Facing criticism that the Department of Education does not hold the organizations responsible for supporting schools accountable for their success, Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky told members of the City Council today that the opposite is true.
In fact, he said during a heated hearing about the department’s network support structure, he has changed the leadership of 15 of the department’s 55 networks.
“Fifteen of those [former network leaders] are people that I did not have confidence in and we wanted someone to do better,” Polakow-Suranksy told the city council members during a lengthy hearing. “There is very clear accountability.”
That revelation was one of many data points he and other top officials shared this afternoon at a City Council Education Committee hearing on the school networks and their nebulous roles supervising each of the city’s 1,700 schools. The networks fit into a complicated and at times unintuitive picture of the school system’s structural make-up. They were created in 2007, several years after Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office and his former schools chancellor, Joel Klein, dissolved the 32 Community School Districts that once supervised the city’s schools and made academic and operational decisions.
Now, instead of being placed into networks based on their schools’ geography, principals are able to select which networks to join based on the philosophies and support systems they offer. And in turn, networks play the dual role of helping schools improve and communicating with the department’s superintendents who decide what teachers and principals should get tenure or be replaced.
Under duress from Councilman Robert Jackson, the committee chair, and several other councilmembers who spent hours grilling him on the ways the department hold schools and networks accountable, Polakow-Suransky conceded that the department should be more transparent about the role of the networks.
“The larger point you’re making—have we not done a good job sharing with the public all the information we have and can share—is right,” he said.
The information has never been a secret, department officials said, but they have never made an effort to make it public, for example by posting it on the department’s website in this level of detail.
To keep tabs on the networks, department officials said they evaluate them in six areas, from the rigor of their academics to their efforts to engage families, and then share those evaluations with school principals who may be considered whether to join or leave a network. Beyond that, officials shared few new pieces of information on the networks, whose day-to-day operations have been largely unknown to the public since they were created in 2007.
The details shared this afternoon included a list of the 55 networks, which are organized into five clusters, and the names of each of their leaders, a map of where the networks’ have their offices, and a chart detailing how the department has funded the networks over the years. The main takeaway of that chart is that funding for the networks has decreased since 2007, from $250 million to $181 million in 2011. Those funds pay the salaries of the cluster and network personnel, the district superintendents, special education committees and partnership support organizations.
Officials also provided a chart of the structure of the networks, which each have 15 employees ranging from the leader and deputy leader to operations consultants and academic “achievement” coaches. The list of their jobs is long, according to the powerpoint presentation officials presented; the networks are in charge of providing targeted professional development to school staff in need, creating reports on special education, making sure schools can access data on their students and operations, and educating families about their children’s education.
As Polakow-Suransky walked the committee through the powerpoint presentation on the networks, Jackson interrupted him several times to criticize the amount of time it took for the department to submit requested information to the City Council. Jackson repeatedly told Polakow-Suransky that he would have to make more information about the networks public “right now,” and criticized Polakow-Suransky’s sometimes-vague responses.
“You’re getting me a little annoyed here,” Jackson said at one point, waving his arms at Polakow-Suransky.
“Likewise,” Polakow-Suransky responded.
After he spoke, a network leader, a superintendent and a school principal recounted stories of how they help the schools under their purview, and how they work with each other.
“I am personally in schools working with principals almost every single day,” said Alinson Sheehan, the Children First Network 102 leader. She told a story of how her network, which includes 33 schools from Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, supported one struggling Manhattan high school with an ineffective leader, which she did not name.
Serapha Cruz, the principal of the Bronx School of Science Inquiry, a middle school, said her network, CFN 411, has helped her avoid closure.
“An achievement coach worked in our school with our teachers to create a much calmer school environment,” she said. “Five years later our school is a much safer place, with 95 percent attendance. Networks can have a profound and positive impact on schools.”
“My team had been supporting this school, incuding weekly meetings with the principal, the liaons helped with attendance interventions for students, and i also did classroom interventions, but the school was still struggling. despite our intentions the supports didn’t seem to be improving thelearning environment at the school. ”
Before deciding the principal ought to be replaced, She sought the advice of Tamika Matheson, the district superintendent of Manhattan High Schools. “Things aren’t perfect… but student attendance is up and teacher morale is also up.”
Even as Matheson, Sheehan and Cruz recounted the good that can come from a strong network-school-superintendency relationship, city council members remained skeptical of the networks’ value.
“I talk to all my principals, [and] I don’t know anyone who is satisfied with the current system,” Councilman Mark Weprin said. “Give me a superintendent and ten staffers and I will run my school district better than you are.”
Polakow-Suransky countered that he was familiar with many school administrators who are much more satisfied with the current network structure than they were a decade ago, when the schools were run by community districts. But Weprin was unconvinced.
School leaders, he said, “are afraid of their own shadows. They don’t want to do anything without checking behind them to make sure they’re not getting fired.”