What's the Plan?

As deadlines loom, city gives few hints about plans for struggling schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn is one of only two city schools to ever receive three straight F’s on its annual progress report.

The red-brick colossus known as Boys and Girls High School has stretched out over a block of Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn since the 1970s.

Now, the school looms over the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio and his schools chief, Carmen Fariña, who must decide how to handle a historic high school that has watched its enrollment dwindle from 2,300 to 750 students in the past five years while only graduating about four in 10 students each spring.

Boys and Girls is one of many troubled schools that the new administration has pledged to help fix rather than shutter, in a direct rebuke of the previous administration’s frequent close-and-replace approach to struggling schools.

But after six months on the job, Fariña has yet to announce how the department will prop up the city’s lowest-performing schools — a complicated question that could involve tackling thorny policies around the way schools are assigned students, how support networks oversee schools, and when floundering principals should be replaced.

As she crafts her plans, she faces a state-mandated deadline to launch overhauls at dozens of bottom-ranked schools by September. In the first signal of how she will try to balance support for those schools with interventions, city officials recently submitted a plan to the state to put Boys and Girls and another long-struggling school under special oversight — harkening back to an idea that Fariña and a top deputy endorsed two years ago.

Still, even at Boys and Girls, the details of the city’s intervention plans remain a mystery, said Principal Bernard Gassaway.

“It’s wait-and-see,” he said, adding that officials so far had simply promised more support. “It’s very important that the rhetoric is matched by action.”

As of this school year, 119 New York City schools rank among the bottom 5 percent in the state based on their state test scores and graduation rates, according to state officials. Each of those schools is required by next school year to begin carrying out an approved overhaul, which can include a redesign of teacher training and the school schedule, replacing its leader and possibly some staff, converting into a charter school, or shutting down.

The city has already received federal funds to overhaul 63 of the schools, a process that under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg often involved closing a school and replacing it with one or more new ones. That leaves the city with more than 50 city schools where it must enact overhaul plans by September. (That number will shrink this summer as some of the schools close, lose their struggling status, or receive federal improvement grants, the state officials said.)

Of those schools, two — Boys and Girls and Automotive High School in Williamsburg — have been bottom-ranked for at least five years without enacting an approved overhaul. The state calls those “out-of-time schools” and ordered districts to use one of six intensive interventions to improve them.

The city’s choice was to create an “alternate governance structure” for the two. This will involve putting them under the supervision of a single superintendent and could include granting the principals more leeway to hire and fire staff, providing more money for professional development, and lengthening their school days.

Bernard Gassaway, principal of the long-struggling Boys and Girls High School, said the new administration's approach to troubled schools so far has been "wait-and-see."
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Bernard Gassaway, principal of the long-struggling Boys and Girls High School, said the new administration’s approach to troubled schools so far has been “wait-and-see.”

The city could eventually include more schools in this oversight structure, though officials said only the two high schools will be part of it next year. Fariña has insisted that she would not create a special district just for struggling schools.

But a plan she endorsed two years ago when she was part of a “school transformation” working group with Phil Weinberg, a former principal who now oversees the education department’s accountability efforts, does resemble the city’s new efforts.

That group rejected the Bloomberg administration’s closure policy, and called instead for a “Success Initiative zone” where the leaders at up to 60 struggling schools would adopt improvement plans, receive “targeted support” to enact them, troubleshoot problems with other leaders in the zone, and visit successful schools. The idea was for the city to spur reforms inside floundering schools without being too prescriptive, which was one criticism of a district designed for troubled schools under former Chancellor Rudy Crew, said Jon Snyder, who was part of the working group with Fariña.

“I think that’s the balance that Carmen and the Department of Education will need to strike,” said Snyder, a former dean of the Bank Street College of Education. “It’s about growing capacity — it’s not about mandating particular practices.”

With the plan for Boys and Girls and Automotive high schools in place, the city still must settle on interventions for the dozens of other state-identified bottom-tier schools.

The new administration is unlikely to choose to close any of the schools for now. De Blasio said recently that closure will only become an option “if we feel, after applying all the tools we have in a reasonable timeframe, that we can’t fix the problem.” One approved overhaul the city might consider calls for a school’s “redesign,” but allows for the principal and faculty to stay in place if they are deemed competent.

Still, many questions remain about Fariña’s broader strategy for troubled schools, including those that are stumbling but have not yet attracted the state’s attention.

For example, Fariña has said little about how she will approach high schools or how she might reconfigure the school-support networks that some say allow low-performing schools to slip through the cracks. She has also not indicated whether she will adjust admission policies to prevent certain schools from enrolling a disproportionate number of students with special needs or who are behind academically — a problem cited by Gassaway and the working group Fariña was part of.

The education department did not make Fariña available for this article. A spokeswoman did not offer details about the city’s plan for its struggling schools, but said generally that it would work with each school to identify its needs, then craft school-specific plans to address its “underlying issues.”

In his campaign platform, de Blasio said his administration would collaborate with the leaders of struggling schools until they are “deemed to be a failure.” At that point, he proposed sending in different principals with experience improving schools along with a team of seasoned educators.

But it remains to be seen how Fariña will decide which principals to work with and which to replace. Thomas Hatch, co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Teachers College, said this is a challenge for every administration.

“For the most part,” he said, “we haven’t found the right balance between support and accountability.”

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School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede