renewed questions

Three big questions as de Blasio’s school turnaround program approaches the three-year mark

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his high-profile turnaround plan for 94 of the city’s lowest-performing schools, he promised to flood them with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of social services and academic support so they could meet an ambitious goal: “fast and intense” improvement within three years.

This week, as the so-called Renewal initiative approaches the end of its third year, education officials proposed to close or merge nine schools in the program, after previously closing or consolidating eight others. Those decisions, and uneven progress at many of the remaining Renewal schools, reopens longstanding questions about how the program is working, how it should be judged — and what its future looks like.

Here are three of the biggest ones:

Is the program working as intended?

De Blasio’s Renewal schools are arguably the country’s biggest bet on the “community schools” model, which treats external barriers to learning as something schools can address. In New York City, the approach has involved extending the school day, adding social services like mental health counseling and dental clinics, and partnering with community organizations (whose contracts extend through next year).

One benefit of the community schools approach is that many of the resources schools are getting don’t depend on external validation. If students are getting mental health screenings or eyeglasses, for instance, the program is working.

But answering bigger questions about whether schools are being transformed academically is more complicated.

There are some positive signs. Individual schools have reported that the extra resources — such as coaches who help teachers adopt a more rigorous curriculum — are having an effect. And the city says attendance and school climate in Renewal schools are improving.

But roughly half the schools in the program aren’t meeting most of the city’s benchmarks, many of which were modest to begin with. And the program has so far not stemmed the tide of students who continue to leave the city’s bottom-performing schools. Roughly 86 percent of Renewal schools enroll fewer students than they did when the program launched in 2014.

If the program yields mixed results, how will the city continue to justify it?

De Blasio’s promise that the program would offer fast improvements within three years is at odds with what many experts and advocates — and even Department of Education officials — say: School turnarounds, when they work, can take years longer.

“Shifting [school] culture takes more than two years; it probably takes five to 10 years,” said Jeremy Kaplan, a director of community education at Phipps Neighborhoods, a community organization working in several Renewal schools. “I think there’s a sense of urgency connected to a mayoral promise.”

But having made that initial three-year pledge leaves de Blasio, now campaigning for reelection, in the difficult position of figuring out how to articulate a theory of change around an expensive program that may, in the short-term, show only small gains. Meanwhile, the mayor’s critics will continue to argue the slow pace of change harms students in those schools, which should be closed instead.

“Once the city starts down the road of closing schools I think there will be more pressure to close more of them,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College. “It becomes harder to sustain the argument to continue a Renewal-type program if it appears not to be working.”

What will be different for Renewal schools after year three?

Since its inception, the education department has explicitly said that Renewal is a three-year program, but always acted as if it would continue beyond that point. Overall, the city has budgeted nearly $850 million for the program through 2019, according to the Independent Budget Office.

“I would think that, over time, [community schools] will stay no matter what,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña told Chalkbeat in August. “If schools have a certain amount of budget, we don’t take it away from them the next year, regardless of what it is.”

But whether there will be significant changes after year three is still unclear. Will the education department add features or nix others based on what has worked over the last three years? And how will the city’s big bet on community schools ultimately be judged?

“A lack of progress is clearly an indicator that things aren’t working,” said Pallas. “But what’s the threshold for deciding if the growth is sufficient? I don’t have the answer.”

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?”

what's next?

Signs of optimism at Boys and Girls High School, but challenges lie ahead

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Community members spoke at a public hearing at Boys and Girls High School on Monday.

Last year was a tumultuous one at Boys and Girls High School. Its former Principal Michael Wiltshire ran two schools at once, eschewed the city’s high-profile turnaround program, and threatened to dissolve a relationship with its nonprofit social service provider. But now, with a new principal in place, there is a sense of optimism at the Bedford-Stuyvesant school.

At least, that was the sentiment at a modestly attended community meeting Monday evening, whose purpose was to explain Boys and Girls’ status as a member of the state’s receivership program for low-performing schools.

In a presentation, the Brooklyn school’s newly appointed principal, Grecian Harrison, ticked off increases in enrollment, attendance, and reductions in violent incidents as signs the school — which is ranked among the lowest five percent across the state — is on the right track.

Boys and Girls is one of 27 schools across the city that are in the state’s receivership program and are under pressure to show improvement. The school has one more year to meet a range benchmarks before the state could theoretically force Chancellor Carmen Fariña to appoint an independent entity to oversee to school.

In her presentation on its status, Harrison noted the school posted an 82.3 percent attendance rate last year, exceeding its state target by slightly less than one percentage point — and met its four-year graduation target of 45 percent.

And enrollment, she added, hit 412 students this year, up from 269 at the end of last school year.

“As you know, we’ve had the opportunity to have some of the most dedicated and supportive alumni, I think, in the tri-state area,” Harrison said, while touting the school’s enrollment gains. “We also have our elected officials, who support Boys and Girls High School to no end.”

But she also acknowledged the school’s struggles in meeting some of its benchmarks, including its success in preparing students for college and careers, and turning around perceptions of safety. She also noted that the school has struggled to get the state to certify its two career and technical education programs, a challenge faced by schools across the city.

The meeting’s subtext, though, was dominated by the school’s embattled former Principal Michael Wiltshire.

Wiltshire took the helm at Boys and Girls in 2014 after city officials let him run the troubled school without giving up his post leading the higher-performing Medgar Evers College Preparatory School. And while Boys and Girls saw gains in attendance and graduation rates under Wiltshire, that high-stakes experiment fell apart last year, and he returned to Medgar Evers full-time.

His tenure was marked by a public clash with nonprofit partner Good Shepherd Services, which provides students with counseling and other supports, and threatened to leave the school last year.

And while she didn’t address that controversy, Harrison’s presentation noted that Good Shepherd is the “lead CBO” and is “at the heart of our school.” When approached by a reporter after the meeting, Harrison referred all questions to the city education department’s press office, which confirmed Good Shepherd will remain at the school this year.

The tone at Monday’s meeting was largely optimistic, even as some parents were confused by the presentation on the school’s status in the state’s receivership program.

“It’s very, very refreshing to have a dedicated principal — that’s not something we’ve had for a long time,” one of the school’s graduates said during the public comment period, a reference to Wiltshire’s tenure.

“We’re right behind you,” echoed PTA President Doratta Smith. “I’m behind any progression, any positive movement for the children.”

Another speaker, Al Vann, a former state assemblyman, said Wiltshire deserved more of the credit.

“Ms. Harrison has only been here a few weeks, and the fact that this school has exceeded the benchmarks to move them towards and out of receivership was done by another principal whose name has not been mentioned,” he said. “Whatever we think of the man, he has a hell of a track record.”