State of the City

Mayor de Blasio’s second-term education agenda? More of the same.

PHOTO: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this year.

In the wake of his decisive re-election in November, Mayor Bill de Blasio signaled that education would be a top priority during his second term.

“We need the school system to look entirely different in the coming years,” he said the day after the election. “That will be the issue I put my greatest passion and energy into.”

But if education is at the top of the mayor’s agenda, it did not form the centerpiece of his State of the City address Tuesday night. Instead, the roughly 70-minute speech highlighted other aspects of his agenda such as affordable housing and criminal justice reform, while casting President Donald Trump as a threat to the city — a reflection of de Blasio’s ambition to be a voice for progressives on the national stage.

His limited mention of the nation’s largest school system included a new $7 million civics-education program (a fraction of the city’s more than $24 billion education operating budget) and the ongoing expansion of his signature education program — pre-kindergarten — to include three-year-olds.

However, he offered no bold new vision for the city’s schools or even a clear argument for how his existing initiatives — a grabbag of programs ranging from computer-science classes to school-based health clinics — will push the system to new heights. While de Blasio’s cautious approach has allowed him to trumpet education-related successes while avoiding controversy, it’s also created challenges as he seeks a new schools chief and has some ostensible allies questioning his strategy.

Universal pre-K is “critical and I want to see the rollout of 3-K,” said Mark Treyger, chairman of the city council’s education committee, in an interview days before the speech. “But what’s the plan beyond?”

Rather than spell out a new plan, de Blasio doubled down on his existing initiatives Tuesday. He leaned heavily on his early-learning efforts, arguing that providing free preschool for three-year-olds would be “seismic.”

“To defeat structural racism and overcome this achievement gap we have to flip the script — we have to do something different when it comes to education,” de Blasio said during his speech at Brooklyn’s Kings Theater, before promoting his pre-K expansion. He added that his “next big goal” is to ensure all students are reading on grade level by the third grade — a promise he first laid out in his first term.

For the city’s older students, de Blasio touched on just one new policy initiative, an effort dubbed “civics for all.” The new program will encourage teachers to develop “rapid-response lesson plans” about current events, allow 17-year-olds to register to vote at school, and give every high school $2,000 that students will be able to spend through “participatory budgeting.”

The mayor did not mention some of the highest-profile elements of his current agenda, including his controversial “Renewal” program for struggling schools, a half-billion dollar initiative to infuse dozens of struggling schools with social services and academic support. It’s little surprise the mayor didn’t highlight the program: It has achieved mixed results, and the city recently announced that it will close nine of the schools, sparking opposition among some school communities.

De Blasio also skipped over some key pillars of his “Equity and Excellence” education agenda, including efforts to make computer science classes available to every student and expand access to AP courses.

It’s not the first time de Blasio’s annual State of the City speech focused primarily on issues outside of education, which covers roughly one-third of the city’s budget. Last year, for instance, his speech devoted just three of 94 paragraphs to the topic.

The perception that the mayor has not put forth a clear vision for the city’s schools could complicate his search for a leader to replace Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who plans to step down in the coming months. De Blasio said the city is conducting a national search, yet some observers have warned that candidates eager to influence the city’s education landscape might be wary of joining an administration that has already set out its education agenda and does not appear interested in launching new initiatives.

For their part, city officials said they were not having trouble recruiting candidates for the post, and broadly defended the mayor’s education agenda.

City schools “are stronger than ever with the highest-ever graduation rate, lowest-ever dropout rate, record-high college enrollment and college readiness,” city hall spokeswoman Olivia Lapeyrolerie wrote in an email. “This didn’t happen by accident, but is the result of a clear plan to improve our schools and deliver equity and excellence to all New York City children.”

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”

Future of Schools

Four school leaders hope to bring innovative ideas to Indianapolis education

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Brandon Brown introduces four new innovation school fellows.

Hoping to jumpstart innovation in Indianapolis education, four experienced educators will spend a year or more developing new models for schools.

The educators were chosen from among 39 applicants for fellowships from the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports district-charter partnerships. This is the fifth round of innovation fellowships, which give leaders one to two years to prepare to launch or takeover schools in Indianapolis Public Schools.

The fellowship includes an annual salary of about $100,000, benefits, and support for creating new schools, such as visits to other schools, training, and legal assistance. The package for each fellow is worth approximately $200,000 per year.

The city has 16 innovation schools, and they enroll about 20 percent of the students in Indianapolis Public Schools. They are under the umbrella of the district, but they are managed by outside charter operators or nonprofits, and most of the teachers are not employed by the district nor do they belong to the teachers union. The Mind Trust has been instrumental in the creation of innovation schools, and the vast majority of the schools were founded with support from the nonprofit.

The innovation fellowship winners include two people from Indianapolis and two recruits from other cities. But in a sign that the nonprofit’s leaders have become more cautious in their choices, all four have years of experience in education.

Brandon Brown, CEO of the Mind Trust, said that’s by design. About four early innovation fellows never ended up opening innovation schools. But all of the recent winners have either opened schools or are on track to open them, he said.

Candidates are much more likely to be successful, he said, if they have the entrepreneurial spirit to create their own nonprofits and win community support — and have experience in education.

“There’s this notion that if you’re a great entrepreneur, you don’t have to have the unique skill set to know education and [yet] you can go operate a school,” Brown said. “We’ve learned that that’s a very rare thing to see.”

While the winners have all worked in established schools, however, Brown said they are trying new models.

Tihesha Henderson, principal of School 99, won a fellowship to develop a school designed to meet the social and emotional needs of students. She will take a yearlong leave from her current job and hopes to return and transform School 99 into an innovation school.

Henderson envisions a school that adjusts to meet student needs, whether through therapy, small classes, or classroom redesign. School 99 already has significant flexibility, but as an innovation school, Henderson would be able to change the school calendar and set teacher pay, she said.

“We don’t have to be the status quo,” she said. “We can branch out and do some things differently, but it all comes back to — are we meeting out kids needs?”

The other fellows are Alicia Hervey, dean of student development for Christel House Academies; Kim Neal, managing director of secondary education for the charter school network KIPP DC; and Brandy Williams, an expert in special education from New Orleans.

Although innovation schools are considered part of Indianapolis Public Schools, they also often have charters through the office of Mayor Joe Hogsett. The collaborative nature of the schools was on display at the announcement Thursday, where Hogsett, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, and Brown all spoke.

The innovation schools, said Ferebee, are part of a broader district strategy to give principals more flexibility to run their schools.

“We hire great leaders, get out of their way and give them the space and agility to make decisions about academics [and] operations to better serve our students and our families,” he said.

The city’s reputation in the education community is helping it attract educators from across the country, said Hogsett.

“They know our city is one where they can make a difference,” he said. “Indianapolis welcomes their passion with open arms.”