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.”

the whole child

Denver named recipient of national grant to boost social and emotional learning

An afterschool program at Denver's Ashley Elementary School. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

“Be a Friend. Be a Learner. You own it.”

These three principles — referred to as the FLY values — guide students and staff at Samuels Elementary in southeast Denver, where Principal Cesar Rivera believes that an emphasis on social and emotional learning is crucial for student success.

Now, thanks to a national grant, Rivera will have new resources to establish social and emotional learning practices such as staff trainings and run an on-site student wellness center.

Denver Public Schools and the Denver Afterschool Alliance are recipients of a new four-year grant for public schools and after-school programs that aims to bolster social and emotional learning, which focuses on skills like controlling emotions, solving conflicts and building relationships.

Six U.S. cities were chosen to participate in the first-ever Social and Emotional Learning Initiative sponsored by the New York-based Wallace Foundation.

Gigi Antoni, director of learning and enrichment services at the Wallace Foundation, said Denver was selected because of its previous commitment to social and emotional learning and strong partnership between DPS and its after-school programming providers such as the city’s parks and recreation department, YMCA of Metro Denver and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver.

“We know a lot about how important social and emotional learning is to students’ success both in school and in life,” Antoni said. “But what we don’t know a lot about is what it takes for large school districts and communities to align and build really rich social emotional learning environments for children (together).

With the grant funds, DPS will hire an initiative manager who will oversee a team of coaches that will conduct trainings and help bring social and emotional learning curricula to six elementary schools and after-school partners.

The elementary schools — Samuels, Cowell, Swansea, Trevista, Newlon and Force  — were chosen by DPS to encompass a wide swath of the city, as well as target those with strong after-school partnerships and displayed commitment to social and emotional learning.

In the program’s first year, DPS and the Afterschool Alliance will receive between $1 million and $1.5 million to distribute across the elementary schools and their out-of-school partners. The first year of the partnership will predominately focus on teacher and staff training for everyone from bus drivers and custodial staff to senior administrators.

The objective is to encourage school staff to be consistent about providing social and emotional support throughout the day, from when kids first board the bus to school to when their out-of-school programming ends, said Katherine Plog-Martinez, executive director of DPS’s whole child team, which oversees mental health staff, social emotional learning and school health initiatives.

“We hope that in these schools the school teams really come to see and value and respect the role that every adult in the building plays in achieving the social emotional outcomes of the students,” she said.

Plog-Martinez said she hopes that other schools will want to adopt similar strategies after the grant period ends.

The co-location situation

Do charter schools hurt their neighboring schools? A new study of New York City schools says no — they help.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A scene from a 2013 Panel for Educational Policy meeting where the city approved dozens of co-location plans that are now under legal dispute.

Far from hurting existing schools, new charter schools in New York City have actually helped their neighbors improve, according to a new study.

The study’s surprising conclusion adds some hard data to a divisive debate: Do the privately operated yet publicly funded institutions sap resources and hurt traditional public schools? Or do they exert competitive pressure that lifts all boats?

The answer, at least in New York City, is that traditional public schools should want to be as close as possible to multiple charter schools, and ideally share a building with one.

The study finds that being closer to a charter school led to small increases in math and reading scores, boosts in reported student engagement and school safety, and fewer students being held back a grade. The test score gains increased slightly more in traditional public schools that are co-located with a charter.

Sarah Cordes, a professor at Temple University and the study’s author, suspects that her findings are the result of the competition stoked by charters.

“I think having that close a proximity might really get administrators to get their act together,” she said. “Part of it is just that it’s really hard to ignore a charter school in your building”

The peer-reviewed study, set to be published in the journal Education Finance and Policy, is based on student-level data from nearly 900,000 third- through fifth-graders between 1996 and 2010. Cordes’s method takes advantage of the timing of when new charter schools opened to isolate their effect on nearby district schools, using performance before and after the charter opens.

A school within a half-mile of a charter school, for instance, saw significant bumps in math and reading scores — estimates that are boosted with greater numbers of nearby charter schools, and schools from “high quality” charter networks such as Success Academy or KIPP.

Test score bumps at traditional public schools were even more pronounced in cases where they occupied the same buildings as charter schools — an arrangement that has drawn intense criticism from many educators and parents, and which often forces the schools to share resources like cafeteria and gym space.

Cordes’s results are consistent with previous research from other districts, which have typically pointed to either neutral or slightly positive test score effects of charter schools on their neighbors.

The critics get something from the study, too: evidence that existing schools do lose some students when charters open nearby. When a charter was between one-half to one mile from a district school, for instance, the district school tended to lose roughly 16 general education students. But Cordes concluded that the population changes weren’t big enough to influence test scores.

So why do the city’s charter schools boost their neighbors’ performance?

One reason, Cordes says, is that the charter sector is working as it was intended: creating pressure on administrators to improve the quality of their schools.

Based on survey data collected by the city, she found that parents reported significantly higher levels of student engagement, and those with children in co-located schools were less likely to describe their schools as unsafe. Teachers reported higher academic expectations and “more respect and cleanliness” after a nearby charter school opened.

Cordes also points to the budgetary effects of charter schools. Somewhat paradoxically, given charter critics’ arguments, competition from charter schools led to more average spending per student at traditional schools — between 2 percent for schools that are further away to 9 percent for co-located schools.

Though she did not look at whether decreases in enrollment had adverse effects on programming that wouldn’t be measured by reading and math test scores or survey data, Cordes said future research should look at whether enrollment drops lead to smaller class sizes, which have been shown to boost learning.