breaking news

City pulls seven schools with top ratings from turnaround plans

Just days after telling the state that it wanted to “turn around” 33 schools, the city has knocked that number down to 26.

Department of Education officials notified principals at seven of the schools with top grades on the city’s internal assessment of school quality their schools would no longer be slated for turnaround.

Turnaround is a federally prescribed school reform process that requires half of teachers to be replaced. In the model the city is using in order to win federal funds, the schools would have been closed and reopened with new names and new staffs this summer. The department had been criticized roundly for proposing to turn around seven schools that had met the city’s own benchmarks by receiving A’s or B’s on their annual progress reports.

The city’s shocking about-face comes less than a week after the city submitted formal applications to the state for approval and just hours before one of the schools on the list, Brooklyn’s School for Global Studies, was set to have a public hearing about its closure. Another school on the list, Harlem Renaissance High School, had a closure hearing last week.

In addition to Global Studies and Harlem Renaissance, the five other schools no longer slated for turnaround are William E. Grady Career and Technical High School, Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, I.S. 136, William Maxwell Career and Technical High School, and Cobble Hill School of American Studies.

Chancellor Dennis Walcott said in a statement that department officials had concluded the schools could improve without radically overhauling their staffs.

“After careful consideration, including school visits from my leadership team, we have come to believe that these schools have strong enough foundations to improve — and today, I have decided that we will not move forward with proposals to close and replace these seven,” Walcott said in a statement.

Walcott said the department would “continue to support these schools in their growth,” but it was not immediately clear whether schools would receive the same level of additional funding that they would have received under turnaround or would be able to carry out the improvement plans submitted to the state. Five of the schools received millions of dollars in 2010 and 2011 under less aggressive overhaul strategies, and many of their principals credited their rapid improvement to the funds.

Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said she was surprised but “delighted” by the news — provided that the city continues to assist the schools that were pulled off the turnaround list with extra funds.

“I applaud the city for taking a more thoughtful approach to the use of the turnaround model,” she said. “Turnaround was never meant to capture schools that had clearly shown patterns of improving. The last thing we want to do is disturb a school that’s in an improvement pattern. I am deeply gratified by the city’s ability to judge these schools on their own merits.”

Tisch had twice visited at least one of the top-rated schools, Grady, and proclaimed that it was headed in “a fine direction.” During her second visit, she brought along State Education Commissoner John King, who must approve the turnaround applications if they are to receive federal funding.

Reached by phone today, Grady’s principal, Geraldine Maione, said she would inform her teachers about the change tomorrow. “God is good,” she said.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who has been a vocal opponent of the turnaround plans, said the switch underlined the union’s critiques about the city’s school accountability metrics.

“The idea that A and B schools deserved to be closed made a mockery of the DOE’s system, as the agency has apparently now realized,” he said in a statement, adding that some of the other schools on the list also do not meet the city’s criteria for closure. Schools with three consecutive C grades are eligible for closure under the city’s rules, but 13 schools on the turnaround list with C’s on their most recent progress reports had received higher grades in the previous two years.

Mulgrew also urged the city to find ways to help the other 26 schools that are not being removed from the turnaround list. Most of them had been undergoing less aggressive processes known as “transformation” and “restart” — processes that did not require any teachers to be replaced — before Mayor Bloomberg announced the turnaround plan in January.

“There are 26 other schools that have improvement strategies in place,” Mulgrew said. “The focus should now be on helping make those plans a reality, rather than mindlessly closing schools that can and should be fixed.”

Teachers at the schools pulled off of the list reacted with a mixture of shock and relief. The removal caps a tumultuous three-month period in which the schools lost federal funding when the city and UFT failed to agree on new teacher evaluations for them; were proposed to close despite passing grades on the city’s own metrics; and saw their principals participate in a planning process that would have reshaped their offerings and staff rosters.

“This year especially has been so insane that it’s hard to know what’s happening moment to moment,” said a teacher at the Cobble Hill School of American Studies about the latest news. “It’s hard to know how to feel.”

The teacher said Cobble Hill teachers were already scheduled to find out at a faculty meeting Tuesday who would be the school’s principal next year. Now the faculty meeting is likely to contain very different news.

The city will continue to hold closure hearings for the 26 schools remaining on the list while waiting for King’s decision about whether to fund their turnaround overhauls. Two of the schools, Grover Cleveland High School and Herbert H. Lehman High School, have their hearings today.

“Obviously Cleveland is not on the list. This is very disappointing for us but we will not give up,” Diane Rodriguez, a Cleveland senior, told classmates and supporters at a rally before the school’s hearing. “Tonight we will show that we have a voice and will not give in.”

Overhaul Efforts

The entire staffs at two troubled New York City high schools must reapply for their jobs

Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke in 2015 with Automotive High School Principal Caterina Lafergola, who later left the school. Automotive is one of eight schools where teachers have had to reapply for their jobs in recent years.Now, teachers at two more schools will have to do the same. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

In a bid to jumpstart stalled turnaround efforts, the entire staffs at two troubled high schools will have to reapply for their jobs — an aggressive intervention that in the past has resulted in major staff shake-ups.

The teachers, guidance counselors, social workers and paraprofessionals at Flushing High School in Queens and DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx will have to re-interview for their positions beginning next spring, education department officials said Thursday, the same day that staffers learned of the plan. Meanwhile, Flushing Principal Tyee Chin, who has clashed bitterly with teachers there, has been ousted; his replacement will take over Friday, officials said. (DeWitt Clinton’s principal will stay on.)

Both schools are part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature “Renewal” program for low-performing schools, but have struggled to hit their improvement targets. They are also under state pressure to make significant gains or face consequences, leading to speculation that the rehiring is meant partly to buy the city more time before the state intervenes. (Last year, Flushing was the only school out of two-dozen on a state list of low-achieving city schools not to meet its turnaround goals.)

“Having a strong leader and the right team of teachers is essential to a successful school,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement, “and this re-staffing process is the necessary next step in the work to turnaround these schools.”

The staffing change stems from an agreement between the de Blasio administration and the city teachers union, who have agreed to the same process for eight other schools since 2014. Among the six schools that went through the process last year, nearly half of the staff members left — either because they were not rehired or they chose not to reapply.

As part of the deal, hiring decisions will be made by committees at each school comprised of the principals and an equal number of union and city appointees. Unlike when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to overhaul bottom-ranked schools by replacing their principals and at least half of their teachers, these committees can choose to hire as many or as few of the current teachers as they choose.

In the past, the city has placed teachers who were not retained through the rehiring process in other schools — a move that drew criticism for overriding principals’ authority to choose their own staffs. City officials would not provide details about the arrangement for Flushing or Clinton other than to say that the education department would help teachers who left the schools find new placements.

The education department “will work with each teacher to ensure they have a year-long position at a school next year,” spokesman Michael Aciman said in an email.

Both high schools have already endured a destabilizing amount of turnover: Since 2013, more than half the teachers at both schools have left, according to the teachers union. And Flushing’s incoming principal, Ignazio Accardi, an official in the department’s Renewal office, is the sixth in six years.

The school’s outgoing principal, Tyee Chin, had a brief and troubled tenure.

Last year — his first on the job — he wrote a letter to his staff describing a toxic environment that he called “the Hunger Games for principals,” where he said some teachers keep up a “war cry” for a new leader. Meanwhile, the teachers union lodged a discrimination complaint against Chin with a state board, alleging that he threatened to press “racism and harassment” charges against the school’s union representative simply for carrying out her duties, said United Federation of Teachers Vice President of High Schools Janella Hinds.

“Principal Chin came in with an attitude that wasn’t collaborative or supportive,” Hinds said. “We’re dealing with a school community that has had a long list of principals who were not collaborative.”

In an email, Chin disputed the union representative’s allegations and said many staffers did not want him to leave.

“Only a small number of teachers were unhappy with my leadership because they were held to a higher expectations [sic] and or were investigated for inappropriate actions,” he said. “I have received many emails from staff telling me they are very sorry and that it was a pleasure having me as their principal.”

Chin’s departure comes after DeWitt Clinton’s previous principal, Santiago Taveras, who also sparred with teachers, was removed last year after city investigators found he had changed student grades. He was replaced by Pierre Orbe, who will remain in his position.

The education department will host recruitment events during the spring and summer to bring in teacher applicants, who will be screened by the schools’ staffing committees, officials said.

However, it may be difficult to find seasoned teachers willing to take on such tough assignments.

When the teachers at Brooklyn’s long-struggling Automotive High School were forced to reapply for their jobs in 2015, the majority left. Many of their replacements were rookies, said then-principal Caterina Lafergola.

“Many of the schools that are going through the rehiring have a stigma attached to them,” she said last year. “It’s very hard to recruit strong candidates.”

Not long after, Lafergola left the school, too.

Update: This story has been updated to include a response from the outgoing principal of Flushing High School, Tyee Chin.

Future of Schools

For Indianapolis principals hoping to improve, one program says practice makes perfect

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A kindergarten student reaches for crayons during a lesson at Global Prep Academy.

Mariama Carson has spent 20 years as an educator, first as a teacher and now as principal of Global Prep Academy. But in all that time, she never found training that prepared her as well as what she learned over two weeks last summer.

Carson, along with 23 other Indianapolis school leaders, was chosen to be a fellow in a principal training program through the Relay Graduate School of Education. Almost immediately, she noticed a big difference from previous coaching she’d had: They practiced everything.

How do you teach kids the right way to walk in the hallway? They practiced it. How do you let a teacher know she’s struggling? They practiced it. What are the precise words to use in an evaluation? More practice.

“The commitment to practice is what has been so different,” Carson said. “Whatever we learn in Relay … it’s not just something someone has told you about. You’ve practiced it. You’ve lived it.”

Relay, a six-year-old New York-based organization, was founded by a cadre of leaders from high-performing charter school networks. Practice, role-playing and applied learning are at the center of their work with educators, which for five years has included a year-long principal fellowship.

In the 2016-17 school year, Relay trained about 400 school leaders in the United States. Fellows from Indianapolis were chosen and sponsored by The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit. Joe White, who directs The Mind Trust’s school support initiatives, said he was happy with the response during the last round of applications. The next cohort, whose members will be announced this month, will be larger and contain more Indianapolis Public School educators, as well as charter school principals, he said.

The Mind Trust wants to make the training “available to as many new operators as possible to continue expanding this work across the city,” White said. “We think that this is the way that we create sustainable schools that will provide high-quality results and outcomes for kids for a very long time.”

Two principals in the midst of the program told Chalkbeat that the fellowship is already changing the culture and efficiency of their schools. The principals spent the fellowship’s two-week summer training session in Denver learning how to best collect and analyze student data, give feedback to teachers and create a school building that runs smoothly.

“The practice and critical feedback we got was unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” said Mariama Carson, a principal at Global Prep Academy, which is housed in the IPS Riverside 44 building. “Usually as a principal, you don’t get that kind of feedback.”

But Relay, which also has teacher training programs, has its share of critics. Kenneth Zeichner, a researcher and professor at the University of Washington, analyzed non-university-affiliated teacher training programs, including Relay’s. Although he hasn’t looked into the principal program specifically, he said he is troubled that the teacher training curriculum emphasizes using test scores to gauge results at the expense of a more well-rounded assessment of students, who many times are coming from families living in poverty.

He also worries Relay as a whole is too focused on fast growth, rather than on proving its methods work. There have been no independent studies done on whether Relay produces better teachers than other alternative or university programs, Zeichner said, although one is underway.

“My concern about Relay is not that they exist,” Zeichner said. “If you’re going to measure the quality of a teacher education program — of any program — the independent vetting, or review, of claims about evidence (is) a baseline minimum condition.”

Chalkbeat spoke with Carson and Bakari Posey, principal at IPS School 43. The two just completed their second of several training sessions, which will continue through the rest of the school year.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What made you want to be part of the fellowship?

Carson: The job of a principal is so lonely. To have the opportunity to work with high-quality, hard-working principals across the country is always inviting.

Posey: I wanted to make sure that I was able to appropriately and efficiently and effectively develop the people on our team. That’s what really drew me in. It’s shaped my thinking and sharpened my lens as a leader and what I’m looking for in classrooms.

What have you learned so far that you’re implementing in your school?

Carson: It’s been transformative in how our building is run just on the cultural side. Relay has really helped us understand that especially with adult learners, you have to start with the “why.” And then we model, and the teachers (in my school) play the position as students. We go into full acting mode, and then the teachers execute that practice. For two weeks before the kids even showed up, that’s what our teachers were doing. Normally, I’d hand my teachers a packet of procedures and expectations, but we never practiced.

Posey: We’ve started to implement already … around coaching teachers — how we give that feedback and give teachers bite-sized action steps to work on instead of making a list of 12 things to do at once. If you do one thing better every single day, then you get better overall. Something else that’s big for me is student work exemplars — actually having an example of excellence for student work that the teacher creates and uses to guide feedback. Overall it’s just kind of helped to organize my thinking as a school leader and really kind of give you a little bit of a road map towards student growth and overall school success. It’s the best professional development I’ve ever been a part of.

How have teachers back in your schools responded to the changes you have introduced, including suggestions on improving instruction, evaluations, etc.?

Carson: Teachers have been responding well, and they’re getting used to this culture, a culture of practice. Even in our feedback sessions where we’re coaching teachers, it’s “OK, execute the lesson — I’ll be the student, you be the teacher.”

Posey: They’ve been receptive. It’s not coming from a place of “gotcha” or I’m trying to make you look really bad. It’s really coming from a place of really getting better for our students to really give them the best, which is what they deserve.