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, the lone school to face state receivership thus far

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?”

community effort

New York City set to expand ‘community schools’ program to include 215 schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Mayor Bill de Blasio, flanked by schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and UFT chief Michael Mulgrew announced an expansion of the city's community schools program at Brooklyn’s I.S. 155.

New York City is significantly expanding a program that infuses high-need schools with extra resources, including partnerships with social service providers, city officials announced Thursday.

Starting this September, 69 additional schools will officially enter the city’s “community schools” program, which is designed to help under-resourced schools address the physical health and emotional issues that can impede student learning.

The expansion brings the total number of community schools to 215, serving just over 100,000 students, making New York City’s program the largest in the nation, officials said.

“This is a model that is a game-changer,” Mayor Bill de Blasio, flanked by top union leaders, said during a press conference at Brooklyn’s I.S. 155, one of the schools that will be added to the program. “New York City is starting to be the national leader because we’re going farther and faster than any school system.”

Every community school uses a slightly different combination of resources, but they all create an hour of extra learning time, conduct outreach to families to boost attendance, and receive an extra staff member to help coordinate the program.

The schools also all partner with nonprofit organizations that offer a range of services, such as mental health counseling, vision screenings, or dental checkups. The latest expansion will cost $25.5 million per year, and will be financed by federal dollars distributed by the state through grants.

The approach, favored by the city’s teachers and principals unions, involves flooding schools with additional resources instead of closing them (the preferred strategy of de Blasio predecessor Michael Bloomberg).

But it’s unclear whether de Blasio’s big bet on community schools — which launched more than two years ago — is likely to pay off and how the city plans to measure its success.

Chris Caruso, who runs the community schools program, pointed out that chronic absenteeism has fallen an average of 7.2 percent across all community schools over the past two years, and graduation rates have increased 4.8 percent. But he stressed that the program is “not a school turnaround strategy.”

In the city’s lowest-performing “Renewal” schools, which are also part of the community schools program, and which de Blasio claimed would see “fast and intense” improvements, the results have been mixed — even according to the city’s own benchmarks.

Caruso noted a wider study is in the works: The city is working with the Rand Corporation to evaluate how effectively the community schools program has been rolled out. That study is scheduled to be released this fall. However, a more comprehensive look at whether the program is leading to better student outcomes isn’t expected for at least a year after that, Caruso said.

One of the mayor’s fiercest critics, the pro-charter group Families for Excellent Schools, immediately criticized the program’s expansion.

“Thanks to Mayor de Blasio and his friends at the [United Federation of Teachers], there are now roughly an equal number of students in community schools as there are in public charter schools,” the organization’s CEO, Jeremiah Kittredge, wrote in a statement immediately after the city’s announcement. “But the results for kids couldn’t be further apart — public charter students are twice as likely to read and do math on grade level.”

You can find a full list of the city’s new community schools here.

late arrivals

Students were allowed to enroll in some of the city’s lowest-performing schools — even after they were slated for closure

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design, one of the schools set to be closed next year.

When New York City’s education department announced plans to close a handful of struggling schools in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s turnaround program, they argued the schools were simply too low-performing to stay open.

But while officials were making that argument, students were still being sent to them. In total, 25 students were allowed to enroll across at least some of the six closing Renewal schools after January 1. The full closure plans became public January 6.

Those who enroll after the traditional admissions process is over — referred to as “over-the-counter” students — are often among the hardest students to serve. Many are behind academically, are recent immigrants, have experienced homelessness, or were previously incarcerated.

The city’s decision to allow late-arriving students to enroll in schools they planned to close likely does them a disservice, multiple experts said.

“If they’re going to take the drastic and final step of closing a school, it means that they’ve decided that this school is so limited in what it does for kids that it shouldn’t stay open anymore,” said Norm Fruchter, an NYU researcher who authored a study about how the city assigns late-arriving students, and is generally supportive of de Blasio’s education policies. “Why send any more kids there?”

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has vowed to reduce the number of mid-year students sent to Renewal schools, and the department previously banned several of the city’s most troubled schools from receiving them.

“The policy makes sense,” Fruchter added. “This seems to violate that.”

Fruchter and others acknowledged that deciding where to place the tens of thousands of students who arrive on the education department’s doorstep in the middle of each school year is a challenge.

At the high school level, which is governed by a complex application process, the most desirable schools often have few slots available mid-year, significantly limiting the options for those who arrive late. His research has shown those students are disproportionately sent to struggling schools, which tend to have more open seats.

In the context of the city’s Renewal program, late arrivals pose a difficult catch-22. Many of the schools in the turnaround program are struggling to attract new students, which would bring additional funding. But those schools are perhaps least able to handle an influx of students who are likely to need additional help.

It isn’t a new problem. The Bloomberg administration also struggled to find seats for students who arrived mid-year, and disproportionately placed them in schools that were later closed, or were already undergoing that process.

Deidre Walker has seen that tension play out at her own school. A math teacher at J.H.S. 145 in the Bronx, one of the schools that will be closed next year and received new students, Walker said latecomers are often still learning English or require services like occupational therapy. The school, she said, isn’t always able to meet their needs.

“If you continue to send more and more students that need more and more services in a situation where people are struggling, you need to send more bodies that can deal with the demand,” she said, noting that her school only has one English as a Second Language teacher. “That’s not happening.”

Concern that the school did not receive sufficient resources despite being in the city’s Renewal program was a constant refrain during its contentious closure process.

Michael Aciman, an education department spokesman, said in a statement that mid-year placements are “determined on a case-by-case basis to meet the needs of individual students and families. All students attending a Renewal school slated for closure will have a seat at a higher performing school next year.”

Officials noted that the closure plans for five of the six schools were not officially approved until March, so “these schools were subject to the same enrollment guidelines as other Renewal schools.”

Members of multiple schools that will be closed next year expressed surprise that the city would continue to send students to the schools it planned to dismantle. A teacher at Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design, a Bronx high school which has received 11 students since January 1, said she didn’t understand the city’s rationale for sending them more students.

And a senior leader at a community organization that partners with one of the soon-to-be-closed schools, said “it’s hard to imagine a justifiable reason” for the decision. “Those students will inevitably need to start anew again in just six months’ time.”

Other observers were more circumspect. Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College, said that given the thousands of students who are assigned mid-year, sending 25 to closing schools did not seem like a large number.

It is possible that there were logistical reasons for sending them. Some may have been previously enrolled in those schools, for instance, the situation of at least one student who enrolled at J.H.S. 145 in the middle of this year. For others, it could have been the closest school or one that enabled them to stay with a sibling.

“Over-the-counter students are sometimes hard to place,” he said, adding: “It’s hard to know in this case what the logic was.”