Voice of dissent

Principal union chief says he ‘isn’t impressed’ with progress at city’s Renewal schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Principal union president Ernest Logan (right) criticized the city's Renewal program at a panel moderated by Public Advocate Letitia James (left).

The head of New York City’s principals union panned the education department’s flagship initiative to aid struggling schools Wednesday, ratcheting up his criticism of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school turnaround program.

“Right now everybody is talking about, well, now it’s year three and what did we accomplish?” said Ernest Logan, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators at a panel discussion held Wednesday. “To tell me that we’ve improved attendance 2 percent, 3 percent, I’m not impressed by it. And I don’t think anybody who’s paying money into the public schools is impressed by that.”

Those comments come at a delicate moment for the city’s $400 million Renewal program, one of the largest efforts of its kind to boost bottom-performing schools by flooding them with extra funding, social services and academic support.

De Blasio promised the program, which now includes 86 schools, would usher in “fast and intense” improvement within its three-year time frame — and year three is now underway. That assertion has made even the model’s supporters nervous, since research shows struggling schools can take many years to show significant progress.

But as part of Wednesday’s panel discussion on Renewal schools, moderated by Public Advocate Letitia James, education department officials pushed back on Logan’s claim that the program is floundering.

“There has been significant progress in our Renewal schools,” said Alonta Wrighton, executive director of school renewal for K-8, who cited gains in test scores and said attendance had increased at 91 percent of Renewal schools. “In many schools, they’re totally transformed.”

Still, progress at Renewal schools overall has been mixed. The vast majority of them enroll fewer students now than when the program started in 2014, and nearly half the schools failed to meet even 50 percent of the program’s benchmarks last year.

Some Renewal school principals have resisted the model outright. Michael Wiltshire, the former principal of Boys and Girls High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, famously feuded with the school’s social service provider.

Logan acknowledged that he initially “saw a lot of promise” in the program, but quickly became one of its most proximal critics, assailing what he saw as bureaucratic micromanagement of principals and a sloppy rollout.

“If I told you that we spent $14,000-plus a kid and you know what you only got is a one percent improvement, you’d run me out the country,” he said Wednesday. “So the point is we can’t just talk about the little incremental things that we’re doing.”

olive branch?

New Montessori program to launch at Denver elementary, offering home for students at school slated to close

PHOTO: Denver Post
Students dance with brightly colored scarves during a music class at Gilpin Montessori (Denver Post photo).

Denver Public Schools moved quickly Friday to try to placate families upset by a vote to close a long-struggling Montessori school in near northeast Denver, announcing the launch this fall of a Montessori program at a higher-performing elementary school nearby.

In a letter to Gilpin Montessori School families, deputy superintendent Susana Cordova said the new Montessori program at Garden Place Elementary would run alongside the school’s traditional program. A similar setup exists at Lincoln Elementary School in the West Washington Park neighborhood.

Gilpin students who live in the area’s enrollment zone — a boundary that includes several schools in near northeast Denver — will be provided free bus transportation, with a stop at Gilpin.

Garden Place scored “green” — the second highest mark — on DPS’s most recent color-coded school performance framework. Gilpin scored in the red — the lowest category.

Current Gilpin students also will be given priority status at other DPS schools with Montessori programs — Monarch, Denison, Lincoln and Academia Ana Marie Sandoval. Seats can be hard to come by at at least some of those schools, however, and transportation may be a barrier to many families.

The district had little time to waste in putting together the option because DPS’s school choice window — when families fill out forms listing their top choices for the 2017-18 school year — opened last week and closes Jan. 31.

The letter to parents Friday did not come as a surprise. At a meeting at Gilpin earlier this week, three DPS board members pledged to push the district to think about making another Montessori option available in the area.

The school board unanimously voted Dec. 15 to close Gilpin and two other low-performing elementary schools under a new district policy known as the School Performance Compact.

Since then, however, Gilpin parents and teachers have mobilized to try to save the school. Citing emails obtained through open records request, they have questioned whether Gilpin’s score on a recent quality review was “willfully altered” to meet the criteria for closure because the district wanted to repurpose the building for office space or to house a charter school.

District officials disputed that, saying the review was conducted by an independent party and that no decisions have been made about the building. The board members who attended the meeting defended the new school closure policy. None indicated they would heed Gilpin supporters’ put the issue of potentially reversing the closure vote on the board’s Thursday meeting agenda.

Building Better Schools

Elizabeth Gore won a surprise victory in the IPS board race. Now everyone is wondering what to expect.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Elizabeth Gore is one of three new board members.

The Indianapolis Public Schools Board is starting the new term with a few unknown faces but perhaps the biggest mystery is a returning player.

After a bruising fight for control of the board, candidates aligned with the current administration won in a landslide, with one exception: Elizabeth Gore beat incumbent Sam Odle. But why she won — and whether she will stand against a board that is reshaping the district — is uncertain.

Gore is well known in the community, and she previously served on the board. But she lost her seat in 2012, when pro-reform advocates captured control. Even Gore is uncertain what was different this time around.

“I’d like to think, ‘What was that magic thing I did?’ ” Gore said. “But my way of doing things is the same. … My message is always the same.”

The election landscape, however, was a bit different. For the first time in recent years, candidates who have pushed for aggressive change — from partnering with charter schools to giving principals more independence — faced organized opposition in the battle for control of the board. A loose network of critics formed OurIPS, a grassroots group that partnered with Concerned Clergy to endorse and campaign for a slate of challengers.

Despite those efforts, every one of the candidates OurIPS backed lost on Election Day.

Instead, pro-reform candidates won an almost complete victory with the support of groups such as Stand for Children Indiana. A parent-organizing group that wages well-financed campaigns for its slate of candidates, Stand only suffered one loss in November, Odle’s defeat by Gore.

Gore, however, isn’t easily placed in the sides that were drawn in the race. Although she is sometimes critical of the administration, she was not endorsed by OurIPS and she did not run an explicitly ideological campaign. She raised about $1,200 during the race, a fraction of $25,626 Odle had raised in October.

Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand, said voters showed their strong support for changes in the district by electing most of the candidates the group endorsed. But he wasn’t sure what lessons to draw from Gore’s victory.

“I take at the end of the day those ballots being counted on Election Day to be a message,” he said. “But what that message is, I don’t know.”

It is also possible that Odle, a retired healthcare executive, was a particularly weak candidate. He faced criticism ahead of the election for serving as a board member for ITT Educational Services, a for-profit college that filed for bankruptcy last month following severe federal sanctions.

For Chrissy Smith, an IPS parent and active member of OurIPS, Gore’s victory is encouraging because it shows even people without much money can win. If critics of the administration are able to field candidates who are better known and respected in the community, she said, they have a stronger chance of winning future elections.

Smith is holding out hope that as a board member, Gore will be a dissenting voice who opposes the administration’s efforts to create innovation schools. Innovation schools, which are considered part of IPS but are managed by outside partners, are one of the most controversial pieces of the board’s agenda.

Gore shares some concern over the rapid expansion of innovation schools. But she does not see herself as an adversarial force on the board.

“I think when coming on the board, I have the thought process of agreeing to disagree,” Gore said. “Nobody agrees on everything all the time.”

OurIPS was defeated in the election, but the people who supported the group won’t be disappearing, Smith said. They are still in the early stages of planning but they aim to get more parents and community members involved.

For now, they want the school board to know that critics are still watching, Smith said. “They may have been voted in but they still have a responsibility to everyone in the district.”

Whether critics are able to sustain their movement and attract more people hinges in part on the outcomes of the district’s dramatic changes. Many of the innovation schools are designed to improve the district’s lowest-performing schools, but the administration does not yet have much evidence that its policies are improving test scores.

Board President Mary Ann Sullivan, who has been a strong advocate for changes in the district, said that if their work starts to pay off, she expects opposition to diminish.

“The best case scenario is that we start seeing more of the fruits of our labors,” Sullivan said. “It’s hard to argue with success.”