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.”

Walk it out

NYC mayor encourages school walkouts in wake of Florida shooting: ‘If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out’

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio

In the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said students won’t face serious disciplinary action if they choose to participate in a national school walkout planned for next month to protest gun violence.

“If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out,” de Blasio said Thursday. “This is too important a moment in history to try to hold back the desire of our young people to see fundamental change and to protect themselves.”

Students across the country are planning to walk out of class at 10 a.m. on March 14 “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” according to a Facebook description of the event.  The protest is scheduled to last 17 minutes, one for each person who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And unlike one Texas school district, which threatened to slap students with suspensions if they walked out, de Blasio said students would not face serious discipline. “There’s no negative, lasting impact if they do this,” the mayor said.

De Blasio’s tacit endorsement of the walkout comes just days after he announced that schools across the city would deploy more “rapid-response lesson plans” about current events. On Friday, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that the protests are a “teachable moment.”

We are going to do lesson plans around this issue leading up to that day,” de Blasio said. “We are going to make sure that there’s a real educational impact.”

The city also announced this week that every New York City school will hold a lockdown drill by March 15, and every middle and high school will be subject to at least one random screening with metal detectors this year.

Here’s more on what de Blasio told Lehrer this morning:

For high school students – we are going to be very clear, we want parents to weigh in, to let us know if they are comfortable with a young person walking out. It is supposed to be for 17 minutes. We expect the school day before and after to proceed. For younger folks – middle school, elementary school — the model I’m interested in, we are still working on this, is to have it be within the context of the building, you know to gather in the building for the memorial to the 17 young people lost, 17 people lost I should say. And again that may be silent, that may be with young people speaking, that’s all being worked through.

Speaking Out

Students at Denver’s George Washington High say their voices were unheard in principal selection

PHOTO: Denver Post file

When Shahad Mohieldin learned that students, parents, and teachers at George Washington High School in Denver would have a say in who was named the next principal, the high school senior spent days recruiting representatives from all three groups to participate.

Mohieldin, a member of the school’s advisory board, said she and others worked hard to ensure the group vetting the principal candidates would be diverse. It was important to include students of color and white students, parents who speak English and those who don’t, and teachers of both International Baccalaureate and traditional classes, she said, especially since the high school has been working to heal years-long racial and academic divides.

The students particularly liked one candidate who they said seemed to understand the school’s struggles. He would have also been a leader of color at a school where 70 percent are students of color. Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg ultimately chose a different candidate, a more experienced principal with whom he’d worked closely before.

It was a whirlwind process that took just seven weeks from when the current principal announced his retirement. In the end, Mohieldin and other students said they were left feeling like their voices were ignored.

“We were often told that, ‘Hey, your voice really matters in this. Please, we want your input,’” Mohieldin said. “It really hurts. Now we don’t trust the district as much, which is really sad.”

District leaders said the process was quick but thorough. Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said that while it was clear the students preferred one candidate, the input collected from parents, teachers, and community members was more mixed. The slate of three finalists was unusually strong, she said, and it was not an easy decision.

Kristin Waters, the candidate who was hired, is a former district administrator with years of experience leading a comprehensive Denver high school similar in size to George Washington. The students’ top choice was an assistant principal at East High School named Jason Maclin.

Cordova said she wants to assure students that although district leaders didn’t choose students’ favored candidate, they did consider their opinions.

“It is important to use your voice,” Cordova said. “Sometimes your voice isn’t the only piece of information we look at, but in no way does that mean to stop speaking out.”

Not listening to community feedback is a perennial criticism of Denver Public Schools, and one district leaders are continually trying to address. Recently, several major decisions have been based on recommendations from committees of parents and community members. While the process hasn’t always gone smoothly, the district has followed the community’s advice.

In the case of the George Washington principal selection, the process worked like this: Current principal Scott Lessard announced in mid-December that he’d be retiring at the end of the school year. Lessard has helmed the school for two years, and students and teachers credit him with fostering a sense of unity and a culture of openness to new ideas.

But he said the daily challenges of being a school principal led to his decision.

“I was going to retire at some point,” he said. “It may not have been at the end of this year, but it was going to be soon. The school in such a good place, I thought it was a unique opportunity now to find somebody who would be a good principal.”

The district has a pool of pre-screened principal candidates who are invited to apply for openings as they come up, Cordova said. With every vacancy, the district convenes a committee of parents, teachers, and community members to interview the candidates. In the case of high school principal jobs, the district also asks students to participate.

For George Washington, the district assembled the committee and three separate focus groups, which Mohieldin helped organize: one of parents, one of teachers, and one of students. The groups and the committee interviewed five candidates selected by the district, and based partly on their feedback, district leaders whittled the field to three finalists, Cordova said.

The three finalists then participated in a community forum. Forum attendees were asked to submit written comments on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, and Cordova said she personally read every single one. She said district leaders also read emails students sent afterward urging the district to pick Maclin. Students said they never received responses to those emails – one reason they felt unheard.

A week after the forum, on Feb. 6, the district announced its decision to hire Waters.

Cordova said she has every confidence that Waters will be “an amazing school leader.” Waters has been principal of three Denver schools: Morey Middle School; Bruce Randolph School, which serves grades six through 12; and South High School, whose demographics are similar to George Washington. More than 300 of the 1,239 students at George Washington are black and more than 400 are Hispanic.

“She has a strong track record working in similar communities,” Cordova said.

Students had some concerns about Waters’ approachability and her seemingly close ties with district leadership; Boasberg was listed as the first reference on her resumé. They said they liked Maclin’s presence, and that he seemed knowledgeable about the school’s past struggles and had concrete ideas for its future. Maclin submitted a proposed plan for his first 100 days as principal that included conducting a listening tour of the school community.

But students said their main complaint is not the outcome but the way the process unfolded.

“The district goes through this whole act of putting on these focus groups and interviews at the school and it’s like, ‘What really came out of that?’” said sophomore Andrew Schwartz. “At this point, it seems like the answer to that question is very little. I think that’s upsetting.”

Schwartz was part of the student focus group that interviewed all five candidates. So was junior Henry Waldstreicher, who noted that students missed an entire day of school to participate.

Waldstreicher said he was also left feeling disillusioned. “Why should we even try to talk to the district if they’re not going to listen to what we’re going to say?” he said.

The perception that the selection process was top-down wasn’t just among the students. Some teachers and community members said they felt the same way.

“We were given the opportunity to give our feedback and then it went into a black box and a decision was made,” said Vincent Bowen, a community member who participates in a student mentoring program at George Washington and was on the selection committee.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver teachers union, shared those concerns, adding that what happened at George Washington has happened at other schools, too: Candidates, she said, “go through this process, this rigamarole, but the district already knows who they’re going to pick.”

Parent Elizabeth Sopher said she feels district leaders weren’t as transparent as they could have been about what they wanted in a new principal, which she suspects contributed to the disconnect between the students’ top pick and the district’s ultimate decision.

“When you say to a group, ‘You tell us what the most important thing about this new principal is to you,’” she said, but then don’t make a decision based on that, “that’s a mistake.”

For her part, Waters said she’s excited to step into her new role at George Washington. She’s slated to start March 1 and finish out the school year alongside Lessard, a transition plan Cordova said was important to the district and the school community.

Waters said she wants to build a strong relationship with students. To that end, she has already met with a group of them to talk about their concerns.

“Once I get on board, they will see me out and about and hopefully feel comfortable coming up to me and letting me know what they’re thinking,” Waters said. “I want their input.”

Junior Cora Galpern said rebuilding that trust will be crucial. In the future, Galpern said the district should give students and others more of a say in principal selection by seeking a consensus on a candidate rather than simply soliciting feedback.

“Because at the end of the day,” she said, “our next principal has a huge effect on our day-to-day lives.”