under pressure

For some schools, a spot on Cuomo’s ‘failing’ list but not in city’s Renewal program

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor
Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed for a broad overhaul of state education policy last year.

Among the dozens of struggling city schools facing the threat of takeover by outside groups are about 20 troubled schools that are not part of the city’s new turnaround program, according to a Chalkbeat analysis of “failing” schools identified by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office.

More than 70 city schools fall on the governor’s list of schools that could be put under the control of outside “receivers” if they fail to make major improvements in two years or less, under the state budget passed this month. Most of the schools will get extra help through the city’s new “Renewal” initiative, but 19 schools at risk of takeover are not part of that support program, according to Chalkbeat’s analysis.

The governor’s list is based on criteria similar to what is in the law. However, state education department officials cautioned that the law gives the agency’s commissioner some leeway when writing the regulations that will identify takeover schools. Because the agency is still developing those regulations based on the new law, it does not have a final list of those schools, the officials said.

Still, Cuomo’s preliminary list of potential takeover schools puts the city in an uncomfortable position. Mayor Bill de Blasio had argued that Cuomo’s plan was unnecessary because the city has its own aggressive turnaround program, but now it is clear that a number of the troubled schools on Cuomo’s list are not in that program.

A city education department spokeswoman said that every school — whether or not they are in the Renewal program — will get help from the newly empowered superintendents and the coming school-support centers, which are set to open this summer. Schools will get guidance around special-needs students, curriculum, teacher training, and more, said spokeswoman Devora Kaye.

The superintendents and support-center teams will work together, Kaye said, “to recognize a school’s strengths and diagnose a school’s weakness more expeditiously and set a better course of action to drive student achievement.”

The law divides the state’s lowest-performing schools into “failing” schools that have been bottom-ranked for three years, and “persistently failing” schools that have floundered for at least a decade. The “failing” schools have two years to make gains and the “persistently failing” schools have just one year before they could be put under the control of a receiver — a nonprofit, school district, or individual selected by the city schools chief.

The city has eight of those long-struggling schools, and 65 of the more recently troubled schools (excluding schools that are in the process of closing), according to the governor’s list. All of the eight schools are in the city’s Renewal program, but 19 of the remaining schools are not, according to Chalkbeat’s analysis.

The city used the state’s accountability measures to identify low-performing schools for its turnaround program, but also added other criteria, which is why some schools that are not in the Renewal program could still face receivership.

One of those schools is Community Health Academy of the Heights, a combined middle and high school in Washington Heights.

The school, which is on the state’s “failing” list, has a smaller share of students who passed annual exams or graduated in four years than the city average. At the same time, it significantly boosted the share of students who passed last year’s exams and its six-year graduation rate exceeds the city average — perhaps reasons why the school is not in the city’s Renewal program.

“On some things, we need to do a lot of work. On some things, we’re doing really well,” said Principal Mark House, noting that the school has also made strides in non-academic areas, such as parent-survey results and student participation in after-school programs. “It really depends on who’s doing the measurement.”

Potential takeover schools must enact improvement plans that include measures of progress such as test scores and attendance, suspension, and graduation rates, according to the law. If the schools do not make “demonstrable improvement” on those metrics, then the city must appoint receivers to take over.

The receivers have broad authority: they can modify a school’s budget or curriculum, increase salaries, or turn district schools into charters, and they must bring in more social and health services, the law says. They can also fire principals and force teachers to reapply for their jobs. However, if they want to change parts of the school covered by the teachers contract — such as the length of the day or year, or class size — they must negotiate with the teachers union.

City schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, like other district chiefs, will have the same powers over those schools as a receiver during the one-to-two years she has to revamp them. The budget law also includes $75 million for the “persistently failing” schools, or about $2.8 million per school.

Principals union President Ernest Logan said he was confident the city will keep the schools from reaching the point of receivership. Still, he said just the threat of takeover may make it hard for the schools to keep or attract skilled teachers and principals.

“You have to have a second thought about, ‘Should I go in and take over this school if I only have two years to turn this around?’” he said. “There’s no incentive to go there.”

The following chart lists low-performing schools identified by the governor’s office, and notes which are part of the city’s Renewal program and which are being phased out:

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

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.”