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:

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.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.