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Nearly 370 schools are part of the city's personalized learning programs, known collectively as the iZone.

Nearly 370 schools are part of the city’s personalized learning programs, known collectively as the iZone.

Patrick Wall

With changes in leadership and funding, the splashy ‘iZone’ reaches a crossroads

Schools that are part of the city’s Innovation Zone have experimented with 60-student classrooms, online courses, and computer algorithms that assign work to students. The four-year-old set of programs, known collectively as the iZone, have enlisted hundreds of city schools, app developers from across the country, and the technology titans Amazon and Google.

But the splashy Bloomberg-era initiative is at a crossroads.

The head of the iZone left the education department soon after the new schools chancellor arrived this year, and its three other top officials departed last month. Meanwhile, federal grants that have helped fuel the costly programs are drying up.

Still, the iZone projects already underway in schools — online and self-paced learning, as well as design competitions — are continuing, as department officials are quick to point out. “We’re happy to say that the iZone is not going anywhere,” said Krista Werbeck, the iZone’s new executive director, who noted that more schools than ever will offer online learning through the iZone this year.

But some educators and iZone proponents point out that on the occasions when Chancellor Carmen Fariña talks about innovation, she refers to a new school-experimentation program she created with the teachers union — not to the iZone. With that new program, the departures, the end of some funding, and the de Blasio administration’s focus on initiatives like pre-kindergarten, some have questioned whether the iZone will lose some of its stature.

“I’m waiting to see where the iZone’s going,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School, an iZone school. With the new administration, he added, “I don’t know if innovation is going to be a priority.”

After pursuing system-wide changes for years, former schools chief Joel Klein formed the iZone in 2010 as a way for individual schools to experiment with new approaches, especially ones that involve technology and tailoring instruction to meet students’ needs. Since then, the iZone has grown from 81 member schools to nearly 370 schools today.

Some of the best-known iZone initiatives center around technology, such as School of One, which uses algorithms to create personal “playlists” of math activities for students based on their abilities. But iZone schools have also experimented with longer days, student-designed classes, and courses that allow students to progress at their own pace. Still, at least 80 percent of iZone schools use its online learning tools.

The programs haven’t been universally praised. The city has estimated before that the iZone would cost $50 million in public and private funds over several years — a price critics say is unjustified. Officials have pointed to surveys that show some iZone students developed research skills and became more motivated, while researchers have found mixed results at schools participating in School of One. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat rents office space from New Classrooms, the nonprofit that grew out of School of One.)

Earlier this year, iZone CEO Andrea Coleman, a former ed-tech consultant and nonprofit executive, stepped down to join Bloomberg Philanthropies, the former mayor’s charitable foundation. Last month, three more top iZone directors left the education department: Steven Hodas, Megan Roberts, and Seth Schoenfeld. Since January, the iZone has shed 10 staffers — or more than a quarter of its employees — though officials said many will be replaced.

A teacher at New Design High School in 2011 works with students on laptop computers provided by the iZone.

A teacher at New Design High School in 2011 works with students on laptop computers provided by the iZone.

Rachel Cromidas

The churn comes after Fariña dissolved the office that had housed the iZone and moved it to another division. Some officials had lobbied to put the iZone under the oversight of the department’s new “chief strategy officer,” where they hoped the office’s experiments might influence system-wide changes, or even under the technology chief at City Hall, according to two former department officials. Instead, the iZone was shifted to the school-support division under Senior Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson.

At the same time, the federal Race to the Top grant money that helped finance iZone’s launch and expansion ran out in June. Two other federal “Investing in Innovation” grants worth millions of dollars that iZone won will expire next year.

Meanwhile, Fariña and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew embedded their own innovation program, called PROSE, in the new teachers contract. Participating schools are freed from certain contract rules to make approved changes, such as extending their school days — something schools in the past have done through iZone’s school-redesign project.

“It seems that innovation in the current administration is expressed more through PROSE — and we’re definitely paying attention to that,” said William Frackelton, principal of Soundview Academy for Culture and Scholarship in the Bronx, an iZone school that is planning to join PROSE. In fact, about 40 percent of the schools that were admitted into PROSE are iZone schools, officials said.

These shifts at the department, along with Fariña’s public silence about the iZone, have convinced some people that the initiative’s role under the new administration will be diminished.

Hodas, one of the iZone directors who recently left, had been connecting schools with ed-tech companies, in one instance through a competition to design math apps for classrooms that drew 200 submissions. He had hoped to expand those efforts into system-wide changes to the way the education department partners with tech companies, what he considered “phase two” of his work, according to a recent article on the website EdSurge. But Hodas didn’t think that would be possible under the new administration, the article said.

“I didn’t have a lot of confidence that we were going to have the political support to get those changes for Phase 2,” Hodas, who is now a practitioner-in-residence at the University of Washington Bothell’s Center for Reinventing Public Education, told the website.

Still, Hodas said he expects existing iZone projects to continue, as did Schoenfeld, another director who left. Schoenfeld told Chalkbeat that he is confident his work will be carried on and is eager to see where the new leadership steers the iZone.

“What level of success and impact it will have on the system will be determined in time,” Schoenfeld, who said he left the department to pursue a new job opportunity, added in an email.

A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

Patrick Wall

Department officials said their focus this year will be on spreading iZone tools and practices to more schools, and noted that schools are participating in two new “challenges” this year, where educators get tools and support to tackle specific school issues. (Those challenges were launched by two of the directors who have since left.)

They also said that iZone staff members have advised the officials carrying out PROSE, such as by helping select the first batch of participants. Both programs have a role to play in schools, said Cynthia Warner, the innovation office’s chief of staff.

“The work is complementary,” she said. “It’s not meant to be a substitution.”

Several principals said they have not yet seen any changes to the iZone beyond the loss of the directors, some of whose positions may now be combined, they said. For now, they are taking advantage of both iZone and Fariña’s new experimentation program, though they are ready to adapt, said Brooke Jackson, principal of the NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies, an early iZone high school.

“If PROSE is going to be where Carmen’s focused,” she said, “then I think that’s where schools will likely focus.”