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 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.