system shakeup

City Council quizzes DOE on details of Fariña’s system restructuring

At the City Council’s education hearing on Thursday afternoon, council members attempted to understand the Department of Education’s new school-support structure and tease out its implications for struggling schools, principals, and parents.

The new system, announced by Chancellor Carmen Fariña last January, abolished the city’s 55 support “networks” and consolidated them into seven borough-based support centers. Fariña also gave superintendents more power to oversee schools and new staffers to help them.

The city contends that it took a confusing system established under the Bloomberg administration and replaced it with a clearer chain of command. But plenty of questions remain about how the system, which went into effect this summer, will work in practice.

Council members grilled department officials about the relationship between local superintendents and the new borough centers, whether schools not in the city’s turnaround program will receive extra support, and where principals can turn if they are not receiving the help they need.

Many of the questions asked asked by committee members were first posed in a Chalkbeat story in January. Here is how the city responded:

What is the relationship between the district superintendents and borough centers?

Council member Inez Barron wanted to know whether superintendents or the directors of the new borough centers have the final word on decisions.

City officials responded that the two offices are on equal footing, though they handle different issues and are different sizes. Each superintendent’s office has six or seven staffers, give or take, who handle specific needs like the schools in the city’s “Renewal” program, family engagement, and principal leadership. Borough centers are much larger and are meant to provide ongoing help with instruction, operations, and serving special-needs students and English language learners.

“The relationship is that they need to collaborate,” said Senior Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson. “There’s not a hierarchy.”

Barron asked what happens if the two offices disagree. Gibson said there is a protocol for handling disagreements, but she hopes her staff will not have to moderate battles between borough centers and superintendents.

What if a high-needs school is not a Renewal school?

It was unclear to council members whether the department’s restructuring provides support for schools that are underperforming, but have not been labeled as struggling by the state or identified as Renewal schools, which which receive additional funding but face a strict timeline to improve.

“I have significant concerns as to whether the resources promised to struggling schools will actually reach the struggling schools in my district,” said Deborah Rose, a council member from Staten Island.

Gibson responded that there is one staff member in each superintendent’s office designated to help Renewal schools. These staff members, she said, should also be offering support to those schools on the verge of becoming Renewal schools.

Where can principals turn if they are not getting the support they need?

Under the old network system, there was an element of competition among the support networks. If principals were not pleased with their support, they could turn to one of the other networks if it was not already overburdened.

Council member Benjamin Kallos noted that under the new system, most schools don’t have a choice about who to turn to for help. He asked officials how they planned to handle principals who felt they are not getting what they need.

Officials responded that they expected the collaboration encouraged by the new system to work for schools.

“We’re all held accountable for improving results,” said Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, who helped design the new system. “The idea is that, over time, all schools can improve.”

Kallos also wondered what happens when principals feel uncomfortable going to their superintendent for help with a problem, since the superintendents are also their supervisors. Deputy Chancellor Gibson said that, as she envisions it, a superintendent should know that a principal needs help before they even ask.

How do parents fit in?

Under the new structure, two of the staffers in each superintendent’s office are designated “family engagement officers.” Department officials stressed the chancellor’s belief in getting parents involved in schools, and noted that she regularly appears at community education council meetings.

Some of the council members wondered whether the family engagement officers will be an effective enough avenue for parental involvement, suggesting that CECs, the elected bodies of local parents that currently have few official responsibilities, should be granted new powers.

“They should be a part of the flowchart,” Councilman Alan Maisel said.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: