Newsroom

One principal, two schools, and a high-stakes experiment gone awry

PHOTO: Courtesy of Randy Andujar/Teaching Matters
Principal Michael Wiltshire tried turning around Boys and Girls High School while still overseeing Medgar Evers College Preparatory School.

Long-struggling Boys and Girls High School was in such dire straits by 2014 that the city took a highly unusual gamble: It paid a successful principal a big bonus to take on the floundering school without making him give up his old job.

A year and a half later, it’s become clear that the deal has cost the city — and students at both schools.

The principal, Michael Wiltshire, has rejected the city’s school turnaround program but continues to earn praise from top education officials even though many say the unusual arrangement has gone off the rails.

Wiltshire has openly questioned a core tenet of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature school-improvement program: that each struggling school must partner with a nonprofit, which is tasked with helping treat students’ social and emotional needs. After repeatedly clashing with Wiltshire, Boys and Girls’ partner organization informed him this week that it will no longer work with the school after this year.

In addition, Wiltshire’s controversial plan to move his former school, the high-performing Medgar Evers College Preparatory School, into Boys and Girls’ Bedford-Stuyvesant campus has caused a headache for the city. The proposal stoked suspicions at Boys and Girls that Wiltshire arrived at his new job with ulterior motives, even as Medgar Evers parents voiced concerns about the move. Still, the city went along with Wiltshire, turning his plan into an official co-location proposal — one whose future is now in doubt after a Medgar Evers leadership team officially rejected the move on Friday.

Finally, when critics questioned the idea of putting a single principal in charge of two schools when one of them is among the state’s lowest-performing, education department officials insisted that his role at Medgar Evers would be limited. But now, after Medgar Evers’ acting principal was removed from the school in March due to an investigation and has not been replaced, Wiltshire is devoting significant time and attention to his old school.

“It’s not working out for us at all,” said a Boys and Girls staffer who, like other employees and parents interviewed, requested anonymity to avoid retaliation. “We need a dedicated principal.”

But if some people at both schools are questioning the arrangement, others continue to support it — including Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who praised Wiltshire at a City Council hearing this week.

“Having a principal who’s a master principal working in that building has made a difference,” she said about Boys and Girls. Wiltshire “is trying to simultaneously run another school, but I think it’s actually worked well.”

“Community school” clash

Wiltshire proposed moving Medgar Evers into the sprawling and largely unoccupied Boys and Girls campus in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Wiltshire proposed moving Medgar Evers into the sprawling and largely unoccupied Boys and Girls campus in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

As required under de Blasio’s “Renewal” turnaround program, Boys and Girls brought in a nonprofit partner whose charge is to help convert the low-performing school with a dwindling enrollment into a “community school” loaded with social services.

But Wiltshire has butted heads with its partner, the respected social-service agency Good Shepherd Services, almost from the moment he took over the school in Oct. 2014, sources there said.

The agency is contracted to provide counseling and a host of other support services to Boys and Girls’ students, three-quarters of whom live in poverty and 60 percent are considered “chronically absent.” But Wiltshire has only allowed Good Shepherd staffers to meet with students during lunch and has barred them from entering classrooms, sources said. (By contrast, other schools in the Renewal program allow nonprofit staffers to co-teach classes or to provide one-on-one help to students during lessons.)

And while the agency’s state grant requires them to provide a minimum of 15 hours of after-school programming each week, Wiltshire has only permitted them five, the sources added.

In addition, while the principals of some Renewal schools have embraced the nonprofit workers brought in to manage all the new social services as co-leaders, whom they meet with regularly, Wiltshire has not had a substantive meeting with his “community school director” for several months, the sources said. When the director and another Good Shepherd staffer asked the parent-association president last month to be added to a meeting agenda so they could explain what a community school is, Wiltshire intervened.

“Good Shepherd Services is a [community-based organization] whose sole purpose is to provide specific services for Boys and Girls High School,” he wrote in an email to the president and the staffers that Chalkbeat obtained. He went on to suggest that Boys and Girls is not a community school — at least not one managed by Good Shepherd.

“Which Community School are they going to speak about? Certainly not Boys and Girls HS,” he wrote. “I need some clarity on this matter before they are added to agenda, specifically on the school that they will be speaking about.”

Finally, after speaking with the school’s superintendent and the head of the community school initiative to discuss the situation, a Good Shepherd official emailed Wiltshire Tuesday to inform him that they would be parting ways after next month.

“It’s very important in a community school that the principal and the partner organization share the same vision for the school,” Michelle Yanche, Good Shepherd’s associate executive director for government and external relations, told Chalkbeat. “But in our case, Good Shepherd Services and Principal Wiltshire have different visions about what our shared work should look like.”

In an interview, Wiltshire disputed the notion that he had obstructed Good Shepherd’s work. He also said, “I don’t intervene in PTA decisions as to who speaks at their meetings.”

But he did not deny his aversion to letting students meet with counselors during the school day.

“At Boys and Girls, we have serious academic problems,” he said. “This is not about socialization and a feel-good thing; it’s about giving students the academic support they need.”

He said students can meet with guidance counselors for part of their hourlong lunch period, and they can participate in non-academic activities after school on Mondays and Fridays. He added that if students were allowed to visit counselors during the day, some would do so just to skip class.

“You have to be careful because some kids who don’t want to go to class will always have ‘social-emotional issues,’” he said, adding, “There’s no ‘social-emotional’ class. They need to pass their Regents.”

That attitude has deeply offended some Good Shepherd staffers, who believe that students who are suffering because of traumatic home lives need emotional support in order to excel in class. In fact, that is the philosophy underpinning de Blasio’s decision to convert every low-performing Renewal school — including Boys and Girls — into a community school.

Community schools “focus on all of a child’s needs – not just academics,” de Blasio said in 2014 when he unveiled the $400 million program. “They address a child’s mental, physical, social, and emotional well-being, in addition to their academic needs.”

Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said that Good Shepherd would continue to work with another school on Boys and Girls’ campus. She added that the department would help Wiltshire find a new partner organization, and “ensure both parties are contributing.”

A stalled move

Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Boys and Girls High School in March 2015 and touted its progress under Wiltshire.
PHOTO: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Boys and Girls High School in March 2015 and touted its progress under Wiltshire.

Only a few months after Wiltshire took the reins of Boys and Girls, he floated a plan that startled several people there: He wanted to combine the historic but long-declining school with Medgar Evers, his former high-flying school just two miles away.

The merger would involve moving Medgar Evers’ 1,225 students from their cramped Crown Heights building that has no gym or auditorium into Boys and Girls’ massive campus, which the city says is filled to just a quarter of its capacity. In return, Boys and Girls students would be able to take honors classes at Medgar Evers, and the schools’ teachers could train and plan lessons together.

Some Boys and Girls’ staffers and alumni saw the proposal as a covert takeover — especially after Wiltshire suggested calling the combined school Medgar Evers College Preparatory School at Boys and Girls High School. The tensions grew after Medgar Evers’ leadership team requested a separate entrance at the shared building so that their students would not have to pass through Boys and Girls’ metal detectors.

People in the Bedford-Stuyvesant community did not want “students from Medgar Evers to come in feeling more privileged than the students at Boys and Girls,” said NeQuan McLean, president of the local community education council.

Months after Wiltshire floated the merger, the education department issued a formal proposal to move Medgar Evers into the other building (though the two schools would remain separate entities). After Medgar Evers parents and faculty opposed the city’s proposal to move the school’s middle grades a year ahead of its high school grades, the department revised the plan to move all the grades at once.

But that did not quell their concerns and, on Friday, the school’s parent-faculty leadership team formally rejected the move. In an email to department officials this week, the team gave several reasons: Boys and Girls’ campus houses a school for students who may be up to 21 years old, Medgar Evers students would have access to just one of three science labs, and they would lose their proximity to Medgar Evers College, where some students take early-college classes.

Suddenly, a move for which Wiltshire has been lobbying for over a year is in peril — even after the city turned it into an official proposal and modified it to make it more palatable for Medgar Evers. Kaye, the department spokeswoman, said the agency is listening to the leadership team’s concerns and assessing the next steps.

But Wiltshire seems to have already bowed to the team’s wishes, and is changing his request.

“Medgar deserves really to have a campus of its own,” he told Chalkbeat. “Why can’t the city invest a few millions dollars into a highly successful school?”

Divided attention

Department officials have insisted from the start that Wiltshire would “support” Medgar Evers when necessary, but would only oversee the day-to-day operations of Boys and Girls.

“He will not be running both schools,” Kaye said in Oct. 2014.

However, several Medgar Evers parents said that Angella Smith, the former assistant principal who until recently was serving as acting principal, repeatedly responded to questions by saying she had to ask Wiltshire.

“She doesn’t do any decisions without checking with him,” one parent said before Smith was reassigned in March while the city conducts an investigation involving her. Another said this week: “It definitely felt like it wasn’t clear who was in charge.”

Since taking over Boys and Girls, Wiltshire has continued to visit Medgar Evers multiple times a week, according to people at both schools. After the city removed Smith without appointing a replacement, his presence has only intensified. A Medgar Evers teacher said he visits the school almost daily — sometimes staying the entire day; other times stopping by in the morning, then returning in the afternoon.

“Dr. Wiltshire is here practically every day,” she said. “I don’t know how he’s juggling it.”

In response to that description of Wiltshire’s near-daily presence at Medgar Evers, Kaye said in an email Thursday: “As a master principal, he is the principal at Boys and Girls and continues to support Medgar. This continues to be his role.”

Some people at both schools said they are uncomfortable with this dual role, but others said that Wiltshire has been able to pull it off without letting either school suffer. Lorna Fairweather, a Medgar Evers parent and leadership team member, said students at that school are continuing to thrive even as a handful of Boys and Girls students have been able to take advanced classes there.

“He’s doing a fantastic job with both schools,” she said.

Wiltshire shares that assessment. He noted Wednesday that Boys and Girls’ graduation rate has already increased under his watch from 42 percent in 2014 to 50 percent last year, while Medgar Evers’ has bumped up during that time from 92 to 96 percent.

“I think what I’m doing,” he said, “in terms of splitting my time in both the schools, is wonderful.”

To and Through

Newark’s post-grad paradox: More students are entering college, but few earn degrees

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka wants 25 percent of residents to have college degrees by 2025, up from 19 percent today.

When it comes to college, Newark faces a good news-bad news paradox.

More students than ever are graduating high school and enrolling in college, according to a new report. Yet fewer than one in four Newark students earns a college degree within six years of graduating high school — leaving many with limited job prospects in a city where an estimated one-third of jobs require a four-year college degree.

Now, city officials are promising to build on the report. They want to ramp up the rigor of high-school classes and create more early-college programs to increase the odds of students entering college and leaving with a degree.  

“How do we teach our children to perform — to graduate?” Mayor Ras Baraka asked at a press conference Wednesday to mark the official release of the report of Newark students’ college outcomes. “We got them in the door,” he said of students who attend college. “Now how do we make them stay?”

The city’s plans, to which Superintendent Roger León is lending his support, reflect a growing recognition that simply getting students into college is not sufficient — and can even backfire if they drop out before graduation, leaving them with college debt but no degree.

Until recently, the charge given to high schools in Newark and across the country was to foster “college-going cultures.” And these efforts showed promising results: On average, 51 percent of Newark Public School students who graduated high school between 2011 and 2016 immediately enrolled in college, up from 39 percent who did so between 2004 and 2010, according to the report by the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, or NCLC, and Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.

But entering college didn’t guarantee its completion. Of those students who started college straight after high school, only 39 percent earned a degree within six years, the report found.

As a result, educators and policymakers have begun to think harder about how to help students “to and through” college — to ensure they actually earn degrees. Toward that end, Baraka and the NCLC — which includes roughly 40 colleges, schools, nonprofits, and corporations — has set a goal of 25 percent of Newark residents earning college degrees or comparable credentials by 2025.

Today, just 19 percent of Newark adults have associate degrees or higher — compared to 45 percent of adults across New Jersey and 40 percent nationally.

Superintendent León, who began overseeing the city’s schools on July 1, said his main strategy for supporting these efforts will be to expose students to challenging work early on.

“If we don’t do something dramatically in classrooms to improve instruction and make it rigorous,” León said after Wednesday’s event, then students are “getting into college but they’re not completing it.”

Source: “Post-Secondary Outcomes of Newark High School Graduates (2011-2016)” report. Note: The four-year rate is an average of the classes of 2011 to 2013. The six-year rate is from the class of 2011. Graphic: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

For starters, León said he wants high schools to offer more college-level classes. In the 2016-17 school year, just 21 percent of Newark students were enrolled in one or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes — compared to 42 percent of students statewide.

He also vowed to raise the quality of instruction in the district’s traditional high schools. Only 14 percent of their graduates earn college degrees within six years, compared to 42 percent of graduates from the city’s selective magnet schools, the report found.

To do that, León said he will create specialized academies within the traditional schools modeled on the magnets, which have specialized themes such as science, technology, or the arts. The academies, which will partner with colleges, will most likely feature admissions criteria similar to those of magnet schools, which select students based on their academic and attendance records, León added.

And, for the first time, all ninth-grade students this academic year will take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, León said Wednesday. An additional 1,100 eighth-graders who passed at least one of their seventh-grade PARCC exams will also take the PSAT when it’s administered on Oct. 10.

Since 2016, the district has provided the PSAT to all 10th and 11th-grade students. But León said that giving the test to younger students will focus their attention on college and help identity those who are ready for advanced classes. The PSAT is designed to help students prepare for the SAT, which is used in college admissions, and to qualify for National Merit Scholarships.

The district, which was under state control for 22 years until February, is getting some assistance in its effort to improve students’ college outcomes.

For instance, KIPP, the national charter-school network with eight schools in Newark, is sharing its strategies for helping students choose the right college with guidance counselors at three district high schools.

And the higher-education institutions in the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, including Essex County College and Rutgers University-Newark, plan to create more “dual-enrollment” programs that allow high-school students to earn college credits, said NCLC Executive Director Reginald Lewis.

“We’re all going to do a better job,” Lewis said, “of making sure that once Newark residents get in our doors, that we help them persist.”

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”