highlight reel

Beyond pre-K: Here’s what you need to know about de Blasio’s education record this election day

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Mayor Bill de Blasio released a school diversity plan that calls on a working group to come up with additional ways to encourage integration.

If asked to describe Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education agenda, most New Yorkers would likely give a two-syllable answer: pre-K.

As voters head to the polls Tuesday, when de Blasio is widely expected to sail into a second term, the mayor is surely pleased with that answer. His expansion of free pre-kindergarten to 50,000 additional four-year-olds has proven to be his clearest victory as mayor, earning praise from advocates, researchers, parents — even Hillary Clinton.

In fact, universal pre-K and its unexpectedly smooth rollout have proven so popular that de Blasio recently announced plans to launch a parallel program for three-year-olds.

“Our obligation is to come up with new solutions,” he said at a breakfast talk Monday with business and political leaders. “And so, we did that with pre-K and we look forward, with everyone’s help here, to doing that with 3-K.”

Pre-K hasn’t just provided de Blasio a happy talking point — it’s also helped him steer the discussion away from more controversial education issues, from charter schools to school segregation to his expensive support program from struggling schools, which has so far achieved mixed results.

“In many respects,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College, pre-K has “overshadowed virtually all other features of the education agenda.”

But another reason education has been a marginal issue in this year’s sleepy mayoral election — it didn’t come up at all during the first debate — is that, even apart from pre-K, de Blasio has overseen a period of relative stability and incremental process for the nation’s largest school system. Two of the most closely watched indicators of the system’s health — the high-school graduation rate and grade 3-8 test scores — have edged up.

The school system, Pallas added, “does seem to be generally moving in the right direction.”

Below, we recap de Blasio’s education record beyond pre-K and tell you what to watch for in his (expected) second term.

A grab bag of initiatives meant to strengthen schools

Defining de Blasio’s vision for the city’s schools hasn’t always been easy.

Besides pre-K, much of his agenda has been a repudiation of the policies of his predecessor, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who closed dozens of low-performing schools, encouraged the growth of charter schools, and clashed constantly with the teachers union.

De Blasio has mostly halted school closures, instead flooding troubled schools with extra social services and academic supports. He’s been lukewarm about charters, drawing criticism that his administration has been slow to provide them space. And he revived City Hall’s relationship with the teachers union — which endorsed his reelection bid — agreeing to a significant pay bump in the new contract he negotiated.

In another union-backed effort, he’s funded over 215 “community schools,” which have embedded social-service providers, extended school days, and teams devoted to combating chronic absenteeism.

He’s also rolled out an assortment of initiatives called “Equity and Excellence for All” which, among other things, includes promises to make Advanced Placement classes available to all high-school students by 2021 and to provide computer-science courses to all students by 2025.

Besides some raised eyebrows about the long timeline, the plans mostly enjoyed a warm reception. They also fit within de Blasio’s education philosophy: If Bloomberg’s view was that the city school system was fundamentally broken and needed to be rebuilt from the ground up, de Blasio’s approach is to strengthen a system he says is in overall good shape.

The “Equity and Excellence” plans “were kind of presented as add-ons, instead of turning the whole system upside down,” said Clara Hemphill, director of education policy and Insideschools at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

De Blasio said as much in his annual “State of the City” speech this February, when he touted the city’s record-high graduation rate, the new AP classes, and — of course — pre-K.

“The state of our schools,” he declared, “is stronger than many of us ever could have imagined.”

Setbacks and crises force adjustments to the agenda

As much as de Blasio prefers basking in the strengths of the school system and his efforts to enhance them, some dark spots have proven inescapable.

Having vowed not to shutter troubled schools — but under state pressure to overhaul them — de Blasio was forced to come up with a turnaround program during his first year in office. He called the program “School Renewal,” and promised “fast and intense improvement” in the 94 bottom-ranked schools that would receive extra money and resources.

Three years later, the $582 million program has achieved mixed results — providing fodder for critics who say the effort is “mired in failure.”

Evan Stone, co-founder of Educators for Excellence, a teacher advocacy group, said he welcomed the investments de Blasio has made in Renewal schools but added: “The success has not been there.”

Some of the Renewal program’s critics — many of them charter-school backers who argue that charters are a better alternative to “failing” district schools — have also pounced on de Blasio’s school-discipline reforms.

De Blasio has made it harder for schools to suspend students, instead pushing schools to adopt  “restorative” practices where students reflect on their misdeeds and make amends. The new policies have continued to drive down the number of suspensions, but critics say they’ve made some schools less safe and orderly.

Those concerns flared up in September when a Bronx high-school student stabbed two other teenagers during class, according to police, leaving one dead.

City officials point to better attendance and academic performance at some schools in the Renewal program, and a record-low number of major crimes across the school system. And in the wake of the school stabbing, de Blasio’s schools chief, Carmen Fariña, unveiled a suite of new anti-bullying initiatives.

The stabbing wasn’t the only school crisis that forced de Blasio into action.

The number of homeless children has swelled during his tenure, with one in ten students residing in temporary housing at some point last school year — a grim new milestone that has left the de Blasio administration scrambling to help homeless students make it to school while trying to create more affordable housing for their families.

Meanwhile, since de Blasio rode into office in 2014 with promises to end the growing inequality that he called New York’s “tale of two cities,” advocates have pressed him to attack the city’s severe school segregation. After repeatedly insisting that the problem was a relic of historic housing policies largely beyond his control, he finally gave into the pressure and released a “school diversity” plan this June — which left many advocates underwhelmed.

“I hope that without the prospect of reelection,” Stone said, referring to de Blasio’s likely second term, “the mayor can be much more bold on desegregation.”

What’s next?

If de Blasio’s first term has been about unveiling “transformative” education plans, his second term will hinge on executing and expanding those efforts.

That will include building out the new “3-K” preschool program, which the mayor has said will be even more challenging than the pre-K expansion.

He’ll continue to grapple with struggling schools in the Renewal program, which was billed as a three-year intervention and is now approaching its third birthday. De Blasio has said additional schools will close or be merged, while others might graduate out of the program, though the exit strategy for those schools isn’t yet clear.

And integration advocates are unlikely to let up. Even as they hold de Blasio to the goals laid out in his diversity plan, they also have signaled a desire to push him further — for instance, to revamp the high-school admissions process or invest in diversity-related teacher trainings and classroom materials.

It remains to be seen whether de Blasio will announce any major new education initiatives in the coming years — or a new chancellor to oversee them.

Among education insiders, there has long been speculation that Fariña — who was plucked out of retirement three years ago — will not stay on for a second term. If she does leave, her replacement could push the mayor in new directions, observers say.

“A new chancellor coming in could conceivably be more creative or bold,” said Pallas, the Teachers College professor, pitching ideas to the mayor “that are different from just, ‘Stay the course.’”

In a statement, a City Hall spokeswoman pointed to the higher graduation rate and test scores, lower dropout rate, and growth of free pre-K during de Blasio’s first term.

“The facts here are clear,” said spokeswoman Olivia Lapeyrolerie, “New York City public schools are the strongest they’ve ever been.”

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.

An Introduction

What you need to know about Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ interim superintendent

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang/Chalkbeat
Aleesia Johnson was named the interim superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018.

Even before she was chosen as interim superintendent last week, Aleesia Johnson was a rising star in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Johnson spearheaded the district’s innovation strategy under departing superintendent Lewis Ferebee, developing controversial partnerships with nonprofit or charter operators and giving schools more freedom.

About Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ new interim superintendent:

  • Johnson started at Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015 overseeing the district’s innovation schools. She was promoted to deputy superintendent of academics earlier this year.
  • Johnson started her career as a teacher through Teach for America. She came to Indianapolis to teach at KIPP Indy and later led the charter network’s middle school. She has also worked for Teach for America’s Indianapolis office.
  • She graduated from Agnes Scott College and received master’s degrees from the University of Michigan and Oakland City University.
  • An Evansville native, Johnson comes from a family of educators. Her mother was a longtime teacher and is now an elementary school principal. Her grandfather was one of the few black administrators in Evansville in the 1970s and 1980s, she said.
  • Johnson has three children who all attend district schools.

Her work overseeing innovation schools — sometimes used as a turnaround approach for the most struggling schools — has transformed the district into a more decentralized, hybrid model that has attracted the national spotlight. Because of innovation schools, Indianapolis is widely regarded by reform advocates as a district among the “most inventive and dynamic in the country,” as the Center on Reinventing Public Education put it last year.

Now Johnson, 40, is the first African-American woman to serve as the district’s superintendent, and she appears a likely contender when the district begins its search for a permanent successor to Ferebee.

“I’m under no illusion of the challenges that face our district and the tough decisions that will have to be made,” Johnson said in a district blog post about her appointment.

As deputy superintendent of academics, Johnson has often been a public face of the district, speaking on panels about racial equity in education and forums about the district’s innovation work. Personable and confident, she’s well respected within the district and in Indianapolis education circles, even though her work with innovation schools can be controversial.

As a key leader in Ferebee’s administration, Johnson is closely tied to charter schools and school reform in Indianapolis. A former Teach for America and KIPP Indy leader, she has said she supports the path the district is on, which means she’ll likely have the support of the majority of the school board. Johnson told the Center on Reinventing Public Education that she was drawn to Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015 because she “connected really strongly with the vision the superintendent laid out.”

“She’s had the opportunity to see first-hand some of our strategy and transformation efforts,” Ferebee said Friday.

Under Johnson’s leadership, the district would likely continue to broaden its innovation strategy. A district of some 30,000 students, made up of mostly students of color and from poor families, Indianapolis Public Schools serves about a quarter of its students in 20 innovation schools.

In interviews, Johnson has often touted how innovation schools can move more nimbly than schools that have to wait for district-level changes.

“I think what we’re trying to do is create a third way of thinking — how do you marry empowering schools with flexibility with lots of the resources that are available to schools in a traditional public schools district structure,” Johnson told the Reinventing America’s Schools project, a pro-charter school reform movement led by David Osborne.

It’s hard to make a blanket statement on the performance of innovation schools. Because most of them are less than three years old, many are graded based on the growth of their students alone without taking into account their proficiency levels. Many of the schools have seen early gains in passing rates on state tests.

Johnson has been upfront about the challenges of the innovation strategy. In the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” Osborne wrote that she acknowledges “constant problems to be worked out,” such as funding to support innovation schools and uprooting teachers when schools convert to innovation.

“It’s never, ‘No, we can’t do that,’” she said in the book. “It’s, ‘Oh, we’ve never done that, so let’s talk about it and figure out how to get it done.’”

In an interview with the local Indy Education blog, Johnson said she invites critics to see the changes strong leaders can make in innovation schools.

She also said innovation can allow community members to feel like they have ownership of the schools in their neighborhood: “I see this work as an incredible opportunity for there to be, unlike ever before, a much stronger community voice, much stronger way for parents to interact and engage in their schools.”

Still, Johnson was careful to note Friday that she won’t be a carbon-copy of her former boss, who has both won the hearts of many national reformers and rankled community members with the dramatic changes to the district. “I think obviously I am a different leader,” she said.

She won’t be immune to criticism. The IPS Community Coalition, a grassroots group that is critical of innovation schools, posted on Facebook about Johnson’s appointment to interim superintendent: “Although that is a great milestone for IPS in terms of equity and diversity, we have continued concern about the IPS agenda. The statement this appointment makes about pushing innovation schools and charter ‘choices’ on poor, and black and brown students is concerning — as charters have not proved to be more effective, nor equitable in their treatment of students.”

Others, though, including school board members, have heralded her appointment. Andrew Pillow, a teacher who worked with Johnson at KIPP Indy, wrote on the Indy Education blog that Johnson is “infinitely qualified and the perfect choice to lead Indianapolis Public Schools.”

So far, Johnson has said she will wait until the school board decides the superintendent search process to say whether she’s throwing her hat in the ring to lead the district long-term.

Asked again in her first television interview as interim superintendent this week, she said, “We shall see.”