Here’s what we know — and don’t know — about NYC’s plan to create and overhaul 40 schools

In the weeks since Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $31 million competition to open or overhaul 40 schools, officials launched a whirlwind tour across the city to get the word out and convince educators, community organizations, and students to apply.

The first round of applications are due Tuesday, with some moving onto a more intensive design process, vying for grants up to $500,000. The initiative is supported by $16 million from the education department, $10 million from XQ, and $5 million from the Robin Hood Foundation.

If the information sessions are any guide, officials could receive proposals from people with a wide range of experiences and who have dramatically different takes on what “innovation” looks like.

Some educators, for instance, expressed interest in helping expand their schools’ ability to provide social services to needy students or setting up a school for English learners who have struggled at traditional high schools.  A former education department executive who helped open new schools during the Bloomberg administration was interested in submitting a proposal to improve the way teachers create curriculum and emphasize small group instruction, among other changes. 

“We’ve done a lot of thinking about reimagining the role of the teacher,” said Alex Shub, the former education department official who is now the CEO of the School Empowerment Network. 

But many open questions remain as to how officials will choose between teams with widely different credentials, ideas, and experiences creating new schools or overhauling existing ones. 

Here are four things we know — and five we don’t know — about the new initiative. 

Here’s what we know:

The Nov. 12 deadline for submitting applications is here, but there will be future rounds

Teams that are interested are supposed to submit “statements of intent” by Nov. 12 including a five-minute video explaining their “bold idea.” Officials have stressed that these initial applications should just be a rough sketch of the idea and who will be involved in creating it. The department plans to hold a handful of “design days” where teams will get help fully fleshing out their ideas. The first round winning teams will be announced in May and are expected to open new and “reimagined” schools in September 2021.

A second round of new applications will be collected in April, officials have said.

Pretty much anyone can apply

Education department officials have made it clear that there are few limits on who can submit an application. Proposals for elementary, middle, and high schools should take “youth voice” into account and may include include students, educators, parents, and even celebrities or artificial intelligence, according to XQ materials. Teams don’t need to have a school leader in mind.

Teams can’t apply to open new charter schools, and New York City has already hit a cap on the number of charter schools that can open locally. But teams connected to the 40 charter schools that are authorized by the city’s education department are allowed to submit plans to reconfigure their schools, officials said.

Winning teams are eligible for grants to implement their ideas

Teams that advance in the process will be eligible for “planning grants” up to $25,000. Winning teams can then get up to $500,000 to either launch a new school or overhaul an existing one.

But that money is one-time only — and would amount to a small share of most school budgets. That means teams can’t pitch projects that will require a sustained investment over time, like hiring lots of extra staff.

That maximum of $500,000 per project is far less than what XQ has promised to schools that won its own competition. XQ’s nationwide Super School Challenge, which selected its first batch of winning schools in 2016, offered commitments of $10 million each. Subsequent XQ schools have also been promised millions in funding.

Stephanie Germeraad, an XQ spokesperson, didn’t explain why the organization has funded schools at such different levels, but emphasized the organization is spending a similar amount in New York per school as it is with a comparable initiative in Rhode Island. (XQ is funded by Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, which also funds Chalkbeat through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.)

Every borough will be represented 

Each borough will be home to at least one new high school, and officials have encouraged teams to come up with plans in line with specific communities’ needs.

Some new schools could be co-located in the same buildings as other schools, while others could be folded into new buildings the department has earmarked as part of its capital plan.

There are nearly a dozen such new school buildings in the design phase, according to an analysis conducted by real estate listings platform, which could provide clues as to what neighborhoods could be ripe for a new school proposal. All are in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. You can find the full list of planned schools here

Here’s what we don’t know:

What kinds of school designs the education department is looking for (which officials say is the point)

Top city officials have said serving underrepresented student populations is a key aspect of a winning proposal, but such proposals would need to be more specific than serving students with disabilities or those learning English, groups that all schools must already serve. Deputy chancellor Karin Goldmark previously suggested that a school focused on students with dyslexia could be a sufficiently specific focus for a proposal. (Officials have said the 20 new schools must not have selective admissions.)

Education department officials have also suggested that high schools have gone largely unchanged over the past century and radically new approaches are needed to “prepare students for the complexities of a fast-changing future, including the world of work.” (Not all of XQ’s claims about the economy’s rapid transformation are supported by evidence.)

After this story was published, Brian Jones, a Robin Hood spokesperson, said that the foundation will support up to 10 new schools “in our city’s most under-resourced communities.”

But precisely how teams should weave together a focus on equity and the future of work is an open question.

City officials have said this ambiguity is intentional, because they want the process to be “community-driven” and for teams not to limit themselves to conventional ideas. “We’re saying, ‘Don’t start with a box,’” Goldmark said at an information session.

What kind of flexibility is really possible?

City education officials have urged teams to come up with big ideas, even if they require bending certain city regulations, conventions about when school starts, or even which exams students must take to graduate.

Some big changes would require help from entities the city’s education department doesn’t control, though, like the teachers union and the state education department. 

“We’ll help take on fights where there need to be fights,” Goldmark said, suggesting the state might be open to expanding the number of New York City schools that don’t require the full battery of graduation exams.

The teachers union contract specifies that teachers can’t be forced to work longer than six hours and 20 minutes a day, meaning that something like a longer school day could be challenging to pull off without funding to pay teachers to stay. 

Officials have pointed to a program called PROSE that allows schools to skirt certain elements of the contract, such as scheduling, but the tweaks have been relatively modest — and require signoff from the union, which has been supportive of the initiative.

XQ and Robin Hood’s sway in the process remains unclear

XQ and Robin Hood are kicking in a combined $15 million to the initiative to overhaul or create 40 schools, but it’s not clear how much of a role they will play in picking the winners. (Robin Hood is contributing an additional $1 million for professional development.)

Germeraad, the XQ spokesperson, said XQ will “co-create” a rubric for selecting winning high school proposals (half of the new or overhauled schools will be high schools) and that an “independent judging panel” will make recommendations to the education department.

An education department spokesperson, Will Mantell, previously downplayed XQ’s role in picking the winners: “XQ will not decide on whether a project is greenlit; they will decide whether to put their name and financial support behind the 10 of 40 projects they are supporting.”

Mantell said the process of choosing winners will include an evaluation of the school design and “involvement of student and community voice” — but did not elaborate on what specific criteria will be used.

Education department officials have also refused to release any grant agreements or contracts with Robin Hood or XQ, despite a public records request seeking them.

What are the metrics of success?

The education department’s website says the winning schools should “serve as models for the system.” But how will the education department know if its effort to create successful and innovative school models is working? Will it look at test scores, graduation rates, or other student outcomes?

The department didn’t respond to a question about how the initiative will be evaluated. But an XQ spokesperson said all of the schools they fund (up to 10 of the 40 total schools) “will participate in evaluation activities” and that “specific metrics are currently in development.”

Jones, the Robin Hood spokesperson, said the foundation would look at whether schools are closing achievement gaps, preparing students for college or careers, and would also look at “social emotional measures.”

“We are currently in the process of deciding on an evaluation plan and partner,” he added.

The process has focused on high schools, but what about the elementary and middle schools?

Much of the education department’s messaging has borrowed heavily from XQ, which is focused on encouraging changes to high schools.

But it’s less clear what the city’s vision is for reinventing elementary and middle schools, which are supposed to comprise half of the winning teams. Education department officials did not respond to a question about what kinds of innovations they’re looking for in middle and elementary school proposals.