When she became the Brownsville school's principal in 2006, barely a fifth of the elementary school’s students were passing state exams and the school was being considered for closure.
Since then, P.S. 12 has seen a jump in test scores and has stayed off the city's list of schools on the chopping block. Dixon attributes the improvement to changes in the school’s culture and instructional practices.
She joined Deidre DeAngelis, principal of New Dorp High School on Staten Island, on a panel during the conference on alternatives to school closures that several advocacy groups organized Saturday. The pair discussed the strategies they used to help their once-failing schools stay open and, in New Dorp's case, turn into a model of successful school improvement for the city and federal education departments.
Those strategies — adding tutoring, offering more teacher training, connecting students and teachers, and engaging families — predate the structural and human capital changes the Obama administration has mandated for failing schools. They suggest that strong leadership is enough to change a school's course — a view that a top Department of Education deputy shared at Saturday's conference.
“Nothing that happens in Tweed is going to move student achievement as much as 95 percent of things that happen in a school building,” said Marc Sternberg, the deputy chancellor in charge of closing and opening schools.
The City Council's education committee has given a great deal of scrutiny to schools the Department of Education wants to close. Now it's turning its attention to the new schools the department wants to open.
Today, the committee held an oversight hearing about the DOE's new school creation process, which has resulted in more than 400 new schools in the last nine years.
The process to open a charter school is set in law, but how new district schools come to exist is more obscure, Robert Jackson, the committee's chair, said during the hearing.
"Some charge that there's been two many new schools opened in too short a time, with too little planning and preparation and too much emphasis on quantity over quality," he said.
Of the 500 district and charter schools that have opened since 2002, just six have closed because of poor performance, said Marc Sternberg, the DOE deputy chancellor in charge of new schools. He said the schools' success stems in large part from the department's selection process for school models and principals.
That process has gotten more stringent this year. Prospective school leaders will have to complete a rigid, three-month-long series of assignments, and at three points, some will be culled from the pool.
The city official in charge of closing schools and the union chief who has sued to keep schools open are both set to speak at a conference tomorrow about what can be done to help schools without shuttering them.
The conference, "Effective Alternatives to School Closings: Transforming Struggling Schools in NYC," was organized by the Coalition for Educational Justice, the Alliance for Quality Education, and the Urban Youth Collaborative, all advocacy organizations. The event is meant to send a message to city policymakers that there are ways to reform failing schools without shutting them down, according to Ronnette Summers, a parent and CEJ member who helped organize it.
The city Department of Education has closed 117 schools since 2002 and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said this week that he plans to close additional schools, particularly middle schools, that do not meet the department's standards.
“Every year there’s more and more schools on the closing list and that seems to be the only reform strategy that the Department of Education uses to improve schools,” Summers said. “People in places where they know [closure] is not working felt that it was important to bring it to New York City to let them see that there’s other ways to improve schools.”
The city is hoping that the second time is the charm for its plan to move a charter school into the P.S. 9 building in Brooklyn.
A revised version of a plan outlining how the two schools would share space is one of the items expected to be passed at tomorrow night's Panel for Educational Policy meeting. (A majority of panel members are appointed by the mayor, and so city proposals always pass easily.) State education officials overturned a first draft of the plan last month.
The state's move followed an appeal by parents at P.S. 9 parents who claimed that the city's proposal did not include required information. Parents at the school also challenge the city's plan because it conflicts with their own hopes for the school, which they would like to expand through the eighth grade.
Parents have even nominated one of their own, a P.S. 9 parent who is currently a dean at a Manhattan middle school, to oversee the expansion, which would require P.S. 9 to take up more space inside the building.
The Department of Education is standing by its plan. "We are pleased with P.S. 9’s progress and understand the desire of the school to expand, but in this case, the need of an entire school district strongly outweighs the need of one school," said Marc Sternberg, deputy chancellor for portfolio planning.
Faye Rimalovski, a P.S. 9 parent, said parents are prepared to protest the plan at tomorrow's PEP meeting. "Armed and ready," she said.
Three more schools will begin closing next year, following a vote by the citywide school board last night that brought the total of schools closed this year to 27.
Members of the Panel for Educational Policy voted to close two transfer schools — Pacific High School and the Bronx Academy High School — as well as P.S. 30, an elementary school in Queens. A spokeswoman for the city's Department of education said that, including the decision to shutter Ross Global Charter School, 27 schools will begin closing next year.
It was Chancellor Dennis Walcott's first panel meeting since Mayor Bloomberg named him to the post. Walcott said he hoped to change the tenor of the meetings by answering parents' questions and publicly debating policy issues at a deeper level than his predecessors did.
Walcott began the meeting by walking down from the stage and into the crowd, where he promised parents, teachers, and students that he and his staff would respect them.
"You will never hear me be disagreeable with you," he said. "The one thing we understand is these are emotional issues for you...the approach we’re going to take moving forward is be responsive to those issues even when we don’t agree."
If audience members heard Walcott's plea for civility, they betrayed no signs. The boos and catcalls that have peppered panel meetings for months reappeared last night, as did animosity between charter school supporters and the district schools they will have to share space with next year.
The Division of Teaching and Learning is set to disappear under the latest reorganization at the city's education department.
The move is part of a slate of changes intended to streamline the department's organization, according to spokesman David Cantor. He called the changes, which include the creation of a deputy chancellor for community engagement position, "an organic next step" in the series of administrative shifts that have taken place under Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.
The teaching and learning office, which is on its fourth leader since 2007, is getting folded into the Division of School Support, which contains the network structure that currently manages how schools receive administrative assistance. The new office will be called the Division of School Support and Instruction and will be headed by Chief Schools Officer Eric Nadelstern, giving him authority over the central piece of schools' business for the first time.
"Obviously the aim is to make instruction as effective as can be, but I don't think anyone's going to see any kind of sudden shift in the way we go about teaching kids, and nor do we want that," Cantor said. "The point is just to help do what we're good at better."
Under the changes, which will finish taking effect by July 1, the current head of teaching and learning, Santiago Taveras, will become the first-ever community engagement czar. Leaving behind his instructional past, Taveras will manage how the department presents to the public proposals that are set to come before the city school board, known as the Panel for Educational Policy.