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Officials defend ‘Renewal’ program after attack by principals union

Mayor Bill de Blasio

Mayor Bill de Blasio defended his $400 million “Renewal” program Thursday.

The mayor and schools chief defended the city’s high-profile school improvement program Thursday, just days after the principals union chief called it a “recipe for disaster.”

In a newsletter column this week addressed to his roughly 6,000 members, Council of School Supervisors and Administrators President Ernest Logan said the city’s “Renewal” program had undermined the very principals it was designed to assist. He described the nearly $400 million program as inefficient and top-heavy, a tool used to micromanage principals through compliance documents and meetings rather than support them.

“The education of children isn’t the priority here; paperwork is,” he wrote. He also wrote: “So many ingredients have been tossed into the Renewal recipe, all we have is a recipe for disaster.”

The column — and an accompanying interview with the New York Times, where Logan said city leaders had “lost their focus on kids” — amounted to one of the most prominent attacks on the turnaround program by someone so close to the city schools. Pro-charter school groups and state officials have been critical, but the city teachers union and local lawmakers have mostly embraced it.

In private, however, principals have complained about the program since it was launched in Nov. 2014, saying its goals were unclear, its supports slow to arrive, and its requirements burdensome.

But at an unrelated news conference Thursday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña insisted that the “vast majority of principals in Renewal are extremely happy with the work we’re doing.”

She also argued that the poor test scores and ratings that landed the schools in the program demonstrated that their leaders require extra oversight and training. Logan had written that Renewal principals in particular now have a “shocking lack” of discretion.

“When schools are in trouble, that autonomy has to be earned,” Fariña said Thursday. “It’s not automatically given.”

In the newsletter, Logan also said that a special type of “ambassador” assistant principal promised by the city had so far only been sent to one of the 94 Renewal schools. (In an email to members, Logan said two schools had received them.)

He also said that some of the coaches the city had assigned the Renewal principals were acting more like
“accountability officers, engaged in public shaming and denigrating of Principals to the Chancellor.”

Principals union chief Ernest Logan

Principals union chief Ernest Logan attacked the city’s turnaround program in a newsletter column.

At Thursday’s press conference, which was held to celebrate the city’s record-high graduation rate, Mayor Bill de Blasio defended the Renewal program, saying it has provided low-performing schools with a host of extra resources. However, he also said that it had been necessary to change the principals at more than a third of the troubled schools. (An education department spokeswoman said 36 of the Renewal schools have seen new leaders since the program launched, which includes principals who switched schools or retired.)

De Blasio also said he was “very surprised” by Logan’s comments, and suggested that the union leader could have raised his concerns privately.

“He certainly has my phone number,” the mayor said.

Unlike the teachers union president, Logan did not attend the press conference. A principals union spokesman said Logan was traveling, but declined to comment on the mayor’s remarks.

Logan has tussled with the city before over the program. Last summer, he said the education department had ordered Renewal principals to add an extra hour to their school day without guiding them through the resulting maze of logistical challenges.

In an interview Thursday, a Renewal principal expressed mixed feelings about the program.

One the one hand, she appreciates that school closures feel less likely than they did under the previous mayoral administration, she said. And the Renewal program has brought new resources to her school, from vision screenings and counseling for students to powerful data-tracking tools for staffers.

But she also agreed with several of Logan’s assessments.

Multiple Renewal officials visit her school regularly, holding meetings that can last up to two hours but rarely supply useful information, she said. Meanwhile, she is so consumed by emails and paperwork related to the program that she must come into the school most Saturdays and Sundays to catch up.

Her school was able to meet its improvement targets last year, she said, but that was before the city ramped up all of the regulatory work.

“Now I’m worried if we’re going to keep progressing as much because I have such a hard time getting in and doing the work I need to do with teachers,” she said. “It’s very challenging considering how much time is consumed by paperwork and meetings.”