Takeaways

The day after: What we learned at last night's turnaround hearing

A teacher from Lehman High School testifies at Thursday's Panel for Educational Policy meeting. The panel voted to close and reopen Lehman.

Here are seven things you should know about last night’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting, in case you don’t have time to read the live-blog we maintained for more than six hours as the panel weighed whether to approve “turnaround” closure plans for 24 schools.

1. There’s a new form of school closure in town. Usually, when the Department of Education decides to close a school, it embarks on a multi-year process of phasing out the old school and phasing in a new school, or multiple new schools, in its place. The department has used this process well over 100 times in the last decade and has said it results in stronger student performance. This process is what the panel okayed in February, when it signed off on plans to close or shrink 23 schools.

Turnaround is a little different. It speeds up the process so phasing out and in happen at the same time, essentially overnight. It remains to be seen whether years of transition or rapid change can be judged to be more effective at boosting student achievement. The city turned to turnaround this year to make schools eligible for federal funds. But if the city determines that turnaround has advantages over phase-out, the city could use it again in the future.

2. But turnaround isn’t really as new as Mayor Bloomberg made it out to be. On the dais, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said that a panel resolution to prohibit turnarounds was inaccurate because it stated that the reform initiative was unknown in New York City. In fact, Walcott said, the city has used turnaround before –  but to a lesser extent. They also have never called their reform efforts turnaround, a term that comes from the Obama administration’s school reform vocabulary list.

What they have done is close low-performing schools and open new ones in their place that serve all of the same grades and students. When that has happened, in some elementary and middle school overhauls, the principals of the new schools have been bound to hire from the old schools’ staff in accordance with the same clause in the city’s contract with the teachers union that the city is invoking in the turnaround schools.

Walcott pointed out that one of his deputy chancellors, David Weiner, had actually overseen a turnaround school when he was the principal of the now-closed P.S. 314 in Sunset Park. Weiner closed down the school and reopened it as P.S. 503 The School of Discovery.

“I want to change the misinformation that’s saying it hasn’t been done,” Walcott told Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the Queens representative who authored the resolution. “It has been done.”

3. A hearing just isn’t the same without the UFT’s involvement. In the past, the union has chartered buses from all over the city to PEP meetings to make sure the full range of opposition is represented from teachers working in schools being affected by panel votes, and organized dissent has resulted. But this month the union not only cancelled the buses, it sat out of the panel meeting entirely, creating a scattered presence of teachers who attended on their own initiative.

Close to 100 teachers and supporters were at the union’s rally earlier in the day, but the vast majority of them went home after drying off at the union headquarters. Without a critical mass of people, the teachers who did trek to Prospect Heights sometimes found their messages lost amid the sea of organized charter school supporters who turned out to testify on co-locations up for a vote.

In fact, only a fraction of the schools on the turnaround list were represented at all, and only one representative of the seven middle schools at risk — a principal who would be replaced under turnaround — spoke out. Only about two dozen students attended and parents were even less plentiful.

The largest and most contingent at the meeting came from two charter school networks, Democracy Prep and Success Charter, who both brought buses of supporters to back co-location proposals before the panel. For a time during the public comment period, one could forget that turnaround was on the agenda at all.

4. But we haven’t heard the last from the union. Just days after Mayor Bloomberg announced the turnaround plan in January, UFT President Michael Mulgrew left little doubt about how the union planned to respond. “If the Department of Education tries to implement changing these schools from their current status, we will be taking appropriate legal action,” Mulgrew said at the time.

Last night, we saw that the union is dotting all its i’s in preparation for a lawsuit.

Vice President Leo Casey was the only union official to appear at the hearing after most stayed away to protest the panel’s pro forma votes. Why did he make the trek to Brooklyn? “I just want to make an official objection for when we sue them,” Casey said.

A union official said this morning that a lawsuit would not be filed today. The official would not say whether the union had a timeline for lodging a legal complaint.

5. Panel members aren’t just sitting silently before they vote. Critics often mock the panel’s mayoral appointees as “puppets” who do little besides keep their seat warm and wait until it’s time to vote “yes.” The mayoral panelists all voted yes in accordance with Mayor Bloomberg’s wish, doing little to curb the criticism.

But in a departure from the norm, a majority of the mayoral appointees were visibly grappling with the proposals before them.

“I know the panel members want us to engage,” said the first mayoral appointee to ask a question, Jeffrey Kay. Kay asked Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg to repeat some of the key points of the proposal: “Outside of the change of the name of the school and the possible elimination of poor teachers, what else is this program going to do?”

Sternberg was patient, but he also seemed weary as he rehashed the policy points that had already occupied the panel for five hours. “I’ve already said some of this,” Sternberg began.

After hearing Sternberg’s explanation, Kay expressed disbelief that anyone would oppose turnaround and criticized Manhattan representative Patrick Sullivan for calling the plan “barbaric.” Sullivan in turn chided Kay for not understanding some of the complexities of the proposal.

“Maybe if you had actually read the plans” you’d understand it better, Sullivan said. Sullivan was one of several panel members to request the city’s application to the state for federal turnaround funding, and he had spent the days before the meeting poring over more than 800 pages of plans. The city barred the panel members from discussing the applications publicly because they are not final.

Judy Bertgraum, who was appointed earlier this year, said that in her 30 years of working in education in Queens schools, many of the schools on the turnaround list had long been struggling. “The issue with these schools have been there” for years, she said. “I see this as an opportunity that’s never come before. This doesn’t come very often.”

Joan Correale, who became a panel member just in time for the meeting, said her daughter’s Bronx high school had undergone something like turnaround. The process led to principal turnover, but in the end the school was a better place, she says. (Correale had previously served on the panel as the appointee of the Staten Island borough president.)

And Brooklyn’s Gitte Peng said she wanted to know what the DOE’s communication plan was for making sure students and parents understood all of the changes that were about to take place over the next several months. “One concern is the potential for confusion on the part of kids and parents in the community for what next year will bring,” she said.

6. The city thinks good teachers are worth millions of dollars. Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg emphasized that point after multiple panel members, including Fedkowskyj, expressed disbelief that principals would choose to jeopardize their chances of winning millions of dollars in federal funds. Schools are eligible for the funding only if they replace 50 percent of teachers who have been on staff for more than two years, a quota that DOE officials have repeatedly said principals are not required to follow.

“Our direction to them is hire the best possible staff as they can and if that means they are hiring more than 50 percent of their staff then that’s exactly what they should do,” Sternberg said again at the meeting.

Fedkowskyj challenged that talking point. He said he could envision a scenario where principals, lured by money for their schools, would justify a decision not to rehire teachers in order to reach the 50 percent benchmark.

Sternberg quickly interjected and said the money should have no bearing on hiring decisions, even if one teacher stands in the way of reaching the 50 percent quota.

“Any principal that turns down one talented educator, they are making the wrong decision,” Sternberg said.

7. Here are the schools that will undergo turnaround:

Alfred E. Smith CTE High School, Bronx
August Martin High School, Queens
Automotive High School, Brooklyn
Banana Kelly High School, Bronx
Bread & Roses Integrated Arts High School, Manhattan
Bronx High School of Business, Bronx
Flushing High School, Queens
Fordham Leadership Academy, Bronx
Herbert Lehman High School, Bronx
High School of Graphic Communication Arts, Manhattan
I.S. 339, Bronx
J.H.S. 22 Jordan L Mott, Bronx
J.H.S. 80 Mosholu Parkway, Bronx
J.H.S. 142 John Philip Sousa, Bronx
J.H.S. 166 George Gershwin, Brooklyn
John Adams High School, Queens
John Dewey High School, Brooklyn
Long Island City High School, Queens
M.S. 126 John Ericsson, Bronx
M.S 391, Bronx
Newtown High School, Queens
Richmond Hill High School, Queens
Sheepshead Bay High School, Brooklyn
William Cullen Bryant High School, Queens

Building Better Schools

How a new principal led her neighborhood school to the biggest ISTEP gains in Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 39 had the largest jump in passing rates on the state math and English tests in the district.

Breakfast at School 39 was a little bit hectic on a recent Wednesday, as staff urged kids to eat their bananas, yogurts and cereal.

But principal Stacy Coleman was calm as she stood among the tables of kindergartners and first graders. “Big bites now,” she said, as the bell approached.

Coleman is in her second year as principal of School 39, also known as William McKinley, a traditional neighborhood school on the edge of Fountain Square. In Coleman’s first year of leadership, the school achieved an unusual feat: Passing rate on both the math and English ISTEP climbed to 28 percent in 2017, up 9.7 percentage points over the prior year — the biggest jump of any school in Indianapolis Public Schools.

That progress caught the eye of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who highlighted McKinley as a school the district could learn from.

“We hired a great new leader,” said Ferebee. “She’s really focused on the culture of the school and using data to inform instruction.”

A Michigan native, Coleman has been an educator for seven years. She joined IPS three years ago as assistant principal at School 31, also known as James A. Garfield, a neighborhood school two miles from the campus she now leads.

Chalkbeat sat down with Coleman to talk about School 39 and the school’s remarkable jump in passing rates. Below is an excerpt from our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

What’s your school community like here?

We are a working-class neighborhood. Our families are working class — very supportive parents. Teachers call, they answer. They are up here. They care about their child’s well-being.

The neighborhood around us is changing. Gentrification is occurring, and it’s moving fast. However, we have not seen a change in our population of students yet.

We canvas the neighborhood quite often, me and my parent involvement educator. A lot of people we’ve talked to don’t have kids, and if they do have kids, they are not school-age yet.

You guys had this big bump in your test scores — the biggest in the district. What did you think when you saw that?

I felt so filled with emotion because I saw all the hard work that my teachers were doing, and I saw what we were doing with the kids. It just was nice to see the gains from the hard work.

You’re seeing the flowers that you’ve planted.

What do you think led to this big jump in test scores?

We really focused on making this a positive and safe environment for our students — and our staff. Changing staff morale, changing student morale and motivation.

We focused on empowering our teachers and putting that ownership on them.

What did you do to empower your teachers?

Allowing for professional learning community meetings to be teacher directed. It’s not like a staff meeting. It’s teachers talking and collaborating with each other, being transparent in our teaching practices, opening the doors of our classroom for other teachers to come in.

We did instructional rounds. Teachers went into other classrooms and observed a problem of practice and debriefed about those and put specific strategies into their classrooms.

As a teacher, I found a lot of power in those professional learning community meetings because that was when you got to delve into the numbers. You delve into the data and really understand how your students are doing.

Was there anything you feel like you stole from the last school you were at where you were assistant principal?

We do a lot of positive behavior interventions and supports here at William McKinley. We did a lot of them at James A. Garfield. We amped them up, last year and again this year.

Like, this year, we have Coleman cash. Every day a student is nominated by their teacher, and they get to go to the front of the lunch line. They get to sit at a special table in the cafeteria with a tablecloth and a centerpiece. They also get to invite a friend. They get to talk when everybody else is silent. All those good things.

On Friday, for staff, we are going to be superheroes. Then we take a picture, and classes are going to vote on them.

The students get to see us enjoying ourselves, and it’s a little bit of a fun Friday.

We’re just making it a great place to work and a great place to learn for our students.

Educator diversity

Aurora Public Schools’ principals more racially diverse this year, but district still lagging behind

File photo of kindergarten students at Laredo Elementary in Aurora.

In the most diverse city in Colorado, school district officials have struggled to hire and retain principals of color.

The issue isn’t unique to Aurora Public Schools. But one change made three years ago to how Aurora hires principals is now slowly increasing diversity among school leaders, officials say.

The revamped hiring process wasn’t aimed at increasing diversity, but rather at increasing quality and minimizing biased or preferential hiring decisions, officials say.

“Systems that are more likely to have bias are less likely to have diversity,” said John Youngquist, Aurora’s chief academic officer. “Systems that are engaging these kinds of processes that allow people to demonstrate behaviors they’ve practiced over time, are ones that allow those high quality candidates to get to the top. I know is this is a practice that increases the level of diversity.”

This fall, 10 percent of Aurora principals are black, and 14 percent are Hispanic, up from 9 percent that were black and 7 percent that were Hispanic last year.

It’s an improvement, but the numbers still represent a gap with the diversity in the district and in the city. Eighteen percent of Aurora Public Schools students are black and more than 50 percent are Hispanic. The city of Aurora has similar demographics, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates.

State data tracking both principals and assistant principals by race showed the Aurora district had lower percentages of school leaders who were black or Hispanic in 2016 than in 2013. Numbers for the current school year are not yet available.

This year, the numbers of teachers who are not white are smaller and farther from representing the student or community demographics than they are for principals.

Research has shown that students of color benefit from having teachers of color. Having diverse and highly qualified principals helps leaders in turn attract and hire high quality and diverse teachers, Youngquist said.

Aurora superintendent Rico Munn said that increasing diversity is a priority but said he isn’t sure how many educators of color Aurora schools should aspire to have.

“For our workforce to mirror the community, I don’t know that there’s enough educators in the state,” Munn said.

Elizabeth Meyer, associate professor of education and associate dean for undergraduate and teacher education at CU Boulder, said all districts should be striving to see an upward trend in the numbers, not necessarily trying to reach a certain percentage as a goal.

She said that issues in diversifying teachers and principal pools are similar, but that teachers of color who are supported can be the ones who can then go on and become principals.

“We’re already limited because teaching demographics are overwhelmingly white women,” Meyer said. “We do need to find ways to make teaching a more desirable profession, especially for people of color.”

Meyer said that while there are nationwide and statewide issues to be addressed, districts need to incentivize teachers by paying higher wages, create environments that are inclusive for teachers already in the district and have visible leaders of color.

“It’s not enough to just want to recruit people in,” Meyer said. “Retention is the other part of the problem.”

When Youngquist’s office led the change in how the Aurora district hires principals, the focus was to increase the quality of school leaders and remove bias that could allow a person to be invited into the process “just with a tap on the shoulder,” he said.

The new process requires a team of district leaders and other principals to observe candidates as they are asked to model practices through scenarios and demonstrations of situations they’re likely to confront as principals.

Yolanda Greer, principal of Aurora’s Vista Peak Exploratory was one of the first to go through that new hiring process three years ago.

Yolanda Greer, principal of Vista Peak Exploratory in Aurora.

“I will tell you at the end of it I certainly felt like I had been through a triathalon of some sorts,” Greer said. “But I do recall saying at every point, ‘I’m so impressed. I’m so appreciative that APS is taking the thoughtfulness that went behind creating this process to make sure we have leaders that are prepared.’ It made me want to be here even more.”

Speaking at a community meeting last month, Munn said the neighboring districts of Denver and Cherry Creek can offer more money, so Aurora must focus on other appeals to hire and retain diverse educators.

“We have to think about what’s the right atmosphere or what’s the right way that we can recruit or retain people in a way that makes them want to be part of what we’re doing here in APS,” Munn said. “Our ultimate winning advantage there is that we have a strong connection to the community. We also demonstrate to potential staff members that we are a district that has momentum. We are a district where there is opportunity. We are a district that can truly impact the community that we serve.”

Greer said she felt that draw to Aurora long before she applied for the principal position.

“I think because there was a public perception that Aurora was an underdog,” Greer said. “It’s a great opportunity to not only impact the school but the district and community.”

Though Aurora district officials are happy with how the principal process is playing out, they started working with a Virginia-based consultant last year to look at all hiring practices in the district. Munn said part of that work will include looking at whether the district is doing enough to increase diversity.

Like most school districts, Aurora has sent officials to recruit new educators from Historically Black Colleges and Hispanic Serving Institutions.

One thing that Greer said is in a district’s control is allowing a culture where issues of inequity can be discussed. In Aurora, she said she feels comfortable raising issues of student equity if she sees them.

For her, seeing other people of color in leadership positions in the district, including the superintendent, also made her feel welcome.

“In Aurora when I walk into leadership meetings, there’s a lot of people that look like me, so there’s that connectivity,” Greer said. “There’s open conversations and people listen.”

Earlier this year, Greer was reminded of the impact that leaders of color can have when her elementary students were asked to dress up for the job they hoped to have when they grew up.

Several of the students came to school dressed as their principal, Greer said.

“I want to make sure students of color can see someone that looks like them,” she said. “When they can see me in the specific role in education and they can say, ‘Wow, that can be something admirable and I want to aspire to that,’ it’s a big deal.”