bungled evacuation (updated)

Report: Principal foundered for years before being removed

When Maria Penaherrera was removed as principal of Brooklyn’s PS 114 in February 2009, the community breathed a sigh of relief. Her leadership had drawn protests from teachers and parents, and it was well known that the school was in bad shape financially.

But according to a report released today by Special Commissioner of Education Richard Condon, none of those problems caused the city to remove Pena-Herrera. Instead, it was failing to follow proper procedure during an evacuation that cost Pena-Herrera her job.

The report paints a picture of an uncommonly bad principal whose obvious shortcomings went unaddressed by department officials during a period when the city frequently redrew lines of authority over schools.

Pena-Herrera became principal of PS 114 in Brooklyn in 2004 after two decades in the city schools. By the time she was removed, she had amassed a reputation as a “principal from hell” who unsuccessfully tried to bully parents into giving her good marks on the city’s survey. According to the report, she ran up a deficit of more than $100,000, hired and fired four assistant principals, illicitly employed uncertified teachers and paraprofessionals, and paid consultants to replicate support she was already getting. When her replacement inquired about safety issues with a city-funded after-school program that Pena-Herrera had allowed to use school space without a permit, the program’s head offered a bribe of knockoff handbags. A school custodian told investigators that the bribe was typical of the way business was done at the school.

What’s not clear from the report is how Pena-Herrera lasted as long as she did. According to the report, her supervisors saw red flags almost immediately, and in February 2007, two years before Pena-Herrera was removed, city officials convened a meeting to discuss her out-of-control financial practices.

One clue comes from the shifting lines of authority at the Department of Education in recent years. Figuring prominently into the report is Julia Bove, who was the superintendent of PS 114’s district in the 2005-2006 school year. Bove told investigators that she immediately recognized that Pena-Herrera was in over her head. But the following year Bove no longer supervised Pena-Herrera. The year after that, Bove once again worked with PS 114, but she did not have any real authority over Pena-Herrera because she was employed by one of the organizations within the department that competed for contracts with schools. PS 114 paid Bove’s group, the Integrated Learning and Instruction Learning Support Organization, $38,000 for its support, according to the report.

Another clue comes from Bove’s comment to investigators about the city’s priorities for its principals:

Bove reported that the Chancellor’s Office had been ready to remove Penaherrera [sic] during the 2007-2008 school year, but as a result of the massive amount of support provided to Penaherrera, the school’s rating went from an “F” to a “B,” so the Chancellor’s Office left Penaherrera in place.

UPDATE: Department of Education spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz today said the rising progress report grade was “a substantial academic improvement that certainly influenced our decision to allow [Pena-Herrera] to continue on as Principal, albeit with additional support.”

Ravitz said the department is equipped to help principals who struggle. “On occasion, we have talented Principals who struggle to properly manage their budgets and we work — as we did with Principal Penaherrera — to help them stay in line and make appropriate hiring decisions.”

Ravitz said the city would follow the recommendation by Special Commissioner of Investigation Richard Condon to bar Pena-Herrera from working in the the school system. “We were previously aware of some concern about Principal Maria Penaherrera’s budget management skills,” she said. “However, no one in the Chancellor’s office was aware of any allegations or evidence of fraudulent or illegal activity until now.”

SCI report about Maria Pena-Herrera

study says...

In new study of school-district effectiveness, New York City falls just below national average

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Each year, state test scores offer a snapshot of how much New York City students have learned. But they say little about how the city’s schools stack up against other districts’, in part because the raw scores largely reflect student demographics — wealthier districts tend to have higher scores.

Now, a major new analysis of several years of test scores from across the country provides a better way to judge and compare districts: Instead of looking at a single moment, it shows how well school systems help students grow their skills over time.

Based on that measure, New York City falls just below the middle of the pack: In the five years from third to eighth grade, its students collectively make about 4.6 grade levels of progress — landing New York in the 35th percentile of districts nationally. By contrast, Chicago students advance the equivalent of six grades within those five years, giving the district one of the highest growth rates in the country.

Still, New York is slightly above average when compared to other large districts with many students from low-income families. And it trounces the state’s other urban districts — including Yonkers, Syracuse, and Rochester, which have some of the nation’s worst growth rates.

“Among big poor districts, it’s better than average,” said Sean Reardon, the Stanford University researcher who conducted the analysis. “In the grand scheme, it’s pretty middle-of-the-road.”

Reardon’s analysis — based on 300 million standardized tests taken by students across more than 11,000 school districts from 2009 to 2015 — is the largest of its kind. It looks both at student proficiency on third-grade math and English tests (that is, what share of students earned a score deemed “proficient”) and student growth between grades three and eight (how much their scores improved over time). Reardon’s research was supported by several foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also provides funding to Chalkbeat.

The analysis controls for the differences in tests across states and over time by converting scores into a common scale that measures growth in grade levels, making it possible to compare nearly every district in the country to one another. (It excludes New York’s scores from 2015 and some grades in 2014 because of the high number of students who boycotted the state tests those years. However, each district’s five-year growth rates is actually an average of its year-over-year growth, so Reardon was still able to calculate a five-year rate for New York.)

Experts generally prefer growth rates over proficiency as a way to evaluate school quality, since growth measures the progress students make in school rather than where they started. Even if a district enrolls many poor students who are less likely than their affluent peers to hit the “proficiency” benchmark, its schools can still help them advance at a rate comparable to or even better than schools filled with wealthier students.

“Growth is way better than achievement,” said Douglas Ready, an education and public policy professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. “We know low-income students start school behind — the question is what do school districts do with the kids they get?”

New York’s growth rate falls just below the national median of 4.8 grade levels. Among big districts, its students made gains similar to those in Dallas and Detroit, and greater than students in Los Angeles, Miami, and Indianapolis.

By contrast, Rochester ranks rock-bottom nationally. In that high-poverty district, where the median income among families with children in the public schools is $26,000, students advanced about three grade levels in five years. Yonkers’ $48,000 median income is much higher, yet its schools barely do better, with students moving just 3.5 grade levels. (Among New York City public-school parents, the median income is $42,000.)

Reardon emphasized that test scores provide an important but incomplete picture of student learning, and growth rates are an imperfect measure of school effectiveness since factors outside of the classroom also influence how much students learn over time.

Still, he argued that officials who rate schools and parents who choose them would do much better to look at a school’s growth rate over its average test scores. In fact, he said, a focus on growth rates could theoretically drive down socioeconomic segregation since higher-income parents might be willing to enroll their children in schools with many poor students and low overall test scores if the schools nonetheless had outstanding growth rates.

Ready, however, pointed out that even when schools and districts are highly effective at helping students make progress, they are still unlikely to close the yawning achievement gaps that separate most poor and wealthier students from the time they start school. Reardon came to the same conclusion.

“The large gaps in students’ academic skills between low- and higher-[socioeconomic status] districts are so large,” Reardon’s analysis says, “that even the highest growth rate in the country would be insufficient to close even half of the gap by eighth grade.”

In response to the analysis, New York City education department officials pointed to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test taken by a representative sample of students in each state and certain districts, including New York. Only one other district among the country’s 10 largest cities performed better in reading and math than New York, which had the highest share of low-income students reach the proficient level on the reading test.

“Our schools are the strongest they’ve ever been, with record-high graduation and college enrollment rates, and improving state test scores,” said the district’s spokesman, Will Mantell.

change up

Just as Lower East Side integration plan takes off, superintendent who helped craft it steps down

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Carry Chan, left, will become acting superintendent in District 1 when Daniella Phillips, right, leaves this month to join the central education department.

The longtime superintendent of the Manhattan community district where parents pushed for a plan to desegregate the local schools is stepping down just as the plan gets underway.

After a decade at the helm of District 1, which includes the Lower East Side and East Village, Superintendent Daniella Phillips is leaving to join the central education department, Chalkbeat has learned. During the yearslong campaign for an integration plan, Phillips acted as a liaison between parents and the education department, which finally approved a new admissions system for the district’s elementary schools this fall.

She will be replaced by Carry Chan, who has also played a role in the district’s diversity efforts as the interim head of a new Family Resource Center, an information hub to help district parents sort through their school options. Chan takes over as acting superintendent on Dec. 18.

The leadership change comes at a crucial time for the district, which also includes a portion of Chinatown. Parents are currently applying to elementary schools, marking the first admissions cycle under the new enrollment system. Under the system, schools give certain students admissions priority based on their economic status and other factors, with the goal of every elementary school enrolling share of disadvantaged students similar to the district average.

It will be up to the new superintendent to help schools recruit and welcome a greater mix of families, and to help steer parents towards a wider range of schools. Advocates hope the district can become a model for the city.

“There is a torch that needs to be carried in order to really, fully execute,” said Naomi Peña, president of the district’s parent council. “The next superintendent has to be a champion for the mission and the cause.”

During heated public meetings, Phillips tried to keep the peace while serving as a go-between for frustrated integration advocates and reluctant education department officials. The tensions sometimes boiled over, with advocates directing their anger at Phillips — though they were eventually won-over and endorsed the final integration plan.

In her new role, she will oversee school consolidations as part of the education department’s Office of School Design and Charter Partnerships. In District 1, Phillips helped steer three such mergers, which often involve combining small, low-performing schools with ones that are higher achieving.

“It has been such a joy and privilege to be District 1 superintendent for over 10 years, and I’m excited for this next chapter in the district and my career,” Phillips said in an emailed statement.

Chan is a former principal who launched the School for Global Leaders, a middle school that focuses on community service projects and offers Mandarin classes. Last year, she joined the education department’s Manhattan support center, where she helped schools form partnerships in order to learn from one another.

Since October, Chan has served as the interim director of District 1’s Family Resource Center, which is seen as an integral part of making the new diversity plan work. Families must apply for seats in the district’s elementary schools, which do not have attendance zones like other districts. The family center aims to arm families with more information about their options, in the hopes that they will consider schools they may not have previously.

“I think we’re all really passionate about this plan and we really want this to work,” Chan said. “Communication is the key, and being transparent with how we’re progressing with this work.”