a plan emerges

94 struggling schools will get extra support, but could still face closure

PHOTO: Twitter/NYC Mayor's Office
When Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled the Renewal program in November 2014, he said the city would "move heaven and earth" to help the struggling schools improve. (Photo: Twitter/NYC Mayor's Office)

Faced with rising calls for a strategy to rescue the city’s struggling schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $150 million plan on Monday to flood more than 90 of the city’s lowest-ranked schools with supports for students and staffers.

But in an effort to preempt critics who have accused his administration of giving failing schools a pass, de Blasio made clear that these 94 schools will face consequences if they do not meet certain targets. Even as he rebuked the previous administration for “casually” shuttering schools that were never given adequate assistance, de Balsio said the city will “close any schools that don’t measure up” after three years of intensive support.

“We will move heaven and earth to help them succeed,” de Blasio said during a speech Monday morning in an East Harlem high school, “but we will not wait forever.”

The new plan, dubbed “School Renewal,” turns the city into perhaps the nation’s most prominent test case of the theory that school improvement must extend beyond the classroom. Following the so-called community schools model, the city will bring physical and mental health practitioners, guidance counselors, adult literacy teachers, and a host of other service providers into these schools. They will also add an extra hour of tutoring to the school day and receive money for new after-school seats, summer programs, and more additional teacher training.

The plan also highlights de Blasio’s sharp departure from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reliance on competition and consequences to spur school improvement.

De Blasio allies who had opposed his predecessor’s approach embraced the new tact. Some 70 lawmakers, union and business leaders, and advocates offered their endorsements of the plan in a release sent out by City Hall on Monday.

But critics of the administration pounced on the plan, attacking it as limited and weak. They noted that it leaves out many low-performing schools, it does not specify the exact targets schools must meet, and puts off the most serious sanctions for several years.

“The mayor’s plan is too small, too slow, and too timid,” said Jeremiah Kittredge, CEO of Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter school advocacy group that has been critical of de Blasio’s education policies.

State education department officials apparently shared some of those concerns: A spokesman said Monday that Commissioner John King may force the city to “take additional actions in these schools” next year if he decides they are not making enough progress.

“There are times when struggling schools need significant structural change in order for meaningful progress to occur,” said the spokesman, Dennis Tompkins.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña forcefully defended the plan and the administration’s shift towards collaboration and support, telling reporters Monday that if her predecessors’ more aggressive approach had worked, “I wouldn’t be sitting here now talking about how we’re going to turn the schools around.”

“We want to prove the skeptics wrong,” she added.

Click for more information on the Renewal Schools

The announcement comes 10 months into de Blasio’s term and well into the school year, after educators and advocates have for months urged the city to outline a clear plan for the city’s many low-performing schools. Some educators have said the delay will make it harder to enact major changes this year, and the principal of one long-struggling school who recently resigned said he had lost faith in the city to help his school.

The city was required to submit improvement plans to the state for roughly 250 low-ranked schools this summer, but officials asked for a months-long extension to file final versions. The state gave the city until this Friday to turn them in. However, over the weekend, the city asked for another extension through the end of the year, which the state is currently considering, according to Tompkins.

Even as officials finalize those plans, the city will start to enact parts of the new turnaround program, de Blasio said. Fariña is currently evaluating the principals of the targeted schools, and their teachers will soon get new training. The schools will be sent new guidance counselors this spring, he added.

Other key components will launch later. For example, the schools will not offer the extra support services for students and their families until next year, when they will be sent teams of seasoned principals and teachers to act as coaches.

As the program rolls out over time, schools will be expected to meet certain goals. The only requirement this year is for schools to create individual improvement plans by the spring. Next year, they must hit various targets, including higher attendance, and by 2017 they must show growth in students’ academic performance. Officials said the goals will vary by school, and will take into account student test scores, educators’ efforts to work with families, and the quality of teacher training, among other measures.

Principals hoping to revamp their schools’ academics by removing poor-performing teachers will have to go through the normal evaluation and hearing process, officials said. To ease that process, superintendents will make sure principals properly document instances of teacher misconduct and incompetence, they added.

The 94 schools include some the state has identified as poor performing, and all rank among the bottom quarter in the city as measured by test scores and graduation rates.

The $150 million covers the first two years of the program, and comes from state struggling-school funds and money freed up through cost-savings in the education department budget, officials said. Funding has not yet been secured for the program’s third year, the officials added. De Blasio said more state money is needed to turn around more schools.

“We will need Albany to step up and help us,” he said.

The city’s plan encompasses the School Achievement Initiative, which sent coaches into 23 of the city’s lowest-performing schools this year. It is separate from the $52 million de Blasio set aside earlier this year to create 40 community schools, officials said.

Making community schools the centerpiece of the city’s vision for improving the system is likely to resurface debates about the effectiveness of non-academic services at boosting student achievement. (De Blasio has visited Cincinnati to observe their community schools model, though many of its schools are still struggling to improve their academic performance.)

De Blasio’s school-improvement plan also evokes the Chancellor’s District, a support program in the late 90s and early 2000s for the city’s lowest-ranked schools, though officials said the new program will tailor supports to each school’s needs. Schools in the Chancellor’s District made short-term gains in fourth-grade reading scores but no changes in eighth-grade scores.

The Coalition School for Social Change, where de Blasio made his speech Monday, will be part of the new program. Principal John Sullivan said he hopes to use the new resources to add more social workers, medical and dental services, and help for students who are behind in credits.

“I think the plan will mean a tremendous amount of support for my school community,” he said.

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

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