end of the road

After report that New York City is ending its Renewal turnaround program, big questions remain

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

New York City is poised to end its $750 million Renewal Schools program, which city officials knew within a year of its launch in 2014 was unlikely to produce the promised “fast and intense” improvements in academic achievement in many of the city’s lowest performing schools, the New York Times reported on Friday.

The education department would not confirm the program is winding down and did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But in his weekly appearance on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show, de Blasio did not deny the program is ending, and even suggested it is reaching its “natural conclusion.”

However, he bristled at the characterization that the program — which was meant to improve long-struggling schools by giving them extra social services and academic support, including on-site health clinics, coaches for teachers and extended school days — was deeply flawed.

“I think it was the right idea to say we have to invest in these schools,” de Blasio said.

This left educators, parents and students guessing on Friday about what’s next for the 50 schools that are still a part of Renewal, which has been one of the mayor’s signature education initiatives.

“What am I supposed to do now as a parent for my child’s school that’s on the Renewal list?” a parent whose child is in the 11th grade at Martin Van Buren High School asked de Blasio on the show.

One education department administrator, who works with multiple Renewal schools and spoke on condition of anonymity, said it is not yet clear, if the program ends, what the city’s exit strategy would be and whether the schools will continue receiving additional supports and resources.

“It may mean an end to the extended day, it may mean an end for the coaching help, it may mean an end to the community schools partners” the administrator said, referring to nonprofit organizations that have been paired with every Renewal school and which provide services ranging from extra social workers to afterschool programs.

“There seems to be good reason to think that the program is going to be shut down after three quarters of a billion dollars has been pumped into it without much positive impact to point to,” said Aaron Pallas, a researcher at Teachers College who has studied the Renewal initiative.

Two independent analyses conducted by outside researchers, including the one by Pallas, have found the program has had a limited impact on academic performance. (The Times also cited results from an unpublished study from the RAND Corporation, which said on Friday that it does not comment on research in progress and expects to release its full evaluation of the city’s community schools program next year.)

Whether de Blasio will face pressure to come up with a new strategy for intervening in the city’s lowest-performing schools — and what that might be — is unclear. Research does not point to any single approach for turning around low-performing schools. Mayor Bloomberg’s efforts to shut down such schools and replace them led to some gains, research has found, but school closures can also backfire if they only serve to disrupt a student’s education and don’t wind up at a better school.

“In fairness,” Pallas noted, there are not obvious or easy models for the kind of rapid turnaround that de Blasio promised. “The alternative is perhaps quickly closing schools and quickly shunting students in Renewal schools to other schools,” he said, “but we know that’s not great for all students, and it takes time to do it responsibly.”

City officials have insisted that many Renewal schools have made strides, though they have also closed or merged schools that haven’t measured up. Of the 94 original schools, 14 have been closed, nine have left the program after being merged with other schools, and city officials said 21 have shown enough progress to slowly ease out of the program.

But within a year of its beginning, the Times reported, city officials privately worried that roughly one third of Renewal schools were likely to see little or no improvement — yet continued to champion the program and kept most of the schools open.

Even outside supporters of Renewal were concerned that de Blasio had set unrealistic expectations for an intervention that, at best, was likely to be slow, arduous work. In his speech announcing the program, the mayor promised the schools would see rapid improvements within three years, and the city would “move heaven and earth” to ensure this success.

Moreover, if the Renewal program faltered on a national stage, this failure could undermine the broader “community schools” movement, which has shown signs of promise and holds that struggling schools need extra social services to overcome the effects of poverty that can impede student learning — a central tenet of de Blasio’s turnaround strategy.

De Blasio hoped Renewal would be a definitive answer to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s approach of closing dozens of schools and opening new ones, a process that often drew outrage from school communities and prompted lawsuits from the city teachers union.

“Closing them and replacing them with something that couldn’t necessarily address the problem any better was not the solution,” de Blasio said Friday.

Signs of strain and missteps, however, were evident from nearly the beginning. Expecting quick and significant gains from schools that had struggled for years put enormous pressure on them, many of which did not immediately receive clear guidance — or promised support  — from the education department.

Though Renewal schools had seen declining enrollment well before the program started, the schools struggled to attract students. Education officials, who had initially refused to release any benchmarks at all, eventually acknowledged the schools would get three years to hit targets other schools were expected to meet in one. (More recently, schools were even allowed to backslide and still meet their goals.)

Still, as the program gained steam, some school leaders said the extra support made a big difference. At Juan Morel Campos, a 6-12 school in Brooklyn, school officials used the extra coaches to help teachers adapt to a more rigorous curriculum. And at Longwood Prep, a high school in the Bronx, school leaders have implemented a new data system for identifying students who don’t show up to school.

But indications that the city might be readying to end the program have been accumulating for months. Though officials had previously toyed with the idea of adding schools to Renewal, the education department has acted as if it could be phased out.

Soon after being named chancellor, Richard Carranza criticized the program, saying it seemed to lack a clear “theory of action”; the initiative has gone without a permanent leader since its executive superintendent stepped down in March; and the city has not given Renewal schools goals they are expected to meet this year, despite doing so in the past.

De Blasio, however, sounded a defiant note on the Lehrer show on Friday. “I disagree with the premise of this [Times] article that this was in some way an idea that was not appropriate to the problem,” he said.

big plans

Four things you should know about the new Memphis plan to expand district support to all schools

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

Shelby County Schools board members heard an ambitious plan Tuesday to expand district support for students across all its nearly 150 schools.

The proposal would expand the district’s flagship turnaround program, the Innovation Zone; test all first-graders for gifted education; give hand-held electronic devices to more high school students; and offer more advanced courses. The recommendations are the first from the district’s new chief academic officer, Antonio Burt, who was appointed in September.

“We’re really focused on system-wide equity,” he said. “We can really switch the conversation from equity to really focusing on equity in action.”

In recent years, Memphis has become a model in Tennessee’s school turnaround efforts. But district officials believe Shelby County Schools has not effectively scaled those lessons up to impact more students more quickly. Burt said his plan will fill in those gaps.

Burt did not break down how much these initiatives would cost, but incoming interim superintendent Joris Ray said the proposals would anchor the district’s budget priorities for the 2019-20 school year.

Here is what you need to know:

All first-grade students would be tested to see if they are eligible for CLUE, the district’s gifted education program.

Currently, teachers pick students to be tested for admittance into a program that promotes higher-level grade work for students from preschool to high school.

Burt said the way students are chosen has led to wide disparities in the racial makeup of the program. Though white students make up 7 percent of the district’s population, they make up 38 percent of the students in CLUE. Black students make up 77 percent of the district’s enrollment, but 45 percent of students in the program.

Nationally, black students are far less likely to be placed in gifted programs, even if they have the same test scores as their white peers, and especially if their teacher is white, according to a 2016 study at Vanderbilt University.

For the first time, all Memphis schools identified by the state as low performing will get additional money.

Eleven schools will be added to the district’s Innovation Zone, known for improving test scores.

The iZone pumps about $600,000 per school for teacher bonuses, for more resources to combat the effects of poverty, and for principals to have more say over which teachers they hire.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Antonio Burt became assistant superintendent in 2017 over the Innovation Zone and other struggling schools within Shelby County Schools. He is now the district’s academic chief.

Some of the schools Burt wants to add have been languishing on the state’s list since it was first created in 2012, but have not received substantial support.

As some schools are being added to the iZone, others have improved their performance, and are no longer eligible for additional state funding. Shelby County Schools, which has covered the reduction in funding, for the first time plans to gradually wean 13 schools off that extra support. Burt vowed to monitor those schools to make sure they don’t slip again.

Scroll down to the bottom of the story to see which schools will be affected.

Burt’s plan also would combine Hamilton Elementary and Hamilton Middle into a K-8 school next year, and separate Raleigh-Egypt Middle/High into two schools again after a charter operator moved out the neighborhood. The Hamilton school proposal is also part of outgoing Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s recommendation to consolidate some schools.

Every student in nine high schools would get a hand-held device or laptop this fall, with a goal to expand to every school by the 2024-25 school year.

The district hasn’t decided whether it would be laptops, tablets, or some other device, but officials say students should have more access to technology.

“I think about children in the municipalities and across the nation… they have a device in their hand,” said Ray. “All their textbooks, they’re loaded to one device. So we need to in Shelby County Schools increase technology and give our students the opportunity to compete worldwide.”

But board members cautioned the district should have a robust learning plan for those devices.

“It’s more than just putting a device in hand,” said board member Miska Clay Bibbs.

Every high school will have two Advanced Placement courses for college credit by school year 2020-21.

Students from poor families are more likely to attend a high school with fewer advanced courses, according to a 2018 district report. Burt wants to change that.

The plan calls for more teachers in every high school to be trained to lead an honors, Advanced Placement, or pre-Advanced Placement class.

Below are the schools that would be added to and removed from the iZone. Read the district’s full presentation below.

The schools that would be added to the iZone are:

  • LaRose Elementary
  • Dunbar Elementary
  • Getwell Elementary
  • Hawkins Mill Elementary
  • Woodstock Middle
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Craigmont Middle
  • Wooddale High
  • Sheffield High
  • Oakhaven High
  • Manassas High

These schools would be cycled out of the iZone:

  • Cherokee Elementary
  • Treadwell Elementary
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Ford Road Elementary
  • Westhaven Elementary
  • Douglass K-8
  • Chickasaw Middle
  • Treadwell Middle
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Hamilton Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Mitchell High
  • Melrose High

text skills

‘My reminders are not spam!’: Teachers and parents protest Verizon over new texting fees

Hell hath no fury like teachers who are told that their direct line to students and parents might soon be cut off.

That’s what Verizon is learning after a text-messaging service used by teachers and parents to share updates about homework assignments and snow days announced that the company would soon make messaging prohibitively expensive.

The service, Remind, emailed users late Monday to tell them that Verizon had decided to treat their messages as spam — a move that would make it impossible to continue distributing messages for free. The change would affect 7 million of the service’s 31 million users, a spokesperson said.

“The Verizon fee will increase our costs of providing text messaging by 11X—pushing our annual costs into the millions of dollars,” the company said in the letter. “This isn’t financially feasible for us to support, and it’s forcing us to end Remind text messaging for everyone who has a wireless plan with Verizon.”

The letter urged teachers and families to download Remind’s app instead — and to lobby Verizon to change its policy.

“If there’s one thing we know, it’s the power of communication,” Remind’s website read. “If Remind’s made a positive impact on how you teach or learn, please call Verizon and ask them to #ReverseTheFee.”

Overnight and into Tuesday, countless educators and parents followed Remind’s lead, posting on Twitter and calling Verizon to explain why free text messaging is essential to their work. Two million educators use the service monthly, and the company says it is used in about 80 percent of U.S. schools.

“My reminders to students and their parents are #NotSpam!!,” wrote Phillip Cantor, a high school teacher in Chicago.  “My district allows ONLY @remind101 to communicate with students via text because it’s safe and free.”

“I bet you didn’t know that 29% of the students that attend the school I teach at rely on the translation tool built into @RemindHQ,” tweeted Beth Small. “Please don’t silence parent/teacher communication!”

“The Remind service is invaluable with my students,” wrote David Bell. “As a high school counselor it helps me build a rapport with my students that wouldn’t otherwise exist.”

Remind officials said the company had been trying to negotiate with Verizon since last summer, when the company first announced the rate increase. (They also said they are locked in a similar conflict with a telecommunications company in Canada.)

Those negotiations are complicated. According to a Verizon spokesperson, Remind contracts with another messaging company, Twilio, that contracts with a firm that has a contract with Verizon, and Remind is not the only service to be caught in a dragnet meant to reduce the number of spam messages that cell phone users receive.

Several of those companies met throughout the day Tuesday with the goal of preserving free text-messaging for teachers and schools. But the night ended without a resolution, and with the social media protest continuing to take aim at the phone company.

“As a student, I use Remind daily and by charging teachers for using its features, that experience will be cut off for me,” tweeted Keegan Ator. “What’s more important, future generations of hard-working students or a few extra pennies in the bank?”