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Five big questions facing New York City schools as a new year begins

More than one million students will stream through school doors on Wednesday, the start of a high-stakes year for New York City.

This is school year number two for the mayor, who will be trying to pull off a number of complicated education initiatives at once.

Sixty-five thousand four-year-olds will be in full-day pre-kindergarten, a record for the city. Nearly 130 schools are scheduled to get new mental or physical health services, putting a new school-improvement strategy to the test and posing another logistical challenge for city officials. And a new system for helping 1,600 schools manage nitty-gritty issues like budgets and training is making its debut.

Other challenges are educational. The city has promised to improve its low-performing schools by flooding them with resources, but students are still entering those schools far behind. Meanwhile, Mayor Bill de Blasio will have to fend off state officials critical of his management of the school system.

As teachers and students head into day one, here are five big-picture questions facing the city’s school system.

Will the “Renewal” school-turnaround program make inroads?

The city spent much of last year helping its low-performing schools develop plans for how they would improve. This year, the strategies will be put to the test at the 94 “Renewal” schools, whose progress is being closely monitored by state officials and by critics of the mayor’s approach.

De Blasio is betting on the idea that struggling schools don’t need to have their staffs overhauled or be replaced with charter schools. Instead, the city is spending millions on teacher training, principal coaches, extra support for English learners, and partnerships with social service organizations.

De Blasio’s Wednesday afternoon visit to the Renaissance School for the Arts in East Harlem will highlight how those partnerships can add time to the school day. The expanded learning initiative, which will cost the city $12.6 million this year, will staff Renaissance’s after-school program with AmeriCorps fellows.

At another planned stop on Wednesday, Chancellor Carmen Fariña will join union leaders for a tour of Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies High School in the Bronx, which is part of another city initiative to convert schools into “community schools” offering an array of services for local residents and families.

The visit to Morris Academy is symbolic for another reason. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration created the school after shuttering Morris High School, and Bloomberg used to return to the building to tout the success of his aggressive school-closure policies. Fariña’s visit is likely to focus on very different themes.

Will newly powerful superintendents and borough centers effectively replace the old “network” system?

One of the biggest changes schools have experienced over the last year is nearly invisible to most parents and students — a wholesale reorganization of the city’s “school support” teams. But for most principals, the changes will be fundamental, and it won’t take long for them to get a sense of what it will be like to work under the new arrangement.

The reorganization comes as the system’s 45 superintendents take on greater authority over the schools within their geographic domains. That power shift has unnerved some principals who have grown accustomed to being solely in charge of how their schools are run. But Fariña saw the move as necessary to create more uniformity across the city’s schools and ensure schools in need of extra support are not left unsupervised.

Replacing the 55 smaller support teams called “networks” are seven new borough support centers, which opened this summer. Now, principals will be relying on the centers to help them with everything from ordering classroom supplies to supporting students with disabilities.

What will come of the push for more family engagement?

Chancellor Fariña has said that the first step to improved student performance is improved attendance, particularly for the one in five city students who are chronically absent. Getting parents more involved is crucial for accomplishing that, Fariña has said in interviews leading up to the start of the school year.

The city’s community-schools effort is designed to get parents into school buildings, whether for English language classes, Zumba, or free laundry services. This will also be the second year that teachers will have dedicated time during the workday to contact parents. Whether those efforts will reduce chronic absenteeism will be closely watched by researchers and advocates who agree with Fariña’s methods.

Meanwhile, the education department will be confronting new and old challenges for showing that it is responsive to parent concerns.

The city has announced plans to merge a handful of schools with declining enrollments with other schools — moves that could spark emotional reactions from teachers and families of schools being officially eliminated. The city’s education policy panel will have to formally approve the mergers, as well as analyze another round of contentious charter school co-location proposals under a new law that encourages the city to find space in its buildings for new charter schools.

How will the de Blasio administration campaign for mayoral control?

The mayor’s fiercest political rivals, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Republican state lawmakers, have the ability to curtail or revoke the mayor’s control over the city school system. This spring, they gave de Blasio just a one-year extension of mayoral control.

Before June, when mayoral control expires again, de Blasio will have to mount a campaign to convince them that he should be given a longer lease on mayoral control.

This year, Republican Senate leader John Flanagan said he wanted to see evidence of de Blasio’s school-turnaround program taking shape, more information about the city’s spending, and for de Blasio and members of his administration to participate in hearings.

Will year two of pre-K run as smoothly as year one?

The first year of the city’s pre-kindergarten expansion encountered few hiccups — a significant feat, since the city more than doubled the number of available seats in full-day programs. But the expansion’s second year is in some ways more ambitious.

Last year, the city leaned heavily on experienced organizations and converting half-day seats into full-day seats. This year, as the city expands from 53,000 seats to over 60,000 seats, the pre-K operation will be stretched further, though it hasn’t appeared to run into new problems yet.

If the logistics go smoothly, attention will likely shift to the quality of the programs. The city has a vast and varied challenge in the years ahead in making sure that students in new, old, expanded, and community-organization-run programs are getting a similar learning experience to those in public school programs.