closing bell

Report: New York City poised to close or merge nine ‘Renewal’ schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
J.H.S. 162 Lola Rodriguez De Tio, one of six 'Renewal' schools the city plans to close next year.

Education officials will move to close or merge nine schools in the city’s “Renewal” turnaround program next year, the New York Times has reported, a program that was originally designed to spare low-performing schools from closure.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has argued that troubled schools should be nurtured back to health rather than closed, a departure from his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, who closed over 150 schools.

The $400 million Renewal program, which originally included 94 of the city’s lowest-performing schools, was designed to turn them into “community schools” flooded with additional resources, including social services and academic support. But de Blasio also left closure on the table as a last resort.

To date, eight of them have already been closed or merged.

Now, according to the Times, the city plans to close six additional schools. Two of them are junior high schools in the Bronx: J.H.S.145 Arturo Toscanini and J.H.S 162 Lola Rodriguez de Tio, a “persistently struggling” school the city had already proposed closing as part of a deal with the state. The Times also named two high schools in the Bronx as slated for closure: Leadership Institute and Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design; and two Brooklyn middle schools: M.S. 584 and the Essence School.

In addition, the city reportedly plans to merge three schools: Frederick Douglass Academy IV and Automotive High School, both Brooklyn high schools; and the middle school Young Scholars Academy of the Bronx.

The merger and closure plans all must be approved by the city’s Panel for Educational Policy.

The reason for the possible closures is unclear, and raises questions about whether the three-year program — now halfway through its third year — is having the desired effect. Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye declined to explain or confirm the Times report, writing only that, “Involving families, educators and community partners is essential to any conversation about a school’s future.”

City officials have said that they will use measures such as test scores, graduation rates, and the quality of a school’s leadership to make closure decisions.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña previously indicated that schools can become too small to be sustainable. The six schools the city has reportedly identified for closure all have fewer students than when the Renewal program began in the 2014-15 school year, according to a Chalkbeat analysis. M.S. 584, for instance, has just 80 students this year, down from 224 six years ago.

Enrollment drops have plagued the vast majority of the city’s Renewal schools, which have collectively shed over 6,000 students since the program launched.

In terms of performance, all six schools are clearly struggling. At the Essence School, for instance, roughly 6 percent of sixth-graders were proficient in reading last school year, and nine percent were proficient in math — far below city averages.

But they are not necessarily the lowest-performing schools in the program, according to the city’s own benchmarks. The Essence School met one-third of the goals the city set for it last year — on measures including attendance and “rigorous instruction” — and even had one of its school climate goals converted into a “challenge target” because it was met before the deadline. City figures show 26 Renewal schools met fewer benchmarks than Essence did last year.

Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter group that has consistently criticized the Renewal program, seized on the news of the closures and mergers as evidence of the program’s failure.

“Thousands of kids are still languishing in Renewal schools that are even worse than those now slated for closure,” CEO Jeremiah Kittredge wrote in a statement. The organization pointed to several schools in the program that have lower test scores and graduation rates than those the city plans to close.

But multiple observers said the city’s closure plans don’t necessarily mean the program isn’t working, especially since it explicitly targeted troubled schools.

“De Blasio had run on a campaign not to close schools, but that was destined to have mixed results on a school-by-school basis,” said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “You have dozens of schools [in the Renewal program] and a relative handful have been demonstrably unsuccessful. That’s not surprising.”

Megan Hester, an organizer at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform who has closely followed the program, wondered how the city might better serve the students who would potentially be displaced by closures.

“I think for parents the question is, these schools weren’t able to be improved, so what’s the plan for the children in these neighborhoods?” she said. “What is the city learning from that and what are they going to do differently to make sure the next strategy works?”

closing argument

As vote on Renewal school closures nears, the city has vowed to find students better schools. Can it keep that promise?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Students from Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design protest the planned closure of their school at a recent public hearing.

On a recent Wednesday night, Superintendent Paul Rotondo listened to tear-filled pleas from students not to close their Bronx high school, Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design. He watched exasperated teachers criticize his recommendation to shutter the school. And he absorbed parent confusion over where their children would go school next year.

Rotondo made them a promise. “If this proposal passes, we will find you a better school,” he said, citing the high school’s low graduation rate (38 percent) and college readiness statistics. “I wouldn’t promise you something that’s not available.”

But what are the chances a student at Monroe, among the least successful high schools in the city, will wind up at a significantly “better” school if it closes?

It’s an important question for parents and students, as city officials are scheduled to vote this Wednesday on whether to shutter five more Renewal schools — low-performers that were offered extra academic resources and social services in the hopes of stoking a turnaround.

To assess the city’s promise of a better education for students at schools on the chopping block, Chalkbeat took a look at where students went after attending the only two Renewal high schools closed so far — Foundations Academy High School in Brooklyn and Foreign Language Academy of Global Studies in the Bronx. (A Renewal middle school also closed last year, but is not included in this analysis.)

The data generally back the city’s claim. Most of the schools that accepted the displaced students posted higher graduation rates, attendance, and test scores — and have more experienced teachers than the schools they left. That isn’t entirely surprising; the schools that closed were considered among the city’s worst. But the schools those students later attended were, in some cases, also struggling, often performing below city averages on those same measures.

These findings come with an important caveat: The city data show which schools students later attended, but does not include how many students went to them, making it impossible to say what proportion of students went to higher- or lower-performing schools. Still, the numbers reveal an overall picture of the schools in which those students enrolled.

First the good news: Of the roughly 70 schools that accepted students from Renewal high schools that closed last year, 65 percent had higher attendance rates. Ninety-six percent had students with higher average scores on eighth-grade state math and reading tests, 97 percent had higher graduation rates, and 75 percent had a higher share of experienced teachers.

Almost every school that took in students from Foundations Academy, for instance, posted a graduation rate above 50 percent, the average at Foundations. Every single student who left Foundations wound up at another school with an attendance rate over 78 percent, their former school’s average.

Data source: NYC DOE. Note: Two schools that accepted students from Foundations Academy High School were excluded from this analysis due to incomplete available data. (Graphic by Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat)

Still, on those same metrics, many schools that took on students from closed ones underperformed city averages. More than half of the new schools had lower attendance and higher rates of chronic absenteeism than average. Three-quarters posted lower rates of eighth-grade math and reading proficiency, and three-quarters had higher concentrations of poverty.

But there are bright spots, even compared with city averages. Sixty-eight percent of the schools that took students in posted graduation rates above the city’s 72.6 percent average.

Data source: NYC DOE. Note: Four schools that accepted students from Foreign Language Academy of Global Studies were excluded from this analysis due to incomplete available data. (Graphic by Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat)

Chalkbeat’s findings dovetail with a previous study on school closures in New York City that found shuttering low-performing schools was linked to better academic outcomes among the students who would have attended them later.

But for students who were enrolled at the high schools when they closed, the evidence suggests little impact, according to James Kemple, executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, and author of the school closure study.

“The only research available in New York City suggests that closing a high school is not likely to have much effect — positive or negative — on the students who were enrolled in the school at the time of the closure,” he said.

That may not comfort many parents, some of whom worry about disruptions to their children’s education, or are skeptical that they’ll find significantly better schools.

Cecilia Cadette, a parent at Monroe Academy, said she doubts that her son Dontee will wind up at a school that is better able to serve him, especially given his complicated medical needs. Under a new principal, Monroe has been making strides, she said, and Dontee has started to find academic success.

“Now I have to make time to do some research, go around to the [Department of Education] to say, ‘OK, my son’s school is shut down and I need a school where they’re going to provide a safe environment and [where] he’ll continue to thrive,” Cadette said. “I dread going through that process.”

Officials have promised individualized counseling for parents and students to help them enroll at higher-performing schools. Students at closing schools will still have to fill out applications for up to 12 schools, as in the traditional admissions process, an education official said. Students will not be able to apply to screened, specialized or audition-based high schools — roughly one third of all city high schools — but the official said plenty of seats at strong schools are available.

Finding students a spot at schools that are technically higher-performing but still face challenges may not satisfy all parents, advocates and elected officials.

At an education hearing Tuesday, City Councilwoman Inez Barron raised doubts about the city’s approach. “I think every parent should have a right to send their child to a top-performing school,” she said. “Not to another neighborhood school which is doing marginally better.”

The Panel for Educational Policy will vote on the closures on March 22 at the High School of Fashion Industries in Manhattan. The meeting is scheduled to start at 6 p.m.

Sarah Glen contributed data analysis and Christina Veiga contributed reporting.

Save our school

Educators and parents say the city has abandoned their Bronx Renewal school — and now wants to close it

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
J.H.S. 145 parent Annagine Lewis criticized the city's proposal to close the school at a recent public hearing.

Parents and educators pleaded with city officials Tuesday to reconsider a plan to shutter a South Bronx middle school in New York City’s signature turnaround program.

J.H.S. 145 Arturo Toscanini is one of 86 struggling schools that have been offered social services and extra academic support as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal program — but members of the J.H.S. 145 community said the city shortchanged the school.

“We need teachers qualified to serve our [English Language Learner] students,” parent Annagine Lewis told members of the city’s Panel for Education Policy on Tuesday, after waiting over two hours to comment on an item that wasn’t officially on the agenda. “All we got was empty promises.”

Several people — parents, alumni, educators, and elected officials — voiced versions of that argument: that the city had neglected a school it had promised to infuse with resources and then abruptly moved to close it.

J.H.S. 145 is one of nine Renewal schools the city is planning to close or merge next year, and several speakers — some of whom were bussed to the meeting by the United Federation of Teachers — asked the city to postpone a March 22 vote to close the school.

Though J.H.S. 145 is in the city’s turnaround program, initially billed as a three-year initiative designed to rehabilitate struggling schools rather than close them, de Blasio indicated some schools could still be shuttered.

When education officials first announced the plan to close J.H.S. 145 in January, they cited enrollment numbers and test scores. Eight percent of students at J.H.S. 145 were proficient in reading last year, according to state tests, and fewer than 4 percent were proficient in math. Just 287 students attend the middle school, down from 368 three years ago.

“The superintendent’s recommendation for closure was based on careful analysis of the school’s leadership, classroom instruction and the school’s ability to leverage Renewal School resources,” an education official wrote in an email. “We believe that there are stronger school options in this community that will better meet the needs of students and families.”

English teacher Jim Donohue said the city’s decision to close the school runs counter to the Renewal program’s philosophy.

“De Blasio’s own words were that we’re finally going to give schools that have been neglected in the inner city the resources they need,” Donohue said in an interview. “Instead of extra resources, we’ve struggled to get the basic resources to survive.”

Multiple people at Tuesday’s meeting said the city never appropriately staffed J.H.S. 145, whose student population is almost entirely comprised of black and Hispanic students from low-income families. Nearly half the students are English learners, city figures show, and while the school is supposed to offer “transitional bilingual education,” there is just one bilingual teacher and one ESL teacher.

Craig Moss, a technology teacher at the school, said he regularly relies on students to translate. “I have two classes of ELL speakers and I don’t speak Spanish,” he said, adding that the school has not had stable leadership, rotating through three principals in five years.

Education department officials acknowledged that it has been “hard to staff” bilingual positions in the building, but disputed the argument that the school had not been offered adequate support. The school received funding to add two “teacher leader” positions, additional teacher training, the official said, and supports for high-need students, including mental health services and vision screenings.

A hearing to solicit input from the community about the closure plan is scheduled at J.H.S. 145 on March 6.