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2011: What happened — and what didn't — in the city schools

A lot went down in 2011 — literally. The list includes Chancellor Cathie Black’s approval rating, principal satisfaction, rainy-day funds, funds in general, State Education Commissioner David Steiner, chances of a reconciliation or even negotiation between the city and teachers union, the number of unsuspended students, and, recently, even friendly replacement Chancellor Dennis Walcott’s approval rating.

And yet, in the other sense of the phrase, a lot that might have gone down didn’t. In the wake of the departure, in November 2010, of Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, a new administration seemed to hint at a new way of doing business: more open, more inclusive, less antagonistic. But Bloomberg, who had privately infuriated Klein by failing to push as hard as the chancellor wanted, kept up much of his rhetorical heat. The city also didn’t get a teacher evaluation deal, and that means the state will freeze turnaround funds that depended on an agreement.

The freeze means that close-and-reopen remains a ruling strategy. And there are still nearly two dozen schools the city deems too bad to redeem. Same as it ever was.

Here’s our annual review, in detail.

January

The year opened with the city schools in the black — Cathie Black, the former publishing executive whom Mayor Bloomberg had appointed to replace Joel Klein as chancellor in November. She started her tenure with a five-borough tour of successful schools, where she didn’t say much, and by the end of her first day, some pundits were already predicting a quick resignation. Midway through the month — in which she visited a single school slated for closure and was booed during her first public appearance — she had already made the first of several verbal off-color comments, suggesting that parents concerned about school crowding should try birth control.

As Black’s fumbles monopolized attention, policy battles that would dominate new post-Klein world took shape. At first, it seemed that not much would change, even with Klein gone to Newscorp. The teachers union lost a lawsuit designed to block the city from releasing test score-based teacher evaluations drawn up in the Klein days. Under pressure of a union appeal, the city defended its right to release the evaluations, and Bloomberg stepped up the pressure by assaulting “last in, first out” seniority layoff rules. New Gov. Andrew Cuomo made his once-mysterious education position more clear by creating a competitive grant program to reward districts with strong test scores. And the city tightened the screws on low-performing charter schools, ordering one closed and searching for new management for another.

But there were a few glimmers that the new players, led by Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky, might take a slightly different approach to running the city schools. Defending their decisions to close certain schools at public hearings, department officials responded to questions for the first time. The new interactivity didn’t make hearings any less contentious, though. And when Black stepped into the ring and attended a hearing, she managed to find one that drew no parents.

The closure votes were scheduled for marathon Panel for Educational Policy meetings, amid reports that schools risking closure had needier students and had been long projected to fail.

Other highlights: A “snaux day” gave way to a full-fledged snow day that caused Regents exams to be canceled. The DOE’s most senior educator resigned, leading to changes (again) in the way the department provided support to schools. But the show — in January’s case, a controversial student play that cast Klein as a villain — went on, and we were in the audience.

February

The month started with a sucker punch: Gov. Cuomo proposed rolling back city schools’ funding level by four years. Even as the city discovered extra pennies, Bloomberg used the cuts to reinforce his threat for thousands of teacher layoffs before releasing a list of cuts by school and proposing rules to replace seniority-based layoffs. Some young teachers backed the city’s proposal, and others stood behind seniority rights.

Thirteen duly live-blogged hours of PEP meetings about school closures followed, highlighted by 14 lessons learned, including a poetic case of people bridging the charter school/closed school divide via an anti-racism rap. One school approved for closure continued to fight for a lifeline, while another school was taken off the chopping block after a vigorous defense from the public advocate and others.

Teachers weighed in on new evaluations, parents weighed in on changes to federal education law, and principals weighed in on their own happiness — which was down since 2010. And that was before the city launched a bid to take back principals’ “rainy-day” funds.

Chancellor Black’s approval rating was 21 percent — about the same another grim new statistic: the college-readiness rate among city students.

March

With an end-of-the-month state budget deadline, talk was all layoffs, all the time. We outlined how Mayor Bloomberg’s layoffs plans would affect schools, even as some questioned whether he was exaggerating the situation. This raised a perennial question: Do city principals have a financial incentive to remove senior teachers from individual schools? The answer was a qualified yes.

Bloomberg, meanwhile, was once again pushing against “last in, first out.” He got backing from the State Senate and from Department of Education employees who had been asked, illegally, to lobby for policy changes. The problem, among others, was what would determine who got laid off, if not seniority. Gov. Cuomo said he’d rather wait for new teacher evaluations before changing the law to let layoffs depend on the scores.

Ultimately, a state budget deal kept large cuts and seniority layoff rules in place. So we refreshed our guide to layoffs from 2010, when layoffs were last threatened, and protesters hit the State Capital. As the city readied for big budget cuts, principals were gearing up for a spending spreenot their typical approach.

Meanwhile, some of Bloomberg and Klein’s key policy innovations got a second look. A study showed that a $75 million merit pay experiment didn’t boost student achievement, and months after the city’s “rubber rooms” were closed, two-thirds of former occupants had returned to the classroom. When we revealed that some cafeteria offerings fell short of the city’s nutrition rules, the DOE pulled nutrition facts off of its website.

April

A trickle of high-level departures from the Department of Education, with two top deputies leaving in the first week of the month, turned into a flood April 7. That’s when Mayor Bloomberg stunned the city — not the least our reporters, who were all at a conference in New Orleans — by announcing Cathie Black’s resignation. Her approval rating had been stuck at 17 percent. The same day, in another surprise and seemingly hastily planned announcement, State Education Commissioner David Steiner said he would leave at the end of June.

Bloomberg’s pick for Black’s successor, longtime deputy mayor Dennis Walcott, hit the ground running. He did yoga at P.S. 261, made waffles at P.S. 10, and checked in at his alma mater, Francis Lewis High School — all before Steiner awarded him a waiver to let him start his job. Walcott promised to reduce principals’ paperwork and advocated for civility in an often polarized climate. But Bloomberg told principals that nothing much would change, in a missive that didn’t mention Black.

But even as leadership changed, much stayed the same: The city put a $300 million price tag on avoiding layoffs and geared up for impeding school closures by creating a network to support phaseout schools.

May

With Cathie Black a distant memory, the city got back to business as usual — this year, the business of budget cuts, teacher evaluations, and school improvement strategies.

Mayor Bloomberg delayed his budget reveal by a day when President Obama came to town, but then said he would cut 6,100 teaching positions — just as he promised six months earlier. Gov. Cuomo pushed through a policy change to let test scores play a bigger role in new teacher evaluations, over the objections of researchers. And the city selected 22 schools to undergo federally funded overhauls, even though the union didn’t sign on to its preferred strategy, which would have required teachers to be fired.

The UFT was in no mood to negotiate. Instead, it took the city to court — twice: once to appeal the ruling allowing teachers’ ratings to be made public and again when it sued to stop 22 school closures in a repeat attempt of its successful 2010 lawsuit.

We reported that a Bronx charter school had been testing students for entry, in violation of state law, and highlighted a DOE employee who thinks more students should drop out. We also chronicled the start-and-stop-and-restart saga of badly botched elections for parent councils.

The spring weather brought people to the streets. Thousands protested the mayor’s budget cuts, charter school parents rallied against the NAACP’s involvement in the school closure lawsuit, and students at one high school that wasn’t picked to get extra funds marched for more support. One education event united the city in opposition: the state’s cost-cutting move to eliminate January Regents exams.

June

The month opened with the City Council pitching alternatives to layoffs and closed with a late-night deal to avert them. In between, the city’s budget watchdog said only 2,600 layoffs were needed, churches prayed for relief, negotiations grew contentious, and budget-less principals grew anxious about the future. Ultimately, schools had to cut costs by an average of about 2.5 percent, and the council also cut teachers’ discretionary funds.

Also updated: The city’s graduation rate and the number of students sent to summer school, which were both higher, and the first day of school, which was delayed to make way for Common Core curriculum training. Not open to revision, apparently, was the clerical error that cost a GED program its funding.

The UFT and NAACP’s school closure lawsuit chugged through the courts, but the real action was on the streets as a largely African American group of protesters marched in front of the NAACP’s headquarters, prompting an apparently desperate Hazel Dukes to make remarks that raised eyebrows .

Charter school advocates began searching for a successor to Mayor Bloomberg. But the big political story — Assemblyman Anthony Weiner’s Twitter account — had nothing to do with schools. Unlike Weiner, we closed the month with a tour of graduation ceremonies, where we caught up with top students on the brink of exciting futures.

July

In July, the city rushed to meet deadlines — and also planned ahead. After the state pressured the city to decide how to revamp schools, the city and union hammered out a deal on teacher evaluations that paved the way for improvement work at 33 struggling schools. And when a judge allowed closures and co-locations to go forward, the DOE threw a happy hour that afternoon and started construction within days.

Other efforts had longer-term consequences. We reported about possible unintended consequences of a looming overhaul of public daycare programs and noted when a public school parent, Tom Allon, waded into the 2013 mayoral race. The union said it wanted to defer further changes to teacher evaluations — especially after Mayor Bloomberg ratcheted up his criticism of tenure rights — and teachers had their tenure decisions pushed off in huge numbers.

Even during summer break, we found lots of action inside schools, from principals leading summer gym classes and filing budget appeals to teachers at a closing school crafting new curriculum materials to bedbugs swarming. The DOE cleaned house, replacing the head of the office that supervised botched parent elections, and so did a charter school where teachers had tried to unionize. Another charter school, which we had reported was skimming applicants, was placed on probation.

And two scandals that took place far from Tweed Courthouse augured consequences for New York City. In Atlanta, news broke of a massive cheating scandal, and in London, former chancellor Joel Klein was pulled from a News Corporation education project to head its internal response to its phone-tapping scandal.

August

August can sometimes be a slow time in the education world. But not this year — thanks to late-breaking test scores (which we analyzed), a renewed layoffs threat for school aides, and Matt Damon’s blue eyes and opinions about school reform (he stood with those who decry market-based ideas). Principals stayed busy appealing their slim budgets; funders pitched in to save January Regents exams; and teachers made a case for tenure even as Mayor Bloomberg declared it unnecessary. City Council members lobbied for delays to early childhood changes, faster toxin cleanup, and better bedbug battling.

We kept ourselves active, too, moderating a panel of education policy heavyweights and unpacking “Class Warfare” for our readers. We also visited charter schools on their first day of classes, an enrollment office stuffed with families seeking schools, and Tweed Courthouse in the aftermath of an earthquake (but before a hurricane).

Smaller seismic shifts were felt in the number of teachers given low ratings, the city’s strategies for helping young minority men, and in the state’s approach to combating cheating. But a fresh review of test security practices would not address ongoing allegations of improprieties in city high schools.

September

As principals tore through their start-of-school checklists, teachers practiced working with new curriculum standards and evaluation guidelines. Union officials started their school year at a formerly toxic school; we launched ours by visiting more than a dozen schools in five boroughs, with Chancellor Walcott and on our own; and the city started the year under the specter of 9/11.

Even as schools opened, city officials laid the groundwork to close some of them. They vowed to make new schools part of a middle school reform plan and redirected federal funds to help with long-planned closures. And after elementary and middle school progress reports came out using freshly tweaked formula, they put 20 schools on existential notice.

Talks to avert school aide layoffs looked hopeful but — despite protests that tugged at the heartstrings and the involvement of the City Council — ultimately failed.

We reviewed experiments in teacher training, intensive tutoring, and school “transformation” and met families looking for high schools, high schools looking for students, and graduates of a high school for new immigrants. State officials concluded their review of test security procedures by cracking down on cheating opportunities — though perhaps not as thoroughly as possible — and the city fire department cracked down on student art.

October

The same day that hundreds of school aides were laid off, the city promised more budget cuts. Chancellor Walcott urged schools to seek private funds to make up some gaps, while a leading advocate for funding equity said he would focus on persuasion after a lawsuit fell short.

Schools at risk of closure made the case, over and over and over, that they could have done better with more funding. After high school progress reports came out, complete with college readiness scores, the list of schools potentially on the chopping block swelled in size.

As the Occupy Wall Street protest movement emerged, tense meetings took place among position-less teachers, in Brownstone Brooklyn, and at an event about new curriculum standards that Occupy-aligned protesters derailed.

The union didn’t hold rallies about issues with the city’s special education data system and teacher evaluation rollout, but it protested them nonetheless. Despite difficulties implementing last year’s Race to the Top promises, the state applied for more federal funds — in part by promising new kindergarten testing. The city made promises of its own, for more bilingual programs and new initiatives to involve parents, including a training program used elsewhere.

GothamSchools was on a boat, in an innovative class for English language learners, and on top of the rumors that Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch could run for mayor.

November

In November, state officials charged that the city’s school reform policies had doomed many students to failing schools. Schools at risk of closure continued to wage protests against their “failing” designation, especially after the city added 27 more schools to the list. High school students got in on the action, and so did charter school parents, at a school where administrators had formerly rebuffed union involvement.

Other rallies took aim at charter school co-locations and state budget cuts. Despite rumors, Occupy Wall Street protests didn’t shut schools and a brief-but-furious bus strike threat turned out to be exaggerated. Less overblown, at least from one teacher’s perspective: the impact of school aide layoffs.

After we broke the story of a Queens high school struggling with massive scheduling snafus, we followed the saga to a PEP meeting, Walcott’s personal life, and promises of change.

Data dumps revealed the toll of budget cuts, the effect of anti-truancy efforts, and for the first time ever, the frequency of suspensions. The state lost a testing chief and got a test security investigator — who might do well to talk to some of the students we consulted on what cheating looked like at their school.

We sought students’ views on what makes good teachers great, peeked at teachers’ classroom wishlists, and launched a publishing partnership with El Diario to put out an all-points bulletin on the DOE’s AWOL “chief parent.” Also missing: city principals’ voices on a statewide teacher evaluation petition. Walcott played hardball on evaluation negotiations, which far outlasted his first marathon.

December

The year’s final month brought unseasonably warm weather, mixed news about city students’ performance on a national exam, parent insurgency at a troubled charter school, and the first co-location showdown of the school year.

In an annual occurrence, the city announced plans to close or shrink 25 low-performing schools — including one that was surprised by the news. We documented the range of reactions from principals (resistance, relief), teachers (resolve), and students and parents (confusion, anger). Our predictions for 2012: Many of the schools will start following the phaseout trajectory we charted at Christopher Columbus High School, and we’ll see more anti-closure protests like the one at Washington Irving High School.

Washington Irving was one of two schools undergoing federally funded overhauls to land on the closure list. But as the year wound down, that initiative came spectacularly off the rails as city and union negotiations over new teacher evaluations, required to keep the funding flowing, reached an impasse.

Evaluations are sure to stay important in 2012, as schools across the state are supposed to be using new ones by June 30. Also on the agenda for the new year: longer state tests, rescuing early childhood funding, a teacher retention report fueled by city teachers’ survey answers, and, presumably, efforts to boost Chancellor Walcott’s diminishing popularity numbers. Almost anything — except kindergarten tests, apparently, and probably not Mayor Bloomberg’s ideal scenario of doubled-in-size classes, either — is possible.

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