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City replacing two Rikers schools with one smaller program

Teachers at the only two schools on Rikers Island learned today that their schools will close next year. In their stead, a new school will open — one with a smaller and possibly new set of teachers.

The change is part of a wider attempt to end programs under the city’s alternative schools office, known as District 79, that city officials believe are ineffective, Department of Education officials said today. Earlier this year, the city announced it was also closing its only school designed to transition students from detention back into mainstream high schools.

“Despite some of our best efforts, we’re not making the gains for the students in some of the specialized programs,” said Timothy Lisante, District 79’s deputy superintendent for corrections and detentions.

In an interview today, Lisante and District 79 Superintendent Cami Anderson said that consolidating the two programs would allow for smoother day-to-day operations of the school. Restarting the program will also give the city the opportunity to redesign its placement process, directing some students towards coursework that will prepare them to return to their community high schools and giving others more vocational training.

“The prime vision here is to do everything we can to create a program that will accelerate [student’s] progress so they can return to their home school or, if they’re older, go into a rigorous GED program,” Anderson said.

But teachers union officials are crying foul at the city’s timing, arguing that the last-minute announcement was disrespectful to the school’s teaching staff.

“We’re certainly for improving programs but no one’s going to convince me that they just woke up in June and thought this had to be done,” said United Federation of Teachers Secretary Michael Mendel.

The city currently runs two academic programs on Rikers Island. Students under the age of 18, who are legally required to attend school, enroll in the Island Academy, while Horizon Academy enrolls older students who opt into the program. (Last month, I visited the Island Academy for a Top Chef-style competition among its culinary arts students.)

Together, the schools employ about 197 staff, including teachers, counselors, psychologists and other support staff. On an average day, approximately 900 students attend classes at the two schools, each of which are split into a number of different sites throughout the island’s detention facilities.

Lisante estimated that the new school that opens in the fall will serve the same students but with about a 20 percent smaller staff. City and union officials said today that they were negotiating whether and how the schools’ staff members can apply for positions in the new program. Lisante said that the city would consider teachers who currently teach at the schools but would also look at outside candidates.

Mendel charged that announcing the restructuring so late in the year put teachers at a disadvantage; teachers will now have to reapply for their jobs over the summer, when many have already made plans to travel.

Data on the two schools’ credit accumulation and Regents pass rates wasn’t immediately available today, but I’ve asked the DOE for the schools’ achievement statistics and will update the post when I receive them. Because students in the schools are so transient — many students stay on Rikers Island for only around 30 days — achievement data for the programs is tracked differently than for other city schools.

City officials said today that they took the September arrival of new Department of Corrections Commissioner Dora Schriro as an opportunity to re-evaluate the educational programs in the city’s correctional facilities and that the new plan came as a result of recommendations from the corrections department as well as from teachers in the two schools.

In an interview today, Schriro said she had spoken to the DOE “regularly but infrequently,” but that the two departments share the same goal. “We’re looking for opportunities to be more efficient but more effective as well,” she said.

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