Priority Schools?

Classes have started, but some struggling schools still await clear guidance from the city

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Gassaway has attracted his share of critics, who say he has not done enough to improve the school during the five years he has led it.

The principal of Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, one of the city’s lowest performing schools, emailed the schools chancellor the week before classes started asking to see the city’s intervention plan for his school. As of last week, he said, he still had not received a final version.

At another bottom-ranked school, the principal said he and his staff crafted their own school-improvement plan over the summer, but are still waiting for official feedback. He said city officials have not shared any plans of their own with the school, even though the state requires it to have a three-year turnaround strategy in place this year.

School-support network officials “told me to be patient, that the city has a plan for priority schools,” said the principal, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation. “That was in February or March. This is the end of September.”

More than two weeks into the school year, principals of some of the city’s most troubled schools say they still don’t know how exactly the city plans to intervene — and that the delays will make it harder for them to turn around their schools this year.

In fact, the state ordered such struggling schools to turn in improvement plans by July 31 and start acting on them by the start of the school year. But the city has so far only submitted “placeholder” plans created by the schools, and has asked for an extension until the end of October to submit the final versions, according to state officials.

The delays and limited release of information have prompted questions about whether Mayor Bill de Blasio and his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, consider these schools a top priority and if they have a clear plan in place to turn them around.

“De Blasio and the chancellor knew coming in that this was a huge problem that they had all these schools that were struggling,” said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University. “They put all their emphasis on preschool, but they don’t seem to get that they’re dealing with a much larger system.”

Gassaway said his school needs a well-thought-out improvement plan from the city, but "that’s the one thing that’s absent."
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Gassaway said his school needs a well-thought-out improvement plan from the city, but “that’s the one thing that’s absent.”

More than 90 schools in the city qualify as “priority schools,” a federal designation for the bottom 5 percent of schools in a state based on their test scores and graduation rates. Those schools must carry out “whole-school reforms” this year. Most of the schools have received federal grants to fund and guide those changes, but 29 that did not still need turnaround plans.

The whole-school reform calls for a performance review of the principal and teachers and the replacement of anyone deemed unsuccessful, more learning time for students, and a more rigorous academic program. Schools were supposed to describe those overhauls in their improvement plans, which the city asked for a three-month extension to submit.

Tom Dunn, a state education department spokesman, said the state and city are working together to make sure that next year the final plans are submitted and approved before the start of the school year.

Dunn added that schools usually craft the plans “under the direction and guidance of the district.” But the principal of the low-performing school that designed its own improvement plan this summer said it received almost no guidance.

The school’s leadership team filed an initial plan in June, then updated versions in August and last week, according to the principal. So far, the school has only received feedback on the budget portion of the plan, he said.

Meanwhile, the principal said he asked for extra money to hire a social worker, a math coach, and a reading specialist but got no response. Eventually, the school team gave up hope that they would get extra resources this year and designed their plan based on what was already available.

“We’re trying to rescue the school from priority status, so we can’t wait,” he said. “We’re trying to help ourselves.”

While those school-level plans are still being completed, the city has started to quietly roll out another intervention program for about two-dozen troubled schools. Some of the 29 schools that require whole-school overhauls are part of the program, which has been dubbed the “School Achievement Initiative,” while others are not.

Schools that are in the program have only been given basic information about it, according to principals. Meanwhile, new “school redesign” directors that are a key feature of the program only recently started visiting the schools to begin crafting customized improvement plans.

City officials briefed the leaders of the 23 schools in the program the week before school started. According to people who attended the meeting, the education department official overseeing the program gave a short PowerPoint presentation but said she couldn’t share copies of the slides with the principals until the mayor and chancellor publicly announce the program, which they have yet to do.

The program has “yet to be made transparent to schools,” one principal said, “let alone unveiled to the public.”

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.
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.

One of the schools in the program is Boys and Girls High School, a long-struggling institution in Bedford-Stuyvesant that is one of only two city schools to ever receive three straight F’s on its annual progress report. (The state considers it an “out-of-time” school because it has gone so long without enacting an approved overhaul, forcing the city to take even more drastic action there than at other struggling schools.)

So far the city has sent in two academic coaches and a former principal, who will act as the school’s redesign director, according to Bernard Gassaway, Boys and Girls’ principal. The school was also put under the oversight of a special superintendent who will monitor all the high schools in the intervention program.

The city also made the unusual decision not to send Boys and Girls any new students during the school year. Many critics, including Gassaway, have long said that struggling schools wind up with more of these “over-the-counter” students who often have greater needs than other students. It is unclear if other schools in the program will be granted a similar late-enrollment freeze — at least one other principal in the program said he had not been told.

Gassaway, who has opposed the city’s intervention plans for his school before, sent Fariña an email last month asking to see a final version of the school’s plan.

“BGHS is doomed to fail if we are expected to implement a plan in September 2014 that we have not seen since its first draft in July 2014,” he wrote on August 26. As of last week, he said he still had not received a copy of the final plan.

In an interview, Gassaway said the city’s delay would make it harder to improve the school.

For instance, he said he requested extra money in June to hire six new teachers with dual certifications in special education and other subjects. He said he only received that funding last month, after many teachers with those sought-after credentials had already been hired. By that time, he was only able to find two teachers with the dual certifications, he said.

“What would have helped this whole situation at Boys and Girls High School this year would have been a well-thought-out plan,” he said. “And that’s the one thing that’s absent.”

An education department spokeswoman said department officials started discussing a school-improvement plan with Gassaway and the school’s leadership team in the spring and continued to do so over the summer. The department has worked closely with Gassaway to identify and address the school’s needs, she added.

The city is taking a similar “proactive approach” with all of its struggling schools, developing tailored interventions for each one, said the spokeswoman, Devora Kaye.

“We are deeply committed to improving outcomes in all of our schools and ensuring that we meet the whole needs of each child and family,” she said.

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 [email protected]

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”